Untitled Document

Julie Ault: The Exhibition as Political Space1

Intruduced by: Franciska Zólyom

What the Public Has Always Wanted to Know

Writings on the relationship between art and politics now and then reach the conclusion that a political approach to art is a mere applied genre that can spell the end of artistic freedom; that art estheticizes, and thereby undermines, the critical impulse; that political art, through its appropriation by institutions, becomes a tool of the art “system” and thereby not merely ineffective but even counterproductive, inasmuch as it allows for institutions to flatter themselves with a democratic self-image, obfuscating the mechanisms of exclusivity that operate within them. It questionable, though, whether one can make generalizations about the political element in art, being such a multifaceted phenomenon that contains such thoroughly divergent directions both historically and ideologically.

Julie Ault approaches the subject from the perspective of practice, of cultural activism. Her experiences are based on her work with Group Material.2 Ault is a member of the critical movement that arose in New York in the spirit of the social protests of the 1960’s.3 Simultaneous and self-organizing initiatives, exhibition and meeting spaces, databases, and information sources (whose content overlapped to some extent) were devoted to providing education and public democratic forums. As a result, topics and communities that had been underrepresented – or completely ignored – now received broad attention, including that of institutions.

The nexus of social, political, and art-related issues is the very embodiment of cultural democracy, which we may define as the multiplicity of topics and causes, the equitable treatment and presentation of various genres, as well as an accessible presentation of the topics involved. The activists of this cultural practice create far-reaching information networks that tie local events to the wider, more general discourse, constantly creating new knowledge by tying together art and theory. These so-called “cultural workers” have gained ever-greater recognition, with many of them working as teachers, lecturers and exhibit directors worldwide.

I find Julie Ault’s piece particularly interesting because I feel the need for a critical examination of exhibition practices and contexts: what is the relationship between an exhibition and the cultural, intellectual and material environment in which it is staged? What is its intended public, its presentation, its timing, and what societal dialogue or debate does it tap into? Many think that a curator’s “refined taste” and special understanding of certain artistic processes are what makes a show good. In my view, personal interest and dedication are what drives an exhibition – but these are not its content. It comes alive if it transcends the borders of individual taste to create more comprehensive questions, shapes newly-accepted views, and presents dynamic areas of thought that open up traditions.

Recently a curator colleague of mine explained nervously that exhibitions these days like to display the “real” (sic!) works of art accompanied by sociological surveys disguised as artworks, thereby obscuring the essence of the artistic creative process. Others are critical of the dryness of such exhibition practices, and the emotional barrenness of displays that mix illustrations, written documents, objects and artworks.

As I see it, critical cultural practice does not in the least imply that the art itself is relegated to the background; it means rather an acceptance of the responsibility to the viewers, something Ault alludes to more than once. For a public institution, this responsibility is particularly crucial, and makes possible a whole range of education and development possibilities. I am convinced – and experience in recent years bears this out4 – that when information, education, and entertainment are bundled together, they speak to a wider audience than the presentation of art divorced from the life around it. Art institutions that are “weaker” in the area of real social significance, or that take refuge in the superficiality of blockbuster exhibitions should have their roles defined in light of the recognition that people have always been interested in the hidden relationships between things, in the invisible subtext, in a peek behind the scenes.

Translated by: Jim Tucker


1 In : Julie Ault - Martin Beck: Critical Condition. Ausgewählte Texte im Dialog.

Essen, 2003. p. 359-366.

2 This group, active from 1979 to 1996, had 13 founding members, among them Tim Rollins, Patrick Brennan, Julie Ault, Mundy McLaughlin, Marybeth Nelson, and Beth Jaker. Subsequently, Doug Ashford, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Karen Ramspacher, Thomas Eggerer, and Jochen Klein also took part in the group’s work. In 1980-81, they ran an exhibition space on 13 th Street in New York, which was later supplanted by various exhibition setups, including public advertising spaces. Among the group’s best-known projects are the 1981 “Subculture,” an exhibit on the NYC Subways, “Education and Democracy” shown at the Dia Art Foundation in 1988, and the “AIDS Timeline,” first exhibited in 1989 at the museum of the University of California, Berkeley.

3 Some examples: ACT UP, General Idea, the Guerrilla Girls, Paper Tiger Television and Group Material, as well as, from the late 1980’s on, Gran Fury, the Women’s Action Coalition, Repo History, and Godzilla.

4 See NowHere, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, 1996; MoneyNations, Shedhalle, Zürich, 1998; First Story – Women Building/New Narratives for the 21st Century, Galeria do Palácio, Porto, 2001; Shrinking Cities (2002-2005), Kunstwerke Berlin, 2004, and the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst, Leipzig, 2005

20. May 2005.
PRINT