Interview with Julie Ault, founding member of Group Material.

Posted September 17, 2012 by admin
Marvin Taylor, Director, Fales Library & Special Collections, New York University
Interview Date: 
Thursday, February 3, 2011
Person Interviewed: 
Julie Ault
Place of Interview: 
Fales Library & Special Collections, New York University


The following oral history transcript is the result of a recorded interview with Julie Ault conducted by Marvin Taylor.  The interview took place at the Fales Library & Special Collections, New York University on February 3rd, 2011. 

Julie Ault and Marvin Taylor have reviewed the interview transcript and have made corrections and emendations. The reader should bear in mind that he or she is reading a transcript of spoken, rather than written, prose.  This interview was funded by the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA).


Creative Commons License     This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.




MARVIN TAYLOR:  Here we go. This is Marvin Taylor, Director of the Fales Library and I’m here with Julie Ault, one of the founding members of Group Material. We’re going to talk about the Group Material archive, which she and other members generously donated to the Fales Library. And so, welcome. How are you? [they laugh] It seems so kind of stilted and funny, but—


JULIE AULT:  Thank you.


TAYLOR: To give folks a bit of background the first question I have is— How did Group Material begin?


AULT:  Group Material really began as a group of friends, and friends and friends of friends, several of whom were going to art school. Group Material was founded in 1979. The friends had been a circle for a few years. Tim Rollins, Marybeth Nelson, Hannah Alderfer, Peter Szypula, Beth Jaker— I’m trying to think of all the original members— Marek Pakulski,  and myself. Patrick Brennan more recently. I’m probably forgetting one or two. But I would say that the group revolved around Tim, and Marybeth to some extent, and Patrick. Tim was a serious galvanizing force, as he is generally. You know Tim Rollins.


TAYLOR:  Yeah, sure.


AULT:  He’s a galvanizing force in a lot of ways, and has been for many other people and situations too. He and Marybeth and Peter and Hannah had recently graduated from SVA, where they studied with Joseph Kosuth. In addition to his conceptual object making practice Joseph was involved in collective endeavors, such as Artists Meeting for Cultural Change (AMCC), the Studio International project, and The Fox, which I’m sure you have in your library. He talked about these social practices and collective work in his class. I wasn’t a student at the time. I was a friend of Tim and everyone I mentioned as well as Yolanda Hawkins, who was also in the original group. Tim and Yolanda and I lived together.


There were a lot of things in the air at the time. There was DIY culture coming to the fore. Tim and I and some others in the group, particularly Mundy McLaughlin, who joined a little later, were really into music and punk and going out, and then also into club music and dancing and things. There was this whole atmosphere of, you can participate in culture without being experts and not just as consumers, but that you can be part of it. Then there was the alternative art and alternative space matrix— I call it a movement— the “alternative arts movement,” although I don’t know that it technically was one. So there were a lot of practices, spaces, activities, and comradely kinds of thinking and actions. There was a communitarian attitude that we were part of. PAD/D (Political Art Documentation and Distribution) was started at that time. Fashion Moda had opened; the Real Estate Show and ABC No Rio were the same period. I don’t have the timeline in front of me, but these were all influences. But I think to be totally honest; Group Material wouldn’t have started without Tim saying, “Let’s form a group.” And that to some degree was as an extension of this group that studied with Joseph [Kosuth]. Their class with him was F383, and they made a subgroup within the class under that name, but it was still school. We wanted to forge collaboration and create our own context simultaneously.


We thought of ourselves as young artists, but were to different degrees disenchanted with what was, conventionally speaking, ahead: Okay, now you go in your studio, you figure out your signature work and you get a gallery and you do it for the rest of your life. And most of us didn’t have a voice that way. Some were making objects, some not; but we were interested in working together and extending the sociability—the focused and purposeful sociability of the educational milieu, into something of our own creation. That’s my long-winded answer. I had to find my away around to cover certain things.


TAYLOR:  Thanks, that really gives us a grounding. Because we’ve been asked to talk about the archive, we should focus on that, but I thought it was important to have a sense of the beginnings of Group Material.  Was there an archival impulse to Group Material?


AULT:  You know, there was and there wasn’t. There wasn’t a conscious archival impulse, except for the fact that early on—I guess it was after we formalized the group and got an exhibition headquarters space on East 13th Street—we were thinking about getting incorporated. So we went to Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts to ask them about how can we get incorporated as a nonprofit in New York. And part of the incorporation process demanded we begin to archive, and also that we designate officers and a hierarchy. Basically that we falsify on paper a structure that we didn’t have. They didn’t tell us to do that, but that’s what the requirements meant for our situation. And the essentials were to identify who’s responsible for this, who’s responsible for that, define the group’s mission, make bylaws and create weekly minutes of our meetings. Which was a blessing, because now we do have some record of that first year of the group’s process. And that is primarily in the form of the minutes and internal communiqués that we wouldn’t normally have had because we wouldn’t have committed to using written forms for ourselves. And those minutes for instance are a very, very interesting way to look back on that first year, which was also the period where Group Material had a lot of members, ranging between ten and thirteen. But towards the end of that explosive first year and a half, we were three members left standing, so Group Material changed dramatically.


I’m thrilled that we have that paper trail. But I don’t think there was really so much of an archival impulse, because we were blessedly naïve about what we were doing. And so we weren’t over-thinking everything. I notice with a lot of people— You know, maybe the last fifteen years or more probably that archiving in the art field and for artists, has become standard. Talking to younger artists and students, in Europe for instance, there’s a strong awareness of being in history. And that can be quite double edged, I think, because on the one hand, yes, we’re all in history and that is something to take into account and not ignore. But on the other hand, it can really hamper how you think, and work, and make you second guess yourself and shoot yourself in the foot, et cetera. I think the early Group Material was really very lucky to not have that kind of “being in history” and “making history” awareness for a long time.


We saved things haphazardly, and no one in the group was actually responsible for preserving things. We did have the common sense in the early group, to keep at least one copy each press release, for instance. Things like that. But because we were a bunch of young, I don’t know—hard-working, but without money New Yorkers [Taylor laughs] and moving around a lot— I mean, sometimes you have to move on the subway, so you decide, I’m going leave a few boxes in my old place and things like that. So there was a lot that we probably had saved individually and instinctively that got lost. But as a group, we never discussed, okay who’s responsible? Or said let’s create an archive. And even my awareness of archiving came very, very late, you know, because I threw out tons of Group Material stuff from, for instance, the Democracy project at Dia not so many years ago. We did a book with that project, and after the book had been out a while I thought, okay, great. Don’t need these boxes anymore. We should’ve been archivally conscious maybe, but it was also, I think, quite marvelous that we weren’t in a way.


TAYLOR: The reason I ask that question is because there is, in archival terms, a documentary impulse, or at least an inclination toward the documentary strategy, in the works that you created. I’m curious because I think of AIDS Timeline and I think of it as documenting a specific moment in culture in an interesting way. It seems that you were dealing with documents all the time as art practice.


AULT: That’s true. And we had a respect for that. Not so much the documentary approach per se, but thinking through how to situate and enliven documents in an exhibition context. Like with AIDS Timeline and other exhibitions. But you know, at the same time our practice was always very, very committed to the temporal and the ephemeral. So even though, for instance, with AIDS Timeline, we did save a lot of the so-called ephemeral materials—posters, bumper stickers, magazines, photographs, different non-art items that were in AIDS Timeline—we saved them not with the idea that, this would be great for an archive someday; but that when we do AIDS Timeline again, we will need these materials. But Group Material was very committed to this moment — I think that was somewhat radical about the group; that we were working in the moment, for the moment. And so even though we were drawing on artifacts and documents, there wasn’t the sense that this is a document, or will become a document as a whole, or a time capsule. Materials usually went back to where they came from.


TAYLOR:  It’s almost like these temporary autonomous-zone moments that Hakim Bey talks about, assembled for this moment. That’s totally fascinating.


AULT:  Yeah, and from the moment. So it didn’t make sense, necessarily, to keep it for other moments, you know?


TAYLOR: Here’s another question from my list. Is there a critique or an implicit critique of this traditional art world that’s a part of the work? You know, talking about legacy or history or— the object, this focus on the finished object, or the hand of the master.


AULT:  Right. There’s an implicit critique. Probably in the early days of Group Material, it was explicit. But it’s not the language that I would use anymore to say, you know, the art world or the world for that matter is this, and this, and this.


TAYLOR:  Right.


AULT:  It was in some ways more black and white for us then, and it’s greyer now, obviously. [they laugh] Since we’re older now.


TAYLOR:  That was sort of the heavy heydays of institutional critique, too.


AULT:  Yeah. But there’s definitely— There’s an implicit critique, but I guess we always tried to frame things not as primarily critique or negative, but by doing what we want to do. And doing what we think is—I don’t want to say it’s an example, but, this is a model of a certain kind of exhibition, a certain kind of approach. And we weren’t saying it’s the best way, but that this is how we want to do it.


TAYLOR:  It’s more of an exploration, a critique, in the sense of not negative, but positive intervention.


AULT:  Yes, I think that makes sense. And you’re right, Group Material’s projects always were somewhat, site-dependent or institution-dependent. And the site was an institution and whatever overarching institutions it might embody. So, yeah, I could give you examples, but we won’t go into detail on projects right now. But yes, — by doing things in particular ways we were saying this other convention doesn’t work for us. Not that there isn’t room for everyone to do what they want, but this is how we see it.


TAYLOR: That’s what’s wonderful. I want to turn a bit to the archival project, and what you were doing here. What assumptions did you have when you entered into the archival project? Did you have assumptions about it? Were there things you thought you were going to find? And then was that how it ended up?


AULT: Okay, I’m not a library user. And in the past, I haven’t been much of an archive user. But when I worked on the Alternative Art New York book, which came out of the exhibition project Cultural Economies, at the Drawing Center which took place soon after Group Material disbanded in 1996, I was for the first time looking at how to uncover information that isn’t just there, or available. I was researching places, groups, events, and structures that didn’t necessarily have clear documentation of their activities, their histories. So that brought me up to thinking about archiving, and the need in the field for peripheral, ephemeral, and marginalized practices to take archiving head on, and in creative ways.


So I had really the worst kind of idea, not about the Downtown Collection, but about the Archive, with a capital A. You know, do I have to put on a suit? Should I whisper when I go in? I mean, all the clichés. Because it just reflects how intimidated I am by the academy. [laughs]


TAYLOR:  Well, there you go.


AULT:  And how I grew up. Maybe one of the reasons I’m not versed in using libraries was because they represented something that seemed very austere, strict, et cetera. And I’m fairly unruly. But that said, I think my assumptions were ridiculous, and they kept me from really mining some of the institutional resources that I could have. So there were these general assumptions, and others like, okay if you give your stuff to an archive, you have no say. It’s almost like you’re dead. And they just do whatever they want with it. And I didn’t think that it was appropriate for Group Material to be subjected to a set of institutional conventions that we didn’t react on or have something to say about.


But, by the time you and I were talking, I already had a different notion of an archive, which is the Downtown Collection. I don’t mean this to be flattering, but it was really a case of, okay this is the place for Group Material. And partly because of the context that I described earlier, that it would be in these, you know, overlapping communities or traces of communities and it would make sense. But also—this is going to sound so corny—it’s the first archive I really felt comfortable coming to, using, and being in. I think in part because it’s not a fine art space. For instance, by way of contrast, when I was researching different things over the years, I visited the MoMA library. And I always felt very uptight there. And you know, it’s not that they do it wrong or something; it’s more about the dynamic between me and that situation. But you always have to say what you’re working on to get an appointment. And if I would say, “Oh, I have no institutional affiliation. I’m an artist. My name is Julie,” I got the raised eyebrows. And I never felt relaxed working there to let my mind wander freely. During the research process, it’s vital to be open-minded and open to the connections that you can make and the leads. So I knew that for Group Material, it would not make sense to have our things in an atmosphere that felt limiting and stilted; but also that was focused around fine art, right? Only around fine art. Because Group Material’s work was cultural practice. It was a social practice, as well as an aesthetic practice or an artistic practice. And here, it’s not like going into the archive; it’s coming into this manifestation of archiving practice that was and is meaningful. And I think because I had met you and we had talked a lot and I had used the archive, the assumption was, that there was a collaborative process ahead that was to some degree up for grabs. Which made for a very different prospect than calling, the Getty or the New York Public Library, for instance, where there are a lot of bureaucratic conditions and established formats to tangle with.


TAYLOR:  Well, this is something that when I started building the Downtown Collection, I knew we had to do. Because all of the downtown works that I’m the most interested in are those that were engaged in a similar kind of questioning of structures of culture. And in fact, I think that’s one of the things that hold most of the work together, because there aren’t stylistic trends or things that hold the works together; but that sense of looking at cultural systems is. And so I specifically tried to make sure that those kinds of engagements take place. Or else, as you say, we’d just be running all of these collections through the mill of the library, and they would lose all of their power. And that’s not what we should be doing here.


AULT:  Yeah. The sensibility of this place is in keeping— I mean, it’s almost like, is it a chicken or egg thing? But you know, you’ve created, or you’ve generated a sensibility in the Downtown Collection and in the Fales here that matches the contents. And that is something that was fundamental to Group Material’s work, is this idea that the forms and the atmosphere that come out of what we do reflects collaboration— if we’re collaborative, that is registered in new forms.


TAYLOR:  We’re often described as having come up with a new way of archiving.


AULT:  Absolutely.


TAYLOR:  Which is great. I’m very excited about that, because I couldn’t just do the other work. Or I would work somewhere else.


AULT: When I talk about the collection or impart to people how this all happened and talk about you, I always talk about you as an activist archivist, which doesn’t mean archiving activism. But that you really put the activist approach in the front, right? So it’s about the methods that you’ve used for creating the larger archive in the Downtown Collection. I also want to add that activist archiving, in my experience, goes back to people like Lucy Lippard, Barbara Moore, Greg Sholette and many others working within PADD—Political Art Documentation / Distribution, which had an archiving intention at its center—to collect information and material from around the world and draw from the archive in the making to do projects, exhibitions, et cetera. But also Clive Philpot, when he was at MoMA in the library, he really— I mean, he was bringing in people and material and discourse that previously had not been part of that framework. Still, I think transcending the institutional apparatus itself,— I mean, that’s a whole other thing. In a place like MoMA,— I’m not saying you can’t change it, but it’s heavy-handed and uphill.


TAYLOR:  It’s ossified to a certain degree…because it’s Modernism, also.


AULT:  Yeah.


TAYLOR:  And it has, I think, maybe perhaps to do with the fact that they see themselves as collecting Modern art. Though they have made changes recently— I mean, they are collecting works that don’t fall into the rigidity of structures that I associate with Modernism.


AULT:  But the fear that I had was that Group Material would become fossilized somewhere. So for one thing, that’s why we had to deal with the archive, because we don’t want to just say, okay whatever happens, happens. We want to be part of the representation and the historical representation. But in an archive there is this danger of becoming fossilized. And I think that’s why the Downtown Collection was appealing, because it’s a vivid, vibrant place. The university context is important. And it didn’t seem to me, on the first discussions that we had, or visiting the archive, that there was that danger of, in the end, being something someone blows the dust off and says, “What the hell is Group Material?” You know, it feels animated. And the contents of the Downtown Collection are animated through the structure that you’ve set up, and the collecting practice you’ve instituted.


TAYLOR:  Well, that’s why when you brought up the possibility of engaging with the collection as you were processing it, basically, as a project, I was like, well that’s perfect.  It’s sort of the ideal situation that I had dreamed of, about these collections. And so it was wonderful. I have to ask this question because I’m curious about it. Does the archive tell the truth about Group Material? [Ault chuckles] And I know that’s a totally loaded question.


AULT:  Yes. The archive tells a lot of truths about Group Material. I suppose that’s one of the fears that have to be confronted: what kind of story do you put out? And how? You know, I guess the fear is really about the violence of history writing. And making an archive is a form of history writing. It’s not just because a book extends from the archive. That’s not only the history writing, but also the formation of the archive itself. You know, throwing this out, keeping this. I mean, I really kept everything. There was nothing that I threw out while cohering the archive from what I had saved. I don’t know whether Doug Ashford cherry picked or not. I somehow doubt it. But the material that Doug gave to the archive had a lot more intermingling of personal notes and things, so he probably did have to make some separations.


I think the archive tells some truths about Group Material, for sure. Many truths. But of course, you have to take it all with a grain of salt, because almost anything in the in archive could be contested. Working on the book involved finding contradictions and trying to—not exactly reconcile things, but say, Okay, this says this; this says that. I don’t remember either one, or, maybe, I remember what happened differently. The archive produces questions and is interesting, I think, for what is omitted and for its absences. And at the same time, you know, another little piece of paper might clarify something or unlock a mystery. I mean, there are so many intangibles of the practice that are not archived, intangibles of the process of the group, right? And those things are not there. So the truths are limited, frankly. Just as an example, one could read the first year of meeting minutes, which for the most part did not represent the down and dirty stuff. They said, So-and-so has to do this. We’ve got to follow up on this. They were the record for the idea of becoming incorporated. So they weren’t really highly subjective or nuanced. (Although the minutes Mundy McLaughlin wrote towards the end of the group’s minute-taking period were a different order altogether—humorous and with plenty to read between the lines about the group’s interpersonal relations.) But one could read the first years of meeting minutes and get a very strange impression of who Group Material was, what we were thinking. You know, [laughs] what we weren’t thinking about, what we weren’t discussing. And there are also major events that just are not registered. For instance, in one meeting four people left the group. For some reason, we didn’t enter that in next week’s minutes. [Taylor laughs] All we said was “present”: so-and-so, “absent”: so-and-so. And those four names are no longer there the next week. But that’s a complex cross-referencing for someone, say fifty years from now coming in cold—they would have a hard time to figure out what happened here, right? So the fact of the intrinsic absences in the archive,—it’s not that anything was thrown out, but those natural omissions, proved to me that a book was necessary. A book that would not be heavy-handed, or interpretive, but almost like a companion to the archive, a kind of documentary primer on what is Group Material? What was the process? What did Group Material carry out? But without a retrospective, first person narration or something. I don’t remember your question anymore. I think I over answered. [laughs]


TAYLOR:  No, you answered it perfectly, because I’m interested in the territory of, well, what doesn’t make it into the archive? And the very notions of the archive, whether you’re looking at it as a Derridean archive or a Foucauldian archive. You went to where I thought you were going to go, and that is that yeah, absolutely things don’t get recorded. All we end up having are fossils, fossil evidence. Because it’s the lived experiences, a lot of it is just not documentable. Or if it is— Well, it’s really not documentable, I don’t think. And that’s why we have the narratives of history. But they’re just narratives.


AULT:  Right. Well, the Foucauldian model— I mean, that makes so much sense in regard to what we’ve done with the Group Material archive, because if you remember, I think we discussed a few years ago, if I give you the stuff, if I donate to the archive the stuff that I have about Group Material, what is that then? And that would have been the Julie Ault papers, right? And my idea in starting the archive project was, how could we make the most comprehensive possible archive, so that there’s public access to as much information as possible? It’s not going to be complete, but it should be multifaceted. So that meant contacting all the other members of Group Material. And a lot have not come forward with material. And some people are just not invested in the history, and some people have died. But the idea was to regroup the group in its material traces. And that’s something that you and I discussed a lot, in terms of the structure. Because what we have now is a deviation, almost, from how, if I had died and you got my papers they would be treated. So I think the idea was feeding into the Foucauldian notion of what’s important is what’s between documents. So there are my papers, there are Doug’s papers, there are things I saved, there are things Doug saved, there are things Mundy saved, there are things Tim kept, and Marybeth and Hannah saved. It’s not complete, but you start to get a 360-degree view, as much as possible— Or at least that’s what I was trying to do with this particular archive.


TAYLOR:  Let the multiple voices speak. Those were my primary thoughts about the project. Are there final notes about the project, about how it worked? Maybe about the actual day-to-day work?


AULT: Yes, I have a few thoughts. One is I think the practical issues are very important. For instance the day-to-day reality of working on the archive is that I didn’t have space to do that. I didn’t really want to sit with other people in my apartment, which is already small, and have Group Material again define everything. [laughs] So having a place was important. You provided a room to set up, collect things, organize them, and really have material out for— I think it was a period of four months or so that all these boxes were spread over the Lewis Carroll room. Then we moved to the Robert Frost room. [they laugh] As you know, Sabrina Locks was also working a lot on the archive and researching AIDS Timeline in the archive, so she and I were coming a lot. And I was here every day, for several months. Elizabeth Zechella worked on the back matter for the book with me here for which it was essential to have all the material at hand. And I think the continuity of that was important, as well as the chance to be in the archive. Even though I was working by myself a lot in there, I was inside the environment, which was very important. That kind of practical support or that I could come back here to the offices and photocopy something was terrific, because Group Material was always parasiting onto other institutions to do its work. And so it made perfect sense to me. Not that I was trying to parasite on, but…


TAYLOR:  That’s fine.


AULT:  …that’s one dimension of how we saw the relationships with institutions—use their resources and space rather than maintain our own. So the method here was very different than saying, Okay when you finish processing it, we’ll send a truck over. It was a case of, we don’t have to discuss everything together, but we’re in it together, and in this way it’s a partnership between Group Material and the Downtown Collection, or the Fales. And I think in ways that I can’t describe that influenced what ensued and the decisions made on the archive and the book. That I had access to you and could say, “I know nothing about archiving. What is this system?” was also crucial. I just don’t have the patience to read the finding aids, instruction documents, and technical material. So you would come into the Lewis Carroll room and, as I recall, give Sabrina and I a little lesson and write some things on the board— [they laugh] But I mean, this was fantastic— You know, that kind of engagement— It is the different notions of access and layers of collaboration that were important.


We saw the process as a kind of archiving laboratory. And out of that came the book Show and Tell: A Chronicle of Group Material. And that also is important to mention, because the book developed in the mode that it did, as a chronicle of Group Material’s process and practice over its whole life, because of the archive. Maybe we were always going to do a book, or we were always, abstractly, going to do a book of some sort. But the necessity for a particular book became clear while cohering the archive; the book structure and methods emerged from working in the archive.


I had been representing Group Material in lectures and workshops and this and that, some writing; and so had Doug, after the group disbanded. I’d been doing this for a long time and my representation of the group had become somewhat habitual, although with different anecdotes and stuff to make it lively. But it had become routine for me. And so I was going into the archive of Group Material and formulating it as a chance to retrieve something for myself— with a personal investment. There was also a collective investment. But it was a chance to revisit and attempt to re-know, to the extent that I could, what Group Material was, and to rethink it all and reconnect with something closer to the reality of the experience, and not just lived experience as habitually recalled.


So what I found in the archive, as I was going through these boxes of things that were in closets and under my bed that I hadn’t looked at for a long time—was that Group Material really came alive through the documents. So when I was reading some of these documents, especially from the early days, which, as I’ve said, there is more of a record of the process than when we became a smaller group of three or four people and we talked by phone and in meetings and didn’t take notes anymore. So that is lost, you know, or not concrete. But when I was reading some of the internal communiqués, the correspondence in the first year between Tim and the rest of the group, proposals to each other, et cetera— I mean, the emotion is palpable. That set me right back in the space where we were having those discussions. Janet Malcolm talks about letters as— the fixative of emotion—I’m not saying it precisely. There were other vivid traces too. Like a lot of the press releases and, the minutes, to some extent. But these documents, which are visual as well, seemed to carry something essential—I saw them as “original language.” They carry the original spirit of the group. They express what was at stake for us, and what that felt like. And they express so much that I think I had also lost sight of.


So I thought, okay, these documents should tell the stories of Group Material’s history. Hence the method and structure of a primary section of the book, and the title Show and Tell. The concept was to focus on the documents, the image trail of formal and casual photographs, the different kinds of artifacts that were forming the archive, and put a selection of them into a designed system, where their equivalency and primaryness is key—I hate to use, at this point, the word democratization of anything, [Taylor laughs], but to make this system where the documents together tell the story, the histories. And I do believe in the “truth” of documents more than other things, of course, because yeah, they’re there. They speak of the moment that they were made in. So I thought, the book can then be something readers have to figure out on their own. No one is saying, this is why Group Material is important. It says, this happened, but the reader has to put it all together, which was a Group Material strategy. Show and Tell operates akin to a Group Material project, in a sense, even if not everyone in the group was working on the book—the material of the chronology was produced by all the various incarnations of the group. So there’s a lot left to the reader as though they’re negotiating the archive. I wanted readers to be in the archive, discerning their affinities, or not, rather than having someone say, this is what happened and this is what it means. The book is about Group Material; I also see it as an exhibition space that takes the form of a book. And it’s a project about archiving, about the practice of archiving, and the practice of historical representation from the archive. A lot of issues and ideas are implicit. On this abstract level the book is exploring questions like what is the tense of the archive? Where does the archive end? What’s the frame? What is this frame of history and archive? And can you write history— can you challenge history writing while writing history? These kinds of larger questions are taken up through the book. It’s specifically a response and an extension of working in the archive.


TAYLOR:  That’s really fascinating, because you’re circling around the problem of time, and time and narrative, which reminds me of Heidegger’s notion that— You know, the Germans say that the goal of the historian is the goal to understand things. Wie es eigenlich gewesen ist. As it was in the actual moment.


AULT:  Uh-huh. Wow! [laughs]


TAYLOR:  And that was a notion of history that Heidegger disputed, because he basically said we can never know things as they were in their period. All we ever enter into is our own interaction with it, in our time. I think that’s exactly what you’re talking about, that even within your experience of having been there, things are forgotten; but now looking back, you engage even with your own experience, in a totally different way…


AULT:  Yes, right.


TAYLOR:  … from the documents. But it is interesting, because they do seem to carry the emotional power. Which people tend to think of documents as having had stripped out of them when they enter into collections.


AULT: I think you can see it in the subtlety. If you look at the subtleties in language Group Material used, and how its vocabulary and strategies shifted over time. I mean, I was fascinated to see even how bombastic we were in 1980; the claims we were making. That’s emotional, too; it’s not just rhetorical. And to read in the documents what we thought we were doing. And I think that’s really interesting, then, for people coming to get an understanding of what is Group Material, what did they do; to see what we thought we were doing. I’m not saying it’s what we did, but what we thought we were doing. Documents in any case are fascinating, because they can speak to the larger context. What were the vocabularies of the time? What were the big issues that we were addressing and talking about? There are a lot of things that are only implied. But you can take one little artifact, of course, and [Taylor laughs] it’ll just unfold, and unfold, and unfold. There was something that you had said when we first talked about the Group Material archive. I don’t remember exactly, but it was about how the archive lies and tells the truth at the same time, and that was very appealing to me. I think what you just mentioned from Heidegger. If we begin with-Okay we’re not looking for the truth or something. Obviously, there is no single truth; but even if we just start with a different understanding of, or a different relationship to the material, then we’re not going to be disappointed because we don’t find the truth. We’re going to be excited because we find conflicts and contradictions and roadblocks, you know? [they laugh] And detours. And that’s the beauty of an archive, I think. But, being a stickler for giving information, I also do think it’s important to think about what kind of narration can be brought in another form, or is useful to people. What kind of narration might be useful along side this, you know, after we’re gone, right? And how to do it that it’s not like a hammer that you hit over somebody’s head.


TAYLOR:  Yes. [they laugh] Right, because that’s all too easy


AULT:  Yeah.


TAYLOR:  And then the narrative of history is one of simplification and of reduction.


AULT:  Right. Right.


TAYLOR:   The shift that’s taken place, and that organizations like Group Material were involved in, was moving our thoughts about that so that people are much more willing, historians and scholars, to live with ambiguity. Because it’s actually more real than these master narratives.


AULT:  Right. Another final thought: After finishing the archive— although it’s not entirely finished now; I am still am trying to get more things to come into it, but it’s an ongoing process. But after nearly finishing the archive and completing the book, when I got the first copy of the book, I was pretty happy with it, because I think it looks and feels like Group Material, and it’s a kind of a Group Material Project. So I’m entirely pleased with it. But there was a part of me that regretted making an archive, regretted making a book, because these are conservation [based] or conservative activities. To some degree I had always wanted to respect that Group Material was a temporal thing, and to leave it that way. Keep it ephemeral and leave it as something that people do fragmentary research on or can get sketchy information on, and then basically spin it however they want. But I think that would have been upholding an illusion of radicalism. Anyway, the difference is that Group Material used to be nomadic, then it was un-locatable, and now you can point to the book. You can point to the archive. You can point to a place on a shelf. And this is something I’m still kind of grappling with. Although I don’t think that either the archive or the book compromised or fossilized Group Material. On the other hand, just that idea of location is something that has shifted. And I’m hoping that because the archive is now there, this is just the beginning of Group Material’s historical representation.


TAYLOR:  And I think that’s certainly true. And certainly, the book and the archive help explain the practice. In some ways, it is the legacy that’s going to go forward, separate from the scholarship. It is important that the practice is described…


AULT:  Good point.


TAYLOR:  …and the subtlety of the practice is knowable now.


AULT:  I hope so.


TAYLOR:  And that will then affect change with— I mean, I think the desire to archive is always a conservative one. But it also, in a weird way, projects a future, even though it’s looking backwards.


AULT:  Absolutely.


TAYLOR:  Or at least the collections do for me, because the reason I do this is not only so that people can look backwards, but so the students can come in, young artists, and see possibilities. That’s what Group Material was about, it was about possibility.


AULT:  That’s why being in this context is so important, because the things that are archived in the Downtown Collection aren’t the models that are really central in art education or cultural discourse generally. They’re always on the side. So it’s all the more important to enter them into histories and register them in places like this, too. You know, in solid institutions [they laugh] that are not in the basement.


TAYLOR:  Well, there’s the contradiction, of course. But institutions can change, based on infiltration. I love the notion of parasitism because otherwise, you become fossilized as your own institution and organization.


AULT:  Right, yes.


TAYLOR:  The only way to survive is to perhaps be parasitical, if you want to effect change. So I’m totally fascinated with that idea. It’s really, really interesting, so— Well, thank you, this has been great.


AULT:  My pleasure. This is great. And it’s actually great that we have this kind of record of some of the thoughts around—


TAYLOR:  Around this—


AULT:  The making of it, yeah.


TAYLOR:  Yeah, and thank you for the collection.


AULT:  God, thank you. [they laugh; END]