Collectives Without Consensus?

Sylvette Babin
“By joining the Dadaist and Surrealist movements, Bauhaus, Fluxus, and conceptual art, artists have been decompartmentalizing art and life for a long time through material and architectural forms, events, performances, and happenings developed and carried out collectively. Motivated by a series of utopias, from the investigations into the revolutionary potential of aesthetics by avant-garde artists to the poststructuralist aspirations of post-May 68 counterculture movements, collectives have established political and often radical communities around art creation. More than a century of cooperative practices has assembled a reservoir of models, issues, and ideas that are now being re-examined by increasingly diverse collectives not only of artists, designers, and architects, but also of curators, activists, theorists, and scholars. Given the urgent need to act, in a world where a state of emergency has become permanent, laboratories of social action, interdisciplinary research groups, and international discussion forums are forming on the margins of the art field. They value improvisation, spontaneity, autonomy, flexibility, innovation, and utility, which may bring them closer to post-Fordist work for which the artist had been established as the absolute model.”

The resurgence of collaborative work in recent artistic and curatorial projects is notable. Seeking alternative forms of “being together,” these new collectives are reviving the concerns of several decades of shared creation. Esse’s editorial board — also a collective and for this issue composed of Anne-Marie Dubois, Benoit Jodoin, Didier Morelli, Amelia Wong-Mersereau, and myself — proposed in the call for papers quoted above a historical contextualization, broadly defining the idea of the collective. We were particularly interested in how working collectively problematizes power relations within art institutions and groups and how this effects the implementation of less hierarchical structures.

The insight offered by our contributors confirms some of our intuitions regarding the motivations of such groups and potentially shakes up certain idealized views of the notion of de-hierarchization. As Camille Georgeson-Usher and Emma Steen, of the Indigenous Curatorial Collective (ICCA), point out “most Indigenous nations have never had a horizontal structure.” In this spirit, their association “hosts conversations so Indigenous or racialized people can actually take leadership positions.”

Working collaboratively does not mean that individual thought dissolves into common or universal thought. Though a collective, by its very nature, seeks out mul- tiple points of view, we can readily assume that the idea of consensus is not the ultimate goal and that there is no prescribed model to follow. Nevertheless, some of the articles offer suggestions. Valérie Félix, for example, calls for communal heterogeneity (which she contrasts to collective homogeneity), indicating that “it is thus the force of the individual, gathered with others, that makes for a powerful community, and not the group as such, as (id)entity.”

A sense of coming together and collaboration are still the common ground between the projects pres- ented in this issue. Mostly interdisciplinary, these collaborations often fall outside the art field and situate themselves in social and community contexts by reflecting on knowledge sharing, human rights, struggles against gentrification, and environmental issues. Clearly, the notion of community (and by this we understand the members of any society, different types of publics, as well as creative communities) is prominent in these essays and works, several of which involve civic engagement. We are asked to go beyond the restrictive framework of the collective defined as a group of individuals working on a common research project in order to include collectivity as an integral, even a decision-making, part of an artwork. In this regard, Edith Brunette writes that “it is a matter no longer simply of finding ways of working with other artists, but of labouring within one or several communities, and sometimes with them.”

Lastly, since dialogue is at the centre of collaborative practices, it is only natural that it would become the raw material or even the subject of research, and that it would form the core of a performative conversation between artists and researchers. As Victoria Stanton and Stacey Cann of the Bureau of Noncompetitive Research suggest, “collaboration is a form of conversation.” The reverse is also true in that a conversation is a form of collaboration between the people speaking. Not imposing consensus might then be the best way of always keeping the dialogue open.

Translated from the French by Oana Avasilichioaei

This article also appears in the issue 104 - Collectives

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