Group Material: Tracing Alienation
Lars Bang Larsen

Group Material: Tracing Alienation is a kind of montage that samples documentation and artworks related to four exhibitions organised by the New York artists’ collaborative Group Material, which existed between 1979 and 1996. A collective signature with a changing cast of members, Group Material’s projects dealt with political and cultural participation and the AIDS pandemic, among other issues. The critique of estrangement is central to the way they became a significant artistic, curatorial and activist voice in the ‘culture wars’ of 1980s America.


The presentation takes its cue from Group Material’s 1980 exhibition entitled ‘Alienation’. This was the third exhibition to take place at their space at 244 East 13th Street. Following a Marxist line of thought, it was introduced by the group as ‘An exhibition that describes and explains the modern break-up of reality – our separations from society, production and nature.’ The exhibition included an evening of ‘10 short (non-boring) performance pieces on the experience of alienation’, which included a recital of ‘The Star- Spangled Banner’ and the Lord’s Prayer by group member Mundy McLaughlin. The flyer for the exhibition mimicked advertising for the 1979 film Alien, and on the opening night only black coffee was served while guests were asked to wear convention badges: ’Hi, my name is...’. Other participating artists were Joseph Kosuth and Ann Marie Rousseau, whose works for ‘Alienation’ are also presented.

Another exhibition included here is Group Material’s contribution to documenta 8 in 1987, ‘The Castle’. The project quoted the title of Franz Kafka’s novel about ‘a general, sweeping power we can no longer exactly locate’. In this way the work addressed ‘how the consumer marketplace masquerades as an arena of alternatives and creates an illusory freedom of choice: buying power is substituted for political power’. ‘The Castle’ was accompanied by a soundtrack of easy-listening versions of revolutionary songs including socialist anthems.


Invited by the Hamburg Kunstverein in 1989 to produce a work in the urban context, Group Material presented ‘Shopping Bag’; a plastic carrier bag that, against the background of an image of army helicopters, listed on one side the names of the world capitals for shopping, and on the other the names of the world capitals for arms trading. The carrier bag replaced the usual ones in a variety of shops and a large department store in Hamburg for the duration of the exhibition.

For Group Material’s last interior exhibition, ‘Market’, which took place at the Munich Kunstverein in 1995, they departed from their usual ‘anthological’ strategy of juxtaposing artworks and cultural objects such as documentation, films, found objects, shop-bought consumer products, etc. Instead, ‘Market’ was composed exclusively of mass-produced materials and informational artefacts. These included examples of how advertising appropriates political discourse and isolates it from its original contexts in, for example, feminism or civil rights activism. Emblematic examples of an ideologically toned promotional culture were a wallet with the word Freedom printed on it, and an advertising campaign for the DKNY fashion brand featuring the first female American president.


The theme of alienation can also be addressed in and through Group Material’s work in relation to the processes of self-representation and bureaucratic mimicry that self-organised artistic work entails; in this case, the group’s discussions of what strategies to employ in order to be taken seriously by the cultural establishment and government funding bodies, for example by carefully developing a ‘corporate’ profile. In the same way the group abandoned its space in 1981 and continued its projects in institutions or public spaces, concluding that even a non-profit space is too compromised by the commercial gallery format to represent a real alternative.


Tracing Alienation is the first presentation based on research in Group Material’s archive, which since 2009 has been made available at the Downtown Collection of the Fales Library at New York University. Resisting the idea of reconstructions of the group’s exhibitions Julie Ault writes,
Group Material’s exhibitions spoke from and to particular contexts during specific times.
Aesthetic practice and social practice merged in the projects, which usually involved layers of collaboration in and beyond the group. The social processes involved in creating a project, which were part of the work, would be absent from any reconstruction. Contexts cannot be replicated. It is impossible to reproduce the climate of circumstance and perception and understanding for events.


Thus Tracing Alienation is a reinterpretation or a versioning of Group Material that engages with the archive as a living entity.

Founding members of Group Material were: Hannah Alderfer, Julie Ault, Patrick Brennan, Yolanda Hawkins, Beth Jaker, Marybeth Nelson, Marek Pakulski, Tim Rollins, Peter Szypula, Michael Udvardy. Later members involved in the four exhibitions in Tracing Alienation also included: Doug Ashford, Thomas Eggerer, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Jochen Klein, Karen Ramspacher. Tracing Alienation would not have been possible without the generous assistance of JulieAult, and Tim Rollins has provided valuable information about the ‘Alienation’ exhibition.




[1] Julie Ault, ‘Case Reopened: Group Material’, in Show and Tell: A Chronicle of Group Material (London: Four Corners Books, 2010), p.212.