The Real Estate Show and The Times Square Show Revisited


By Francesco Spampinato

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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.