– Spring 2011

Counter-Time: Group Material’s Chronicle of US Intervention in Central and South America

Claire Grace

Tags: Group Material, Julie Ault

Group Material, Timeline: A Chronicle of US Intervention in Central and Latin America, 1984. ‘For Artists Call Against US Intervention in Central America', P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, New York. Photograph: Dorothy Zeidman. Courtesy the artists

Group Material, Timeline: A Chronicle of US Intervention in Central and Latin America, 1984. ‘For Artists Call Against US Intervention in Central America', P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, New York. Photograph: Dorothy Zeidman. Courtesy the artists

The fact is that spatial form is the perceptual basis of our notion of time, that we literally cannot 'tell time' without the mediation of space.
- W.J.T. Mitchell1

History is, in effect, a science of complex analogies, a science of double vision […]History in this sense is a special method of studying the present with the aid of the facts of the past.
- Boris Eikhenbaum2

For some in the early 1980s, time seemed to circle back on itself. Shadows of the Vietnam War loomed large as the Reagan Doctrine, at the time still emergent, galvanised late-Cold War CIA and military operations in South and Central America, in particular in El Salvador against the FDR and the FMLN, and in Nicaragua against the Sandinista Liberation Front.3 Images of state-sponsored atrocities appeared regularly in The New York Times, magnifying the long-running history of United States military action elsewhere south of the border. As the crisis mounted, activists across the Americas responded in kind. In New York, political exiles and local sympathisers formed a network of diverse organisations, both small and large, including CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador), Casa Nicaragua, Taller Latinoamericano, INALSE (Institute of El Salvadorian Arts and Letters in Exile) and others, including, in the summer of 1983, Artists Call Against US Intervention in Latin America.4 Active between 1983 and 1985, Artists Call broadcast a message of solidarity throughout the art world in a national campaign of exhibitions and other events organized in hundreds of alternative and established cultural

  1. W.J.T. Mitchell, 'Spatial Form in Literature: Toward a General Theory', in W.J.T. Mitchell (ed.), The Language of Images, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980, p.274.

  2. Boris Eikhenbaum, 'Literary Environment (Leningrad 1929)', in Ladislav Matejka and Krystnya Pomorska (ed.), Readings in Russian Poetics: Formalist and Structuralist Views, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1978, p.56. Cited in Leah Dickerman, 'The Fact and the Photograph', October, vol.118, Fall 2006, p.152.

  3. Alexander Alberro goes so far as to insist that Darboven's tables of countless sequenced dates have 'nothing to do with the world at all'. A. Alberro, 'Time and Conceptual Art', in Jan Schall (ed.), Tempus Fugit, op. cit., p.151. Darboven's monumental Kulturgeschichte 1880-1983 (Cultural History 1880-1983) (1980-83) stands as an important exception, perhaps more archival in nature than specifically historical. Dating from the same time frame as Group Material's 1984 project, it offers an important point of comparison, particularly since both projects are, as I explore in my current research, poised between the archive and the timeline. See Dan Adler, Hanne Darboven: Cultural History 1880-1983, London: Afterall Books, 2009.

  4. Kawara lines each painting's storage box with a page from that day's newspaper. Not meant for exhibition purposes, this practice redundantly corroborates each painting's time and place, but accords little historical meaning to reported events. See P.M. Lee, Chronophobia, op. cit., p.293. Other examples include: Christine Kozlov's 271 Blank Sheets of Paper Corresponding to 271 Days of Concepts Rejected (1968); Douglas Huebler's Duration Piece (1969); Eva Hesse's Metronomic Irregularity II (1966); Dennis Oppenheim's Time Pocket (1968); and any number of others. Even in the work of Hans Haacke, where history and chronology often play an important role, registering the passage of time does not necessarily grant it historical meaning. In Haacke's News (1969-70), five teletype machines print reams of information transmitted live from commercial wire services. Even while the printed scrolls disrupt the ostensible neutrality of the 'white cube' and insist on the gallery's inscription within politics and history, the endlessly accumulating surfeit of information remains illegible as 'news'. The few instances of linear, chronological progressions in the art of the period tend not to address historical time but rather to evoke a more personal commentary: Sophie Calle's The Shadow (1981), Eleanor Antin's Carving: A Traditional Sculpture (1972) or Vito Acconci's Following Piece (1969). Though not acknowledged by Group Material as a source for their work, it should be mentioned that Judy Chicago's Dinner Party (1974-79) not only stands as an important example of historicism in late-twentieth-century art in the US (the work's monumental banquet table, place settings, tiled floor and other elements represent 1,038 women in history), but also includes a wall-mounted historical timeline in the form of seven 'Heritage Panels', photo-and-text collages that document the lives of 999 women dating from prehistory to the twentieth century.

  5. P.M. Lee, Chronophobia, op. cit., p.278.

  6. See ibid., p.307.

  7. At least in Smithson's case, this temporal sensibility provided a kind of 'cosmic endorsement for his own aversion to activism, political or otherwise'. J. Roberts, Mirror-Travels, op. cit., p.9. More important than the careers and activist credentials of any one of these artists is the kind of spectatorship their work presupposes.

  8. Luchar! included projects by Bolivar Arellano, Golub, Lawson, Lippard, OSPAAL (Organisation of Solidarity of the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America), Susan Meiselas, Rosler, Christy Rupp, Anton van Dalen, members of Group Material and about forty others. J. Ault (ed.), Show and Tell, op. cit., p.258. The link between Luchar! and Artists Call is described in D. Ashford, 'Aesthetic Insurgency', op. cit., pp.114-16.

  9. Conversation with D. Ashford, 10 September 2010; and conversation with J. Ault, , 20 November 2010. CISPES's timeline is reproduced in J. Ault (ed.), Show and Tell, op. cit., p.90.

  10. First mounted in 1961 at the California Museum of Science and Industry, Mathematica was subsequently installed semi-permanently in Chicago, Boston and New York. The World of Franklin and Jefferson was organised in collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and travelled to various venues in Europe before opening in New York in 1976. Group Material encountered these exhibitions primarily through their published documentation. Email from J. Ault, op. cit.

  11. Combining diverse cultural and historical material, Atkinson's work and the Eameses' exhibitions paralleled and contributed to the archival, anti-hierarchical inclusiveness of Group Material's installations. T. Rollins, 'Art as Social Action: An Interview with Conrad Atkinson', Art in America, vol.68, February 1980, pp.119-23. Ault also names Constructivism as a point of reference for Group Material's historicism. Email from J. Ault, op. cit. I am grateful to Dennis Tenenboym for pointing out that post-revolutionary Soviet graphic design not infrequently incorporates temporally arranged presentations of data, such as graphs and tables.

  12. B.H.D. Buchloh, 'Hans Haacke: Memory and Instrumental Reason', op. cit., pp.222-28.

  13. Yve-Alain Bois, D. Crimp, Rosalind Krauss and H. Haacke, 'A Conversation with Hans Haacke', October, vol.30, Fall 1984, p.37.

  14. In an unpublished portion of an interview with Group Material that appeared in Parachute magazine in 1989, Jim Drobnik prompts Ault, Ashford and Felix Gonzalez-Torres to reflect on the relationship between their practice and Haacke's Manet-PROJEKT. Their responses convey quite different perspectives, though on the whole their comments draw a distinction between the muckraking specificity of Haacke's work and Group Material's more interrogative and expansive approach. Even while retaining this more inquiry-based, inclusive approach, however, the 'forensic' historicism of a work like AIDS Timeline nonetheless resembles the 'real-time' analysis for which Haacke's work is known, in particular in projects such as Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 (1971). This connection has been pointed out in David Deicher, 'Polarity Rules: Looking at Whitney Annuals and Biennials, 1968-2000', in J. Ault (ed.), Alternative Art New York 1965-1985: A Cultural Politics Book for the Social Text Collective, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002, pp.244-45. See also J. Drobnik, Interview with Group Material, 21 June 1989, Group Material Archive, Box 7, Interview Transcripts 1, The Fales Library & Special Collections, New York University; and J. Drobnick, 'Dialectical Group Materialism', Parachute, no.56, October-December 1989, p.29.

  15. D. Rosenberg and A. Grafton, Cartographies of Time, op. cit., pp.122 and 241.

  16. Group Material, proposal, Timeline: A Chronicle of US Intervention in Central and Latin America, New York: P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, January 1984, Group Material Archive, Box 1, Timeline: The Chronicle of US Intervention in Central and Latin America, 1984, The Fales Library & Special Collections, New York University.

  17. See ibid. and J. Ault (ed.), Show and Tell, op. cit., p.85.

  18. Heartfield's image illustrates the cover of a 1933 edition of the German leftist magazine, AIZ (Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung, or Workers' Pictorial Newspaper). Group Material describes this connection in its proposal for Timeline, op. cit.

  19. Thus, as Thomas Lawson put it in a review at the time, 'Those seeking exact correspondences between dates and display items would have been disappointed, for the evidence was put to different use. A point-by-point demonstration would simply have been another accretion of power, another construction of influence.' T. Lawson, 'Group Material, Timeline, P.S.1', op. cit., p.83.

  20. This point is indebted to a discussion about AIDS Timeline between Ault and Richard Meyer following Ault's presentation at 'A Museum of Ideas - Contemporary Conversations (2)', 27 March 2010, University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

  21. Conversation with J. Ault, op. cit. CISPES's chronology also appeared in a catalogue P.S.1 published on all the exhibitions on view at the time. In addition to CISPES's chronology, the section dedicated to Timeline also includes an updated version of Group Material's initial proposal for Timeline, as well as a floor-plan sketch by Rollins. P.S.1 Museum; Institute for Art and Urban Resources, Winter: January 22 - March 18, 1984 (exh. cat.), New York: Institute for Art and Urban Resources, 1984.

  22. Allen's posters were designed for Group Material's 1983 project Subculture, in which the collective invited one hundred artists to exhibit in 1,400 rented advertising spaces on New York City trains. Falling between Luchar! and Timeline, Allen's chronology (along with CISPES's timeline and the other reference points cited above) contributed to Group Material's shift toward the historicising emphasis of the 1984 project. Allen's posters also hung on the walls of Group Material's office on West 21st Street. Conversation with D. Ashford, op. cit.; and email from D. Ashford, op. cit.

  23. J. Gambrell, 'Art Against Intervention', op. cit., p.15.

  24. By including these three different chronologies, Group Material may not have specifically intended for Timeline to represent such divergent accounts of the past. However, they were certainly very familiar with both Allen's and CISPES's chronologies prior to executing the wall-mounted timeline. As mentioned above, they invited Allen to exhibit the black-and-white posters as part of Timeline after they had been included in Group Material's project Subculture. Similarly, working in the environment of West 21st Street they had certainly read CISPES's chronology, if not discussed it at meetings. This suggests some degree of intentionality around the historical multi-vocality that ultimately results.

  25. The descriptions in this paragraph draw closely on Godfrey's fascinating and pertinent discussion of the work of Matthew Buckingham. M. Godfrey, 'The Artist as Historian', op. cit., p.149.

  26. See B.H.D. Buchloh, 'A Note on Gerhard Richter's October 18, 1977', op. cit. M. Godfrey's 'The Artist as Historian', op. cit. makes the case that history, relatively absent from Anglo-American post-War art, has recently become a primary concern in artistic practice. Notable examples relevant for Group Material's work include: Rosler's installation Fascination with the (game of the) exploding (historical) hollow leg (1985); Richter's series October 18, 1977 (1988); Mary Kelly's Mea Culpa (1999); and, more recently, Chto delat?'s timeline projects (2008-10) and the 'Potosí Principle' exhibition at the Museo Nacional Centro de Reina Sofía in Madrid and the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, curated by Alice Creischer, Max Jorge Hinderer and Andreas Siekmann. My current project undertakes a more thoroughgoing comparison with works such as these.