Patterns in my life have emerged recently that have only intensified in their synchronicity; for some reason my work, teaching, and personal lives have encountered questions of collaboration and collectivity again and again. When I look more holistically, this synchronous set of overlapping concerns likely began with my Quaker education (a denomination and philosophy rooted in consensual decision-making), but more recently has emerged in my interest in collective artistic practices and organizational methods here in Los Angeles, which have seen a gradual increase in acceptance and interest over the past 10 years. I understand that collaboration and the collective is deeply rooted in human society and instinct, but also struggle with collective decision-making within hierarchical and individualized structures in American society. Collaboration is at once heralded as essential to any responsible organizational or educational practice, yet at the same time is so often poorly understood and implemented.
I teach “Art in the Public Realm” at USC to undergraduates, an art theory course focused on artistic practices that permeate the public sphere, and each semester I require my students to interview an artist/project/organization that does this. My class list has evolved over time, and is focused (by necessity) in Los Angeles. I struggle each semester to draw connections between such practices, partially because their disparate modes of working are so far beyond the traditional studio practices that my students are familiar with. Some look like galleries, non-profits, or tour groups – most have collective names and many members. All are formally trained in fine art but may have additional concerns related to architecture, urban planning, community organizing, pedagogy, activism. This collectivity and the forms it takes are hardest for students trained in traditional art historical models to grasp – as a member of a collective I admire, Fallen Fruit, expressed, “collectivity in art has always existed, but always on the fringe of art history.”
I invited members of that collective (David Burns, Matias Viegener, and Austin Young); Jade Gordon, Malik Gaines, and Alexandro Segade of My Barbarian; and Sara Daleiden and Sara Wookey of Being Pedestrian (and, at different times, of the Los Angeles Urban Rangers) to participate in a workshop at the Hammer Museum on February 12th on this very topic. In planning the structure for the workshop, this stimulating group of multidisciplinary artists brought up some excellent points, both conceptual and logistical, about working as collectives. They spoke about collectivity as a choice with an aesthetic logic and a formal capacity – the aesthetic of the group, of the group dynamic, of the peculiar relationship of group to audience. They also spoke about it as an act of resistance against the paradigm of the individual artist, and here made the observation that perhaps radicality within art was made possible contemporaneously with adherence to group authorship. This conversation led to more logistical concerns as well – the coping mechanisms in decision-making (My Barbarian spoke of yes-anding and then simplifying, allowing the strongest ideas to rise to the top), the perplexity of institutions and funders when confronted with collective authorship, and the constant negotiation of power dynamics within and without the group.
Hearing the experiences of these long-time collaborations was enlightening, as I now find myself participating in several multidisciplinary “think tank” like bodies where the group dynamic alternately hinders or helps, obfuscates or clarifies the decision-making process. This is both frustrating and gratifying, but much can be gained from considering the group dynamic itself rather than striving to escape it. In the midst of a fruitful and reflective conversation about group authorship, a member of one of these bodies mentioned an example from psychotherapy, the Tavistock Method as developed by Wilfred Bion in 1961. Bion observed that any group working towards a goal or the completion of a task can be undermined by what he terms “basic assumptions” – dependency, fight or flight, and pairing. These primitive responses are defensive measures triggered by the anxiety of being in a group, and underlines how collaboration can be both socially useful and distinctly unsettling, resonating in our deepest instincts. The dependency assumption relies on a dominant figure within the group as holding all the answers, whereas the fight or flight assumption causes group members to behave as if there were some external threat. This can both unite group against a perceived threat but also hinder productiveness. Finally, the pairing assumption is a form of domination that occurs when two members hijack the conversation and relegate the rest of the group to passivity – hoping that the dynamic between the pair will solve the problem or task at hand without action from the rest of the group.
This simple categorization has broad usage, and Bion urges that true group productivity comes only when all such basic assumptions are suppressed. This can be a nearly impossible task without the time, effort, and reflection it might take to break down dominant power structures and reach a rational working mode. But taking collectivity itself seriously, taking the process of collaboration seriously, and allowing for the time and experience required for actual results, seems a necessity to this way of working. Even so, it does not always work, and failure must be actively embraced. This is utterly relevant to a society focused on expansion over depth, and one that is swayed by the group but inspired by the individual.