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Collective Cultural Action
as a subject for critical enquiry
Cultural Action” is a term coined by the New York-based art group
The Critical Art Ensemble, a collective of six artists who collaborate
to produce exhibitions, texts and digital networking projects. In
a recent article, CAE cited
considerations of opportunity, skill-sharing and social organisation
in their analylsis of why working in a group
is a clear advantage to them:
Collective action solves some of the problems of
navigating market-driven cultural
economy by allowing the individual to escape the skewed power relationships
between institution. More significantly, however, collective action also helps alleviate the intensity
of alienation born of an overly rationalized and instrumentalized
culture by recreating some of the positive points of friendship networks
within a productive environment.
cultural action clearly transgresses the notion of the artist as the
ultimate individual – as the myth goes, touched by genius the creative
life is the one that stands apart from the mass. This historical reality
of course is that artists often created formal or informal teams and
networks – whether it be the coalition of master, journeyman and apprentice
or the group that came together to create the Salon des Refuses.
groups and collaborations
date principally from the
early 20th century, indeed we cannot envision 20th century art without
the seminal influence of group based art practice: Futurists, Surrealists,
Dadaists, Constructivists, Fluxus, CoBrA, Situationism.
In each of these cases,
artists in some sense rejected the Romantic idea of the individual
artist to come together with one another as part of a larger project.
to the critic Adrian Searle, the art group
as an engine of artistic momentum
is possibly over. In discussing the CoBrA
group, he notes that
It is hard to imagine such tight-knit, ideologically
motivated artist groups today, when movements tend to be little more
than journalistic labels (the School of London, the YBAs)
or self-promotional packages (the Stuckists,
heaven forbid). There was a time when such things mattered and were
more than cabals of art-world career lobbyists.
as the CAE have shown, group process is very much alive, though perhaps
not garnering the public attention as in the past. The rise of the
online community has allowed possibilities for networking that may
be somewhat beyond “traditional” group action. But while the socio-economic
and political reasons for group work might be clear and easy to set
out, what of the art that is produced in this way; or, more
specifically, what of the art produced by clear deliberate commitment
to a group identity or manifesto?
do art groups, art collaborations and art-networks work in - and against
- contemporary art practice? What is particular or distinguishing
about the art that is produced within distinct art groups or
collaborative efforts? How does process affect the outcome? How does
the creation of an identity beyond that of the individual affect the
art? Why is this different from other art processes? How is group
and collaborative work evaluated – is the process of evaluation different
from that applied to the “individual” artist?
my own practice in site-specific/site-responsive installation art,
which is detailed below, I have worked in many collaborative projects
and am a member of one art group and one artist-curator group. My
work has led me to projects with a strong transnational aspect, which has caused me to question the
hallowed notion of national identity and even in some cases personal
identity in art.
work lends itself particularly well to collective action, as obtaining,
managing and physically working in non-traditional art spaces often
involves collective labour and skill-sharing that is much better facilitated
by a group rather than an individual.
It provides a suitable matrix for research into how collective
practice works in contemporary art.
Notes on my practice
1997, a group of four people working in different media formed the
Luna Nera group to create exhibitions in a disused Victorian theatre.
Over the next five years our work has taken us into many different
and unique environments and as a result we have grown more and more
site-responsive in our practice. We now consider ourselves primarily
site-responsive artists, although we do respond to the sites in individual
ways. We seek to achieve a balance between the individual response
and creative process, and the group’s objective to creating
the art experience as a “whole”. We have a group manifesto
and an identity as “Luna Nera.”
practice is influenced by the fact that we do
not work in isolation. The group develops projects together, even
if we are making individual pieces, we discuss them together and assist
each other in the making. We share our skills, equipment, technology.
We share out the finances and the work in writing, documenting and
publicizing of the projects. We are able to offer each other (if requested)
critical advice and evaluation during the creative process.
interest in working in a group context has led me over the years to
question commonly-held concepts of identity, communication and nationality.
It has also led me to question the Romantic notion of “the artist”
existing in splendid isolation. These issues are beginning to come
up in artists debate (for instance in online debates on empire and
catalyst, and in nettime) and the Weimar
project was all about collaboration as process.
These debates began in the online artists community and are spreading
out into the non-virtual world. So it not only me who is beginning
to question these ideas, but I think I am well-placed, because of
my practice, to begin a serious enquiry.
I question the cult of individualism (in art and life), and even more strongly the current desire to
classify artists according to their national or ethnic identity. Although
these things seem to be contradictory, (isolation and grouping) they
in fact serve to perpetuate ideas of division and separability
and to force artists to serve certain ideologies they may not consciously
The main elements in successful collaborative practice are the shared process
of making, joint ownership and responsibility for the project and
the exponential increase in opportunities.
There are different kind of collaborations. In a project-specific collaboration,
the artists come together in order to create a specific project, and
then they (usually) disperse. On the other hand, a collaborative art
group will normally have a more formal structure of membership, a
group identity and sense of group commitments and will develop a group
ethos over time.
The process of collaborative art practice involves questioning one's artistic
process in a new way, a way in which certain factors can take on great
significance and can radically change one's
methodology. These factors include:
shared process of making
joint ownership/joint responsibility
expansion of resources/opportunity
that can result
encouragement to try new things
equality - how do these work?
International collaborations - pitfalls
Collaborative art practice is changing the artist's experience of making
art, and increasing opportunities for artists' education, exhibition
The shared process of collaboration is important because in many ways it
transgresses the Romantic concept of the artist as the individual
creator, a mimesis of the original Creator - a god among "his"
creations. This is not just a popular image of "the Artist";
it has currency in that there exists a sensation of sacrifice, of
birthing, in the very process of creation. After this experience,
the feeling of ownership is acute, visceral; it's one reason why so
many artists have difficulty "selling" themselves and their
work. Sharing ownership in a project is not easy.
Hierarchy is also a factor: in most cases leadership needs to be established,
but in collaborative process, this is negotiated. Even if one artist
takes on a leadership role, this is negotiated and limited within
the collaboration. But it can be a delicate and at times difficult
In some cases, collaborative projects begin with inequality and part of
the process of collaboration is to try to overcome that inequality.
An example might be, when one more established artist works with an
emerging artist, or one artist in the group is much better-known than
the rest. Inevitably any media coverage of the project will focus
on the well-known artist, which would leave the rest possibly resentful.
Another problem arises with international collaboration, often over the
matter of funding. If the project is unable to access a fund which
will cover the entire project, the participating artists would need
to access their own national funding bodies for support. Some countries
offer generous funds to international project, some offer little.
In cases of unfunded projects, there can
be large discrepancies in what participants can bring to the project.
Since the funding has to be shared in order to achieve the project,
the danger is that those who supply the greater funds could take over
the decision-making process.
Within the international context, cultural differences can at times cause
problems within the collaborative process, but overcoming these is
part of what makes the process interesting. Additionally, international collaboration offers almost limitless
opportunity for artists to learn, experiment and exhibit. Collaborating
is a proactive way to distribute one's work and ideas.
Collaboration can be exciting. The end result is not dependent only on
the artist's own abilities but on the dynamic of the group. The process
allows the artist to step outside of his or her own creative process
into the larger picture. This can be itself a liberating process,
and can lead to renewed inspiration and fresh ideas for one's individual
is a historical background, though short, of artist groups and collaborative
practice. I believe that some research and analysis of how group and
collaborative work has been done in the past and in the present has
informed, and is currently informing, my practice.
Looking at groups such as the Dada, Surrealist, World of Art,
Situationist and Fluxus movements
for instance, I see groups of artists responding to certain social,
cultural and political situations by choosing to work together. Although
the “art group” is less common today, they still exist. Each group
has its own ideology and identity, but I am interested in seeing if
certain patterns recur in the group’s practice and development.
Luna Nera, our work
often takes place around the idea of the "event" - to invite
the public into a forgotten space and reintroduce it to them through
art. The process of making can be part of the event. The idea is to
make the event something special, like an uncovering of mystery. To
make an event, we try to have different kinds of art presented all
together, performance, sound, visual art, and direct engagement with
Nera's collaborative stance is not categorised or settled.
While the group has no leader, certain roles have emerged which arose
out of convenience and natural instinct. We tend to share skills,
expertise and technical equipment. Sometimes we collaborate together
in smaller groups. We do not all take part in every project, or to
the same degree; things tend to differ from project to project.
Luna Nera group has worked since 1997 in urban sites around London.
The group also made an exhibition in 2000 in Russia in the
city of Nizhny Novgorod, as part of collaboration with the Russian
groups Dirigible and Sphere, in an old electricity-generating
plant. This project won funding to exhibit our documentation at the
Moscow Art Fair 2001. Most recently, Luna Nera worked in an old battery factory in the district of Schoeneweide, former East Berlin, in a former paper factory
in Zurich as part of the Dada Festival, and in Weimar, in a former
Nera intend to continue our collective relationship and to
work on forging new ones. I am interested to see how working with
different groupings creates different ways of working and how my own
practice is affected. I constantly
question how far I would like to go with group process, and if I can
see it as a means to an end, or an end in itself.