Julie Ault, co-founder of the artists’ collaborative Group Material, explained her approach to the challenge of documenting artists’ creative processes at the School of Art on Monday night.
A New York-based artist, writer and editor, Ault discussed how she constructed a book to tell the story of Group Material, the now-defunct art team she founded in 1979. The book, “Show and Tell: A Chronicle of Group Material,” includes letters written by the group’s members, photographs of their exhibitions and written commentary to document the group’s 17 year run.
“[With Group Material], I felt that we were doing something very necessary,” Ault said, adding that members explored social issues ranging from education to AIDS through their art.
Ault discussed her initial reservations in compiling Group Material’s archival documents and putting them into book form. For several years, she said, she refused to produce a “packaged history” of the group because she feared it would lead to oversimplifying the group.
Outside interest in Group Material’s work, however, eventually compelled Ault to reconsider and construct a visual narrative of the group’s history.
“We had a responsibility to make Group Material accessible in some way,” she said.
Ault said she used New York University’s archive of Group Material’s original documents to create a book that would accurately portray the political and experimental practices of the team because she wanted the historical compilation to come from the group itself. She added that the result — with its primary sources and supplementary text — feels like another Group Material exhibition. Using vivid photography and the bold colors characteristic of the artists’ work, the book chronicles the history of the group in a format that rejects typical artistic conventions — just like the artwork of the group itself, Ault said.
Because she did not want readers to perceive Group Material as constrained to a specific time and place, Ault said the yellow bars of explanatory text on each page are written in a “depersonalized present tense mode.” She added that the book rejects traditional forms of historical narration because the spirit of Group Material is as relevant today as it was when it was in operation. Although the group was active during the 80s, she said she hopes that Group Material’s message will transcend its time and be remembered as a movement seeking to protect subcultural practices that are often “marginalized, obscured and sometimes even erased.”
Audience member Nick Brown said that Ault’s timeless way of telling the group’s story made the archives readily accessible.
“I like that it had a really specific point of view and a way of representing the archives in a way that made it familiar to a stranger,” he said.
Three art students interviewed said they drew inspiration from Ault’s advocacy of artistic collaboration.
“Typically, we just see documentation of artwork,” Stephen Decker ART ’12 said. “It was nice to see the collaborative aspect of the work in the book.”
Ilana Harris-Babou ’13, who said she attends most artist talks, added that she found Ault’s speech particularly interesting because she spoke not only about the process of making art but also about the works’ historical context.
Next week’s talk in the School of Art’s Monday night lecture series will feature Iranian visual artist Shirin Neshat.