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Pageantry, poodles and performance : camp strategies in the early work of General Idea Varela, Isabela C.

Abstract

Formed in Toronto in 1969, the trio of artists known as General Idea developed a body of work focused on the construction of Active identities and elaborate mythologies parodying the popular myths of art and the artist: the artist as genius, celebrity and avant-garde rebel. It is often said that General Idea's work is at its core an inquiry into art's methods of production, dissemination and reception - an example of the tendency in Western art of the 1960s and '70s towards the dematerialization of the art object and the critique of art's institutions. In this thesis, I argue that General Idea's work also demands to be seen on a broader level, as an exploration of artifice and the manipulation of conventional codes in everyday life. I maintain that, above and beyond their critical interest in art and pop culture, G.I.'s project was to reveal and question the most fundamental social conventions of all: gender and identity. Through their use of pseudonyms, Active identities, pageants and performances, General Idea invite us to consider the masks we wear, the poses we assume and the identities we perform even in our most banal moments, through bodily gestures, speech acts and the manipulation of surfaces. A project like The 1971 Miss General Idea Pageant - staged at a time when normative gender roles and sexual identities were being called into question by the Gay Liberation Movement and the feminist movement - suggests an awareness on the part of General Idea of the constructed nature of identity and gender (a notion later popularized in academic discourse and cultural practice of the 1980s and '90s). General Idea's artistic collaboration spanned more than twenty-five years, but it is the period from the early 1970s to the mid-'80s that constitutes the focus of this thesis. I argue that the boundaries separating masculine and feminine, straight and gay, fact and fiction, are complicated and challenged most effectively in the first two phases of their collaboration. The first phase is typically described as General Idea's "conceptual" phase because of the ephemeral, idea-based nature of the work. It can be said to begin with The 1971 Miss General Idea Pageant and end with the symbolic arson of The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion in 1977. The second phase, marked by a proliferation of poodle imagery in a variety of media, followed hot on the heels of the torching of the Pavillion and continued until the mid-1980s. Although the shift from "conceptual" art to a more material art object necessarily entails a shift in strategies of representation, I argue that both phases of artistic production rely on visual and verbal signifying practices broadly defined as Camp. At a time when it had fallen out of favour as a viable form of self-expression in politicized gay communities, Camp was taken up by General Idea as both a critical tool and a key to attaining visibility - a ticket to ride and a strategic kick in the ass of the dominant order.

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