For me, I think it is better to be the novice rather than the professional. The novice works with resourcefulness and is not embarrassed to admit that they are unsure. By necessitating working within someone else’s practice / discipline, collaboration forces each of us into being a novice. Both sides are required to adapt in ways which are purposefully generous.
Often, collaboration is thought of as the combination of complementary strengths in the pursuit of producing something which is far greater than the sum of its parts. This type of collaboration is about effective and efficient performance. I don’t think that this accurately describes the type of collaboration that I am interested in. Instead, I much prefer the type of collaboration where everyone is unclear as to where to begin, how to finish, or perhaps even what the point is.
When I compare working solo to working collaboratively, I would say the former is more about production and the latter more about maintenance. That is to say, it is about care. David Graeber described care as ‘…action which is oriented to maintaining or increasing another person’s freedom’. He also said that ‘Play is the ultimate expression of freedom for its own sake’. Similarly, I would claim that as a purposeful form of play, art can be a similar expression of freedom. Through collaboration this singular freedom can be extended to a coexisting multiplicitous one.
Collaboration is fundamentally about care, in that it is about enabling and empowering the other. They both require a need or perceived need to exist and ‘attach itself to’. With care however, it always runs the risk that the enabling effect on the one being cared for can be negated by a feeling of indebtedness and/or reliance on the one providing the care. Equally, the one providing care in knowing or sensing that the other depends on them, can feel obliged to sacrifice their own freedom to maintain that other person’s freedom. Whereas within collaboration, the aim is that any constraint placed on each person’s freedom is counter-balanced through the liberating effect of the other person’s actions. Here it is the responsibility of each individual to communicate openly, and to listen and act with care. This in turn produces an equilibrium of care and self-care, both of which sustain or enhance the other.
System through its precarity and make-shift-ness, positions me as a novice, or at least, not strictly as a professional. This helps flatten any hierarchy between me and the artists. It fosters an environment where it is okay to make mistakes or at least to not be too precious. After all, you can’t be too precious when you’re exhibiting in a former call centre with missing ceiling tiles or in two formerly disused rooms above a crusty-punk bar where illicit drugs are readily available. The supposed less-desirable architectural or design features, especially for an arts venue, like collapsing plaster around a plug socket or a Spearmint-Rhino-esque white pleather sofa, are for me every bit part of the exhibition and are not an intrusion on it.
There is perhaps one key historical exception to this rule. One time when arriving to set-up for an exhibition in the space above Bar Loco, we were greeted with a large table which had seemed to magically appear in the space overnight. I had never seen this table before and wasn’t aware that it was something that the bar even had. It was bright red and wouldn’t look out of place in a university library or on a spaceship. Through discussion with the bar owners, it became clear that it wasn’t possible to move and they didn’t really seem to care of the inconvenience that this caused us. And for some reason, contrary to the broken plaster and everything else, this hurt me. Not just because of their apparent lack of ‘care’ and the beginning of a breakdown of what I had previously assumed to be a collaborative partnership, but also how visibly disappointed the artist was at having to share the gallery with this monstrosity that filled half the room. I hadn’t been able to hold-up my end of the bargain and this was clear to them, me, and to everybody visiting the show. This brings to mind a quote by Jan Verwoert, who states…
“…care [is] a risky act empowered by the need of the other, yet not based on secure knowledge or competence, and therefore without a clear mandate, an impossible promise always bearing the risk of exhaustion”
(In ‘Support Structures’ by Celine Condorelli p.177)