Critics’ Picks

View of “A Show About Colab (and Related Activities),” 2011.

New York

“A Show About Colab (and Related Activities)”

Printed Matter, Inc.
231 11th Avenue
October 15 - November 30

From photocopied flyers, the word jumps out: OCCUPATION. On January 1, 1980, Colab (aka Collaborative Projects) rang in the decade with the “Real Estate Show,” a group exhibition illegally installed in a vacant city-managed building on a derelict stretch of Delancey Street. As a poster later wheat-pasted to the property stated, “This was to be the beginning of an exchange about landlord speculation, tenants’ rights, property misuse, projected housing development, arbitrary urban planning, etc.—a citizen’s center.” The police padlocked the building the next day.

This “Insurrectionary Urban Development” and the subsequent “Times Square Show” (famously held, with permission, in a former massage parlor) usually garner Colab a mention in survey texts. “A Show About Colab (and Related Activities)” ventures past the group’s landmarks and explores the surrounding territory. During this unwieldy autumn when another occupation and citizen’s center has sprung up downtown, there’s good reason to revisit Colab. The organization was decidedly nonhierarchical, with open membership and rotating committee positions, and its DIY ethic of establishing alternatives to everything can be seen in the range of its affiliated undertakings: not just guerrilla exhibitions, but film distribution (the New Cinema on St. Mark’s Place, which incubated No Wave), publications (X Motion Picture Magazine), retailing (A. More Store), television (All Color News, Nightwatch, Potato Wolf), and telecommunications (Liza Béar and Keith Sonnier’s pioneering Send/Receive, Qwip, and Slow Scan initiatives).

One undeniable pleasure of exhibitions rich in historical material is spotting the small-type names that now loom large. The screening schedule for the “Times Square Show” lists a midnight film by “Jim Jarmish” and another entry laconically titled “SLIDE SHOW by Nan Goldin.” (Also, don’t miss Jack Smith’s oracular warble in the late-night television advertisement for his “Palace of Exotic Landlordism.”) Yet that pleasure is also a danger: It dissolves Colab into a history of prominent proper names, what lately we might call the 1 percent, or what one “Real Estate Show” document dismisses as “the intellectual gambling of elitist art circles.” Better, perhaps, to focus on a cluster of flyers announcing Colab meetings, the material remainder of a social density sustained by hand-to-hand exchanges. On one, a drawing by Tom Otterness represents a committee restructuring proposal as a hilarious hermaphrodite automaton. Here we get a glimpse of the process, not the product: the conditions in the distillery that led to creative ferment.