How has 20th Century collaborative practices influenced Contemporary Art in the 21st Century?
(20 minute seminar to learners at Somerset College)
What is collaboration? How do we frame collaboration? What ways do we collaborate?
Do we press a button? Do we manipulate and interact with objects? Do we become involved through forms of participation? What is the future for Contemporary Art in an age of austerity?
How do we become less a passive observer and more actively engaged as a participant in our visual art culture? Jacques Ranciere, a leading French critical theorist writes about the visual arts and delves into ideas exploring aesthetics, participation and emancipation. In his critique ‘The Emancipated Spectator’, he explores the idea that for an ‘Art’ to exist and be known as ART, it must ignite an activism in us – to become critically engaged and involved in the work being seen and experienced. Over the last 16 years it has been noted a rise in community projects involving the visual arts, engaging audiences and opening up ideas about art learning and education; these processes of engaging with an audience teaches new skills to produce something from its processes, both physically and mentally and is something that has become more evident through the funding structures and frameworks set by the Arts Councils and Government initiatives, leading to the expansion of an active engagement with communities, leading to a shift away from private gallery and avant-gardism of the 20th Century. This has brought an expansion of art initiatives and community practices, leading to new understandings of the importance of the visual and participatory arts to the community.
Claire Bishop’s essay ‘The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents’ explores this shift in thinking with regard to the expansion of the ‘Arts’ to the wider audience. She observed:
‘…these practices have had, for the most part, a relatively weak profile in the commercial art world…they’re also less likely to be [considered] “works” [and seen as] … social events, publications, workshops, or performances – they nevertheless occupy an increasingly conspicuous presence in the public sector.’ (1)
These come under the headings: ‘socially engaged art, community-based art, experimental communities … participatory, interventionist, research-based, or collaborative art. These practices are less interested in a relational aesthetic, than in the creative rewards of [a] collaborative activity…’ (2)
But, what does ‘becoming actively involved’ mean? How has the role of collaboration from the 20th Century influenced collaborative art practices in the 21st Century, contributing to its evolution?
Beginning in the 1990s and into the 21st Century the increase in digital realities has transformed previous ideas about the role of the artist. Artists and galleries reach an audience directly through websites, video sites and social networks, expanding the role art plays in the community and society.
What can be considered a form of collaboration?
Collaboration was thought as something that did not much happen in the past. Yet, this is an incorrect assumption. Through the Masters’ workshops, training apprentices who would form the main body of a painting: its composition; forms; and style follow the plan drawn by the Master. The Master would add their signature style, finishing the work and in-so-doing completing a form of collaborative practice.
Artists have set up collaborative partnerships in the past, which continues to this day. An example of this can be seen in the work of Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder (3) who executed around two-dozen paintings together between 1598 and Brueghel’s death. Most notably The Five Senses series (Taste, Smell, Touch, Sight and Sound) reveal the level of their collaboration – Brueghel’s landscapes and Rubens’ figures.
In Modernism the Surrealists produced hundreds of ‘Exquisite Corpses’ as a group, playing the game of forming strange and surreal figures – each taking their turn in their production. Picasso and Braque worked on the development of Cubism. The Dadists worked on their publications. De Stijl worked on purifying art to its essence. Collaborative groups of artists coming together to form and in-form their work to an audience.
Performance and Conceptual art from the 1960s through to the 1990s were recorded and developed through Lucy Lippard and groups like Fluxus and Yoko Ono exploring social issues including: Ecology; Feminism; Civil Rights; Gay & Lesbian Rights; Transgender; Conflict and War – exploring the artist as observer and the public as participant to complete the work.
Artists in later part of the 20th Century explored collaboration through their work, engaging the public through social notions of Modernity. Cindy Sherman and Kara Walker explore social conventions through their work – ‘emancipating the viewer’ from the stereotypes to become active in how we read images from our position of prejudices, becoming more aware of a viewers role and participation in their social role in the 20th and 21st Century history. Alternative perspectives explore the role of the feminine through class and race – the collaborative roles we play in society and social conventions, galvanising social change, leading to emancipation from set frameworks from a particular class of society.
Jeremy Deller explores performance in art through a process where the public becomes integrated into the art. We witness the artist and their questions. The re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave bringing generations together to relook at a historical event – working with the original miners to explore a point in time. He initiates a dialogue between miners, police, and community; exploring a new angle of enquiry [although whether this heals or re-opens wounds is open to further study].
Ai Weiwei explores memory and history through objects associated with past time. Hand painted porcelain seeds link to China’s Imperial past and their cultural ceramic past – symbols used to highlight ‘the People during China’s Cultural Revolution…the seeds nourish, the ubiquitous discarded husks provide evidence of existence … Sunflower Seeds comments on social, political and economical issues relevant to contemporary China such as the role of the individual in relationship to the collective.’
Grayson Perry explores ideas on identity and role-play. He explores the other through ceramics and tapestries (The Vanity of Small Differences) – he questions social conformity and the identities we become. His work on the system of class and identity is worked through collaboratively working with a community – living with them and exploring their way of life.
Marina Abramovic’s collaborative work The Artist is Present explores interactive participation. A moment of connection: looking, seeing and feeling. The artist stares and the participant stares back – bringing unknown emotions to the surface through a one to one engagement. A direct form of communication witnessing a transformation between artist and viewer, both becomes the work.
Collaboration has also witnessed co-authored works by many visual artists who have worked as a team or partnership. These relationships have seen prominent stars of the art world including: Gilbert and George, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Edward Kienholz and Nancy Reddin with their mixed-media assemblages;
Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen with their large sculptures of everyday objects and vinyl forms; Christo and Jeanne-Claude Javacheff and their material covered buildings, islands and architectural forms; ATOI exploring ideas about what sculpture is and can be considered in spaces; Patrick Gallaher and Chris Klapper explore mapping and the elements of nature, forming interactive performance pieces; Erika Barbee relays through her performance pieces a collaborative passive process through applications like Twitter – exploring our relationship with technology; Professor Josef Danek explores collaboration with artists around the world, using dropbox to send projects to work on and exhibit in the Czech Republic.
Mike Collier from Sunderland University explores working with groups of artists, scientists, writers, poets and the public through the act of walking in the landscape. The research gathered from these walking journeys lead to the formation of new works exploring the phenomenological aspect and our place in space.
The 21st Century has seen many changes in the way we send, receive and share content. These innovations are leading to new ways about researching collaborative projects. Technology has emancipated communities, social groups and individuals.
Claire Doherty’s From Studio to Situations: Contemporary Art and the Question of Context (2004), notes:
“using art as a means for creating and recreating new relations between people.”(4)
One such relationship was recently shown on BBC Two’s Artsnight. (5)
Nicolas Serota explores the role of art in the 21st Century and the changes happening outside of the gallery space – revealing projects that utilise the Internet and the gallery space. The Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art has been exploring the work of The Cercle d’Art des Travailleurs de Plantation Congolaise, a group based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Africa. Through Dutch artist Renzo Martens he brings together plantation workers who engage in art making at settlements of the Institute for Human Activities in the country’s rainforest, for the purpose of affecting social change.
‘The current exhibition features sculptural portraits or representations of art-market figures such as the collector. Each one is moulded from clay and then reproduced in Belgian chocolate through multiple technologies, including 3D scanning and printing. Profits generated from the sale of these works are directed back to the plantation workers, improving their living conditions and help redressing global economic inequalities.’(6)
These experiences are being explored in the community of Middlesborough. Groups of artists run workshops teaching how to work with local clay from Teesside, once used in the ceramic industry, creating new skills and learning, forming sustainable living – repositioning concepts on contemporary craft and art-making in the 21st Century with the traditional skills from the past.
New technologies are re-shaping the future of Visual Art – ready to be accessed online and 3D printed directly in the customers’ home. These developing technologies will change the way artists collaborate with the community and the World at large – changing the way people see and think about art and craft-making, its production and the shifting creative economies of the future – no longer bound to a gallery and high street system. Art and Design is increasingly becoming accessible to individuals and communities via a developing and evolving Internet mindscape.
The future is now.
 Claire Bishop, The Social Turn, Artforum: 2006, Pg 1
 Rubens & Brueghel: A Working relationship http://www.getty.edu/publications/virtuallibrary/0892368489.html
 Claire Bishop, The Social Turn, Artforum: 2006, Pg 4
 Nicolas Serota, BBC Newsnight: Artsnight, Series 3: 2, (London: BBC, 2016) http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b07bkltd/artsnight-series-3-2-nicholas-serota [accessed Friday 13th May 2016]