Written for Public Art Resource + Research Scotland.
Necessities and pleasures
After several years working across the wide remit of what is generically called public art, collaboration has become a large part of what we do. Because of the range of projects we take on, we have no choice but to collaborate; few artists after all could honestly claim to be specialists in neon lighting, inflatable balloons, ruderal plants, outdoor projection and traditional boat building. But for us it is not only a necessity but also a great pleasure. We enjoy the freedom of not being tied to any one medium, as well as what others bring to the work, and the fact that we are learning throughout the process. Consequently we rely heavily on other specialists, and the success of the work, its development, and its realisation depends on what these specialists bring.
'Collaboration' is a term often used to describe working with people with a specific skill on the development of one part of a project, such as bringing a technician on board to solve a particular problem. In this example the artist "collaborates" with a steel manufacturer or an engineer, and the engineer "collaborates" with the artists to add an aesthetic consideration to a piece of infrastructure. This is fine as far as it goes, but generally these experience do not open up the true potential of collaboration as a process. Collaboration should ideally take the project somewhere else - a place where you didn't expect it to end up, as the input of all the collaborators reshapes the project into something altogether new.
In September 2006 we were invited to take part in Rough Mix, an inter-disciplinary creative development programme devised and organised by Nick Bone, director of Magnetic North theatre. We spent two weeks with Nicholas Bone - director, Clare Duffy - playwright, David Fennessy - composer, Ronan O'Donnell - playwright and Marisa Zanotti - choreographer and filmmaker with the ambition of developing new projects.
At first we were a bit wary of spending two weeks trying to work with other people to develop works. It sounded like a workshop with good intentions but that could easily turn into the development of diluted works for all parties.
However, the choice of the participants — curious, not self-centered, and with common interests — and the structure of the two weeks, allowed Rough Mix to be a very successful example of early stage collaboration. Nick Bone organised the two weeks in a seemingly light manner, moving people between the different sessions focused on the individual projects, adapting the structure as the project developed, matching people together to make the most of the developing synergies, and effectively directing the whole programme.
The outcome for us (and most if not all of the participants) was the beginning of a new piece of work that was much broader and richer for its contribution from others.
Rough Mix reaffirmed for us that the development process of creative professionals is very similar, independent of their disciplines. The choreographer or the composer had the same interest and understood our embryonic idea without much explanation and were able to respond and propose directions naturally. The differentiations between the disciplines came only in the concretisation of the outcome, which itself became interestingly blurry.
Rough Mix was a very particular project with a particular objective, but some of the points about its success are common for most collaboration projects: you can't expect to be able to collaborate with just anyone, you need to instigate a level of trust and interest in each other s practices, you can t have an inflated ego, and it takes longer to work this way than when you re working on your own.
A collaboration is more effort, more time, more organisation and more energy than working on your own. The level of unknown is far greater and it can feel very scary when you have a deadline, but this is what makes a collaborative project worth the effort: it multiplies the possibilities, taking the project to unexpected places.
The logistics of sharing
The idea of collaboration is increasingly championed and endorsed as the way artists should be working within the public realm. In June 09 we will be taking part in the '2nd Annual art and Urban design Conference' in Manchester, titled A Place for Creativity? RUDI (Resource for Urban Design Information — the organisers) '...believes there is an important emerging agenda for how artists and the creative community are involved in the planning, design, development and delivery of vibrant, culturally relevant and inclusive communities'. Whilst this level of integration and consideration is something artists have been appealing for — and in many ways it is a very positive acknowledgement of the potential of artists — there is a tendency to put the idea of collaboration at the core of a project by funders who have little experience or understanding of what it means or requires, forcing a working method and a group of people together, who have little desire or time to meaningfully collaborate.
Collaboration does work if you follow a few key principles about who is selected, how and when the collaboration is undertaken, how much time is allowed for development, and so on. It is something artists can be extraordinarily good at, but we shouldn't assume that everyone has the skills needed to make the most of the opportunity to collaborate. There is a danger that we may fall into a fashion of only working with artists in this way. There are clearly similarities here to the (now desperate) trend of community engagement, through which artists working in the public realm are expected to engage with a community (though restrained by a populist and reductive understanding of what"engagement" or "community" can mean) whatever their practice is. Some artists' practices are relevant and even excell at this type of engagement but others do not, with the result that they may merely 'tick the box' for the commissioner and for funders with a social, rather than a creative agenda. Often these projects may result only in bad social work, and a diluted artwork.
It is worrying to think collaboration may be the next trend for working in the public realm and that unwilling, ill equipped and unsupported artists and other specialists will be effectively forced to work in this way. There is a danger of watering down the quality of the work by having to make too many compromises between the parties to keep the collaboration going.
What collaboration needs more than anything is a desire and excitement on all parts to discuss, learn and contribute. Like any relationship collaboration cannot be rushed, there isn't one formula that fits all situations, and the process is highly dependent on people. Commissioners/clients need to understand that collaboration is an opportunity that needs guidance and the willingness to facilitate the establishing of a relationship between people. It requires a commissioner/funder who is complicit, engaged and comfortable with a level of risk and unknowns.
There are however, commissioners and funders who do understand what it means to undertake collaborative projects. We are currently realising two projects with the City of Calgary through their Public Art Programme where collaboration was actively supported and encouraged..
The first project was initiated as traditional public art work (i.e. a permanent object) which was to be placed into a wetland restoration project. Upon awarding the commission however (and following a site visit) the arts officer gave us the opportunity to reinterpret the brief, and to rethink the possibilities and scope of the work. This gave us permission and supported the establishment of a design team (a landscape architect, water engineer, biologist, parks department and artists, amongst others) to work together on one integrated project from the outset. The outcome will be that each person's involvement in the development of the project is indefinable from the nexts', but the whole project is richer. Clearly there are points where it is a necessity that the water engineer (for instance) takes the lead, but we worked in relation and reaction to one another. For the commissioner however, this meant that a fairly straightforward six-month public art commission became a 2 -3 year public space project, with several months of exchange and discussion across the team and many complexities and additional challenges.
The same commissioners followed this commission with a much broader - and potentially risky - Visual Language Project which asked an artist to form a team to explore the relationship between the citizens and their watershed (to take the form of a strategy and proposals to be realised with the Utilities and Environment Protection Agency over the coming years).
This project allowed us to set up a working process that we have tried to initiate for a while: developing a project with a collaborative team of people from the beginning rather than bringing in different specialists where and when their skills are needed, We invited graphic designer Emlyn Firth, social geographer Eric Laurier, architect Yan Olivares from Yes Architectes, artist Matt Baker and a water engineer Burt van Duin to develop the project in collaboration with us.
Working with this number of people is much slower than working on your own, and the logistics of sharing information, organising meetings and workshops, and reporting to each other, could easily become crushing and take over the development time. But having people from various disciplines thinking about one project with different point of views and methodologies is fascinating. Witnessing unexpected fields of enquiries come up, and different ways of responding to and analysing an issue before translating that into an outcome, is a very exciting even if sometimes overwhelming experience.
Collaboration as gestalt
We are obviously not alone working in this way. As the understanding and expectation of what artists do evolves, so more artists are brought into situations of greater exchange, potential input and collaboration beyond the traditional parameters. This working method has been tried before at the academic level, but the art school structure is still often a barrier to the full implementation of cross disciplinary projects as a student. There are few programmes that acknowledge — let alone encourage — cross-department collaborations, and there are many schools that still actively keep disciplines separated. In contrast, last month we were invited to spend a day with the Manchester design LAB, a new type of MA programme where students from different department backgrounds (architecture, textile, film and media, fine arts, etc) work for a year on specific projects in multi-disciplinary teams. Clearly focused on preparing the students for professional lives in which collaboration with a range of partners is part of the daily reality of a project, this programme is the first we came across that brings the process of collaboration to the heart of the creative development.
If we are serious about encouraging real collaboration within public art, beyond looking for answers to technical questions, and serious about working outside the expertise of one discipline (no matter what discipline engineer or artist) we need to give it the attention and consideration it requires. To set collaboration as an imposition to all artists working in the public realm, to assume that all artists work this way or worse, to set collaborations up as an afterthought, undermines this potentially creative process and takes a project from an unknown to improbable very quickly.
It is our belief that if all parties are willing to put in the work, and if they have the right support, a collaborative process can bring about works of unrivaled depth and integrity that are far greater than the sum of their parts.