Rohini Malik Okon introduces her selection of articles for the first a-n Collections.
Collaborative relationships between artists and organisations take a variety of forms, from brief catalytic encounters, to dynamic exchanges and dialogues, to long-term partnerships that evolve organically and fruitfully over a period of time. The ways in which these relationships operate, as well as the stories of how they came into being, reveal as much about contemporary perceptions of the artist's role in society as the tangible realities of maintaining and developing a creative practice.
Whether through invitation, application, a chance meeting or a well-received proposal, the collaborative relationships explored in this publication have often emerged from a timely coincidence of strategy and opportunity and have usually led to mutually beneficial associations. The remit of each organisation funding body, commercial gallery, higher education institute and publicly-funded arts organisation, amongst others is different with respect to their affiliation with artists. In some cases, the aim is to engage in a greater understanding of contemporary art practice by creating opportunities for artists within dynamic and vigorous programmes as well as introducing their work to both new audiences and new markets. In others, the artist and their work are perceived as a conduit for relaying the broader concerns of the institution involved, albeit in a creative and thought-provoking manner. While some relationships are defined by a sense of nurturing, where the organisation acts as a support structure for the artist, others are characterised more by a notion of crossdisciplinary exchange, where different perspectives and ways of working come together through initiated and managed opportunities. All involve some level of negotiation, and the striking of a balance between structure and fluidity.
Although committed to promoting collaborative ways of working that cut across traditional academic disciplines and professional domains, The Wellcome Trust's primary interest lies in broadening the public's understanding and awareness of scientific rather than artistic values. Its artist-in-residence scheme, which invites artists to access an unparalleled array of resources and expertise on biomedical themes is, from the Trust's point of view, about encouraging a more open interpretation of its collection and providing a way in to its work for the general public. The practice of creating artists' residencies in various work environments has a long history. While such projects may sometimes be challenging to establish, with expectations on both sides needing to be carefully managed artists are not there simply to illustrate or depict when successful they involve artist and organisation in a mutual process of discovery and can alter the views of all concerned. Often a third party is involved, as a mediator between the two, and/or as initiator of the collaboration.
NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) claims to work in the gaps between other funders, supporting collaborative and cross-disciplinary projects. Its fellowship scheme enabled artist Rob Kesseler to make work and develop ideas for three years under the auspices of NESTA Fellow at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Like the Wellcome Trust, NESTA's ultimate responsibility is to the public, but as an organisation it is committed to developing organically in response to its experiences with projects and practitioners. Where these sorts of collaboration are most successful is when they are not prescriptive about outcomes, where the focus for the artist is on enquiry and experimentation rather than production necessarily, and where room is left for the unexpected to occur. What they also highlight is an increasing recognition of research as a fundamental aspect of artistic practice, and the acknowledgment that artists are professionals on a par with those working in other fields. There is a slight danger however, where the contribution of an artist's practice is not fully understood, of falling into a new form of commodification where artists are brought into a project solely for a value they are perceived to have by being an artist. The widening acceptance of art as a form of knowledge production is attested to by the recent proliferation of Fine Art PhDs, AHRB funded Creative Fellowships and artists taking up posts as Research Fellows in various higher education institutions. Research Fellowships don't necessarily follow a particular model. For glass artist Keiko Mukaide, her position as Research Fellow at Edinburgh College of Art evolved organically over a number of years from her initial non-formalised role as artist-in-residence through a stint as Teaching Fellow to, with the increasing pressure on higher education establishments to earn research points, her current position. For Edinburgh College of Art, having such a high profile, internationally known artist on their staff enhances its potential to generate income through its RAE (Research Assessment Exercise) submission, while Mukaide benefits from a fully equipped space in which to make her work as well as the potential for inter-departmental collaborations and intellectual cross-fertilisation that her position enables.
Whilst some collaborative relationships might evolve over a few years, others last only a couple of months yet their impact can be just as fruitful. For jeweller Mah Rana, the experience of undertaking a residency in Australia gave her time to step away from her usual commitments in the UK and she was able to reassess her reasons for making. Often artists are so caught up with the day-to-day demands of making and showing work, that they don't have time to reflect on their practice. Rather than a new commission, what is needed is breathing space, and to be offered a space to breathe in the form of a residency that is part of an ongoing international exchange (as in the Here and There project) can be extremely rewarding.
Supporting the development of an artist's creative process is as important, and in some ways more important, than securing funding or arranging publicity for a new piece of work. The relationship between Faisal Abdu'Allah and his gallerist Bea de Souza, Director of The Agency Contemporary in London, is characterised by an open and dynamic dialogue. At the start, de Souza kept close, giving the artist lots of guidance and support, but as their relationship developed she also recognised the importance of stepping back and giving him time and space to develop ideas. Confounding some of the negative associations that commercial galleries attract, The Agency does not constantly pressurise the artists it represents to make new works, and maintains an ethos in selecting the artists it wishes to work with. Galleries and arts organisations that successfully balance visual experience with a selfreflexive programme are distinguished from other institutions and spaces by their emphasis on seasons and strands of programming that adapt to, and emerge from, the ways in which they work with artists. inIVA aims to develop a clear, continuous and open dialogue with both artists and audiences, and stresses the importance of context for the showing of work. As well as offering a contemporary art, rather than cinema, space for the showing of her films, Alia Syed suggests that her collaboration with inIVA was successful partly because of the context, political and cultural, they developed to show the work. The spaces in which works are made as well as those in which they are shown, and the networks and contacts artists establish with other practitioners, curators and writers, may also be determined or shaped by an ongoing collaborative relationship. In its partnerships with artists, Gasworks Studios in south London offers a stable affordable workspace, augmented by an international visiting artists' programme and a curated programme of exhibitions and talks in the galleries below, but perhaps the most valuable aspect of this relationship is the strong sense of community and mutual support fostered by the organisation.
Support networks can also emerge through less formal, more intermittent collaborations between artists and curators, and between artists themselves, perhaps working with or through an organisation or perhaps circumventing any form of institution altogether. Artists may often work together as a group to get a project going, and while there is a real energy in this way of working, without sufficient funding these collaborations are not generally sustainable over long periods of time, and tend to remain invisible or marginal. Increasingly, however, artists are also curating shows, and new modes of practice, collaboration and institution are emerging in parallel to the more established models of co-relationship. As artists today negotiate the pragmatics of making and showing work, and as they attempt to balance a desire to be experimental and take risks with the need to make a living and develop a profile, successful collaborative relationships with a variety of organisations can often help shift their practice to another level. Functioning as passageways, breathing spaces or springboards, these relationships work best when centred around a notion of trust and realised in a spirit of generosity.
Rohini Malik Okon is a writer and researcher based in London. She is currently undertaking a PhD in the Visual Cultures Department at Goldsmiths College, where she is also the co-ordinator of the research project Translating the Image: Cross Cultural Contemporary Arts.
Rohini Malik Okon
First published: a-n Collections June 2005
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