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WORKING TOGETHER

Trebor Scholz

 


Images from Networks, Art, & Collaboration - a conference that took place at SUNY Buffalo, April 24-25, 2004.


> FAQs

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.


> DIY

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 virtual march.


> Social Needs versus the Needs of the Art World

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 participants.

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 slaves.

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?

> Invisible Labor

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 driven capitalism.


> The Toolbox of Openness

Online 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.

> Conclusion

In 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.


References:

- Conference website "networks, art & collaboration" http://freecooperation.org
- "Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII" by John Donne
- "Tearing Down The Streets" by Jeff Ferrell
- "Internet Art. The Online Clash of Culture and Commerce" by Julian Stallabrass
- "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 Ensemble
- Wikipedia: http://wikipedia.org
- Discordia: http://discordia.us
- Wikiversity: http://meta.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikiversity
- Openlaw: http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/openlaw


Resources:

- 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 research.
- 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.


This 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 at Buffalo. It was published online in NY Arts Magazine in April 2004.

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