When I first came to New York in 1973, I made drawings everyday and wrote and composed songs that I sang. I made sculptures in my studio that were performance pieces, and I made videotapes and Super-8 films that pulled together the writing, singing, performing. So to me, drawing and doing research and writing was all part of the process. I had been trained as a musician as a kid. I was a musician and a soloist in a choir. I had sung in front of audiences of 20,000 people multiple times. I was not involved in any of the [downtown] bands, although I did take some pictures of the Cardboard Air Band. I didn’t like loud clubs. They hurt my ears. I went to the Mudd Club sometimes, but I wasn't really into that scene. I did like some of those bands. Who couldn't like Patti Smith?
In the documentary Blank City, John Lurie said that these were the days that if you were a painter you were in a band, and everybody did what they didn't know how to do. I really appreciate what he said in that because I think that was accurate. But I also feel that the way we grew up informed that. Some people would say that 1966 was the high point in American culture. And at that time we felt like there had been this big material expansion, we felt like anything was possible. We could be painters. And we could make movies. And we could be sculptors. And we could just do everything. I didn't personally have a great sense of limitation. And I think other people had the same feeling. You didn't feel like you had to be this tiny, narrow thing. You felt like you could do it all. So that is why Colab started our own shows. Because we could, we had spaces, there were ideas, and there was a kind of "pay attention to me" attitude.
The seventies decade was a huge recession when hundreds of thousands of people left New York. In downtown New York when you went outside after five o'clock, there was no one on the streets, except for in some bar that catered to artists. You wouldn't pass people on the street unless they were some kind of creative person who had come downtown to get some kind of space for cheap.
How to make a living as an artist was an open question and a real mystery. A lot of us had gone to art school, although not everybody had. Some people had invisible incomes, some had jobs, and some had ways they made money. The city was really broke. It was a messy, uncared-about kind of era. There wasn't exactly a lot of opportunity.
Colab wasn't a very formal organization, although it did have some formalities. We went through an early phase of experimentation with the Green Corporation, Colab's early moniker, and the first set of officers. There were some defining events. There were people who were putting together cable TV shows that were made very spontaneously in the studio. Later they had pre-recorded material folded into them. Film and video making are very group-oriented activities, and so it [Colab] would follow that structure. There was a grant at one point, maybe $3,500 from NYSCA or someplace, and an early set of officers made an "executive decision" to buy some video-editing decks. And that made a lot of people angry, because it wasn’t a collective decision. So after that, and the first set of officers, it became a much more democratic process; there had to be a certain amount of people involved in the group to make a decision about money, a quorum. We had a community among ourselves, and we had this idea about reaching an audience, but it was a little mysterious as to who that audience would be, although we knew there would be one, somewhere.
One of the great things that Liza Bear did was that she got QUIP machines from the Exxon Corporation. With a QUIP machine you could make a copy of a drawing, a type-written sheet, something from a magazine, a collage, anything. You put it into the machine and then it rolled around this drum and it created and sent an image of your piece of paper over the phone lines to another machine. So she got six machines, and we used them in our studios sending drawings and ideas and lists and things back and forth to each other. That was a very collaborative conversation of small 8 ½ x 11" art works. When it came out of the machine at your house it would be like a carbon paper copy of what was sent. It looks like a Xerox, but it is a special kind of paper and a special kind of process.
Robin Winters and Coleen Fitzgibbon were doing a lot of work together. Robin had a big studio on Broadway, and still does. Pretty much he would work in his studio all day, and then around four o'clock people might converge there or he might call someone and generate some social interaction, like going out for dinner or to somebody's house or something. That is just one example of many overlapping social interactions that would happen. Cara Perlman and I each had apartments in the same building on two different occasions. We were very convenient to one another and saw all of each other’s work. A lot of people went to school with one another; I went to art school with Robin. So people would come together socially around their work. It was a "what can we do" conversation, who are we communicating with? And how is that going to happen? It was all kind of loose. I don't remember any wall labels, price lists, press releases, or invitations. But there might have been some posters. When we got to the Times Square Show, we did have invitations and we made press releases.
The space [of the theme shows] was a container, and within that container was a soup: a mixture of overlapping forms of expression. Different people all had different experiences. In my experience I would go take my work over, put it up and that would be fine. In groups of artists, sometimes people edit one another, and someone is transgressive, and the others would say "Oh no, you can’t do that" or "I don't like it," or something along those lines. That wasn’t my experience. But feedback might come in the form of another artwork.
I have a really clear memory of what I submitted to the Doctors and Dentists Show: photographs of my dog wearing sunglasses. For the Batman Show I made a little pamphlet called the "Bat Tract," a little manifesto thing about bats: bats in Texas, bats in my grandfather's furniture store, bats as bug eaters, bats as creepy things that people are afraid of. I know I did something in the Manifesto Show, but I don't remember what it was… The Real Estate Show was done by newer people who had come into the group. They were another wave of people being attracted to the group conversation. But I did participate when ABC No Rio came out of that. I went over to ABC No Rio and painted Ailanthus trees on the walls. And I photographed Becky's [Howland] sculpture in the backyard.
In February 1980, I had a show in California at Site Site Site. So that is why I wasn't involved in the Real Estate Show. I had already shown at Creative Time and PS 1, and done a bunch of things. I was having a really good time in my career. I moved to New York in 1973 and I think Artists Space had already started at that time. People who were maybe ten years older started it. The Whitney Independent Study Program was sort of a way that you might integrate into that [group of established people], but I didn't do that. From the neighborhood I met Alan Saret who was one of the earliest artists involved with PS 1, which was an alternative space, but one that was started by people who were connected to interesting and powerful artists in New York who had international reputations already. So Artists Space and PS 1 were less open alternative spaces. I guess Creative Time was also an alternative space. Robin and I both submitted and were accepted to show in their 1978 Customs House Show. But that's an alternative space that has a director, is raising money, gets a hold of the New York Times and makes sure that Grace Glueck gets over there and writes about it. They were in a slightly more elevated league than Colab.
The appeal of Colab was that it was a downtown social milieu involved with some of the people I went to Washington University with and also people I went to the San Francisco Art Institute with … and with people who you thought were interesting. So for me, even though I was showing in more established places, I was also really interested in what was going on among the people I knew. In maybe 1981 I had a show at White Columns, an alternative space that was run by artists. It was a kind of post-Greene Street kind of place. Mike Roddy [and other artists too] from White Columns was involved in the Times Square Show.
John Ahearn found the building in Times Square. It was a pretty funky building that had been a massage parlor and was unrented. At the time of the Times Square Show, I was the Secretary [of Colab], Ulli [Rimkus] was the Treasurer, Coleen was the President, and Tom [Otterness] was the Vice President. For the Times Square Show, I made a poster that had this crow and these Ailanthus tree leaves and some seeds on a background of newspaper. And I made this Ailanthus tree mural on the walls. I was doing my Ailanthus work in those days; that is what I did, art-wise. We spent the month of May installing, and it was on display for the month of June.
Somewhere along the line, I decided maybe I should take pictures of the show. They are at least some kind of record of what was there. Probably three weeks into the show I took those pictures. In my recollection, the show didn't change that much. There are some people who might feel otherwise. There might have been some work taken out, but I don't think it changed that much.
In my Ailanthus work, my vision for the city was that these plants that really survived and thrived would somehow be involved in transforming the city into a more beautiful and livable place, even if they were plants that people referred to as weeds or did not have the cachet of other kinds of plants. I had in mind that there would be a lush plant place [on the first floor of the Times Square Show] and then there would be other artworks folded into that. When I look at those pictures, I don't think of it as a big mess, I think the whole show had a certain elegant coherence, even though it is very raw and rough. To me it made sense as a whole—back to the soup idea. And the way things hung together was interesting. I wallpapered the walls with the New York Times and painted the Ailanthus trees on it. The New York Times on the wall didn't work, so I painted it grey and did it all over again. And somebody else was doing something with the little stage and somebody else had the area with the door next to it and somebody else did something with the air-conditioner and somebody else did something with the hallway down to the basement. Somehow we decided that the Store, the Souvenir Shop, would be there on the first floor.
In a freeform, chaotic way we did walk-thrus with artists before the show opened. Sometimes you didn't find out everything at the beginning [of the show] because there was so much going on. It was the kind of thing where people told other people about it and then they showed up. I have curated a lot of things since then, and that certainly came together in a more chaotic way than the other things I worked on. I am not sure everyone loved it.
I thought the Souvenir Shop was really successful. It cohered in a really good way, and I think the multiples that people made and sold tended to be really interesting. It is connected to Oldenburg's Store. I had a book on Oldenburg's sketches that talked all about the Store. Tom always made cheap multiples. But there were earlier stores. It was a way to make things, trade them, and make money. You didn't make a lot of money doing it, but it was really fun. Marc Blane made these wonderful multiples. There used to be this wino liquor, Night Train. He had all of these empty Night Train bottles with images of buildings in them. It was a really nice multiple. Mike Roddy and Leah Douglas made these outrageous ones that were prayer fans that had some kind of prayer on one side and a picture of copulation on the other side. I used to have some and I gave them to Leah a few years ago. Kiki Smith made pieces from two by fours that she painted as cigarette packs. Brian Piersol made these little, tiny buildings out of wheatpaste—mushy stuff that dries. They were replicas of the Empire State building, riffs on the tourist object. They were hilarious. The Souvenir Shop was an ironic take on the museum gift shop. And when I think about it, good artists were offering really nice things for nothing.
The Portrait Gallery was a good idea. It had good art and bad art and everything else, but who cares. There was something very funny about these people having a portrait gallery in 1980, because most people didn't see themselves as any kind of traditional artist. The fact that there were that many portraits to show is kind of surprising to me. I think many of the portraits already existed [at the time of the show].
I liked the Fashion Lounge. That was really beautiful. There was this really interesting group of mostly women designers in New York; they might have been a little flummoxed as to how to become fashion designers. But they were dealing with textiles and ideas about how you live with clothes.
We were the first generation that grew up with TV. I think that had a lot to do with the kinds of themes that threaded through most of the work. There were Colab people who worked with some of the people in the Pictures crowd.
You know about Tin Pan Alley. If you were uptown, that would be a good place to go by. It was an interesting place, where Maggie Smith generated an interesting kind of culture, and the food was good. That was a place where you would meet people who you didn't already know; and you didn't know anyone like them. If you think about the issues of class, race, and gender, all of those things were being ventilated there. There would be people of all types there. That says something about Times Square: that everyone might be there. I personally didn't hang out there that much, but it was a fascinating place. To a great extent it [Times Square] has been sanitized but to a certain extent it persists. It wasn't so overwhelming in terms of electricity and light as it is now, but it was more a swirling place. The Port Authority, those big movie theaters, and Broadway musicals were all there. It was kind of a place that makes a lot of sense in terms of culture making. It had many, many overlapping communities.
I think that I was extremely active in that group of people up to and including the Times Square Show, and then I withdrew from the big group conversation for a while. I did a lot of art and education residencies after that. I took ideas from the art world that I had been playing with and went swimming with them in the mainstream culture of public education. I working in thirty schools in New York City and all across New York State with residencies sponsored by NYFA and other organizations. So that was something different. Then in 1985 I started this print studio and arts organization in Lexington, New York. Some people from Colab came and made prints with me. I think that I have always thought it was really interesting to witness how people learn in groups. After the Times Square Show, since I had the slides, I went to Wake Forest University, Williams College, and University of Kentucky giving lectures about group activity among artists. I liked group activity, and I still do.
As told to Shawna Cooper, August 30, 2011
Andrea Callard (b. 1950, Chicago, IL)
Andrea Callard graduated from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1972 and subsequently earned an MFA from Hunter College’s Department of Film & Media Studies. The artist served as Secretary of Colab from 1978 to1980. Her work in film, video, sound, photography, installation, and drawing focuses on nature, landscape, and the environment. Additional information is available at http://andreacallard.blogspot.com/.