When Trust Breaks Down in Collaboration

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Meeting a the Barbican:
I got more and less than I bargained for at UC's meeting on February 15, 2009 at the Barbican. Josh and I intended to present our Interim Report on the collaboration. We'd planned to activate this paper through various discursive strategies, including narrative, tautology, and "good cop, bad cop". Unfortunately, the meeting was underattended: There were only three of us (Josh, Pierre and yours truly). Our performative intentions were thwarted.

We ended up discussing the collaboration rather than presenting our report. This led Pierre to divulge that Josh had given him access to our private blog, a text we'd locked down because (I assumed) we wanted a space where we could capture our observations with minimum censure.

The Result:

(1) I felt betrayed and no longer take my (easy) relationship with Josh for granted. But despite the emotional trauma, our shift in relations is not necessarily insurmountable. Rather, it reminds me that we never really know with whom we're collaborating. This relates to scholarship on online ethics that cautions against taking the "Golden Rule" for granted: It's a mistake to assume that an Other would like to be treated like you; it's a mistake to assume that you ever know who this Other is and what they want.

It's also a mistake to assume that best practice in one context is necessarily applicable to another. Transparency is held as an ideal in both Critical Practice and Future Reflections (though admittedly, it's compromised from time to time). Nevertheless, CP has made an explicit commitment to this way of working. This was never agreed in UC. In fact, there was general resistance to discussing the group's shared ethics of engagement from the beginning, something I should have paid more attention to as a potential risk...But then you have to risk, sometimes.

(2) I asked Josh to explain why he'd broken our agreement, thus compromising our working relationship. And his response? That he sought to reactivate UC more generally. He claims this manoeuvre shows his alliance to Unnamed Collaboration rather than me, his assigned collaborator. Were these things mutually exclusive? They need not have been. I also recognize that although Josh and I were working fruitfully, the project as a whole was pretty limp. I was also keen to use our contribution to reactivate UC and would have happily shared our blog with Pierre had I been asked. There was no need for Josh to break our agreement...That was his choice.

If all this sounds like I'm feeling a little...hurt...it's because I am. Critically, these reflections represent my perception of the situation and they're written from this place of discomfort. Josh's and Pierre would likely recount the story in a differently.

Josh also fibbed about how he shared the blog. He told me he "happened" to bump into Pierre when in fact, the meeting was planned. Of particular note was how he "justified" his actions, saying that I should have anticipated this manoeuvre based on the way he usually operates(?). To put it simply: Playing both ends against the middle as his MO.

Strategies like this one are familiar in competitive arenas, such as the business world. Why not in the art world? It would be naive to believe they didn't also exist in this context. Again I realize I've made some unfounded assumptions, namely that Unnamed Collaboration was interested in working together with the express purpose of developing richer and more satisfying modes of engagement.

The sub-discourse of game playing should have tipped me off that there were other agendas involved. I now have the impression there are collaborators in this group who enjoy tracking and staging intrigue...We're rehearsing an art world...an art world that other collaborations with which I'm involved (specifically CP, FR and HTAP) seek to challenge through cultivating practices that are more equitable and transparent. Or at least that's my assumption...

(3) Pierre proposed the metaphor of the Flag as a way of relating to the project. He differentiated between pledging one's allegiance to the Flag vs. pledging one's allegiance to the people of the Flag. This leads me to believe that, as far as Pierre is concerned, Josh's lying can be ameliorated...because pledging his allegiance to the collaboration is beneficial for the group more generally. But do the ends justify the means? And what of the metaphor's nationalist--indeed militaristic overtones? In what ways is it productive to alienate your fellow collaborators? Is it worth destroying a micro culture of generosity for unknown gain? I suppose that depends on what the stakes are and who you ask...

The Consequence:

I am interested in proceeding under the assumption there are no assumptions: We're all free agents; there is no (collectively determined) system. This challenges normative notions of collaboration as an ethical [read: moral] way of making art. Moreover, rethinking the terms of our engagement has prompted me to refocus my working with UC. The question now driving my engagement can be expressed as follows: Is it possible to proceed in a collaborative relationship after trust has been broken and what impact does this rupture have on both the production and realization of the collaborative artwork produced through this relationship?

What seems imperative at this juncture is using our interpersonal disagreements as fodder for our work--of working things out through the work. There's little room or interest in talking about the issues as if there were real people involved, in part because at this stage, those negatively affected are very much in the minority.

In keeping with the truism that history is written by the winners, Josh is developing a dialogue based on our disagreement. This will comprise his primary contribution to the three-aspect work we'll be presenting at the critique at the end of March. He describes this dialogue as a fiction, and it is--a prime example of historical revisionism, though it's my impression he genuinely believes it's interpretative. It's notable that in this dialogue, Josh is careful to acknowledge the hurt and discomfort his maneuver has caused me. Nevertheless, it's Josh who, in the final analysis, goes home with the social and cultural capital in this fictionalized conversation. In its current form, it serves him as a platform to explain, justify and validate his deceit on the grounds it makes for good theatre.

But there can something very cheap about creating conflict for an audience. That's the stuff melodramas and action movies are made of. But in the absence of beautiful stars and great special effects, it seems likely the actual conflict will go unreified--especially once it's abstracted and displaced. On a more personal level, the act of this displacement may well be therapeutic (art therapy), though for whom I'm not yet sure.


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