A few weeks ago, I dusted off some old collaboration training notes* for a friend who is setting up a community regeneration initiative. As we looked through the notes, and discussed possible approaches, I was struck by how little I have talked of the process of collaboration with visual artists. Even within our Merched Chwarel project, which states that part of the purpose of the project is to find out “What does collaboration mean exactly?”, we didn’t explicitly begin with a discussion about it.
I started to wonder why this might be. I had held extensive discussions about how best to collaborate with collaborators from a devised performance background on Digging Down in 2015: It seemed natural to start by talking about ‘how can we best create together?’. Artist Lisa Hudson and I held the same sorts of conversations right from the beginning of our collaboration on Llif/Flow, when working with oceanographer Dr Jonathan Malarkey in 2016.
But as Merched Chwarel, a group of visual artists, we hadn’t. We had committed to a process for the R&D project: to walk together, to explore our different quarries and see what happens. We were committing to sharing experiences - a journey - while still primarily focusing on taking that back into our own practices. Any ‘collective’ activity or product would be an emergent property of this process, rather than the starting point for it.
Merched Chwarel has now been going for the a couple of months. We’ve done 5 walks in the quarries, and one trip to experiment with sound . Over the next two weeks, we are going to share our thoughts and results - on both the content of the project, and the process of it - between us, and with others.
I thought this might be a good time to reflect a little on our emergent collaboration as Merched Chwarel, and how it fits with visual arts practices of the past and the future.
What is collaboration?
Turning to the first page iof the training manual, I found this definition:
“Collaboration is a means of working whereby [artists] work together to achieve something, or gain some benefit, which they could not do by working alone"
Merched Chwarel was conceived as a collaborative project - it is Merched Chwarel rather than ‘Merch y Chwarel’, after all. But we haven't yet explicitly considered what we might be able to achieve by working together rather than alone. Perhaps we should. In the training manual, this the manual calls the 'collaborative advantage':
Collaborative advantage asks whether the effort of collaborating is worth the potential benefits. Scrawled in the margin of the manual, next to the diagram, was a quote I used to use to encourage people to be honest about their motivations for working collaboatively:
“Partnership is the temporary setting aside of mutual loathing in pursuit of funding”.
Too cynical? Perhaps. But it made me wonder: Do artists suffer from particularly competitive/autonomous instincts? Are we still perhaps influenced by the conception of an artist as a ‘lone genius’, as first proposed in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, way back in 1568? Perhaps some of us may even experience the ‘need’ to collaborate as a threat to our artistic reputation?
There is still some of this in the art world, I believe: The Royal Academy still won’t accept life-long collaborators like Gilbert and George, Jane and Louise Wilson, The Singh Sisters, or Jake and Dinos Chapman as Academicians (if that’s the term), for example, because they are not individuals. So they are unable to attribute the individual genius.
And perhaps we – Merched Chwarel - haven’t yet well-enough identified what the advantage to the collaboration might be to make us go for it, to risk the loss of ourselves as ‘autonomous agents’? But perhaps also, we needed time, to each sort through our own individual reactions to the walks first. So we have each established our initial thoughts and work as 'solid ground' (ha, ha, ironic in the context of quarries), and now we are ready to start to see what emerges collectively.
Different forms of collaboration
The examples above of the collaborations between Gilbert and George or the Singh Twins are extreme. Collaboration does not have to be all or nothing. There are different forms – or extents – of working together to achieve a common goal, and some offer more space for the ‘autonomous agent’ to maintain some autonomy than others. So maybe next week we could bear these in mind, as we think of where we might be going.
Type 1: sharing information between individual artists, who otherwise maintain their individual practices. This is the basic essential first step of a collaboration. And it is where we started as Merched Chwarel, each sharing information about our own quarry, our practice and about things we’ve been researching or doing in relation to quarries.
Type 2: gentle coordination/cooperation, while still maintaining individual practice and outputs
"Modern painting begins with the Impressionists precisely because for the first time in history a group of artists arose who, repudating the role of the great personal message with its attendant doctrine of the immaculate conception, decided to devote themselves exclusively to solving a technical problem in painting" Barnett Newman
These types of collaboration do not result in co-authored works. I think the walks we have been doing as Merched Chwarel, our shared blog, and the events we are running together over the next two weeks are all examples of this type of collaboration. We will certainly be doing more of this in the future... but can we go further?
Type 3: specific, jointly conceived activities; working together on one or two specific things while crediting individual input
In the early 20th century, groups like the Dadas and Surrealists produced joint works that two or more artists would sign. Later, Edward Kienholz and Nancy Reddin, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, and Christo and Jeanne-Claude Javacheff began consistently to sign all their works jointly. But the 'eminent' partner received primary credit for their joint work, as a result of reputations established before the collaboration began. Feminist artists have arguably used more collaboration of this type 3: for example Margaret Harrison, Kay Hunt and Mary Kellyon 'Women & Work'; Suzanne Lacey and Lesley Labowitz; Susan Frazier, Vickie Hodgetts and Robin Weltsch in Nurturant Kitchen.
Merched Chwarel have started to experiment with some type 3 collaboration: trying out call and response works in the quarries for example. I think we could do more, perhaps, to create collaborative works. Maybe we could start with each other's outputs (could we do a drawing or 3-D call and response, a quarry exquisite corpse?).
Type 4: negotiated, fully integrated project with shared collective credit.
A new practice emerged in the late 20th century, in which teams of two artists working together from the beginning of their careers, made all of their work jointly. Like Hilla and Bernd Becher, Gilbert and George, Jane & Louise Wilson, Jake and Dinos Chapman and Tim Noble and Sue Webster. I don't think it is these collaborations are between siblings or lovers. But there are also bigger collaborations that perhaps require less of a personal commitment - the Assemble Collective and Granby Four Streets winning the Turner Prize for example. Or The Gorilla Girls.
We have not even started to think of this level of collaboration: If we did, what would Merched Chwarel be for, what would we think and do?
The future of collaboration?
In the Huffington Post, David Galenson makes three predictions about the future of collaboration in visual arts:
1. successful collaborations will be based on a shared praxis – either entirely experimental or entirely conceptual.
2. most collaborations will be conceptual (although experimental is possible: Chicago’s Zhou brothers are an example in sculpture, and experimental collaboration is common in the natural and social sciences)
3. the larger and more complex the project and goals, the more likely artists will be to collaborate.
As I think about the future of the Merched Chwarel project, I forsee it encompassing both conceptual and experiemental collaboration as it grows to a bigger and more complex project that engages more people. In this first R&D phase, I have started to engage a little (see previous blog) with the views of others. Perhaps we will do more of that kind of wider engagement and collaboration. Perhaps we will draw in people working at the slate museum and in the quarries, relatives of quarry workers, climbers, archaeologists, musians, artists, poets, performers, geologists and historians? If it were that kind of collaborative enquiry, it would be conceptual, to be sure, but there would be space for experimental collaboration too. I wonder how we might deal with authorship. And I wonder how galleries would react to that?
* The notes are part of a training manual developed during my ‘past-life’ as a facilitator. (This work was itself a collaboration with Penny Walker and Lynn Wettenhall, InterAct Networks). Exerpts are direct from the manual, but for this blog I have replaced the phrase: "people from different departments and/or organisations" with "artists"). Click here for more about our work at InterAct Networks.