The following is an extract from an article that will be published shortly in the Doubt Guardian. The full article includes interviews I carried out in November 2007 with Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey and with Phelim McDermott from Improbable.
for information on Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey’s projects and
Out of Control: Conversations on Collaboration
In the 21st century artistic collaboration has moved from being an aberration to being as commonplace as the individual artist. What are the reasons for this phenomenon?
Collaboration has a long history in the visual arts stretching back to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and beyond. At the beginning of the 20th century artists and writers groups were numerous. Dada, Die Brucke, Blue Rider, Futurists, Vorticists, the Surrealists, Bauhaus, Gutai, Fluxus, The Inklings, the New Realists, the Lettrists, the Situationists International and many more groups and collaborations contested the notion of the lone, individual, genius artist and the commodification of the signature artist by the market. They explored a composite subjectivity and took iconoclastic stances against entrenched and defunct positions. They challenged the canon of art history.
More recent collaborations are numerous and have included Marina Abramovic and Ulay, Gilbert and George and the Christos. The current burgeoning of collaboration has been reflected in a range of exhibitions, events and publications including Artistic Collaboration in the Twentieth Century at the Smithsonian Institute in 1984, Team Spirit in 1991, Art Lovers in 2002, a consideration of group practice in Documenta XI in 2003, the Diffusion symposium at Tate Modern in 2003 and Collective Creativity at the Kunsthalle Friedericanium in Kassel in 2005.
There are many different types of collaboration with different dynamics within them. The psychologists Damon and Phelps developed a distinction between co-operation and collaboration, where the latter had a more fully realised equality in roles and responsibilities. Sometimes a collaboration is a merger of two or more hands into one, and sometimes it is deliberately manipulating the concept of a signature style itself. Sometimes it is a dyadic exchange. Sometimes collaborations are pseudo-kinship groups reflecting family dynamics. Sometimes they are conversational circles of peers sharing values and goals. Sometimes they are radial networks centred on a single person. A number of critics including Irit Rogoff have pointed out that the market and the historical canon can adapt to absorb the group as the author too. Paul O’Neil asks, ‘Is the collective just another marketable brand in disguise?’ Some collaborations, such as Platform or Critical Art Ensemble, are intersections of artistic and activist practice. Some collaborations persist and some have a shelf-life or fizzle out.
Shifts in arts practice to an expanded practice that includes large-scale, site-specific and interdisciplinary work, and the range of skills required to realise that work, is one of the factors driving collaboration. My own work with artist duo, London Fieldworks, has reflected this. Each of their projects has involved an expanded network of other collaborations with writers, composers, computer programmers, stunt kite flyers, scientists, mountaineers and musicians. They draw on multiple perspectives to approach large themes. Their work also raises the issue of ‘collaboration’ with sites and with communities. As early as 1957 Marcel Duchamp was discussing making meaning as a collaboration between artist, audience and posterity in his seminal text, ‘The Creative Act’. In this text, Duchamp also described the way in which artists generate artworks as a collaboration with context, as opposed to innate self-expressing genius.
Interdisciplinary collaborations often encounter the problem that there is a mutually inexpert and uninformed understanding of the other’s work in play. The understanding across disciplines is often a blunt instrument. Like speaking a second language, there is a conversation going on with a paucity of vocabulary. However sometimes that very paucity can invoke a more direct, more poetic exchange, free of jargon and ingrained assumptions.
Doubt Guardian’s enquiry into collaboration began in York with a meeting of artists and promoters discussing their experiences. This meeting included Kit Monkman and Tom Wexler from KMA. I then interviewed Phelim McDermott from Improbable, one of the most significant long-term collaborations in theatre, and Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey, one of the most significant artist duos. In the following conversations they discuss collaboration as an art making mode and as an urgent subject matter reflecting how we are organised in society today.
Collaboration in the 1970s was ideological as well as pragmatic and many contemporary collaborations are also ideological. The Collaboration Arts website set up in 2005 by Mark Dunhill and Tamiko O’Brien locates contemporary art collaborations in an historical context stretching back to the establishment of the Kibbutz Movement in 1909 and the establishment of the Co-operative Movement in 1771. Contemporary collaborative groups such as Superflex are ostensibly addressing radical modes of social organisation.
The Russian artist duo Komar and Melamid asked what is art? Using a market research process they produced the person in the street’s favourite painting and their least favourite painting. What visual art is and can be has shifted substantially. For example, in this year’s Munster Skulptur Projekt in Germany, Maria Pask established a self-sufficient food growing and living site and a spirituality research centre in a city park. She then invited a series of art and environmental groups to inhabit the space and maintain it for the next groups coming in over a six month period. Gediminas and Nomeda Urbonas’ ProTest Lab project where they squatted Vilnius’ last large cinema space to save it from indiscriminate developers and to facilitate a space of protest for other people is another example of artists’ practice asking questions about how society is organised – how we relate to each other and the environment.
The problems with collaboration include conflicts over authorship, ownership, competition and rivalry – differential success and recognition, money, editorial control. The advantages of collaboration include the ability to create your own critical research space, your own work context, your own sounding board and your own momentum, rather than having to be passively dependent on someone outside to give that to you. A collaboration can be a self-contained ‘reflexive artistic entity’ (Rogoff). Collaboration needn’t mean the absorption and loss of individual eccentricities and idiosyncracies. For many practitioners the advantages of collaboration are clearly outweighing the potential disadvantages.
Academia with its need to identify and quantify and its notion of original contributions to knowledge lags behind the critiques of authorship and origin established in collaborative practice. Rather than moving knowledge on are we moving knowledge around and making knowledge moving? Instead of a singular authoritative position there is an increasing recognition of intersubjectivity and interdependence. Artists’ collaborations are more than simply method. They are also subject. They enact a radical interconnectedness.
Collaborations: A Selected Bibliography
(1999) Afterimage vol. 27 no. 3 (November/December) special issue on artistic partnerships.
(1993) Art Journal 52, no. 4 (winter), special issue on collaborations between artists and writers.
(2007) Beaux Arts Magazine no. 272 (February) special issue on artistic partnerships.
(2004) Third Text vol. 18, issue 6, special issue on collaboration.
Ades, Dawn ed. (1984) Dada and Surrealism Reviewed, London: Hayward Gallery.
Billing, Johanna; Lind, Maria & Nilsson, Lars (2007) Taking the Matter into Common Hands, London: Black Dog.
Bradley, Will; Hannula, Mika; Ricupero, Cristina & Superflex (2006) Self-Organisation/Counter-Economic Strategies, Berlin: Sternberg Press.
Chadwick, Whitney & de Courtivron, Isabelle de Courtivron eds (1993) Significant Others: Creativity and Intimate Partnership, London: Thames and Hudson.
Charles, Green (2001) The Third Hand: Collaboration in Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,
Collaboration Arts http://www.collabarts.org.uk
Critical Art Ensemble (1998) ‘Observations on Collective Cultural Action’, The Art Journal, 57:2 (Summer), pp. 73-85.
Damon, W. & Phelps, E. (1989) ‘Critical distinctions among three approaches to peer education’, International Journal of Educational Research, 58, (2), 9-19.
Duchamp, Marcel (1957) ‘The Creative Act’ in Sanouillet, Michel & Peterson, Elmer (eds.) (1973) The Writings of Marcel Duchamp, New York: Da Capo, pp.138-40.
Farrell, Michael P. (2001) Collaborative Circles: Friendship Dynamics and Creative Work, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Gilchrist, Bruce & Joelson, Jo eds. (2005) Little Earth, London: London Fieldworks.
Gysin, Brion & Burroughs, William S. (1978) The Third Mind, New York: Viking.
London Fieldworks http://www.londonfieldworks.com
McCabe, Cynthia Jaffee ed (1984) Artistic Collaboration in the Twentieth Century, Washington: Smithsonian Institute.
Marcus, Greil (1989) Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
O’Neil, Paul (2007) ‘Group Practice’, Art Monthly, no. 304, March, pp. 7-10.
Sollins, Susan & and Sundell, Nina Castelli eds (1990) Team Spirit, New York: Independent Curators Incorporated.
Steiner, Vera John (2000) Creative Collaboration, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Stillinger, Jack (1991) Multiple Authorship and the Myth of Solitary Genius, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Watson, Gray; van Noord, Gerrie & Everall, Gavin eds. (2006) Make Everything New: A Project on Communism, London: Book Works.
WHW/What, How & for Whom (2005) Collective Creativity, Kassel: Kunsthalle Friedericianum.
Worsdale, Godfrey ed (1996) Co-Operators, Southampton: Southampton City Art Gallery.