Battle Stances: General Idea, CEAC, and the Struggle for Ideological Dominance in Toronto, 1976–78
Everyone knows the story of CEAC, of how it crashed and burned. It’s been told thoroughly before, significantly by Dot Tuer in her monumental, archival research article, “The CEAC Was Banned in Canada,” published in C Magazine in 1986. It’s the story of how an ambitious, tightly controlled, and guarded artist-run centre amassed its own building, declared a radical political program, and advocated kneecapping, Red Brigade style, before it lost its council funding and closed down in 1978. Not only during its brief history was the Centre for Experimental Art and Communication (CEAC) a rival of A Space, the latter billing itself as Canada’s oldest and most important artist-run space, “it was cast in opposition to A Space,” Tuer suggests.1
In telling the story, or, rather, in setting it up, Tuer casts another opposition—that between CEAC and General Idea—by opening her article with two contrasting epigraphs drawn from two rival publications, the house organs of General Idea and CEAC: FILE and Strike, respectively. The first she presents is General Idea’s famous Glamour manifesto of 1975, in which they wrote: We wanted to be famous, glamourous and rich. That is to say we wanted to be artists and we knew that if we were famous and glamourous we could say we were artists and we would be. We never felt we had to produce great art to be great artists. We knew great art did not bring glamour and fame. We knew we had to keep a foot in the door of art and we were conscious of the importance of berets and paint brushes.
And the second is Amerigo Marras’s not-so-well-known 1978 article “On Organization”: What perpetuates the reactionary mystification of the role of the artist is the “world of scarcity” and the “incapacity to survive” in a capitalist society. The artist defends the privilege and the entrenchment he/she holds in a capitalist society. Also symptomatic, even and not less so among the vanguard, alternative and co-op artist’s groups, is the sense of hopelessness for social change, as these same groups mimic those repressive methods of economical capitalization adopted by the art world.2
One might argue that perhaps this set-up was too easy, judging General Idea against CEAC, given that General Idea already ironically set itself up in its reactionary mystification of the role of the artist. However, I am not here to advocate for General Idea (having a few years earlier delivered a lecture and published an article arguing for the capitalist basis of General Idea’s mystifying system of Glamour).3 Nevertheless, in Tuer’s article General Idea’s empty shell of history becomes the empty rhetorical figure against which the fullness of CEAC’s forgotten revolutionary materialist practice was contrasted.
“Miss General Idea hangs around the left stage area for much of the action,” Tuer wrote of CEAC’s cast of characters,4 as if General Idea’s muse sought inspiration there for the artists’ plagiarist, intellectual parasitism. But what if General Idea and CEAC were in secret communication, especially through their respective publications? And what if this communication naturally was one of rivalry? Let’s extend Tuer’s epigraphic opposition between the two to see whether we can productively trace their communication through this period when both FILE and Art Communication Edition (ACE), later to become Strike, were publishing. Doing so would enable us to read certain editorials and articles as critiques of the other’s practice. It would cast CEAC and General Idea’s competitive relationship in a whole new light. Moreover, it would, to a degree, reveal a struggle for the assertion of a particular practice. Let’s, for the moment, call this practice political—in effect, theirs was a struggle for the ideological domination of the Toronto art community.
It was more than just a battle of words. We can trace parallels through much of their activities. Both originating in commune-like situations, each instituted major multifaceted artist-run organizations. The Kensington Arts Association began in 1973 and became CEAC when it moved to Toronto’s warehouse district, soon to become the centre of the art scene, in 1976; Art Metropole started on Yonge Street in 1974 and moved a couple blocks away from CEAC in 1978. Both conducted campaigns in Europe and New York to publicize themselves. And, significantly, both published magazines.
But in the end it was the words that mattered. This record is found in the magazines that each group individually published. Eventually self-serving, both publications originally fulfilled other functions. For instance, modelled on LIFE magazine, FILE (1972–89) was the house organ of the short-lived correspondence movement before it became a vehicle mainly for General Idea’s own mythological production and promotion of international fellow travellers (e.g., the mondo arte). Art Communication Edition published for about a year (from late 1976) when it changed its name to Strike and produced three issues in 1978 before expiring. Publishing nearly monthly, it began really as a newsletter for CEAC activities but soon became a broadsheet in which the war of words, with General Idea sometimes as target, eventually escalated. While a target, General Idea was never named specifically; nonetheless, a close reader of both magazines would recognize the code words indicating a critique of the collective’s practice.
The opening communication between CEAC and General Idea took place just before ACE started publishing, through the auspices of a third artist-produced newspaper, Only Paper Today (OPT), which A Space published as a journal of experimental art and literary writing that served the Toronto art community.5 OPT published an interview with Amerigo Marras by Robert Handforth, the ostensible purpose of which was to inform readers about the opening of CEAC’s new space and, indeed, remarkably, the ownership of a whole building, which CEAC purchased in September 1976, in addition to articulating the artistic program and direction of this elusive organization.6 Handforth was then one of the directors of A Space, soon to resign in September 1977. As he was already an Art Metropole employee, perhaps he was seen to be fully in General Idea’s camp, so in conveying information about CEAC to OPT’s readers, Marras thus obliquely spoke, through his interlocutor, to General Idea. When asked whether CEAC was just another name for the Kensington Arts Association, Marras replied: “Well you see, the K.A.A. is still alive and well. But the K.A.A. is now behind the props—the frame of reference.” This was a noteworthy description because, with its props and frames of reference, it exactly repeated the language of General Idea’s fictitious The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion, which included props and plans that had been unveiled by General Idea in its Carmen Lamanna Gallery exhibition Going thru the Notions in fall 1975, still fresh in memory. Handforth continued, “So now it’s K.A.A. operating as CEAC,” and Marras replied, “Yeah. CEAC is the public front. We wanted it to be descriptive.” As in the case of General Idea’s Pavillion, Marras projected CEAC as the rhetorical—you could say, performative—front for a collective activity, but one not so visibly focused on an artwork as in the case of General Idea. If this front was “descriptive,” did Marras then mean—here adopting the language of General Idea—that he considered it to be mythological, too? For “description” was the classifying term used by General Idea for the mythological universe of correspondence art: I am not concerned with breaking myths, nor with making myths, but with the structural implications implicit in mythology’s view of the universe. In myth it is clear that everything must be accounted for. Unlike science, myth starts with a vision and fills in the blanks. It structures a cosmology through description, not analysis.7
Myth was a disjunctive, even destructive, model allied to the cut-and-paste of collage that led to a synthesis—to new myths of alternate lifestyles: In this article seeing art as a system of signs in motion as an archive and indicator and stabilizer of culture as a means of creating fetish objects as residence for the field of imagery defining a culture, seeing all this and more in many ways we have become aware of the necessity of developing methods of generating realizing stabilizing alternate myths alternate lifestyles.8
From 1973 to 1976, when these two statements were written, there was already a different world, so Marras’s “accounting for” could now be considered not to be based on Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structural anthropology (as in the case of General Idea), but as proceeding from another, all-inclusive, “mythic” model: Marxism. (With the beginning of publication of The FOX in New York in 1975, Marxism became the art world’s au courant discourse.) Not for him any synthesis; Marras simply preferred disjunction. Refusing to answer Handforth’s question about “artistic policies,” he said instead: “Usually what we try to do is build up contradictions—without ambiguity.”9 With this turn of phrase, Marras turned CEAC in opposition to General Idea, for General Idea was for ambiguity without contradiction, evident in the title of one of its 1975 Pavillion blueprints, Luxon Louvre (Ambiguity without Contradiction). Marras’s clever, chiasmatic inversion contradicted General Idea’s enterprise at its core by attacking its fundamental principle of ambiguity. He would always fundamentally oppose contradiction to ambiguity.
What would the antithesis of ambiguity and contradiction be? It would pose a system of meaning to a system of conflict, of fluctuating interpretation to an explicit provocation that was non-stop.10 It was not that General Idea saw itself beyond conflict. General Idea considered Glamour a “battleground,” but the artists also thought of it as beyond Marxism. With the insouciance of a fashion-magazine caption, General Idea wrote: “Glamour replaces Marxism as the single revolutionary statement of the twentieth century.”11 Marras himself would rather forestall that replacement. He would prefer Marxism tout court, a Marxism unadorned, or at least adorned with nothing but rhetoric.
Yet he was not ready to quit his dialogue with General Idea and set the journals in strict opposition on divergent paths. It appears that Marras saw ACE as a means of a continuing critique of General Idea. For instance, the second issue of ACE, from early 1977, carried the article “Four Leading Questions as Principles of Revolutionary Practice.” Simply stated, it was a radicalized answer to General Idea’s Framing Devices, the artists’ five-point agenda or master plan first promulgated in 1975, but it assumed the same format. To the question “What is Art & Communication?,” the answer responded: It is interface impact conducive within social forms as frames, structures, behaviour. Art as materialist practice and communication as dialectics in juxtaposition along contextual layerings produce revolutionary effects. Art & Communication is basically this: dialectical materialism practiced as ideology.12
Compare this to General Idea: THE FRAME OF REFERENCE is basically this: a framing device within which we inhabit the role of the general public, the audience, the media. Mirrors mirroring mirrors expanding and contracting to the focal point of view and including the lines of perspective bisecting the successive frames to the vanishing point. The general public, the audience, the media playing the part of the sounding board, the comprehensive framework outlining whatever meets their eye.13
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About the Author
Philip Monk is a curator, writer, and currently director of the Art Gallery of York University, Toronto. He is the author of And While I Have Been Living Here Perfectly Still: The Saskia Olde Wolbers Files, Double-Cross: The Hollywood Films of Douglas Gordon, Jennifer Marman and Daniel Borins: Project for a New American Century, Spirit Hunter: The Haunting of American Culture by Myths of Violence/Speculations on Jeremy Blake’s Winchester Trilogy, Stan Douglas: Discordant Absences, and Disassembling the Archive: Fiona Tan, among other publications.