Saturday, October 8, 2011

HEATHER MATTHEW: Collaborative Arts Practice [172]

Contemporary Debates in Visual Culture
Contemporary Collaborative Arts Practices

presentation by
Alix Brodeur
Christine Huntsman
Heather Matthew
Rebecca Moon
Miriam Salomon
Kaye Wearne

Collaborative Arts Practice
Since the 1990’s there has been resurgent interest and participation in collaborative art practice as it became incorporated into the mainstream. There is, however, a long and complex history of collaboration ranging from the hierarchical large scale studios of the Renaissance, through Surrealist Group experiments, Fluxus games and Andy Warhols pseudo industrial factory.
Groups may be fixed and formal, or they may be loose informal networks of friends living and working side by side. Motivation varies from the ability to share tasks according to skills, promotional and economic benefits, to the fun and joy derived from working with others. 

But visual artists have also laboured under the idea of the artist as an heroic solitary figure whose ‘voice’ or personality is expressed through their art to give it authenticity. This authenticity ties in with the issue of authority or “authorship” which has remained central to the debate about art as a saleable commodity. These notions of the individual, academic or gallery based artist were challenged during the 1960s by collectivist, anti-establishment, collaborative arts movements such as Fluxus.
Fluxus had its roots in Dadaism but grew out of the musical performances of composer John Cage during the 1950s and moved into the visual arts during the 1960s with artists such as George Maciunas, (text and ‘boxed’ art), Allan Kaprow (Happenings) and Joseph Beuys (sculpture). Perhaps its most famously linked artist is Yoko Ono who collaborated with John Lennon in 1969 staged the famous “Bed In’.
This was a time of massive social and cultural upheaval when the very ideology of class, race, gender, and authority were being challenged and disseminated through the mass media and counter culture movement. From the Paris riots of 1968 through to the antiwar demonstrations in America and Europe of the 1970s, art became bound with politics, art was seen as an instrument for social change, art embraced the Marxist idea of the collective.
This idea of non-individual ‘collectivity’, through collaborating arts practice instead of saleable individual art in a gallery undermined the whole market value approach to art. A new ideology was beginning to take shape and be espoused by thinkers of the time. 

Art was now becoming embedded in ‘context’ and ‘culture’, the artist inheriting a foundation and history, creating a “ language of decipherable metaphors whose purpose is to explore aspects of contemporary society’. With such ideology in place collaboration could be recognised as a legitimate arts process or arts practise, creating ‘art’ in isolation no longer applied.
Collaboration duos like Gilbert and George who challenged notions of art in the 1960s with their “Singing Sculpture”, went on to become ‘mainstream’ artists in the 1980s when they won the UK Turner Prize. The whole notion of authorship was explored by collaborative duos like Christo and Jeanne Claude who after thirty years of working together as Christo then decided to use both their first names as a form of ‘authorship’.  Other collaborations like the 1980s group Guerilla Girls formed teams whose members remained anonymous.
The problems around authorship became particularly important in art schools where allocating marks was dependent upon individual students’ work. Collaboration as a serious arts practice was therefore not actively encouraged by art schools. A famous example of this was UK artists Jane and Louise Wilson, identical twins born in 1967, who attended art college at separate locations, one in Newcastle the other in Dundee. They produced a collaborative artwork for their final degree show and submitted the same work to their respective art colleges. 
Their relationship as twins is not played out as their collaborative practice, although reviewers have noted each will refer to “my work” or express what “I hope to achieve with the work”, whilst in the presence of the other sister.  So they work as a seamless duo without apparent delineation of separate roles, therefore blurring the notion of the single identifiable author.
Jane and Louise Wilson’s work takes the form of multi media video installations filmed on location and frequently at sites associated with oppressive institutional power. Many of the sites are examples of modernist architecture and utopian design, or sites associated with cold war politics. They are filmed in their now desolate and ruined state, devoid of those invested with the power to instill fear, yet the installations are still capable of provoking collective anxiety. Here the work of Michel Foucault on notions of power and hierarchy and how this affects behaviour when in particular spaces is particularly influential. They are about making the familiar unfamiliar by evoking a sense of the uncanny. 
This sensibility leads the audience to question modernity’s ideology of progress, and optimism for a better future through scientific and industrial development. Stasi City and Gamma (1999) are a paired installation, with Stasi City filmed at the now abandoned Stasi headquarters in the former East Germany and Gamma at abandoned nuclear missile silos at Greenham Common near London. In both, the camera shows quiet empty rooms and spaces that were once sites of fear and interrogation, now conveying a sense of human folly. The sisters appear ghostlike and dressed in uniform, gliding through the space silently. It is not without humour, as one of the sisters is seen passing over the space in a flying harness.

This interest in architectural spaces extends from the film content into the design of the multi screen installation. Through the kinetic placement of screens the viewer moves through and activates the installation space. The casting of their shadow onto the screens enhances the sense of being actively involved in interpretation and the process of making meaning. This is evident in the work “A free and anonymous monument” (2004) filmed on location around Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the U.K. The work is based on a now derilect public monument (The Apollo Pavilion) designed by the artist Victor Pasmore as a sculptural centerpiece for a utopian style housing development on the edge of the city. The images also include sites of industrial ruination in the area and contrasts these with recent laboratories associated with the digital age.  Fragmentation occurs as images move from sites of industrial demise to the quiet and seeming invisibility of our digital age. There are 13 screens installed to mirror the design of the original Apollo Pavilion, giving the viewer a sense of being immersed in the location, surrounded by memory and association.
Occupying public space physically and in large numbers as a collaborative arts practice is another alternative to gallery based art exposure.
When discussing contemprary collaborative art, it is important to recognize flash mobbing and culture jamming as two, if not obvious, legitimate practices. 

Culture jamming could be defined as a disruption of our society’s norms and cultural standards as a way of gaining perspective as to why we “do what we do”. This is a common practice in social movements currently, usually directing attention and questioning towards consumerism and politics. One example is Critical Mass, an event held typically on the last Friday of every month in over 300 cities globally, where citizens (usually hundreds) cycle the streets. Some say this leaderless event is to draw attention to global warming, some say it is a way of cyclists reclaiming the streets.
Flash mobbing on the other hand, has become popular as a large group of people who assemble in a public area, usually perform some sort of action, then leave suddenly. In London, in 2006, the “silent disco” was staged where at a set time in the Underground, everyone with portable music devices began dancing. Similiarly, in the New York subway, “No Pants Day” has become an annual event where, everyone participating, just as it sounds, rides the train in jackets and scarves, but no pants. Worldwide Pillow Fight Days are also gaining popularity.
These sorts of events are worthy of recognition when discussing collaborative art. They are usually ambiguous in nature without leaders or formal organization. Some might say they have no “point” which is exactly their “point”. They challenge the archetypal roles of artist and audience, by using the participants as the artists themselves.
 New media and advanced communication is now integral to collaborative arts practices and the internet has enabled groups of artists to collaborate on projects all around the world. Some international collaborative art projects operate as a mixture of unselected mail art works which are then collected and combined under the ‘facilitating authorship’ of a single artist.
An example of this collaborative project was the postcard art Book About Death which originated as an internet call out open to anyone who submitted a postcard on the theme of death to Paris based artist Matthew Rose. Each participant was required to send 500 copies of their postcard to be included in an exhibition at the Emily Harvey Gallery in New York. The idea was that the 500 artists who responded to the call provided their work for free to contribute to an unbound’ Book about Death .
Visitors to the exhibition were then encouraged to collect one of each of the postcards to create their own unbound book about death, resulting in huge crowds at the opening night. Some artists who collected the entire range of postcards then exhibited the exhibition in other galleries in New York and further exhibitions have taken place in Brazil, Wales, Belgium, Croatia and Sarajevo with a proposal to exhibit in China under consideration.

 As organiser Matthew Rose says:
What is compelling for me is that artists have taken on this project as a mission of their own and given it in each turn in their own country a beautiful and personal shape.  (1a)
In some ways this collaborative arts project referenced the ‘out of gallery’ ethos of the original Fluxus movement, Emily Harvey herself was a supporter of Fluxus in the 1960s.
The concept that collaborative art could operate as a force for social change and allow marginalised voices to be heard outside of the traditional gallery selection processes and restraints is one which is seriously pursued by other collaborative arts groups.
One such group is Los Carpinteros , a Cuban art collective formed in 1991, based in La Habana and working and showing internationally. Initially a trio of classmates from the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA) formed by Alexandre Arrechea (b.1970), Marco Antonio Castillo Valdés, (b.1971) and Dagoberto Rodríguez Sanchez (b.1969) it became a duo since Arrechea’s 2004 departure. Their work is part of the permanent collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Guggenheim Museum, New York, and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid amongst others.
Their name, which means Carpenters, pays homage to and deliberately inserts them into to the tradition of guilds of artisans, and tobacco and sugar cane workers while referring to their decision to renounce the bourgeois notion of individual authorship. It was also a way to protect themselves from unwanted attention from the authorities at a time when mass migration of artists had made the remaining ones highly vulnerable.
     ‘We did not want our work censored. So we disguised it. We cloaked it in a mantle of manuality and manufacture’1
They are, in fact highly accomplished woodworkers who make sculpture and installations in a variety of media often related to architecture and furniture but also cloth, as in their tent city and rubber on their serial sculpture of rubber sandals. Their work humorously explores the relation between architecture and design and between art and craft. Their drawings are often a point of departure for works in other media and act as mock architectural drafts that are later mirrored in their three dimensional work. Charles Merewether points out that this process of ‘going back to the drawing board’ and planning every detail in advance is one that has long been embraced by socialist thinkers. 2 They have referred to their drawings as ‘messages we send to each other’.

Los Carpinteros have chosen -and often talked about- a form of subtle protest and socio political commentary. Their man size wooden grenade, ironically titled ‘Jewelery Box’ and their ‘Bread Box’ shaped like a missile could be read as pacifist monuments while playing with the postmodern question of relationship between object and text. Their installation called library 1, 2 and 3 is a series of wall mounted measuring tapes containing sections of banned books, an obvious comment on censorship and possibly a dangerous one for Cuban artists to make. Their position is unusual, as Jorge Reynoso Polenz has pointed out 3, in that there is a clear interest by Cuba in promoting Los Carpinteros -a highly successful exportable product- which gives them a certain margin to express themselves freely and importantly, the freedom to travel.
They are currently working on their first long term US public commission, a large-scale site-specific interactive installation titled Free Basket for 100 Acres for the Virginia B. Fairbanks Art and Nature Park opening in June as part of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The drawings for this work -which draws on the form of a basketball court- are computer generated and look very different from earlier ones, which used the palette of antique frescos. Conceptually however this new work continues to explore their long held interest in juxtaposing the practical and the imaginary.
Another major benefit of working collaboratively is the opportunity to pool resources as well as skills and ideas. Economic considerations can be a major hurdle for individual artists and working collaboratively often gives artists the opportunity to create large scale works.

This is particularly evident in the work of contemporary Healy and Cordeiro who bring a range of individual skills and sensibilities to create major installations which focus on contemporary issues like consumer consumption and its associated problems.
Claire Healy and Sean Cordeiro are two Australian born artists who began collaborating on works in 2002 during the final years of studying their masters in fine arts at the university of NSW. 
 They work with ideas of home, permanency and collection, and develop sculptural works in a variety of media.  Through their works they raise socio-political issues such as capitalism, globalization and consumption.
Their installations contain the everyday consumables and debris of modern life.  Healy and Cordiero explore creation and consumption, questioning the layers that disguise the simple economics that underscore our increasingly complex lives. An example of this found in their huge garbage ball, the garbage coming from an abandoned studio, they were to use. This illustrates the contradiction between material affluence and the uncertain income of artists in western society.
These two artists look closely at using resource sustainability, acquiring as little as possible and use material found on site without adding more objects to the mass of stuff.  They also up-cycle garbage to art forms and in so doing make the material and immaterial value of the raw material visible.  

In their “The Cordial Home Project” exhibition, they were looking at the average suburban home and the emotional and monetary values we put on them. They took apart a house, with the help of a team of 40 people, and stacked all the material into the exhibition room.  This house was the only house that the artists could afford and the artists were looking at the fact that they represent a generation of Australian citizens who will no longer be able to own their own home. They are also looking at the amount of rubbish that is left behind when a person moves house.
 Their site specific investigations of certain places are also investigations into the perception of the way things shift.   Healy and Cordeiro’s  “Flat Pack” installation in the  “There is a Life After the Trailer Park” exhibition in Berlin showed 4 meticulous stacks, all being exactly the same dimensions.  The fragments for these stacks had come from an abandoned trailer that a woman had lived in for 40 years.  The trailer had never been moved in this time.  There is a marked difference to Healy and Cordeiro’s lifestyle, constantly on the move, flying from country.  In this exhibition they are investigating an outmoded form of mobility, represented by the trailer, and adjusting it to current forms of travel.  Instead of the trailer being towed by a vehicle it has been taken apart, packed up, and flown to a different site.
At the Contemporary Art Biennale, (Lyon, France), Healy and Cordeiro used a Lego block model of a certain region in China, known as China’s “area 51”.  This region was discovered by Google Earth in 2006 and appears to be an exact replica of the 157,500 km sq of the Chinese province Aksai Chin. It borders in India and Pakistan and connects Tibet with a road that the Chinese built in 1962. The artists are just considering this little mystery and by making a portable replica of the existing model they are bringing it to the attention of the world.

 Healy and Cordeiro’s exhibition showing a bizarre block of 105,774 VHS video cassettes arranged inside a church, mulls over the human condition of the meaning of life and death.  The combined running time of the cassettes is enough to record the lifetime of the average person, being 66.1 years. “Life Span” is the physical representation of what may flash before ones eyes in the moments before death. The installation takes over the small church and substitutes film for religious doctrine as a vehicle for finding tranquillity and spiritual fulfilment.  The stack of outdated media becomes a metaphor for society’s manufactured packaging of experience and emotion and for the ultimate transience of life. Claire Healy has acknowledged that to send garbage half way round the world for exhibition is ecological nonsense, but concludes that it is what the art world demands. –
And what the world demands also is to participate in the experience of art, whether that be going to blockbuster art exhibitions or being part of the flash mobbing phenomena, the mail art phenomena, or just teaming up with friends to create art outside of gallery spaces.
That artists who collaborate with each other for shared inspiration, economy and the fun of working together on a shared vision now exhibit in major art biennales is a testament to how well they work together and how art as a collaborative process is very much in demand.

a Matthew Rose A Book About Death: The Project Rolls On - Some News
April 8, 2010
 1- Dagoberto Rodriguez in an interview with Rosa Lowinger The Object as Protagonist, published in Sculpture Magazine, Dec. 1999
 2- Merewether, Charles. Los Carpinteros in Vitamin D: New Perspectives in Drawing London, UK: Phaidon Press Limited, 2005
3- Reynoso Pohlenz, Jorge. Los Carpinteros: Utopian model makers published in Afterall, Issue 9 Spring/Summer 2004


William Evertson said...

Nice article, Matthew, since meeting through the first ABAD Ria Vanden Eynde, Susan Shulman and I work collaboratively almost exclusively as the Seeking Kali Artist Collective. It also lead me into another great colab... a year plus exquisite corpse writing experiment with several ABAD artists. PS...Seeking Kali has a artist call running (link in the sidebar)

Unknown said...

Hi Matthew - great to see the article in print, I had forgotten about it but it is just as relevant and perhaps even more so as time goes on. ABAD is such a democratic arts project, bringing together artists from all over the world to give voice to the whole unspoken issues surrounding death and dying. I see collaboration as an example of creating harmony in the world through heart felt connections with people, one person at a time. I believe ABAD has and continues to contribute to this. Thank-you for your ongoing commitment to the project.