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Playing Well With Others? The Art of the Artists’ Collective

by Jerome Weeks 7 Dec 2011 4:45 PM

Fort Worth Contemporary Arts held a panel on artists’ do-it-yourself collective efforts (which seem to be cropping up more, lately). How do they work? But more importantly perhaps — why?


Au Rendez-vous des amis, Max Ernst, 1922 (the Surrealists, l to r in front row: René Crevel, Max Ernst (sitting on Dostoyevsky’s knee), Theodor Fraenkel, Jean Paulhan, Benjamin Péret, Johannes Baargeld, Robert Desnos. Back row: Philippe Soupault, Hans Arp, Max Morise, Raffaele Sanzio, Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon (with wreath around his hips), André Breton, Giorgio de Chirico, Gala Eluard.)

“It’s like being in a band.”

That was Bradly Brown at one point during All Together Now, Tuesday’s panel about artistic teamwork held at Fort Worth Contemporary Arts. He compared the cooperation it takes to get something off the ground like Homecoming, the new art collective he’s co-founded, with the ordinary give-and-take of  two-guitars-drums-and-keyboards.

Self-evident, no? But perhaps that’s because almost no art form other than the visual arts would hold a public discussion about — a public discussion encouraging — collective efforts, ongoing projects (art works, galleries, series, programs) involving an entire group of artists in the planning and execution. The other arts wouldn’t need to. The very nature of most theater, dance, music and filmmaking projects requires cooperation. The artists are trained for it. Any actor who doesn’t get along with his fellow actors, any dancer who cannot channel her own  ego into the larger effort (Black Swan notwithstanding) would soon find there’s little work being offered. If anything, a theater or dance panel on this topic would address collaboration between established troupes.

But visual artists — and to much the same degree, poets and novelists — are admired as soloists, embodiments of individual inspiration and self-reliance. Consequently, on Tuesday many of the questions from Contemporary curator and moderator Christina Rees and from the audience of 40 or so  revolved around, essentially, how does this work? And why does this work? Why do it? How are ego differences resolved? Who gets to join? And, my own materialistic offering: How does the money — if any — get divvied up?

The answers from Brown — plus Nathan Green of the Austin-based Okay Mountain, Subtext co-founder Alison Hearst and the mysterious M from the Denton art collective, Good/Bad — were, more or less: We do it because we want to work with friends, with artists who inspire us (or in the case of M, work with people who are smarter than he is, thus learning from them and making him look good). The notion of an artists’ collective as a kind of semi-organized hanging out that eventually leads to Something Fun was re-iterated in different forms, particularly in the idea of the Event. The speakers generally favored gallery openings more memorable than the usual Gallo-chugging and wandering among the white walls. The Event, then, is one direct reward of collective action: Bands get hired, lightshows designed, participatory actions organized, fun is had.

The origins of Okay Mountain reflect another, obvious advantage of group efforts: More people can get more done. The Mountaineers were ten UT art-school friends who each chipped in $100 per month. “You can do a lot with $1000 a month,” Green said — including renting and refurbishing a gallery space, which is how Okay Mountain started (and part of what it still does). Speaking of money and chipping in, Brown revealed that much of his job involved fundraising — and that Homecoming was partially financed through Kickstarter, the online, small-donations, funding platform.

It’s this do-it-yourself impulse (or actually, this necessity) that Richard Patterson picked up on. Patterson is Dallas’ own Young British Artist — one of the 16 Goldsmith College students who, in 1988, joined Damien Hirst in the exhibition in London’s Docklands that launched a thousand international careers (OK, maybe a dozen). Patterson’s inclusion in the Fort Worth panel was a little odd in that the YBAs were never a collective. Patterson, in fact, has dismissed them as not even managing to constitute a ‘movement’ (“‘The YBA thing has to rank as the silliest of all names. Certainly not a movement.”)

But many of the YBAs did try to give each other a leg up. Which was Patterson’s point. Texas is almost the opposite of London in that there’s relatively little, long-established ‘ art industry infrastructure’ here. Our big cities are far enough apart that fame in one town means little in the next town. And the metroplex is scattered enough on its own to frustrate group efforts or the kind of critical mass needed to get sumpin’ started. So we’re  isolated out on the prairie — with no easy ticket to ride to New York or LA.

To be sure, there are museums, galleries and wealthy collectors here, but the wealthiest ones rarely look at local artists. The Nasher collection, the Rachofsky House, the Roses and Hoffmans: These aren’t really known for buying works by North Texans (unless his name is Robert Rauschenberg).

So if you’re a visual artist in North Texas, what can you do? Nothing and everything. “The machine is broken,” moderator Rees repeatedly declared.  She means the gallery-show-leading-to-media-fame-and-bigger-gallery-plus-agent-and-rich-patron-and-investiture-in-museums machine. Whether such a deus ex machina ever really worked in North Texas isn’t the issue. Rees has spent several years arguing that our vacuum is an opportunity (and this panel was aimed at encouraging allies). If there’s very little here, then we’re free to start something, anything — an appeal that North Texas has actually held for many artists (actors, directors, musicians) over the years. We get to build from scratch. We don’t have to fight the Powers-That-Be (who would they be? The Morning News doesn’t even have a full-time art critic). We don’t have to calibrate works or shows with the single aim of wowing just the right critic, curator or collector. There aren’t any here that can really provide that ticket to New York (or if they are here, they’re not buying tickets). So why bother? Do it to please yourself, do it to experiment with venues and methods and statements you never had the chance to try.

OK. All well and good. To summarize: In this environment, the appeal and purpose of an artists’ collective is a) you work with people you like, b) happy hour at the Event, c) it may inspire you to do work you might not have done otherwise and d) you create works, get a gallery show or stage an event (and maybe get some attention) that you also might not have done otherwise.

The question that no one asked, and which I admit didn’t occur to me until I was driving home, is: If we grant all of this, then what? What’s next? Previous art ‘movements’ or schools often defined and grouped themselves against some established institution, taste, monopoly or distribution system. Perhaps this is what lay behind Patterson’s question about whether any of these local collectives have ever set out to do something outrageous. Defining themselves against something is often the only thread that really tied together these artists at all: Impressionists against the Academy and the Salon, Cubism against the conventions of representational art, Dadaists against reason and the entire inherited culture of the West, modernism against neo-classicism, and so on. Even the YBAs, to varying degrees, wanted to overturn business-as-usual (and replace it, in some instances, with their just-as-cynical business as usual).

This is not meant as criticism — I’m truly curious.  As indicated, a collective can be its own reward, and that may be more than enough. But in North Texas, if we don’t have those prevailing institutions, that coercive establishment, what is the endgame here?

  • Thanks for covering this! FYI the Dallas Art Dealers Association hosted an Artists Gathering this past September in hopes of helping artists network among themselves…not many showed up…was very disappointed

  • The “endgame” Mr. Weaks is the growth of sophistication in a city that banishes the sophisticated at an alarming rate. If you listen to the sophisticated Mr. M and take his long term project seriously, as the Good/Bad was the last salon culture Dallas has experienced that “put one through the goal posts” you would answer your own question. I use the last parenthetic phrase reluctantly, since you insist on using a zero sum game metaphor. The art world is not a zero sum game unless you look at if from the aspect of a divided subject. That is to say $.

    I am guessing that that that is the intuition that drives Ms. Reece’s project of becoming that caused this panel discussion. My critique of her project is that most of the discussions that make a difference with regards to the production of high quality anxieties go on behind the scenes in what I call salon culture.

    The art world is a fictive place. Because it is a created fiction it does not play by the rules of a zero sum game. It is a prisoner’s dilemma. It is an immortality project that is judged by criterion that unbraids the artist as soon as they start “expressing themselves” freely. Ms Reese and Mr. Patterson are cosmopolitans, so they have some insight as to what is sophisticated and what is not, irregardless of Mr. Patterson’s celebrity status, which actually hurts him in that nobody is allowed to critique his production, though I think he might actually appreciate and benefit in an existential fashion from said critique.

    Dallas doesn’t need a “full time critic” at the Dallas Morning News. It needs a community of writers able to provide a critique that produces affect in the readers of said critiques. This is one of the problems when “taste” is confused with “sophistication”. A critic is good at insults. One who produces a critique is good at philosophy.

    There are salons in Dallas that go unnoticed. Riotous gardens of sophistication that go unrecognized or are described by the unsophisticated as a lot of weeds. The Five Families that you mentioned above, who don’t buy Texas artists, are concerned with sophistication. Their sin as “people of means” is that they don’t know how to grow sophistication in their own back yards. This needs to change. The sad and shocking thing is that it really doesn’t have to cost a lot of $ to do this. It takes an intelligence arm that monitors what is going on with regards to sophistication and makes sure that it gets watered in a drought. It imports exotic fauna and plants it permanently in a fertile soil for growing sophistication.

    Other writers suggest that this only happens in port cities. This is a weak critique. It can happen anywhere that we choose. We just have to choose it by producing concepts that describe a fertile ground for growth. One of these is to create a foundation that pays writers who have the ability to produce critiques a living wage to BE writers. Since being a writer is inexpensive this shouldn’t take much $. It will however take time. And a set of incentives that are worth that time.

    The time is now.

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  • Jerome Weeks

    Yes, of course, to your point about increasing local sophistication. It’s not like this hadn’t been considered. I left my post open-ended because it seems there are two endgames to such collective efforts. One is, still, to generate enough buzz, to network enough new connections to get you, the individual artist, or you, the collective, up to the Next Step: New York or LA or a fellowship or artist’s residency, whatever, wherever.

    Or two, it’s to make the commitment to be Here and Now in North Texas, to feel this area is worth the challenge, just as much as the collective itself. The collective — if it manages to get past individual grievances and the like — creates its own gravitational pull (providing an appealing work environment, mutual creativity, pooled resources, etc), so that you decide this is worth pursuing and this region provides the right mix of opportunities. So if we’re here for the duration, let’s try to Upgrade it(unless, of course, the entire collective can somehow be transplanted and replicated elsewhere — good luck with that).

    But none of that was even mentioned at the panel. So I wondered if anyone in these collective efforts had ever spelled it out to each other: This is what we’re in for. Like the one character in “Breaking Away” says, when his angry high school buddy asks disgustedly, Are we all just going to stay stuck in this town, doing nothing?

    “I thought that was the plan, doing nothing together for the rest of our lives.”

    As for a newspaper critic: You apparently don’t run a commercial gallery or have seriously needed public attention this week for an event, a dollars-generating kind of attention. It’s very satisfying and web-democratic to join in and say, Who needs the mainstream media and its critics? “We need a community of writers.” Maybe, eventually, ideally. But who’d do the reading, then?

    More practically until that day arrives: Today, all of the arts bloggers in North Texas, put together in a collective, will not generate the same kind of crowd that a sizable review or feature in the paper will. That’s still the case, although it’s increasingly less so, not because of the rise of the internet as it is the decline of newspapers. Unlike arts blogs — this is a point Christina Rees herself has made — daily newspapers still reach the ‘unconverted,’ they reach well beyond the fully-committed, young-and-with-it art scenesters, a small and often fickle crowd, not one you necessarily want to count on if your financial future depends on it.