By: Mark Wagner (With collaborative input from Heather McCabe, Marshall Weber, and Christopher Wilde)
I was pulling favorite books from the shelves (artist books that is, from the shelves of Booklyn), setting them before a visitor and announcing what I knew of their origins. “This one was made by Kurt, Marshall, and Chris...this one by thirty-five artists...this one by Dylan and Dave.” What made me launch this investigation was an outsider’s surprise: “You guys do a lot of collaboration!”
Like anything one has grown accustomed to, the practice had stopped registering for me. Collaboration between artists seemed natural – put simply, it was what went on. It became regular to see a box of half-finished books sent off only to be unpacked three months later after Shon or Felice had done their work. It was normal to hear the questions, “Do you wanna have a go at this?” and “Who’s got such-and-such book now?”
I reassessed the books at hand – the books I had to move in order to use the board shears or save from the cats, the books I re-piled and re-shelved on an almost daily basis – and found that one out of every three was made by multiple participants. In contrast, a mental survey of all the art history classes I’d ever taken could recall only two non-architectural slides cast on the screen that admitted to being collaborative work. In light of this disproportion, the visitor’s surprise seemed warranted, and I, too, began to wonder why collaborations were going on here and now.
Why here and now? This question has two parts. I will take the word “here” to mean within the territory of the book arts. There are reasons commonly discussed regarding the book form that make it natural for collaboration (skip ahead a bit if you find you’re tired of hearing them). Books are intimate and have a tendency toward the diminutive. Books are discreet, they sit on a shelf instead of hanging on a wall. A net effect of these qualities is a softening of the artist’s ego; surrender of control is a necessary component to collaboration (more about ego later). A division of labor is already implicit in book production: writing, illustrating, printing, and binding often reside in different hands. Also, books are practical for collaboration...small and prepackaged, they’re easily handed back and forth in a way that a large painting is not.
The second part of this initial question, “Why now?” may be expanded: why does one see more collaborations generated now then in the past? To address the question is partially to deny it, for collaborations were presented in those art history classes, only they were not called thus. To name just a few, there were Albrecht Dürer’s collaborations with his printing minions, and Rubens, whose level of involvement with one of “his” paintings depended on its price tag. This model is still in use. Like the celebrity figureheads of Paul Newman and Martha Stewart, we have Jim Dine and Jeff Koons' brand artwork, the unseen and unnamed collaborators often having more to do with the work than the persona used to sell it.
This is not, of course, a value judgment on the results (I love Martha’s color palette). The pet peeve airing here is a call for giving credit where credit is due: the general recognition of those collaborators performing a lion’s share of work that bears the name of a single big cat. Only once, at a retrospective of Claes Oldenburg prints, have I seen satisfactory (nay, exquisite) documentation. The title card for each print read like a colophon, some with five or six names listed. Let’s have more of that.
Along with this have been the considerable collaborations on style we’ve come to call movements. Visual and conceptional innovations made by one artist have been picked up by their contemporaries and progeny. They are and aren’t collaborations. These artists were and weren’t working together.
Actually, both of the models already given are less than the purest examples of collaboration. Neither represents two artisans coming to the same canvas with a sense of shared responsibility and equality. If we search for these qualities, it probably is true that more people are doing collaborative work today than ever before. So again, the question...why now?
There are more of us. The world is filling and we are forced to make more contact. Why not work together instead of fighting to carve a personal territory? More so than in the recent past, there is a greater awareness in the arts of the forces of history, influence, and context (these realizations are sometimes housed under the roof of “postmodernism”). This has brought an end (or at least an alternative) to the romantic concept of the artist as lone gunman, working in an insular studio, conducting solo (often solipsistic) experiments into image and idea. Softening the artist’s borders of personal genius has allowed others to enter. The advent of installation and performance events in the last half century have required many participants.
What is collaboration? On some level it could be said that a photographer collaborates with the people and object-makers who create the scene before the lense, and the collage artist collaborates with the illustrators, designers, and printers who create the images they employ. I did not make the paper on which I write, nor the pen with which I write upon it. Am I right now collaborating with the people who did?
One must be careful of getting too caught up in semantics. By allowing a term to be too inclusive, one makes it useless. Yet one does not want to deny its extent by drawing an arbitrary line on the continuum, artificially amputating its dimmer end. It is best to aim at a more organic understanding of the term – recognition of its characteristics without the rigidity of strict definition.
If you had rented my apartment and moved out before I moved in, we would not be co-habitating. The word “collaborate” (co-labor...hence, working together) implies a temporal overlap, beyond merely sequential work. So a commercial publisher may take a text, hire illustrator and designer, printer and binder, without these elements ever meeting. Though involving many people, the result is not particularly collaborative. An artist book might sport the same elements more interactive to the others and therefore stray further into the spirit of the word.
Something in the word implies communication, a discourse through the materials. In its purest form, collaboration is two people working at the same time on the same piece of paper, bumping elbows and passing the glue brush. In a more pragmatic form, it is handing a book back and forth – a ping pong game in which both players win or both players lose.
Several paragraphs ago I asked the question “Why here and now?” Less grammatically correct, it could be stated “Why, here, and now.” The why is an important consideration.
Collaboration offers benefits that parallel those of civilization’s founding. In the advancement of our species, we learned to work together. One did not have to both grow food and build housing. Division of labor allowed for specialization. Specialization allowed for mastery and excellerated innovation. A successful collaboration produces something beyond the ken of any of the artists involved. One can put their best foot forward, and (if well matched) expect compensation for their weaker side.
Feet in mind, it must be said that it is more fun dancing together than by oneself. Two humans collaborate on the making of each baby. The stated purpose of art is to communicate (or more basically, commune) with others (traditionally the viewer). In collaboration, this philosophy may be extended to the act of production. Participants, in one sense, become a special kind of viewer, and a hybrid work is likely to be as new to them as to anyone else.
I sometimes say I am collaborating with myself when I return to a project that has been sitting on the shelf for months – for my tastes, approaches, and ideas have changed.
There is a kind of magic to collaborating. Like a fairy tale in which an invisible imp helps the poor but deserving protagonist, labors happen without you having to perform them. You pass the book off and the next time you see it, it is more complete. The unpleasant task of editioning is aided like a fairy godmother summoning a flock of birds to pick lentils from the fireplace. A design dilemma you could not see your way around is resolved like spinning straw into gold.
There is strength in numbers. As binocular vision gives us more information than would a single eye, collaboration provides a holographic multiplicity of perspective. As Marshall Weber said of The Flower Folio, “Each artist crossed out the parts they didn’t like and the book became stronger as a result. It was a distillation process, a call to account for personal tastes that may interfere with general appeal, an immediate though ruthless form of critique.” A collaborative work may be a shared playground or battle ground depending on the attitudes of those involved, and these interplays show themselves, adding depth to the tenor of a finished piece.
There are obstacles to collaboration. A common motive leading to artistic pursuit is the desire to be in control of image and object – to manifest a personal vision and have things one’s own way. What’s more, the skills of creation usually require a great amount of exercise, which is likely to occur in solitary practice. These self-centered tendencies can inhibit collaboration, as my third grade report card reveals: “Does not play well with others.”
Old habits die hard. One becomes used to the art they make, too often limiting tastes to a region hugging closely their own style. Collaboratively speaking, intolerance and inflexibility are fatal. Of course others will do things differently, that’s the point.
“I made this” is the ego’s voice. The self can become problematic where cooperation is called for. Compulsive collaborator Christopher Wilde points out that collaboration effaces authorship for the process of collaboration automatically puts more emphasis on the work itself and less on the identity of its creators. It is a shared, thus diffused, limelight. One might say, who cares as long as another beautiful object has been brought into the world, but such effacement may be problematic not only for an egocentric artist, but for an audience and marketplace driven by the cult of personality.
An extra measure of effort is needed to collaborate, for the process necessitates communication. Internally one may see, assess, judge, reach conclusion, and act without the uttering of a single word, but not so when one is responsible to others. In working on the book Fortune with Scott Teplin, there were moments when I knew the production had to progress in a certain way, but it took five minutes of explaining before Scott too was convinced. However, for this added burden of explanation there is a reciprocal positive: the exercise of clarifying one’s own decision-making process.
For the most part collaboration necessitates communication, but there exist also the silent alternatives of trust, understanding, and abandon. Understanding (the prize of communication) may reach a wordless state. A tried and true collaborative relationship may shorthand a need for communication, and the words “just trust me” can save an hour of explanation.
The Y-book, an all-inclusive collaboration... I hated the idea when Christopher first explained it to me. I thought it was too simple: a blank book to be passed around in which anyone could draw the letter “Y”. Years later, while he lectured at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, I noticed The Y-book again (on a table between the three-thousand dollar book and the book you needed to wear white gloves to handle). It was sitting with a pile of pens and markers. After contributions from hundreds of people, no square inch of the book remained blank, yet more Y’s were added to it monthly by both four-year-olds and elderly calligraphers, artists and laymen alike. Now it is one of my favorite books, for apart from being a beautiful demonstration of the varied modes of human operation it is art that anyone can participate in, hence a reminder that anyone can create. It is also a functioning metaphor for all culture.
Without the contributions of the countless generations who have gone before, we would not be artists or writers but naked apes...wordless hunter-gatherers roaming the forest. All of science and art have been and continue to be a group effort. We take what is given, transform and expand upon it and pass it on to future generations. The extent of all human culture is one big collaboration, and we are all in this together.
This essay was originally published by The Booklyn Artists Alliance in "Turn a New Page". It was also presented at New York City's Center for Book Arts.
Please return in two weeks for "The Unbearable Weight of Possibilities" an examination of self-imposed limitations and their potentially liberating effects.