from artforum Magazine, April 2002

Glad Rag

by Diedrich Diederichsen


ARTIST-PUBLISHED MAGAZINES around 1972 were concerned primarily with art. This is not as tautological as it sounds. While artists' magazines have always dealt with art, criticizing, representing, or promoting it, what was new in the late '60s and early '70s was that certain forms of art could happen only in such publications. Be it Interfunktionen or Extra, magazines followed the Conceptualist lead and operated as alternatives to, or expansions of, the gallery or museum; at least after Dan Graham and Robert Smithson, magazines became a place where art was not only reviewed but realized.

The first issues of FILE, the publication launched in April 1972 by the Toronto-based group General Idea (comprising artists AA Bronson, Felix Partz, and Jorge Zontal), leave a different, less sober impression than previous magazine-based Conceptual art projects. Lifting its name and logo from the most famous (and popular) postwar US glossy, Life, FILE clearly anticipated a strategy that today is an everyday youth-cultural ploy: namely, logo-busting, an ironic game with the powerful markers of consumer culture, a small act of semiotic subversion whereby one borrows power from the public side of capital--and momentarily uses it against itself.

FILE magazine--after 1975, "Megazine"--presented itself in a much friendlier fashion than that suggested by such a subversive scenario. Or rather, in 1972. friendliness was to be understood as a central strategy of a magazine that retrospectively, in its final issue in 1989, declared its aim as a search for "an alternative to the Alternative Press." Unlike most artists and art magazines at the time, FILE's politics were worldly and engaged, invested in pop and mass culture, architecture and design; the magazine's stance was always humorous, light on its feet, and ironic. The first cover featured Mr. Peanut, a figure who would show up with increasing frequency in the pages of FILE, and the debut issue named as its "Image of the Month" Robert Cumming's photograph of a Ritz cracker, its dimples superimposed with assholes.

In 1972 and for many years to come, puckish good humor was but rare in the counterculture. An alternative to the alternative at that time was not automatically and undialectically an affirmation of the status quo--as it is in most cases today. Earlier and more resolutely than any others, FILE was interested in the corrosive potential of subversive affirmation, a position that would become omnipresent in the postpunk years. General Idea had already thought through in practical terms what would be theoretically formulated again and again in the '80s. In their 1979 Test-Tube video the trio stated: "We don't want to destroy television as we know it. We want to add to it, stretch it until it starts to lose shape, stretch the social fabric....Imagine all those new sensibilities taking up more and more room, those chaotic situations on the fringe of society flooding the mainstream and doing it so quickly that it's impossible to have an overview anymore."

If this sounds like a description of today's cable-TV landscape, it was not wrong because its fantasy of subversion was falsely realized: In hindsight it wasn't only mainstream culture and those who benefited from the status quo who lost the overview but intellectuals formerly capable of critique as well. General Idea and like-minded artists and groups in the early '70s took aim at late Fordist formations of consent and conformity, a stance that may begin to feel attractive again as it becomes apparent that the explosive supply of "alternative" cultural products for living. Over the long term, given their status as commodities, these lifestyle products have mainly increased the pressure to conform, drawing Adorno's "medicinal bath" of fun that we all scrub our backs in today.

THE RELAXED STYLE OF THE EARLY YEARS of FILE had its correlate in a not to be underestimated activism of communication and networking. Lists and tables dominated the magazine, especially in the first three years: Addresses of artists and other suspects made up a burgeoning international network. Letters and works sent in by readers completed "competitions," often taking the form of beauty contests, initiated by General Idea even before the group began publishing FILE (the best-known of these "interactive" projects is the Miss General Idea Pavilion, the various facets of which were charted, in increasingly byzantine fashion, in the pages of the magazine). FILE serves as the recognizable successor to an artistic strategy that began in Toronto in the late '60s with the creation of a network of small shops in the neighborhood around Yonge Street: a mixture of social offerings to a community--hanging out to music by Van Dyke Parks--and the most basic commercial gambits of seduction and advertising.

The love of all sorts of lists, small, well-placed punchlines, and faux-journalistic dispatches concerning art-world doings, punctuated with a gratuitous number of photographs, gave rise to a specific layout that was soon less reminiscent of Life and more like a prescient send-up of the "easy-reading" USA Today-influenced publication design of the late '80s. The heterogeneity of elements and the variety of texts were pushed as far as possible without a loss of overview. Collages like the famous "Pablum for the Pablum Eaters" were usually set against the "editorial pages" with a minimum of mediating design components.

FILE emphasized masquerade, role playing, and the mimetic rearticulation of mass- and pop-cultural themes. Those who believe that the serious influence of the Velvet Underground was felt only belatedly, in the wake of punk, should consider that General Idea (with their friend Dan Freedman) imitated the cover of VU's eponymous third LP shortly after its release. The inhabitation and adaptation of often unattainable roles was a preoccupation of FILE long before the members of the trio integrated their own faces as masks into changing "logos" (such as a threesome of poodles or beaming babies tucked under the covers) during the '80s.

The masquerade pursued by General Idea in the pages of FILE involved mostly fictive and expanded scripts, often with an obviously queer character. But like contemporaries and friends such as John Waters and the San Francisco anarcho-queer cabaret troupe the Cockettes, the concern was with the collagelike creation of gender mutants--based on found material, of course--rather than with the mere approximation of existing glamour roles. In the second issue of FILE the work of the group the Unseen Force was commented on as being like that of "Gilbert & George seen through the eyes of the Kuchar Brothers"--a dandyist understanding of roles filtered through a trash sensibility schooled by pop music and subcultures.

For some time FILE stuck with this practical approach, avoiding explicitly theoretical texts. This was in part a by-product of the layout: After all, the pieces were not supposed to be too long. Yet three years into the magazine's history, a 1975 issue offered a manifesto of sorts for both General Idea and FILE. The "Glamour" issue programmatically states: "We wanted to be artists and we knew that if we were famous and glamorous we could say we were artists and we would be.... We knew Glamour was not an object, not an action, not an idea. We knew Glamour never emerged from the 'nature' of things. There are no glamorous people, no glamorous events. We knew Glamour was artificial. We knew that in order to be glamorous we had to become plagiarists, intellectual parasites."

This notable manifesto not only mixes classic avant-garde ideas from Lautreamont to the Lettrists but enlists them to a different end: The way leads not via theft back to truth but instead to "secondarity"; the inauthentic is precisely the goal. Rather than rejection through parody or appropriation, a new condition, one no longer dependent on a putative nature and on the norms and legal systems derived from it, is the horizon of the strategy. Whereas Lautreamont believed that the act of transgression in plagiarism led again to a truth, General Idea's Glamour aimed at the inauthentic as a goal in itself: the inauthentic understood as a critique of the "authenticism" of normality.

Whatever one might think today of this position artistically, politically, or culturally, it had become dominant in art and subcultural milieus five to ten years after its formulation. What FILE had prepared during its first three years and finalized in the Glamour issue was the implicit theory of the New Wave: the culture of David Byrne and Blondie, Industrial Music and No-Wave-Super-8-Kino that not only formulated the postmodern as a description (unlike all its famous theorists) but lived it as an artistic-cultural thesis. This led to a position that attempted--perversely but interestingly--to snatch ideas for artistic practice from the theories of Baudrillard and Lyotard. Even the farewell to the simulacra was later to take place in the pages of FILE, in the form of a 1987 roundtable (whose participants included Judith Barry and Peter Halley) on the occasion of a Group Material exhibition with the beautiful title "Resistance (Anti-Baudrillard)."

Many important yet relatively unknown protagonists of the New Wave, especially the musical New Wave, made an appearance in FILE early on. In the first issue, for example, Bay Area--based musician and artist Monte Cazazza suggested pranks to make a cab driver panic. Cosey Fanni Tutti, then at C.O.U.M. and known in the context of radical performance art, and later a force in electronic industrial music as a member of Throbbing Gristle and Chris & Cosey, posed for the cover of a fictitious issue presented as part of a fake retrospective of FILE in the magazine's pages. A favorite topic of the avant-gardist New Wave, totalitarianism and mass discipline (particularly as it was manifested in architecture and design that was ambivalently fascist but at least not market directed), appears in a variety of mostly humorous forms. But these totalitarianism travesties can also be viewed as the other face of community-building and its fantasies of communication, as they would return in the late '80s in the form of the dark side of the communication-utopian culture of independent music.

The mid-'70s brought an increasing amount of advertising in FILE. Ralph Records promoted the first Residents LP with a Flexidisc that came with the issue. There was even an eight-page spread for Artforum. Most likely due to growing professionalism, 1976 witnessed changes in the cover design and the range of themes treated in the magazine. Whereas the first issues had featured little-known local and international artists (Willoughby Sharp, Robert Cumming), it now presented mainly New York figures and events located somewhere between the Factory and CBGB. A punk issue ("Punk 'til You Puke") appeared in 1977, with theoretical spokesmen from Sylvere Lotringer to Diego Cortez (where is that "semiotic terrorist" and director of the terrorist-punk short film "Gruzi Elvis" today?) as thoroughly represented as those essays translated from French in which the words schizo and langue say hello to each other.

The closeness of the mid-'70s issues to Andy Warhol's Interview, beautifully parodied in earlier numbers, is obvious, even if the cultural segment is a bit more underground. The obligatory gossip column in a 1981 issue reports, for example: "At 4 o'clock controversial critic Benjamin Buchloh...explained to his date that '60s Minimalism is at the root of all performance art including his appearance in this gossip column. Filmmaker Ross Maclaren overheard October critic Douglas Crimp tell Parachute critic Thierry de Duve that the party was simultaneously subversive and complicit hence post-modern."

By the middle part of the decade, the ideas developed by General Idea were being lived out worldwide. FILE seemed to find its main task in the promotion and tracking of these developments, sometimes taking an ironic step back or submitting supplementary material, such as featuring Pierre Molinier next to Cindy Sherman. In the meantime the magazine established its own life as a professional art-world institution; it was widely available and generously paved with ads by customers who for the most part belonged to the arts sector.

In 1986, under the guest-editorship of the late Australian critic Paul Taylor, the last wholeheartedly postmodern issue included a magazine-within-a-magazine, Malcolm McLaren's Chicken, a proposal for a pretend sex magazine conceived for children and teenagers (the illustrations were all derived from BowWowWow material from 1981 and '82). Then FILE's format was reduced in size, and FILE had one last go at reinventing itself.

In the three years following the Taylor issue, longer essays and artists' contributions filled the issues, but the aggressive and provocative look had been tamed. Themes such as "Mortality" (dedicated to Beuys and Warhol) and the art market were still being treated humorously if in a more restrained, "adult" fashion. The advent of appropriation was of course the perfect theme--FILE and General Idea had a twenty-year head start in research. Sherrie Levine appeared on the cover of FILE through an appropriated Art News front page. In 1989, the magazine had run its course, and the publishers gave up. The trio's work on AIDS, both in their famous inversion of Robert Indiana's LOVE logo-picture and in their AZT pieces, turned again to the ever reliable method of appropriation, and, due to the content, General Idea's project took on yet another character. A few years later utopias of communication, interactivity, and community building began to shape the discussion of the first Net artists and activists--occasionall y with conscious reference not only to the mail-art activists from which General Idea was descended but, at times, to early issues of FILE.

Diedrich Diederichsen is a critic based in Berlin.

Translated from German by Philip Glahn.