Whilst art practice continues to retain an image of being a solitary pursuit, it is significant that recent Turner Prize winning artist Duncan Campbell thanked Michael Clarke, the dancer and choreographer who worked with him on his award winning piece. As political activist Helen Keller stated, “alone we can do so little together we can do so much” art practice has incorporated the idea of collaboration and the collective as something powerful and progressive. Working collaboratively can make us think about how artists and in turn, art functions.
Collaboration has a contemporary significance as well as a historical lineage. The history of collaborative practices can be traced through the early outputs of the Dada Surrealist artists of the early twentieth century. With Dada and Surrealism, collaboration represented new and exciting challenges and ways of working for artists that could make new types of artworks and make a significant political and aesthetic break with work that went before. Another early twentieth century collaborative project, The Omega Workshops instigated by Roger Fry, were a key moment in collaborative practices where artists and designers worked anonymously to design and produce furniture and textiles.
Within contemporary art practice methods of working that challenge the traditional notion of art as a singular activity have moved from marginal positions that might have been seen as chiefly the domain of ‘community art’ into the mainstream art world. It is interesting to note how the discourse around the ‘collaborative turn’ in art practice appear to be framed as a polarising position between aesthetic and non-aesthetic judgements. The work of collectives such as Royal Art Lodge, Paper Rad and The Hobbypop Museum focus on the collective creative activity of drawing, painting and writing as a way of producing artworks imbued with the sense of optimistic play that can occur within collaborative activities. This type of practice stands at polar opposite to the work of collectives who explicitly eschew aesthetical considerations in favour of political and ethical concerns such as the work of collective SUPERFLEX and The New World Summit founded by artist Jonas Staal in 2012.
The critic and academic Claire Bishop discusses this in her essay “The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents” Artforum, (2006). She examines how a particular discourse in relation to how collaborative art can function as a gesture of political resistance fails to address how aesthetic judgement might also be an important factor in how the work can have purchase or meaning.
‘The social turn in contemporary art has prompted an ethical turn in art criticism. This is manifest in a heightened attention to how a given collaboration is undertaken. In other words artists are increasingly judged by their working processes- the degree to which they supply good or bad models of collaboration – and criticised for any hint of potential exploitation that fails to ‘fully’ represent their subjects, as if such a thing were possible.’
One of the key points Bishop makes is how a kind of hierarchy of meaning of ethical over aesthetic judgement in collaborative practices demands a closer and more critical examination. And that, as she states “good intentions shouldn’t render art immune to critical analysis”. This critical discussion of collective activity in art practice is an important development in how this type of activity is received and integrated into the contemporary art world mainframe. It gives a valuable counterpoint to some institutionalised assumptions around art’s relationship to social change. However it remains to say that working collectively and collaboratively yields richly rewarding results for both artists and audiences as a way of producing objects and ideas for dissemination that promote a culture of sharing, consensus and communication.
Alison Pilkington is an artist based in Dublin, she co-edits the publication The Fold with Cora Cummins.