I have very early collaborative impulse memories. I loved drawing on the same piece of paper with someone else and would often do that with my dad. I shared an improvised darkroom with a high school friend and we worked on each other’s prints. In my early years of college, at Humboldt State University, my friend Cleveland and I collaborated on a variety of projects, most notably on something we called Straight Line Walks, where we would identify a distant location, usually a far off tree, and then attempt to walk to it (often several miles) while staying on a straight trajectory regardless of fences, freeways, rivers, etc. When we felt like we absolutely had to deviate from the route we would document that instance with a Polaroid camera, so that the only record of the walk was of the moments where we failed our own set of rules. After doing several of those walks on our own we started inviting guests along and asking them to select the final destination. The project came to an end when we took Les Blank (a documentary film maker from the Bay Area who had a major impact on my life and work) for a walk but he refused to wade through a puddle. The whole thing suddenly seemed absurd and silly to me and I couldn’t get myself to do anymore of them.
In graduate school I started collaborating with another grad student, Jon Rubin, and we worked together for about five years on a huge variety of different socially engaged projects. Miranda July and I collaborated on a participatory web based project called Learning To Love You More that continues to live on in various ways even though we ended its original function many years ago. I’ve collaborated with artist heroes of mine like Larry Sultan, John Malpede, Chris Johanson, Michael Bravo, and Wendy Ewald. I’ve worked on many projects with students and have recently started a new collaborative group called Public Doors and Windows with two former grad students Molly Sherman and Nolan Calisch. In all of those situations there has been great benefit with the activity of brain storming ideas, dividing responsibilities, and just spending time together. In general, though there are some great exceptions (Group Material for instance), the art world (especially the commercial art world) seems to discourage collaboration. I’ve been in the position several times of being asked to recommend an artist for an award or residency and when I suggested a collaboration was told that only individual artist could be considered. I think the acceptance of collaborations is slowly changing, but in general there are still many structural and systemic elements in place that prevent artists from even considering working in collaborative ways.
What I really want to discuss isn’t collaborations between artists, but instead collaborations that involve artists working with people who do not consider themselves artists or who do but who have little or no access to the art world. That is something I also have a lot of experience with over the years. In the past I’ve run into many critical opinions suggesting that the dynamic of artists working with non-artists is fundamentally unethical. My sense is that recently that position too has become less prevalent as more examples occur without any apparent negative power dynamics or other abuses. When faced with those argument in the past one approach I have taken is to suggest looking at other “professionals” who are able to successfully work with “non-professionals” for instance regional theater directors who may be highly trained and paid to do their job, but then work with local, untrained, volunteers as actors, set and costume designers, technicians, etc, etc. Are those willing people somehow harmed by their involvement with the trained theater person or are they in fact advantaged by that person’s knowledge and experience? Can that situation not be of mutual benefit? Similar parallels can be draw with church and community choirs, non-professional sports, amateur archeology and other science related activities, etc. etc.
But why would an artist want to work with a non-artist anyway? I think there are as many reasons as there are possible collaborations, but a couple that are compelling for me are that I want my work to be of interest to a wider public than just the art going one, and because I want to use my projects as a way to learn about aspects of the world that I don’t already know about. By working with non-artists in direct collaborations as well as with participatory models those people and the people they know or who are interested in the topics that they know about will also be invested and engaged with the project, and in that way the work becomes relevant to broader sets of people than just ones who normally go to art venues. Learning can happen in many ways, but for me one of the most effective and satisfying approaches is through direct contact with knowledgeable people in whatever discipline or topical area a given project is examining. I also like to employee some degree of chance in my work, so generally rather than coming up with a specific subject and then finding a person to help me understand it, I generally prefer to allow location and situation to determine what a project focuses on based on who I make contact with and what their existing interests and resources are. These various people who become my collaborators are able to share what they know with me, while I am able to offer them access to institutions, audiences, and sometimes funding. In this sense and in a variety of forms and degrees of collaboration I have worked with people like Albert Keshishian on an exhibition about his rug store in Oakland, CA; Corentine Senechal on a public turtle sculpture in Brittany, France; and Michael Patterson Carver in Portland, OR in regard to promoting and exhibiting his drawings of political protest, among many others. In each situation I felt like I was not only gaining knowledge and experience myself, but bringing cultural appreciation to my collaborators while expanding and (from my perspective) improving the inclusiveness of what can be considered valid in art world contexts.
It is my hope that collaboration models in all forms will continue to develop and be supported in schools, art centers, grants, residencies, museums, and public art programs, so that artists will consider collaboration a normal and viable approach and practice. Working together has many advantages, including personal social connection, and helps to de-emphasis the dominant idea that artists need to work alone to be able to express their “individual genius.”