The Politics of Collaboration

Photo reading Art Projects with sticky notes

Photo by ScratchEdTeam. Creative Commons Licensed.

The roots of collaborative art practices lie in the decline of modernism. Artist was no longer the centre of art. The 1960s Fluxus introduced art-making as experimental play and invited public to experience reality through actions described as ‘non-art’. In more recent times, it was ‘relational aesthetics’ defined by French art critic Nicolas Bourriaud in 1998 that highlighted the role of Internet in our life and identified ‘all human relations and their social context’ as the foundation for ‘relational art’.

For sure, the art’s ‘socialization’ has increased collaboration among artists and engagement of wider community into art production. The revolutionary Fluxus is now the past. Today, the ideas of ‘collaboration’ and ‘inclusiveness’ are widely adopted, and promoted. Art life, indeed, reflects our socio-political and economic reality. The question is how much art is the instrument of this reality?

Art institutions and governments, through their funding programs, attach great importance to collaborative art practices. It appears as care for efficiency and democracy in distribution of money along with the belief in collaboration as a powerful factor of the progress in art. However, the broader benefit of collaborative and community based art is opportunities to apply it in social area.

Art’s function to build community, re-generate culture, celebrate social diversity, and address social issues, as well as stimulate economic outcomes is widely adopted and supported by governments. Community arts projects, in which I have gained quite good insight from the perspective of community and local government, are ‘hot’ and thriving part of contemporary art. Australia is a great example of this trend. If, for example, we look at Australia Council for the Arts grant programs, right away we can find funds that are directed to experimental projects ‘intersecting broader cultural activities’, ‘generating partnerships’, ‘collaborations’, ‘networks’, ‘intervention in public spaces’, etc.

The sentiment around collaborative and community based art was perfectly demonstrated by the recent Biennale of Sydney. Curators of the 18th Biennale of Sydney ‘All our relations’ (2012) Catherine de Zegher and Gerald McMaster proposed to focus on ‘inclusionary practices of generative thinking, such as collaboration, conversation and compassion…’ Rooted in tranquil story-telling the Biennale aspired to present a collective Gesamtkunstwerk which will be ‘accomplished in the active generation of meanings realised by all those who take part, each taking their stories home and beyond…’ (from the 18th Biennale of Sydney Guide).

The originality of Biennale of Sydney concept has been questioned by art publications, incl. Contemporary Visual Art + Culture Broadsheet (Vol 41.2, June 2012). However, it is not so much curators’ promotion of collaborative and relational strategies, but emphasized efforts to engage and attract people that indicate their political agenda.

The concept of the Biennale of Sydney suggested a romantic view of universal social understanding as ‘we are moving on from a century in which the radical in the arts largely adopted principles of separation, negativity and disruption as strategies of change’. Yes, the curators were putting art and artists at the centre, but having their ethical program embedded in the concept the prime concern for them seemed that the presented art needs to be ‘memorable’ (as noted by Gerald McMaster in Broadsheet, Vol 41.2, June 2012), engaging and satisfactory for people at large. This reflected in the exhibition works that embraced interactivity, community and artist partnerships.

The truth is that the artistic value of artworks is not justified through collaboration and engagement. Not being in denial of any engagement, interference in social space, communication, and interdisciplinary approaches (but quite opposite), I suppose the ideological framework of collectiveness and partnerships would not ensure the contents of art.

The collaborative mentality echoes announcements of art being ‘dead’ as a result of merging with the contemporary culture and commercialization. Indeed, in the age of creative industries the artist is no longer an ‘outsider’. The artist is a ‘collaborator’…

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