Christy Rupp. Rat Patrol, 1979. Offset print, 5 ½ x 17 ½" (13.97 x 44.45 cm). Courtesy of the artist.
I made my way to the Colab swarm in 1977 via friends from college, Charlie and John Ahearn. I lived on Fulton Street a few blocks south of the Clocktower and the Mudd Club. Living nearby made staying out until five AM a lot easier.
By 1980, I was already interested in urban ecology. I had moved to New York with no money at all, and discovered that I could buy a cricket for five cents at the pet store. Having always loved animals, gradually I worked my way up to mice and rats, geese, and seagulls and began to study their behavior. In the fall of 1979, The City Wildlife Museum opened as an exhibition titled Animals Living in Cities. It materialized first at Fashion Moda then again at ABC No Rio in 1980. I was already engaged with animal study and interested in how we perceive animals. The TSS didn't have any direct input into my thinking about ecology and rat behavior, but it did provide a great audience. I was interested in polling visitors regarding their opinions on wildlife and meeting "pests" as wildlife.
It was easy to put my pets to work as photo subjects to frame my impression of the world outside. I now see the rat poster project as a shamanic device to draw something out that you know is there but you can't see. I was speculating that by making the images of rats visible, perhaps their role in our shared ecosystem would become interesting to people. In 1979 I got a job in the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, which was a government-sponsored jobs program modeled on the New Deal. It was an artist's project in New York with hundreds of writers, musicians, dancers and visual artists.
Via CETA, I was able to use the Rat Patrol studies to get a job at the Museum of Natural History, where Dr. Betty Faber, a behavioral entomologist and cockroach guru, let me photograph her work and make dioramas. There, I began to work on getting past the "eek" factor that is such a potent force. You have to notice that power of being grossed out in order to work with it.
At that time, punk culture was pervasive. It was a doubleheaded monster of self-absorption and insurgence. There were a few inspiring people like Patti Smith who defined a broader range of expression. When I started to get interested in garbage, it literally opened a whole can of worms. I tried to connect urban ecology and anti-authoritarian sentiment.
A lot of us didn't know enough about the situation in Vietnam, because our culture tried to erase it, but we loved protesting. I was not someone who understood politics very well, but I learned a lot after leaving the cocoon of art school in the move to NYC. A lot of my work during the period of the Times Square Show was inspired by my friends, and many of us were making multiples. We were interested in sales as well as trading the work with one another. That interaction was as much a part of the fun as the ability to make a little money. We were too young then to know about carpal tunnel syndrome.
For the TSS I dropped off spray paintings of rats on newspaper, sets of life-size plaster rats, the poster, lots of other objects made of plastic and rubber, and stickers and buttons.
The other opportunity presented by the TSS and the Souvenir Shop was actively interfacing with the public. It was about drawing people in, and the objects were conceived as a way to seduce street traffic in addition to conscious participants of consuming art. I believe there was much more topical stuff in the TSS Souvenir Shop than had been shown before in previous store projects. Many objects had sexual content. The TSS Souvenir Shop aspired to be more of a living spawn ejaculated by the surrounding sex industry stores.
During the run of TSS, there was the sense of not really knowing what was going on but knowing that if you were patient you would meet all kinds of weirdoes and see lots of movies and really enjoy the openness. It was different all the time.
I think the TSS was the first time that the Rat Patrol came indoors. It was Andrea Callard's idea to use the Rat Patrol posters as a staircase border to visually direct traffic up the stairs. She had a lot to do with the look of the lobby area.
In my experience, the Colab adventure was largely about how aggressive or lucky you were in getting your work placed in the most effective context. The actual layout of the show was done by a few people, not everyone had a voice. But as the show thrived and grew busier, with work being added right up to the very end, we all were involved as witnesses and participants—so that was fun.
Functionally, Collaborative Projects worked much better for the visibility of time-based media than art exhibitions, but we realized that it was important to integrate our projects. Creatively, many people were working autonomously. Colab was a way to get our work out in the world. It was collaborative in its presentation for sure, and looking back, the work had a synergy.
As told to Shawna Cooper, June 18, 2012
Christy Rupp (b. 1949, Rochester, NY)
Christy Rupp earned a BA from Colgate University, Hamilton, NY, in 1973. She attended the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, before graduating with an MFA in Sculpture from Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, in 1977. She was instrumental in founding ABC No Rio, a collectively run center for art and activism at 156 Rivington Street, New York City. She exhibited at New York City institutions throughout the 1980s including Artists Space, Brooke Alexander Gallery, Barbara Gladstone Gallery, Fashion Moda, the Kitchen, the Museum of Modern Art, and the New Museum. Her public works executed in New York City have included The Rat Patrol (1979), Lower Manhattan; Hire Intelligence (1984), Dag Hammarskjold Plaza; Social Progress (1986), 23rd Street and 5th Avenue, and Insufficient Data Fish (1989), Central Park Pond.