THE COLAB CONSPIRACY
The statements of purpose extracted from members of the early '80s artists collective Collaborative Projects by Printed Matter curator Max Schuman for his exhibition at the Chelsea bookstore, the desultorily titled “A Show about Colab (and Related Activities),” Oct. 15-Nov. 30, 2011 -- printed out, they're on display against a silver wall in the shop's narrow hallway -- are pretty highfalutin, especially considering that Colab meetings (typically focused on allocating grant money for a wide variety of projects) were frequently acrimonious and almost universally considered to be pure torture.
You could say that the Colab democracy worked because nobody could stand being in charge for very long.
Or maybe it was just me. I know I quit the group in a fit of pique that was entirely ego-driven -- I'll skip the details, except to recall the irritating experience of standing in front of everyone arguing for some policy and realizing that not a single person agreed with me.
Looking back 30 years, Collaborative Projects certainly sounds like a grand success. It took over a vacant city building on Delancey Street in 1980 to mount the “Real Estate Show,” and was subsequently given the Lower East Side storefront that became ABC No Rio.
It mounted “The Times Square Show” in a former massage parlor at 7th Avenue and 41st Street, which the Village Voice called “the first avant-garde art show of the 1980s.” It put on a variety of other exhibitions, and was affiliated with Fashion Moda, run by Stefan Eins and Joe Lewis in the South Bronx.
It had a film division -- the “New Cinema” -- that operated a movie theater on St. Mark’s Place, and a video division that had a public access cable TV show called “Potato Wolf.”
It put together a yearly holiday gift shop, first on Broome Street, then at Gladstone Gallery, Tilton Gallery and still later at White Columns and Printed Matter.
All together, Colab involved maybe 50 artists or more, helping them make their individual marks and providing a context within which they could work. Participants included Charlie Ahearn, John Ahearn, Beth and Scott B, Liza Bear, Mitch Corber, Jody Culkin, Jane Dickson, Peter Fend, Coleen Fitzgibbon, Bobby G., Mike Glier, Jenny Holzer, Rebecca Howland, Lisa Kahane, Ann Messner, Alan Moore, Eric Mitchell, James Nares, Joseph Nechvatal, Tom Otterness, Ulli Rimkus, Christy Rupp, Teri Slotkin, Kiki Smith, Wolfgang Staehle, Tom Warren, Robin Winters and many others.
It’s funny to remember, 30 years later, how random it all felt at the time. We tended to approach serious matters with a fractured nonchalance, as in Smith’s Xeroxed flier for a Colab meeting, headlined “Eat more Fiber or Colab Meeting,” with a double subtitle urging members to “think of something” and saying “only 12 people in America are physically fit.”
It all seemed so simple then, and appears amazing now. Otterness and John Ahearn talked a landlord into letting us use a building in Times Square. Bobby G., Moore and Howland got the city to give us a tenement on Rivington Street. We convinced the New York State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts to give us thousands and thousands of dollars.
Our fans especially loved ABC No Rio, the avant-garde art center founded in what was then a Latino ghetto. In truth, the neighbors generally ignored the place, save for Tom Warren’s “portrait gallery,” where people could have a black-and-white portrait photo made of themselves and their families, August Sander-style. Could those have been only $1?
Might you allow me to trace my own trajectory through those years, 1979-82, via some things in the exhibition? Roughly speaking, in local history the period falls in between the SoHo art heyday and the rise of the East Village. The show includes four of my artworks (only three lent by me): Two early stencil paintings from the A More Store, as Kiki Smith insisted that our holiday shop be called; a slightly later color offset print of a kitty, done in an edition of 900 on glossy paper and signed in ink, as a kind of parody of the notion of “fine prints” that was inspired by the now-forgotten controversy over tax-shelter print editions (still available for $30); and the first “romance” painting I ever made, an awkwardly intense rendering on masonite of a vampire batman embracing a shrieking blonde, done specifically for “The Batman Show,” one of several presented by Robin Winters at his Broadway loft (others included “The Doctors and Dentists Show” -- who, like artists, have “small motor skills” -- and the Holzer-organized “Manifesto Show.”
Otherwise, two highlights of my brief tenure as Colab president have only a faint presence at Printed Matter. Completely absent -- and this gap is due to my own lackadaisical attitude towards documentation -- is the “Buffalo Artists Open,” a show a few of us organized at Hallwalls in 1982. If memory serves, we advertised in local papers, announcing that any artist could put a work in the exhibition for an entry fee of $2. The total funds were then awarded as first, second and third prizes, with the winners selected by a vote taken at the opening. I think first prize was $50. Buffalo had a snowstorm, and I had double ear infections that sent me to a local emergency room. Never went back to that town!
An even bigger deal was the putative “Collaborative Projects Summer Office for Inter-disciplinary Education,” also known as the Colab Cabana -- a five-bedroom house on the North Shore of Long Island, rented for the summer at the now-unbelievable price of $5,000 (not including the $1,000 security fee, which was not returned, due to some spots on the rug and a chip on the glass dining-tabletop). The grant-funded getaway -- the inspiration, I’ve always thought, for Maurizio Cattelan’s 1999 “Caribbean Biennial,” for which he invited some friends to a resort in St. Kitts -- did result in several actual artworks, including a collaborative mural done in the shed.
The summer school took place in 1982, and though much of Colab’s initial energy had dissipated by that time, it certainly sparked what you might call a renaissance in attendance by the general membership. Suddenly, nobody wanted to miss class.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.