Thirty Years On, Colab Members Assess Their Successes and Failures

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By Tiernan Morgan

Read the full article and see more images at HYPERALLERGIC

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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)

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.”

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 theTimes 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.”

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.

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The book’s fold-out cover includes a selection of finger-paint portraits by Cara Perlman

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Suzan Pitt, “Black and White Painted Coat” (2016)

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