A photo by Dave Beech
(This writing arises from a facebook conversation with Dave Beech and others 7th – 9th April 2017. This is pasted in below my text.)
Corroborate – not Collaborate
There are dark shadows in the etymology in the word “collaborate” which also fall across its particular use in art. I thoroughly believe these etymological dichotomies throw up irresolvable difficulties that taint it’s supposed positive value (a tainted love).
It seems highly relevant the words etymology is from the late 19thC. Note “labor” sits in the middle of the word and “to labour together” is its meaning. Collaboration is circumscribed by labour and labour is of course intrinsically linked to economics. So there is a strong economic question in this “working together”. How is this labour valued and what is the social exchange for this labour? (It perhaps is also pertinent to note that labor is defined as ‘to take”, “to obtain”, “to capture”, “to get”.
Its second meaning “to conspire” hovers like paranoia in the recesses of our psyche when we say the word “collaborator”. This condition of collaborating is linked to an individual’s agency (and deceit). The collaborator hides his true beliefs and betrays the others. Any group faces difficulties in power hierarchies and trust and the outcomes of these battles are ruthless both psychologically and economically. Authorship, which underpins and troubles this second meaning is also linked to economics but this is the economy of the individual (a specific social exchange defined by individual bargaining, even individual artists are valued differently, economically in institutions within a group show). Not a great place to work from, this collaboration.
The word in its broad social political framing as ‘shared labour’ and its individual ontological problems as a conspirator are both clearly equally problematic. There is trouble in the microcosm and the macrocosm.
Much of the debate about collaboration is shaped by the equivalence of participants but this equivalence is in fact not achievable. Members of a group of ‘conspirers’ ideally will have different skill bases and different workloads. Perhaps student collaborations are more successful as the institution under which they make an exchange allows for equality in that they are circumscribed by an overarching economic and social structure which is more local and 'the course' treats them all as equal.
The types of labour involved in art production have different socially defined economies, which are importantly a difference in kind not degree. This becomes most apparent in the way artists are paid. This is a lump sum, which is a notional amount that does not relate to time but relates solely to authorship. (Contracts ask for the originality of this authorship to be the sole work of the artist.) What artists are paid for then is to be an author– the value of the idea is low and it is notable that if 12 people or 1 person is involved the authorship fee often is the same. I am not sure where this leaves “The Death of the Author”.
The actual labour of the artist involved is often clearly extensive.
Authorship (which underpins the second meaning of collaborator as conspirator) is also violently linked to economics – this is an economy of the individual imposed from above in which the “conspirator” may hide their influences and sources to gain power.
I would like to move away from the irresolvable problem of “shared labour” and the swamp of muddied authorship and its value to propose a word that is much older in etymology (16thC) and is about strengthening and arriving at truths through co-operation. The word is corroboration.
I have tried to define some parameters but these are very much in process!
Corroborators – seek for common truths between each other
Corroborators – support these truths and reinforce them together
Corroborators – strengthen in a group
Corroborators – share a common goal in the collective but allow for differentiated outcomes
Corroborators – are clear about their doubts even to each other and use criticism to consolidate and reinforce the group
Corroborators – ensure that the relationship to the individual needs and overall needs in a group are in balance.
Corroborators – focus on empathy and processes that support and verify works
Corroborators – acknowledge their own agency and the way this is born of a group
Corroborators – are aware of the influences of others and openly cite them
Corroborators – take account of evidence both semantic and affective
Corroborators – analyse the validity of general truths and make specific ethical truths that fit the groups aims
A conversation on FB that is the context for the thoughts above:
Simon Bill The days of anyone being able to do anything really worthwhile completely on their tod are gone. Which is tricky, because claiming the credit and getting the glory is a terrific motivator. We have to rethink things in such a way as to incentivize group effort. I have no ideas on this so far…
Belinda Maria Longsden Artists aren't good at working with one another in my experience as they have such strong opinions on everything.
Dave Beech That's what successful collaborations are based on!
Belinda Maria Longsden I'll keep my options open then
Timothy Beighton Dave Beech opposition to an idea or opinion is the best 'control' of a group. Use your basic science knowledge, and work to a common basic goal. So simple that it hurts my head sometimes when it is NOT achieved. So, I dis-engage often through just sheer rage at some 'value assumptions'. Counter productive.
Belinda Maria Longsden I've lost count of the times I've had discussions with artists gone away and done what was agreed only to come back and they've had another meeting without me and decided something else. Since I've stopped working with other artists I am further forward with m own work.
Mary Fletcher I agree it can be hellish. It takes a lot of care to work. For Brixton womens' work there were successful collaborations in the 80's but there were discussions and lots of meetings. There need to be agreed ground rules which takes time.
Lindsay Seers working on collaboration in Oslo now Dave – can you give me your definition and what it is not …
Dave Beech Working with others, basically, but in art it is differentiated from participation insofar as collaborators are equal. Collaboration is not doing someone else's dirty work.
Lindsay Seers There is an economic question?
Dave Beech What would that be?
Lindsay Seers Perhaps its at the point of seeding. I draw in collaborators with different skill bases to a premice/idea – animators, sound engineers, composers – they have measureable value – they want to be paid (hourly). We work up these elements together. I pay them but don't get paid, they never feel they are paid enough inspite of it being in excess of anything I could ever earn. I do not want to feel that I am exploiting them even though this ethic is never a concern of insitutions who commission the works. Who won't even want to pay a train fare. Then even though I am not concerned at all about this – the work goes out in my name and that is considered to be the reason I don't get payment.
Dave Beech They sound like service providers not collaborators (like paying for a window cleaner or plumber). If you pay them and you don't get paid and you are not selling the product of their labour for profit, then you are not exploiting them. You are the consumer.
Mary Fletcher I notice in Tate St.Ives Jessica Warboys says she collaborated with the sea because she put her canvas in it, which seems to be pushing the term a bit too far to me.
Dave Beech This is like the way people use the word curate today. "I curated the salad" or "who curated your outfit?" Collaborating with the sea is not collaboration.
Lindsay Seers But these collaborators are not doing my dirty work – we are working on something together. They fit your definition of collaboration. There is a flux – a negotiation an exchange. Can you clarify how they are service providers and not collaborators? My point is as visual artists we occupy different economies to those that we may collaborate with. Basically we are indentured labour to serve those paid in the cultural industry. Artists are not paid except in bizarre abstract sums – a so called fee which would add up to about 5 days work for projects that take over 6 months. Also we can not move our work into another industry that is paid and protected like performers, musicians, sound engineers and treat art as a holiday. Other professionals are also are valued therefore their skills obviously need to be paid. I am collaborating with them. They quite naturally feel that this is work and work is paid for. I believe my part is considered to be a fun thing for me that doesn't cost. Collaboration with scientists is an example of an industry in which free labour is more unlikely. Why has this been so in fashion?
Dave Beech Lindsay Seers I didn't mean to say that they were doing your dirty work. You asked me "what it is not" and the answer to that part of the question is collaboration is not doing someone's dirty work.
Dave Beech My explanation for how this apparent collaborators may be service providers instead would go like this: collaborators, in principle, are equal, so if they are paid and your are not and you are paying them then they are not your collaborators but are providing a service for you for money. You are the consumer of their services, skills, knowledge and so on.
Lindsay Seers I understand the logic – but its not causal in a simple way as I am not a consumer the Institution is but they protect their personal incomes by passing labour off to those who are vulnerable enough to want to use art to speak about culture etc. I am an equal collaborator but feel I can not replicate the arching overall structure from the institution which I am subject to. I end up as a buffer. I believe that all involved should be paid an average daily rate – I then become a doner but from a position of no real resources. I also often have to cover all the labour that the gallery can not pay for. Administration, texts, production, labour on install etc. But its left me with my teeth falling out and fuck all in my possession. I think that this is a structure that does effect collaboration – collaboration is usually a funding priority.
Lindsay Seers sure I’m not alone in this – but it comes from being an artist with no independent or heritable wealth and no commercial desires – beyond payment for labour.
Dave Beech Given that some artists work alone, the choice to work with others is yours not the institutions. This is why you are the consumer regardless of where the money comes from.
Lindsay Seers Hmm – so working alone is more effective – shot yourself in the foot
Lindsay Seers I am a bit surprised you don't want to address the economy or art in this chatter? Nothing to say about that except if you pay you simply become a consumer. Collaboration – a darling of the commissioners?
Dave Beech The point here – economically – is that you are the 'final user' of their labour. Any funder or collector is indifferent about whether you make the work yourself or pay someone to work with you.
Dave Beech Actually, I am addressing the economics of art here. The problem is that the current hysteria about the economics of art is not an economics at all but an ethics of social relations.
Lindsay Seers what defines me as the final user? my name?
Lindsay Seers what is the current hysteria about economics of art? isn't all exchange – even money only about soical relations?
Dave Beech A lot of ethical accusations are being thrown about that concern economic transactions in art. Terms which have a technical meaning in economics such as exploitation are being used in a more vague but highly charged way that is more about feelings of guilt and shame than actual economic relations. There's a lot of virtue being drawn from identifying others as victims and very little engagement in economics.
Lindsay Seers Maybe we need to speak specifics rather than general ideas. What is your good economical model for art that is not hysterically defined? Do you find your own collaboration an economically well founded model? Show me the way. You are saying there is a victim mentality that is ill founded?
Dave Beech Well, Lindsay, the problem might be the idea of a practice being 'economically well founded', which is to say, the idea of an ethical economic arrangement. I start from the principle that there is no economic solution to capitalism and therefore no ethical mode of existing within capitalism that is economic. Economic relations are social relations, as you said earlier, but I would argue that this means that we need to engage in a long political struggle against the way that art is organised within capitalism and against capitalism in general rather than finding arrangements for individuals being justified in their economic transactions. For the Freee Art Collective this means rejecting the ethics of economics in art and acknowledging the economic realities of our practice. With a Marxist definition of exploitation for instance, we never confuse our payment of technicians and others with the transactions of capitalists who accumulate capital from the work of paid employees.
Lindsay Seers I live in the swampy and muddy world of the idea of the impossibilty of living an ethical life. Do you think you have made headway in breaking the system?
Dave Beech we are clearly not persuaded that 3 people are sufficient to break the system, so no we are not judging our politics by asking whether we have brought about systemic transformation by ourselves. So, instead, what we do is (1) enter into the daily disputes of the artworld (including taking issue with those that have utopian, cynical and liberal political positions within art) and (2) attempt to contribute to the early stages of a very long struggle (including developing ideas about how we might build a popular social movement and think about the kinds of institutional arrangements that such a movement needs)
Lindsay Seers I guess my ideas that art in itself is a way of thinking about the world that creates thought about thought and that raises consciousness aren't going to wash with Marx. I can see you marching me to the gallows right now!
Dave Beech Not at all, but you didn't start out asking about art and thought, you started out asking about the economics of collaboration, which means that Marxist theory is particularly pertinent.
Timothy Beighton (this just gets better an better…@Lindsay Seers 'holiday' away…)
Sovay Berriman In the example Lindsay gives is the final user not the commissioning gallery? The artist is paying others to collaborate with her on production of the work that is requested by the gallery. In that sense isn't the artist a service provider also?
In terms of collaboration I'm guessing the paid animators, performers, etc, are equal contributors creatively to make them collaborators. But they are not collaborators in the sense of having equal ownership of the finished work? I.e. Could one of the paid collaborators exhibit the work elsewhere under their name?
I understand collaboration as being equal in ownership, creative input and anything else that is 'making' the work, regardless of finance. So the work can only ever exist as it does with those particular collaborators, and belongs equally to those collaborators. If one person isn't getting paid all must arrive at an agreement to deal with that situation. There is no hierarchy in collaboration in my view.
There is rarely enough money. It's almost simpler to take it out of the equation. Even though of course it is essential and it's unrealistic to ignore the financial costs and implications of any work being made.
Lindsay Seers I think its a question of equality. I would be interested to see how it would work if the sound engineer showed it in his name. I have written more extensively below about what I see as the dichotomies.
Lindsay Seers Dave Beech I actually didn't start with economics – I started with collaboration and was surprised that you didn't mention economics as much of the debate is about time ownership and labour in groups working together..🙂
Dave Beech Yes, after I didn't mention economics you asked me about economics.
Lindsay Seers I suppose my point in asking you about economics comes from how, since I have known you for 25 years or more you have focussed on these issues and your practice has always dealt with Marxist ideas. I met you through a collaboration. To collaborate is intrinsically linked to the form of your work, even with Mark H. Collaboration for me is to do with consciousness and I am working out something with a group of people I have never met before here in Oslo – to find out what we can do together – much of what we can do has a hidden economy. Ultimately I do want to talk about art and did not feel it as a change of subject. We will make something together here in Norway but need a method. But I think you have helped me find one. To find out what I think. It has always been great to have you to refer to across these years ….
Dave Beech You're right, Lindsay, these issues have been around for a very long time in my work. With Mark and with Mel and Andy, collaboration for me is about commitment. In both cases I worked with them on an occasional basis before deciding to collaborate full time. And so, it is not primarily an economic thing. But I'm sensitive to the description of other kinds of relationships as collaborations. Institutional collaborations, for instance, are not collaborations at all in my book. And collaborating with the public in a socially engaged work is not collaborating either in my view. It's not the economics that's decisive; it's the commitment and equality or lack of them.
Milena Dragicevic everyone everywhere is always collaborating whether we realise it or not. Like the echo of your image in that button though!
Simon Bill I don't think they are you know Milena. Unless you define 'collaborate' in an unusual way.
Milena Dragicevic Simon Bill i think we are all involved in a relay of sorts and we need everyone to keep it going. Some slip, some fall but that is what happens when collaborating – its never easy. That's my take.
Simon Bill That's true I guess. I think Dave had something more specific in mind.
Milena Dragicevic Simon Bill yes i get it but I guess I am also really sick of hearing the word "collaboration" like its some sort of novel idea. In the art world some things are better done in collaboration and some thing are better done alone, who cares as long as the work is interesting.
Simon Bill It certainly is an idea that crops up in the context of the (phony) democratization of cultural production that people who have done a curating course like. But don't be put off by fashionable twerps. The way we do things really is a'changin'.
Dave Beech Not all forms of cooperation are collaborative. We depend on the labour of others but we rarely collaborate with those people.