Group Material, “AIDS Timeline,” 1989 – THE ARTIST AS CURATOR #4

by mousse

August 30~2015

Installation view of AIDS Timeline, University of California Berkeley Art Museum, 1989


Group Material, AIDS Timeline, 1989

by Claire Grace

from THE ARTIST AS CURATOR #4 – in Mousse #45


Group Material’s 1984 exhibition Timeline: A Chronicle of U.S. Intervention in Central and Latin America, AIDS Timeline was defined not only by its transient specificity in time, but also by its critical representation of time. a lateral dateline transected the walls, injecting a temporal axis through the exhibition’s spatial one. Intricately detailed and researched (much more so than the 1984 project), AIDS Timeline diagrammed a decade of chronological relationships, patterns, and ruptures, conveyed both in a long-form wall text written by the artists and in the exhibition’s assortment of material fragments apportioned above and below the dateline’s calendric tally.

Chronology was somewhat anathema to postmodernism, whose fever pitch within New York’s artistic discourse, abetted by the reception of poststructural theory, coincided with the formative years of Group Material’s career in the early-to-mid-1980s. Postmodernism’s distinguishing feature, as Jean-François Lyotard famously claimed in 1979, was precisely its “incredulity” to totalizing narratives of explanation, including linear projections of teleology and progress (which the timeline form summarily encapsulates). [1] The historian Hayden White in 1978 posited history writing as a form of narrative “emplotment” subject to conventions found in fiction, and Jean Baudrillard went so far as to hazard the end of history itself. [2]  In a generation-defining 1984 essay published in New Left Review (a journal some Group Material members followed), the literary critic Fredric Jameson described postmodernism in terms of an attenuation of historical practice, which had increasingly given way to modes of pastiche in which the past appeared as a compensatory “blank,” a simulacral citation without a mooring in the unfolding of time. [3]  Jameson’s analysis of pastiche and simulation was, like Baudrillard’s, readily adapted in discussions of contemporary art. [4]

Consistent with the generally poststructuralist framework of these divergent writers, discussions of AIDS Timeline have underscored its analysis of the epidemic as a “crisis of representation,” a phrase that registers the galvanizing reception of postmodernist theory in the 1980s, including in the art world and among AIDS activists. Group Material’s exhibition indeed meticulously demonstrated how official and mass media representations of AIDS had a part in producing the epidemic’s material conditions, including its disproportionate effect on gay men and intravenous drug users. This, in other words, was a historical moment in which the agency of representation was urgently felt, and the members of Group Material—which then included Doug Ashford, Julie Ault, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Karen Ramspacher—advanced with AIDS Timeline a penetrating investigation in this vein.

But AIDS Timeline also needs to be seen in a different light. Like Timeline: A Chronicle of U.S. Intervention in Central and Latin America, it situates Group Material within a perhaps marginalized genealogy of postwar artists concerned with forms of historical counter-memory. [6] Unimaginable without this larger context, Group Material’s timeline projects simultaneously marked an intervention within it, partly by routing this memory-work through a metrically extended representation of historical time. To do so they drew formally on the spare typography and enumerative systems of 1960s Conceptualism (think On Kawara or Hanne Darboven), not for the lapidary hermeticism found there—which can seem to scour historical incident from duration—but rather for the purposes of reinserting temporal meaning into historical practice. This move provided a way of asking, in the context of AIDS: What ethical pressures does the recent past exert on the present? Such demands could not be ignored, nor could the challenges poststructuralism had laid at the feet of historiographic convention. Given the specific conditions addressed by the exhibition, any un-ambivalent rehabilitation of the timeline form would risk encoding a lethal politics of silence within a graphic model of progress held over from the enlightenment. As they had in 1984, the artists therefore enlisted the stringency of this device only by subjecting it to a series of displacements.

Installation view of Group Material’s Timeline: A Chronicle of U.S., Intervention in Central and Latin America, P.S.1., New York, 1984


Now relatively common in museum displays, spatialized timelines are rare in the history of a form whose synoptic power more often exploits the disembodied, at-a-glance format of the printed page. Group Material’s exhibition dispersed this totalizing view by transposing the timeline volumetrically. It crossed the wires of diachronic ledger-keeping with a synchronous, kinesthetically conditioned field of memory in which the framing of past, present, and future depended in every instance on the shifting position of the viewer in space and time, a position in turn defined in the process of such readings. The exhibition’s first and final versions further frustrated the teleological mechanics of the timeline by commencing in the rightmost corner of the room, reversing the orientation of reading (in English) so that years counted “backward” in space. This move also placed the viewer in a position comparable to Walter Benjamin’s oft-cited angel of history, whose heightened critical acuity derives, importantly, from a specific spatiotemporal reorientation: it turns to face the wreckage of the past while driven into the future (more below on the exhibition’s ambivalent relationship to Benjamin’s theory of history). [7]

[1] Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1979), Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, trans. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984). Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton, Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline (Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, 2010), 245.

[2] Hayden White, The Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978). See also Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” (1971) in Language, Counter- Memory, Practice, Donald F. Bouchard, ed., Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, trans. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1977), 139–64; and Jean Baudrillard, The Illusion of the End (1992), Chris Turner, trans. (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1994).

[3] Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review (July–August 1984): 53–92.

[4] Jean Baudrillard, “The Precession of the Simulacra” (1983) in Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation, Brian Wallis, ed. (New York: New Museum, 1984), 253–81; Hal Foster, “(Post)Modern Polemics” in Hal Foster, Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics (Seattle: Bay Press, 1985).

[5] Berkeley reviewer Bill Berkson: “Group Material helped clarify [AIDS as] what Paula A. Treichler has called elsewhere ‘an epidemic of signification.’” Berkson, “Group Material, AIDS Timeline, University Art Museum,” Artforum (March 1990): 168–69, citing Paula Treichler, “AIDS, Homophobia, and Biomedical Discourse: An Epidemic of Signification,” October 43, AIDS Cultural Analysis / Cultural Activism (winter 1987): 31–70. See also Richard Meyer, “Group Material, MATRIX/BERKELEY 12,” (Berkeley, CA: Berkeley University Art Museums, 1989), n.p.

[6] On counter-memory, see Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.” Variously familiar to members of Group Material, relevant practices appear in the work of artists as divergent as Conrad Atkinson, Leon Golub, Hans Haacke, Gerhard Richter, Allan Sekula, and Nancy Spero.

[7] Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” in Illuminations, Hannah Arendt, ed., Harry Zohn, trans. (New York: Pimlico, 1999), 249.


THE ARTIST AS CURATOR #4 – in Mousse #45

Group Material, AIDS Timeline, 1989 – Claire Grace

Alice Creischer, Andreas Siekmann, and Max Jorge Hinderer, The Potosí Principle, 2010 – Alexander Alberro




The series is conceived and edited by Elena Filipovic, published by Mousse, and generously supported by an engaged group of art institutions and foundations that have made possible the research and production of the series.
This installment is supported by HangarBicocca, Milan.