In most dictionaries the word "curate" is solely defined as a noun referring to a cleric. But since 1980, the collaborative, Group Material, has done much to transform the notion of exhibition "curator" into a verb by treating the installation of art for viewing as an artistic medium itself. And in the process they have challenged the Modernist characterization of "art for art's sake" adopted by most presenting institutions.
With exhibitions that combined artifacts such as magazine ads, and other found objects from popular culture with recognized art objects, Group Material created an ambitious mix. "We're less interested in reflecting than in projecting out into the community" said Tim Rollins in 1980 after the opening of their jointly operated storefront at 244 East 13th St. (quoted in Village Voice, Nov. 11, 1980)
From conceptual art of the 1970's, a self-consciousness of exhibitions as conduits inseparable from supporting economic and institutional structures, was a revelation that enabled Group Material to see the totality of the flow of information in an exhibition as communication. If art could not be understood apart from its context, then the addition of "non-art" elements to augment the communicated message would make the cultural connectedness of art explicit. The visual continuity associated with personal artistic styles was as irrelevant to such an approach as the political content was unavoidable:
Our working method might best be described as painfully democratic, because so much of our process depends on the review, selection, and critical juxtaposition of innumerable cultural objects, adhering to a collective process is extremely time-consuming and difficult. However, the shared learning and ideas produce results that are often inaccessible to those who work alone.
Our exhibitions and projects are intended to be forums in which multiple points of view are represented in a variety of styles and methods. we believe, as the feminist writer bell hooks has said, that "we must focus on a policy of inclusion so as not to mirror oppressive structures." As a result, each exhibition is a veritable model of democracy. Mirroring the various forms of representation that structure our understanding of culture, our exhibitions bring together so-called fine art with products from supermarkets, mass-cultural artifacts with historical objects, factual documentation with homemade projects. We are not interested in making definitive evaluations or declarative statements, but in creating situations that offer our chosen subject as a complex and open-ended issue. We encourage greater audience participation through interpretation.
--Group Material from Democracy: A Project by Group Material, Dia Art Foundation, 1990, p.2.
While fomenting interpretation, Group Material has not pretended to be objective in its relationship to information. As Group Material's activity progressed, their focus shifted from a critique of exhibition practice and the "reclaiming of public space" (Doug Ashford in recent conversation) to the content of the message. Early thematic and conceptual shows such as "Alienation" and "Consumption: Metaphor, Pastime, Necessity," were followed by installations more focused on specific issues such as Latin American right-wing militarism, education, and AIDS. The various authoring and presentation strategies they employed were directed toward getting the political "material" across.
In the Democracy project for the DIA foundation, 1988, installations on education, electoral politics, cultural participation, and AIDS were tied closely to round table and town meeting discussions which were later compiled with other writings into a book. After this project, Group Material work on AIDS continued in the development of the AIDS Timeline first installed at Berkeley in 1989.
The timeline included researched historical information about: the development of AIDS from a medical epidemic into a cultural crisis, governmental action and inaction, AIDS activism, as well as medical knowledge and research. For each site-specific installation (four all together, 1989-92) selected material was combined with references to cultural benchmarks of the times such as the mass movement to retain the original formula of Coca-Cola, a list of concurrent music, popular imagery, as well as related art objects to create a cross-sectional sense of the disease within society--the sum of which, Ashford remarked, they hoped would add up to a "cultural indictment" of the U.S. and it's government's handling of the crisis. The argument for this politicized view of the information was made more forceful by the diversity of sources; the mix was an enumeration of telling evidence not a quest for an unbiased report.
The preeminence of communicating information in Group Material's art blurred the division between conceiving a work and its dissemination to an audience. Curatorial practice is concerned with the space of presentation, and Group Material's goal of communication promoted importance of the accessibility of that space. In addition to the museum spaces of the AIDS Timeline installations, the timeline was serialized and printed in sections in the December 1990 issues of various art magazines in observance of the Day Without Art. Also along with the AIDS Timeline installation at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford (1990), Real Art Ways sponsored a Group Material bus poster campaign.
For the bus poster, Group Material addressed the Hartford location by focusing on the insurance industry based there. An image of president Bush with a quote referring to insurance coverage of people with AIDS conveyed positive norms of behavior at odds with the actions of the administration in Washington. While it was left up to people who saw the buses to interpret the sincerity of the quote, a pamphlet about the insurance industry and AIDS written by Mary Anne Staniszewski was also distributed by Real Art Ways to tie in with the poster publicity.
Beyond the basic dilution of authorship in collaboration, the activities of Group Material have moved the idea of art from isolated models of refinement to a self-consciously political and cultural approach to communication. As the interface between subject matter and society, presentation space was adopted as a significant artistic medium, removing the distinction between artists and curators. Moreover, the status of presentation space itself as a standard of access to information was opened beyond the museum and gallery to engage the public through storefronts, talks, town meetings, newspaper ads, magazines, bus posters, etc.
D. Georges 1996