On a journey of discovery:
Dynamic collaboratIve art production

Translation & copy-editing: Naomi Hennig, Oliver Walker

Collaborative work is the opportuntiy to have new experiences, to achieve things on a larger scale and to assert ones own position in the context of rigid institutions.

This is what my personal closing summary for collaborative working methods in art looks like. It may be rather brief and perhaps prone to some objections about the downsides such as additional the additional effort, sacrifice and patience necessary. I don’t wish to put critics down – patience is necessary and can lead to more work than initially thought. In the following text I will confront such criticisms in this form of work with my interest, and argue for group-based conversation and reflection as an extremely valuable and exciting sphere of activity, especially in art.

Port of origin

I have been working in the spheres of self-organised and collaborative activities and groups1 for about ten years now, often taking over the organisational tasks and thus gaining many impressions and experiences. Collaborative work can undeniably be exhausting, but nevertheless, I repeatedly re- turned to working in groups and cooperations.

Amongst the most valuable of experiences is often the unexpected dynamic in collaborative reflection, irrespective of how good the cooperation itself is. Prolonged periods of inactivity can not only lead to a sudden phases of fervent action, but can even exceed what I would achieve on my own terms. In addition, they can also reach far beyond the range of what I might have imagined before. This includes groundbreaking ideas of my own, but from a ‘self ’ that wouldn’t have been able to formulate this idea without the preceeding exchange of thoughts.

This leads to my actual question and driving thought, which is, in my opinion, the significant issue of collective work: Who is this ‘me’, or perhaps in a more abstract sense, on which level do ideas and dynamics emerge during a collaborative process, where is this level situated?

To make it clear in advance: I am not able to answer this question. But it is precisely here that the exciting part of my reflection is grounded. It is especially with regard to the far-reaching explorations in questions of authorship that I am unable to provide answers. Qualified colleagues are needed to analyse the concept of authorship theoretically and historically. My intention is to encompass such questions through my experience, searching for ‘something’ which I believe is to be found somewhere. I thus set off on a journey of exploration. I do not intend to define the term ‘author’ as it is itself an invention of the modern age, and must not necessarily be used. For this reason, a better phrase depic- ting the phenomenon of collaborative authorship might be helpful. For the sake of simplicity I will however continue with the existing terminology.

I have been organising art exhibitions with a group operating collaboratively (e.g. with changing members) since 2007. Shared curatorship has been characteristic of these exhibitions. Both individual artworks as well as collaborative works have been discussed in the group, while trying to find the best curatorial solutions. We found consensus not through majority voting but through discussion. Group works have emerged from this process, whereby it is often hard to tell who exactly had the idea for a specific solution. And even if I could pinpoint what exactly I have contributed, I am sure that I could not have come up with it without the previous discussion, and without the aid the group dynamic providing the necessary confidence for its articulation.

Furthermore, many opportunities would not have been taken up and developed if the group hadn’t been there to share the work-load and costs. Furthermore, the group entails the possibility to provide access to competences also outside of institutions such as universities.

Some coordinates

To approach the phenomenon of collaborative authorship (I use here the term authorship as I find it inappropriate to imply a single author) I will claim that it has its own voice. The authorship manifests itself through this voice, articulating and asserting a position beyond the individual group-members although only existing through them. To make a more specific analysis of the phenomenon, a first systematisation of the characteristics can be established:

(1) The phenomenon of collaborative authorship has a voice. This voice speaks through the group and is simultaneously subject to the group. The existence of the group forms its basis.
(2) The phenomenon of collaborative authorship has a position which it asserts. This position too is dependent on the group. It can only be mediated through the group. What at first glance seems to bear little significance, implies however that the decision for collaborative work introduces an additional, previously absent position into the discourse.

Two important characterisitcs present themselves here. The first point introduces the voice into the systematisation. The voice submits not only information to the listener but also communicates physical details relating to the speaker, in our case, the authorship. However, here one needs to differentiate: no details on gender, age, number or other such attributes of the authorship are disclosed to the listener. Out of which a third characteristic can be concluded:

(3) The phenomenon of collaborative authorship generates an existence of its own through the group. Yet this cannot be grasped through attributes such as gender, age and number etc. of the members in the first place. However, it is up to the group to decide whether or not to assign personal attributes to the voice.

Investigating the role of the position claimed by collaborative authorship, further points can be defined. Through the presence of the authorship in a discourse, all indicators of a communicative process are accrued. It agitates for its own position. It is equipped with power, if I define power as the effective force of a defined and present opinion. This opinion on the other side makes it prone to criticism, while it becomes assailable, and what is assailable is vulnerable. A further point can be deduced from this:

(4) The position of the phenomenon of collaborative authorship means it has power, which at the same time entails effective force as well as vulnerability.

At this point I feel it necessary to consider the phenomenon in the context of its interplay with the group. Ultimately, as mentioned earlier, it doesn’t exist independently of the group – in contrast to looser or more informal social groupings, with a collaborative group there is an awareness of the reason for its collaboration. This reason structures not only its method of working, but determines also its social cohesion. Reasons may include continuous cooperation, the ‘living out’ of a program, the commitment for something or the reaching of a goal.

(5) The phenomenon of collaborative authorship has a purpose and an awareness of it. Not all members necessarily have to be able to articule it, but it is manifest in the form of the collaborative authorship.

From the viewpoint of a group, practicability comes first. The the question of the function of a voice speaking from amidst the group arises. A function is surely focused on the task at hand. However, I would advise to not push the question of function, but to rather think of function as a ‘canister to be filled’.

(6)The phenomenon of collective authorship is in a position to fulfill a function. This results from the intention of the group members and is in line with a specific task.

One function of the phenomenon can be for example to serve as a catalyst in the process of generating ideas. An important aspect of collaborative art production is the question of whether the group members can identify with the voice of their shared production. Does the shared production connect with the result, or can the result not be accepted as one’s ‘own’, perhaps due to compromise?

As in point (6), one can only work with generalisations here, as this aspect varies from group to group, and even from work to work.

(7) The phenomenon of collaborative authorship is able to transmit the manifestations of the individual group members identification process. In most cases the phenomenon may appropriate greater effectiveness, if the group members identify with it. This identification can lead to further questions.

Especially in contrast to a singular authorship, strong identification within a group can lead to legal questions. It remains up for debate, who, for example in the case of a sale is going to be in charge for the handling and how the sales value is dealt with. To my mind, these questions can only be solved case by case and pragmatically, as it is difficult at this point to conclude a characteristic from it that doesn’t draw too much attention towards the question of the legal author.

Finally a last characteristic can be added with regard to the opening of the notion of authorship. In the case of an utterance of the phenomenon, the voice of the authorship, formerly comprised of the group members, widens towards the recipients and the social and cultural environment of the authorship.

(8) The phenomenon of collaborative authorship is not only made up of the group members voices, but includes also the voices of the recipients and their environment.

As such, the reflection on the phenomenon of collaborative authorship refers the expanded notion of authorship.

Staring at the the horizon

How can we further deal with the phenomenon of collaborative authorship? Some might find appropriate to personify it, while others might prefer to imagine it bodiless.

I decided to make assertions in order to be able to deal with the position. The first assertion was to give the position a space. This space materialises physically during exhibitions adjacent to the exhibition space, providing a site for conversations, gathering material for concept development and information on the group. Outside of the exhibition context this space is to be understood as a space for thought, which channels our exchange whenever it is becomes necessary to inhabit a position as a group. This space for thought enables us to find attitudes, to make statements that come from within the group. These are not statements of an individual group member, neither is it a verbalised consensus. The position has a space of its own and is thus applicable. The reason for this assertion was to accept the role of a group-internal and group-specific position and to devote to it consciously and offensively.

Certainly it only gets really interesting when I consider the contemporary forms of collaborative creation processes: the 20th century has seen the rise and fall of great figures, witnessing the demising authority of both creation and the author. What was left to art was the spark of genious. This could not even be equalised through its proximity to popular culture. On the other hand, only modest merging and integration with other fields was admitted.

If art applied collaborative working methods for the sake of its own interlinking with other fields such as economy and politics, art (or more precisely: we) would have the opportunity to find out what collaboration is able to generate. Furthermore, art would be in a position to not only reflect itself but also this third, newly created position. Personally I can only see this as an incentive.

On the other hand I wonder what end such collaborative alliances between different social fields and art can serve. Certainly it can be an enrichment that art traditionally establishes a reflection both with, and for, utopia. The lack of utopias seems to me characteristic for our time, and problematic in terms of approaching the issues we face. However, the handling of crisis is a situation not unknown to art. It can obtain a more prosaic attitude towards its own position in cooperating with other fields, and in developing an awa- reness in terms of its social responsibility.