Crises (and Coping) in the Work of General Idea
...so one crisis piles up after the other 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 licence. 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.
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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.