The invitation to attend Collaborative Acts at MK Gallery, Milton Keynes, gives Dany Louise the opportunity to reflect on both the practice and nature of collaboration.

 

Organised by CVAN South East with CVAN East, Collaborative Acts intended to bring artists and curators together from across the East and South East regions of England, to hear about opportunities to work together, and how groups of artists are doing this already – either as informal networks or as collectives. The inclusion of a thorough and informative talk from Wysing Art Centre about their model went a long way to meeting this aim. Certainly the artists I spoke to found this presentation useful, along with the opportunity to network with each other, although some felt that the nature of collaborative practice could have been explored more. From the artists’ perspective, it is often complex in practice and delivery, with each collaboration presenting a unique set of experiences, relationships, rewards and challenges.

 

Judith Alder, an artist, and organiser of bluemonkeynet, the Eastbourne artists’ network, shared her experience of collaboration with me. “I collaborated for a long period with the artist Roz Cran” she says. “We decided to explore what collaboration could be for us and we both wanted to work in a site specific context. We started off on Roz’s allotment, going every day for a fortnight, and being each other’s assistant. The whole thing evolved so that we bounced ideas off each other, but each wanted to make separate work.”

 

Breaking Ground Installation, Judith Alder and Roz Cran

 

Finding their collaboration fruitful, they continued it with their own DIY project, with very specific aims, decided by themselves but funded by the Arts Council. “We repeated this process in four more places as residencies. We worked very closely in the same environment on the same theme – that of Breaking Ground – but we worked separately and made our own work. At the end of each residency we held an open day for an invited audience, which was very much about professional development, about getting feedback on our work from our peers. There can be difficulty in getting critical feedback on your work after you have left university, and this was a key aim of the collaboration – that not only could we talk critically together, but the final open discussion was to give our peers permission to talk about our work in a critically engaged way.” She adds this piece of advice: “With those crit group engagements, you have to think about things that people don’t say; what is not said but is implied.” She feels it was a very successful experience. “When we started out we were both unsure about the position of our practice, but we were hugely supportive of each other. We were able to do things together that we couldn’t do apart. The critical support and bouncing ideas off each other was very important, as was the division of labour in terms of organisation. It was very efficient from that perspective.”

 

I asked her what she thinks makes a successful collaboration? “It has to be a partnership of give and take” she replied. “There has to be a certain amount of fairness and loyalty involved, being fair about sharing the benefits and taking responsibility for failure.”

 

Supernature, Jubilee Wood, Guildford by Metalmonkeys. Photo by emmabrownphotography.com

 

With the advent of the national lottery and the availability of other public funds, it has become possible to realise much bigger, very ambitious projects, and sharing expertise has become essential in doing this. Jono Retallick, a visual artist and part of the Metalmonkeys collective, shares a recent example. He was one of three lead artists delivering a £250,000 Cultural Olympiad project, Supernature. This transformed Jubilee Wood in Guildford with “stretched sculptural chandeliers, like sunlight streaming through the trees, and the undiscovered sounds of nature”. As well as himself, the project involved a sound artist, a light installation artist, the parks and countryside officer from the Local Authority, liaison with the regional LOCOG group and working with community groups and fifty volunteers.

 

“It was a huge collaboration. In order to do something on this scale, you have to have the authorities on board and owning it. Adam Owen, the parks and countryside officer, championed the whole project within the Council. He got tree surgeons in, organised electricians to get power for us so we had infrastructure. He was part of the project.” In this situation, the three lead artists also needed to negotiate their own working relationship, especially as two of the lead artists are married. “The big word is trust”, Jono says. “There were decisions that we had to make that one or two of us didn’t agree with, but we had to trust that the other person was correct in that situation; that their professional knowledge was correct. Sometimes one or other of us had to acknowledge that we were wrong.”

 

Supernature, Jubilee Wood, Guildford by Metalmonkeys. Photo by emmabrownphotography.com

 

What does he look for in a collaborative relationship? “A teachable spirit”, he replies. “If you all come at a project with a desire to learn from each other rather than a desire to teach each other, you get much more out it.” Would he collaborate again? “A lot of my collaboration is for practical reasons; it just isn’t practical to make the pieces I want to make without other people to help me.” But for him, the rewards are high. “Supernature was one of my most significant pieces, but it was a shared significant piece. There was something very fulfilling about doing it. I got a huge amount of confidence, and a real sense of community and connectedness. A woman who had been looking after her parents who have Alzeimers, said that for the first time in five years she hadn’t thought about them for an hour, that the work had reached through her stress. There was a whole new set of people we got to know and we’re talking about other things we want to do together. I’m left with a sense of leaving a mark on the land, in the area and with people.  I felt very proud, and proud for everyone who had invested in it and made it what it was.”

 

Judith and Jono give good examples of the artist-to-artist collaboration on both small and large scales. But what about the artist to organisation collaborative relationship? How does this work, when there is inevitably a power dynamic embedded within the very idea? Most usually, that power dynamic is in favour of the organisation-institution, as the holder of opportunity, influence, physical space and resources, as well as financial, human and cultural capital.  The institution is the gatekeeper, and it can unlock the door or not for whomever it chooses. Once past the threshold, the artist may find that the organisation is willing and able to reduce the power dynamic to a greater or lesser extent. But it is a dynamic that has to be acknowledged, and it can be one of significant frustration to artists.

 

The Wysing model that was presented was an interesting and useful example. Within their residency, retreat, commissions and exhibition programmes, they appear to have embedded the notion of flexibility, accommodation to artists’ ideas and the ability to work collaboratively with other artists as well as the organisation.  Often the work produced is as much a surprise to the organisation as it is to the artist. They like to work with artists over the long-term, often on a repeat basis. It is probably true to say that once an artist or other related practitioner has been selected for a Wysing programme, it is of huge benefit and an experience of significant quality. But for artists, getting selected is as always both the problem and the reward. Gareth Bell-Jones, Wysing’s artist and programme co-ordinator, reported a selection probability of one in six for the short retreat programme – actually relatively favourable odds within the visual arts, but odds nonetheless.

 

Jono thinks the artist-to-organisation relationship can be “tricky”. He says: “There is so much of an agenda and possibly politics going on. There needs to be shared learning between the two partners, so there is shared hosting and delivery. There also needs to be willingness to discover the work rather than prescribe it, on both sides, with a mutual sense of journey and discovery. I think organisations that work in this way are few and far between. I’m wary of people or organisations who want to build empires.”

 

Supernature, Jubilee Wood, Guildford by Metalmonkeys. Photo by emmabrownphotography.com

 

Judith Alder has a slightly different perspective. “I have always accepted the power dynamics in terms of artist to organisation, but one of my responses has always been to do a lot of artist-led stuff.” She also acknowledges a continuum where artists can evolve into the gatekeeper (or opportunity provider) themselves: “To a certain extent I am on the other end of that because I am now fronting an organisation that offers that kind of thing to members.”

 

Collaboration is fast becoming the public sector zeitgeistian word of the moment, much like “community” in the nineties, “creativity” in the new millennium, and “legacy” post-Olympics. As such, it is liable to suffer considerable misuse and abuse over the next few years. It will pop up in all sorts of contexts, from political rhetoric to organisational restructure; from funding applications to interviews. Everyone will declare themselves in favour of the concept, and confidently confess to additional personal skills as an excellent collaborator.

 

However, outside of artist-practice, what is the reality of this?  Wouldn’t it be truer to say hat most people not only have very little experience of successful collaboration but are, in fact, terrible at being in collaborative relationships? The vast majority of our working structures, in both the public and private sectors, are not set up to encourage collaboration. Most are hierarchical, staffed by managers with variable levels of competence, control freakery and ego, wielding varying levels of power, influence and possibly mismanagement. In my experience, where the workforce is organised into teams, there is often very little teamwork – collaboration – taking place. More often, the reality is that of being in a shared workspace, with staff working to realise individual projects or areas of responsibility within a broad common agenda. They may pull in expertise for specific tasks (which is not necessarily a collaborative action) but at best they simply communicate to other team members what they are doing, and at worse, zealously guard their own turf so that not even this happens.

 

Genuinely collaborative work – that is, based on mutuality, equality, respect and with an outcome that is greater than the sum of its parts – is far harder than the rhetoric surrounding the word suggests.

 

But arts practice is one area of fertile ground where collaboration is often a natural instinct. Indeed, an enormous amount of successful artistic collaborations have taken place for decades; short or long-term, project or practice based, in every artform, and across disciplines.  Many artist-led organisations are examples of long-term collaborative work – Blast Theory for example – while many artists have made it their practice – Fischli  and Weiss, Gilbert and George, Semiconductor to name a tiny number. Artists have long recognised the benefits of working together rather than in isolation.

 

But just as organisations and institutions choose very carefully who they work with, and are clear about their reasons for wanting to do so, so artists should be every bit as intentional about who they choose to collaborate with, and why.