Exhibition-Making with Ghosts:
The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion
This is the story of the Art Gallery of York University and the story of what they wanted. Though it is framed as a review of two carefully reconstructed General Idea exhibitions—_Going Thru the Notions_ (1975) and Reconstructing Futures (1977–78)—curated by Philip Monk at the Art Gallery of York University this past fall, it is impossible not to address the critical and productive role of the gallery and the stories it has told about itself in this recreation of two of General Idea’s most recognized projects. Nor is it possible to ignore the pervasive influence of General Idea’s storytelling strategies in their art-, community- and exhibition-making on the AGYU as an institution. The spirit and syntax of the three General Idea members, AA Bronson, Felix Partz, and Jorge Zontal, inflected everything the AGYU (re)produced in tandem with their General Idea reconstruction: from press releases and newsletters (styled after the trio’s FILE Megazine and using familiar catchphrases such as “Get down!” and “FETISH”), down to the black-and-white portrait of Monk, taken by Zontal in 1982, that accompanied the show’s curatorial statements. Through the exhibitions in the gallery space and the AGYU’s carefully crafted ephemera, a claim was made about the importance of “having been there”: of witnessing, contributing to, and being a part of the “scene” of artist-run culture that General Idea helped to create in Canada in the 1970s and 80s through their myth-making strategies and of the significance of that legacy for current Canadian artistic production (including, of course, for the AGYU).
The two exhibitions, displayed at the AGYU under the rubric of The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion, restage the “creation” and “destruction” of the Pavilion with painstaking detail. The Pavilion, incidentally never physically existed, neither in a creative nor destructive state nor in between these two states; rather, it was imagined and proposed by General Idea through a series of detailed plans, designs, models, posters, photographs and articles in FILE, displayed in two exhibitions at the Carmen Lamanna gallery in 1975 and 1977–78, that played off tensions between the imagined and realized, the fictive and real. This strategy of restaging exhibitions constitutes a significant, if temporary, shift away from the institution’s day-to-day mandate: a mandate that usually emphasizes thorough, well-executed solo shows of new work by living Canadian and international artists (most recently, Toronto artists Jennifer Marman and Daniel Borins took over the space with their Project for a New American Century). Not only is the General Idea reconstruction a decisive “look back” at the history, rather than the present, of Canadian art that is almost museological in its approach, but it is also in many ways an exhibition without artists. With only one living member of General Idea left (Partz and Zontal both died of AIDS-related illnesses in 1994; Bronson now practices largely as a solo artist), the materials for the AGYU show were culled mostly from the collections and archives of large institutions—including the Carmen Lamanna Collection, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the National Gallery of Canada—rather than from the studios of living artists. The AGYU’s 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion, therefore, posits a new model for curating where artistic production and exhibition making are conflated and curators become producers of art as well as its facilitators, critics, and presenters.
But what are the implications of adopting reenactment not just as a mode of artistic production (a well-worn strategy for contemporary artists in recent years), but rather as a curatorial and institutional strategy? What necessitates this adoption of what writer and curator Dieter Roelstraete has termed the “historiographic turn in art apparent in the obsession with archiving, forgetfulness, memoirs and memorials, nostalgia, oblivion, re-enactment, remembrance, reminiscence, retrospection—in short, with the _past_” at this particular historical moment in the Toronto art community?“1”:#note1 And how do questions of viewers’ knowledge of an event, either through lived experience or through its contingent documentation, affect the viewing experience of such a reenactment?
In order to begin to address some of these questions, it is helpful here to sketch what exactly constituted the AGYU’s version of The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion. In the first of the gallery’s two main spaces, a large hoarding, constructed out of shellacked plywood in the shape of a jigsaw puzzle, greets visitors, obscuring a clear view of the space. A few of the pieces have been cut out of the puzzle and are suspended in the air, allowing for surreptitious glances into Going Thru the Notions, a complex, multimedia installation originally presented at the Carmen Lamanna Gallery in 1975 that came to stand in for the creation of the 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion. Posters for the exhibition, a seating chart for the Pavilion’s audience, sketches of the leopard-printed Dr. Brute Colonnade (1975) and several pyramidal evening gowns constructed out of dusty, red venetian blinds make up the rest of the project and are surrounded by dozens of panels from General Idea’s Showcards Series (1975). Modelled after the forms used for magazine layouts—a wry reference to the trio’s work as editors of FILE perhaps?—the Showcards use found and created images, as well as lengthy handwritten captions, to detail the process of planning and constructing the Pavilion. In a subsection called Index, the logic behind the mind-boggling diversity of references that appears in the Showcards is explained by a series of statements that all follow the same format: “is basically this: a framing device...”
It quickly becomes clear, to even the uninitiated viewer, that the entire exhibition—indeed, perhaps General Idea’s entire practice as artists, editors, and exhibition-makers—operated as one complex, immersive framing device: a set of provisions through which artist-run culture in Canada could be created and sustained. Although Monk, in his current capacity as curator, has been careful to frame the reconstructed AGYU exhibitions as a revision and even recantation of his scathing 1983 editorial on General Idea published in Parachute, one quote from that earlier text could easily apply to General Idea’s, and later the AGYU’s, approach in this more recent restaging: namely that General Idea’s “strategies have more to do with the manipulation of a sign system than with the material production of art objects themselves”.2 Framing devices, like sign systems, facilitate the production and dissemination of statements and gestures. The effect of the AGYU reconstruction is to recreate this framing device and to point to the specific historical context of General Idea’s landmark work—a context in which they were frequently misunderstood and critiqued, not least by the curator himself—and to reframe their work in the present, where the group’s influence in defining the Toronto art scene can be more fully and fairly considered.
But what kind of affect, or structure of feeling, does the AGYU exhibition create for a contemporary viewer who was not there the first time around? What kind of experience is created for those who know of General Idea’s statements and gestures only through their now legitimated status as icons in the archives of twentieth-century Canadian art history (exemplified through the gallery dedicated to their work in the newly renovated Art Gallery of Ontario, for instance, or the recent reprint by JRP Ringier, in 2008, of the entire run of FILE)? While the AGYU’s reconstruction of the Pavilion undoubtedly brings renewed attention to General Idea’s important work in creating “a space,” as Bronson put it when describing the founding of Toronto’s A Space artist-run centre, in which artistic activity could flourish, without the trio’s decidedly queer, playful, tongue-in-cheek activities there to activate the space, the AGYU’s “re-installment” of their work seems surprisingly bare, almost haunting. As critic and curator Jon Davies recently wrote of the AGYU show: bringing the downtown of the 70s uptown...presents a considerable risk because no level of historical accuracy and attention to detail can airlift an entire living and breathing artistic subculture into a different era.“3”:#note3 For those viewers who were not around to share the lived experience of the Golden Age of artist-run culture in Canada, it is difficult to conjure up the spirits and activities of these iconic figures.
In the second gallery space, which recreates the 1977–78 exhibition Reconstructing Futures, this sense of haunting is even more pervasive. The installation comprises several photographic murals that depict the “destruction” of the fictive 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion, the trio’s heroic escape from the ruins, ostentatious urns, a perforated and neon-lit “Iron Curtain,” a pair of tacky, overstuffed leather armchairs, and set of “Marbells” (barbells made from marble), all accompanied by the sounds of a “fountain” that are remarkably reminiscent of a man urinating. The room’s cold black-and-white colour scheme, and the absence of General Idea’s typically witty textual descriptions, makes Reconstructing Futures seem decidedly empty, as though it is awaiting the return of its creators.
In his essay “Living with Ghosts: From Appropriation to Invocation in Contemporary Art,” art historian Jan Verwoert argues that one of the ways in which we can understand contemporary artists’ move from using appropriation in the 1980s to the more recent use of reenactment in the 90s and early 2000s is through a re-conceptualization of time. Whereas appropriation “speaks in a dead language” and conceives of time as linear and chronological, reenactment works as a kind of invocation, or a conjuring, of ghosts who existed in the past but whose speech continues to have “manifest effects on the lives of the living”.4 However, to invoke these ghosts, Verwoert warns, is not to have complete control over them, but to instead negotiate with them in the present: The task is to ‘learn to live with ghosts’ and this means to learn ‘how to let them speak or how to give them back speech’ by approaching them in a determined way that still remains undetermined enough to allow them to present themselves.“5”:#note5 Seen through Verwoert’s lens, the AGYU’s reconstruction of the 1984 Miss General Idea Pavilion is a kind of attempt to make exhibitions with ghosts: to invite them into the contemporary space of the university gallery in the hopes that they will continue to speak to the living in important and effective ways. In many ways, this process of invocation also mirrors General Idea’s approach as artists at a time when the Toronto art world had no identifiable scene. Using language remarkably similar to Verwoert’s, the Toronto artist Luis Jacob describes General Idea’s goals thus: What do you do when there is no art scene that you can relate to?...Well, perform a scene, perform an audience, in order to summon what does not exist.6
But invocations of these kinds also risk creating what Verwoert calls “disvocations,” an alienating experience similar to that encountered by guests at a séance whose energy and presence contributes to the invocation of the spirit but who cannot see the ghost being channeled by the medium or mystic. Without “being there” for the original lived experience of summoning an artist-run culture in Canada, twenty-first-century viewers might not know which ghosts they are meant to be looking for, missing vital cues to what happened in the framing devices that General Idea created and not understanding that this is just as important as their original creation.
While the painstaking reconstruction of General Idea’s exhibitions is a milestone in the AGYU’s ongoing story about itself as an institution, especially in the way it re-thinks the gallery’s role in reenactment practices, the gallery need not dwell on the past. In many ways, the AGYU’s quotidian programming is the most convincing case for the importance of General Idea’s work. Taking its cues from the group’s all-encompassing production of a context for contemporary art, the AGYU’s exhibitions, impressive roster of publications, and innovative public programming are already achieving what General Idea set out to do: to be (in the AGYU’s case, facilitators for) “famous, glamourous artists” 7 and to tell compelling stories about Canadian art history and its continued resonances in the present. As Monk wrote recently of the exhibition: This is the story of General Idea. And me! And everybody. Or, at least, this is the story of everybody in the Canadian art scene.8
- Dieter Roelstraete, “After the Historiographic Turn: Current Findings,” e-flux journal, no. 6 (May 2009), n. pag.
- Philip Monk, “Editorials: General Idea and the Myth of Inhabitation,” Parachute, no. 33 (Dec/Jan/Feb 1983/84), 12–23, 13.
- Jon Davies, “Form Follows Fiction: A Reconstruction of a Reconstruction,” No More Potlucks, no. 6 (November 2009), n. pag.
- Jan Verwoert, “Living with Ghosts: From Appropriation to Invocation in Contemporary Art,” Art & Research: A Journal of Ideas, Contexts and Methods 1, no. 2 (Summer 2007), 1–7, 5.
- Verwoert, 7.
- Luis Jacob, “From Stream to Golden Stream,” SWITCH 1, no. 1 (Winter 2008–2009), 32–35.
- General Idea, FILE, Glamour Issue 3, no. 1, Autumn 1975, 20.
- Philip Monk, “Fun with Mythmaking: What General Idea taught us about Canadian art history,” Canadian Art 26, no. 4 (Winter 2009), 94–97.
About the Author
Gabrielle Moser is a writer and independent curator. She regularly contributes to Artforum.com and her writing has appeared in ARTnews, CanadianArt, n.paradoxa, and Photography and Culture, among others. She has curated exhibitions for Access Gallery, Gallery TPW, and Vtape. She is a PhD candidate in Art History and Visual Culture at York University, where she also teaches.