Oil Rig Fountain © 1980 Becky Howland. Men's Room, Times Square Show. Also visible: Atomic Graffiti by Mitch Corber and Fruit (upper right) by Joe Fyfe. © Terise Slotkin Photography.
We did the Real Estate Show in January 1980, and the Times Square Show (TSS) in June 1980. That was a really hectic six months!
The Real Estate Show propelled us into many unexpected activities. The city thought we were some sort of terrorist group when we broke into that building on Delancey Street. We found ourselves in a unique negotiating position. They unexpectedly offered us a space, so we went for it and created ABC No Rio, the community center that still exists today.
It was a time when artists were interested in organizing themselves, before the term DIY even existed. I moved to New York because I got a job working as a studio assistant, first for Nancy Graves, and then for her friends Charles Ross and Pat Steir. At Nancy's suggestion, I applied to the Whitney Independent Study Program and was accepted. The program provided a studio space for eighteen months, in their downtown headquarters on Reade Street, and seminars with visiting artists. I admired Noguchi and Smithson and wanted to make public sculpture.
It was a great time to be in New York. There was a big scene developing downtown that was really fun, with music and clubs and artists running around in bands—very tribal. Communication was really about running into people. No cell phones or Internet. Gordon Matta-Clark was slicing apart buildings—there was sort of a wild-in-the-streets feel. I became friends with another sculptor working downtown – Ann Messner. We each did a series of guerrilla public sculptures, and encouraged each other's transgressive escapades.
I started getting involved with Collaborative Projects when I rented space from John Ahearn on Franklin Street. I taught him how to mix plaster. Through John I met Tom Otterness and Robin Winters. Both of them had been through the Whitney Program. Tom introduced me to Alan Moore, and somehow I met Coleen Fitzgibbon (also an alumna of the Whitney Program), Ulli Rimkus, Christof Kohlhofer, and Andrea Callard. Robin invited me to participate in a show at his loft—The Dog Show (March 1979). That was the first exhibition I was in, in New York. Coleen invited me to be in a show at her loft—the Manifesto Show (April 1979). With others, they had formed a group called Collaborative Projects, or Colab for short, a sort of artists' union. The women urged me to come to Colab meetings to boost the female ranks. I'd heard there was a lot of fighting at the meetings (about money), and I waited until after one of the first big ruptures occurred to attend. Ann began hanging out with Peter Moennig, a German artist from the Cologne-Dusseldorf area about the same time that Alan and I hooked up. The four of us became close friends and collaborators. Ann, Peter, and I participated in an artist-organized show at 75 Warren Street in April 1979 titled A Salute to Creative Youth. Joseph Nechvatal (who'd worked on a three-day performance festival at 75 Warren Street) lived nearby on North Moore Street and was an integral part of the scene, as was Christy Rupp (who we met through Charlie Ahearn, John's twin brother), and also Peter Fend.
There was a lot of anger and spirited discussions among the artists about the gentrification of Lower Manhattan. It was evident, from what happened in SoHo, that the pioneering artists would be economically displaced. TriBeCa gentrification was well underway. The Lower East Side was still a ghetto, but many of the poor immigrant populations there had already been displaced to the South Bronx. There were so many abandoned empty buildings that had become the property of the City after the financial crisis of the seventies—landlords simply walked away. New York City had become the biggest land-owner in the five boroughs, an unprecedented situation. There were so many crazy, unfair things going on in the City that we wanted to address, such as landlord speculation, tenants rights, and misuse of property. We decided to do a show about Real Estate.
Alan found a great abandoned building on Delancey Street for the show. It was pale blue stucco, in contrast to the normal tenement bricks. It was like a Cadillac showroom, with huge windows at street level. He had a friend who worked for the Koch administration (Annette Kuhn), and we tried to find a way to legitimately rent the space, which was owned by the city. But it didn't work out, so we decided to break the lock and go in and do the show anyway.
The core group, which was gung-ho about doing the Real Estate Show, approached Colab for funding. One rule of Colab was: there had to be two Colab members involved in the project—in addition to the project being open to others—in order to get funding, which we did receive. Something like three hundred dollars.
I don't remember exactly how I started with the octopus imagery. I was a scuba diver and loved the subterranean, underground life—whether on land or sea. Maybe it was from talking with Alan and Robin. I was immersed in reading about robber barons and was drawing octopi when I met Robert Sklar. He was a film scholar and social historian who taught in the cinema studies department at NYU. He recommended a book called The Octopus by Frank Norris. It was a chronicle of the battle between farmers in California and the monopoly of the railroads. The imagery lent itself easily to our issues. There is an Australian octopus that is light blue, which was the color of the Delancey Street building. I thought of a giant octopus camouflaging itself on the front of the building and decided to make a mural—this was a first for me. It was about eleven feet long. I wanted to wheat-paste it to the second story, but there was no stairwell access. So instead, friends gave me a leg up, and I clambered onto a ledge on the front of the building to install it. It was very nerve-wracking and also very exhilarating. In my experience, things don't happen unless they are a lot of fun.
I made my poster for the Real Estate Show on-site during the installation. While some people were turning the gas on (for heat), I cut the stencils for the poster and spray-painted them there to post on the street, as an invitation to the opening. We didn't want to advertise too far in advance because we didn't want to get busted. For the initial manifesto and text-based flyers we gathered at Alan's tiny apartment on East Houston Street, and while we talked he transcribed the group conversations. Alan worked as a typesetter, and he was an amazingly fast typist.
There were several break-ins. We installed the show for two days and had a New Year's Eve Party there for our opening. It was over a long holiday week. January 1, 1980 was a Tuesday, and when we returned to the show, our lock was gone and the city had installed a new lock. We held a press conference in front of the building on January 8, and a few great coincidences occurred. Joseph Beuys was in town, giving a talk at Cooper Union. Peter Moennig, who'd studied with him in Dusseldorf, invited him to our press conference, and he showed up with his art dealer Ronald Feldman. The assistant city commissioners from HPD (Housing, Preservation, and Development), who were in charge of this little blue building, also arrived. They sat in their car in front of the building, and then who popped out of their car but Denny Kelly, who I'd met previously. She was an artist who was working as a waitress in a cafe on Duane Street. By then I'd shifted from working for artists, and was working for a plumber who did renovations in lofts and in this particular cafe. She was now working as the assistant to the assistant commissioner. So there was Denny Kelly, who said, "Hello Becky!"
A reporter and photographer from the New York Times came too (along with fifteen policemen), and the Times ran a story on the front page of the Metro section. The combination of unprecedented publicity and personalities persuaded the city to meet with us and discuss a solution. The city had removed our artwork from the building on January 11, and we wanted it back. We also wanted to continue our show to create a temporary citizen's center.
Denny facilitated much of the logistics for our discussion. The city absolutely would not give us the Real Estate Show building on Delancey Street because, number one, we'd broken into it, and number two, they said it was earmarked for other things (a housing project at Seward Park). However, they gave us a list of buildings and spaces to choose from. That winter was brutally cold and all the locations were abandoned, with no heat—there were icicles hanging from the ceilings! For the month of February, we took a temporary location at a storefront at 172 Delancey Street, closer to the entrance to the Williamsburg Bridge than our original location, and did a show of film screenings and performances. Then we found the space at 156 Rivington Street—a storefront with a back courtyard that was filled with rubble, ailanthus trees, and tremendous potential. We moved to that location in March of 1980. We were astonished that this was all working out. The Real Estate Show was so much fun to work on. Alan and I worked together night and day. We were late for our own press conference—we could not get out of bed.
After some deliberation, Colab members had decided that they didn't want a space because a physical location needed an "administration" to support it. So it was necessary to form our own organization, but creation of a non-profit 501c3 would be a lengthy process. Initially, I signed a month-to-month lease for an artist's studio in the storefront. ABC No Rio was created in that location. We named it one afternoon when we were looking out the front windows to the storefront across the street, and we saw a sign that had once said ABOGADO NOTARIO (Notary Public in Spanish). Some of the letters had fallen off — so it read as ABC No Rio.
In the beginning it was Alan, myself, and Bobby G, and a handful of others. Bobby G was an artist who we met at the Real Estate Show. At ABC No Rio, we continued the salon-style theme shows. We announced a theme; everyone brought their work and installed it. On opening nights we had evenings of poetry, music, and video.
Concurrently, at the Colab meetings in the spring of 1980, people began talking about doing a show in Times Square. John [Ahearn] found the building, and with others facilitated renting it from the landlord. The idea was to mix the downtown artists from Colab and the East Village Club 57 scene with graffiti artists from the South Bronx affiliated with Fashion Moda. I definitely wanted to be involved!
I had two big pieces for TSS and items for the Souvenir Shop. Coleen asked me to do a poster, but I was pretty busy with ABC No Rio and could only make some sketches.
The first piece was the Oil Rig Fountain. I'd made it the month before, for the first exhibition at ABC No Rio, Artists for Survival. It had been installed in the front window. I brought it to the TSS to install in the men's room, the bathroom in the basement. I removed a urinal and installed the fountain (the opposite of Duchamp). It was an oil rig situated on top of two moneybags, in a concrete basin filled with coal. There was a scimitar (curved sword) poised over the fountain, ready to cut. The fluid that ran through the fountain was a mix of water and oil. It looked like cum. At the time, I didn't realize how intense it was. Most of the guys couldn't even look at it. But looking at it years later, even I thought, "Yikes!" This was during the Iranian hostage crisis. Women liked the fountain, but the men couldn't take it.
After the fountain was installed, I went upstairs to the second floor to work on the windows. The windows in the Times Square Show space fascinated me. There was a light blue film on them—a sunscreen that cast a blue shadow—and gave the whole room an underwater feel. And as they were on the second floor, it was like continuing the same piece that I'd just installed on Delancey Street. I had a lot of pent-up energy from the last few months of talking with city bureaucrats, and making arrangements instead of making art, so I wanted to make a new piece. The night and early morning became the best time to work, and I began camping out there, basically using the space as my studio. Times Square was about the night, and the theme of the show became Times Square itself. I brought tracings from the Real Estate Show mural and made a series of them on Mylar and flexible plastic. I brought drawings that I'd made in 1979 for an episode of Potato Wolf, a Colab live cable TV show. The drawings were of the deposed Shah, Ayatollah Khomeini, Uncle Sam (as he was drawn in Iran), and a woman holding a gun underneath her chador. The roiling fluid movement of the octopus—the animal itself—inspired me to play freely with symbols of power, energy, and authority such as diamonds, moneybags, strip-mining for coal, oil rigs, popes, bishops, shahs—ideograms of the patriarchy. I was trying to understand how they worked together. I went almost every day and worked on the installation, adding and subtracting drawings to the piece. Christof Kohlhofer remarked that perhaps I should be making a stop-action film in the window, because I changed it so many times.
As far as the Souvenir Shop, Tom exhorted us: "We need something to sell!" I made several editions of painted plaster multiples. They were all small enough to hold in your hand. The first one was Love Canal Potatoes. They were autobiographical, in that I was born in Niagara Falls, the home of the toxic waste dump at Love Canal. There was a doll's eye imbedded into the potato—it was art that looked back at you. The peach was a counterpoint to the potato—a fondle-able Eden. The Hatchet-Heads were a round cartoon head—basically a ball with a hatchet embedded between the eyes. People have asked if Fluxus had any influence on the Souvenir Shop. Personally, I never had a relation to Fluxus, except for Yoko Ono. Her statement in 1969, "Woman is the nigger of the world," is brutal, ugly, and true. I don't know anyone who summed it up better. I was vaguely aware of other artists' stores, like Oldenburg's, but I hadn't experienced them first-hand. By that time I was really in the mode of "kill the Buddha," i.e. get the thing in front of me out of the way. I wasn't respectful of my elders. I had no mentors. A lot of young people had that sentiment at the time. However, it was fun to sell work from the Souvenir Shop, and to feel rich with a twenty-dollar bill in my pocket.
One morning in the wee hours there was a clatter and commotion, and I went downstairs to investigate. Jean-Michel [Basquiat] had arrived and spray-painted "Free Sex" over the entry door. Colab members objected, and the piece was removed. That was practical peer censorship. As Coleen said, "Who would want to be working there minding the store when people came in for the free sex?"
Censorship, curating, and instincts in collision were a challenge at TSS. Artists didn't know too much about resolving the inevitable conflicts. There was a lot more talking than listening. There were a lot of tears. One of Colab's main principles was no curators. But people would get a great idea and start rearranging the show—and then artists would come in and find their piece moved or gone. It was a free-for-all. Hmm. Maybe that is why I started camping out there.
The Times Square Show was a watershed moment that really hit a chord with people, and was a great success. But it was a hard act to follow. The group flopped around for a while. Some people left and others joined, there was a lot of churning. Commercial success came after the show, and artists wanted to go to Europe instead of to Colab meetings. The New Museum invited us to do a show, and we proposed a soup kitchen. They didn't go for it, so nothing happened. There was a sense of "What do we do now?" Colab had to rethink its primary purpose, because it wasn't necessarily theme shows—it was to expand the audience for art—not just for the elite but for everyone. In retrospect, we didn't know very much about collaboration at all. It was not like the reasoned dialogue that young artists seem to know now.
Colab continued with a series of annual stores of artist's multiples, first at 529 Broome Street and then at White Columns, Documenta 7, Barbara Gladstone Gallery, Jack Tilton Gallery, and Printed Matter. We created a Direct Mail Catalog for the multiples, and continued the live cable TV show, Potato Wolf. We did a thirty-foot-long group mural that was shown at the Randolph Street Gallery in Chicago. There were group exhibitions at the Brooke Alexander Gallery in SoHo, and at the New Harmony Gallery in Indiana. There was a traveling exhibition call the Two Suitcase Show.
Walter Robinson was President of Colab in 1982, and I was President in 1983 with fellow officers Matthew Geller, Mike Glier, and Peter Fend. We organized a series of traveling, experimental shows at Hallwalls in Buffalo, NY, and at the WPA in Washington, DC. People were selected by lottery as a small investigative team to do on-site reconnaissance. We asked the local artists, "What can we do together? How can we create a show here?" There was no model we knew of for that kind of inquiry at the time, for a socially engaged art practice. We were asking the right questions at the right time.
Colab might have been catching its breath after TSS, but others kept moving forward, with the East Village scene. Piezo Electric Gallery opened right around the corner from ABC No Rio. Commercial galleries began opening in the East Village. The whole thing snowballed with more and more galleries popping up. We started to wonder if we had started the gentrification that we had originally spoken out against. Then people began to get sick, although it took a while to identify the illness as AIDS. That changed the whole landscape. Ronald Reagan was president from 1981 to 1989, and it was one of the most repressive cultural climates that we've ever had in this country, followed by the Bush eras.
However, repression leads to resistance. There is octopus imagery associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement (Octopi Wall Street!). There was a seventy-foot-long octopus float produced for the Rose Bowl parade in Pasadena (Occupy Rose Bowl!), with people swirling around at the end of each tentacle. The journalist Matt Taibbi described investment bank Goldman Sachs as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money," and Occupy Wall Street has started squidding, i.e., staging street protests with a squid puppet. While, unfortunately, unfair conditions persist, I'm glad to see that resistance is strong and my work is part of a continuum.
As told to Shawna Cooper, February 24, 2012
Becky Howland (b. 1951, Niagara Falls, NY)
Becky Howland earned a BFA in Sculpture from Syracuse University, NY, and graduated from the Whitney Independent Study Program, New York, NY, in 1974. In 1980, Howland co-founded ABC No Rio, a collectively run center for art and activism at 156 Rivington Street, New York City. She served as President of Colab from 1982 to 1983, and exhibited at New York City venues including Artists Space, Fashion Moda, The Museum of Modern Art, Piezo Electric Gallery, P.S.1, and White Columns throughout the 1980s.