An Example of Marshall McLuhan’s Influence on Artists: Toronto’s General Idea Collective
Mondo Cane Kama Sutra (installation view) 1984, acrylic on canvas. 10 canvases, 245 x 305 cm each. Image courtesy the Estate of General Idea; © Pierre Antoine, Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris / ARC, 2011.
Marshall McLuhan’s high regard for serious artists as what Ezra Pound called “the antennae of the race” due to their “integral awareness,” which enabled them to encounter new technologies with impunity because of their expertise in changing sense perceptions (Understanding Media, p. 18), was reciprocated by artists themselves. Many Canadian artists especially were influenced by McLuhan’s ideas. One such recent collective of three artists known as General Idea, consisting of Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal and AA Bronson, were active from 1967 to 1994 as pioneers of early conceptual and media-based art.
“General Idea’s work inhabited and subverted forms of popular and media culture, including beauty pageants, boutiques, television talk shows, trade fair pavilions and mass media. Their work was often presented in unconventional media forms such as postcards, prints, posters, wallpaper, balloons, crests and pins. Self-mythology was a continuous strategy that informed their work. They created a fictional system that self-referenced and self-legitimized, claiming a space for their local art scene in Canada.” (Wikipedia)
“Marshall McLuhan, General Idea, and Me!” was delivered by Philip Monk as the McCready Lecture in Canadian Art on 9 November 2011 at the Art Gallery of Ontario in conjunction with a Marshall McLuhan symposium. The lecture was reproduced in Counterblasting Canada: Into the Social and Intellectual Vortex of Marshall McLuhan, Sheila Watson and Wilfred Watson, ed. Gregory Betts, Paul Hjartarson, and Kristine Smitka (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2016) as well as an appendix to Glamour is Theft: A User’s Guide to General Idea. The version printed here is from Counterblasting Canada.
Marshall McLuhan, General Idea, and Me! by Philip Monk
What was it about Winnipeg, because is this not the initial connection between Marshall McLuhan, General Idea, and me?  When in 1968 I bought a pocket-book edition of Understanding Media, attended architecture school in the wake of Michael Tims (soon to become AA Bronson), and saw an exhibition of Ron Gabe’s (soon to become Felix Partz) large-scale hand paintings in some loft in downtown Winnipeg, what was it?—because the McLuhanesque outlook of that time seems so foreign to the insular surrealism that has dominated that city recently, albeit in its rise to attention.  However, this is not a question of Winnipeg but Toronto and the Toronto School: the Toronto School of Communications, that is, which included Harold Innis, Eric Havelock, and Marshall McLuhan—and, why not, General Idea?
Could these original bad boys of Canadian art ever belong to a school—even a night school, the title of one of their 1989 exhibitions? Not that I am trying to get my foot in the door of such an elite institution as the Toronto School by tagging along in the title. Of course, by “me” I mean everybody. There is some trace in mine, though, of Roland Barthes’s initial title to his essay “Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure,” which was “Proust et moi” (“Longtemps”). But instead of a homosexual coupling of two, my title is a ménage à trois (or a ménage à cinq). Ménage à trois is also the name of a 1978 General Idea exhibition and publication. There is a reason for maintaining three in my title, rather than two: Marshall McLuhan and General Idea…or, again, General Idea and me. “Two” is the number of rivalry—or mimicry (which are one and the same). The number two ensures that we would talk here of influence: the influence of Marshall McLuhan on General Idea. The number two would give us our marching orders—one, two, one, two—to traditionally conceive influence, marching straight ahead, as unidirectional, which is often the case only of “mechanical matching” (McLuhan, Gutenberg 268), as McLuhan would say (rather than the possibility of the reverse: a posthumous queering of McLuhan, if that is at all possible—probably not!). On the other hand, and by saying this—that is, by saying “on the other hand”—we are already caught within the binary logic of handedness (one, two, left, right), the binding logic of either-or. Nonetheless, on the other hand, the number three complicates matters. It dispels influence in undermining one of the mainstays of its concept: that of authorship that a collective implicitly denies. Not that this passage from two to three is an overturning, which applies the same dualistic language, when we are concerned instead with the flipping or oscillating back and forth of ambiguity as it operates in General Idea’s system, an ambiguity that is regulated instead by the contradictory logic of myth. General Idea materially realized this logic in the mirrored venetian blinds of their 1973 prototype Luxon V.B.
The numbers two and three underlie everything. They rule it since these numbers as well engender General Idea’s system. This is easy to remember, not easy to see. One, two, three, a numeric cosmology rules General Idea’s system. Read the full lecture at http://goo.gl/z5vgcH .
Read more about General Idea here: http://goo.gl/jLj6wN
Also read on this blog Artists as “the Antennae of the Race”: https://goo.gl/9Y8N5h . Thanks to John Watt for bringing this to my attention.
One Year of AZT, General Idea
Collection of the National Gallery of Canada
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