Reflections on collaboration
Chris Fremantle highlights key themes and issues around collaboration making use of a-ns extensive archive of texts on the subject.
Collaboration is a description of a relationship, or perhaps it’s a description of a quality of relationship. Artists are continually in or developing relationships with others whether with their audiences, patrons, collectors, commissioners, project managers, curators, funders or technicians.
‘Relationship’ in this context disguises the reality of ‘power relations’. Artists very often see themselves as without much power. Most relationships are with others who are perceived to have more power (ie all of those listed above). Is the word ‘collaboration’ then a description of a new dynamic between artists and those with whom they have to have relationships, or at least a signal of hope for that?
John Plowman, artist, co-founder, and curator for Beacon, a visual arts organisation working in rural Lincolnshire, frames this clearly in ‘Our name is legion’ (June 2009), “Whether it is the gallery, museum or commissioning agency, a space is created within which three constituencies – artist, institution and audience – co-exist in a hierarchical framework.”
He goes on to say, “This is a framework that Beacon has engaged with since 2004, where the notion of collaboration has underpinned the nature of each of its projects to date. Projects which, rather than privileging the art object per se, focus on the exchanges that take place between the artist, institution, and audience.”
Kelly Large, an artist who worked with John Plowman on a Beacon project, says by way of counterpoint: “I’m not a collaborator, I just get mistaken for one a lot. I suspect this is because my practice interacts with the social. … I want to use this colonisation of public space to explore the power-play between the multitude and the individual, and the visibility or invisibility these positions afford in different social arenas.”
Collaboration, conceptually and literally, reframes power relations. When talking about individuals, collaboration implies shared aims and objectives, win-win, equality. Collaboration in a work of art (as opposed to between two or more individuals) is perhaps less clearly about equality or win-win, and might be simply about willingness to be involved in making or revealing something.
Our name is legion, Kelly Large’s project for Beacon, involved working with secondary schools in Sleaford, Lincolnshire. The resulting artwork required a large number of young people from two schools to do something they do anyway, pour out of school into Market Square, the centre of town, but to do it in a way that revealed itself more clearly: they all wore high visibility vests between leaving school and arriving home. As Kelly Large says, “This would either create a spectacle of participation or non-participation depending on whether students chose to take part.”
So is that collaboration? Who is collaborating? Who ‘wins’ and what do they ‘win’? What does equality mean?
Assumptions about collaboration
For an artist collaboration can mean working to common agendas, it might be a short hand for being prepared to meet someone else's need, engage with the world and public policy. So 'collaboration' might be in opposition to 'autonomy' and 'criticality'.
Collaboration also extends beyond the relations normal to artists' practices (curators and project managers as well as other artists); artists work with scientists, urban planners, technologists, gardeners, and this is usually described as collaboration. Artists also work with communities, neighbourhoods, inhabitants; this is more usually described as participation.
Sans Façon, the working identity of the long term collaboration between the architect Charles Blanc and the artist Tristan Surtees, in ‘We Have No Choice: Collaboration As A Place You Don't Expect’ (June 2009), articulate this when they say, “Collaboration' is a term often used to describe working with people with a specific skill on the development of one part of a project... This is fine as far as it goes, but generally these experiences do not open up the true potential of collaboration as a process. Collaboration should ideally take the project somewhere else - a place where you didn't expect it to end up, as the input of all the collaborators reshapes the project into something altogether new.”
Do we sometimes think of collaboration as a glamorous trans-disciplinary activity, as suggested by Sans Façon? Do we miss the reality that collaboration is a description of a respectful co-operative working relationship which serves mutually agreed ends? Sans Façon goes on to say, “A collaboration is more effort, more time, more organisation and more energy than working on your own. The level of unknown is far greater and it can feel very scary when you have a deadline, but this is what makes a collaborative project worth the effort: it multiplies the possibilities, taking the project to unexpected places.”
Collaboration can be a description of, as Sans Façon puts it, “working with people with a specific skill on the development of one part of a project”. It can describe a working relationship characterised by equality where traditionally the relationship has been hierarchical, such as between curator/project manager and artist. Or it can be about enabling risk-taking, to go “somewhere else.”
Lenses and forms of analysis
The aim of this piece is to highlight key themes and issues around collaboration making use of a-n's extensive archive of texts on the subject. There are approximately thrity-five articles tagged with 'Collaborative Relationship' in a-n's archive. They have all been written between 2008 and 2012 so they represent a very current overview of reflection on collaboration.
Almost every article is made up of more than one statement, authored by one of the collaborators. Most are two statements, a few are three, and there are a couple of joint statements. This in itself is important because each collaboration is described by more than one person. Multiple descriptions are particularly useful when relationships are the fundamental subject.
There are several lenses, or ways of analysing, that might be brought to bear on the accumulated material. It's useful to look at the distribution of roles. Of the thirty-five articles, all include a statement by one artist. Other statements break down roughly as follows: twenty project managers, six other artists, four curators, three specialists or experts (psychologists, scientists, gardeners), a business and a local authority planning officer.
Many of the project managers and curators work for specialist arts organisations operating in the pubic realm including ArtsAdmin, Beacon, Forest of Dean, Modus Operandi, Situations, UP Projects. Others work for Museums and Galleries as Education or Public Engagement Officers, or more directly for Local Government in Arts Development posts.
The artists represent a wide spectrum of practices, though there is a consistent engagement with the social, so although the articles represent collaboration between a small number of named people, the projects involve sometimes much larger numbers of people. The projects include many of the major threads of interest in contemporary practice including ecology and environment, disability arts, revealing local social cultural contexts, social empowerment, as well as establishing new platforms (or organisations) for practice.
Another interesting number exercise is to look at how relationships documented in the articles were initiated. Not every article explicitly states the way that the relationship, self-defined as collaborative, came into existence, but even with that caveat, the figures are revealing. Something like seventeen of the articles involve the artist being invited to work on a project. There are only three that are the result of open selection processes. Another thirteen are artist initiated. Some carefully avoid reporting on the mode of 'coming together'.
Artists need project managers to realise ideas. Simon McKeown, artist, and Paul Darke, in this instance project manager, articulate one set of reasons in ‘Motion Disabled’ (January 2012), “...I had devised a project which I believe was highly innovative and tackled a theme and practice not previously explored or utilised. I knew from the outset that I could not do a project of this complexity on my own: digital work is complex, slow and difficult to achieve. I have extensive experience in working in large creative teams, (over 100 people worked on Driver 3 for instance) and I knew I needed help.”
Paul Darke described his reasons for collaborating as producer/project manager, “...when Simon asked me to work as a producer on Motion DisabledI was not only willing but excited at the prospect of working with a fine artist, digital specialist and technologist - and perhaps even a contemporary genius of the disability arts world.”
Artists can be looking for particular contexts in which to develop new work. Victoria Clare Bernie described her motivation for seeking to work with a Marine Biology Laboratory in Scotland in ‘Painting the sea bed with sound: the science and the art’ (May 2010) as, “I came to work at SAMS (Scottish Association for Marine Science) Laboratory at Dunstaffnage near Oban on the west coast of Scotland as a consequence of a great deal of research, a lot of talking to strangers. I had been looking for an opportunity to work differently in relation to the Highland landscape. I wanted to be able to see change on a daily basis, to study the workings of the landscape at the level of minutiae, to understand it as a lived and worked space and not the silent, melancholy, uninhabited terrain of popular imagery.”
Some of the articles describe long term working relationships, encompassing multiple projects. Sanna Moore, talking about her collaboration with Sally Sheinman in ‘ArtDNA’ (July 2008), says, “I would say my relationship with Sally is a friendship as I have now known her for more than five years and my working relationship with her is always very much in collaboration, trying to achieve something ambitious which at first has a lot of obstacles in the way.”
Sally Sheinman goes on to say, “Sanna assumed all responsibility for the health and safety approval and I got on with planning and developing the actual piece. The fact we had worked together before meant the separating of responsibilities was natural.”
Finally it is worth noting that there are no significant examples of failed collaborations. There are references to prior collaborations that did not work, and there are numerous references to the challenges of project development. Obviously it's extremely difficult to write about failure, though working with failure is a key strength of creative practices.
Characteristics, qualities and attributes
In order to reveal the commonalities and differences and learn something about collaboration, there are two useful, if very different, pieces of writing.
Firstly, Missions, Models, Money (MMM) published a collection of materials under the heading of Enabling Effective Collaboration. MMM, on the organisation's website, describes itself as, “a passionate network of thinkers and doers whose vision is to transform the way the arts use their resources to support the creation and experience of great art.”
It operates as a think-tank for the arts sector. The materials on collaboration result from a two-year period of work (2008-2010) including pilot projects with a number of organisations including the National Performing Arts Companies inScotland, Opera North and Leeds University. MMM's programmes focus on particular issues, and collaboration was a key focus for a period resulting in a set of materials to support the sector. The current focus is on models of financing.
Secondly, Grant Kester, whose articulation of dialogic aesthetics has become a key reference point for those interested in understanding socially engaged practices, has recently publishedThe One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context (2011). This new text explores different aspects of collaboration, understood as a mode of working in communities where those communities are not merely recipients of the work, but contribute creatively. At the heart of this new text is an argument which values the process of collaboration, understood as living within a community and seeing from a share perspective, without losing space for criticality and autonomy.
This precise point is made in the piece ‘Victoria Baths’ by Alison Kershaw and Gill Wright (October 2009). Alison describes herself as “artist” albeit moving away from the “sphere of contemporary art”, Gill describes Alison as “freelance arts co-ordinator and curator”. Alison says, “...my practice meant being an artist who is connected to a team of people, all bringing particular skills and experience to the table. Yet in order to maintain my artist's stance, I see myself as partly detached, becoming an interested observer, critical eye and a catalyst for new work.”
Gill also says, “It has been important I think for her to remain in a freelance position, giving her something of an independent voice when it comes to artistic developments, which at the same time she is very much part of the Victoria Baths 'family' ...”
MMM's focus on collaboration is on working with organisations, and individuals playing key roles in organisational development, rather than individual practitioners involved in project activity.
From MMM's perspective (2010) collaboration can sometimes be driven by funders, “creating a culture of shallow opportunism.” But they believe that there are important reasons in seeking to develop a 'healthy ecology of the arts' to use collaboration based on “a carefully considered, hard-headed assessment of mutually desired goals.”
MMM's essay in this collection, ‘Competencies, qualities and attributes (CQAs) required for collaborative working’ lists ten CQAs. Other lists are available. In fact you can find lists enumerating anything from two to at least twelve characteristics of collaboration.
Rather than focusing on a list, I'm going to suggest that there are some issues: shared vision, learning, and communication. The resource provided by the a-n archive on 'collaborative relationships' illuminates and nuances these issues through real experiences.
A significant proportion of the collaborations are organised around social or environmental issues where the individuals share an interest, concern, and vision to achieve some change.
For example, in ‘Motion Disabled’ (January 2012), Paul Darke says, “Disability arts covers work which is made by disabled people that has an understanding of the oppression and marginalisation of 'disability' - recognises it as a social construct in much the same way as gender, race and sexuality has been explored by black, feminist and gay artists. It has a long UK and worldwide history and, as such, disability art does not often campaign; rather it reflects, deconstructs and engages at a deep level with the notions of the normal and the abnormal. It is not a dry academic practice, rather a fantastic unexplored area and one that should interest us.”
Another example is the collaboration between Anne-Marie Culhane and Ruth Ben Tovim (‘A little patch of ground’, November 2011), who although they started with different interests found the complimentarity which has led to longer term collaborations. Ruth Ben Tovim says, “The work I was focusing on when we met in 2008 (taking over disused shops in Sheffield and reopening them as spaces for people of all ages and backgrounds to drop in and share stories, memories, ideas, collections about everyday life) seemed to chime with Abundance - in its impulse to reach out beyond a conventional art world context and re-frame something that has being neglected or forgotten. I think we still share these interests... We started our collaboration just as Anne-Marie was leavingSheffieldwith Encounter Abundance - when Abundance took up home in our Encounters shop enabling people to swap local produce and fruit and share stories about food, feasting, growing, cooking, celebrating. This was our first 'fusion'.”
Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, eminent post-conceptual ecological artists, talk about the 'ennobling problem'. For the Harrisons, this is the issue around which, setting aside ego, a number of different people, usually from different disciplines, can organise themselves. For the Harrisons, these problems are systemic problems of environmental degradation or crisis which require new ways of thinking about eco-cultural well-being.
MMM talks about 'Seeing Systems' and 'Building Shared Vision' and there is an important respect in which there is a need for the collaboration to enable something to happen which otherwise would be out of reach of the individuals. It is equally important to see the larger context of the work.
There are a couple of important caveats. By no means are all the successful collaborations built around issues. Many, including ‘Our name is legion’ cited in the Introduction, are about artworks which reveal an aspect of life or create something beautiful and challenging. More than that there can be particular challenges around the different agendas of those driven by policy agendas and those driven by creative practice.
But underlying the potential problems, the need for a shared sense of purpose is fundamental to collaborations. This is rather nicely said by Helen Jones, Exhibitions Curator at the New Art Gallery Walsall, speaking about Ania Bas’ residency in ‘Ania Bas: In Residence’ (Dec 2009), “Ania embraced being part of the gallery team and worked directly with all departments; from cleaning staff to security, the programming team to the finance department. It was rather unusual for me not to be the channel through which all residency information was shared and publicised. The gallery as a whole was her collaborative partner.”
An important aspect of having a shared vision is learning, something that comes up throughout the a-n resource. In some cases one collaborator does most of the learning, well described in the article ‘Movement’ (March 2011) where the collaborative partnership of Yoke and Zoom, Alexander Johnson and Nina Coulson, worked with ACORP, the Association of Community Rail Partnerships, to bring the disused toilets into an art gallery. In other cases it is a characteristic of the whole.
David Cottrell articulates an artists’ perspective on this issue when he says in ‘Hill33’ (February 2011), “I suppose that as you continue, you assume that things may get simpler. In fact, unless you allow yourself the luxury of repetition, each project involves its own novel complexity.”
Anne-Marie Culhane, again from ‘A little patch of ground’ (November 2011) says, “Collaboration extends beyond the boundaries and possibilities and teaches you more about the world and yourself. It challenges and can break patterns.”
This is an important aspect of MMM's analysis: it characterises it as 'Wanting to Learn'. MMM distinguishes aspects of organisational learning from individual learning, but they also emphasise the transformational impact of learning, “At an individual level, learning is more concerned with gaining knowledge, understanding, and skills. At an organisational level, it is more concerned with evolving perceptions, visions, strategies, and transferring knowledge. At both levels, it is involved with discovery and invention - ie recognising, creating, or exploring new knowledge to generate new ideas or concepts.”
MMM quotes a participant in one of its pilots saying, “I have discovered myself fighting for things I didn’t know I cared about quite so much. I mean championing public engagements is really interesting. My career as an artistic director [has meant] being the person who has to fight off the marketing teams in order to try and make the work I want to make. And so discovering that actually I was the person who really cared about not just how we talk to the public, but whether we could change the way the public behaved towards us...”
This highlights the issue of risk that also recurs in the a-n resource. Risk is usually understood as a negative, something to be avoided or mitigated. This is true of failure as well. Artists and other creative practitioners have a complex relationship with both risk and failure. It is perhaps one of the most important aspects of creative practices.
Jon Lockhart describes the benefits of his working relationship with Fiona Heathcote (‘Saturdads’, June 2011) in terms of, “...the trust of your collaborator gives you the confidence to take risks which is a massive consideration within a collaborative relationship.”
In ‘A little patch of ground’ (November 2011), Anne-Marie Culhane highlights the risk in taking an approach that breaks the pattern of the arts, “My perception is that we seem to be able to consistently override ego elements in our collaboration. We are both exploring the same territory and it feels important to support each other in this. We are taking risks all the way as we are continually trying out new material and approaches. Placing the 'ecological self' uncompromisingly at the centre of a collaborative participatory art process feels fairly new.”
Theresa Liang and William West, co-curators of LiangWest, consciously worked with their peer group rather than seeking to work with more established practitioners, say (‘Boyfriend Material’, July 2010), “There is always the chance that it may not work, and we acknowledge that it's a huge risk to develop untested ways of working, but models don't exist just to be copied - we should ultimately challenge and reinvent them.”
Victoria Clare Bernie suggests in ‘Painting the sea bed with sound: the science and the art’(May 2010) that the failure of a project idea resulted in a reframing of her practice towards a more ambitious objective, “The work of the residency, Slow Water, is an attempt to map the present condition of water in Scotland. An impossible project - l
Stories of collaboration
Stepping back from the detail of the specific issues, of shared vision, of learning and of communication, and detailed narratives of collaborative relationships, we might ask why collaboration is important, and in particular why it seems to have particular relevance now?
Grant Kester's The One and the Many is an in-depth inquiry into a number of long-term collaborative practices and projects in different parts of the world. These include Park Fiction, a project in Hamburg, Germany, which has sought to counter normal modes of regeneration through long term critical engagement with the its own communities and the city planning authorities. Picking up the point made by Alison Kershaw and Gill Wright about the positioning of the artist in the Victoria Baths project, Kester says of Park Fiction (2011, p.205), “The process of creating the park required the ability to shift between an expressive modality, mindful of multiple subjectivities and desires, and a tactical modality which would allow the Park Fiction team to negotiate effectively with the city (the process of ‘being in bed with bureaucracy’, as they describe it). The capacity to shuttle between these two modes was crucial to the project's success.”
This point is a key observation in The One and the Many, set in counterpoint to an avant garde use of the aesthetics of shock and disruption. Kester's analysis of the collaborative methodology of long term dialogic projects, understood as work, is revealing, “...this is a labor that occurs through the thickly textured haptic and discursive exchanges that unfold in these projects over a period of months and even years. It is linked in turn with a cognitive movement, a reflective shuttling or oscillation, between contingency and freedom, figure and ground, immersion and distanciation, which generates new insight.” (2011, p.101)
Kester not only provides a durational analysis of the work of collaborative projects, highlighting a specific form of 'movement in practice' not captured by a focus on characteristics and aptitudes, he also suggests that collaborations have a direct political relevance. Kester makes the case that the operative assumptions of collaborations (including respect for local cultures and contexts; willingness to shuttle between criticality and negotiation; building shared vision through the articulation of individual experience, values and visions) are counter to neo-liberalising tendencies. He characterises these as privileging the market, disregarding local cultures, and imposing technical or economic models which appear to have worked elsewhere. In contrast he suggests that, “In the most successful collaborative projects we encounter instead a pragmatic openness to site and situation, a willingness to engage with specific cultures and communities in a creative and improvisational manner … , a concern with non-hierarchical and participatory processes, and a critical and self-reflexive relationship to practice itself. Another important component is the desire to cultivate and enhance forms of solidarity... .” (2011, p.125)
Kester's construction of collaboration, as a counter to market driven and globalising modes of operation, brings us back to the question of power relations, and unpacks a political context.
It is useful to highlight key recurrent aspects of collaborative relationships evident in the range of articles in a-n's archive including sharing an interest, concern or vision; learning and communication, but every collaboration is distinct, just as every locality is distinct.
Across the thirty-five articles these subjects recur, but each experience is also distinctive, and this distinctiveness needs to be attended to. We might generalise and say that communication is critical. We might say that the quality and regularity of communication is an important factor, and it probably is, but there is a whole field of specificity. Each and every article contributes something to the understanding of the dynamics of collaborative relationships - sometimes it's the ones that you don't expect, the ones focused on areas of practice remote from your own, that are the most revealing.
But Sans Façon in We Have No Choice: Collaboration As A Place You Don't Expect (PAR+RS, June 2009) also offers a warning, which may be a good point on which to conclude: “It is worrying to think collaboration may be the next trend for working in the public realm and that unwilling, ill equipped and unsupported artists and other specialists will be effectively forced to work in this way. There is a danger of watering down the quality of the work by having to make too many compromises between the parties to keep the collaboration going.
Various authors, (2008-2012), Collaborative Relationships.a-n The Artists Information Company, Newcastle upon Tyne and London, www.a-n.co.uk/collaborative_relationships_index
Blanc, C and Surtees, T, (June 2009), We Have No Choice: Collaboration As A Place You Don't Expect, Public Art Research + ResourceScotland, www.publicartscotland.com/reflections/30 (14 May 2012)
Stephenson K, (2005) ‘Trafficking In Trust: The Art and Science of Human Knowledge Networks’ in Coughlin L, Wingard E, Hollihan K (Eds), Enlightened Power: How Women Are Transforming the Practice of Leadership, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.
Kester, G, (2011),The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context,Duke University Press, Durham and London.
Missions, Models, Money, (2010), Competencies, qualities and attributes (CQAs) required for collaborative working: An introduction to the mindsets and behaviours needed in order to collaborate successfully, www.missionmodelsmoney.org.uk/resource/competencies-qualities-attributes-required-collaborative-working (14 May 2012).
We welcome your collaboration as a submission for online publication. These should be in the form of one 600 word piece each from the practitioner and commissioner, curator or project manager discussing on the working relationship, the intentions for and delivery of a project and the issues and outcomes arising from the engagement. Send to email@example.com
Chris Fremantle is a cultural historian and curator. He works with PLATFORM and On The Edge Research.
First published: a-n.co.uk May 2012
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