Nina Rodin>Writing> A Manifesto against Collaboration




A Manifesto against Collaboration

date > 2015
publication > Collaborate! catalogue


Flesh. And tea. It starts with a conversation. I chat with Rebecca Molloy and Abigail Box about paint, touch, the superficial and the deeper complexity below. Skin is the surface, flesh is the vaguer, live, pulsating entity. There is desire for something inside and visceral, dripping, sloshing. Paint is like a body fluid: snot, spit, blood, sweat, tears and shit. Unctuous and attractive. And a messy thing of revulsion. Rebecca squirts whipped cream in the forest, spills drinks in front of the camera, plays with nutella. I show her fluorescent physio putty, petri dishes and test tubes filled with paint. There is resonance, recognition, echoes, I feel I get Rebecca’s work before she has even started working in the studio with me.

There is shared attitude and curiosity, the same desire for something both serious and irreverent.
A collaboration is inevitably a compromise yet I find myself drawn to a territory of play - of interaction with other artists despite the difficulties with defining authorship and the final form of the artwork.

Working in a collaboration requires one to throw up your arms and give in early. Shrug your shoulders but stick to your guns. In my collaboration with Molloy and Box, a strictly logical disorder emerges out of humorous and argued-for interventions. Collectively we take a stab at the infuriating precedence set by painting’s crusty weighty history with a tender loving silky stroke of the brush and a violent, wild explosion of colour. Pretty Peeved. The work is feminist, pokes fun at the macho muscle of abstract expressionism. The male gaze goes limp, the female sex is brash with in-your-face lush domesticity.

The show is shown a first time, we celebrate and breathe a sigh of relief that we got something together that we are all three excited by but within a few days I am already looking back and doubting the entire exercise. Where am I in all this? After all, collaboration seems like a dirty word to many artists. It is a delimitation (or a territorialization or a framing, depending on who you read) that has elements in it that I did not want and elements missing that were important to me but rejected by the others.

Yet I engage in collaborations regularly. Often these are opportunistic encounters. I run an experimental residency that encourages discussion, exchange and collaboration. I think of collaborations as opportunities to extend discussions beyond the spoken or written word into making. A collaboration is an energetic forum for play. And in Art, play is far more than childish fun. It is were I find the wild energy that feeds back into the most considered and difficult part of my practice. Collaborations force me to do some things that are uncomfortable and this informs a better understanding of what I really value at the core of my work. It jolts me out of too-well travelled tracks and keeps my practice from growing stale.

It is a social activity that breaks the ear-splitting silence of solitary ruminations. At times, I descend into vicious circles of thought where I loose faith in the purpose of my work. Towards the work of others, I am more generous. In collaborations I am free of procrastination. Alone, I am free to waste my own time with doubt. I feel I have to keep the ball rolling when I work with others. I work with artists whose work I respect or admire which allows me to be more ambitious on behalf of our collaborations. With my solo work, there is more doubt, more cringing, more modesty, more need for privacy.

I find it easier to video the process of collaboration. I have never video myself making work. In collaborations, the documentation is made available also to give some clarity as to authorship. The viewer can see who holds the brush but can’t see who owns the ideas. When the play staged in the studio has to move into a more public space, defining ownership and authorship becomes an issue. Dragan Ilic says: ‘I never do collaborations. My ego is too big’. Yet he relies on technicians, engineers, architects and scientists for some of his work. But there is a clear contract which allows him to retain sole authorship of his machines, his house, his entire way of living which is his work. Dragan Ilic is ‘une oeuvre complete’, a persona that includes all his production.

Insofar as art is often the result of learning from others or using tools or materials made by others, all work could be said to be collaborative. I like to think of hard and soft collaborations. Artists can work as equals in a neutral or shared space but don’t necessarily have to fuse their artistic persona. In cases of ‘hard’ collaboration like Gilbert and George, it doesn’t matter who is Gilbert and who is George. It could be Bob and Roberta Smith, a single artist, a single author.

One artist at least has suggested that we start a more sustained collaboration and show the resulting work on a shared website, perhaps under a joint pseudonym, much like the Mental:Klinik duo from Istanbul (also a couple, incidentally). To me, that seems theatrical and slightly false. I enjoy the direct connection, however tenuous, and cryptic to a single person- the artist - that the artwork affords. Even if I don’t understand it, I want it to be sincere: for there to be a genuine link to the artist’s unique subjectivity. Collaborations can muddy the waters. I prefer the clarity of the collaboration between Nikki de St Phalle and Jean Tinguely: in the fountain outside the Centre Pompidou, it is clear who did what in this spectacular display of machines playing with Nanas and other creatures.

In my first collaboration with Ivan Liotchev, we set out to paint two massive garage doors in Battersea. After days of furious painting and repainting over each other’s marks we settled for finishing one door each as there seemed to be no possible single image that we could agree on. With Sarah Knill-Jones, we take it in turns to be ourselves in protocols designed by one or the other but I am uncomfortable with many of the things that interest her. With Dennis de Caires, the only way we can paint on the same paper is by agreeing in advance that each painting will be cut up into 16 pieces sewn into a book: the final delimitation is pre-determined by an agreed protocol. I can’t imagine we would ever paint a canvas together and leave it whole. The cutting up absolves us both of the burden of aesthetic choice that comes with single authorship. With Nicholas John Jones, I am relieved when he agrees to title and sign his own canvas but wants nothing to do with the authorship of the work that presents his canvas and my copy as a whole in Fact and Fiction.

I enter into new collaborations more and more gingerly, conscious of the danger of exploitation and misunderstandings. With Pretty Peeved, we allow ourself a week of pure play behind closed doors, more than a month before the show in Wales. We agree in advance that if we are not all happy with the outcome, we can walk away. But working in space rather than on a single canvas, three territories can find different points of view as each artist stakes out overlapping boundaries for their practice. The lines are blurred and authorship is confounded and complex but each of us is at least momentarily excited and elated by the outcome.

Conversely I find myself more and more interested in the power and potential of artists collectives. I have curated group shows that became more than the sum of their parts. I have taken part in mail art projects that give each artist a space for individual authorship. Fold is a collective of four artist each with their own practice but who come together for elaborate publications. A format, always square, is set but but like the form of the sonnet, it is more an invitation to be essential and precise than an awkward constraint. The collective Gutai gave a very large group of post-war japanese artists a supportive framework for radical new departures in a politically challenging climate. There is power in numbers and insofar as all art exerts a power on the viewer (starting with the artist him/herself), large ‘soft’ collaborations where each artist retains individual authorship of their work can propel the work of all its constituents forward through shared opportunities and mutual support. Collaborations can be political vehicles for change. A louder voice. But at that point, the collaboration also ceases to be an artwork. For an artwork is resolutely singular. There is space in business, design, philosophy and science for consensus, logical positivism, reproducibility, optimisation. In Art, my prerogative is in my individuality.