Books

Thirty Years On, Colab Members Assess Their Successes and Failures

A Spread from ‘A Book About Colab (and Related Activities)’ (2015) featuring Charlie Ahearn and Jane Dickson’s poster for ‘The Times Square Show’ (1980). The book includes a reversible cover (background). (image courtesy Printed Matter) (click to enlarge)

Last month, members of Colab gathered at Printed Matter for the opening of a new iteration of the A. More Store, the collective’s pop-up exhibit of cheap multiples. The display coincides with the publication of A Book About Colab (and Related Activities) (2015), a sumptuous collection of archival images and written accounts compiled by Printed Matter’s director Max Schumann.

Colab (Collaborative Projects) produced some of the most significant exhibitions and projects of the 1980s, including the Times Square Show, the Real Estate Show, and Potato Wolf TV, the group’s public access television show. Active between 1977–85, Colab’s projects served to demonstrate the value of artist-led action and collaboration. As Robin Winters explains in A Book About Colab: “Outside curators and sponsor organizations seemed antithetical to what our efforts were all about […] we did stuff for free in our own spaces, in the airwaves, in print, on the street or in liberated public locations.” “We were a gang of young artists who had nothing to lose,” Walter Robinson writes in his foreword to the book, “and as a result we had the power to accomplish anything that we could think of.”

The cover of ‘A Book About Colab (and Related Activities)’ (all images by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted) (click to enlarge)

Colab’s members were active throughout the New York art scene. Walter Robinson served as the art editor of the East Village Eye between 1983–85. Charlie Ahearn and Fab 5 Freddy (Fred Brathwaite) met at the Times Square Show and later collaborated on Wild Style (1983), the world’s first hip-hop movie. Fashion Moda’s Stefan Eins and Joe Lewis, themselves members of Colab, exhibited work by John Ahearn (twin brother of Charlie), Jane Dickson, and Christy Rupp. The Real Estate Show, which grew from an idea devised between Colab members Alan Moore, Peter Moennig, Ann Messner, and Becky Howland, ultimately led to the founding of ABC No Rio — a collectively run center for “oppositional culture” that continues to operate to this day.

Other Colab members included Tom Otterness, Jenny Holzer, Judy Rifka, and Joseph Nechvatal. Naming select members, however, feels like a patent violation of the group’s ethos. “There has been a rather humble declaration by all members of Colab as to the origin of the group,” Winters writes. “We say we are co-founders. I stand by that declaration … there was no one founder.” A running theme throughout A Book About Colab — as evinced through its many testimonials — is a sense of frustration at the art world’s cherry picking of the group’s members and its history. More often than not, an article on the Times Square Show will emphasize Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring’s participation, as opposed to acknowledging Colab’s efforts in realizing the show. As Joe Lewis puts it, “the gallery system … quickly picked off those they believed could draw a profit, — isn’t that what’s it all about?” “Early on, John Ahearn told me: Colab is like running the peer gauntlet,” writes Becky Howland. “Happy to report [that] I survived Colab and killed no one.”

In keeping with Colab’s spirit of collaboration and exchange, Max Schumann has structured A Book About Colab around newly written contributions by the group’s members. “It seemed best that Colab should represent itself,” Schumann writes in his introduction. “The book has no overarching narrative, rather, it is a series of parts and fragments that I think better convey and celebrate an extraordinary output of creative energy and work, as well as an iconic period of New York City’s cultural history.”

The book’s fold-out cover includes a selection of finger-paint portraits by Cara Perlman (click to enlarge)

The book, which is roughly chronological, is divided into sections dedicated to particular projects. Author names appear at the end of each contribution — most of which are brief — which has the effect of diluting the reader’s expectations. Unless you turn the page or read ahead, you often don’t realize whose words you’re reading. With the exception of Robinson’s foreword and afterword, no single contribution is given any sort of headline treatment. Unsurprisingly, the Times Square and Real Estate Shows — the exhibitions for which Colab is best known — comprise the largest sections.

Colab’s entire ethos is further complemented by the book’s wraparound cover, which doubles as a reversible, fold-out poster. The front is comprised of an assortment of flyers and artworks by various members of the group, while the reverse features Cara Perlman’s finger-paint portraits of “some members of Colab” (1981–2) (amusingly, John and Charlie Ahearn are featured together as a single portrait). The thumbnail images on the book’s cover evoke the displays of the A. More Store, while also embodying Colab’s celebration of the multiple.

A spread from ‘A Book About Colab (and Related Activities)’ featuring Becky Howland’s “Real Estate Show (Octopus)” (1980) (click to enlarge)

In December 1979, Colab occupied a vacant city property at 123 Delancey Street, converting it into an exhibition of work dedicated to the “problems of real estate.” After a surge of press attention (largely attributed to a visit by Joseph Beuys), the city agreed to temporarily relocate the show, eventually offering the group a storefront at 156 Rivington Street, where ABC No Rio continues to operate today. “We were astonished,” writes Becky Howland, “what had started as a 3-week exhibition was now a space with unlimited possibilities.” Howland’s contribution to the book, essentially a timeline of the building’s occupation, is complemented by a contemplative essay by Ann Messner who sketches out the philosophy of the action itself. Messner, like many of the book’s contributors, relates Colab’s activities to the present:

As artists continue to engage in the development of collective ‘social practices’, recently inspired by the itinerant activities of the Occupy movement, the 123 Delancey Street action provides an interesting historical model to consider in moving forward — specifically because it involved the direct occupation of unused space to serve the needs of the community […] These thirty years later the stakes are much higher: we have witnessed the value of real estate persist its measure not in personal terms as a place where people of simple means make their homes and raise their families but rather as a cold calculation in its relationship to capital.

For the section dedicated to the Times Square Show, Schumann has paired contributions by Jane Dickson and Bobby G (Robert Goldman). Held in an abandoned massage parlor on 7th Avenue and 41st Street, the Times Square Show was undoubtedly the group’s most popular exhibition, in part because its location resulted in a steady stream of tourists and curious New Yorkers. Dickson’s contribution charts the organization of the show, while also addressing Richard Goldstein’s review of the exhibition for the Village Voice. “Goldstein described this show in terms of traditional art exhibition hierarchies (privileging male contributions, omitting female ones),” Dickson writes. “The overturning of these traditional hierarchies of curatorial power including male domination/female subservience was central to Colab’s mission as I understood it.”

A spread from ‘A Book About Colab (and Related Activities)’ (click to enlarge)

Dickson’s assessment of the group’s politics does not go untested. Though she champions Colab for placing “freedom of expression above market price,” artist Jane Sherry (who professes doubt as to whether she was ever an “official” member) describes an acute case of “boy artist syndrome” at Colab meetings. “There was too much administrative as well as too many personality conflicts,” she writes. “Some of which are still amazingly robust and intact these almost 40 years later.”

To Schumann and the artists’ credit, the passages in A Book About Colab are remarkably critical and self-reflective. The book is devoid of the back-in-the-day, rose-tinted nostalgia that besets similar archival projects. Many of Colab’s members willingly tackle the group’s dynamics and diversity. In the book’s last extended contribution, artist Jack Waters describes Colab’s “unpronounced shroud of silence on homosexuality”:

I always felt supported by the CoLab milieu in general, and I never heard a derogatory reference directed at me, Peter [Cramer], or anyone else who identified as queer. But I can’t remember a single overt expression of queer solidarity — let alone any other self referenced queer identity besides ours coming from the ranks of CoLab — whether as a political group, an art enclave, or as a social community […] Were there any other queer members of CoLab besides me and Peter? That I even pose this question is telling.

A Book About Colab is best described as a rich resource of raw material and impressions as opposed to a comprehensive study of the group’s achievements. Those seeking a more rigorous contextualization of Colab’s activities should pair A Book About Colab with Alan Moore’s Art Gangs: Protest and Counterculture in New York City (2011), or Julie Ault’s Alternative Art New York, 1965–1985 (2003), both of which are indispensable guides to New York’s alternative art scenes. The strength of A Book About Colab lies in the candid reminisces of Colab’s members. Their testimonials bring the operations, relationships, and activities of the group to life, while also providing an insight into the nature of collaboration itself.

The entrance to the A. More Store at Printed Matter
Charlie Ahearn and Jane Dickson’s “Time Square Show Poster” (1980)
Publications by Colab members
Assorted flyers by Colab members
Bobby G, “Money Talks” (1980)
Walter Robinson, “Kitty” (1982), offset print
Coleen Fitzgibbon, “The Ides of Colab” (2016)
Suzan Pitt, “Black and White Painted Coat” (2016)
A full track list for the A. More Store’s audio mix
John Halpern, “Shake up Wake up” (1990)
Tom Otterness & Jenny Holzer, “Money Creates Taste?” (2016), bronze casting with gold plating, 2.75 x 3 x 1.5 inches

A. More Store continues at Printed Matter (231 Eleventh Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan) through May 15. A Book About Colab (and Related Activities) is published by Printed Matter.

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