Written by Joseph Nechvatal
Printed Matter, Inc.’s new A Book About Colab (and Related Activities) with its accompanying exhibition, the A More Store, and the Clocktower Radio’s 80 minute Colab Vinyl Mix are robust contributions to the cultural history of the not-for-profit Colab art collective that emerged in 1977. Yet they raise the issue of the imperfection of the archive as a historical record. Hence, the default basis of art history. I’d like to demonstrate that imperfection, that false sense of closure, with a few counter examples.
Open membership Colab was active for about 10 years and was distinguished by the raw energy of the members who, by coming together, became both funded by the government and politically engaged. We were very multi-disciplinarian and strove to control our own cultural productions. We often advocated for a form of cultural art activism engaged with the political predicaments of the time, like the economic recession of the late 1970’s (with budget cuts in social programs), the massive Reagan-era nuclear armament build-up, and the coming gentrification to a gutted Manhattan. During that post-punk period, myself and many other artists were interested in the distributive capacity of art based on reproduction. Most were inspired by a 1968 essay “The Dematerialization of Art” by John Chandler and Lucy R. Lippard, as it argued that Conceptualism had a politically transformative aspect to be delved into. The other inescapable text at the time was The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (or Reproducibility) by Walter Benjamin.
Well-known practitioners of this art-and-reproduction fusion were Colab member Jenny Holzer and Colab associate Barbara Kruger. I too was at the time photo-mechanically blowing up my small drawings, making Xerox books (Xerox was brand new at the time) and street posters. Even painting-centric artists like David Wojnarowicz, Walter Robinson, Justen Ladda, David Salle, Christof Kohlhofer and Anton van Dalen were examining reproduction and reproduction methods, like the silkscreen and stencil.
Colab’s interests in Fluxus-like low-priced multiples (The A. More Stores and the Artists Direct Mail Catalogue – a co-production with Printed Matter), newsprint publishing (X Magazine, Spanner, Bomb), No Wave film production and screening, video and cable T.V. (Potato Wolf and the MWF Video Club), live art performance, audio cassette publishing and mail art distribution networks (Tellus Audio Cassette Magazine) have been pretty well documented, even more so with A Book About Colab (and Related Activities). But I would like to insert into the record two gallery installation exhibitions that I organized for Colab and ABC No Rio (respectively) that were very much a part of this reproductive inclination, but that are relatively undocumented as (ironically) there are no photographs or videos of them!
One was the COLAB PRESENTS: UP WITH PEOPLE show that was held from November 5th to November 30th, 1982 at Hallwalls in Buffalo, New York. In 1983 UP WITH PEOPLE was exhibited at the Concord Gallery in Soho and received mixed reviews by Grace Glueck in the New York Times (January 6, 1984). UP WITH PEOPLE consisted of fairly large photomechanical blowups of small-scale two-dimensional artworks (photos or drawings) that were provided to me by each member of Colab. I had these maquettes photographed and enlarged by a photomechanical studio in the East Village to a standard size and color range (black, white, gray). As there was diversity in Colab’s artistic style, the installation had a dissimilar but visually coherent look to it. The work put altogether looked robust, and that is one reason why we choose the title UP WITH PEOPLE for it, so as to mock the popular mainstream Up With People musical group and movement.
Up With People, at the height of the ensemble’s fame, was so popular that it provided the halftime entertainment at four Super Bowl Games (1976, 1980, 1982, 1986). We were out to satirize the group’s cultish utopian ideology, its conservative cultural politics (the first Up With People album had John Wayne, Pat Boone and Walt Disney on the cover), and how it was funded: by corporate America (Exxon, Halliburton, Coca-Cola, Pfizer, General Electric, Coors, Toyota, Enron and Searle donated tens of millions of dollars to the organization). It was understood to have been a key part of a deliberate propaganda effort to discredit liberal counterculture in the 1960s and 1970s.
This reproductive strategy re-emerged when I produced the Colab sponsored show (with performances) simply called John Heartfield at ABC No Rio, held from November 1st to November 18th in 1983. Xeroxes and photomechanical blowups of John Heartfield’s (1891-1968) art, torn from a book, were the maquettes this time. Reproductions of his anti-Nazi/anti-Fascist photomontages were wheat-pasted on the walls of ABC No Rio, walls that had been painted a sinister black from top to bottom. I filled the space with audio collages by Bradley Eros and hit the streets with Mitch Corber, putting posters all over downtown: advertisements for the show along with powerful John Heartfield images.
Later, I organized The Art of John Heartfield event that was held at Kamikaze Club at 531 W 19th Street on March, 21st 1984 that featured art or performance by Edwige, David Wojnarowicz, Bradley Eros, Kiki Smith, Doug Ashford, Aline Mare, Joe Lewis, Mitch Corber and Christof Kohlhofer, among others.
Much as it seems impossible to understand in our age of ubiquitous cell-phone photography, no photos were taken of any aspect of the John Heartfield events (that I know of) or of the two showings of UP WITH PEOPLE.
Such was the life of reproduction and distribution in the pre-digital age.