Images from Networks, Art, & Collaboration - a conference that
took place at SUNY Buffalo, April 24-25, 2004.
Do we feel threatened in the face of terrorism? Is that the reason for
the renewed attention to collaborative efforts of the 1960s, which were
often seen as models for change (Cotter)? What is Free Cooperation? Do
we need leaders? What about competition, self-sacrifice and individual
gain? What should be part of an ABC of working together? How does the
"battle of the sexes" play out? Woman to woman, man to man,
and man to woman. What can we learn about collaboration from Fluxus, networked
art, micro radio, and social software like weblogs or wikis? Are there
specific areas that make collaboration presently more interesting? What
are new organizational possibilities based on emerging technologies that
facilitate cultural practices? Participatory online cultures allow for
shared information systems, development and knowledge representation.
How do these new contexts change the way we learn, or distribute knowledge?
Which open source tools are in our reach? Is this the end of the university
as we know it? How does the miniaturization of databases impact all this?
How does jointness succeed better – by working together chest to chest
or by collaborating in participatory online cultures? How can we be "free"
in a collaboration? Who gets the credit? Whose labor remains invisible?
> The Collaborator
Collaboration is a buzzword hot like a sauna today. The use of terms like
collaboration, solidarity, friendship, we-ness, network, interaction,
community, alliance, collectivity, and more recently, free cooperation
varies widely depending on the agenda of the person using it. "Collaborator"
in many languages stands for a sympathizer with the Nazis. In post-WWII
times, for instance, Slovenians and Croatians were portrayed on Serbian
Television broadcasts as Nazi sympathizers. Today, the Slovenian group
"Laibach" provokes the audience with references to these historical
traumas with post-industrial music. I grew up under socialism in East
Germany and there a substantial part of the population consisted of what
we called "Stasi collaborators." To this day "collaborator"
is a word with heavy connotations. Collaboration just implies "to
work together, especially in an intellectual pursuit." The term "collaboration"
suggests that we cannot achieve the same goal on our own. It assumed that
there is a common goal and that people in the group share responsibility
in achieving this goal.
> Free Cooperation
Collaboration and cooperation must be free, very much in opposite to the
forced collaborations in the creative industries. Freedom always means
the freedom of those who think differently from us (Luxemburg). An example
for a forced collaboration is the 1960s East German art movement of production
romanticism called "Bitterfelder Weg" in which the state demanded
artists to depict the beauty of production.
Cooperation commonly means that people assist each other to reach the
same end. In cooperation, people walk in parallels. Each participant is
in it for herself, motivated by egoistic "micro-motivation"?
(Tuomela) or altruistic collective reasons. Free Cooperation, with the
German critic Christoph Spehr in "Gleicher als der Andere,"
emphasizes that everybody can freely leave the cooperation at any time
taking with them what they put in. Free cooperation needs to pay off.
If there are disagreements the cooperation needs to remain workable. There
is no cooperation in which nobody is taken advantage off, in which everything
is ideal. There is no such thing as a pure and perfect cooperation.
> Free Cooperation in Action
Cooperative group models in the urban United States include models such
as Reclaim the Streets and Critical Mass. During the anti-war protests
of 1993, bicyclers in San Francisco blocked major urban intersections
and highways with hundreds of bikes as part of "Critical Mass."
This was initiated by leafleting in neighborhoods with times and dates
of such actions without any central leadership. "Reclaim the Streets"
is a similarly decentralized model of taking back the public sphere. Other
ways of organizing community include broadcasting free radio, graffiti,
and street parties. Jeff Ferrell points especially to Radio Free ACTUP,
The Micro-Radio Empowerment Coalition, and Slave Revolt Radio.
In German "Kinderlaeden", parents rotate to look after their
children in a rented store or flat. In San Francisco, a similar, less
formalized small-scale model exists in which parents in a given neighborhood
trade their time watching over the children. Each time you put in time
you receive a token giving you the right to claim that same amount of
hours from the cooperative network. Once you run out of tokens you have
no right to benefit from this cooperation anymore. Only up to ten such
tokens are given out at a time to avoid abuse.
Online, Saul Albert's "Distributed Library Project" (http://dlpdev.theps.net/)
is "a shared library catalogue and borrowing system for people's
books and videos. There is no reason the dlp shouldn't be used to share
other resources too, which is one of the development aims of this project."
Users of the open source software locate fellow "librarians"
in their vicinity and share with them whatever their local library would
not have. This is only one example of cooperative networks. I will come
back to more examples of open, shared and free networks later.
> Temporary Alliances
Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau use the term "radical and pluralist
democratic" discourse to describe a project that creates links among
multiple struggles against subordination and domination. No one subject
position, be it defined by class, race, or gender functions as central
identifier for a given temporary alliance. People of different backgrounds
come together focusing on one single issue. One example is the green movement.
To solve global ecological problems Buckminster Fuller envisioned an international
cooperative effort that would create "some artifact, some tool or
invention." Johann Wolfgang Goethe calls on us to always strive for
the absolute and if we can't be an absolute ourselves, then we should
become a serving part of an absolute. Following this logic it is important
that the cooperation is meaningful enough to all involved to willingly
subsume their egos but, in opposition to Mr. Enlightenment, I'd argue
for free and equal relationships instead of servile subordination. As
the creation of technology-based artworks requires increasingly deeper
levels of specialization and collaboration between the technological and
conceptual components. Collaborations between artists and programmers
are the subject of many conferences such as "The Beauty of Collaboration,"
in March 2003 at The Banff Centre in Canada.
> Organizational Structures
In aggressive or competitive contexts, so called "tiger teams"
are (often forced) collaborations based on several competing groups of
4 or 5 individuals who are given the same task. Each group strives to
solve the given problem best driven by prospects of financial and career
gain. Critical Art Ensemble suggests groups of 2 to solve one task. Let's
hear some examples. Founded in 1981, Paper Tiger TV is another consequential
model of collaboration. Paper Tiger creates and distributes often collectively
produced activist video work that critique the media. The New York City-based
chamber orchestra Orpheus works without conductor and rotates all functions
among its musicians. Another organizational structure is the national
network of alternative spaces such as micro-cinemas, not-for-profit galleries
and others that exist all over the US. Examples are Artist Television
Access in San Francisco and Squeaky Wheel in Buffalo, to name just two.
But for me, the most powerful collaboration took place on February 15,
2003 when millions and millions and millions of demonstrators worldwide
simultaneously mounted a collective "no" to the war in Iraq.
In art history the most ready association with collaboration is the Fluxus
movement, with artists like George Maciunas. In 1961 Allan Kaprov wrote
the influential essay "Happenings in the New York Scene" laying
out ideas of interaction that were mainly associated with the happenings
of the 1950s and 1960s. A happening according to Kaprow is "an assemblage
of events performed or perceived in more than one time and place."
Fluxus focused on the Do-It-Yourself-aspect of art (you too can be an
artist), and the interaction between the artist and her audience. It was
the Fluxus artist Ray Johnson who pioneered Mail Art not much later.
More recently, with web-based art we question the ownership of the networks
in which collaborations takes place, and also critique the politics of
online visibility. Search engines like Google list websites that are linked
to by a high number of sites, which themselves have high popularity and
link ratings. For this reason power remains largely with the websites
of the mainstream media. To whom do we link from our websites? Do we link
(cooperate) at all? Lesser known directories like the Open Directory Project
build an alternative. The Open Directory Project is the largest, most
comprehensive human-edited directory of the Web. It is entirely reliant
on globally collaborating, volunteer editors. For the last nine years
more artists have taken on networked spaces as the context for their work.
Networked communication on laptops, small wireless devices like cell phones
or PDAs lead the focus away from the art object and the individual author
becomes less significant (Barthes). One of the first Internet-based artworks
was Douglas Davis' "The World's First Collaborative Sentence"
of 1994. Everybody can add to an ongoing sentence, but nobody is allowed
end it, to add a full stop. Tens of thousands of people have contributed
to it. The changes of the piece over the past ten years reflect the changes
of the World Wide Web. Bret Stalbaum designed a program called Floodnet
that overloads a site with calls to load its pages. In an attack in support
the Zapatista rebels the Mexican government's official site, returned
the message "human_rights not found on this server. (Stallabrass)
If a sufficient number of people launched attacks the action became a
> Social Needs versus the Needs of the Art
Recent art history lists many collaborations including Art & Language,
General Idea, Gilbert & George, Guerilla Girls, Group Material, REPOhistory,
PADD, Art Workers Coalition, Critical Art Ensemble, Rtmark, Temporary
Services, Komar and Melamid, Berna and Hilla Becher, Fischli and Weiss,
and Collective Actions Group. It is often assumed that collaboration is
by default valuable, alternative, and politically progressive. I disagree.
Collaborations between artists can be quite profane. To be relevant and
consequential artist collaborations need to focus on social needs instead
of the needs of the art world thus questioning all of culture. The cooperative
vision of groups like Group Material changed curatorial practice and provided
new art activist models. Group Material collectively saved money for an
entire year and then rented a space in New York City, a storefront gallery.
Here the group put on the exhibition "People's Choice" for which
they asked homeless citizens to bring in objects that they thought were
beautiful. Another significant exhibition was "AIDS Timeline."
Graduating art students frequently form art collectives because of the
positive implications of shared resources such as knowledge in the areas
of (art) history, (cultural and media) theory, literature, and science.
The more they know the broader is the specter of issues that they can
address (Critical Art Ensemble). Cross-disciplinary efforts can be supported
because individuals have different skill capital (from video to programming,
performance, and writing).
Free Cooperation in the art context means that the artist stays in control
of her work. Institutions of the art world are not interested in free
cooperation, and are not supportive of them. The model of the artist as
19th century genius and as exemplary sufferer is alive and prospering.
Often an articulate, attractive individual out of the group is selected
and promoted by institutions and (main stream) media. The logic of the
art world and that of technology-based art, created on and distributed
via computers are opposed to each other. The art world focuses on the
romantic idea of the author who creates an auratic art object that can
be distributed by its many institutions. Technology-based art is variable,
often ephemeral, existent in many copies, collaboratively authored and
can often be distributed online.
> Weapons of Mass Instruction
Will open source technologies soon become weapons of mass instruction
(Lovink)? Is this the end of universities as we know them? Many class
rooms today accommodate a circular positioning of the chairs that is a
must for class room cooperation. Students in the US interact with each
other and other learners world wide almost constantly through online communication
forums. Teachers may become no more than (online) linkers to knowledge.
Collaborative networked education, might become a much more serious alternative
to the costly and sometimes slow and disconnected structures of the university.
Free software and open source are still not widely used in academia but
that will hopefully change. An example of stable open source software
is "Open Office," which as a community, aims to create the leading
international office suite that will run on all major platforms and provide
access to all functionality. Free text books are put online at Wikibooks(.org),
and many texts can be found at the Gutenberg Project (textz.org). The
project Opentheory(.org) is the application of ideas of Free Software
to the development of texts, theories and forms of thought. Users of the
site improve on each others texts. Wikiversity, a project just recently
under way expressed the goal facilitating e-learning and distance learning
via Wikis. Online learning environments may have better chances to accommodate
differences in communication styles, temperaments, and fundamental beliefs
and values than a class room situation. E-learning software also allows
for long distance learning and the sharing of educational resources such
as videos or audio across poor regions.
> The ABC of Working Together
In East Germany I often experienced a commonality of values when working
together with others. Due in part to a a shared opposite- the state, butalso
a certain monoculture of the everyday. We read the same books and listened
to the same Pete Seeger records. Learning from this experience I realized
that it builds trust to start a collaboration testing out the compatibility
of values and common interests first instead of immediately focusing on
the goals. Social resources like trust, mutual RESPECT, tolerance, and
shared values make it easier for people to work and play together. Based
on this trust true communication can take place. Within the shared space
of the collaboration, participants must feel free to experiment. Again,
freedom in cooperation means the freedom of those who think differently
from us (Luxemburg).
Collaborators need to get to know each other as people and need to find
out about each other's agency. This dedication to the other person can
be at times a bit scary and collaboration does not work for everybody.
Getting to know each other always works much better offline, chest to
chest rather than online, which can be very slow. The ABC of collaboration
demands that needs are addressed and the lines of communication are kept
open. Each collaborator needs to be given full authority about their task.
Collaborators need to respect the professional priorities of the other
In "Gleicher als andere" Christoph Spehr argues passionately
that absolutely all our relationships should be based on freedom and equality
to each other and the cooperation. If we can't negotiate this, we should
PUT PRESSURE on the cooperation. If that does not work we should WITHDRAW
our cooperation or leave altogether. Spehr asks for the RULES of the cooperation
to be acknowledged, as there always are rules. Spehr talks, with Gayatri
Spivak of "rules as always being the old rules." CONFLICT that
occurs while renegotiating the rules builds respect. Conflict is a scary
thing in the face of loosing territory or even a position within the cooperation.
Conflict, pull backs, silent times for reflection all lead to INDEPENDENCE
within the cooperation, which makes us stronger contributors. We need
to find save zones for conflicts. Always and again: NEGOTIATE! Get organized.
LOYALTY, Spehr claims, should always be to people, never to structures.
We should be self-reflected and SELF-CONFIDENT, instead of acting like
Metaphors for individuation within cooperation include that of life lived
singly and free like a tree, yet brotherly united in a forest (Wader);
John Donne's "No man is an island, entire of itself..." and
Indra's net of jewels with each jewel reflecting all others. For all members
of the network to shine in caring interdependence TRUST that the other
will do her part needs to be developed. REPUTATION is another crucial
aspect of cooperation.
Over the past years communication tools like video conferencing, live
chats, web cams, instant messaging and the Indymedia software became inexpensive
and readily available, which aids cooperative efforts. Online communication
forums such as Friendster(.net), Fakester, LinkedIn or Tribe(.net) make
cooperations easier and are all based on trust. Friendster, for instance
is a web-based application that allows users to network their friends
based on their social profiles.
> Nobody Needs to Have the Say
Let us aim for COLLECTIVE LEADERSHIP. Spehr suggests the politics of negotiation,
in which everybody contributes to the cooperation in a way that is useful,
realistic and well suited for the moment. There are always hierarchies
in collaborations. Those who formulate the orientation of the cooperation
dominate. Collective leadership would mean that those leading the way
change so that everybody at one point dominates. This is similar to the
changing order in the formation of bird migrations with alternating birds
leading the way to the unlikely example of Lenin's never implemented plan
to rotate political functionaries on a two year basis between political
office and work in factories.
But how can the cooperation motivate silent group members to take the
much needed initiative? How can we put this into action? In cross-disciplinary
artist collectives individual dominance shifts with the medium used in
each project. For a video project the artist with relevant skills is heading
the collective, for a text-based project, the writer in the group has
the lead. Leadership is usually founded on commitment of time, energy
and resources, intellectual contribution or the contribution of networks.
Commonly, the person who puts the most resources and time into a project
has the most say over the project. This dynamic endangers the cooperation,
as it marginalizes other group members. How can we positively motivate
each other to avoid such shortfalls?
Does free cooperation have to have a leader? In his poem "A Worker
Reads History"? Bertolt Brecht took on the issue of invisible labor.
He writes: "Young Alexander conquered India." and asks: "He
alone?" "Caesar beat the Gauls. Was there not even a cook in
his army?" and "Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet was sunk
and destroyed. Were there no other tears? Frederick the Greek triumphed
in the Seven Years War. Who triumphed with him?" The Renaissance
studios of Rubens or Rembrandt produced collaborations for which a single
creator signed therefore making these cultural objects collectable. Andy
Warhol took full credit for the low-paid production in his studio, the
"Factory." Whose labor becomes invisible whilst credit is given
to specific types of labor, particular individuals? Issues of crediting
are more developed in the film world, theatre, dance, architecture and
music. Here the choreographer is listed as such and so is the stage designer.
> All Competition and No Play?
In the "Communist Manifesto" Marx and Engels argue that the
free development of each individual is the condition for the free development
of all. This does not mean that everybody does as they please. It also
does not mean that everybody takes what they think they need. That does
not work. But working in a group is often associated with self-sacrifice,
giving up of individual gain. What about personal gain? Do we lose out
to the competition when we share our networks, knowledge, or skills? Do
we lose our edge like an exhausted cowboy in a bad Western? What is the
relationship between cooperation and competition? Teams such as the mentioned
tiger teams define themselves in comparison aiming for the creation of
measurable capital. Without comparison their competitiveness would be
meaningless. Cooperations should take on a playful productive shape without
(or as little as possible) competition. Group efforts need worthy goals-
GOALS that are based on social needs, in opposition to the needs of profit
> The Toolbox of Openness
spaces are shared and knowledge, and creativity are distributed. Inside
and out of the commercial realm - inexpensive online communication tools
become more tailored towards collaborative development. Participatory
cultures became yet another hot buzzword. Creators invite users to participate,
but then patronize them by limiting their interaction to a few customizable
options. Customized user interaction has little to do with true participation,
which leaves it up to the user what they do. Web-based communication formats
such as collaborative weblogs (blogs) allow for user contribution- mainly
in the form of responses or upload of texts, audio, images or video. Discordia,
for example, is a collaborative weblog about art, techno-cultures and
politics. Users log on and vote on submitted texts, on which they can
also comment. Open content initiatives include Wikis, Open Archive(.org),
Open Law, and Open Video. Electronic logging systems known as Wikis allow
real time online editing of existing texts. Wikipedia(.org), for instance
is a multilingual project with the aim to create a complete and accurate
open content encyclopedia. The website Wikipedia states "We started
on January 15, 2001 <with> articles and are already working on 110535
<articles> in the English version." Openlaw is an experiment
in crafting legal arguments in an open forum. On the Openlaw web site
it reads: "With your assistance, we will develop arguments, draft
pleadings, and edit briefs in public, online. Non-lawyers and lawyers
alike are invited to join the process by adding thoughts to the "brainstorm"
outlines, drafting and commenting on drafts in progress, and suggesting
reference sources." These open content formats allow for cooperative
creation of content that is free, available and would often not be made
accessible by those in power.
this text, without going into much detail I attempted to point to some
areas that make cooperation a relevant topic right now. Free Cooperation
is valuable if is has goals that are based on social needs instead of
the artificial needs of profit driven capitalism. Free Cooperation is
a useful concept to evaluate, negotiate and re-negotiate our own relationships.
To work together is not inevitably a positive or politically progressive
stance. We can use the given examples and ideas to continue the debate
in the areas in which we see hopeful opportunities.
- Conference website "networks, art & collaboration" http://freecooperation.org
- "Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII" by John
- "Tearing Down The Streets" by Jeff Ferrell
- "Internet Art. The Online Clash of Culture and Commerce" by
- "Introducing Social Action and Cooperation" by Raimo Tuomela
- "Doing Their Own Thing, Making Art Together" by Holland Cotter,
January 19, 2003, New York Times
- "The Future of Ideas" by Lawrence Lessig
- "My First Recession" by Geert Lovink
- "The Return of the Political" by Chantal Mouffe
- "Caution! Alternative Space!" in "Theories and Documents
of Contemporary Art" ed. by Kristine Stilles and Peter Selz
- "Observations on Collective Cultural Action" by Critical Art
- Wikipedia: http://wikipedia.org
- Discordia: http://discordia.us
- Wikiversity: http://meta.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikiversity
- Open Source Software at Oreilly: http://osdir.com/Downloads+index-req-viewdownload-cid-9.phtml
- FreeNetworks.org is a voluntary cooperative association dedicated to
education, collaboration, and advocacy of the creation of free digital
network infrastructures: http://freenetworks.org
- The University of Openess: http://uo.twenteenthcentury.com.
The UO is a framework in which individuals and organizations can pursue
their shared interest in emerging forms of cultural production and critical
reflection such as unix, education, cartography, physical and collaborative
- Many 2 many is a group weblog on social software: http://www.corante.com/many
- Open Archives: http://www.openarchives.org.
The Open Archives Initiative develops and promotes interoperability standards
that aim to facilitate the efficient dissemination of content. The Open
Archives Initiative has its roots in an effort to enhance access to e-print
archives as a means of increasing the availability of scholarly communication.
- Womenspacework: http://www.wspacework.net.
An independent, non-profit and self-organized feminist internet project.
It offers a structure to make feminist theories, practices and projects
more visible. It serves as a tool for networking. It is functioning as
a navigation instrument to support feminist activism on the internet and,
in so doing, outside web space as well.
text introduced issues that were at the center of the conference "Networks,
Art, & Collaboration" (freecooperation.org)
that took place April 24-25, 2004 at the State University of New York
It was published online in NY
Arts Magazine in April 2004.
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