– Spring 2011

Citizen Artists: Group Material

Alison Green

Tags: Group Material, Julie Ault

Group Material, Americana, 1985. Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photograph: Geoffrey Clements. Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

Group Material, Americana, 1985. Whitney Biennial, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photograph: Geoffrey Clements. Courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art

The dismantling of the progressive economic and cultural changes of the 1960s began in earnest in the 1980s, and Group Material's overall project was imagined in this period of attempted historical erasure.'1 So opens Doug Ashford's text in the recent publication Show and Tell: A Chronicle of Group Material (2010). It is an apt beginning to remembering how embattled the Left was in the 1980s, and to thinking retrospectively through the impact and importance of the trenchant and timely work of Group Material, the New York based collective active from 1979 to 1996.

Like all good art practices, Group Material's seems utterly contemporary. It can be discussed in any number of ways: as a collective rather than individual practice, as activists and 'brand hackers', as a clever employment of postmodernist theory and of their innovations as artists working curatorially. The group's projects foreshadowed the 'social turn' in recent art, as well as 'relational', 'context' or 'participatory' practices, and especially the production of critically oriented installations in museum exhibitions and biennials. But Group Material seems curiously absent from recent discussions about contemporary art, perhaps occluded by its most famous member, Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Show and Tell, edited by Julie Ault, a long-time member of Group Material, provides a good occasion to address many of these issues. The book itself is many things - a resource on the group's history, a study of archiving and a manual for how (or how not) to organise a collective art practice.2 (Reading about the first year of Group Material tells you two things: don't try to work with too many people, and don't get bogged

  1. Doug Ashford, 'An Artwork Is a Person', in Julie Ault (ed.), Show and Tell: A Chronicle of Group Material, London: Four Corners Books, 2010, p.220.

  2. At the same time as the book was being prepared, an archive was created and deposited in the Downtown Collection, Fales Library & Special Collections, at New York University's Bobst Library. See J. Ault, 'Case Reopened: Group Material', in ibid., pp.209-16.

  3. Jan Avgikos uses this term in her essay 'Group Material Timeline: Activism as a Work of Art', in Nina Felshin (ed.), But Is it Art? The Spirit of Art as Activism, Seattle: Bay Press, 1995, p.87.

  4. Show and Tell lists the members as they join and depart the group. In the second year, Ault, Tim Rollins and Mundy McLaughlin were the three left from the original group. Doug Ashford joined early on, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres joined in 1987, coincident with Rollins's departure. Karen Ramspacher was active from 1988 until around 1991, and the German artists Thomas Eggerer and Jochen Klein joined the group near its end.

  5. Rollins describes being involved with the AMCC's Anti-catalog, an alternative history of American art put together in response to the Whitney Museum of American Art's bicentennial exhibition of the collection of John D. Rockefeller, which included no artists of colour and only one woman. See 'Tim Rollins talks to David Deitcher - '80s Then - Interview', Artforum, vol.41, no. 8, April 2003, pp.78-79. See also Lucy R. Lippard, 'Trojan Horses: Activist Art and Power', in Brian Wallis (ed.), Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, New York and Boston: New Museum and David Godine, 1984, pp.351-52.

  6. L.R. Lippard, 'Trojan Horses', op. cit., p.353.

  7. 'Tim Rollins talks to David Deitcher,' op. cit., p.78

  8. T. Rollins, 'What Was to Be Done?', in J. Ault (ed.), Show and Tell, op. cit., p.218.

  9. 'Messages to Washington', in J. Ault (ed.), Show and Tell, op. cit., p.111.

  10. 'Dear Friends and Neighbors of 13th Street', in J. Ault (ed.), Show and Tell, op. cit., p.35.

  11. Thomas Lawson, 'The People's Choice, Group Material', Artforum, vol.19, no.8, April 1981, p.67, reprinted in J. Ault (ed.), Show and Tell, op. cit., p.32.

  12. See Peter Hall, 'Group Material: An Interview', REALLIFE Magazine, no.11/12, Winter 1983-84, quoted in J. Avgikos, 'Group Material Timeline', op. cit., p.102. See also J. Ault (ed.), Show and Tell, op. cit., pp.48-49.

  13. D. Ashford, 'An Artwork is a Person', in J. Ault (ed.), Show and Tell, p.225.

  14. Proposal for 'Americana', in J. Ault (ed.), Show and Tell, op. cit., p.94.

  15. Kim Levin's review of the Biennial touches on flashpoints in the so-called culture wars of the 1980s - she accuses Group Material of being handmaidens to the Whitney's effort at inclusion inclusiveness that year, and also of bringing the 'quality' of the show down. K. Levin, 'The Whitney Laundry', The Village Voice, 9 April 1985, reprinted in J. Ault (ed.), Show and Tell, op. cit., p.96.

  16. Proposal for 'Americana', op. cit., p.94. Also on 'Americana', see J. Ault, 'Three Snapshots from the Eighties: On Group Material', in Paul O'Neill (ed.), Curating Subjects, London: Open Editions, 2007, pp.34-36.

  17. Quoted in J. Avgikos, 'Group Material Timeline', op. cit., p.99. It has been argued elsewhere that interventions like these are only marginally effective, especially as they are ultimately co-opted by capitalism itself. For a recent text that addresses advertising's appropriation of avant-garde gestures, see Friedrich von Borries and Matthias Böttger, 'False Freedom: The Construction of Space in Late Capitalism', in BAVO (ed.), Urban Politics Now, Rotterdam: NAi, 2007, pp.128-40.

  18. The question they asked was 'How does AIDS affect you, and your lifestyle?' Responses ranged from 'testing must remain anonymous' and 'My whole life has changed due to AIDS […] I live with a constant thought of death and how to prepare for it…' to 'AIDS doesn't affect me at the moment; I don't sleep around'. See J. Ault (ed.), Show and Tell, op. cit., pp.160-61 and 250-51. For the Democracy Wall at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff, Group Material solicited position statements from right-wing organisations, including the National Front. A text offered by the National Cleansing Campaign was particularly shocking in its rant against the 'complete destruction that faces the Anglo-Saxon and kindred people' through 'drugs, brainwashing, homosexuality, rape and murder'. See ibid., pp.100-05.

  19. For an important period account of art, activism and AIDS see Douglas Crimp, 'AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism', October, vol.43,Winter 1987, pp.3-16.

  20. Recent discussions of Jacques Rancière's writings on dissensus are important here. See Janina A. Ciezadlo, 'Pluralistic Conversation', Afterimage, vol.36, no.4, January/February 2009, pp.3-4, which summarises the conference 'Disruptions: The Political in Art Now', at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 2008, which included both Rancière and Doug Ashford as speakers.

  21. Politics and Election transcript, Fales Library & Special Collections, New York University. See also B. Wallis (ed.), Democracy: A Project of Group Material (Discussions in Contemporary Culture # 5), New York and Seattle: Dia Art Foundation and Bay Press, 1990.

  22. See 'Behind the Timeline: Collected Histories', in J. Ault (ed.), Show and Tell, op. cit., pp.238-53.

  23. The first instance of Group Material using the format was Timeline: A Chronicle of U.S. Intervention in Central and Latin America, at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in 1984, in a show that was itself part of a national campaign to protest US intervention in the region. The AIDS Timeline was installed in three North American museums from 1989 to 1991 (UC Berkeley; the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT; and the 1991 Whitney Biennial). It also appeared in a print version that ran simultaneously in a number of art magazines and journals to coincide with the 1 December 1990 Day Without Art.

  24. Crimp notes that early responses to AIDS both by and about the art community were limited to catharsis and transcendence, and makes the argument for political action. D. Crimp, 'AIDS', op. cit., pp.3-6. Nonetheless, it is important to realise now that the political was personally experienced: in the lead-up to putting AIDS Timeline in the 1991 Whitney Biennial, Gonzalez-Torres was mourning the loss of his partner to AIDS.

  25. See the entries by Robert Buck and Larry Rinder in 'Behind the Timeline: Collected Histories', in J. Ault (ed.), Show and Tell,op. cit., p.246, which indicate how controversial some of the material in the AIDS Timeline was.

  26. Michel Foucault, 'Des Espaces Autres', (1967), trans. Jay Miskowiec, 1984, available at: http://foucault.info/documents/heteroTopia/foucault.heteroTopia.en.html (last accessed on 27 September 2010).

  27. J. Ault (ed.), Show and Tell, op. cit., p.239.

  28. Claire Bishop, 'The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents', in Margriet Schavemaker and Mischa Rakier (ed.), Right About Now: Art & Theory Since the 1990s, Amsterdam: Valiz, 2007, p.68.

  29. Ibid., p.65.

  30. Both articles are reprinted in J. Ault (ed.), Show and Tell, op.cit., pp.153-54.

  31. Miwon Kwon, One Place After Another: Site Specific Art and Locational Identity, Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 2002, p.147 and note 31. Kwon wrote more extensively about Group Material in a text on their final project: 'Three Rivers Arts Festival: Pittsburgh, PA', Documents, no.7, 1996, reprinted in Texte zur Kunst, vol.23, August 1996, pp.149-51.

  32. To mention just a few one might consult: Wikipedia's entry, accessed on 9 September 2010, doesn't mention Group Material. Oddly, the 58-page-long biography on the website of Gonzalez-Torres's long-time dealer, Andrea Rosen lists only three of the more likely figure of seventeen projects he did with or as part of Group Material. MoMA's website cites his early involvement with the group, but separates it from his individual practice.

  33. Nancy Spector, 'From Criticism to Collaboration: The 80s', in Felix Gonzalez-Torres (exh. cat.), New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1995, p.13. As with other sources, Group Material is not present in the book's bibliography or exhibition history, even though the latter includes individual, group and 'collaborative two-person exhibitions'. Ibid., pp.198-217.

  34. J. Ault (ed.), Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Göttingen: Steidl, 2006; and Joe Scanlan, 'The Uses of Disorder', Artforum, vol.48, no.6, February 2010, pp.162-69.

  35. See Ian Berry (ed.), Tim Rollins and KOS: A History, Cambridge, MA and London: The MIT Press, 2009. Rollins left the group in 1987 because it wasn't activist enough.

  36. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Art, London: Methuen, 1981, p.102.