BREAK. A Collaboration on Collaboration

I think I can see it…

Picasso rose from his chair and stood in front of the canvas. After a brief pause, he painted the eye of a Minotaur at the very center of the canvas. Now it was Buffet’s turn. Around the Minotaur’s eye, he sketched a thin female body. The eye was staring from the centre of the woman’s stomach. Dali poured himself a glass of china ink. Majestically striding to the canvas, he spat a mouthful of black ink on the picture. All that could be seen now was a black splatter and softly dripping china ink1.

This fictional Cadavre Exquis would be the primary scene. We could then demonstrate the agonistic dimension that lies behind any artistic collaboration.

Our first line of argument would be the spatial nature of visual arts, which turns any creative process into a struggle for space. Either both artists – for the sake of it, let’s assume there would only be two – work within the same space and this will end in inkshed. Or a more civilized scenario would have the game of call and response – like the one between Picasso and Buffet – played for a dominant pattern to emerge – possibly never, despite the protagonists’ efforts. We would not use the Saussurian theory of differential formalism. We would rather reach back to the platonic theory of harmony and its musical implications, and describe how most harmonies imply a root note and its dominant.

Our second line of argument would imply that the artistic antagonism inherent to the spatial nature of visual arts is fostered by the self perception of the artist. And that this self perception is itself fuelled by what society expects from him as the authentic unique individual. We would discuss the romantic epitome of the artist as self centred individualistic genius: the artist as genius intent on delivering, beyond criticism or contradiction, his tyrannical creative contribution. His almost religious calling places him, in his own eyes as much as in the eyes of others, above society and everything that is not his own hegemonic creation. We could then effortlessly describe how artistic collaboration inevitably leads to a clash of titans – or is expected to.

Of course, we would have to deconstruct all these theses, mix and mingle the voices and concepts, and cover anything that could trace one thought or the other back to its original author. Through this we would prove that theoretical or philosophical cooperation is possible, be it at the expense of discursive language. “Shall we begin this great and multifarious battle, in which such various points are at issue, Protarchus2”?

In practice, interruption is certainly the name of the game. Collaboration is about starting and restarting from unexpected places, in a situation you wouldn’t have put yourself in — and of being interrupted sooner than you wished for (that’s the beauty of it). Not only prolonging impulses, not engaging in too a civilized dialogue (not doing a “dialogue piece”), not an endless negotiation or talk. Prolongation and interruption: constitution of a small machine of flows and cuts. If we by collaboration understand a collective process of creativity, the interruptions serve as a means for placing one creative force in conditions of operation that it would never have reached on its own. That would be the reason behind the experience of some collaborating artists, the reason why they, instead of claiming their due part of the authorship, testify for a “neither me, nor you” behind the work, i.e. the collaboration itself as a distinct artist. If that is the case, we would deal with an artistic subject characterized almost as the opposite of the Kantian genius: an artist not working in the element of absolute freedom, but in the element of struggle – of course, you don’t let yourself be interrupted without fighting back. So I think you’re entirely right in speaking about an “agonistic dimension” behind every artistic collaboration. I would use it as a hypothesis, looking for it in “any artistic collaboration”, as you write – not only in those based on spatiality, but also in all the time based collaborative works done the last, say 20 years, also those made in the form of a social process.

The occurrences of interruption also imply that the horizon is never clear, and that action (a creative act) could not be determined beforehand by a concept of a specific goal. Reading your example of collaboration – the Picasso, Buffet and Dali story –, I almost wanted to jump to the conclusion that a collaboration should not be regarded as oriented toward a product, an object or another goal. And thereby, we would have had to reconsider the reason for the agonistic dimension. But again, thinking of all the artistic collaborations that more or less objectify the collaborative process as such, regardless of its results, letting it take place in “an open space” and making this time based collaboration autotelic, I must say that I am reluctant to let go the product. Not only because I think that the value of a whole lot of collaborations belongs to the things actually made (Fischli and Weiss for example, or Deleuze and Guattari). But also because it seems too difficult today to understand a mere collaboration (a social process) as art. I don’t find the alternative aesthetics or alternative canons of criticism, designed to do aesthetic justice to that kind of collaboratory projects, entirely convincing. Contemporary art (at least in its discourse, if not in its reality) could almost be characterised as visual art that has turned its back on “the visual fetish” (Thomas Crow). This break with the visual has led to the use of so many different kinds of spaces, “one space after another” to paraphrase Donald Judd and Miwon Kwon: exhibition space, social space, discursive space etc. At the same time as Art itself is no longer understood as poetry (the romanticism), nor as painting (modernism) but as exhibition, show (Jacques Rancière). So, if we don’t want to put ourselves in a situation where we have to furnish a new concept of Art, or to take collaboration itself as a model for Art, we have to consider also the results of the collective creativity in order to actually treat the specific artistic form of collaboration. Today, that would mean an art that has a specific relation to exhibitions, or more broadly: to an audience (I don’t want to exclude music) – not only to its participant. This is a condition that probably will change, but for the moment… So: I’m quite ok with your example. We would have to contemplate collaboration as a collective creative process conceived in relation to an audience (not only carried out publicly).

The agonistic dimension surely has to do with the conception of the artist, as you say. There is probably a misconception of the creative subject, the genius, involved in the fostering of a “clash of titans”. But I believe that we could reach another ground for antagonism and for collaboration (as a thought, it is a kind of “agonism” but concerning collaborations, and not “the political) if we reconsidered the subject. I’m back at the interruption theme. Because, what’s wrong with the genius conception of the artistic subject might very well be that it only considers the subject as active, as an agent. According to Kant, the genius doesn’t even consider the forms it freely shapes, i.e. not with the same faculty. You have to be an artist and a man of taste in order to recognize the universal validity of the form you have created. His genius is all active, all productive. But there is also passivity involved in creation. There is also the moment of being interrupted, of waiting, of non-action etc. There is also “the mystery of passive creation”, as Deleuze and Guattari puts it. The existence of the artists qua artists doesn’t depend on their activity, as Mladen Stilinovic underlined in his The Praise of Laziness. But also artists like Hélio Otica or Walter de Maria, who stated that “the very act of not creating already counts as a creative manifestation”, and that it is the collision between “activity and inactivity” that is interesting. You’re an artist also on behalf of your passivity. I believe this holds true also for collective creativity. It even seems to be what Nietzsche’s Zarathustra dreams of, when he feels that his abundant wisdom needs hands reaching out to receive it, and still considers these hands as “co-creators” (Mitschaffer). If we could conceive of this passive creativity, we might be on the track of finding a unity of the collaboration. Not in its goal, not in a totalizing structure (like the dialogue), but in passivity, for example in a pathos. Pathos, according to Nietzsche, is what engenders a becoming, or possible what singularizes it, its “ground”. The collision of passivity and activity, activity and activity, could possibly produce a pathos that unifies the diverse acts of a collaboration. Maybe.

Also, if irruption and interruption are at the core of collaboration, maybe a different kind of economy, proper to collaborations, could be conceived. Not an economy of exchange, nor one of gift and stealth (which is what Zarathustra is talking about). When you receive an idea the development of which you have interrupted, it is neither a gift (you took it a way to early), nor is it a stealth (after all, the other was giving it to you). You received “it”, not the gift, and your taking prolonged the act of giving. And there is also a certain consent to this way of treating each other, even if every single case would turn into a battle. The economy of the interactions and inter-passivities of collaboration could be one of a kind.

I’m afraid I didn’t make it to the conception of subject today.

Without the metaphysical concept of the subject, the Kantian genius would collapse. His absolute creative power and his limitless freedom need at least logically an underlying continuity, a substance. Even if in a highly problematic way – Kant wrote Critics -, something of the ancient metaphysical substratum is still active in Kant’s theory of the genius. If one tries to analyse collaboration within that theory, on the one hand collaboration between artists can be described as bound to end in a struggle in order to remove the potential obstacles his alter ego represents or creates for the artist’s absolute freedom and self-mastery. On the other hand, as you rightly put it, a more positive interpretation would stress that collaboration can also signify the very acceptance of the obstacles and uncertainties the creative process of the co-creator will necessarily induce. According to that interpretation, to collaborate means to accept one’s own vulnerability. The notion of interruption or intermission is therefore indeed a crucial one. It implies that, to a certain point, to collaborate is to take a risk. Calculated risky behaviour is part of the artist’s pathos. Different artists have explicitly or implicitly claimed that the risk of self-destruction is essential to the creative process, specifically since the Damned Poets made a trademark out of it. Leiris compares literary creation to bullfighting and Beuys cohabitates with a wild coyote in his action ‘I like America and America likes me’, to exemplify the pacifying function of art. In this context, the willingness to collaborate and therefore to disappear as autonomous artist could be interpreted as the supreme act of self-assertion. The Kantian artist – partly revisited by Nietzsche, I agree – has enough self-confidence to risk his own freedom, identity or even moral or physical integrity when collaborating.

But interruption can also be the means to break out of the iron clad of the Kantian genius model. Your description of the product of collaboration as “neither you nor me” is therefore pivotal. In fact, historically, the first attempts to abandon the self-mastery and the self-consciousness of the Kantian genius were collective ones. The Surrealists’ efforts to enter a new area where the subconscious is part of the creative process, where collective ones. Not only did they abandon the inherited notion of the subject as self-centered creative consciousness, they also dissolved the individual authorship into a collective co-creation. The first surrealistic work, Les Champs Magnétiques (the Magnetic Fields) was written by Breton and Soupault, who developed a specific technique, automatic writing, for the occasion. The Surrealists also invented or developed numerous cooperative techniques: the Cadavre Exquis, the collage; and most importantly, placed interdisciplinary creation at the centre modern art. Of course, none of the Surrealists truly abandoned individual creation. But some of their collective works can be seen as truly collaborative in this sense, that even when we know who contributed to a collage or a Cadavre Exquis, it is almost impossible to discern who created which part of the work.

And maybe interdisciplinary collaboration is the best way, even for Kantian geniuses, to avoid the struggle for space that characterizes a large number of artistic collaborations : there will be no battle, for lack of a common battleground.

Interdisciplinarity, multimedia, I think a way could be found there. But in order to also extract a model of collaboration, making it more fecund to think collaboration through, I believe that other conceptions of the subject than the Kantian one might be required, as well as another similar conception of the work of art (a different type of analogy between the subject and the work, and maybe a different kind of interaction between the two of them.) There are certain traps though, when you try to run away from conflict into the interdisciplinary. Or, as the Dude noted in The Big Lebowsky, “this case, uh, it has lots of ins, lots of outs, lots of whatevers”.

On the one hand, even if several Kantian geniuses created a multimedia work together, today this work would probably need a relation to the exhibition as its relation to art as such. But, in the contemporary “post-medium condition” (Rosalind Krauss) of works, the exhibition as such seems to have started to serve as a new medium. Thus, an installation or multimedia work might very well be doomed: either being a part of an exhibition, and in that case used by a curator to also reflect the conditions of the exhibition; the exhibition both as a particular event (just like this one reflects on collaboration through collaborations) and as a medium (for example by underlining the role of the curator, the use of space etc, the thematic presentation as an art of its own etc.): or to constitute a show all by itself, and thus orienting the collaboration towards a common medium (the exhibition). In both cases, the artists – the curator included as a collaborator – will actually have a common battleground again.

(My propos is not to victimize the artists in relation to the conditions of exhibiting, or to a curatorial practice, but to make the agonistic dimension come forth in different ways in order to single out the most appealing of its kinds, the least egocentric one which also gives the greatest sovereignty to the collaboration. In practice the variations presented here could without doubt be intermingled)

On the other hand, the relations between the substantial subjects working together could be understood in analogy to those between works showed together. For as much as both the objects and the subjects (even when they are in trance or ecstasy) are discrete entities, they will have to collaborate through mediation. They will need something like a common set of rules (of production, in one case production of a work, for instance automatic writing, in the other of meaning), or an agreement/theme, or a final product – in any case something preceding the collaboration itself, as a principle of the collaboration or of the exhibition. And if that is the case, this principle will not depend on the mutual relations either of the collaboration or the exhibition, on the contrary, it will serve as its principle of intelligibility (its “concept”). Which means that an aesthetics or critical canon common to both of them would be conceivable, and thus, that collaboration could be a “work” of art on its own, its own chief product. Given these new critical tools, a collaboration would not be in need of an exhibition. At the same time, the agonistic dimension could evaporate in the agreement on and consent to the mediating principle. But the collaboration itself would then largely consist in the execution of an object, the concept of which is agreed on in a prealable discussion, or where the mode and division of labour is already agreed on. In my opinion, that is a weak kind of collaboration (not much unexpected will probably happen) not at all satisfying my desire for collaborators. Actually, the battleground is there, but the combatants are not, since the battle has already been settled.

On the third hand (we’re on our way to describing an Indian god, I guess), you could also conceive of the battle as itself being a ground. Imagine there was an agonistic structure, not primarily in the relation between two subjects, but in every subject, as well as in the work of art. Both of these poles, the subject and the object, would render different understandings and practices of collaboration possible, each from its side. Let’s start with the subject. Nietzsche conceived of the subject as a multiplicity, “a community” of subjects battling to get on top and dominate the others. Regardless of the hierarchical structure he claims for his subjects (other dynamic relations should be possible between them – there are so many positions to fight from, so many different goals to be achieved) it implies that the subject, i.e. the process of subjectivity, hides within it a self-relation that is continuously “reinterpreted to new ends, taken over, transformed and redirected”. To me, that reads like a description of a collaboration. The common project is redirected over and over again, transformed and taken over by a new force (a new subject). This kind of subjectivity seems to be at the bottom of Deleuze’s and Guattari’s collaboration –“since each one of us was many, already that made up a bunch of people.” And the two of them never came to agree on the interpretation of certain of their key-concepts, like “body without organs”. They used it anyway. As for the model of their collaboration, Deleuze once said that they wanted to be the Laurel and Hardy of philosophy. They made life or action difficult for each other, stumbled over each other, and happened to smash the birthday cake they bought together in an attempt to save it from one another. As for interdisciplinarity or multimedia, it is interesting to notice a different response to this “post-medium condition”.

There are actually works of art being made that I would like to call genealogical works. Works that are distinctly one as an object, one piece, but where several medias are involved. A simple example would be a photograph, but which gives the impression of being a film of a completely still object. A photograph with a temporal aspect, but without any action being hinted at. To deal with such a picture, you actually need to consider both photography and film, maybe even painting. Or, another example I saw in Malmö a few years ago, a work by Clay Ketter. It consisted only of a huge road sign, the kind you find at the side of a motorway, telling you how far it is to different places and what kind of roads are coming up. But it was completely empty. No text, only the coloured fields. It was most definitely a sculpture, but at the same time and as definitely, the coloured part of it belonged to the painterly tradition. There were other aspects of it as well, but my point is this: this kind of work is in itself multimedial. It belongs to several different histories, several different fields and discourses. Its “origin” is actually multiple, that’s why I would like to call it a genealogical work.

This kind of multimediality differs from other kinds. Also, it allows for a “general” artist to act on different fields at once, instead of putting together specialist bringing their speciality to the table. I believe this kind of work correspond to the kind of multiple subject I mentioned above. And maybe it also could provide a model of collaboration between different multiple subjects in a way that could allow them to constitute something other than just a collaboration as some kind of substantial reality laid on top of the singularised subjects. The presence of different media in the kind of works I described, the genealogical ones, is certainly different from “ordinary” interdisciplinary work. I believe that by collaborating, you could actually constitute a more complex mode of presence than the single individual (no matter how many of them there are) could do, permitting the involved subjects to reach a settling of the battle (that constitutes each subject taken by itself), a resolution of the agonistic dimension, on a bigger scale or higher level or something, much like the genealogical works do in regard to different media. In that sense, I believe that the genealogical work could serve as a model for understanding and practicing collaborations. And, I don’t know, maybe the resolution of conflict on a bigger scale, the experience of it, being in it as in the element of collaboration, has something to do with the passivity we talked about earlier.

It would nevertheless be surprising or paradoxical to conclude the treatment of such a producer-oriented subject as collaboration between artists with an emphasis on the work of art itself, which is “only” the product. Of course, the genealogical work or the artists as a collection of subjectivities behind a fictional unity, probably offer a good model for a critical point of view about collaboration. To put it in a nutshell, one could say: where there is an apparent unity (work of art), there is a hidden struggle (artists). But you don’t need to examine the notion of collaboration for that: whatever model you wish to use to interpret collaborations, the definition of collaboration you will end up with will only reflect your conception of the subject – active or passive, one or multiple, harmonic or antagonistic. In that sense, the very notion of collaboration is in its essence a merely metaphysical one: it implies that there are separated substances who will miraculously overcome their own shortcomings to reach a higher cooperative unity. But as you implicitly point out with the notion of genealogical work, taken as a model for the creative process, despite Nietzsche’s theoretical efforts, maybe nobody cares for the creative subjects and their struggles anymore. But if you want an aesthetics based on the artists’ point of view, artistic collaborations might offer some interesting perspectives and insights.