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AA Bronson + General Idea: Creativity as Viral Transmission

An exhibition at Maureen Paley, London, explores the artist collective's well-known wallpaper 'Imagevirus' and its relevance today

Human culture operates according to the principles of viral transmission. This simple notion is at the heart of General Idea’s oeuvre and nowhere more evident than in their project ‘Imagevirus’. AA Bronson, Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal met in Toronto in 1968 and began making work as General Idea in 1969, producing subversive and humorous projects including the publication FILE Megazine (1972–89) and the ‘Miss General Idea Pageant’. The latter was a multi-part undertaking they began in 1970, combining a parody beauty pageant, mail art and a boutique for General Idea’s works, which, as a 1977 showcard described it, functioned as ‘an idea framing device for arresting attention without throwing away the key’.

They initiated ‘Imagevirus’ in 1987, continuing the project after Partz and Zontal were diagnosed as HIV positive in 1989 and 1990, respectively. A reworking of Robert Indiana’s iconic Love (1966) design that substitutes the word ‘LOVE’ for ‘AIDS’, it emulated the ubiquity of Indiana’s design, mutating from its first iteration as a painting – made for an exhibition in support of the Foundation for AIDS Research – into other forms including sculptures, postage stamps and prints fly-posted around the streets of Amsterdam, Berlin, New York and Toronto. 

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'AA BRONSON + GENERAL IDEA', 2018, exhibition view. Courtesy: the artist and Maureen Paley, London

At Maureen Paley, four ‘Imagevirus’ paintings in different sizes and colours are installed over AIDS (Wallpaper Installation) (1990): a grid of AIDS emblems extending to the furthest corners of the gallery. In three paintings, the AIDS logo appears mirrored along the canvases’ horizontal and vertical axes, creating Rorschach-like patterns, bright butterflies and psychedelic snowflakes. The high-contrast colours seem to vibrate before the eye in a roiling optical soup. In the fourth painting, Untitled (Aids with Cockroaches) (c.1989), black bugs scuttle across the surface of a single logo. Zoomorphic representations of the virus, the insects are perhaps also a nod to the bugs that feature in the writings of William S. Burroughs, a major influence on General Idea’s thinking around the viral qualities of language, both verbal and visual. As the artist and writer Gregg Bordowitz has pointed out in his book General Idea: Imagevirus (2010), Burroughs provided the group with ‘a well-developed imaginary cosmos in which viral infection is the creative principle’.

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General Idea, Untitled (AIDS with Cockroaches), 1989, gouache on offset on card,  56 × 53 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Maureen Paley, London

In 2015, AIDS (Wallpaper Installation) (1988) was acquired by Tate; it is currently on show in Tate Modern’s ‘Intimacy, Activism and AIDS’ room. By design, the ‘Imagevirus’ disperses and travels, occupying multiple spaces at the same time, and, like a biological virus, it can be present simultaneously in the street, on a train, in a national museum and a commercial gallery.

Although it can function as a form of protest, ‘Imagevirus’ feels different to the more loquacious campaigns of AIDS activist groups from the 1980s, such as Gran Fury and ACT UP. Even now, its low-key imagery and high-brow strategy of appropriation lend its message a productive ambiguity. The image is a word and it is also an idea, but what does it really mean to go from ‘LOVE’ to ‘AIDS’?

Discussing the initiative after Partz and Zontal died of AIDS-related causes in 1994, Bronson recently told me: ‘For maybe two decades, I did not really know what to do. I felt that the deaths of Felix and Jorge effectively prevented me from continuing the “Image Virus” project, even though we had always been very adamant about the project being copyright-free and available for anyone to use as they wished.’ In March 2018, the dormant series was re-awakened when the Paris-based Three Star Books published After General Idea by AA Bronson, an edition containing 50 ‘Imagevirus’ posters. So, the ‘Imagevirus’ replicates itself and, as people encounter it for the first time, three decades after it initially appeared, it continues to provoke and illuminate.

'AA BRONSON + GENERAL IDEA' runs at Maureen Paley, London, until 11 November 2018.

Main image: AA Bronson + General Idea, Great AIDS (Cadmium Red Light) (detail), 1990/2018, acrylic on linen, in four panels overall, 300 × 300 cm / each 150 × 150 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Maureen Paley, London

Ellen Mara De Wachter is a writer based in London, UK. Her book Co-Art: Artists on Creative Collaboration is published by Phaidon (2017).

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