I have only ever had one really bad collaborative experience…
Project participants were put into pairs. It was organised so that artists who didn’t know each other were put together and given a week in which to work towards a joint project.
I was given the name of the artist I would be paired up with before we met and I did a bit of research with the aim of arriving with several ways in which we might work together – our practices were very different, which made it all the more exciting.
After a couple of days it looked like the other artist wasn’t really into it. This person was a fairly new graduate, full of enthusiasm for making work, but unfortunately, only for making their own work. Finally, after a long day of awkward conversation and even more awkward silence, this person admitted that they had only agreed to the project so that they could utilise the big space we were working in and that “I just want to get on with my own work”. It was incredibly disappointing, so I gave up. It takes a lot for me to give up, but there just wasn’t any point… sometimes it’s best to walk away – you can’t force something that’s not there.
I was reminded of that bad collaboration this past week when I watched an example of a “new” advertising genre, the “promercial”. Amongst advertisers, it has been hailed as a fresh, 21st century type of collaboration, though it turned out to be a bland advert much like any other. The premise is that the video for Faithless’ new song has been created with Fiat, so rather than the odd bit of product placement, the star of their music video is the car. Apart from the sad state of desperation that this represents, what upsets me about it is the wasted collaborative opportunity – the ad seems to serve little purpose except to mislead the viewing public that today’s creative people have neither virtuosity nor scruples. It struck me as a small reflection of the government’s “Big Society” plan which is about to swallow us all whole: a society in which there is no room for creativity, imagination, vision or, unlike other circumstances, the opportunity to walk away.
During a visit to www.metalculture.com/liverpool/ this week, I met sculptor Phil (www.artinliverpool.com/phillockhart) who will be showing in the same forthcoming exhibition there as Ailis and myself. We had a good natter and after the traditional (and enjoyable) artist-meets-artist moan and groan, we got round to talking about the point of collaborations… We agreed that collaborations shouldn’t be about blindly adhering to current favourable critical discourse (collaborations are not about joining the popular queue or coveting the fact that your surnames joined together with and an “&” look good), they should be about enjoying the freedom of being a bit scared.
Phil seemed concerned that he was a bit of a control freak and therefore unsuited to collaboration. I have two issues with that: firstly, that I can’t think of many artists who aren’t control freaks and secondly, that if you think your control freakery is a problem, that’s all the more reason to try collaboration – it forces you into letting go. You just have to bear in mind that the best AND worst you can expect from a collaboration is the unexpected… and that’s why it is scary.
In May I went on a stone carving course. I’ve wanted to give it a go for a while now: so much of my solo work is spent turning flat paper/pages/material into something 3-dimensional that I thought it would be good for me to try something more difficult. Plus, it was a new year’s resolution of mine to try to give my hands a rest from the scissors and challenge my patience levels.
Something the tutor (a stone carver, mason, lettercutter and amazing teacher) said has really stuck with me. She said that one thing she really loves about stone carving is that it’s anonymous – if you look at the stonework on old buildings, you don’t know who did it. There’s no signature, just the work itself – the result of techniques passed on down the generations. It’s a really pleasing thought because it’s so different from the egocentrism of being a creative person nowadays… I think that’s also why collaboration is appealing – you get to lose yourself in a bigger story.
DOWN •n. soft fine feathers forming the covering of a young bird
DOWN •adj. 1 moving towards a lower place or position
DOWN •adj. 2 unhappy
The premise behind the collaboration I have undertaken with Ailis is to make a link between journeys that can’t be made any more (the impossible desire to visit the past) and feathers which can no longer fly (symbols of the past)… It’s a melancholy piece.
Ailis has composed a beautiful electro-acoustic score and my half of the project has been to transform a set of old ordnance survey maps (as mentioned in a previous post) into feathers.
My hands really hurt. I’m not sure this really counts as “suffering for your art” but that doesn’t make me feel any better. I’ve been working really hard on DOWN this week – so hard in fact that the calluses on my finger and thumb created by constant use of scissors have now gone scabby. Nice. However, I think I only have about 1,000 feathers left to make and then it’s all done.
Ailis has put together a blog about the project – thanks to her for this and to Ajay for filming and editing.
As the project with Ailis is reaching its conclusion (http://www.independentsbiennial.org/2010events/1155-dream-machine) and Tenneson & Dale are working away on our new piece, I recently decided it’s time to set the next collaboration in motion. Because art projects always take longer than you can predict (that’s not a criticism – I love that they’re not bound by timescales and deadlines in the same way as the rest of the stifling world of work), I always try to set up the next project before the previous one has ended. I enjoy the variety and the way that ideas from one project unexpectedly morph into starting points for the next.
The focus of my work with Ailis has been maps, which has, in turn, led me to consider the shape of our landscape as it was 30 plus years ago and how it has changed. This led me to ask Sarah Simpkin if she would like to collaborate on a project with me. Sarah is a writer at Foster & Partners, the London-based architects. Unlike other collaborations, I’ve actually come to this one with a bit of an idea in my mind of where I would like it go, that is to say I’ve thought of a way we could combine her architectural writing and my visuals. I am really happy that Sarah has agreed it as a starting point… who knows what we will end up with.
I have only worked with one writer previously: Matthew Welton, the poet. http://www.carcanet.co.uk/cgi-bin/indexer?owner_id=815 He contacted me after seeing my work at a Rogue Studios open weekend. He was shortly to have a new collection of poems published and he had had a fantastic idea for the cover. He had a title for his new collection that was 101 words long – a lovely stand-alone piece of writing in itself. Because Matthew had seen examples of my typesetting at Rogue (a skill learned years ago on pre-press night shift at Bristol Evening Post and Press… still thankful to everyone there for their patience with me), he asked me if I would like to have a go at his book cover. It has always been a dream of mine to do this, so I said yes immediately.
Because the title was so long, the words themselves had to be the focus of the design. I came up with 10 different designs as an initial starting point. Matthew chose the two he thought worked best and from this point on, there was a process of discussion over the colour, styling and mood of the work between Matthew, myself and the publisher. I have included examples of the initial design and follow-ups here so you can see how the process unfolded. There were times when I found this to-ing and fro-ing difficult, as we had opposing points of view about what the cover should be because we were each coming at it from different angles. Matthew, obviously, wanted the words to be the priority; I was focussed on the overall look and and the publisher was most concerned about sales and, for want of a better word, pickupability! I think we ended up with a reasonable compromise – the most important thing had to be that Matthew was happy; after all, it was his book showcasing his writing on the cover.