In the gallery’s third solo show with General Idea, Esther Schipper is showing works from the early years. The Canadian artists’ group was founded in 1968 by Jorge Zontal, Felix Partz and AA Bronson in Toronto. With conceptual works, subversive commentaries on mass media culture, and the appropriation of formats from popular culture, the group soon attracted international attention. Their works of the 1970s, 80s and 90s are still considered an important influence on subsequent generations of artists. In 1994, Zontal and Partz died of AIDS.
The exhibition includes early works from the artists’ estate and shows the many-layered conceptual frame of reference that was to shape the group’s entire future work. General Idea emerged at a time of student revolt, communes and free love. “We believed in a free economy, in the abolition of copyright, and in horizontal grassroots structures that pre-empted the architecture of the internet.”1 A central point of the General Idea project as a whole was to mythologize the group’s artistic genius and create a counter-reality.
General Idea’s first and only film work, God is my Gigolo (1969), was shot in black and white on 16mm film without sound. The work can be seen as a link between the underground cinema of the 1960s and 70s and the video art of today. It was shot in the neighbourhood around the old house in Toronto where the group lived together and organized its first exhibitions, and on Ward’s Island, a small island in Toronto’s harbour. A vitrine contains the film’s handwritten script, a drawing by Jorge Zontal of the set related in formal terms to Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe, as well as notes and photographs from the shoot.
The Index Cards (1969–70) document ideas for actions and projects by the group, some of which were realized. The cards are grouped into categories ( Event Series, Act / Action / Instruction Series, Air Earth Fire Water Series). A total of over one hundred Index Cards were made by all three members of the group. Chain Letter (1970) is one of a series of correspondence projects, which involved the letters’ potential recipients being asked to perform specific actions.
The Club Canasta, FILE’s Filathon Telephone Canasta Party (1972) adds an additional media level to the idea of participatory artworks and artistic networking. Via questionnaires and lists of participants, people associated with General Idea were called on to play canasta and to gather in their respective cities on 20 November 1972, to receive telephone calls from General Idea, who were themselves playing canasta at the studios of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Club Canasta was to be edited and broadcast as a radio special but was never actually aired. The same year, the group founded FILE magazine. The piece on Club Canasta published in the magazine supplements the collective artwork. Visitors to the exhibition can also listen to recordings from the event.
The Showcard Series (1975–1979) represents the artists’ central system of reference. The expanded Index Cards are the building bricks of a superstructure for the constructed identity ‘Miss General Idea’ used by the group as a vehicle for promoting its own myth. This work brings together the material from the early fictitious and real projects. The showcards are classified into five groups: The Search for the Spirit of Miss General Idea, The 1984 Miss General Idea Pageant, Miss General Idea, The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion and Frame of Reference.The series on show here comprises thirteen works on paper and belongs to the fifth group. Some of the motifs from the gelatine silver prints of 1973-74 also recur in the showcards. The Hand of the Spirit (1974) shows one of the group’s iconic symbols in Perspex, which also appears in Untitled (Sandy Stagg models the Miss General Idea Shoe and the Hand of the Spirit against the backdrop of Luxon V.B.) (1973/74).