Holert, Tom, Artforum International
THE UTOPIA OF TRULY SHARED, communal, multiple authorship always seems to be receding from sight. But the dream won't die: Collaboration continues to be held up as a means of escaping Western, patriarchal mythology and power structures as well as the art-market matrix of originality and authorship. Collectives and collaborates are still assumed to be intrinsically liberating. Their emancipatory dimension is linked with the elevation of co-labor, of working in teams rather than lingering in the solitude of the studio. According to Mira Schor, the feminist artist and former co-editor of the journal M/E/A/N/I/N/G, the particular activation of the individual immersed in a collective with a shared goal entails "a peculiar relief in going outside the self." (1)
Collaborative and collectivist practices have historically enabled alternative modes of subjectivity; in the best case, they promise to open up divergent routes of being-with-others while subverting the ruling regimes of visibility and representation. Such aspirations made them central to the many feminist, queer, postcolonial, and antiracist cultural practices that became more and more active and visible in the 1970s and '80s, accompanying the rediscovery in those years of the historical avant-gardes, from the Fauves to Dada to Russian Productivism. Self-organized, alternative spaces, co-op galleries, etc. also emerged on the grounds of new insights into asymmetrical power relations.
Indeed, the analysis of power from the angle of identity (and, ultimately, anti-identitarian) politics relies on the involvement of specific communities rather than individuals. A hegemonic group--for example, that of white male artists--can be contested by a practice of collaboration that confronts ostensibly naturalized power with critical solidarity. Art historian and theorist Frit Rogoff has written (specifically with reference to the Guerrilla Girls and Tim Rollins and K.O.S.) that collectivity not only ruptures the authority of "the artist" but also brings about "the emergence of an author grounded in the collective and social politics of identity formation rather than in the traditional and rarefied realm of identity affirmation." (2)
Along similar lines, Vietnamese filmmaker, writer, and theorist Trinh T Minh-ha--who in her own practice has always dealt, if implicitly, with the relations between collectivities, constituencies, and subjectivities--has pointed out that the "tendency to value collaborative work over individual work [occurs] in contexts where it is almost impossible to escape the burden of representation," (3) As examples of groups in which "a certain rejection of individual authorship may thrive," Trinh mentions the UK film groups Sankofa and Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC). Shedding light on another aspect of collective practice, John Akomfrah, a cofounder of BAFC, in 1983 stressed its importance as a strategy to "demystify ... the process of film production"; moreover, his hope was that it "would also involve collapsing the distinction between 'audience' and 'producer.'" (4) According to this view, which harks back to Constructivist and Productivist models, collectivity becomes a methodology for transforming both the reception of an artwork and its production. It's not surprising that film, as an inherently collaborative mode of cultural production, features prominently as a medium of collective artmaking from the margins.
Nevertheless, as Trinh also argues, many groups--particularly those that act as collectives of production--tend to organize themselves hierarchically in spite of themselves, granting leadership to whomever has the most compelling plan or vision (or, simply, whomever has more social or economic power). In consequence of this and other caveats, she rethinks the notion of collaboration, proposing that it "happens not when something common is shared between, the collaborators, but when something that belongs to neither of them comes to pass between them. …