ABC No Rio Dinero: The Story of a Lower East Side Art Gallery
Edited by Alan Moore and Marc Miller
New York: ABC No Rio with Collaborative Projects, 1985
The story of ABC No Rio is part of a broad current, a cultural milieu that Alan Moore and I sought to chart in the first half of the No Rio book. As an art space guided by an ideal of interaction with the surrounding community, No Rio was paralleled by other artists' organizations, especially Collaborative Projects Inc., out of which came many of the artists who worked in and ran No Rio. Alan was an early member of Colab, officially formed in 1978, when a group of about thirty young artists created a non-profit organization to take advantage of newly available state and federal grants. With its membership open to anyone willing to attend monthly meetings, Colab was a constantly changing nexus of artists. Members proposed projects, and the group's funds were allocated by democratic vote, generally supporting group exhibitions, publications and film/video projects that were open to all who wanted to participate. Members of the group were diverse in both their aesthetics and beliefs; yet the way Colab functioned as a social network and as an open democratic forum assured a commitment to the principle of collaboration and the cross-fertilization of ideas. In those early years one could even identify a shared group philosophy: an amorphous mix of art-world pragmatism flavored with left-wing politics and a new punk-style irreverence. Many familiar names in the art world were part of Colab: Charlie Ahearn, John Ahearn, Beth B, Liza Bear, Scott Billingsley, Diego Cortez, Jane Dickson, Stefan Eins, Colen Fitzgibbon, Bobby G, Jenny Holzer, Becky Howland, Joe Lewis, Michael McClard, Eric Mitchell, Alan Moore, James Nares, Joseph Nechvatal, Tom Otterness, Judy Rifka, Walter Robinson, Christy Rupp, Kiki Smith, Anton van Dalen, Tom Warren, and Robin Winters, to name just a few.
By Walter Robinson, 1982
Collaborative Projects, Inc., known informally as Colab, is a five-year-old group with a core membership of some fifty artists who work in all mediums and disciplines. All projects involve collaboration among a group of artists, which can grow on occasion to more than 100, women and men, black, Hispanic and white. Colab is anti-bureaucratic: It has no administrators, and all decisions and work are shared by members of the group. All activities are open to non-members.
Members of Colab tend to share a sensibility, though this doesn't necessarily result in stylistic conformity. Colab's intentions are to address social, personal and artistic issues through use of experimental media of all types. Writing in Art in America magazine, Jeffrey Deitch said, 'Most of Colab's members are committed to social change, approaching art as a radical communications medium rather than as a circular dialogue with the art traditions of the past."
He went on to describe art work by Colab members: It has, on the whole, "a streak of raucous humor," it uses "imagery that anyone who walks the streets of New York would find familiar," it is "politically charged" and "celebrates America's cultural quirks." A front page article in the Village Voice called the Colab-organized exhibition, The Times Square Show "the first avant-garde art show of the '80s."
In a sense, Collaborative Projects is an art and media conglomerate. It has four basic divisions: Exhibitions, Film, Video and Publishing. During its short history, Colab has mounted numerous exhibitions, most of them characterized by dense hangings in atypical spaces-often private lofts or temporary rented spaces-making the shows informal, unpretentious and accessible, an artist-sponsored exhibition network that bypasses the commercial gallery system. Many Colab members are active filmmakers, working independently or drawing either funding, technical assistance, actors or crew from the group.
Best-known among Colab-affiliated film projects were the New Cinema, opened during 1979 on St. Marks Place by Colab members Becky Johnston, Eric Mitchell and James Nares, and B Movies, an independent production of members Beth B and Scott B. 1983 saw the release of the B's Vortex and Charlie Ahearn's Wild Style, a film on Bronx youth culture.
Colab currently produces Potato Wolf, a live half-hour cable TV show on Manhattan Cable, and contributes to Communications Update, another independently produced cable show...The earliest collective undertaking of Collaborative Projects was X Magazine, a newsprint journal of art, social satire, comment, film criticism and photography. X Magazine, published in three numbers from 1977 to 1978, preceded and influenced the attitude and graphics of the punk rock scene. Other publications co-sponsored by Colab include Spanner, a journal of artists' work; Bomb, a magazine of film, video, music, fiction and comment; and the Artists Direct Mail Catalogue, a co-production with the art bookstore Printed Matter.
Colab began with several ideas of what it was in mind. On a practical level, it was envisioned as a grant-getting machine, to recover what rightly belonged to artists. Grant money was then perceived as going to large institutions to pay bureaucrats' salaries; artists' fees were shamefully small. Secondly Colab was thought of as an equipment pool for those who made films and videotapes, and as an information pool as well, for people to sell equipment, gather crews, and talk about ideas. The early colab meetings and ad hoc sessions were very exciting. Ideas for shows and actions flew around at an intoxicating rate.
There were two major theoretical ideas of what the new organization should be about. First, some felt it should be an artists' union, that its membership rolls should be open, as were the shows it would sponsor; that it should seek to represent artists in dealings with alternative spaces, museums and ultimately galleries.
Others believed that Colab should be a corporation, that its product would be the artwork of its members; that it would provide its members with a corporate front behind which to conduct activities and pursue projects. The two views were diametrically opposed, and the split that came about in 1979 with so much rancor now seems to have been inevitable. The dialectic that was set up at the beginning was between collective cohesion and individual atomization. X Magazine was an expression of the former, the direct disbursement of monies to members in 1978 an expression of the latter.
Today the debate, such as it was, appears to have been settled. Colab now has a single rule: Money may not be allotted solely for the benefit of any one individual. This rule, essentially a simple financial regulation, hints at a Colab "philosophy" of group-generated publicly sited art projects, a philosophy that underlies all our successes (from X to the murals), is presumably responsible for our generous funding by the government, and finally serves as the primary criterion for eligibility for Colab funds. In this way then, we keep faith with the State, reproducing models generated by NEA, NYSCA and IRS, and take our place in the "alternative network" we originally opposed.
But even the dubious "alternative" distinction derives from the pretense that Colab is "open"; in fact, while real alternative spaces provide services to a continually changing roster of artists, Colab activities actually involve and benefit only Colab members and a few associates. Colab's real identity, then, is that of an artists' co-op, helping its members to get ahead professionally. Of all Colab projects, only ABC No Rio [then a Colab affiliate] maintains a semblance of publicness in its activities.
Apparently we have lost any claim on the radicality implied bythe two original tentative definitions. Colab is distinguished only by the insistence on "Rule C": collaborative, collective, cooperative, communal projects only. If we are to regain our radical position, it will be from articulation of the advantages-esthetic, social, economic-available to this form of artistic organization.
Walter Robinson and Alan Moore, from the Colab Daily Purge, May 1982, a short-lived internal newsletter edited by Robinson.
One of Colab's main activities was supporting low-budget exhibitions initiated by members and open to all who wished to participate, with minimal curatorial interference. Many of the first exhibitions were theme-centered: "Income and Wealth" (organized by Colen Fitzgibbon & Robin Winters) and the "Manifesto" show (organized by Jenny Holzer & Colen Fitzgibbon), both in 1978. Colab exhibits grew in size and ambition starting with the "Real Estate Show" of 1980. Held in an illegally squatted building, this show was directly linked to the birth of ABC No Rio and is discussed more thoroughly below. A few months later, the "Times Square Show," mounted in a former massage parlor on 41st Street found by Colab artists Tom Otterness and John Ahearn, eclipsed the "Real Estate Show." Expanding way beyond the group that made up Colab's core, the month-long show brought together hundreds of artists from around the city and received unprecedented press coverage. The accessible and populist tone of the exhibition with its performances and party atmosphere stood in sharp contrast to commercial art galleries. Enthusiastic accounts like Jeffrey Deitch's in Art in America helped usher in a new decade during which Colab and ABC No Rio were tightly connected. Riding the wave of publicity surrounding the "Time Square Show," Colab was invited to organize exhibitions outside New York. "The Ritz" (1983) was held in an abandoned flea-bag hotel in downtown Washington, DC, and "The Buffalo Artists' Open" (1982) was at Hallwalls, an alternative space in Buffalo, NY. Both exhibitions combined works by Colab artists with local contributions.
By Jeffrey Deitch, Art in America, 1980
Times Square is New York's behavioral sink, the place where people go to do all the things that they can't do at home. Art appreciation does not generally fall within that category. This past June, however, the hordes of half-wild, half-crazed, and fully degenerate individuals who keep pouring out of the 42nd Street subway had occasion to check out a whole building full of art that was just as raw, raucous, trashy and perhaps even as exciting as some of the more notorious attractions of the tenderloin. Carnival music and hawkers' chants [by Bobby C] lured the curious toward a ramshackle four-story structure on the corner of Seventh Avenue and 41st Street covered with midway signs, banners and subway-style graffiti.
Inside, this former bus depot and massage parlor had been transformed into a sort of art funhouse. Just beyond the door, a motorized James Brown cutout [by David Wells] danced and jerked to one of his records spinning on a plastic phonograph. To the right, a souvenir shop was stocked with all sorts of bizarre trinkets. Movies, video or live performances were often in progress in the first floor lobby.
Those who wandered upstairs and then down to the basement were astounded by a startling variety of paintings, peep shows, sculpture, statues, model rooms, bundled clothing, and even a punching bag set up for practice.
Several dozen of the organizers, participants and hangers-on virtually lived at the site for the show's duration. 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. The show itself was an illustration of that elusive process by which artists with a certain affinity somehow band together to form an unstructured but synergistic association which might almost be called a movement.
Whether or not the Times Square show was pre-lib or post-lib, it did represent the breakthrough of a truly post-modernist art. It proposed not just a change in imagery, or even structure, but also a change in intent. Most of the art in the show had a concrete rather than an abstract purpose-be it entertainment, sexual expression or communication of political messages. In contrast, something like pattern painting, which has been heralded as a post-modern manifestation, is really just a holding pattern for modernists in search of a new way to paint.
The show's success in breaking through the gridlock of contemporary art marketplace demonstrates how much presentation-the "marketing"-of art works and art ideas affects their meaning and their perception by the public, and how important it is for artists to take this into their own hands. A large group show of the Times Square artists at an institutionalized "alternate space" wouldn't have had half the impact, and probably would have neutralized its esthetic. The Times Square show was a challenge to dealers and curators of advanced art who continue to feel that the discreet display of a few pieces in an elegant gallery is enough. But it was even more of a challenge to artists who think that their work stops when a piece leaves the studio, and who leave its presentation to others. Art must come to be marketed with the kind of imagination displayed by this exhibition's organizers-not simply in order to reach the general public, but to cut through the glut of mediocre material and touch the art audience itself.
Excerpted from Art in America, September 1980
Projects supported by Colab often reflected a populist bent and the desire to reach new audiences beyond the moneyed elite that traditionally support art. One of the first ventures paid for with Colab funds was X Magazine, an unedited, cheaply produced newsprint journal that sold for $1. Not every project had to be an exclusively Colab venture. Members of Colab could sometimes get funding for outside projects if the project seemed worthy and other Colab members were involved. Two notable examples of independent projects that received money from Colab were the first issue of Bomb Magazine (1981) and Tellus Audio Cassette Magazine (1983). Many members of Colab were filmmakers and the group contributed to the short-lived screening room New Cinema in the East Village. "All Color News" (1978) and "Potato Wolf" (1979-86) were two public-access cable television shows supported by Colab. In 1980, Colab members voted to rent a storefront where artists could sell low-priced multiples during the holiday gift-giving season. The first "A. More Store" (named after Alan Moore who pushed the idea) was such a success, that Colab was soon approached by mainstream galleries, and in subsequent years the store appeared in different gallery settings. Low-priced multiples by Colab artists also got a boost from Art Direct, a mail-order catalogue co-sponsored by Colab and Printed Matter.
Colab's philosophy of collaboration encouraged some members of the group to work together on two large collaborative paintings. The project was entitled "Mural America" and the two 24-foot long canvases that resulted were exhibited in a show of Colab artists at the Randolph Gallery in Chicago. For Alan the group dynamics during the making of the murals revealed insights into the strengths and weaknesses of the collaborative process. He recorded some of his observations in an account written specially for the No Rio book.
By Alan Moore, 1981
Two murals, each 5' x 24', were produced for the Chicago exhibition. One was located at Cara Perlman's studio on the Lower East Side, the one with the "300 Million Dollar" motif. For five full days people worked until four in the morning in groups of between three and ten. The mural project saw group participation in an intimate setting, and people interacting as artists on one particular piece--discussing among each other how to shape a canvas, debating about images, trading off ideas in a pre-execution discussion. It is interesting to see how all your friends paint, from working their sketch to putting it on the canvas. It fostered trust in each other's ability to paint an interesting image, and working in front of other people built self-confidence.
... For Anton van Dalen, who hosted the second mural at the end of its journey, the project was the story of "how people got angry and finally felt all right about it; that conflict is what made it." For Anton, the idea of a mural implied an overall ideological statement celebrating say, church, state, a labor union, industry. This mural, he said, became a statement about the fragmentation of our society, a crazy quilt of our times. People wanted to do something together, and yet they were working alone at the same time. It represents well the kind of noisy coexistence, the rough and ready energy that we like about New York City, this desperate kind of life.