[-empyre-] General Idea, AIDS and Placebo

Christina McPhee christina at christinamcphee.net
Tue Dec 9 05:21:53 EST 2008

In re Pharmakon LIbrary as a graphic project, I also feel it is very  
important to say, that  inspiration for the pharmakon in its deepest  
patterns in my work goes back to 2000 when I witnessed a seminal  
retrospective of the work of the Canadian collective "General Idea'  
with an emphasis on their AIDS related graphic work.


i would like to quote from Lilian Tone's exhibition notes about  
General Idea's work with the notion of 'pharmakon' as drug/placebo.

"We knew in fact what we wanted to share with you. We wanted to point  
out the wildly fluctuating interpretations you, our public, impose on  
us. Under your gaze we become everything from frivolous night-lifers  
to hard-core post-Marxist theoreticians. We wanted to point out the  
function of ambiguity in our work, the way in which 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. Curiously many of you choose only to read one side to any  
story. Since we give a wide range of choices (and we are conscious of  
the politics of choice) we are never sure which side you, our readers,  
will take...."

–General Idea

"If proper names are particular and the rest of the language is  
general, then the choice of General Idea as a proper name proclaims,  
from the start, the ambiguous identity of this Canadian artists'  
collective. In addition to its military and corporate undertones, the  
name's fundamental contradiction—a particularity defined by a  
generality—must have appealed to founders Jorge Zontal, Felix Partz,  
and AA Bronson. During twenty-six years of professional and domestic  
partnership—one of the longest collaborations in twentieth-century art— 
which ended in 1994, the members of General Idea consistently wove  
this kind of elusive meaning and literate wit into their resonant body  
of work....

One should note that before 1987, relatively few artworks dealt  
specifically with AIDS. At that time, AIDS was a charged word, more  
frequently whispered than spoken. As American AIDS activist groups  
stressed, President Ronald Reagan had yet to say the word AIDS in  
public by that year. The social stigma attached to the disease made  
its adoption as subject matter uneasy amid the economic optimism of  
the 1980s. It is this context of denial and prejudice that General  
Idea was addressing and attempting to destabilize: "We want to make  
the word AIDS normal. AIDS is sort of playing the part that cancer did  
in the sixties. By keeping the word visible, it has a normalizing  
effect that will hopefully play a part in normalizing people's  
relationship to the disease–to make it something that can be dealt  
with as a disease rather than a set of moral or ethical issues." ...

In 1991, General Idea developed three installations containing cast- 
fiberglass "megapills." Adhering to the original AIDS logo's red-green- 
blue color scheme, these installations are nearly identical, the only  
difference being that one color is dominant in each, hence their  
titles: Red (Cadmium) PLA©EBO, Green (Permanent) PLA©EBO, and Blue  
(Cobalt) PLAC©EBO. On the floor lie three monumental, human-size  
pills, each featuring the dominant color (in combination with itself  
or one of the other two). A series of accompanying wall reliefs  
consists of foot-long pills arranged in groups of three along the  
wall, exhausting all twenty-seven possible permutations of the color  
groupings on the floor.

Placebos are pseudo-medications that in fact do not contain an active  
ingredient—"candy-coated sugar pills [that] fake your body into  
feeling better while leaving it defenseless."9When used for  
experiments testing drugs for terminally ill patients, placebos raise  
ethical dilemmas by endangering individual lives for the ultimate good  
of the many. As General Idea tells us, the etymology of the term  
placebo goes back to the Latin placere, meaning "to please." In  
General Idea's vocabulary, placebos serve as surrogates for art,  
functionless and soothing. Consistent with this notion is the  
deceptively cheerful appearance of the PLA©EBOs: Saturated color  
radiates from the liquid gloss of the pills' surfaces, investing these  
stand-ins for both treatment and disease with an impertinent  
lightheartedness. A strange disorientation results from their gigantic  
proportions. The application of such dimensional shifts to everyday  
objects had already proven a powerful expressive tool for Pop artists,  
invariably promoting a sense of displacement. The PLA©EBO  
installations draw their unsettling effect from the impact of this  
device on our ingrained perceptual habits.

Immediately following the PLAC©EBOs, another highly charged subject  
motivated two of General Idea's most spectacular installations, both  
featured in this exhibition. AZT (Azydothymidine), produced by the  
Burroughs Wellcome Company and licensed by the Food and Drug  
Administration in 1987, was the first antiviral compound to become  
available to AIDS patients. While not a cure, AZT had proven fairly  
successful in helping to retard the replication of the virus, despite  
high toxicity and awful side effects.10 Controversy surrounding its  
lengthy approval process was compounded by the issue of availability  
to patients: Its astronomical price tag put it beyond the reach of  
many who wanted to pursue treatment.

One Day of AZT (1991) displays the daily dose of the drug—then five  
capsules—as human-size pills on the floor. In addition, 365 sets of  
five smaller pills, in bas-relief—one for each day of the year—are  
arranged in monthly sequences along the walls, adding up to One Year  
of AZT (l991). Inducing a state of disembodied suspension, the numbing  
regularity and relentless repetition of the daily dose sets up a sad  
visual mantra that evocatively counts down the passing months. An  
undercurrent of tension derives from the friction between formal  
elegance, with its aestheticizing denial of the pills' function, and a  
pervasive aura of foreboding. Bearing in mind General Idea's  
preference for found form, art-historical references sharpen into  
focus in a museum context. Within a clinical, antiseptic gallery  
space, the serial geometric arrangement becomes reminiscent of Minimal  
art, while the appearance of the medication—a contrasting cobalt blue  
stripe over the white expanse—alludes to hard-edge abstractions. As  
opposed to the PLA©EBO pills, fabricated in fiberglass, the AZT wall  
pills are vacuum-formed in styrene with vinyl, better approximating in  
appearance the real AZT casing. Like all their pharmaceutical  
counterparts, General Idea's AZT pills are aerodynamically designed  
for smooth and unimpeded descent, aesthetically perfect objects whose  
associations constantly intrude on one's admiration. Thus displaced  
and decontextualized, the pills' fruitless mission is relegated to a  
phantom place in the viewer's mind, misleadingly suggesting, as with  
so much of General Idea's work, that they aim at nothing other than an  
illicit pure beauty."


(Perhaps not by conscious choice, but by more than accident the first  
chance to show Pharmakon LIbrary has been under the aegis of A. A.  
Bronson, once of General Idea, who now coproduces the New York Art  
Book Fair with Printed Matter.  )


Christina McPhee

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