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Collaborative Practices in Environmental Art

by Grant Kester

Part of the Toolbox for Working Methods.
Part of the Toolbox of Working Methods.
What is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is;
if someone asks me, I no longer know.
-- St. Augustine

As Augustine suggests in his Confessions, the moment that passes between posing a question and receiving a reply is marked by both risk and possibility: the risk of doubt and uncertainty, and the possibility of an opening out to the other. Collaborative and participatory art practices move along this same trajectory, from self-assurance to the vulnerability of intersubjective exchange. The certitude of expressive models of art making, the material mastery and tour de force gestures of the exemplary object, are replaced by processes that are contingent, ephemeral, and improvisational. Collaborative practices operate on multiple registers.

At the most basic level are what might be termed technical collaborations, either between two artists (e.g., Gilbert and George or Linda Montano and Teching Hsieh) or between an artist and a printmaker or foundry. These interactions begin to erode the romantic image of the artist as solitary genius, positing instead a guild-like community of co-creators.

Ala Plastica in collaboration with the Austrian group
Ala Plastica in collaboration with the Austrian group "cartografia", propose a public exercise with the communities of Rio Santiago basin, Argentina.

We also find collaborations that break the 'fourth wall' of artistic creativity, transforming spectators into participants. These include spaces organized by the artist (Rirkrit Tiravanija's gallery-based lounges) as well as more direct forms of participation in planning, implementation and data collection (Basia Irland's A Gathering of Waters, for example, or Mark Dion's Urban Ecology Action Group).

A third area of collaborative practice involves an even more extreme disavowal of the "ego imperialism" of artistic identity, through the artist's long-term involvement in a given site or community. Artist and organizer Ian Hunter describes these as "immersive" practices, leading at their extreme edge to the "disappearance" of the artist as conventionally understood (cf. John Latham's notion of the artist as an "Incidental Person"). Here the sublation of art and life is sought not through the introduction of quotidian material into the sanctified field of the art object, but through the dismantling of the artistic personality itself in a splay of mediatory practices and exchanges. Deprived of the venerating mantle of the gallery and the museum, the artist is rendered less majestic, but also more accessible, better able to reveal creative insight as a shared human capacity rather than a divine gift.

Contemporary collaborative environmental art draws on a tradition that extends back to the 1960s: the "social sculpture" of Joseph Beuys, Alan Kaprow's Happenings, Stephen Willat's "feedback" systems and John Latham's concept of the artists' "placement". While some artists of this generation viewed the landscape simply as a large canvas, of interest primarily for the formal possibilities of scale and material it opened up, others began to approach nature as a complex gestalt of biological, political, economic and cultural forces. Hans Haacke's Rhine Water Purification Plant (1972) created a literal linkage between the space of the museum and the surrounding environment, using a system of pools and filtration units in the gallery to reveal and then cleanse the pollutants in the nearby Rhine river. The innovative ecological proposals of Helen and Newton Harrison, generated through free flowing conversations among scientists, activists and policy makers, are one of the most important touchstones for contemporary environmental art practice. Over the past four decades their projects have embodied a relationship to nature not as something to be mastered, transformed, or turned to our advantage, but as an interlocutor and agent speaking to us in a language we are not always prepared to understand. There is, one might argue, an underlying synchronicity between their collaborative approach (in which the work of art is less an a priori construct than an open-ended process) and the ethical relationship to the land implicit in their work.

Buster Simpson and High School Students,
Buster Simpson, Public Space Artist in collaboration with Marcie Krieble, Forest Grove High (11th grade), Nick O'Connor, Science Park (11th), Kateyln Toth-Fejel, Wilson High (12th), Lynn Yarne (12th), "Global Warming Shirts", 2002

Younger practitioners, working both nationally and internationally, have built on this legacy. Artists and collectives such as Ala Plastica, Littoral Arts, Dan Peterman, Platform, Temporary Services, Buster Simpson, and Superflex, among many others, have developed projects ranging from portable biogas generators designed for rural African villages, to proposals to uncover long-hidden rivers in the heart of London, to recycling centers on Chicago's South Side.

In the face of a recrudescent Social Darwinism, exemplified by the winner-takes-all individualism of Survivor and The Apprentice, progressive models of collective action are thin on the ground. In place of the grand recits of past political movements, which figured the collective as a universalizing abstraction, contemporary groups present pragmatic, localized strategies that provide alternative models of collective and collaborative agency based on affinity, friendship and shared commitment. Critical and theoretical engagement with this work has been constrained by a number of factors.

First, many historians and critics remain wedded to definitions of artistic practice that are considerably less radical than those embodied by the artists themselves. This is evident in the tendency of mainstream scholarship to focus primarily on collaborations among and between "artists" rather than those collaborative projects that challenge the fixity of artistic identity per se. It is also not uncommon for critics to dismiss overtly activist art as politically naive or abject because it is seen as adopting an insufficiently reflexive relationship to political categories and identities. This dismissal operates through a kind of hermeneutic displacement in which a criticism of the work's perceived political failure is offered as a justification for challenging its status as art.

Basia Irland, Gathering of Waters, portable river repository sculpture being caried along the Rio Grande, 1999.
Basia Irland, Gathering of Waters, portable river repository sculpture being caried along the Rio Grande, 1999. This project involved hundreds of artists, government agencies, private water users, farmers, ranchers, Native American leaders, and ordinary people.

A second factor that has limited theoretical insight is the now canonical status accorded to a particular set of conceptual oppositions derived from continental philosophy (and associated with the work of Derrida, Deleuze and other thinkers operating within the poststructuralist tradition). Art theory informed by this tradition carries a strong bias against collective forms of experience and action, which are seen as intrinsically totalitarian. Thus, while the spread of poststructuralism has precipitated a flowering of thought around the constitution of the individual subject, and modes of transgression appropriate to this subject (from Foucault's "biopower" to the Deleuzean "body without organs"), it has done little to advance our understanding of the positive or emancipatory potential of collective action.

A second, and related, bias stems from the privileging of language and text in the poststructuralist tradition at the expense of a deeper understanding of speech and action. From Saussure's bracketing of parole through Derrida's attack on "phonocentrism," actual human dialogue has been deemed politically suspect and unworthy of substantive theoretical engagement. As a result we have few useful theoretical accounts of the cognitive and haptic density of human social interaction, and the specific forms of knowledge catalyzed by it. For critics writing about art projects predicated on collective or collaborative experience and various forms of physical and verbal exchange, this absence is particularly challenging. A functional theory of collaborative art must move in two directions. First, it needs to provide a substantive account of the specific effects of collective labor, and the relationship between shared labor and cognitive or epistemological insight. Second, it needs to account for the complex symbolic and practical status of alternative models of collective action, as staged in contemporary art practice. Why have they become so central, especially to a younger generation of artists? What is the political "event horizon" for collective practices in the absence of a viable alternative to the spread of capitalism as a form of social as well as economic organization?

The most promising direction for new critical research into collaborative art will come from scholars less invested in the routinized application of unexamined theoretical tropes, and willing to begin their investigations from an open and searching investigation of the specific conditions of a practice that operates across the boundaries of phenomenology and social theory, cognitive and somatic knowledge, and aesthetics and ethics.

Grant Kester © University of California, San Diego

© 2010