What does it mean to collaborate? More specifically, what does it mean to collaborate on the production of artworks in the context of art research? More specifically still, what does it mean to collaborate on the research of a single practitioner, as in the case of my project? How does my relationship to the research differ from that of other collaborators, for whom the outcome will not, in all likelihood, comprise a Ph.D.? Moreover, how might the methods I use recognize these inherent differences while at the same time maintaining “collaboration” rather than “participation” as the mode of research? Addressing these complex questions begins with acknowledging the significant gap between the theory and historical analysis of creative collaboration and its actual practice as an art-making process. As my literature review reveals, curatorial or art historical surveys abound (Claire Bishop, Maria Lind and Charles Green et al), but there is little discussion of the terms of engagement enabling collaboration and almost zero attention paid to the interpersonal factors involved in this process, be it successful or something else.
There are at least two reasons for this. First, critics and art historians tend to write about collaboration from the perspective of an outsider. With few exceptions, they neither have access to nor, I would argue, are they necessarily interested in the simultaneously messy and banal day-to-day reality of this process. This is certainly the case where the collaboration is perceived as external to the work: where the work is produced through collaboration instead of the collaboration constituting the work itself. The second reason for this gap likely relates to the challenging nature of group work. Collaboration is often emotionally, intellectually and at times, physically demanding. Working on projects with HTAP, Critical Practice, Future Reflections, Unnamed Collaboration and curating as part of a team has taught me that interpersonal politics play a significant role in realizing the work. While discussing these politics within the group is often difficult, describing them (either objectively or otherwise) to those beyond the group is more challenging still. It is therefore not surprising they go largely unacknowledged in non-biographically orientated art history and criticism. And yet, it is precisely the challenge posed by these politics that necessitates taking them into consideration when innovating collaborative ways of working. Failing to do so denies the emotional aspect of group work as a catalyst for making, and can result in difficulty if not failure. With this said, there are many kinds of collaborative practice, each with its own internal logics. Consequently, interpersonal politics figure more prominently in some collaborations than in others.
One the fundamental realizations emergent from my practice is that productive and rewarding collaboration turns on the interplay between shared working practices and individual sensibilities. With this in mind, the evolving list of principles for collaboration outlined below draws on both my experience and that of other practitioners involved in various kinds of creative group practice. Guidelines informing these principles include: Open Organizational Guidelines; Trebor Scholz’s “The Social Protocals of Collaboration,” a subsection of The Participatory Challenge; R. Keith Sawyer’s text “Using Collaborative Creativity” in Creating Conversations: Improvisation in Everyday Discourse; and Quentin Vinces and Philip E. Bourne’s “Ten Simple Rules for a Successful Collaboration,” a short and practical paper addressing collaboration in scientific research. Finally, I also consider Collaboration: What Makes It Work?, a guidebook on working in health, social science and public affairs published by the Wilder Research Centre.
Another important and developing source informing this list is The Next Layer: Art Politics and Open Source Software, a drupal platform facilitated by Armin Medosch as part of his Ph.D. research at Goldsmiths, University of London. While providing an online space for artists and/or researchers to share and develop their work, this platform also fosters discussion around open source methodology and its application to contexts beyond software development.
Finally, it is useful to (re)acknowledge the subjective thrust of my research in relation to these principles. My work is increasingly concerned with what might be termed “the collaborative subject,” a focus coalescing around my self-reflection/reflexion on my own subjectivity as constituted through collaborative engagement both on and offline. In their present iteration, these principles are therefore guidelines for my own practice as a collaborator. While they may be useful to others working both in and beyond these projects, some of the principles may also seem slightly eccentric, given their emphasis on my individual biases and needs. I publish these principles online with the aim of both clarifying and making my methods for collaboration transparent. I share these guidelines with the hope that others will adopt and adapt them for their respective needs. Future work will involve elaborating brief descriptions of each principle and further explaining the differences between my role as facilitator and the roles of other collaborators in the project.
Some Principles for Collaboration
- Build relationships but focus on the work
- Practice “the golden rule” but don’t assume others are just like you
- Communicate, communicate, communicate: Three types of communication in/on/around the project
- Cultivate a threshold for ambiguity
- Foster rather than judge
- Develop ways of working that recognize individual contribution
- Make tacit knowledge and understanding explicit and promote transparency
- Define your needs and self interest
- Be aware and maintain your limits
- Learn to let go
- Do your work; let others do theirs and work together when possible
- Strive for agonistic pluralism
- operate by rough consensus
- Anticipate problems but don’t address them unnecessarily
- Assume responsibility for your collaborative sensibility
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