PRINT April 2003

’80s THEN

Group Material

DAN CAMERON: In the late ’70s, wasn’t there a sense that object making as a form of art production had sort of run its course? Was there a new way of being involved in culture that was somehow summed up for you by the music scene?

JULIE AULT: Well, I wouldn’t say object making had run its course. But the definitions of art and being an artist were in question in a very productive and stimulating way. I arrived in New York in 1976 from Maine, and as a teenager got to experience punk, and a bit later rap. The music scene downtown really transformed art culture, and the DIY atmosphere across a number of fields encouraged many of us to create rather than simply consume culture. The East Village, specifically, represented a very exciting mix. It was an example in recent history of how art was not isolated. Also, the larger question of cultural access influenced our desire to develop a collaborative experimental practice. Group Material’s original members included Patrick Brennan, Beth Jaker, Mundy McLaughlin, Marybeth Nelson, Tim Rollins, Peter Szypula, and myself. When we had our storefront, from 1980 to ’81 on East Thirteenth Street, we were also looking at Fashion Moda, Colab, and PAD/D. Fun Gallery began around the same time on East Eleventh. We were vitalized by what was going on. At the same time, I think we kept our distance a bit because we wanted to stress politics as central to our endeavor.

DC: Tell us a bit about some of the early projects.

JA: At the storefront we organized thematic exhibitions around topical social realities. Our backgrounds and interests ranged from feminist and Marxist theory to design and popular culture, so we put together exhibitions like “It’s a Gender Show,” “Consumption: Metaphor, Pastime, Necessity,” and “The People’s Choice (Arroz con Mango),” which was a collection of everyday objects (wedding photos, dolls, even a cigarette-pack collage) gathered from people living on the block. These shows led to the Group’s practice of bringing art, artifacts, documentary material, and storebought objects together within exhibitions, to try to displace the boundaries between “high” and “low” culture. For Americana at the 1985 Whitney Biennial, we installed actual loaves of Wonder bread alongside artworks by Peter Nagy and Leon Golub.

DC: Can you talk more about your motivations to create work with social content?

DOUG ASHFORD: A critical history existed before we came along, and many of us were interested in it. The Artists Meeting for Cultural Change, Womanhouse in LA, the Guerilla Art Action Group, and the work of artists like Conrad Atkinson and Hans Haacke were models. The ’60s and ’70s, in which we all grew up, were, as times of both tremendous social upheaval and aesthetic innovation, a major stepping-off point. I remember as a kid every night we would watch on the news the number of American casualties mount in Vietnam. The corrupt global-historical position of the US, the degree to which economic policy had created a new class of disenfranchised people, and the degree to which racism was endemic in the culture all provided an obvious ground on which those of us interested in making art had to situate ourselves.

JA: When I moved to New York, I didn’t have that kind of background, connecting art to what’s on the news. Some in the original group were critically conscious. But I was clueless. I really got my education about social and aesthetic practices just by being in New York, and by being part of the Group.

DA: We learned from New York, we learned from each other.

JA: The kind of collaboration that characterized Group Material over the years—both internally and in public—was emblematic of democracy. Our collaborative process was a model we wanted to see enacted in the cultural institutions we worked in, as well as across the social landscape. It’s extremely important today for artists to see that collaboration is not bound to fail, but is a valuable way of working over time.

DA: The group worked collaboratively internally but also created a context for larger collaborations based on the specificity of site and time. Doing the AIDS Timeline [1989] at the University Art Museum in Berkeley, we directly engaged people and organizations involved in different kinds of cultural practice to help make the work. Many of them—high school kids, public-school teachers, community advocates, AIDS activists—were not publicly understood as artists. In this way, the exhibition turned itself into a work in progress in which the idea of culture, as something that exists in and through dialogue, could be actualized. We were always trying to get the museum to represent a larger, more diverse vision of culture, asking “Who makes it, where is it, how does it get constituted?”

DC: How did the collaborative process work within Group Material itself?

DA: We tried to have everybody do everything. Just because someone had written before, he or she was not assigned to specialize in press releases. We wrote press releases together. We hung shows together. We did talks and presentations together. And the struggle and generosity of learning from one another in friendship, which was in essence the process of the group, reflected a larger idea of inclusion, of democratic space. But let’s remember that democracy is complex, and inclusion alone is not always adequate.

DC: What was the catalyst for the first activities of Group Material?

JA: Tim, Marybeth, Beth, and others were at the School of Visual Arts, getting ready to go out into the world, and were put off by the competitive art system in which an individual usually had to develop a signature voice. I was not in school but was a friend. A convergence of factors made us say, “Hey, we’re already thinking and talking together—let’s start working together. Let’s extend that community feeling you sometimes get in school, or in a social circle. And let’s connect our individual interests in social issues with our aesthetic interests.”

DA: Before I joined in 1982, the Group existed as a developed yet experimental practice in my neighborhood, something that I experienced as a member of their audience. In the beginning there were a lot of people involved. But when Julie and I and Tim Rollins worked on The Castle for Documenta 8, in 1987, it was just the three of us. Felix Gonzalez-Torres joined in 1988, and Karen Ramspacher in 1989. We did our two final projects with Thomas Eggerer and Jochen Klein. By inviting new people to be involved, we were able to embrace different constituencies and interests as a means of modeling democracy, but, also importantly, as a way to achieve greater visual complexity.

DC: Was there a mentor early on?

JA: I feel Tim really held the leadership role from the beginning. I would say his energy and enthusiasm for working and questioning and critiquing culture fueled the group. Also, Lucy Lippard was a role model and was very supportive of the Group’s work.

DA: A lot of the work that Tim was doing at that time came from his commitment to education and the public-school system. I was also teaching then, in Bed-Stuy, and we often talked about the relationship between how schools work now, and how art can reorganize people’s sense of their possibilities, culturally and intellectually. Group Material worked in a situation that was not unlike a party, a kind of perverse classroom. All sorts of ideas would come up: “I know—let’s do a show against Baudrillard.” Or, “I want to do something about the Arts and Leisure section.” These were the jokes between friends that became actual projects.

DC: During the year you operated the storefront in the East Village, did you worry that the neighborhood was becoming an outpost of the commercial art market?

JA: I saw the groups that were active in the East Village as alternatives to other art districts, and even to the alternative art scene itself. Artists were starting commercial galleries and nonprofit spaces, and this was exciting. I was a big fan of the pluralism there.

DA: We knew that artists were in effect the storm troopers of real estate. We’d seen SoHo. But to typify that period of development in the East Village as being only about this sort of turnaround is a bit limited. What was happening on the Lower East Side was about many divergent practices, leading to very important dialogue. One could do a project with Nature Morte and then with Charas/El Bohio; one could work with a museum and with ABC No Rio. There was a tremendous mix—especially compared to what we have to work with now. I definitely miss it. But let’s remember that although the conditions for production today are very different, the possibilities for cultural divergence are still present, and addressing them in this climate of increasingly narrow political and cultural participation is more imperative than ever.

DC: Was it intentional that Group Material’s membership be open? The numbers never seemed to be precisely fixed.

JA: That might have been a common perception, but in the group it was much more fixed. It was open in the sense that who composed the group changed over time. But of course we were not so interested in promoting individual members or naming ourselves very precisely. In 1985 with, again, Americana at the Whitney, we established that the Group was not necessarily made up of everyone who came in for a project or participated in an exhibition. We identified the core collaborative that conceived and organized the projects: me, Doug, Mundy McLaughlin, and Tim Rollins. Thereafter, we listed who composed Group Material at the time and then credited whoever else was involved on an organizational and conceptual level.

DC: Group Material has really retained enormous vitality as a model. Every collaborative group today is informed about what you did in some way or feels they should study and incorporate it.

JA: One of the reasons Group Material is a reference point is because it means different things to different people. That ambiguity is worth cultivating. We have not historicized ourselves or permitted our work to be historicized in one neat package. This way art students, or whoever, hear something about Group Material, start looking into it, yet never get a full picture. There are a lot of entry points into Group Material’s practice, which is directly related to that fluidity in the group’s process. When Group Material addresses its history, former members of the group who are interested should make it a project using the analytical and representational methods that we used originally.

DA: Contemporary critical writing often designs too limited a trajectory for non-gallery art practices. Group Material was always interested in trying to complicate definitions of both activism and art. It’s really good if whoever hears about our work is inspired to redefine their practices according to their own ideas and intentions. The formal weight of political desire, its fluidity, is part of artistic process.

Dan Cameron is senior curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, and is organizing the 8th International Istanbul Biennial.