co-edited by Sabrina Raaf and Amy Youngs
Published in YLEM Sept/Oct 2000

We decided to devote this YLEM issue to the exploration of recent trends in collaborative identity and practice in new media work, as consistently some of the most cutting-edge art work today is being created by collaborative groups. In using the word 'collaboratives,' we are referring here to both the formation of the 'cellular', common-action group (of two or more persons) as well as to accompanying work methodologies of task partitioning. The collaborative groups invited to participate in this issue include sine::apsis experiments, Critical Art Ensemble, The Remote Experience Lab, Marlena Novak and Jay Alan Yim, and HaHa. We asked each group to write about the benefits and pitfalls of collaborative practice including their perspectives on the collaborative process, their recent projects, and the attitudes of the institutionalized art world towards the work they do as a group.

Collaboration between one or more artists and/or researchers is certainly not a new process. From the atelier of Rembrant to that of Andy Warhol, artists throughout history have worked with teams of apprentices who were intrinsic to their creative output. In the end however, the completed works were known under one name - that of the head artist of the atelier. The 20th century saw the proliferation of artist's groups with self-assigned identities - as opposed to identities or labels assigned to them by critics and/or historians. These included groups such as the Futurists, Dadaists, Surrealists, Bauhaus, Gutai, Fluxists, and more recently, the Harry Who. These were groups of artists with similar visual and conceptual sensibilities, which functioned as both social communities for the artists and as think tanks. Yet, the works created within the groups were still, for the most part, attributed to individual artists.

Within the field of art and technology, we have also had the model of collaboration pioneered by the legendary Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT) program in the 1960’s, which matched artists up with technology researchers. For the artist, this certainly appeared to be an ideal situation; they came up with an idea for a technology-based project and then would be matched with someone who had the technical means to produce the work. And, while interesting art was created within this structure, the resulting works were attributed not to a team of creators, but to the individual artist in the end. The relationship was cast as ‘creator’ and ‘implementor’ rather than as co-creators. Though the EAT project is no longer in existence, there have been several large institutions, such as Xerox, Digital Equipment Corporation, MIT and Carnegie Mellon University that have instituted Artist-in-Residence Programs based loosely on this model.

Contemporary collaboratives have evolved out of these models and proliferated primarily over the past 20 years. We have seen the lives of groups such as General Idea, Gran Fury and Group Material come and go, while others, such as Repo History, etoy, subrosa and Survival Research Laboratories, continue to flourish. Not surprisingly, this type of artist-formation is still considered 'non-traditional' by the established art world. Parameters that might identify a group of this nature do not necessarily include the number of artists in the group, their administrative structure, or that their art be exhibited under the group's singular name (and not an individual's). A contemporary collaborative could include just two artists - much like the model of two musicians co-composing and performing a score. Perhaps the factor that would most define a group as a contemporary collaborative is the membership's reasoning behind choosing to work in that manner.

On the most practical level, the artists in this issue have described working in collaboratives as being a necessity, due to the sheer complexities involved in working with new technologies. To gain the knowledge set to master a new array of technologies, to attain access to necessary equipment, and to acquire the funding necessary to complete a series of work is often both time and expense prohibitive for the individual. Even more attractively, the collaborative approach begets an immediate community of artists and researchers with similar concerns. With the right mix of people it begets a think tank. And in a true collaboration, it begets the possibility of making a greater statement - with several minds and talents at work on the same project(s) - than perhaps one individual could make alone. These benefits are discussed by Peter Coppin of The Remote Experience Lab at Carnegie Mellon University, who writes that, "Creating an environment populated with creative people from many different disciplines, backgrounds and inclinations increases the odds of turning creative potential into reality."

On a deeper level, the fact that artists are increasingly turning towards collaborative practice and identity is a manifestation of a shift in their own perceived cultural role. The role of the artist in society is finally accelerating away from the musty, modernist, anti-social art star phenomenon (á la Francis Bacon) and towards one of artist as soaked in the streaming undercurrents of information networks and systems consciousness. Daily we seek useful information from non-static resources: our computer systems, data directories, television networks, and other media machines. This has resulted in a "systems consciousness" - a shift in how we perceive the functioning of our society and the location of the individual within that assembly. It is natural then that in a search for a true understanding and reflection of their cultural moment, artists are choosing not only to create art objects that embody complex productive systems, but also to join in complex productive systems (aka contemporary collaboratives) in order to create them.

In this issue, Andrea Polli and Sabrina Raaf of sine::apsis experiments write about their experiences in an evolving collaborative structure and the influence it has on the art being made. Steve Kurtz writes about the organizational structures that have worked for Critical Art Ensemble; including the cellular-structure and the ‘floating hierarchy.’ Peter Coppin of The Remote Experience Lab, discusses the productive, creative and funding benefits of working within a collaborative lab setting. Marlena Novak and Jay Alan Yim, examine the processes of two artists entering into collaboration. And, HaHa describes their collaborative projects, as well as the notion that the making of meaning in art is a broader collaboration - one that includes the exhibiting institutions and the participant/viewers.

Sabrina Raaf and Amy Youngs are both founding members of the group sine::apsis experiments, and creators of new media and sculptural art work exhibited nationally.

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