Philip Monk Crises (and Coping) in the Work of General Idea

… so that one crisis piles up on another right on schedule.

—William S. Burroughs, Nova Express

What destroyed The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion? Who is to blame for its destruction? Who lit the fatal flame that burned it down? Rumour has it that it “started in the third row. Clandestine smoking amongst the groupies.” [1] Actually, the Pavillion burned down twice in 1977. [2] Is this insistence on its destruction a coincidence or an accident? And was the Pavillion’s destruction really an accident or was it planned from the start? Planned as an event or, indeed, as a performance? Maybe it was not planned from the start of the Pavillion’s existence, but destruction was recognized eventually by General Idea as implicit to their system. Their system sanctioned destruction, gave the artists license. But what role did the artists play in it? Were they merely naughty boys bored with the necessity of playing their scripted roles for six more years until the arrival of the arbitrary date 1984? Everything is permitted … including burning it all down. Or were the artists merely “following order[s]”—following the order of the system, that is? The system was reversible after all.

The destruction of the Pavillion was a crisis indeed. But what constitutes a crisis? Or perhaps we should ask, what constitutes the creativity of a crisis? General Idea could cope with crises. Crises were business as usual. In fact, I would say that crises were the epitome of General Idea’s enterprise—but of course the artists would be loath to admit it, they who were so much in control.

Nevertheless, they announced the crisis in an editorial, an editorial that was meant to be a summation of the first ten years of their enterprise. That 1978 editorial intended to express “something meaningful about it all,” but about which the artists concluded: “And the ‘crisis’ is 1984.” Was crisis the meaning of it all? Could the year 1984, a crisis that had already occurred, still be the conclusion of their enterprise? After all, the ultimate Pageant was to be performed that year in the finally completed Pavillion purpose-built for it. But now both Pageant and Pavillion were gone. What remained to constitute a crisis?

Surely the Pavillion’s destruction counts as a disaster. Yet it was passed over as routine, accounted for in the 1978 FILE “1984: A Year in Review” issue as just one other chapter in General Idea’s project. This ambivalence should make us question the concluding alarm in the editorial of an issue of FILE devoted solely to General Idea’s work. The year in review actually constituted the Pavillion—its destruction as well—in profiling all its elements to date. It might as well have been 1984 because General Idea’s project seemed concluded. Actually, the crisis of the editorial was the announcement of a deviation in their work. No longer concerning just the Pavillion, this deviation was something of a destruction of their system as a whole.

The idea of 1984 was not an end; it was rather a dividing line, a divisive fault line internal to their project. As operative principles, construction and destruction were integral to the fabrication of their work. “Crisis” was the nature of General Idea’s work. The artists were not using the editorial to make a public announcement, they were letting us in on their secret: crisis was the transformative agent of General Idea’s whole enterprise. Crisis, however, was not just internal to their work; crisis was the unforeseen: an untimely event, history itself. Crisis was both internal and external to the work: it was an idea and a reality, controlled and uncontrolled. Wouldn’t an external crisis be devastating to a regulated system, such as General Idea’s was? But then adept General Idea always could cope with crises and turn them to their advantage. Crisis was the “meaning” of it all.

These periodic events initiated the episodes of General Idea’s work. I suggest that they secretly produced the periodicity of their work. Some crises were acknowledged, others not. Periodic crises mark the capitalist system, too; however, it is difficult to map the long waves of the capitalist system onto short-term individual artistic practices, given the differences in temporal scale. Yet General Idea’s career is an exemplary model in its embrace of both crises and capitalism. If contradiction is the motor of the capitalist economy, so it is with the contradictory functions of General Idea’s work: “ambiguity ‘flips the meanings in and out of focus,’ thus preventing the successful deciphering of the text (both visual and written) except on multiple levels,” the 1978 editorial continued.

This is the story of General Idea as told through their crises.

1. Mirror Trick: May 1973
“We began as a mirror of sorts, a transcanada organ of communication within the art scene, a way of looking at the scene and oneself within it,” General Idea wrote in 1972, describing the initial function of FILE Megazine, which they had commenced publishing earlier that year. But a year later, narcissistically, they stated, “FILE, no longer mirroring a scene, mirrors the mirror.” Of course, this “crisis” was a fabrication of their own devising, a necessity, really, to get on with their own project: promoting themselves, not a scene. In abandoning a community, though, and turning the mirror on themselves, they were going against the principles of their own formation—or at least the formation of FILE—in the correspondence art system of the Eternal Network. For FILE was begun to service this network: it was a vehicle for collecting and disseminating image requests in order that these subliminal assemblages might be captured in individual image banks. Each bank was a myth of contemporary culture.

General Idea were not ready to give up myth, though. Myth was fundamental, indeed foundational, to their system. Myth stabilized alternatives; art was a method of “generating realizing stabilizing alternate myths alternate lifestyles,” as they wrote in “Pablum for the Pablum Eaters.” Initially, the function of myth was to contain contradictions: “In the myth opposite possibilities become complementary content,” stated FILE’s first editorial. Yet the stability of myth belied the fact that this art was a “system of signs in motion.” The problem is on our end, a problem of perception; for thinking that end products have no process, that artworks are static things and not in motion is, in effect, a problem of believing in the architectural solidity of the Pavillion itself. But the basis of General Idea’s work in collage cut-up made theirs a system in permanent crisis: myth, rather, was a “cosmology of moving bodies, images in collision.” Cut-up was a continual crisis of the stability of the image.

When we realize that a mirror is an image in collision with itself, then we understand General Idea’s early slogan: “Every image is a self image. Every image is a mirror.” Mirrors were divisive. Mirrors were tools of destabilization. They were cutting remarks for dissolving word lines, then erecting the illusion of others: the Pavillion itself, which was erected solely through the mirror effect of its language operations. Turning the mirror on itself made this apparatus not only fictional but functional, made it a machine for keeping a crisis (ambiguity, contradiction) in perpetual motion. Myth, mirror, and collage were one; they were one process of unlimited disruption and reconfiguration.

2. Dead Letters: September 1973

The September 1973 issue of FILE printed the obituary of the New York Correspondence School, or rather a letter from Ray Johnson (and one from Robert Cumming as well) “resigning” from the correspondence movement. When the first FILE editorial expressed that “The New York Correspondence School begun by Sugardada Ray Johnson remains the recognized forerunner of international image exchange now in operation,” his abdication was indeed a blow to the movement. Strategically, General Idea published no requests of their own that issue, but it took four more issues of FILE before Image Bank Request Lists finally were discontinued in 1976.

Was it a happy accident that correspondence art imploded, providing a convenient crisis for General Idea? Or the cover of one? We have already witnessed the mirror shift that subtly displaced their image from the crowd of correspondence artists, while not ostensibly elevating General Idea above others, as they stole away to reflect on themselves. [3] Coincidentally, in 1976 the original 1973 FILE article “Pablum for the Pablum Eaters,” which so brilliantly theorized correspondence art, was reworked and republished. Now the original strategies of correspondence art were extended from individualistic to corporate activities (“in what way different groups continued to generate and stabilize an ongoing body of imagery as myth”), and from individual icons to collective formats (“as such, American mythology is deactivated and included in Ant Farm’s [substitute General Idea’s] larger mythological structures, their concern with themselves as artists concerned with culture”).

Disengagement was subtle: between September and December 1973, The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion was no longer a participatory project of collective tender solicited through the mail but solely an articulation of General Idea’s platform. The death of correspondence consolidated General Idea’s program.

3. Imitation Then Intimidation of LIFE: June 1974

In June 1974, the editors of FILE received a cease-and-desist letter from TIME/LIFE Incorporated for “unauthorized simulation of the cover of LIFE.” After two years of its look being lifted, the empire had struck back. So much for semi-disguised appropriation of popular and corporate culture or for subliminal viral inhabitation—“Like when we slipped into your mailbox disguised as LIFE. There you were staring FILE in the face and you couldn’t believe it was LIFE.” The subliminal was criminal, but here was the real effect of the fictional language of parasitism entering the real world. Typically, General Idea played TIME/LIFE while playing along with them. Yet changes demanded were changes made.

All the same, “the legal battle merely punctuated a change of vision that was already occurring for FILE. The look-alike contest had run its course.” So read the spring 1977 editorial that announced the resolution of the conflict. The appearance of FILE changed, but its cover girl makeover was still in TIME’s face. Cheekily, the 1977 editorial continued: “FILE was entering a no-no-nostalgia age in preparation for 1984 and in keeping abreast of the TIMEs was becoming increasingly concerned with PEOPLE”; that is, appropriating not the logo look but the content of another, recent Time Inc. publication, People. General Idea lived to fight another day, but their retreat was still one of Glamour’s aggressive strategies of disguise. [4]

So tested legally in the challenging of a brand, they would eventually begin to ask themselves what was an “effective” art of the marketplace. Their response was twofold. Not quite immediate, the first was anti-authoritarian (see section 5). A decade later, the second was “if you can’t beat them, join them” (see section 9). The first response was marginal, the second mainstream. The first perhaps was more aggressive than the second, but both meant an end to the “no-no-nostalgia age” of their early work.

4. Two Becomes You: September 1975

What was the change of vision that General Idea’s legal battle merely punctuated? It was not necessarily what was in evidence in 1977 when the “FILE simulates LIFE” editorial was published, because in 1977 that vision again would change, bringing about a new crisis. The change was in the concept of Glamour—or rather Glamour’s displaced looks, a change in its function. It is hard to qualify the concept of Glamour as a crisis, but it is not what Glamour exposes but what it hides or covers over that is the problem. Most people think of Glamour as the epitome of General Idea’s system and the 1975 “Glamour issue” of FILE as its classic expression. But we are no longer dealing with Glamour as the ritual elevation of Miss General Idea, as in the Pageant, but as a theft that elevates instead our trio of artists. The discovery of this theft is no crisis, not even the realization that they had plagiarized Roland Barthes to make it. The crisis was ever so slight: only a change or two in number. If the change was slight, the effect, however, was disproportionate to the numbers involved. General Idea had “re-structured”; from a loose conglomerate of about eight members, they were reduced to their core group, and it was time to assert the identity of this brand in the art world. It was only in 1975, starting with the Showcards, that the image of a threesome began to be promoted aggressively: hence the collective portraits of them as a trio of architects, etc., that would continue in other impersonations until 1994. Yet we persist in reading back this group identity to their beginnings in 1969, just as, reading forward, we tend to assume that Glamour is an unchanging concept. Altogether different from General Idea’s disguises or camouflage, these unacknowledged rifts that continuity smoothes over are crises of interpretation on our part.

Yet, it was not a reduction in number that was a crisis but its augmentation. Until this coup to the rule of three, the numbers one and two dominated in General Idea’s system. [5] Not even that many: the number one was above all; two was only the effect of a mirror, engendered there as a simulacrum. But what an effect! Their whole system was sustained by it. The Pavillion itself was erected on a borderline. The borderline did not pre-exist; it was engendered by an event: by the flash of a mirror or the cut of collage. It was a non-place where suddenly one became two, where the selfsame image transformed into a mirror of itself. (The mirror was a viral replicating invasion: even identity was a mirror effect produced serially.) The borderline was the event itself: a perpetual crisis.

In becoming three, in becoming a threesome, General Idea gave up the borderline risk and hence gave up the crisis. They gave up the event where the one engendered two—all for the triumvirate stability of numbers. [6] This was the beginning of the troika’s rule, even though ten years later the poodle disguises of their portrait made the three appear deceptively subservient. So, after all, number was identity.

This was the beginning of the end, the end of their system as originally conceived. It was the first evidence of the “change of vision that was already occurring for FILE.” The number three began to rule General Idea’s work, and it would have room for no others.

5. Punked: September 1977

The second “people” issue of FILE (Fall 1977) was peopled by punks. As people, punks are notoriously disruptive. Punks are destructive. In so publicly embracing punk in this issue of FILE, what did General Idea want to destroy? Themselves, it seems, and all they previously stood for. There is nothing like self-immolation for a “change of vision”—especially when performed on a public stage, as an editorial pretends to be. Concluding statements are conclusive, especially in editorials. So we must take this admittedly more than three-chord statement from General Idea seriously: “The sentimentalism of late sixties early seventies essentially surrealistic aesthetic has been replaced by a certain pragmatic anarchy which is now the theme of this issue.” But at the same time, we have to ask, to whom did this “sentimentalism of late sixties early seventies essentially surrealistic aesthetic” refer?

Was this a little of the anti-authoritarian “up yours” self-reflexively becoming “up ours”? What else could this statement refer to but the youthful merry mythmaking of the subliminal kids and their cut-up hijinks: General Idea and their gang? Here was inspiration in another, younger generation of cut and paste, and slash and burn. But a movement of “no future” was equally a movement of “no-no-nostalgia.” The nostalgia age was past. But nostalgia, co-dependent with narcissism, was a bulwark of General Idea’s system. Condemning nostalgia condemned the whole system. For instance, “Glamour” was another name for the dual functions of nostalgia and narcissism, just as the term “nostalgia” was interchangeable with “camouflage” and “disguise” in the operations of the system. Moreover, narcissism and nostalgia’s implicated relationship implied a “mechanics of vision” that aligned word lines to sightlines and that set up the framework in which General Idea’s work could be seen: indeed, the sightlines within which the Pavillion itself was erected. Punk was a blunt force that dismantled all this.

Moreover, “nostalgia” was a code word for camp; it was a coping word. Were General Idea dissing their own “pageantry of camp parody,” as an earlier leftist art critic had derogated the first issue of FILE? Or were they displacing it to the transgressive positions advocated by these “hard-core post-Marxist theoreticians” they proposed to have become? At any rate, this “Punk issue” of FILE coincided with the English translation of Deleuze and Guattari’s explosive toolbox Anti-Oedipus to influence an interesting but little discussed or exhibited period of General Idea’s anti-patriarchal work from the late 1970s. Queer was no longer camp but hard-core.

6. Who Lit the Match?: October 1977

In October 1977, during one of the rehearsals for The 1984 Miss General Idea Pageant, the Pavillion burned down. The Pavillion had seven more years to go before its scheduled completion in 1984. Had the idea run its course, or were General Idea merely bored as per the contemporaneous “Punk” editorial (“look how bored we all are”)? To thus sum up their work early in a crisis was no big deal; General Idea had been through crises before. Actually, burning the Pavillion was an afterthought of 1977. Yet destruction was implicit to their system from the start; it was the mirror inverse of construction. Potentially the biggest crisis of them all, the fire was only a turning point, a conversion process where the artists turned from architects to archaeologists combing the ruins. The ruins seemed terminal, though; and even though General Idea continued to add rooms (The Boutique, Colour Bar Lounge), they were detached from an overall system and answered to other demands and other principles. The archaeological reinvention of the Pavillion in the 1980s had nothing to do with their original system.

7. No More Myth!: July 1978

To sum up General Idea in a crisis, as the artists did in their summer 1978 editorial, should by now be no surprise. Their definition of crisis, given here a textual inflection, though, was surprising. “The nature of criticism, like the nature of puns, is to pull a ‘text’ into crisis,” they wrote. “The nature of our work then is ‘critical,’ as opposed to descriptive. And the ‘crisis’ is 1984.” What is critical is not necessarily what is a crisis in their work, but this indication of their conversion from mythological to textual criticism was. “Text,” of course, was the “different object” of the “science of the signifier,” the domain of French theory presided over by Roland Barthes. The reception of French theory in North America in the late 1970s was problematic, to say the least, notably in its staggered and out-of-sync translation of key texts. For instance, in 1975 General Idea “plagiarized” Barthes’s essay “Myth Today” from his book Mythologies, but Barthes’s early attempt at semiology had already been surpassed by the author himself even before its translation in 1972.

Getting with the postmodernist program along with everyone else was no crisis (in Canada, admittedly, General Idea were still ahead of the game). It was what they gave up to get with it that was. Once more, General Idea continued to gang up on themselves, as they had done twice in FILE’s 1977 editorials, to reject once again their earlier sentimental nostalgia. Though not named, what was under assault was myth itself. Not just myth but the whole methodology (mythology) of their early work: the image bank, correspondence, cut-up foundation of their system in motion. For description was the basis of the mythological system: myth “structures a cosmology through description, not analysis,” read the second “Pablum for the Pablum Eaters” article, echoing the first.

Let’s not get sentimental about this rejection. Textual theory provided a more exploitable model to justify the system’s formalism: for instance, that of reversibility in a project where “ruins are created as quickly as rooms are built.”

8. The Revenge of the Market: September 1981

For General Idea, editorials were sometimes manifestos, but they were always “recurring statements of position.” The fall 1979 editorial on transgression and the March 1981 one on $UCCE$$, with their audacious “flirtation” with neoconservative fascism and capitalism, may have appeared “shocking” in their time—what are manifestos for—but they did not deviate from General Idea’s course. The shock of the old returned to haunt them in the fall 1981 editorial “The Re-materialization of the Art Object”—with devastating effect. Devastating because changes in market forces forced them to return to the rubble of the Pavillion in order to recover artifactual fragments from its ruins. But this was no longer the same ruin; it had been transported in time from a machine-design age to a handcrafted era. The artifacts were handcrafted bijoux for a bygone era when artists were subservient: hence the complementary brilliant parody of themselves as poodles, whose antics paralleled the antiqued poodle acts depicted in fallen plaster fragments. [7]

The antique world of the poodle was no backdoor re-entry to myth, however. “The Re-materialization of the Art Object” was far from the origins of General Idea’s work in the “de-materialization of the art object.” In fact, back then, General Idea even objected to the market-oriented, historically deterministic bias of American conceptual art! On the contrary, as image bank artists, they were mythical rather than conceptual artists. A little myth turns one away from history, one might say, but a lot brings one back to it.

9. “I Like to Look at America and America Likes to Look at Me”: 1986

Having moved to New York in 1986, General Idea faced a dilemma. Americans didn’t get their irony! [8] So much, it seems, had changed with postmodernism, and General Idea were so much ahead of their time. Yet they dumbed it down for America. At a time in New York of appropriation art and neo-geo painting, their work had to be reduced to a one-liner; it had to be in your face. Why not just show the copyright sign, stupid, or a Trinitron television test pattern, or brands stripped of their names? Blatant, their copyright and macaroni paintings blandly fitted in with the tenor of the times. Dumbing it down, however, was not good for the product line; it degraded the overall General Idea image. Frankly, these weren’t their strongest works.

10. AIDS: 1989

Irony returned with the AIDS works, but the irony was unintended. When it first appeared in paintings and posters, this direct image—a logo in fact revised from Robert Indiana’s 1966 LOVE painting—was not well received by New York AIDS activists: they thought the logo was ironic. But this was a minor crisis of understanding. General Idea reactivated their old Burroughsian viral strategies to suffuse the logo in countless iterations over the next few years throughout the global system. Crises return, the second time round sometimes absorbed and articulated to advantage. Sadly, the crisis could not be managed this time; viral effectivity hit home: both Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal became HIV infected, in 1989 and 1990, respectively. The legacy of this last General Idea project from 1987 to 1994, collectively entitled Imagevirus, is its complexity and clarity. No crisis can deny this.

NOTES

  • 1. “Smoking in Bedlam,” Showcard 1-093, 1977.

  • 2. In the performances Hot Property (Winnipeg Art Gallery, October 22,1977) and The Ruins of the 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion (Kingston, November 1977).

  • 3. “Consider your mirror’s feelings. Must it always reflect you? A) Coerce all your mirrors to look at each other. B) Now that you’ve turned them onto the ultimate narcissism, steal away your reflection while they aren’t watching. Carefully. It’s all done without mirrors. How they’ll talk about you! The vacuum created by your invisibility has got to be filled with words. They’ll talk and talk. . . .” “Are You Truly Invisible,” IFEL 2, no. 3 (September 1973), 35.

  • 4. “Glamour is a passive defense [whose strategies are] simple but evasive:
    1. Concealment, i.e., separation, postured innocence.
    2. Hardening of the Target, i.e., closure of the object, a seeming immobility, a brilliance.
    3. Mobility of the Target, i.e., the superficial image hides an APPARENT emptiness (changing one’s mind, shifting stance, ‘feminine’ logic).”
    “Glamour,” FILE 3, no. 1 (Autumn 1975), n.p.

  • 5. See General Idea’s second and third Borderline Cases: “Imitation of Life (Mimicry): … There’s safety in numbers and two can have a mind of its own. Our two hands applauded the engagement and came out dueling. In the crack of dawn a narcissus is blooming. All together now, one two, one two, one two.”
    “Self Conscious: … Driving the wedge down deep through the centre and splitting the images in halves. There is two of us now to contend with now. Two heads are better than one but it’s really just one more mouth to feed on. Casting our image in the mirror revealed a cast of two. Our very own dialogue to talk to ourselves. We’re not the one we used to be.” “General Idea’s Borderline Cases,” IFEL 2, no. 3 (September 1973), 14, 16.

  • 6. See the 1977 Showcards “Three Heads are Better” (1-078), “Three Men” (1-079), “Group Decision” (1-080), and “Right Hand Man” (1-076): “The three of them are all each others right-hand man but they aren’t taking any chances. If one was lost on the job it would throw off the balance. They know that three’s a crowd and a basic social unit and they’d hate to be reduced to a couple.”

  • 7. “We are the poodle, banal and effete; note our relished role as watchdog, retriever and gay companion; our wit, pampered presence and ornamental physique; our eagerness for affection and affectation; our delicious desire to be groomed and preened for public appearances; in a word, our desire to please: those that live to please must please to live.” General Idea, “How Our Mascots Love to Humiliate Us,” in General Idea: 1968–1984 (Eindhoven: Stedelijk Van Abbemuseum, 1984), 23.

  • 8. “The irony disappeared when we moved to New York in 1986. It was the first year we exhibited in the U.S., at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, although we had been exhibiting in Europe for ten years. The American audience wasn’t prepared to deal with the complexity of our narratives. They didn’t want something that couldn’t be digested in a split second. We had to completely rethink what we were doing for the work to have any meaning, for it to communicate in any way with the New York audience.” Snowden Snowden, “Bzzz Bzzz Bzzz: AA Bronson on General Idea,” Metropolis M, February/March 2011. Or as AA Bronson said more directly in an interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist, “We had to make that very complex narrative less visible because it was too confusing for America” (UOVO, April/May/June 2008, 205).
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