Are Five Artists Better Than One?: In Pursuit of Collective Genius

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Are Five Artists Better Than One?

In Pursuit of Collective Genius

by Meredith Tromble
illustration by Marie Rich

ALTHOUGH SOME futurists look to engineered neurochemicals to accelerate human ability, 21st century artist collectives are taking a low-tech, social route to enhancing creativity. Witness the upsurge of groups in the big pulse-of-the-culture exhibitions: Kassel’s Documenta 11 included Park Fiction, Multiplicity, the Raqs Media Collective and many others; New York’s Whitney Biennial featured the Bernadette Corporation, the Wrong Gallery, and Otabenga Jones & Associates; and, in Kitchen Sink’s own territory, San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts kicked off a year-long series of artist collective exhibitions by incorporating four groups in their 2005 triennial, Bay Area Now 4.

Courtney Fink, director of S.F.’s Southern Exposure gallery and lead curator of an exhibition focusing on collective process (The Way We Work, 2004), says, “As director of a collectively run space, I’ve been thinking about the ways that groups are creative for the past three years. There are so many groups now, you can see a taxonomy of artist collectives developing, and new ways of addressing them critically are beginning to emerge. I think we are just beginning to understand the nuances of collective thought.”

Group Creativity Has A History

Twenty-first century artists are playing by different rules. The 20th century notion of artistic genius involved going it alone. You didn’t see Jackson Pollock handing the stick to Lee Krasner, inviting her to paint a section of his canvas.

Status adhered to singular artists—sparking more than one cat fight about who influenced whom, and who thought what first. But as art history became an established discipline and expanded art publishing made information widely available, it became difficult to maintain the notion that any one artist was an island. There was way too much evidence to the contrary.

Thinkers involved in the liberation movements of the ’70s began theorizing the ways in which then-established notions of creativity meshed with social position, knocking holes in the “genius = lone white male” equation. Linda Nochlin’s 1971 essay, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” got the balls rolling by pointing out that if genius were strictly the result of individual talent, it would occasionally wear skirts. She argued that becoming a “genius” required the cooperation of other people who chose to funnel resources of attention, time and money to support an artist’s work. Even Van Gogh had Theo. Supportive individuals like Theo may not regard their contributions as collaboration, but conscious collaborations are nothing new, either. A cursory trek through the annals of modern art turns up Constructivism, Surrealism and the Situationists. Influen- tial contemporary examples include Gilbert and George, the Guerrilla Girls and General Idea. Let’s not forget Renaissance workshops, Amish quilters, and Islamic carpet weavers, either—the world is and has been full of collective creativity.

Speaking From Experience

My interest in collectives is personal. I’ve lived through—in one case, in—several groups: a political commune, a drawing group, an artist-writer group, and now, Stretcher, a collective of five artists. Stretcher’s aim is to energize the creative life of our community by intensifying the flow of communication within it. We produce an online magazine (Stretcher.org), and installations activated by live events, videos, panel discussions and dinner salons. Conversation is the connecting link between these forms. While these activities might once have been seen as reportage on the “real” creativity of individuals, once conceptual artists began looking at ideas as material it was a short step to exploring the exchange of ideas as a generative process. Forms that encompass multiple voices or viewpoints, such as digital publishing with comment strings, live dialog and video are particularly consonant with our project.

The amazing thing, from my point of view as a traditionally trained artist, is that developing a conversation framed as art feels the same as developing a painted image. There is the same need for preparation—mulling over, noticing and gathering useful information, the same focusing of attention, the same rhythm of question and response, the same effort to connect and, occasionally, the surprising wave when intentions, materials and execution train together to carry my understanding somewhere I’ve never been before.

There’s also the same mass of work that doesn’t make it, the mountain of work that occasionally thrusts up a special, unpredictable peak. There have been perhaps a dozen times in Stretcher’s five years together when we achieved something far beyond what we could have done individually. Memorable out of proportion to their frequency, these moments suggest that artists working through a collective identity might be able to touch the unknown in that electrifying way we associate with “genius.” I’m not saying that Stretcher has achieved this, but my experiences with Stretcher make me think it is possible.

What Supports Genius?

There are exceptions to every rule, but most occurrences of “genius” involve sustained, intense practice. Forming a sustainable collective is not easy. Most of the historical artist groups mentioned earlier had two to three good years before fragmenting or dissipating; my short-lived artist-writer group, which ran aground on the feelings aroused by critical exchange, is more typical than not. Conflicts are inevitable; the interpersonal chemistry of a given group determines whether or not it is manageable. Even when quarrels are channeled towards creative solutions, things change. Shifts in individual status strain the esprit de corps—the most treacherous time for a collective is when a member has a success independent of the group. Primate anxieties about pecking order are easily activated and can be very disruptive. In his study of artist collectives, art historian Alan Moore identified a related phenomena, saying, “As artists rise in stature, they drop their organizational memberships—or acquire new ones, moving from bohemia to the academy. These groups are to art as scaffolds are to architecture.”

For an exceptional group to arise, though, it must be more to its members than a ladder to something else. So far, Stretcher has had offbeat luck in this regard, starting with the departure of its first two members. Conceived during the dot-com boom by an artist and a critic hoping for a money-making venture, Stretcher lost its progenitors to studio and bill-paying work when the boom busted. This development, which could have been fatal, shaped the collective in two ways: The level of commitment to the project for its own sake was enhanced, and the “founder effect,” wherein the originators are given more say in difficult decisions, was diminished. This inadvertent leveling significantly increased the resiliency of the group, with leadership passing from person to person.

This modus operandi is idiosyncratic, but in centering around digital technology, Stretcher is right in line with other participants in the international move towards collective art production. Networked time and space ease collaboration at the same time they deliver more information than one person can possibly process, resulting in a pull-and-push group process. Curious readers can sample the huge variety of digital strategies in the online work of groups such as Blast Theory and Platform in England, Raqs Media Collective in India, and Critical Art Ensemble in the United States.

The Potential of Artist Groups

In a short paper titled “Collective Cultural Action,” Gillian MacIver, who belongs to the artist collective Luna Nera, writes that “the main elements in successful collaborative practice are the shared process of making, joint ownership and responsibility for the project and the exponential increase in opportunities.”

This is true, and probably adequately describes successful artist collectives as we know them so far. But the conditions MacIver identifies could also apply to a business, or a school, or other sorts of joint projects. I am curious to know whether or not we will be able to specify, in the future, an additional quality of the most successful collaborative art. There is still much work to be done in developing the forms of collective practice. But should a singular group of artists appear, fluent in collective action and responsive to collective intuition, I hope I am around to see it.

Artist and writer Meredith Tromble teaches interdisciplinary art and science classes at the San Francisco Art Institute.

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