February 2, 2016: Miriam Felton-Dansky

Towards an Audience Vocabulary: General Idea’s Viral Performance

General Idea, "Going Thru the Motions," 1975.

General Idea, “Going Thru the Motions,” 1975.

Decades before YouTube, Twitter, and Vine, decades before the Internet inaugurated the phenomenon of fleeting, digitally-enabled popularity—back in the early 1970s—three underground artists declared themselves viral. A.A. Bronson, Jorge Zontal, and Felix Partz, of the Toronto-based collective General Idea, employed this charged concept to describe their modes of creation and dissemination in visual, performance, and conceptual artistic practice. Virus was a form of art, a means of making art, and above all, a description of the relationship between General Idea’s art and its audiences. Virus meant political subversion, cultural infiltration, and subtly radical satire.

It also meant audience participation. In this talk, I trace the central role of live performance in the group’s pathbreaking viral vision. At the heart of General Idea’s work between 1969 and 1978 was a series of elaborate, playfully strange beauty pageants, in which contestants competed for the elusive title of Miss General Idea. From the original pageant, which accompanied a media-saturated staging of Gertrude Stein’s play What Happened, through an escalating series of participatory performances, General Idea developed a mode of viral art that explicitly relied upon the live presence of performers and spectators. Art-historical scholarship has frequently sidelined these works in favor of the group’s visual art. I seek to restore General Idea to performance history, arguing that the live encounter shaped and propelled their viral vision—and that their viral vision marks a fundamental turning point in the history of radical participatory performance.

Miriam Felton-Dansky is assistant professor of Theater & Performance at Bard College and acting director of Bard’s Experimental Humanities Initiative for 2015-16. Her essays and articles have appeared in Theatre Journal, Theater, PAJ, and TDR, and she is a regular contributor to the theater section of the Village Voice. A contributing editor of Theater, she is also a guest co-editor of two themed issues: Digital Dramaturgies (2012), and its sequel, Digital Feelings, forthcoming in 2016. She is currently working on a book about viral performance.

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