WHAT IS THE NATURE OF ARTISTIC COLLABORATION?
How can we live together? Without a doubt, this is a question that solicits most divisive answers. As John Donne once stated, 'No man is an island' and the benefits brought about by collaborations, relationships and partnerships are undeniable. Yet, from Hobbes stating that 'The condition of Man ... is a condition of Warre of every one against every one' to Jean-Paul Sartre's 'Hell is other people', itís a wonder we have managed to form alliances, communities and societies that have thrived over centuries. This tension is fundamentally unique to human beings and it highlights our animal nature, still striving for survival, yet it also sheds light on how much we put in place over the course of our existence in order to put as much distance as possible between ourselves and that most primal self-preservation impulse.
Whereas most animals either depend on each other or prey on each other for survival, we have evolved with technology, institutions and social structures in place so as to ensure the stability of our existence, hopefully beyond the mere predator/prey duality. In theory, we don't really need each other anymore, but we still choose to establish and maintain relationships. We forever seek the cohesion, the recognition and the protection that we can find in others. We strive for the continuity that relationships offer as 'We are only a succession of discontinuous states in relation to the code of everyday signs', as Nietzsche and Klossowski argued.¹
It should come as no surprise that the most common strategy adopted to deal with our own lot of discontinuous states in life is to establish and actively maintain internal and external structures such as personality, beliefs, relationships and social roles that allow us to maintain a stable self.² In other words, we need others to know ourselves as consistent entities. This is the crux of our discomfort and our attraction to sharing our lives with others. The self can only truly weather a discontinuous existence with the support of others, yet a strong self is still often defined as an independent one with solid boundaries.
How does one balance discontinuous states, with the boundaries required for a healthy sense of self and strong links to others? By living together apart. The philosopher Roland Barthes once wrote: 'Fantasmically speaking, there's nothing contradictory about wanting to live alone and wanting to live together'. This is the fundamental thought at the heart of How to Live Together
, Barthes' exploration of idiorrhythmy, a mode of living in close proximity that is fluid and evolves on the basis of individual rhythms. He refers to certain communities of monks as having attained this separation, beyond that of physical boundaries, in the context of a shared daily life.
Focusing mostly on external structures, the roles and relationships of artists can be particularly interesting. Collaborative art practices have been in existence for a long time. One could say they have always existed. Yet they still raise the same questions. Are expectations and intentions matched? Will the benefits be evenly distributed?
What is the nature of collaborative work in the arts? To pretend to have a ready-made definition would be tantamount to denying the individuality of the people who enter into a collaborative project, their motivations and the uniqueness of all the other potential variables. Perhaps a better starting point could be found in an attempt to outline what might be its constituting elements. For an artistic collaboration to take place, artists are indispensable. That is, individuals who have an artistic practice. But a mere juxtaposition of people who have individual practices does not make a collaboration. What is the binding element? Artists have to possess a willingness to share their practice with like-minded individuals and a space or context for the sharing to happen.
When artistic practices encompass so much, from a way of working to research, process and the realisation of ideas into forms, what does the sharing entail? Commonly known as the joint use of an inherently finite resource, it can also be understood as the process of dividing and distributing. Although it's a habit that we, as human beings, don't have sole ownership of as natural examples of it abound, we like to think of it as a basic aspect of human interaction which strengthens society as a whole and is paramount to our individual wellbeing.
We certainly value sharing in a social and cultural context but, can art be understood as a finite resource that could be divided, distributed for common benefit? That is perhaps a definition of sharing that relies too heavily on the basis that what is shared must belong to the realm of economic capital: money, goods, tangible assets. A simple ideological shift towards cultural capital, most often identified as knowledge, expertise and skills, allows us to think about sharing art practice without trying to force art to conform to a symbolic system that limits it to the status of commodity.
So an artistic collaboration would be composed of artists willing to share knowledge and skills with like-minded individuals. Yet, that gets us no closer to understanding how, in practical terms, and why this happens. Beyond general considerations, how did this come about for Team Building Exercise, an actual case of artistic collaboration, and was idiorrhythmy the best approach for the artists to reach their goals?
Team Building Exercise has its own set of unique characteristics that stem from the coming together of five artists who usually work autonomously with very different aesthetics, strategies, materials and results. This community of interest came together with a will to maintain the respective autonomy of their individual art practices while potentially learning and supporting each other in exploring a specific skill/problem/way of working.
A community necessarily involves exercising power in some form, whether it's assuming responsibilities or making efforts to support others without expecting anything in exchange. Sharing can be circumscribed by collective boundaries and the artists of Team Building Exercise bypassed any imbalance in power by allowing for the control and focus of one day to be determined by one individual at a time, over a period of five days. In this case, the sharing did not have as an ultimate end the creation of collective work or a complete surrender. The necessary boundaries are not so much physical as they are temporal and fluid.
The ideal idiorrhythmy is one of 'smooth time', that is time uninterrupted by segments of predetermined productivity and leisure. The time of idiorrhythmy is receptive to individual delays and idiosyncrasies because it exists somewhere between complete isolation and forced integration in to the structures of professional and family life. Team Building Exercise, by suspending the restrictions of productive time, temporarily allowed the artists to be released from the diffuse forms of power that characterise the networks put in place in order to keep discontinuity at bay. This, paradoxically, allowed for productivity just as much as complete inertia and anything else in between. However, the artists of Team Building Exercise each walked away with more than they had initially brought to the project.
Even as idiorrhythmy was meant as an alternative to productive ways of arranging the world, perhaps it is a fruitful way for artists to work when the world becomes overbearing. At a stretch, some people would argue that artists can exist without the world, that art is not required to address anyone. Yet art can accept the challenge of vanquishing and transforming the person who engages with it. It is by the other's presence that idiorrhythmy can create an echo for itself in art. The other can become facilitator, an idealised audience, a muse. In the mind of the artist creating in such conditions, the importance of the other knows no bounds.
¹ From Pierre Klossowski's work on Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle, in the chapter entitled The Origin of the Semiotic of Impulses. Klossowski is interpreting Bk 3 of Nietzsche's The Will to Power.
² The Continuity Theory was first described by George L. Maddox in 1968 in the book Middle Age and Aging: A Reader in Social Psychology.
MARTINE ROULEAU is currently Learning and Access Officer at UCL Art Museum. She's also a freelance curator, writer and lecturer. www.martinerouleau.co.uk © 2013