[[this short paper forms the basis of my critical enquiry into collaborative practice in contemporary art.]]


  1. Collective Cultural Action as a subject for critical enquiry
  2. Notes on my practice
  3. Collaborative Practices

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Collective Cultural Action as a subject for critical enquiry


“Collective 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. [1]


Collective 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.


Artist groups and collaborations [2] 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. [3] 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.


According 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. [4]


However, 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?


How 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?


Through 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.


Site-based 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


In 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.”


Our  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.


My 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 [5] 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.


Furthermore, 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 approve


Collaborative practices


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

·         new perspectives

·         encouragement to try new things

·         cross-genre/cross-disciplinary practice

·         hierarchy vs equality - how do these work?

·         International collaborations - pitfalls and possibilities


Collaborative art practice is changing the artist's experience of making art, and increasing opportunities for artists' education, exhibition and experimentation.


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 balance.


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 practice.


There 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.


Within 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 the space.


Luna 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.


The 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 tram depot.


Luna 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.


©Gillian McIver 2003

[1]   “Observations on Collective Cultural Action,” Critical Art Ensemble, Variant 15 Summer 2002.


[2] Art group is defined here as an established group of artists working together with a shared identity and mission that is identifiable to the wider world, usually with a published manifesto or statement of intent. Examples include both loose groups like Dada and Fluxus and more clearly defined groups such as the Surrealists under Breton, and the Constructivists. Collaboration here is defined as a coming together of more than two artists to create a particular project or series of projects in which the individual artist's authorship is subordinated to the partnership. And network is defined as the loose coming-together of artists pursuing lines of enquiry and information sharing;  currently, networks are now often online, even within a single city.


[3] I accept Anselm Jappe's evaluation of Situationism that it was an primarily art group not a political movement. (Jappe, Guy Debord. U. California Press, 1993)

[4] Adrian Searle Tuesday March 4, 2003  The Guardian

[5] BackUp Loungelab, sponsored by Bauhaus University, brought together 16 artists from different disciplines and different countries to create collaborative projects as part of the BackUp Festival. See my article “Lab Rats for Art” Year 01 Forum Winter 2002.