general idea

Joshua Decter: How does General Idea address the distinction between working in one particular cultural realm, for instance, the gallery or museum, as opposed to another domain, such as the street?

AA Bronson: We consider all the various types of activities that we are involved in as art. For many years we never bothered to distinguish between the gallery and other situations because, in fact, we never utilized the gallery situation all that much early on. There is a General Idea text from the mid-seventies that refers to the gallery's relationship to art being very much like the garage's relationship to the car: we use the gallery to tinker with and repair the work, but the real function of our art is out on the road, in a way — it's within the current of the culture.

Decter: And so, by entering as cultural producers into this current, your work is necessarily entered into a relationship, as sign/image, with the larger visual and verbal sign system that constitutes the contemporary languages of culture, politics, ideology, etc.

Bronson: If you look back to our earlier projects, such as when we brought out File magazine in 1972, we saw this as a sort of parasitic art project. By using the format of Life magazine, we could occupy territories staked out by that mainstream magazine. File could be placed in the newsstands and, because of its visual familiarity, it could pass through a general distribution system and be picked up by people who would not ordinarily be exposed to this type of work. This was a type of parasitic process. But with the AIDS projects, that's somewhat less evident.

Decter: Yet it is certainly parasitic of the signature work of another artist . . .

Bronson: And also because it uses available distribution and communication systems — it hooks into them and the image is carried through these systems.

Felix Partz: It's intended to proliferate itself.

Bronson: It's intended to get out of our own control.

Decter: Do you sense that it has gotten out of your control and if so, how?

Bronson: Yes, and quite purposefully in some ways. For example, we designed a variation on the AIDS logo for the German AIDS Foundation, and they use that logo any way they want. They have incorporated it into lottery tickets, posters, and so on and so forth. So there is a whole national production of this image over which we have no control.

Decter: But don't you retain copyright control?

Partz: Yes, but we gave them permission . . .

Bronson: . . . to do whatever they want with it, on the condition that they not alter it. It's not presented as an artwork, even though a credit appears for General Idea — it's used as a logo. With this work we have cooperated with anyone who has approached us to use the logo; for instance, a hospital used it for public awareness programs and television has used it as a background motif on the set of a discussion. It has been used on the covers of magazines — "Ontario Dentist," things like that! I suppose we have ultimate legal control if we want to make use of that, but essentially we don't.

Decter: In terms of the so-called institutional parameters of art production and display, do you undertake to undermine, transgress, or "puncture" the supposed boundaries that exist between your function as "artists" and the capacities or roles of noncultural producers; in other words, to engender a productive breakdown of disciplinary segregation as to allow for the dissemination of usually margina-lized or repressed images, signs, messages, etc.?

Partz: I don't think that we distinguish that much between the gallery/museum context and the newsstand; I think we see them as similar contexts, even though a lot of the work over the past ten years has been museum or gallery related. We were never anti-gallery or anti-museum. We never saw that it was more compromising to be in a museum than it was to be next to Fortune magazine on the newsstand. Maybe it is that the punctures or the transgressions function as those points where the context doesn't exist anymore.

Decter: In other words, the boundaries or parameters show themselves at those points where there is a puncture, a transgression . . .

Partz: Right. Moving back and forth between contexts, bringing things out of one and into another. Also, we once did work for something called "The Room of the Unknown Function," a generalized term that we were using for the museum, which was also intended to investigate what the function of the museum actually was. What purpose did it serve? What exactly are these spaces for? On the simplest of levels, the gallery/museum is comprised of white walls that allow for a display; they isolate things to see — as in a showroom.

Decter: It is also important to understand that both the museum/gallery and the newsstand context are "public" domains of display, so perhaps there are some inherent correspondences that are often glossed over.

Partz: Yes. They say that people are "intimidated" to go into a museum, but people are also intimidated to go into the Valentino boutique on Rodeo Drive, though most people are not intimidated about entering a supermarket. And there are of course galleries that people are intimidated about going into — so there are many different manifestations of the psychological and social reaction to the public and private domain.

Decter: And do you consider the issue of audience reception as being an important component of your decision-making process in terms of what type of visual/ verbal language is produced for a particular context?

Bronson: Well, in a way. When we were first working together in Toronto there was no real audience. And we were quite aware of trying to assemble an audience out of existing audiences for other types of material — for instance, a music audience, rock-and-roll audience, design audience, architecture audience, trendy audience. We were quite conscious of attempting to pull together all those audiences in order to key into a diverse public. In the late seventies we became aware of the museum audience; at that point in history the museums began to change character, particularly in terms of attendance. We began to realize that the museum was becoming another form of mass media, so we added the museum audience to our repertoire. It was the time of the first real blockbuster exhibitions, and it became clear that the museums were beginning to market themselves in a very new way.

Partz: But also the entire art scene began to move into becoming a popular consumable item. When the money arrived and the stars began to be made, as we could see in the magazines, it became a part of popular culture.

Decter: So it's almost as if the entire cultural milieu of the so-called "art world" began to market itself.

Partz: Yes, and so it became just another aspect of popular culture. Instead of looking at rock-and-roll, we simply looked back at the art world itself to see how it operated, what were its conventions — and how did one transgress, how did you present, what was the audience, what were their expectations, what were the excesses . . .?

Decter: Do you consider the "Miss General Idea Pavilion" to be an allegory of those conditions of contemporary culture that you have just described?

Bronson: Yes, we have this fake structure within which we see the pavilion. There are five elements to that structure: "General Idea" as representing the "artist;" "The Miss General Idea Pageant," which we think of as the process of creation; "Miss General Idea" as the artwork itself; "The Miss General Idea Pavilion," which is clearly the museum or the gallery; and what we call "Frame of Reference," which is essentially the audience and the mass media, as in File magazine. So we can assemble all our work within that structure and recreate the art world, and the world of media that surrounds it, within the structure of our own work. This structure began to build itself between 1970 and 1971 and was quite evident by 1975. We have, to some extent, stepped away from that structure over the past five years or so.

Decter: In what way?

Bronson: Work such as the AIDS project, although it operates in the same way as all the Pavilion and Pageant projects did, and it uses what we learned in those earlier projects, doesn't really incorporate itself into that structure; the AIDS projects constitute a parallel structure.

Decter: Has that initial structure been abandoned or relinquished?

Partz: It seems to come and go, depending on the moment.

Decter: Where do the rather idiosyncratic works such as the "Pussy Good" and "Pussy Bad" drawings fit or not fit into those alternating structures?

Bronson: Essentially, there is a ßood of drawings, which is a constant parallel activity, and we never quite know how to incorporate them into our overall work. So, at a certain point, we just decided that, well, whatever we do or make, that's "General Idea." There are years and years of these drawings, but we still haven't quite figured out how to present them. I think the only way is to have a huge show of the drawings.

Decter: In terms of General Idea's working method, does one person produce one type of work while someone else makes another type of work — or are there no actual rules that dictate the approach to production?

Partz: There are similar situations, but there are a variety of them. Sometimes one person will physically carry out the idea of another person; sometimes one of us will work out an idea to a certain point and then another one of us will take that process over. Or sometimes it's just a matter of having a fabricator make something for us. Because a lot of the work is based on elaboration of existing projects, it doesn't ultimately seem that important as to who is doing exactly what. For example, the AIDS project began as one painting and then became elaborated into new forms and everyone had different involvements at different stages. A lot of the projects are like that. We look around and try to find something, like the AIDS logo, that has the potential to be expanded into multiple projects, but it is a quite intuitive process. Like the poodles . . .-

Decter: In what way were the poodles arrived at?

Partz: Well, all I can say is that it was some sort of intuitive thing — an idea and image that had the possibility of considerable proliferation, a lot of potential meanings, and graphic potential. We felt that it could be manipulated into many different forms.

Bronson: We first used the poodle around 1981 and, in a way, the poodle is a mass media image. There is a whole history of poodle imagery, but it had been rejected from the language of contemporary culture at the time that we first used it, except as a kitschy thing. We came to it as a rejected image that nevertheless had many meanings already attached to it; like the "French poodle," the fag hairdresser poodle, and it also happens to be a hunting dog.

Partz: I think, in a lot of cases, these things are brought out and then they're test-marketed. We first produce something and then decide what to do with it, and this does not always mean that there will a positive reaction.

Decter: And, of course, the reaction does not determine the usage of that image or object . . .

Partz: With the poodle, one thing that became immediately obvious was that many interpretations were provoked: some people saw it as an old ladies' dog, and others as the brassy tart, and then there are the gay connotations. We like to produce such ambiguities. And the AIDS project is similar in that some people are aware of the history of the LOVE logo while others are not. There are some who are familiar with the LOVE logo but are not aware that it was an artwork by the artist Robert Indiana. For others it just means what it states: AIDS. But what are the multiple meanings of AIDS itself? When we place an AIDS poster in the context of the street, it's hard to know what the spectrum of reactions is — it ranges from ripping the posters down to taking them home as collectibles.

Decter: But in the AIDS project, you are appropriating an already commodified or "reified" emblem/sign, the Robert Indiana LOVE logo, and then transforming and transvaluing that relatively familiar image.

Bronson: We're particularly interested in that aspect because all of the prior commodification to which you refer occurred without the participation of Indiana himself — the fact is that the consumer world picked up the image and turned it into a million products without his permission, without him making any money from it. This situation is interesting to us. Another aspect was that it seemed to carry two meanings in particular: one was the sexual revolution and free love, the other one was "brotherly love." In relation to AIDS, these two notions are uncomfortable bed-fellows. A lot of people have criticized us for the fact that the AIDS posters are not didactic, that there is no message on them . . .

Decter: Criticized for their ambivalence?

Bronson: Yes, that they don't indicate what their message is. But this is to a large extent what interests us, because it actually has the effect of bringing more issues to the surface. People seem to project their own agendas onto the image and assume that the meaning of the work is correspondent to what makes them uncomfortable. One possible interpretation, a rather negative one, is that love leads to AIDS; another interpretation, this one more positive, is that AIDS brings out love in the community. Hopefully the second interpretation will be more often heard.

Decter: Yet, as you have managed to develop an image/text/sign that has multiple symbolic meanings and that has effectively penetrated into a quite wide system of dissemination and distribution, does the AIDS logo have a deliberately incomplete informational dimension that is designed to challenge normative channels of social communication?

Bronson: We want to make the word AIDS normal. AIDS is sort of playing the part that cancer did in the sixties. By keeping the word visible, it has a normalizing effect that will hopefully play a part in normalizing people's relationship to the disease — to make it something that can be dealt with as a disease rather than a set of moral or ethical issues.

Partz: It is just like an advertising campaign, like seeing a repetition of billboard advertising imagery. It's not the individual billboard that sells: it's in the repetition of the product image. The image becomes entrenched in the mind, so when you walk into the supermarket you have been prepared to want a particular product.

Bronson: They create a familiarity.

Partz: And part of it is just a visibility campaign because so many people don't want to deal with AIDS. On this level there really is no difference between the street and the gallery context since there is equal resistance about dealing with the issue in both contexts. By putting the logo in the format of painting, it allows for an entry into the gallery domain as a series of painting-sized billboards, simply occupying space.

Bronson: There have been galleries that have refused to show it.

Decter: For what reasons?

Bronson: Oh well, there's always a reason, such as, "They already have been seen so much . . ."

Partz: Or, "We have already done our AIDS show . . ." So we're doing a series that is more subtle, that won't be so aggressive!

Bronson: Yeah, we're doing our black on black Reinhardt series.

Decter: With the same AIDS logo?

Bronson: Yes. Specifically for gallery situations.

Decter: If the AIDS project is in part informed by the language of advertising, then in some way it must, by logical extension, be selling something — or at least generating a desire for a product.

Bronson: Well, the public service announcement is another form of advertising and it has different effects, but it operates on the same principles. I guess the AIDS project would be more akin to this approach.

Partz: It is also territorial in some way, almost like the graf<THORN>ti tag. It's here, over there, and so on.

Decter: So it's almost as if you are mapping out a territory with transformed but familiar cultural signs.

Bronson: When we put the AIDS posters in the New York subway system, we were interested in the fact that they passed through every geographic and ethnic barrier within the urban context.

Partz: Many of our projects have occurred in transportation systems: railways, subways, buses, even stamps — all the things that pass through the bloodstream culture and the social.

Decter: This allows for the widest possible dissemination of the ambiguous sign . . .

Bronson: But it also allows for it to pass through borders that would otherwise be obstacles.

Decter: In what sense?

Bronson: Well, in the sense that in New York City, for example, if you do something in SoHo, certainly the audience in Harlem will most likely not see it. Our projects are aimed at more types of audiences than conventional art production normally would.

Decter: Do you think that the AIDS logo as a particular type of visual/verbal language composite, is accessible to that wide, heterogeneous audience that you would like to address?

Bronson: It's quite interesting to which extent people know that the AIDS logo could also be a LOVE logo or even read it as actually saying "love" if they look at it quickly. Some people in various countries seem also to have associated it with a 1960s aesthetic.

Partz: When the AIDS logo first appeared, people in the art world immediately connected it to the appropriation and commodification aesthetic that was dominant in the mid-eighties. But now, with the sixties revival going on, it has begun to take on different connotations and associations. In particular the kids respond to it because it seems to reßect this general recuperation of the 1960s styles and images. We like the possibility of a more pop culture oriented reading.

Decter: On the other hand, I find that the heraldic poodle images have much more hermetic character to their symbolic condition.

Bronson: I think that's true. But one quality of images that we like working with is the possibility that different audiences can read the same image on different levels. I think the case of the AIDS images is unusual in that almost any audience can read it at more or less the same level. But in the case of the "Fucking Poodles," the image can be read in a rather large number of ways, and many different levels of meaning can be brought out according to one's background and context. The same can be said of the "Fin de Siècle" piece with the seals that was shown at Koury Wingate [Gallery]. It's amazing how many people, even people who know us, did not catch on to the simple fact that there were three seals!

Decter: And this seems to correspond clearly to the triadic configurations of the poodle images . . .

Partz: There's three of everything . . . in the heraldic series, they're almost all threes.

Decter: But do the "Fucking Poodles" and the "Fin de Siècle" pieces, for instance, maintain a relationship to the practice of self-portraiture, since they clearly reßect the triadic structure of General Idea itself?

Bronson: Yes, they are sort of self-portraits.

Partz: Well, some of the poodle images are distinctly self-portraits. You can actually pick out who's who.

Partz: "The Three Graces."

Decter: What is the nature of the three-person collaborative structure?

Bronson: You get a particular kind of collaboration out of two people and a quite different form of collaboration out of three. I doubt we would have survived this long as a group if we had been four or five. I think three . . .

Partz: . . . is more than enough.

Bronson: It seems to be a very stable structure.

Partz: Some of the original usages of self-portrayal, I think, were very superficial on one level, like a marketing technique, because when we were starting off we had purposefully confused who was General Idea. And then at some point we determined that this strategy was working against us because nobody knew who we were — there was always a mass of confusion. So those early self-portrayals became a clarification campaign about who we were. There was a growing interest from the outside concerning how we worked in collaboration, so we did various photo-pieces that sometimes became formalized into self-portraits in the three-some structure. This has permeated much of our work.

Bronson: In the "Fin de Siècle" work this notion of self-portraiture was articulated in a very subtle way by asking the taxidermist to give each seal individual characteristics. They are quite different from one another if you look closely.

Decter: Are the facial characteristics based upon each of you?

Bronson: No, not at all.

Partz: I hope not!

Bronson: No, we simply wanted to avoid the look of three generically similar seals, so we had certain nuances added to produce three individual seals . . .

Decter: Each endowed with their own special characteristics!

Partz: Their own lovable characters. In terms of interpretations, some people read it as an ecological piece and they didn't realize the symbolic self-portraiture.

Bronson: Or New York Times critic Roberta Smith who read it as being about the issue of fur.

Decter: There seemed to be a plethora of contradictory interpretations associated with that piece, ranging from abject confusion or bewilderment to more didactic political readings. The work's radical ambiguity of meaning or symbolism was quite provocative, and engendered a destabilizing of certain conventional notions of how so-called "political practice" should produce meaning.

Bronson: But obviously now within the art world there are so many different levels of social, political, or theoretical meaning around which artworks are being constructed. We structure our work so it becomes difficult to determine specific, one-dimensional readings — the more meanings, the better, from our point of view.

(General Idea was comprised of AA Bronson, Felix Partz, and Jorge Zontal.)

Text: © Copyright, Journal of Contemporary Art, Inc. and the author.