Money was the first Multiple: General Idea (2003)


The fact that from the start General Idea made multiples should not lead us to infer that this was a systematic enterprise. But from the moment in 1968 that they dressed the windows of their store-front digs on Toronto’s Gerrard Street, they were destined . . . to sell multiples. For the multiple to be fully coordinated into the enterprise of General Idea, a system more than had to be in place: it had to evolve to the point that the multiple became the emblem of General Idea’s enterprise.
    An artificial fabrication that never physically existed, but was constructed through language and received images, “The 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion,” was conceived by the trio as an accommodating structure for their multi-faceted production, including the multiple. In spite of what Claude Lévi-Strauss claimed for the structure of structures, of language, that it had to have appeared at one go, this was not the case for the Pavillion. As it evolved, the nature of the multiple too changed.
    Before there was the Pavillion itself, however, there was myth. (We are never far from myth in General Idea’s work; it is the ground or the foundation, so to speak, of the Pavillion, the system supporting its structure.) Elaborated initially from Lévi-Strauss’ savage mind and then completed by Roland Barthes’ mythologies, General Idea’s operations were at the time structuralist, not yet post-structuralist as they would become when the multiple became dominant in their practice. FILE Megazine—the artists’ parody of LIFE Magazine—was the propagandist vehicle for this operation. Parasitically inhabiting popular cultural formats, the artists appropriated an image, evacuated its content, and substituted a new meaning—in effect, capturing it in a new discourse. In other words, form was kept; content was cultured; and above all myth was sustained in this act of the redirection of meaning towards the artificiality of “Glamour”—the theme of the 1975 issue of FILE, which culminates this period.
    The multiples of this period derived their principles from the practice of image-bank correspondence, principles notably reflected in the first phase of General Idea’s corporate project, the Miss General Idea Pageant. Through application of William Burroughs’ notions of viral languages and subliminal image banks, the participatory pages of FILE were not only a receptacle for artists’ projects, but a disseminator of them as well. Mass-produced, distributed through newsstands and the mail, in retrospect FILE Megazine itself was to be General Idea’s penultimate multiple.
    The second phase of elaboration of the myth of General Idea (1975-78) was the building of the Pavillion itself. Artifice was essential to its fabrication, as the Pavillion was fictionally erected in language primarily. Its programme is partly documented in the faux blueprint multiples of that period, the archival record of the Pavillion’s elevation. A paper architecture, worth no more than the multiples it was printed on, as if so much stock issue, the Pavillion established its value through speculation. Already a pure structure of value, like myth, the Pavillion was sustained through the transparencies of its specular metaphors of “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.”
    If the Pavillion could be constructed, so it could be deconstructed, as it was when General Idea “destroyed” it in Reconstructing Futures (1977). The two processes are one and the same in their convertibility in General Idea’s scheme. The reversibility signals that a system of general equivalence, not just one of mythic elevation, was now in place in their work.
    The destruction of the Pavillion freed General Idea not only to reconstruct the Pavillion along new thematic schemata, but also to be archaeologists of their own history (from ca. 1979-81). This is the opposite of their reversed teleology of “reconstructing futures,” but the two are linked in that the market always needs new products and the archaeological fragment provided these goods. Yet, henceforth this product was to be manufactured, not unearthed and recovered. The fragment was loosed from its context only to be reconstituted in a new system and to issue from it. Reproduced, the fragment resurfaced as the multiple. The multiple adhered to a new, all encompassing mythic system, that of the capitalist manufacture of commodities. Through this recognition, the multiple came into its own as an essential part of General Idea’s system allied to the market.
    Between 1979-81, “capitalism” infiltrated the pages of FILE  and the practice of General Idea, providing the underpinnings for the “re-materialization of the art object,” which was the theme of the Fall 1981 issue. As if mirror effects of each other, capitalism and the art world became available as inhabitable formats. If the gallery equalled a shop, then, in a cynico-critical mimicry, merchandising commodities became the art work. Thus the dollar-sign-shaped Boutique of the 1984 Miss General Idea Pavillion (1981) became a vehicle to display their multiples, especially the drinking paraphernalia associated with the Colour Bar Lounge. As was proper to the marketing of late capitalism, the Boutique could be franchised—when shown in a commercial gallery; or turned into a museum shop—when exhibited in a museum. As the economic conditions of capitalism changed, so did the Boutique—witness the revamped ¥en Boutique of 1991 made during the economic ascendancy of Japan.
    Located as it is at the exact midpoint of General Idea’s 1968-1994 collaboration, the 1981 Boutique marks the acme of their work. At the same time, it confirms that capital is the summit and consummation of their mythic system. Their system was always mythic, but here achieves its true form and name: form and content become one under the sign of the dollar. From myth to the Pavillion to the multiple, this chronological progression—where each is embedded in the higher order of its predecessor—charts an unfolding of an abstract system already in place from its origins, though undisclosed. If myth is an ideological system that operates through the structure of the sign, and capitalism is a system of value that functions through the exchange of commodities, General Idea combined the two (myth/capital) in the Pavillion which has the multiple as its crowning emblem. As the multiple replaced the disseminatory function of the magazine, FILE eventually became less important a corporate product for General Idea and stopped publication. (What does it mean that the ascent of the multiple marks the passage from structuralism to post-structuralism in their work?) General Idea’s ongoing practice proves that the commodity is the ultimate multiple and the multiple their ultimate commodity.

“Money Was the First Multiple,” General Idea Editions, Mississauga: Blackwood Gallery, 2003.