Listening to Anne Nobel and Anna Brown share their experiences regarding artistic collaboration with one another was smile-inducing to say the least. One could not help but notice the beautifully enduring relationship that the two had forged in the fires of a collaborative project; evident not only within the nuances of their speech and demeanour but through the way in which they finished each other’s sentences like an old married couple. In fact, watching the two of them interact with such mutual respect and admiration for one another was not dissimilar to observing parents reminisce about the cherished moments of past children now full-grown and away from home. And yet, even with the plethora of evidence presented to support collaboration in a liberative light, part of me still maintained an appropriate amount of scepticism for this potentially unrealistic and romanticised portrayal of collaborative processes. There is always an exception to the rule and I was willing to accept that this might be one of them.
Collaboration has been a recurring theme throughout this year, being a topic of conversation within numerous masterclasses and seminars. Since coming from a purely musical and performance based background, I’ve recently been having trepidations about the word and in response have been critically reconsidering the role collaboration has played within my own creative practice thus far. Until this year I have rarely known any other way of making except through that of collaborative processes. During the masterclass I found it intriguing listening to my peers’ reactions and bearing witness to a few passionate outbursts stating that they could not bring themselves to collaborate with another artist, let alone share creative authorship, and that the idea naturally repulsed them. I understand this mentality and, while I appreciate all the benefits and what is to be gained from a collaborative approach, believe that it is too often seen through rose-coloured glasses and doesn’t receive nearly enough apprehension or scrutiny for such a complex concept. This does not necessarily deem the rejection of collaboration as selfish or (as many acquaintances of mine unfortunately believe) ‘going solo’, it simply means that one values their vision enough to pursue it without having to filter that vision through a funnel of contradicting minds. This allows clarity, refinement and the development of a personal voice; all important elements of artistic growth that are often sadly neglected and simply thought to be manifest of one’s encroaching ego.
Interestingly, the word collaboration conflates two seemingly disparate and conflicting definitions that elicit both positive and negative connotations. On the one hand we have a definition that is generally regarded as beneficial (the action of working with someone to produce something) while on the other there exists a more sinister account of the word (traitorous cooperation with an enemy). There seems to be a popular notion in society that romanticizes and advocates collaboration to the detriment of individual creative output; as if relinquishing the role of author is a somehow noble and liberating act that allows the artist to join the rest of the mere mortals back on earth. Speaking from experience, collaborative practice is an artistic practice in itself. It requires one to adopt unprecedented creative processes and to explore new methods of sharing and recontextualizing information. It can also demand patience. A lot of patience. Trust is perhaps the most essential ingredient needed in a healthy and successful relationship, and is not collaboration the epitome of a relationship? By working with another being (or beings) to bring into fruition an idea that contains equal investment from both parties, one can experience a truly beautiful and humbling endeavour (if they don’t first throttle the other in frustration). But is this process ever truly egalitarian? Does individual authorship evaporate with collaboration? Can it be traced in order to reveal some kind of hierarchical structure?
I was reminded of Frances Whitehead’s collaborative practice as a ‘civic artist’ and how it differs from that of Anne Nobel’s. Anne seems somehow more wholesome, honest and inclusive in her approach and while Frances certainly had her merits (well-intentioned fervour with a side of autocracy) it felt more akin to a participatory practice than a collaborative one. This has perpetually been a complication for me when involved in a collaboration of any kind; there is always someone whose vision is more lucid, motivation more passionate and judgement more severe. No matter how diligently one tries to graciously give up authorship, this process is only ever an exchange and that authorship must transfer somewhere or be left to fluctuate within purgatory, searching for a new owner to bestow its almighty powers upon. I appreciate that I can distinctly discern Anne within her work and am able to trace the residue left behind through her collaborations with fellow bee keepers, scientists, designers and musicians. Each interaction seems respectably pure. In contrast, though the projects that Francis undertakes seem more (arguably) ‘life changing’ through a direct macro influence, I can’t help but sense that she uses people as she does resources; material manipulated to serve a greater purpose, to serve the artist. When does collaboration cease to be mere participation and why does it matter?