Most of us live in families, work and play in teams, form clubs and join societies. We collaborate. Many kinds of artists, too, work in groups as a matter of course, e.g. musicians, actors, dancers, filmmakers, architects. In fact it is almost exclusively in the visual arts that collaboration has recently–since the late 1960s–arisen as an issue.
Collaborative and collective art practices have proliferated around the world over the past fifteen or so years. Although it’s important to stress that collaboration has been a component of art making for centuries.At the most basic level are what might be termed technical collaborations, either between two artists (e.g., Gilbert and George) or with the artist’s delegation of the manufacture of the artwork to another. These interactions have begun to erode the romantic image of the artist as solitary genius, positing instead a guild-like community of co-creators. However,the cult of personality in a narcissistic society is sucha powerful force, that make the idea of artist as a collaborator sound suspicious. People seem to be always interested in finding out who is the creative mind?
The Art School ProblemFine Art courses still promote the expectation that students will work independently to develop an individual practice. But the normalisation of collaborative art practice has had an impact on students’ perceptions of what it may be to be an artist and it does appear that more students are choosing to work in this way. When art students decide to work collaboratively they are to some extent taking a position in opposition to the image of the lone artist, in opposition to the institution and its desire to assess their individual progress. Because collaboration originally played against the traditional Renaissance view of the artist, it could also be viewed as working against the art establishment. For collaboration to become a viable mode of operation, there first of all has to be prevalent a conception of art that allows for collaborative practice. That is to say, if you believe art to be about individual creative expression, you aren’t likely to take up collaborative practice, whereas if you believe that art is – for instance – a language of decipherable metaphors whose purpose is to explore aspects of contemporary society, then there is no ideological reason why you should not work collaboratively.
It’s interesting to note that, of all the collaborative partnerships that have sprung up in recent times, very few of these rely on traditional painting and sculptural practices. This is because modes of working – such as video, installation, institutional critique, computer-based work, archive and documentary-based work, etc – all have less reliance on the notion of the single artist-author than traditional painting and sculpture.Since the late 20th century, collaborationhas also become an essential critical tool for some artists. This is because collaboration callsinto question traditional notions like self-expression and subjectivity. Collaborative practices also mark a shift from a concept of art as something envisioned beforehand by the artist and placed before the viewer, to the concept of art as a process of reciprocal creative labour. These ideas have particular resonance under the present conditions for art under cultural capitalism, which I spoke about last week.
I will assume a degree of familiarity regarding the Marxist view that economic conditions are directly linked to material production, and that this includes the production of art. The present economic environment, that is the one in which are living and thus affected by is often described as post-industrial or neo- liberalism.At its most basic level the main aim, and method, of neo-liberal policy is to create a ‘good business climate’ working on the assumption that if the motivation behind an activity is profit.
Intertwined in this progression towards a more liberal environment for business practice is the shift from ‘Fordist’ to ‘post-Fordist’ methods of production. Fordism is best understood as the production-line mode of manufacture, with a high degree of division of labour and clear ‘vertical’ or ‘pyramid’ hierarchical structures. In this mode tasks are broken down into their component parts and structured in a way in which the majority of people involved in the production process are ‘unskilled’ with the decision-making handled by an elite few at the top of the pyramid. Over time, and with the shift from manufacture to the service industry, this method has taken on more ‘horizontal’ qualities, with workers being expected to multitask, take more responsibility and show more adaptability in their working roles and with more ‘participation’ in the decision-making process. This latter state is known as ‘post-Fordism’ What we are talking about then is the shift from the manufacture of material goods, characterised by engineering, factory and construction work, towards an immaterial produce found in call-centres, the entertainment and hospitality industries and more recently in web-based and ‘creative business’ practices.What effect then, does this state of affairs have on the social and geographic landscape in which art is produced? At the most visible level we see a proliferation of galleries, studios, creative enterprises and cultural quarters in cities tackling post-industrial transformation. It appears, certainly at the moment, that the gentrification of cities is increasingly fuelled and signalled by the culture industry.9 Subsequently, the art scene can be seen as a barometer for the effectiveness of this strategy in economic regeneration.
Whatever the position artists take in this debate the overarching point is that art activity is, now more than ever, inherently tied to the changes in sociallandscape. Artists are in demand as ‘cultural producers’, they posses the innovative problem solving, ‘transferable skills’ and adaptability central to the new economy and are identified and deployed accordingly. In the current climate the artist is always an agent for social change whether they consider their practice ‘socially engaged’, ‘socially concerned’ or indifferent to socio-political issues. The lines that may have separated a ‘community’, ‘political’ or ‘public’ artist, or art as a ‘profession’ and as a form of social activism, are becoming increasingly blurred. Participation and engagement are commonly identified as the tools with which strong communities are formed. It is expected that an artist working within a community will include participation in the making process, either in the form of workshops or research for an end product. In this sense arts activity is perceived as symbolic, or as a microcosm, for the inclusive participatory nature of a democratic society. In fact recent writings from art journals about participation have begun by referring back to this original political connotation, with Dave Beech and Hans Ulrich Obrist lamenting the gradual appropriation of the term where, in many cases, it has become interchangeable with ‘interactivity.’
The critic and artist Dave Beech has argued for a distinction between participation andcollaboration: participants are subject to the parameters of the artist’s project, while collaboration involves co-authorship and decisions over key structural features of the workThe artist, however, plays a critical role in society, as an agent who questions culture or society, and here we can locate a split between artists working critically with and artists in the service of cultural capitalism.
Collaboration and participation are not new phenomena, but havebeen essential to art throughout its history, be this on the level of technical assistance orinstallation, and not always as secondary to artistic genius. During the Renaissance, forexample, bronzes were signed by the person who cast the object at the foundry, rather thanby the artist. We could also see votive objects in the middle ages - such as books, shrinesand relics - as participatory.
The idea of the solitary genius and the relationship of this idea with capitalism is something that has been critiqued, questioned and undermined by artists and theorists (at least since Duchamp collaborated with Leonardo or later when Rauschenberg painstakingly erased De Kooning’s drawing.)
Contemporary art practice has moved from direct interventionist institutional critique to engage more directly with the everyday. Despite the historical lineage of groups such as Fluxus and Situationist International, the early 1990s were still marked by a distinct polarisation between community art (broadly defined by a decentralisation of authorship and strategic collective activity) and gallery art (characterised by its promotion of the individual artist’s career and an obfuscation of process). Over recent years, however, we have witnessed the blurring of these categories towards the hybrid of ‘relational art’, as defined by French curator and critic Nicolas Bourriaud. Nicolas Bourriaud’s definition of relational aesthetics, “spectator participation”. Relational AestheticsWe also find collaborations that break the 'fourth wall' of artistic creativity, transforming spectators into participants. These include spaces organized by the artist (RirkritTiravanija's gallery-based lounges) as well as more direct forms of participation in planning, implementation and data collection (BasiaIrland's A Gathering of Waters, for example, or Mark Dion's Urban Ecology Action Group).This expanded field of post-studio practices currently goes under a variety of names: socially engaged art, community-based art, experimental communities, dialogic art, littoral art, interventionist art, participatory art, collaborative art, contextual art and (most recently) social practice.
At first glance much of the art that focused on social relations, political activism and urban interventions in the late 1990s appears to be on a continuum with earlier artistic experiments in community building, protest actions and street life. Collectives and collaborative art production were a feature of Dadaism, Surrealism and Constructivism in the early parts of the twentieth century, and then revived in the 1960s in Fluxus, Conceptual, community based, muralist and feminists art movements…However there aredifferences between the earlier and later collaborative practices; in the 1960s, collaboration was an attempt to deny the expression of the individual – celebrating unified ideas rather than individual expression – whereas, it could be argued that contemporary collaborators seemed to actively encourage differences between the individual artist-collaborators to feed into the final work.
Collaborations should be viewed within the context of political and activist art as well.Postmodern discussions around notions of subjectivity, originality and authorship are key issues when talking about collaboration.A recurrent set of theoretical reference points governs the current literature on participatory and collaborative art: Walter Benjamin, the Situationist International, and Deleuze and Guattarito name just a few. The most frequently cited is the French film-maker and writer Guy Debord, for his indictment of the alienating and divisive effects of capitalism in The Society of the Spectacle (1967), and for his theorisation of collectively produced ‘situations’. For many artists and curators on the left, Debord’s critique strikes to the heart of why participation is important as a project: Given the market’s near total saturation of our image repertoire, so the argument goes, artistic practice can no longer revolve around the construction of objects to be consumed by a passive bystander. Instead, there must be an art of action, interfacing with reality, taking steps – however small – to repair the social bond. ‘One reason why artists are no longer interested in a passive process of presenter- spectator’is ‘the fact that such communication has been entirely appropriated by the commercial world . . . After all, nowadays one could receive an aesthetic experience on every corner.’
In the book Artificial Hells, Participatory art and the politics of spectacle, Claire Bishop places this discussion firmly within our contemporary capitalist society.Alongside a discourse of spectacle, she writes, a lot of art practicehas seen a renewed affirmation of collectivity and a denigration of the individual, who becomes synonymous with the values of neoliberalism, that is, the economic practice of private property rights, free markets and free trade
In this framework, the contemporary artist has become the role model for the flexible, mobile, non-specialisedlabourer who can creatively adapt to multiple situations, and become his/her own brand. What stands against this model is the collective: collaborative practice is perceived to offer an automatic counter-model of social unity, regardless of its actual politics.
Collaboration is often aligned with participation which is generally manifested through community art and public art project. For artists part of the motivation for such participatory projects is again a disavowal of the artwork as a commodity and a rejection of the art institutions separation from everyday life.However, Claire Bishop also points out in her discussion about Creativity and Cultural Policy how collaborative, socially engaged art was hijacked in the UK in the 1997 by the then New Labour government led by Tony Blair. Fundamentally to justify public spending on the arts the government asked: what can the arts do for society? The answers included increasing employability, minimising crime, fostering aspiration – anything but artistic experimentation and research as values in and of themselves. The production and reception of the arts was therefore reshaped within a political logic in which audience figures and marketing statistics became essential to securing public funding. Bishop goes on to say remind us that the key phrase deployed by New Labour was ‘social exclusion’: the logic behind this is, if people become disconnected from schooling and education, and subsequently the labour market, they are more likely to pose problems for welfare systems and society as a whole. New Labour therefore encouraged the arts to be socially inclusive. This agenda has been subject to critiques from the left, primarily because it tries to conceal social inequality, rendering it cosmetic rather than structural. It represents the main division in society as one between an included majority and an excluded minority. The solution implied by the discourse of social exclusion is simply the goal of transition across the boundary from excluded to included, to allow people to access the holy grail of self-sufficient consumerism and be independent of any need for welfare. Instrumentalisation isn’t in itself wrong; many good artistssuccesfullyinstrumentalise their role for progressive social ends. The problem, according to Bishop, is that neoliberal governments also instrumentalise art for social ends, privileging participatory art as away to provide homeopathic solutions to problems that are systemic. Socially participatoryart often serves to fulﬁl these government agendas for ‘social inclusion’ (ie compulsory participation in a consumer society).Furthermore, Bishop asserts that: “What emerges here is a problematic blurring of art and creativity: two overlapping terms that not only have different demographic connotations but also distinct discourses concerning their complexity, instrumentalisation and accessibility.”
In her essay The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents,Bishop…”When confronted by socially-engaged art projects of the type you describe above – projects that aim to release the ‘creativity’ of (often disenfranchised) communities through photography, painting, theatre, cooking, or other workshops - it is often hard to respond to these events with anything other than moral approval.” Theseprojects are often praised for providing a ‘good model’, but on an aesthetic level they blindlyrepeat tired formulae. In short, Bishop states that such projects tend to be worthy, but dull…we need to consider socially-engagedprojects as political and artistic operations, not simply as ethical gestures.So what do we mean by ‘socially engaged’ art practice exactly? Well it is art that actively engages and affects its social conditions rather acting solely as a means to survive within the existing ones. It could be argued that in the present environment of cultural or creative capitalism all art, whether consciously socially engaged or not, is central to changes in the social fabric. This is due to art’s instrumentality in gentrification, intellectual property and the creative economy. However, it is also clear that artists and critics acknowledge the recuperation and co-option of these practices under conditions of late- capitalism, and employ tactics to resist this appropriation. There still exists socially transformative potentials to collaborative practice, however Bishop is right to point out that without a set of terms to critically evaluate and communicate activist practices they run the risk of being neutralised through co-option by the alienating powers against which they are aimed.
The critically-correctposition today is to dismiss a singular model of authorship, which is understood to be complicit with privatised individualism and necessary for establishing market value. But this association between singleauthorship and capitalism is misleading, and can be challenged on a number of fronts. For a start, we could observe that even the most collaborative types of contemporary art stillcirculate as authored products (albeit ones with less market success than individual eﬀorts).This is not a moralistic point about who earns money and how, but a theoretical issue: eachwork of art or project is a sovereign domain established by the artist. Even the most open-ended projects are still circumscribed by an artistic identity, and inscribed within a chainof previous or similar co-authored projects. Even when artists make a point of includingparticipants names as co-authors, it is still the singular artist as motivator and facilitatorthat provides the work’s identity. This is what diﬀerentiates collaborative projects in thesphere of contemporary art from the more anonymous tradition of community artsBishop identified that: What is at stake here is that the romantic connotations of the artist as a unique, creativeindividual with a privileged place within society has been co-opted by the state (particularlyin the UK) as an economic tool. In many cases, its glamourous associationsare a cover for the increasedprecariousness of ‘creative’ (ie freelance) labour. The rhetoric of ‘everyone is creative’ is a euphemism for introducing yet more independence from the welfarestate. All this is important for contemporary art, because it means that certain terms thatit holds dear now need to be urgently recontextualised: creativity, but also community and participation.In many ways Bishop’s statement can be seen as a clarion call to artists to to rethink and navigate the themes of ‘community’, ‘participation’, ‘representation’ and ‘strategy’.
The Art School
When art students decide to
work collaboratively they
are to some extent taking a
position in opposition to the
image of the lone artist, in
opposition to the institution
and its desire to assess their
Marina Abramovic and Ulay
Relation in Time (1977)
Economic conditions are directly
linked to material production, and
that this includes the production of
A shift from the manufacture
of material goods,
characterised by engineering,
factory and construction
work, towards an immaterial
produce found in call-centres,
the entertainment and
hospitality industries and
more recently in web-based
and ‘creative business’
In the 1960s,
collaboration was an
attempt to deny the
expression of the
individual – celebrating
unified ideas rather than
collaborators seemed to
differences between the
individual artistcollaborators to feed into
the final work
should be viewed
within the context
of political and
activist art as well.
Art practice has seen a renewed
affirmation of collectivity and a
denigration of the individual,
who becomes synonymous with
the values of neoliberalism, that
is, the economic practice of
private property rights, free
markets and free trade.
Collective Creativity’ (WHW, 2005)
Taking the Matter into Common Hands
(Maria Lind et al., 2005)
“What emerges here is a
problematic blurring of
art and creativity: two
overlapping terms that
not only have different
connotations but also
The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents
Lygia Clark &
Spectre of Evaluation