Comments on projects presented a UC Show One - March 22, 2009

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Ben and Tanya: (Unfortunately Tanya was away in France; Ben was there on his own)

Ben talked about the significance of being paired with a stranger—this “randomness” made the project interesting. Working with strangers is necessarily common practice from many people; artists who seek to work “alone” are the exception rather than the rule. Ben also talked at length about this work being something other than “resolved”. It lacks the “finality” of his art for public space. According to Ben, collaborative art coughs up “Art” in its form rather than its outcome. My sense of this statement: the form of collaborative art has a tendency to be self-referential—the process is inscribed in the product in a ways that may be more obvious than in “non-collaborative” practice.

This relationship between process and product led me to ask Pierre about how he was understanding the question of “quality” in UC. After initially dismissing the question as a about as interesting as “How does one define art?”, Pierre admitted that he wasn’t quite sure what quality meant in this context. My interest in this definition relates back to Claire Bishop’s concerns that the formal quality of collaborative art tends to be marginalized…

Ben also talked about how in the earlier videos, Tanya was “doing what she does” but by the later ones, they were much more self-conscious about their interaction, which makes it look little more mannered.
Critically, and in contrast to my work with Josh and Pierre, Ben and Tanya’s sensitivity was not in the personal politics of their collaborative engagement but rather in their shared anxiety that their art wasn’t good enough. This is, of course, Ben’s perspective; Tanya may tell a different story.

It was illuminating to learn that it was Tanya who chose and cropped the one and only image the pair presented in the exhibition. The picture features Tanya herself nearly in the middle and Ben largely cropped out—with just the right side of his body included in the lower right-hand corner. For me, something shifted when it came to light that Tanya had manipulated the image…Granted, Ben agreed to this representation…Jane (a prospective recruit to the collaboration) pointed out this may indicate a deep security in their relationship or something else….

Someone talked about them “submitting” the image to the exhibition and this somehow slipped into the idea of collaborators “submitting” to one another. There was a little nervous laugher over whether or not this expression, with its SM connotations, was the best way of describing the group dynamics…

Phil and Douglas: (Unfortunately, Douglas has now left the group as he’s moved to Fiji)

Phil framed his engagement with Douglas as a “failure” on two fronts: (a) Douglas moved away and (b) Douglas was unwilling to breakout of his normative ways of working. This meant the collaborators each went off and “studied” their geopolitical subjects in their own way and on their own terms. (Their project involved an anthropological/sociological exploration of various urban sites, including Vauxhall.)

Phil also talked about being betrayed by Pierre early on in UC. Ben reminded us that it was Phil and Pierre who initiated the project but now Phil has a very different role. Phil left out the specifics of this betrayal but it struck me as both tragic and fascinating that betrayal seems to be a recurrent practice in UC.

Josh, Pierre and Me:
There was discussion around how we shifted from being two (Josh and yours truly) to be being three (Josh, Pierre and me). Josh talked about his role in this shift, which Ben subsequently referred to as “The Betrayal”.

I was especially interested in Jane’s sense that “The Betrayal” was bound up with our focus on the group itself. She seemed to be suggesting that this created alliances that did not necessarily exist in, for example, Ben and Tanya’s work, and she may be correct. I wonder if it didn’t also related to the difference between being assigned someone to work with (as in the first pairing) and choosing something to work with (as in the case of both Josh’s collaboration with Pierre and our subsequent three-way collaboration). Ben asked me why I had “stayed” and I replied that I’m interested in the question of what happens after a betrayal. How do you collaborate after trust have been broken? How can you go on? How do you go on? In this case, it involved working things through via the work, and this displacement remains critical. Here I’m reminded of Bakhtin’s emphasis on the materiality of utterance. Dialogue takes on weight when it’s valued as form and substance—as a medium through which new understanding is created. I talked a little about my experience of making this work and how it compared and contrasted to my experience of making other work, less collaboratively oriented work.

No doubt this will seem very basic, but it strikes me as critical to consider alternative modes of production and how they operate in practice. When I make work “on my own,” I work to a brief and (sometimes) with a curator. My goal is to make the best work I can. I have no idea what others in the exhibition (I’ve only ever been involved in group shows) are producing and often only find myself caring if there’s a concern “their” work will negatively impact “mine”.

But producing our three aspect work for show is different kind of engagement. Because I understood my work as being in dialogue with Josh and Pierre’s, I took more interest in what they were doing and they reciprocated in turn. We contributed to one another’s work in important ways. For example, Josh helped Pierre build the mechanism for his turning rolodexes and Pierre used some of my suggestions for his text fragments. We also considered how the artworks would rub together. We agreed not to have both Josh and my piece presented on monitors on the floor, as this made too literal a connection between them. We also agreed that our work should be installed in “closeish” proximity to encourage visitors to read across the works. While Ben felt this was effective, Jane was less convinced, which has challenged me to think of new ways to shore up this relationship…to make the work more dialogic. Nevertheless, I’m quietly optimistic and excited about what this specific practice-based research into dialogic art may indicate.

What’s productively vexing about this work a generally ambivalent response to the question: Could each aspect exist on its own? How to understand its (relative) autonomy. The jury remains out on this…but it's my sense these works are simultaneously self-contained and contingent and this could be significant.

Assuming Josh, Pierre and my joint project was (a) dialogic and (b) self-engaged in its own architectonics, it becomes possible to understand an aspect of dialogic art making as related to curatorial engagement. Certainly, we were all involved in curating one another’s aspects: of thinking where they might best operate in the space and why and how they engaged the central problematic of our shared interest, which I think can be (very generally) expressed as follows: What are the possibilities of retelling complex interpersonal experiences involving various actors and, by extension, alternative motivations and points of view?

Pierre has been quite transparent about his general disinterest in fidelity. Instead he seems more concerned with “intelligence” in a military sense of the term: gathering information on the various collaborators and collaboration. I wonder if he might feel differently had he been paired with someone in the first instance? Despite asserting that working with me and Josh has been productive, he would like very much to sit out the next round on the grounds (alluded to above) the project would benefit from a facilitator with “critical distance”…

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Photos courtesy of Pierre d’Alancaisez

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