A few remarks on collectives and art

Arie Altena

(A)ction is never the realisation, nor the implementation of a plan, but the exploration of the unintended consequences of a provisional and revisable version of a project.... We have moved from science to research, from objects to projects, from implementation to experimentation. The dream of rational action has become a nightmare now that consensus and certainty is so hard to obtain: everything would be stalled if we had to wait for experts to agree again. 1

The world of information art is populated by collectives, groups and duos. There are, of course, also artists who operate as an individual and who present their work under their own name; but the number of collectives, groups and duos is striking. Is the history of modern art a succession of names which refer to individual artists -- or a succession of movements which consist of groups of individual artists -- the development of the information arts (or technology arts) largely rests on the names of collectives.

Actually, it is a trite observation: 'people working together'. The question is: is there is actually anything different going on in contemporary art than in the past? In any event, we had no difficulty in placing these collectives, groups and duos. The 'names' of the artists were the same as the 'names' of the individuals (unless pseudonyms were used), the 'names' are now also those of collectives, like JoDi, Driessens and Verstappen, the Yesmen, the Critical Arts Ensemble, the IAAA, or Tomato. They are names which refer to a clear identity. Perhaps we don't need to dig very deeply to explain the existence of all these joint ventures. It may be simply that two or more people can do something together which they couldn't manage to do alone.

Artists have always worked together. The great masters ran studios full of apprentices. Warhol had his Factory. Artists not uncommonly have assistants for the technical work, for example. The difference, however, lies in the name which appears underneath the work. Is it the name of an individual artist or that of a collective? The work of The Factory is Warhol's work. The name of the individual refers, to some extent, back to the view of the artist as an autonomous subject with a particular creative vision. This ultimately goes back to the concept of genius and the subject as defined by Kant. These views may have somewhat eroded over time, but a remnant of them still definitely exists. However, I think it would be going too far to link the presence of collectives in the information arts with the 'end of the autonomous subject'. What you can conclude though, is that the willingness to show that artworks are the fruit of collaboration and did not spring from the insight or perception of a single individual, is on the increase. In the information arts, in any event. It centres not on the artist as an autonomous subject, but the subject as part of a collective process, and which is realized in a collective process. That is one difference. 2

We can also conclude that the traditional image of the artist does not fit well with the information arts. The artist sitting alone in his studio making a work of art which is then shown to the public in a gallery, art space or museum. The image is a cliche, but one which still haunts our imagination. The artists in the information arts work together, are part of a team and mobilize their networks to realize projects. They often stand (to some extent) outside the art world and its institutions. They make use of the publication models provided by music (issuing CDs and DVDs), show their work at festivals or academic conferences, make use of the Internet and arrange exhibitions.3 The myth of the artist in his studio is being transformed into that of the artist at the hub of a network. What is changing is the importance that is attached to collaboration, the mobilization of the contacts. This is also affecting the content of the artwork: what a work of art does in the world can be considered as the mobilization of connections, it creates contexts for itself, on which basis the work derives its cultural significance.

The Sonic Acts 10 editorial states that artists 'pose themselves as directors, mediators or researchers. By doing so, they distribute parts [of] the creation process over the environment in which the artwork emerges: ranging from computer programs (algorithmic art) to social communities (neo-conceptual art).' Here too, there is a reason for the preponderance of collectives. Artists have become directors and researchers. Although not evident from the term, this implies a collective process. Directors are producers, to direct the play you need others. Research is almost always done in teams. Research cannot take place without sharing insight and information.

It is characteristic of the visual arts that the 'collective' can be applied conceptually. It can become a game with the 'collective'. You are the artist, you profile yourself as a business and in so doing you are playing a conceptual game. What does it give you? When is it just a business? When does a name stand for an artistic standpoint, an art-collective, and when does it stand for a production house? Conversely, the name of a label (e.g. a music label) -- once nothing more than a small business publishing music -- can become a brand, or even the sign of an artistic standpoint. The style of the label, the tightly choreographed choice of music that is brought out, the individual artists who, in effect, are members of the group, combined with carefully chosen images, artwork, VJ recordings or even in-house software: this is what (almost?) elevates the label to a branded form of artistic expression. 4 In collectives the editorial role grows in importance.

So where does the boundary lie between a collective that makes art and a business that does cultural productions? Is Tomato not just a business that exploits music and images? You could also ask whether it is useful to want to make such a distinction. A modernist analytical view wants to see that distinction. Common sense says: the boundaries are vague. The way they merge, the 'messiness', is typical of where our culture stands today. There is no clear-cut division. 'This is art, this is not art. This person is an artist and that one is, well, something different, an activist or a designer.' Our culture and our art is a composite, a collection, of collective projects and processes.

A partial explanation for the rise of collectives may also be found in the cultural shifts which have taken place due to the Internet and its many tools and protocols for collaboration. It has, in any event, put cooperation on the agenda as one of the central themes of our culture. It has increased people's receptiveness to collaborative processes and protocols for cooperation in the arts. As a result there has also been a gradual shift in focus away from the autonomous artist in his studio to how projects are realized through collective effort. In real terms it is often about political and social issues, the organization of the collaboration. Key words such as open source, peer-to-peer, collaborative blogging, creative commons en Wikis (open editing) initially referred to tools and protocols to create content. It is typical of the artworld's drive towards the new that such key terms are picked up and often idiosyncratically applied in the art world. Whatever you may think, it shows the level of interest in the collective.

I hope that by considering these fairly mundane questions an impression is created of a gradual cultural shift. This cannot conceivably be pinned down to one single aspect, there is no one particular reason for this shift to occur. It is also not the case that everything has switched or agrees with the new perception. It is no more than a process which has been taking place over the last few years. 5

I would further like to touch on three possible approaches for thinking about the role of the collective in the arts. The first is the history of radical twentieth century art. In the wake of the avant-garde movement of the '60s, collective art was linked to the democratization of the arts and a deconstruction of the idea of 'high art'. This type of art became an invisible part of daily life, or was incorporated in the system of art which it set out to undermine. 6 It is open to question whether the art produced by collectives, in its current form, is concerned with a similar democratization. I do not think so. These are projects which manifest themselves in different ways, but which do not always want to be seen as art, as such. They are not intent on undermining the art 'system'. Their aim is to create cultural significance. In this sense, their place is not in the margins of the museum, but the museum stands in the margin of this culture -- not just artistically but also (to some extent) scientifically, politically and socially or sometimes all of these at once.

The second possible approach is the most fundamental: the French philosopher and scientist, Bruno Latour's vision of science and society. Latour sees social processes as large collective experiments. He considers the modernist vision of science, which dreams of a strict separation of facts and value, and human existence is preferably seen as a 'concatenation of incontrovertible causalities' instead of a 'controversial collective', as a tragedy.7 In the glossary of Pandora's Hope, published in 1999, Latour describes what he refers to as the modernist settlement, as follows: '[The modernist settlement] has sealed off into incommensurable problems questions that cannot be solved separately and have to be tackled all at once: the epistemological question of how we can know the outside world, the psychological question of how a mind can maintain a connection with an outside world, the political question of how we can keep order in society, and the moral question of how we can live a good life -- to sum up 'out there', 'in there', 'down there' and 'up there". 8 That is exactly what we should not do. According to Latour, life is messy. There are no 'matters of facts' which you can investigate, there are only 'states of affairs'. Anyone who thinks like this can be said to be a non-modernist.

Non-modernity is the situation you find yourself in if you don't believe in exact definitions (this is art, this is not art), if you accept that science cannot be perfectly separated from politics, that there is not one nature, that it is not up to the experts to make decisions. '(I)f, in the depth of your heart, you are convinced that, whereas yesterday things were a bit confused and entangled, tomorrow facts and values, humans and non-humans, will be even more entangled than yesterday, then you have stopped being modern. You have entered a different world or, more exactly, you have stopped believing that you were in a different world from the rest of humanity.'9

You became an ordinary person. This non-modernist view offers, I think, a better perspective on contemporary art and culture than the modernist vision. You are not trying to make a clear distinction or ask yourself whether a particular project is or is not art, you look at what it means, what it says about who we are, where we are, what we are doing, etc. It is about whether it provides a meaningful experience.

This brings me to the third and last approach: the aesthetic of the American philosopher John Dewey, as he set it out in Art as Experience, published in 1934. For Dewey, the experience of art is directly connected with everyday life. As far as he is concerned, this has nothing to do with avant-garde or neo-avant-garde ideas about art. As he sees it, there is an essential difference between the experience of art and the experience of enjoying a game of sport or watching a sunset. Just as: 'Mountain peaks do not float unsupported; they do not even just rest upon the earth. They are the earth in one of its manifest operations,'10 so art is also not essentially different from culture or the experience of daily life. For Dewey art is a meaningful part of any organized society -- not something which only exists in a gallery or museum. He postulates '...Theories which isolate art and its appreciation by placing them in a realm of their own, disconnected from other modes of experience, are not inherent in the subject-matter but arise because of specifiable extraneous conditions.' Dewey wants to reconcile 'the continuity of aesthetic experience with normal processes of living'.11 In this context art becomes something of a collective -- which is not to say that it could not have been made by individuals (Dewey derives many of his examples from the works of Shakespeare).

Both Latour and Dewey offer more of a context and a background, than a specific framework, for understanding the nature of collectives. To me, their views are pivotal to an understanding of contemporary cultural production -- to use that ugly expression. Because you cannot avoid using labels. It remains a thorny question: what to call it?

1. Bruno Latour: 'From 'matters of facts' to 'states of affairs'. Which protocol for the new collective experiments?' (forthcoming, in Henning Schmidgen (ed.): Experimental Cultures). This quote is about the relationship between science and society, and not about art.
2. I will not amplify on this.
3. The appearance of collectives is unusual in the visual arts, but in music, dance and film it is the norm. Perhaps we should look to music and film to find the role of the collective in the visual and information arts. 4. An example might be Tomato by John Warwicker.
5. The foundations were also laid by the views of the post-structuralists and Foucault on language and the 'order of things'.
6. See, for example, the contributions of Gregory Sholete and Charles Green at the conference Freecooperation: "http://www.freecooperation.org.
7. Latour wrote: 'It is for me one of the most tragic intellectual failures of our age that the best minds, the highest moral authorities we possess, dream only of one thing: 'If only, they say, we could control science, separate it entirely from the realm of human values, keep humanity safely protected from the encroachment of instrumental rationality, then, and only then, would we live a better life'. They want to keep science and technology as distinct as possible from the search for values, meaning and ultimate goals! Is this not a tragedy if, as I have argued, the present trend leads precisely in the opposite direction and that the most urgent concern for us today is to see how to fuse together humans and non-humans in the same hybrid forums and open, as fast as possible, this Parliament of things?'
8. Bruno Latour, 1999, p. 310
9. Bruno Latour, quote from 'From 'matters of facts' to 'states of affairs'. Which protocol for the new collective experiments?'
10. John Dewey, 1934, p. 10
11. John Dewey, 1934, p. 10

John Dewey: Art as Experience, Perigree Books, New York, 1934 (1980). Bruno Latour: Pandora's Hope, Essays on the Reality of Science Studies, Harvard UP, Cambridge Mass., 1999. Bruno Latour: 'From 'matters of facts' to 'states of affairs'. Which protocol for the new collective experiments?' (forthcoming, in Henning Schmidgen (ed.): Experimental Cultures). Geert Lovink & Trebor Scholz: Free Cooperation, Publication, PDF http://www.freecooperation.org.

Thanks to Noortje Marres. Translation: Susan Hunt.

This article has been publishedin Arie Altena, Unsorted, Thoughts on the Information Arts, an AtoZ for SonicActsX, De Balie / Sonic Acts, 2004.
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Arie Altena