Group Material, Aids Timeline

University Art Museum

In AIDS Timeline, 1989, the artists’ collective Group Material helped to clarify what Paula A. Treichler has called elsewhere “an epidemiology of signification.” Here were itemized samplings from the convergent swirls of nomenclature, image management, political ur-texts, and sheer numbers that continue to make a mess of people’s perceptions of the AIDS crisis. About AIDS there can be no dispassionate informants. An artistic attitude, such as Group Material made operative in its installation, can take up accretions of topical data and straighten them out—handily, pointedly, albeit provisionally.

Group members Julie Ault, Doug Ashford, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Karen Ramspacher accomplished their mission by way of a tidy curatorial syntax. A thick, black, waist-high band sweeping along the gallery walls was accented by perpendicular date markers for the decade beginning 1979—the year that American doctors began to notice a marked increase in “immunologically unusual patients” (12 new cases, 11 deaths), and coincidentally the year that Group Material came together Above and below the band, they aligned images, objects, and wall texts—altogether about a hundred items, including annual tabulations of recorded cases and deaths, paintings, photographs, magazine tear sheets, posters, leaflets, a computer terminal (with Michael Tidmus’ AIDS data base accessible), comparisons of public-health budgets with military spending, a pair of yellow rubber gloves like those the police in various cities have worn to arrest AIDS demonstrators, and brightly colored masks made in art therapy sessions. Just above the baseboards ran Steven Evans’ Selections from the Disco, Various BPM, 1979–1989, 19890—bumper-sticker-like, pink-and-blue wall renderings of song titles, from “Got To Be Real” to “Never Can Say Goodbye.” Across the room, under Group Material’s and John Lindell’s official-looking bus banner reading “All People With AIDS Are Innocent,” you could sit and watch a deliberate mix of rough-cut video documentaries of street demonstrations, educational programs, and art tapes.

In such a context, what is or isn’t a certifiable artwork scarcely matters. Information and attitude matter, as does the will to provoke connections without over-explaining. At the end of the show, Robert Beck’s Safer Sex Preview Booth, 1989, with its three-channel, optional views of gay, lesbian, and straight porn films, had a witty enclosure, like a phone booth with a dusky hard-edge paint job. But it was the time line’s general graphic efficacy that counted. Most AIDS-active art seeks a quick sting, through a neighborhoodly adroitness of design; the genre is streetwise, low-tech halftone, guerrilla-wheatpaste. Right off, you could see how tyrannical the time line band was meant to feel—time waits for no culture to mend its inequities, it seemed to say—but only cumulatively did the surfeit of almost totally rectilinear information register as oppressive in itself In Michael Jenkins’ American-flag painting June 30, 1986, 1988, the compact,supposedly utilitarian rectangle was finally blown-up, broken, and literally voided. Jenkins stripped the flag down to nine stripes and a blank where the field of stars would be, to impugn the Supreme Court’s upholding of Georgia’s sodomy laws.

Arranging its display with pushpins, tape, and paste, Group Material maintained a rudimentary classroom history-project look so as to be campus-specific. In that regard, however, the installation inside the Recreational Sports Facility of a video monitor with continuous shows of agitprop tapes was more to the point—as, too, was the “Democracy Wall” of ten blue-and-gold panels on the museum facade with quotes from on-site respondents who were asked “How does AIDS affect you and your lifestyle?” or “How do you see the future in terms of AIDS?” The printed answers sufficed to indicate the urgency of intellectual effort the time line represents: at one end, the mindsplitting ignorance implied by one student’s assertion, “AIDS doesn’t affect me at all. I don’t really sleep around”; at the other, the well-rehearsed clarity of a Student Health Services worker who said, “To fight and overcome AIDS we need compassion, sensitivity, anger, helping hands, vision.”

Bill Berkson