This story by Holland Carter about collaborative art appeared in the New York Times a year ago. As a writer who never really got over being born too late to be a part of Black Mountain College, I keep returning to this story. Although the 9/11 framework of the story may date it a little, I remain interested in the idea that creativity can be the glue of community, and art can be its signifier.
Doing Their Own Thing, Making Art Together
By HOLLAND COTTER
To many Americans, the world feels more threatened and threatening today than at any time since the 1960’s. Terrorism, nuclear proliferation, the prospect of war on Iraq and ever tightening security measures at home have sent a hum of tension through daily life.
In the 1960’s, comparable tension, excruciatingly amplified, produced a big response: the spread of a counterculture, one that began with political protest movements and became an alternative way of life. Among other things, it delivered a sustained, collective "no" to certain values (imperialism, moralism, technological destruction), and a collective "yes" to others: peace, liberation, a return-to-childhood innocence.
The collective itself, as a social unit, was an important element in the 60’s utopian equation. Whatever form the concept took–the commune, the band, the cult–its implications of shared resources, dynamic interchange and egos put on hold made it a model for change.
Even the art world, built on a foundation of hierarchies and exclusions, produced its own versions. Activist groups like the Artworkers Coalition and the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition made concerted attempts to pry open institutional doors and let in a multicultural world. Simultaneously, nonmilitant movements like the Dada-inspired Fluxus produced an ephemeral, give-away, anyone-can-do-it art that amounted to a kind of passive resistance to the existing market economy. Both approaches, one forceful, one gentle, changed the way art was thought about, and the way it looked.
The collective impulse has never died out in American art; and now it is surfacing again, for the most part outside New York. In cities like Milwaukee, Providence, R. I., St. Louis and Philadelphia, as well as several in Canada, an old countercultural model, often much changed, is being revived, in some cases by artists barely out of their teens.
Many of the new art collectives are virtual: they reside on the Internet, that intrinsically collective medium. They are fluid in size, and members may not even know the identity of other members. The kinds of art they produce vary widely, but when it is political it tends to be actively so. To much of the art world, these collectives barely exist. Their work is difficult to market; it’s available to everyone free; traditional criteria of judgment, the kind that make critics so comfortable with, say, painting, don’t apply.
Other, even newer collectives, while computer-savvy, are studio-based and are starting to gain attention. They are housed in apartments, storefronts, art schools and minivans. Their members, who often support themselves with day jobs as designers, programmers, teachers or temps, are identified by a group name, like rock bands. And their art is often a multitasking mix of painting, sculpture, printmaking, design, digital art, video, zine production and musical performances.
In general, the collaborative arrangements are superrelaxed. A few groups, like Temporary Services in Chicago, have a Fluxus-like conceptual agenda: an aesthetic of sharing sites, ideas and objects with outsiders that extends the collaboration beyond the group itself. Others, like Slanguage in Los Angeles, have established self-sustaining, artist-run workshops and exhibition spaces. Still other groups are formed, at least initially, as more or less closed social circles of friends getting together with friends and brothers and sisters, to make art, a description that fits, for example, the Royal Art Lodge from Winnipeg, Manitoba, whose work is on view at the Drawing Center in SoHo.
Most of these young artists (many in their 20’s) would probably not identify themselves as political, never mind use the word counterculture, with its uncool, mind-settish, even institutional ring. They just do what they do. But what they do, or rather the way they do it, outside the centralized, market-determining power structures of the mainstream art world, could turn out to have political consequences for the way art develops.
Forcefield, a collective founded in 1997 in Providence, where it is part of the art-school and music scene, has already made a splash in New York with a fantastic appearance in last year’s Whitney Biennial. For the occasion, the group assembled dozens of Op Art-patterned knit costumes –form-fitting, face-concealing, topped by bright vinyl wigs–of the kind they wear in their maniacally edited films, which are like tribal rites crossed with fashion shows. They supplemented the installation with a deafening noise-band soundtrack and a pulsating abstract video piece, both of which they produced.
The results, hilarious and slightly scary, brought all kinds of associations to mind: Rudi Gernreich, Sesame Street, Jack Smith, cheesy sci-fi, 60’s psychedelia and church rummage sales. This was a zany art made out of seriously worked things and materials, as became evident when a selection of Forcefield material was exhibited at Daniel Reich, a gallery that operates out of a Chelsea studio apartment and has been instrumental in introducing collectives to New York.
Forcefield’s vividly low-tech approach to art-making has inspired other, newer East Coast collectives. The members of one, called Paper Rad, individually make photocopied cartoon zines, combining a grade-school doodle style with wise-cracking New Age quest narratives. They also combine their styles in animated Web-based Gumby music videos that are like tripped-out children’s television.
Another group, Dearraindrop, has four artists, the youngest of whom is 18. Erudite about history, they acknowledge the influence of past collectives like Chicago’s Hairy Who from the 1960’s and Destroy All Monsters from the 1970’s. At the same time, they prefer a casual just-friends designation for themselves. Their collaborations–which include exquisite collages of cartoons, product labels and texts–are often executed long distance: one member is in high school in Virginia; others live in Providence. Their group name is as recycled as their materials. Two of the artists discovered it written on a scrap of paper as they were foraging through neighborhood trash while on LSD.
Dearraindrop’s idiot-savant-type aesthetic becomes even more complex in the work of Milhaus, a Milwaukee collective that claims the modernist Bauhaus merging of function and art as one of its ideals. The group is largely the creation of Scott and Tyson Reeder, painters, designers and brothers who, like the artist Jim Drain of Forcefield, also have solo careers. Both brothers lived for a while in Los Angeles, but found the formalized, competitive atmosphere of the art scene dispiriting and returned to Milwaukee.
There, with a filmmaker, they produced a smart, slacker Web television show and turned their attention in nondigital directions. For a show in Chicago, they built bunk beds and lived in the gallery, turning it into a video theater one night, a dance club the next. For the opening, they held an all-night drawing party and invited gallerygoers. For the closing, they turned the bunk beds into a raft and floated down the Chicago River, like Generation-whatever Huck Finns.
The self-scheduled workshop, as raucous as a band rehearsal or as sedate as a quilting bee, is the basic form of several collectives. The members of the Royal Art Lodge meet in weekly, collaborative drawing sessions. Slanguage, begun last summer by Mario Ybarra Jr. and Juan Capistran, M.F.A. graduates from the University of California at Irvine, uses half of its space in Wilmington, a working-class city near Los Angeles, for experimenting with media and ideas, the other half for public performances and exhibitions, which may also be works in progress.
Such exhibition spaces, which have neither academic nor commercial support, are becoming ever more important. Not only do they offer places for types of work uncongenial to an increasingly conservative art establishment; they also provide a forum for the work of students being churned out of art schools every year in numbers the commercial gallery system cannot begin to absorb.
Slanguage is by no means alone in its thinking. In Philadelphia, an older, larger and by now semiprofessionalized collective called Space 1026 has renovated an old downtown jewelry store to include not only studios, a computer lab and a skate ramp, but also a street-level gallery and an artist-run shop. Similarly, a Manhattan group called Alife runs a store at 178 Ludlow Street, on the Lower East Side, to promote and sell work by young artists, using a corporate paradigm of exchange and distribution. (An installation of Alife products is on view at Deitch Projects in SoHo through Feb. 15.)
Some collectives blend art and lifestyle in more personal ways. The 13 members of Flux Factory, which recently showed at the Queens Museum, live together in a loft in Long Island City, in Queens. The members of Instant Coffee in Toronto use much of their collective energy to organize large-scale artistic and social events that bring artists, writers and musicians together in combinations rarely encountered elsewhere.
Instant Coffee functions on a principle of service-work–generosity as an art medium–an ethic that is also an aesthetic. So, in a more focused way, does Temporary Services. Members of both groups collaborate with other artists, organize projects that insert ephemeral work into public spaces or bring otherwise invisible art into public view.
For one project, Temporary Services helped pl
ace artists’ books surreptitiously in public library collections. For another, they used existing curbside newspaper vending machines to distribute art objects. As part of a group show this spring at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, in North Adams, Mass., they will present drawings by a federal prisoner named Angelo of ingenious mechanical devices created by his fellow inmates.
The group’s play with conventional ideas of aesthetic value is shared, to some degree, by Beige, a young collective that takes obsolete computer technology as its medium. It is probably best known for its hacked versions of dumpster-salvaged Nintendo games, which they broke open and manipulated to create new images. As Beige Records, they have released a 12-inch vinyl disk of sound samples of video games from the 1980’s.
In its geek-positive way, the Beige artists deliver subversive messages. They undercut the notion of technological progress and demonstrate ways in which popular forms and aesthetics can be taken out of the control of the corporate game industry. And they hint at the power inherent even in cheap technology and low-level expertise, which are by now ubiquitous and are sufficient to infiltrate a database or make a bomb.
As if to confirm a crypto-activist agenda, Beige recently collaborated on a DVD with the Radical Software Group, an Internet-based collective that is stretching the definitions of art, politics and collectivity itself. Consisting of an ever-changing group of international programmers and artists, the group claims that its main goal is not to make art but to provide software for artists. But one of their programs, titled Carnivore, which turns individual computers into F.B.I-style data surveillance tools, is conceptually sharp, visually compelling and completely attuned to the political moment.
As innovative as it is, Radical Software Group belongs to a whole alternative universe of activist artists’ collectives that exists partly or entirely in the public realm called cyberspace. Other groups include RTMark, Critical Art Ensemble, Ultra-Red, Reclaim the Streets, Electronic Disturbance Theater (also called Electronic Civil Disobedience), Institute for Applied Autonomy and the Center for Land Use Interpretation. The list is long and varied and will surely continue grow in direct proportion to increased government monitoring of the Internet.
Such Net-centric collectives are electronic descendants of earlier American groups that cohered and dissolved from the 1960’s through the 1990’s: PAD/D (Political Art Documentation and Distribution), Colab, Group Material, Guerrilla Girls, REPOhistory, Act Up and General Idea, which originated in Canada, to name but a few. The full history of this phenomenon has yet to be written, though a few art historians–Alan Moore, Gregory Sholette and Blake Stimson–have books in the works.
And what about American art now? It exists in a world where much indeed has changed, not just since Sept. 11, 2001, but since the end of the cold war. It is a dangerous place, in need of radical change. Not that a return to the 60’s is the answer. Forget retro. Yes, it’s reassuring and it sells, but contemporary culture–including a lot of New York art at the moment–is about what’s reassuring and what sells, and it feels parochial, small, out of touch.
Thus a counterculture. I have no idea what it will, or does, or should look like. An eye-popping hacktivist Web site that carries transformative information across the globe? A collective of young artists having fun making books that only they and their friends will see? Or something totally other. But if contemporary art, marginal and minute as its influence is, doesn’t get it together to offer new models for a future some of us still hope to have, chances are at this point nobody will, and that’s more than a shame.