The following is an abridged transcript from an interview at the Open Engagement conference, which took place from May 13 to 15, 2011, at Portland State University. Open Engagement is an initiative of PSU’s Art and Social Practice MFA program that encourages discussion on various perspectives in social practice. In this conversation, Bad at Sports contributors Duncan MacKenzie, Abigail Satinsky, and Bruce Dwyer speak with artist Julie Ault, who was a featured presenter at this year’s conference, about the history of and her longtime involvement with the collaborative Group Material.
This presentation of the interview is part of the ongoing collaboration between Bad at Sports and Art Practical. You can listen to the full conversation on Bad at Sports in an upcoming podcast.
Duncan MacKenzie: Maybe it’s important to start with Group Material. What is, was, and always will remain Group Material?
Julie Ault: Those are three different questions. Group Material was a New York City–based collaborative of artists that started as a larger formation of around ten to twelve friends and friends of friends. Many of the people that started the group were just out of art school and fairly disenchanted with the notion of leaving the communal situation of school, leaving the dialogues that were formulated within that educational context, and suddenly being out on their own and having to, in principle, develop their voice and go to their studio and be inspired and work.
A lot of the people that first started Group Material didn’t have that experience of making art that way and thought of art-making as a cultural and social process. They wanted to extend and formalize the notion of working together and also formalize the notion of collective production. We didn’t really know how that was going to play out, but it seemed like the first thing to do was have something concrete to work on together and to have a dialogue around.
So we got a space, a kind of exhibition—laboratory—headquarters on East Thirteenth Street in New York. That was after a few months of already planning and working and thinking together, but for the first incarnation of Group Material, we were both collaborative and a place, or a laboratory, I would say. After that first year and a half, the group morphed into a much smaller entity, and the individuals in the group—as well as factions or associations within the group—refined our interests and ideas. So that meant certain people moving away, certain people hunkering in, and by the end of the first so-called season of Group Material’s programming, we were a group of three people. There were other incarnations that came after that.
Abigail Satinsky: Could you give us a picture of the conversations that you were having when you started working together? As you laid it out in [Show & Tell: A Chronicle of Group Material], it seems that the reason there were all these meeting minutes that described exactly what was happening was because you were also in the process of how to form as a group, and how to eventually apply for funding and get incorporated. I am also interested—in reading what Tim Rollins has written about it—in the fact that there was just no scene. There weren’t any venues for your own representation, and so you decided to come together as what sounded like a cacophonous group of voices.
JA: I guess there are a lot of things that came together then, and I can’t say we were conscious of all of them. There was the context which we were a part of—there were a number of contexts that we were a part of—and probably the most directly related, although I wouldn’t necessarily say influential, was the creation of artist spaces, artist-run entities, group structures like Colab [Collaborative Projects], events like The Real Estate Show, and the founding of ABC No Rio, which came out of that. So there was a sense that maybe self-representation was needed. There were possibilities, but there was not a burgeoning scene that we were aware of at that point.
And also, we were pretty young, early twenties, I guess. I was one of the younger in the group, but the sense of a scene probably had a lot to do with feeling outside of whatever was going on, and now we can look at the history of some of these entities. But at the time, they were exciting. It was not like, “Oh, this is a scene. This is a burgeoning context that we’re a part of.” It was more a sense that we were in a moment of polarized culture and shifts and were coming into our own at that moment. We were talking about what you would expect: Marxism, feminism, how to have a voice in culture, civil rights, different DIY movements.
Tim and I were really into the music scene at the time. And that was a scene. There was already quite an established set of coordinates around that. We were fired up with a lot of energy and desires and references. And certain people in the group were more proponents of Marxism and feminist theory, and other people, like myself, were not.
I didn’t go to SVA [School of Visual Arts], which is where a lot of this initial group, including Marybeth [Nelson], Peter [Szypula], Hannah [Alderfer], Mundy [McLaughlin], and Tim, went to school together. But they were fired up with a lot of references and models, as well as things that had been happening recently in the art field.
There were a number of politicized cultural activists and political activists, motivations, and endeavors in the art field. Artists meeting for cultural change had already happened, or was happening. Artwork as a coalition had happened. There were a number of things springing up, and that certainly gave us a grounding.
What else were we talking about? We talked about so many things. A lot of people in the group were both invested in collective production as well as in individual production, so we talked about each other’s work and talked about things we were reading. I don’t remember that we sat and read things together before Group Material. There was a small reading group that Tim and I had in our apartment, with Yolanda [Hawkins] and a couple of other people. We talked about artists and collectives that we had been learning about, mostly in Britain, and other places. We were trying to learn from them, and at the same time, chart our own terrain.
Bryce Dwyer: In the way that the book is written from a historical perspective, it’s really transparent that there were arguments and disagreements that were important parts of what it meant to work as a group. Can you offer a specific instance of the work you made together to explain how those conflicts or disagreements came out in the work itself?
JA: I don’t know if I could make a one-to-one correlation like that. But it’s interesting that you mentioned the historical perspective, because in a funny way, I don’t really see the book as having much of a historical perspective. That was one of the intentions of relying on what I think of as original language, or this kind of material that the group was producing at the time internally. Not just the minutes, but the correspondence and exhibition proposals, project proposals—to use some of the internal discussion and the self-representation of the group to tap into what was really going on. Because, of course, everyone’s memory is different, and I certainly don’t trust my memory.
One of the reasons that I was really interested in working hands-on with the archive and the book was to understand Group Material again. And not just do what I had been doing for a long time, which is representing Group Material to others and myself as this twenty-minute package, or whatever the narrative that you streamline—that we all streamline—when we’re talking about something in order to communicate it.
So when I looked into my own files, I thought, “Oh my god, we were already talking about splitting up within a few months?” I had more or less glossed over that. I thought that the first talks of factions or breaking were much later. So I tried to be very careful about not providing a historical overview. That’s also the reason for speaking in the present tense in the written chronicle that cuts through the first couple hundred pages of the book, to try to get at this notion of a collective narrator.
Making transparent or emphasizing disagreement, conflicts, and arguments is just to be honest. It’s not a strategy for anything. It’s really to show, “How did our group work? How do I convey what’s important in collaboration?” Clearly, it wasn’t a TV movie, and it was not harmony all the time. It’s often in the representation of things that we gloss over some of the difficulties, and so there was an emphasis on making this transparent because it was a big part of the process. But how do you illustrate that? It was more of a running dimension of the process that had effects on the practice.
AS: Could we talk about how the group decided to work thematically? It seemed that a major focus was on picking these larger social issues and then using them as a platform to bring in a lot of voices.
JA: This is the first time I’ve thought about that particular question in awhile. So off the top of my head, I think we didn’t really have methods in the first year, when we had the space on Thirteenth Street and were developing this notion of thematic exhibitions for ourselves as a medium; we didn’t really have our process or our methods thought out yet. We were experimenting with things, and we knew that we wanted to more or less avoid the individual exhibition or privileging of a particular artist’s work. The idea of taking on a thematic made a lot of sense because it allowed us to deal with topical issues and things that we cared about at the moment. That’s what the group was for, in part, to have a platform around things that we cared about.
But then also, the thematic was, as you pointed out, intuitively a means to creating forums. And it made sense to speak to this idea of dialogue. We wanted to use Group Material almost immediately, I think, as a platform to show things and talk about things that we wanted to support. The thematic exhibition was a natural; I don’t remember us sitting
around and saying, “What kind of exhibitions shall we do? Or what kind of projects?” Instead, it was like, “What about alienation? That’s something some of us have been reading about and have been experiencing in our lives and jobs. So why don’t we organize some work around it?" And of course, responding to things that we were seeing. Other people, in circles and communities that we were associated with. Certainly Colab was doing thematic exhibitions, and ABC No Rio, which I think opened around the same time, was doing thematic exhibitions. We wanted to make exhibitions, and social themes and their relationship to aesthetic practices came to mind somewhat immediately.
AS: A quick, pragmatic question: the way that it worked, you all paid dues into the space and the idea was to keep it non-commercial and then to move into a nonprofit structure?
JA: The idea was to fund it ourselves. Just to do the whole thing ourselves. Make it happen, and that required, if we wanted to rent a space, chipping in each month. I think that was also a good thing. There was a certain investment that we were making. None of us were making much money, and not everyone could pay the dues every month either. We tried to do it professionally. Get a bank account. Do all these things.
And then, soon, probably Tim suggested, that we should look into getting incorporated because of the possibility to get grants, which seemed to make a lot of sense, and to relieve ourselves of some of the responsibility of everyone working at jobs and then doing Group Material in their spare time. Some people also had their other practices, and there’s only so many hours in the day. At a certain point, we realized that it would be better if we could fund this in other ways, because that’s not the best use of our $200 a week that each of us made, or our time.
DMcK: So how did you make the decision to become Group Material as a much smaller body? What happened that prompted it to be a project of three people instead of a project of ten or twelve?
JA: That was purely from the fact that people left the group. It wasn’t a plan. And I don’t remember exactly the dates or the sequence, but there was a group of three or four people—Beth Jaker, Marybeth, Hannah Audifer, and Peter—who left the group. I can’t say that I know all the reasons. There were a lot of interpersonal conflicts. And that means screaming fights, back-biting, and all these things.
DMcK: As you would imagine in any collective endeavor.
JA: Or any couple or close association. You have to remember also that we were all close friends, and friends of friends, so there were a lot of intimacies there. And like any set of intimate relationships, there’s hot emotions and disagreements, and I think collaborating together is actually a very intimate thing to do. Each person is saying, “These are my ideals and I’m going to work on that with you.”
So people took it seriously, and I wouldn’t underestimate the interpersonal conflicts and the power struggles within the group. It’s not something that you necessarily want to play up, because it’s not the only thing. There were real idealogical differences and different interests. As soon as you have a concrete situation, like we did with the exhibition space and the programming that we were doing, everyone sees what their priorities are. So it’s a real thing. You’ve started this relationship. Do you want to stay in it? After a year or so, you can tell if it is something you want to put more into.
First, one group of four people left. They were interested in theoretical issues and feminist theory more, and not so much invested in art, per se. They saw some of us, including Mundy and Tim and I, as being more interested in visual practice and art itself. And then another faction—which included Patrick Brennan and Michael Udvardy—left the group because they really wanted to focus on their individual practices. They saw that this was a huge investment and decided not to stay with it. So that’s how we ended up as three.
AS: To think about the artistic decision to start working nomadically, and in order to have a more expansive political practice, it seemed that it was important to start working in these public sites. When you start spaces now, there’s this whole condition of artists parachuting into particular neighborhoods and working there for particular periods and then moving out of them, and there’s a lot of conversation about what is one’s commitment to particular communities.
So siting yourself in places for long periods of time seems to also be a political decision. As if you’re saying, “I’m going to work with these people on an ongoing basis. I’m going to get to know them.” But it seems that it felt important [for Group Material] to work nomadically, as a way to break free of some confines that were being put around your practice.
JA: Well, I think you’ve already said it. It was somewhat of a happy accident because we couldn’t keep the space as three people. Also Patrick decided to keep the space when he left the group because his name was on the lease, and he wanted it for a studio.
Mundy and Tim could have said at that point, “Well, what we’re really interested in is being in a geographic community, focusing on that community, and developing our collective practice within a certain nest.” But we didn’t. We looked at it immediately as a revelation. We were free.
Because we were working hard to keep this thing going. We were cleaning toilets one day and installing the next, doing all this stuff, and then waiting for people to come by. I think there was something fundamentally unsatisfying or discomfiting—disturbing maybe—about this. Of course it was great to think of it as a laboratory, but that was only for a time. That wasn’t our ultimate commitment to having a space.
So we were really excited by the idea—and we probably didn’t call it nomadic at the time—but the idea of something more amorphous that we could locate where we wanted to, and we could see the whole city as our site, if you want to call it that. Again, things happened accidentally, but we used those and we learned from those events. It was accidental that we moved into parasiting temporarily onto existing alternative spaces. University galleries, museums, whatever it was, but using institutional infrastructure that we didn’t have to create or maintain.
In a way, it was different steps: moving into the public arena of subways or buses and doing exhibitions in those kinds of places, as well as doing projects located in existing art spaces. Both of those things happened; maybe it’s not accidental, but they happened, and then we saw the value in them, and these became part of our strategies that we used over time. I think that was really important, but it wasn’t a plan. If the group had not lost the space, I don’t know what would have happened. And that’s the beauty of chronology, I think. These happenstance things, and how they lead to choices or make choices for you. Then what do you do with it?
AS: It’s interesting to think about that particular moment as circumstantial, but it was also conceptual, in a sense. I’d like to hear about what it meant to start receiving institutional invitations, and if it felt like that those situations provided you with a certain kind of agency. Did you resist that at first and then feel like, “Oh hey, this is a really great opportunity to spread what it is that we’re interested in doing”?
JA: I have to say I can’t really see it linearly or clearly like that, because a lot of things just happened gradually. I don’t remember—maybe we did, but I don’t recall Tim and Mundy and I, or when Doug joined the group, that we sat around and discussed what it meant that we were doing this project at Artists’ Space. Part of the beauty, I suppose, of being maybe naïve or inexperienced is you don’t belabor everything and shoot yourself in the foot.
For me, and the way that I would characterize the group, not everything was so conscious.The terminology I’m using, of course, is eons after the fact, so even to talk about parasiting onto institutional infrastructures is a historical representation, while at the time, it was just that we were doing a show at Artists’ Space. “This is great. We like going to Artists’ Space. We’ve seen good things there. It’s a platform.” And if anything, in the first few years of making projects that then took place in existing art spaces, it was about having a platform to exercise our voice.
DMcK: What starts the end of Group Material?
JA: I understand why you’re asking me that, but again, I have to say it’s really hard for me to think in those terms, because it seems that the end was always built into things, or potentially built in, and so I can’t say the end started at a certain point. It seemed to me the end was there in the beginning.
I’m not too interested in trying to dramatize a beginning, middle, and end, or the different periods of Group Material, but there were these different incarnations or iterations of Group Material, and Group Material wasn’t just one thing; it was a sequence of configurations and social bodies, if you want to put it that way. And so there were periods, or let’s say there were compositions, of the group that were more satisfying to everyone than other compositions. Probably the biggest external factor that fed into the latent ending was the cultural shift that was happening, from the 1980s to the ’90s or around there, where a lot of the things on which Group Material had been really intent—like our agendas and the principles that we were interested in activating in a public discourse—were also being taken up in institutional culture.
Tim and I were talking the other day about the interest in Group Material that is [resurging], and I said, “If culture and society had changed dramatically between then and now, then the book on Group Material would just be a bit of historical interest. But instead, it speaks to the present, because there’s been a lot of changes, but there hasn’t been any sea change. There hasn’t been any massive shift in the art industry or in the larger social system, etc., so I think it’s still relevant.” As far as Group Material ending, there’s so many cofactors that even I, as a participant who was there from beginning to end, couldn’t tell you what happened. I don’t know why! I just know that it had its end and it was right to do that. It would have been wrong to extend.
Julie Ault is a New York based artist and writer who independently and collaboratively organizes exhibitions, publications, and multiform projects. She often assumes curatorial and editorial roles as forms of artistic practice. Her work emphasizes interrelationships between cultural production and politics and frequently engages historical inquiry. Recent projects include No-Stop City High-Rise: A Conceptual Equation, in collaboration with Martin Beck for the 29th Bienal de São Paulo, and a collaboration with Danh Vo on the publication Where the Lions Are, (Basel Kunsthalle, 2009). Ault is the editor of Show and Tell: A Chronicle of Group Material (Four Corners Books, 2010), Alternative Art New York, 1965-1985 (University of Minnesota Press, 2002), Felix Gonzalez-Torres (steidl/dangin, 2006), and is the author of Come Alive! The Spirited Art of Sister Corita (Four Corners Books, 2006).