Show and Tell—A Chronicle of Group Material
Edited by Julie Ault, Four Corners, 2010, £22.50, ISBN-13: 978-0956192813
Collaboration can be a messy undertaking. While the public are presented with the carefully composed, edited extracts of a collective, Show and Tell presents another story characterised by battles, negotiations, sacriﬁces, anxieties and compromises. The exhaustive process presented here should be seen as an extension of Group Material’s productive actions, one that ﬁnds a way to articulate the otherwise grey areas between the collective’s individual identities. Doug Ashford, one of the central members of the nearly 17-year-long collaborative enterprise, describes this process in his essay for Show and Tell, insisting that ‘as part of the audience it is only logical our disagreement with the world would inspire dissent among ourselves’. Ashford goes on to add that ‘one of the most compelling memories of the work we did in forming an exhibition was the argument. There is not a single artistic product we made that did not come from discussion, opposition, and disagreement.’
Show and Tell, assembled and edited by fellow Group Material member Julie Ault, is a detailed account of these struggles and their manifestations. An archive of an archive, Show and Tell is a distillation of Group Material’s records, now housed at the Downtown Collection at New York University’s Fales Library. In keeping with one of the group’s identifying modes of address—the timeline—Show and Tell unfolds chronologically, recounting the group’s formation in 1979, disagreements about purpose and identity as it evolved, and its proliﬁc output both within and resolutely outside traditional art display media (the group’s use of sites that included billboards, buses, New York Times advertisements, museums and biennials, as well as its own devoted space in New York) until the group’s dissolution in 1996. According to Ashford, the plurality of exhibition spaces was intended to be both a ‘displacement of the art object onto unexpected ﬁelds of experiences, and a refusal of ‘established frameworks for the organisation of art’.
Yet herein lie the contradictions between Group Material’s ideology and its practice. For while the group was, as Ashford states, saying ‘no to the false neutrality of the museum’, the collective received the curatorial consensus of institutions and respected alternative art spaces throughout North America and Europe. Additionally, they accepted grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, a United States Federal funding programme that during the 1980s and very early 1990s was administered by a Regan/Bush government—an authority at which Group Material levelled its most excoriating critiques.
In her essay, Ault notes that the process of incorporating their archives into the Downtown Collection as their ‘institutionalisation’, despite the fact that earlier in the same essay she also points to the sustaining aid of ‘the temporary infrastructural support of art institutions that invited Group Material to make projects’. While it is clear that this type ‘temporary infrastructural support’ was exactly that, and provided little more than a minimal budget for production alone, Group Material nonetheless existed within, and by the invitation of, the very sites it sought to dismantle. It is on the edge of this contradiction that Show and Tell succeeds: a record of these discrepancies.
The book details the group’s early transactions, arguments, personal tensions, and ideological divides through formal documents, snapshots, handwritten letters, and meeting minutes. The enthusiasm of the then young graduating students of the School of Visual Arts in New York, heavily inﬂuenced by Joseph Kosuth, is replicated early on the Show and Tell timeline. The effect is sincere. This organisation of intelligent undergraduates did something truly radical: they sacriﬁced their individual careers to create something new. For those who remained with the group into the Regan administration, and then into the ﬁrst Bush administration, individual practice became group practice in the service of greater social change, not only within the structures of the art system, but within the larger political and social strata. Show and Tell communicates the insecurities felt by the group as they undertook such an ambitious task, admitting also that they perhaps didn’t yet understand where they were heading.
As Group Material expanded and contracted, the resignation letters, the calls to order—including a particularly candid and charismatic communication from a young Tim Rollins—puts growing pains on display. There can be no doubt that the group was constantly aware of the potential problems of their agenda. Instead of merely seeing the extracts or the ﬁnished results of collaboration, the book shares the process, with its awkward blemishes in full view. Ault recalls that prior to the cathartic publication ‘describing Group Material during the years since it ended has been as much about concealment as exposure’. Here the concealment is reversed.
In the departures and entrances of participating artists such as the outgoing Tim Rollins and incoming Felix Gonzales-Torres, the mechanisms of group evolution are transparent, and laboriously presented, through the rigorous ethic of its engineers. Describing these layers, Ashford remarks, ‘the threat felt by the status quo from art is a real threat… This is perhaps why the experience of art that can concurrently untangle, remake, and re-tangle the ideas we have or ourselves is not easy to produce’. If part of the production of Group Material was collaboration, then Show and Tell is more than a record. Like its infamous ‘AIDS Timeline’, the chronology is itself an address that is, in the end, posthumous.
Mary Rinebold is a curator based in New York