Colab Again The Real Estate Show and The Times Square Show Revisited

Colab Again

The Real Estate Show and The Times Square Show Revisited

by Francesco Spampinato

During the past few years, New York has seen the restaging of two groundbreaking underground art exhibitions, originally organized in 1980 by Lower East Side-based collective Colab: The Real Estate Show and The Times Square Show. The former, which took place illegally on New Year’s Eve in a vacant, city-owned building at 125 Delancey Street—and was shut down by the police after few hours—was restaged in Spring 2014 at four Downtown venues: James Fuentes Gallery, Cuchifritos, The Lodge Gallery, and ABC No Rio. The latter was organized in a disused Times Square massage parlor and restaged in Fall 2012 at Hunter College’s Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery.

Both the original shows are representative of the revolution from below that characterized the New York art world in the postmodernist era, particularly the influence of punk and street cultures on an emerging generation of artists involved less in conceptual than social and cultural issues. Collaborative Projects Inc., known informally as Colab, was a loosely organized group of artists active from 1977 to the mid-1980s, with headquarters in ABC No Rio, a still existing squat on Rivington Street in the Lower East Side. Its network varied from thirty to a hundred members, and included artists, writers, and curators like John and Charlie Ahearn, Andrea Callard, Diego Cortez, Jane Dickson, Stefan Eins, Coleen Fitzgibbon, Bobby G., Mike Glier, Jenny Holzer, Becky Howland, Lisa Kahane, Alan W. Moore, James Nares, Tom Otterness, Christy Rupp, Kiki Smith, Wolfgang Staehle, and Robin Winters.

Both shows have contributed to moving the canon of exhibition history toward the acceptance of anti-art forms, cooperative practices, underground culture, and tactics of institutional critique into official art history. This essay will examine the two exhibitions as examples of an “aesthetic of disappearance” that brought artists to invent an alternative “art world” that challenged dominant cultural institutions, social hierarchies, and media power systems. Colab’s core concern with the issue of gentrification will be used as a paradigm to understand how New York City, the urban context that surrounds the shows and their restaging, has drastically mutated in the past three decades, even though some issues have remained the same.

“There was a tribal feel because we had different technology,” remembers Becky Howland, one of the initiators of Colab, in a radio conversation organized for the restaging of The Real Estate Show. “There was a feeling of running into people on the street: coincidence, serendipity that I don’t feel these days. That was the sweet part of Colab: just running into people, let things happen—it was so exciting! How I think about it now, is we were sort of in love with each other.”[1] These simple thoughts, expressed without intellectual preoccupations, denote the true spirit of Colab, a collective born out of the true desire of a group of young artists to come together. In the next paragraphs, I will briefly illustrate the early activities of Colab, while in the two sections that follow, the focus will be on The Real Estate and The Times Square shows and their restaging.

Tribal collaboration downtown

The early activities of Colab (initially called Green Corporation) consisted in film screenings and gatherings, either in private lofts or in the short-lived New Cinema on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village. In 1977 and 1978, Colab also produced the cable television newscast All Color News, which later became Mr. Potato Wolf (1979–1984). Both shows broadcast street tapes, proto-mockumentaries, documentation of exhibitions and performances, and music videos. These media productions brought forward the legacy of previous Guerrilla Television collectives like Raindance Corporation, Videofreex, and TVTV, but mixed it up with an apolitical nature that, like other coeval experiments, presumably influenced the imminent birth of MTV.

The group also published X Motion Picture Magazine, born out of the tight-knit downtown community of artists, writers, and musicians performing either at CBGB, Max’s Kansas City, or the Mudd Club. On the pages of the three issues of X Magazine that post-punk phenomenon known as No Wave took form, defining itself, like other avant-garde movements before, through a negation of commercial trends and categories, symbolized by the word “No.” A fifty-six-page offprint folded broadsheet, X Magazine featured textual and visual contributions by Kathy Acker, Beth and Scott B., Jimmy de Sana, Eric Mitchell, Anya Phillips, Amos Poe, and Rene Ricard, alongside many of the Colab members mentioned above.

In 1978, X Magazine organized a benefit concert featuring No Wave bands the Contortions, DNA, and Theoretical Girls, and participated in the first punk art show ever, which took place at Washington Project for the Arts, a nonprofit space in Washington, DC. Besides music, No Wave artists were involved in a transdisciplinary set of activities that comprised filmmaking, writing, curating, painting, photography, and the search for alternative forms of cultural production. Colab members were part of the same network, but did not fit in either punk clubs or any of the nonprofit art spaces flourishing in the city—some still active today and in very good health—like Artists Space, The Kitchen, the New Museum, and PS1.

Nonprofit spaces were, and still are, bureaucratic entities, dependent on public grants and directed by artists only in a very few cases. Colab was dependent on grants, too, starting with an encouraging sum of $6,000 received by the National Endowment for the Arts but, as David E. Little put it in an article on its early activities, the group also “developed a concept of an anti-hierarchical, artists-only organization that would serve as a hothouse for cultivating collaborative projects and would seek out flexible and multiple distribution outlets to reach audiences, from bars and movie houses to cable television and even alternative spaces.”[2]

Colab’s peculiarity was the invention of its own production and distribution systems. In this sense, it was more similar to Printed Matter, another nonprofit New York organization born in those days, devoted to artists’ books. No wonder that, in the autumn of 2011, the Chelsea bookstore organized A Show About Colab (and Related Activities), featuring flyers, posters, ephemera, and documentation materials of the shows organized by the group. Far from being merely collateral, this ephemeral material is representative of a group less interested in producing artworks than in questioning the context in which art is produced and exhibited, the nature of the art object, and the social role of the artist.

Colab challenged the context of art by distancing themselves from major New York museums, private galleries, and alternative spaces. Instead, they turned lofts, storefronts, and disused buildings into temporary exhibition venues, attracting an audience that was not necessarily accustomed to art and that also included passersby and people living in the neighborhood where the exhibition was taking place. Colab also challenged the status of the art object by using everyday materials, producing multiple editions, and exhibiting artifacts, graffiti, objets trouvé, and art from children and amateurs alongside their paintings and sculptures. In addition, all their choices were free from commercial preoccupations and were made democratically, in meetings where the number of men was equivalent to that of women, and each had the same voice and responsibilities.

In the history of twentieth-century collectivism in art, Colab has so far occupied an inferior position in comparison with coeval groups like General Idea or Group Material that were smaller, more structured, and more inclined to dialogue with the official art world. However, looking at certain current art collectives (e.g., Etcétera… in Argentina, Ruangrupa in Indonesia, and Temporary Services in the United States), we see how the legacy of Colab has recently started to be more fruitful. Colab’s most important achievement was pure autonomy from the art world, accomplished through its structure as an extended network of contributors, rather than a collaborative project among a specific group of individuals. This independence was manifest not just in topographical terms but in Colab’s improvisation of a new apparatus of cultural production, established not in opposition to the dominant art system, but through pretending it had never existed.

The real estate show and its doubles

Achieving this autonomy from the art world, even from the alternative art world that gravitated around nonprofit spaces and later East Village galleries, was the ultimate goal of the artists behind Colab. So they started organizing open-invitation exhibitions in apartments and rented storefronts, with titles that parodied the everyday, finance, and pop culture: The Batman Show (1979), Income and Wealth (1979), Doctors and Dentists Show (1979), Dog Show (1979), and The Manifesto Show (1979). “These exhibitions established a new style of art show,” wrote Alan W. Moore and Marc Miller, “non-curated, dense-packed shows on oddball themes, including art by children and the anonymous, all mingled to demonstrate a visual milieu.”[3]

After one year of intense exhibition activities, the group was ready for a bigger step. In the fall of 1979, they scouted one of the many empty buildings in their neighborhood, the Lower East Side of Manhattan, traditionally home of lower-class immigrants: initially Irish, Italians, Poles, and Ukrainians, and later Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. They found a vacant, city-owned storefront at 125 Delancey Street, broke in around Christmas time, and installed The Real Estate Show. “The occupation and exposition imposes a complex human system where previously there was no system,” stated a manifesto written on the occasion, “or only the system of waste and disuse that characterizes the profit system in real estate.”[4]

The exhibition opened on December 31, 1979, and featured paintings, site-specific interventions, and contributions by anonymous amateurs. A skeptical article in The New York Times reported that the show presented “35 artists’ largely acerbic views of the real estate industry and the city planning process through drawings, montages, cartoons, architectural mockups and, in one case, a sculpture made of cigarette wrappers.”[5] What the journalist clearly missed is that The Real Estate Show was a metalinguistic operation: the real estate was the content, but also constituted the context of the operation. The problem was with gentrification, an issue at the top of artists’ concerns, then and now.

Ten years before Colab’s occupation, Hans Haacke’s controversial artwork, Shapolski et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holding, A Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971, had caused the cancellation of his solo exhibition scheduled at the Guggenheim. Through 142 photographs with accompanying data, the project exposed the properties and transactions of one of the biggest real estate holders in New York, primarily concentrated in the Lower East Side and Harlem. When, on the morning of January 2, 1980, Colab artists found the building locked by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, they started protesting. Joseph Beuys, another German artist who happened to be in the city for his own solo exhibition at the Guggenheim, joined them. A photo of Beuys in front of the locked building circulated and brought publicity to the case.

As a compromise, the city offered to let Colab choose another vacant building in the area, as 125 Delancey had been selected to be part of a massive renewal project that was supposed to invest the whole neighborhood. As an alternative, Colab members chose 156 Rivington Street, baptized it ABC No Rio, and ran it until 1985. After Colab’s direction, ABC No Rio became a punk squat. It was never a hip destination, though, even when punk became mainstream. And its ghostly presence is even more strident with today’s generic youth partying in the neighborhood. Moore recently stated that ABC No Rio has always been “different from most cultural centers in that it is explicitly dedicated to the ‘culture of resistance.’ It is a place that embraces both autonomous political activism and creative experiment.”[6]

Soho gallery Brooke Alexander Editions organized the show Colab Redux in 2008, the year of the global financial crisis harshly represented by the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in the United States. Not conceived as a reenactment of a specific exhibition, Colab Redux did not present Colab in light of its radical contributions to socially engaged art history. Rather, the show was presented, according to the press release, as “an opportunity to take a closer look at some of the members on an individual level, each autonomous, and yet still related to the others through the spirits of the collective. If any single aspect unites the works, it is perhaps the pure youthful exuberance.” The show presented paintings and sculptures from different moments in the careers of various members of Colab.

The radicalism of Colab’s activities and exhibitions lay, in part, in their ephemerality, which was a major factor in their recent restaging, as acknowledged by A Show About Colab and Its Related Activities, organized in 2011 at Printed Matter, featuring exclusively ephemera produced by the group. The show was a timely reflection on Colab’s legacy, as it coincided with the birth of the Occupy! movement, which became relevant for the same ephemeral nature that characterized Colab and its exhibitions like The Real Estate Show. Both temporary autonomous zones, they simulated alternative living conditions and suggested independent forms of cultural and media production. In both cases, the act of occupation was political, because it reclaimed rights that had been negated, but was also aesthetic, because it used art as a tool to reimagine society.

“Thirty years later, we’re living in neighborhoods we hardly recognize,” asserted Jane Dickson in the recent radio conversation mentioned above. Indeed, since the opening of the New Museum building on Bowery in 2007, the Lower East Side has been undergoing a massive process of gentrification. Incidentally, the New Museum was one of those nonprofit alternative art spaces born in the 1970s which Colab distanced itself from. They reconciled only in 2013, when the museum hosted XFR STN (Transfer Station), an archiving project of early media produced by Colab. Following the New Museum opening, hip boutiques and bars flourished between Houston and Canal, Bowery and the East River, as well as a new generation of galleries that could not afford running a space in Chelsea. Over the past few years, some of them have become more and more influential, and today occupy a landmark position in both New York and the international art world.

One of these galleries is the eponymous James Fuentes, also on Delancey, a few blocks from the original Real Estate Show. Fuentes himself, born and raised in the Lower East Side and three years old at the time of the show, thinks, “it’s important for every gallery in the neighborhood to be aware that there’s a significant history of exhibitions here… we’re not all inventing this as we go along.”[7] So together with other galleries and art organizations, and in cooperation with the original members of Colab, he decided to restage the Real Estate Show at two private galleries, his own and The Lodge, and two nonprofit spaces, Cuchifritos and ABC No Rio. A few blocks from one another, they used slightly different titles: The Real Estate Show Was Then: 1980 (James Fuentes), The Real Estate Show, What Next: 2014 (Cuchifritos), RESx: The Real Estate Show Extended (ABC No Rio), and No City is an Island (The Lodge).

Original paintings and ephemera had been taken out of warehouses, installations rebuilt, and graffiti resuscitated on the walls. Though none of the four venues looked like a white cube, inevitably the restaging lacked in authenticity: it was clean and the artworks “decontextualized.” However, new textual material has been produced, new conversations started, and the heroic struggle of The Real Estate Show not only reached younger generations of artists and art professionals, but ended up covered by major mass media, making people aware of how timely the restaging was, and how things not only have not changed, but have gotten even worse.

James Fuentes’s gallery featured thirty-eight artworks by thirty artists, including Jane Dickson’s paintings on garbage bags, Bobby G’s installation of a pile of cigarette boxes (mentioned in the original review in The New York Times), and a series of wood sticks by Mike Glier with words like “Power,” “Strength,” and “Wisdom” written on them. The few remaining artworks from the original show were displayed at The Lodge together with works by other artists affiliated with Colab or the gallery, all focused on the issue of real estate. ABC No Rio, in turn, displayed contemporary artists’ responses to the original exhibition.

The installation at Cuchifritos, instead, created a comparison between gentrification in the Lower East Side, then and now. A few original artworks were exhibited here (e.g., one of John Ahearn’s realistic portrait busts), but the installation was oriented toward a more discursive space made of textual and visual material on the ongoing transformation and renewal projects for the neighborhood. More than an exhibition, here the reenactment was conceived as an information center providing citizens with facts they might have ignored, or that had not been communicated properly to them, structured around messages like “Somebody Wants to Buy Your Apartment Building!” or “Do You Know That the Essex Market Will be Torn Down?”

The symbol of The Real Estate Show was an octopus tightening its tentacles around buildings, drawn by Howland for the show’s flyer, stenciled on a poster and pasted on the facade of the building. Demolished in the early 2000s, 125 Delancey is now a parking lot awaiting the Seward Park Urban Renewal Area (SPURA), a major project consisting in housing units, a new Essex Market, retail and office spaces, a school, a community center, a rooftop urban farm and, ironically, even an Andy Warhol Museum. Artists are rarely considered when it comes to urban renewals. That is why many are abandoning New York City. And it is in response to the artists’ exodus that mayor Bill De Blasio recently announced that the city will build 1,500 affordable live-work spaces for artists by 2024: a sign that The Real Estate Show’s lesson has been learned, or another false promise?

Reexamining the Times Square show

For Colab artists, gentrification was symptomatic of a larger discontentment with a society built on the economic and topographic marginalization of poorer and less represented communities. As stated in the manifesto, The Real Estate Show was dedicated to Elizabeth Magnum, a middle-aged African American resident of Flatbush, Brooklyn, killed by police as she resisted eviction. It was the desire to confront more unfortunate realities that made some Colab members leave Manhattan. They did not go too far, actually, but far enough to find a worse situation: the South Bronx. Stefan Eins, who had run the experimental art space Three Mercer Store (1973–1978) in Soho, rented a storefront between Third Avenue and 147th Street that he called Fashion Moda and co-directed with artist Joe Lewis and a neighborhood kid, Williams Scott, programming exhibitions, residencies, and performances.

Fashion Moda presented the first show in the history of graffiti art, GAS (Graffiti Art Success for America), curated by John “Crash” Matos in October 1980. The exhibition featured Fab 5 Freddy, Futura 2000, Lady Pink, Lee Quinones, and John Fekner, among others. The biggest accomplishment of Fashion Moda was legitimizing graffiti—then flourishing as a part of the larger hip hop movement—as an “official” art practice. Conversely, it offered downtown artists the opportunity to confront an audience with different parameters of evaluation, inadvertently influencing the early developments of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring’s productions, both featured in the gallery’s exhibitions and soon to become representatives of graffiti art.

Other Colab members who moved to the Bronx included John Fekner, who painted large words like “Decay” and “Industrial Fossil” on dilapidated buildings, and John Ahearn, who made casts of locals to be installed on public walls. Ahearn’s brother, Charlie, filmed Wild Style (1983) there, a film that became the hip hop culture manifesto. Eins “saw graffiti as an instrument of institutional critique, shifting the axis of art from the center to the periphery, in a material but also figurative sense,”[8] as I wrote in an article on Fashion Moda. Lucy Lippard put it in other words: “This is the hopeful and angry product of a spreading art world crisis of faith, and may have marked the beginning of a new and non-condescending meeting of art with social concern.”[9]

The meeting of the downtown art community and the spirit of the Bronx, which was also the meeting of two coeval subcultures, punk and hip hop, brought about the formation of the East Village art scene that gravitated around art galleries like Fun, clubs like Mudd Club, and was “documented” by the East Village Eye magazine. The starting point of the scene, where radical and apolitical stances cohabited, was The Times Square Show, an exhibition co-organized by Colab and Fashion Moda in a former massage parlor on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 41st Street in June 1980. The exhibition featured more than a hundred artists, spread all over the four floors. It was open twenty-four hours a day and comprised a portrait gallery, a fashion lounge, a newsroom, and a souvenir shop selling cheap editions.

Far from the post-Giuliani tourist destination we know today, Times Square was then a home of derelicts, street criminals, and clients of peepshows and prostitutes. The artists, who did not illegally occupy the building this time, put together paintings, sculptures, and ephemera, realized site-specific interventions, graffiti, and installations that related to Times Square or current political events, and experimented with unschooled forms of art brut for the late-capitalist times. Colab invested $32,000 worth of grants and donations, mainly on advertising in newspapers, magazines, and television. A video by Jane Dickson of two hands playing the three-card street trick was animated on a Times Square billboard. Concerts, performances, and screenings took place over the weekend.

The fiercely un-curated show blurred the boundaries between art and real life: the store, consisting of readymades and multiples, proved that the distance between artworks and everyday objects is established by the art market, and the 24/7 access suggested new forms of social interaction. “Several dozen of the organizers, participants, and hangers-on virtually lived at the site for the show’s duration,” noted Jeffrey Deitch in a review for Art in America magazine. “The ensuing interchange with the neighborhood, the active involvement of both blacks and whites, and the many unlikely friendships that resulted were part of the exhilarating energy that even casual visitors to the show experienced.”[10]

Bruce Altshuler has selected The Times Square Show among the “exhibitions that made art history” in a recent tome published by Phaidon. “It evoked an earlier time when artists, rather than institutions, organized the central exhibitions of the avant-garde,” he wrote. “The display was cacophonous like that of the 1920 Berlin Dada Fair, and Colab similarly connected art and politics and embraced the grungy life of the street.”[11]

The Times Square Show Revisited was conceived from an acknowledgment of the show’s importance in exhibition history and the will to explore elements of it that had been overlooked for over three decades. Born out of a Hunter College master’s thesis project, the show was curated by Shawna Cooper and Karli Wurzelbacher at Hunter’s Bertha and Karl Leubsdorf Art Gallery in fall 2012, two years before the restaging of The Real Estate Show.

Involuntarily charged with a pedagogical dimension—by the simple fact of taking place in a college’s gallery—The Times Square Show Revisited presented the floor plans of the original exhibition, reinstalled the souvenir shop (though not functioning), and presented photo, audio, and video documentation alongside artworks from about forty of the more than one hundred artists featured in the original exhibition. The list included those who had since become major figures, like Basquiat (who participated with his early moniker SAMO, but also exhibited here what presumably was his first painting on canvas), Haring, Kiki Smith, Jenny Holzer, Kenny Scharf, and Wolfgang Staehle. Other famous artists, who were still emerging at the time of the original show and were not featured in its restaging are Mike Bidlo, James Casabere, Nan Goldin, David Hammons, Alex Katz, and Olivier Mosset.

The Times Square Show Revisited’s main contributions, however, are those of the original Colab members, who have been keeping alive the history of those years and working in a similar independent way: the Ahearn brothers, Dickson, Fitzgibbon, Howland, Moore, Otterness, Rupp, and dozens of others for whom, sadly, there is never enough space in articles and reviews, which are published in magazines and journals still structured around an individualistic model and more interested in representative phenomena and their most distinctive features than they are in providing data or offering objective interpretations that also acknowledge artists who never became famous.

Many of these artists have contributed to The Times Square Show Revisited with recollections collected in a catalog that serves, together with a website, as a precious resource for a deeper understanding of the original exhibition and a reconsideration of its role in art history, beyond the single artworks exhibited and the later fame given to the show by the success of artists like Basquiat, who are perhaps representative of the style and some of the issues addressed, but definitely not of the overall motivations and ideals of collectivity behind the exhibition. Among the most interesting features in the restaging and the related catalog are the original floor plans, paired with a long list of the names of all the artists who participated in the show and the specific location of their artworks in the building. These, together with material yet to be known (e.g., Andrea Callard’s precious photographs), constitute the most objective documents of the installation.

Works restaged in the new show include Scharf’s and Haring’s The Sparkl End, a lo-fi video originally installed in a narrow cabin on the second floor of the former massage parlor. Half home video, half art film, it documents the extravaganza of the group of people who gravitated around East Village underground venue Club 57 (such as Ann Magnuson, John Sex, and the authors themselves). Fitzgibbon and Winters’ Gun, Money, Plate is a black-and-white wallpaper which suggests a connection between family values, finance, and criminality. A series of rats by Rupp run along the bottom of the same wall. Originally pasted in both exhibition spaces and on public walls, the rats are one of the most representative symbols of the decadence and abandonment of New York City, directly related to the problem of gentrification. A text sign by Jenny Holzer similarly begins with: “Many dogs run wild in the city.”

Like the restaging of The Real Estate ShowThe Times Square Show Revisited did not pretend to revive the original exhibition. “At the time, the gestalt of the show was understandably overwhelming for many who viewed it, a quality unique to the original exhibition and impossible to replicate through any contemporary restaging,” [12] Cooper admits in the catalog. More humbly, it was intended, like many other restagings of historic exhibitions, as an objective observation of the present social and cultural conditions within which art is produced, presented, and given value, through the reenactment of a show that had struggled with similar issues.

If there is a question that these restagings pose, it is: Has the situation not gotten worse in the past thirty years? The attention toward the collective’s activities and ethos is particularly representative to understand a new era of art production in which Colab could serve as a model of decentralization, pluralism, and autonomy, both in the cultural field and in society at large. The reason why it took more than three decades for these exhibitions to be revalued and restaged is not simply that they have been overlooked, but the result of Colab members’ rejection and search for disappearance from an art system they did not identify with, and still struggle with. To acknowledge their relevance today is symptomatic of the need to construct future art history on different paradigms than those of authorship and market value that have so far characterized most of modern and contemporary art.