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Notes on Collaboration

Words by
Caroline Busta


In the framework of a panel discussion titled “Co-Ideology: Perks and Problems of Sharing,” held at Lafayette Anticipations as part of KALEIDOSCOPE MANIFESTO, the Berlin-based writer and editor unpacks her definition of “collaboration”—a loaded term carrying several different pointed associations in the specific context of cultural production and contemporary art production.

For this panel at KALEIDOSCOPE MANIFESTO, titled “Co-Ideology: Perks and Problems of Sharing,” we’ve been asked to explore “the advantages and draw-backs of collaboration.” Collaboration… but where to begin? More than this being a perhaps too-general subject, I would argue that “collaboration” is in fact a quite loaded term carrying several different pointed associations in the specific context of cultural production and contemporary artmaking in particular. In a Western context, “collaboration” is largely antithetical to the individual competition that neoliberal capitalism nudges us to engage. In a Western context—and increasingly in a “global online” context—we are primed from the moment of our first personal login to evaluate ourselves according to individuating metrics: how many followers? how much attention? how many likes?

These days, to signal collaboration is to evoke images of NGO annual reports and TED Talk speakers sharing their key tips—a nice-on-paper image of diverse professionals knowledge-sharing in open-plan offices and Google retreats in return for proper remuneration and fairly distributed authorship rights. This sense of “collaboration” is not exactly false, but… we could call it aspirational.

Or perhaps one calls to mind a different sense of “collaboration” when they read the title for this panel—collaboration as co-branding: As in, an Uber x Spotify collab, or a Nike x OFF-WHITE collab, or a KALEIDOSCOPE x Lafayette Anticipations collab. Indeed, this kind of collaboration has gained great strategic value in recent years. With the democratization of information and the fading away of many traditional media channels, brands have had to work much harder on their public image to generate context for their identity and to make what it is that they represent clearly legible. Cosigning a product through a public “collaboration” of this nature allows the brands to share market reach while mutually amplifying each other’s signal.

Where this understanding of “collaboration” starts to become interesting—and perhaps particularly relevant in the context of artistic production—is that the protocol of the internet nudges all of us to act as brands ourselves. I imagine if we took a poll right now, many in this room would have more than one login autosaved to your social media apps, and could attest to the fact that there is, technologically-speaking, very little difference between posting as your personal self and posting impersonally as the business you work for, as, or with.

In the online space, private individuals are functionally individual brands, and thus “collaboration” in the Web 2.0 online space (where each user is identified by a dedicated avatar and individual profile) is either an act of capitalization—where the others involved are secondary, often anonymous behind the primary collaborators’ name or it is an act of co-branding, a symbiotic act of co-capitalization.

To be sure, “having a voice” in our culture today requires one to function as a brand. Every time you post something in the Web 2.0 space not created by you alone, you are either capitalizing or co-branding. And this is also true by and large for artist individuals as well. Yet by presenting as a brand, one is also required, by the terms of the attention economy, to maintain the coherence of a brand, and to keep one’s politics as polished and anodyne as a brand’s must necessarily be.

For a traditional corporate entity, this is a reasonable expectation. Corporations by their very actions, define what the norms are. When they fail to comply with the status quo of their market, they loose customers, and ultimately close. But this makes no sense for a human, let alone for an artist. Rather, for individual persons, intermittent incoherence is healthy. Moments of incoherence and questioning the norms allow one to take in new narratives, opening the possibility of political evolution. And the right to be incoherent or at least to be out of step with the status quo is especially necessary for an artist making visible the way that the world is changing, and how our perspective on certain norms might need to shift in turn.

It is this backdrop of “collaboration” that I would like to offer as a backdrop for discussing collaboration might actually be advantageous for an artist working today.

But first there is a catch: the very idea of the artist subject — the archetype of the creative individual with a unique vision of the world and who makes a signature kind of work — generates particular conditions for “collaboration.” After all, this conception of the artist-subject is structurally very close to the contemporary individual-as-brand. Yet it is interesting to consider that this ‘creative individual’ artist archetype dates back to at least the early modern period, with the myth of the artist alone at work in his studio or the 19th century cosmopolitan dandy, trading his unique personal taste for social power.

So in addition to the two aforementioned notions of collaboration, I want to also float a third: It is a sense of “collaboration” motivated by neither the aspirational ideals of team-building retreats nor the financial motivations of high-profile co-branding, but rather by a refusal of the aforementioned artist-as-‘creative individual’ myth. Rather, it is one we know from activist groups such as Tiqqun and artist collectives such as Bernadette Corporation, Dis, and K-HOLE, or even, more recently, the fad of masked EDM DJs standing in for groups of anonymous producers or Gen-Z’s widespread use of ambiguously authored group accounts on traditional social media so as to avoid individuating profiles and streams. In each of these cases, the constituent collaborators seek cover behind a veiled group identity. By opening production to other people, such collaborations create a collective buffer zone between their personal identities and the public-facing demands of the wider network. In each of these cases we see “collaboration” as a way to protect a creative personal space, while still productively interfacing with the market at large.

Yet ultimately, perhaps the definition of “collaboration” in any given context is contingent on the power relation it describes. Indeed “collaborate” is used when the two parties working together are equal or (more cynically) when the more powerful of the two feels that the gesture of naming the other is somehow advantageous. Fashion gives us many examples across this sliding scale of power, especially with the rise of streetwear as a form of high fashion and the disruption of traditional codes of luxury.

Caroline Busta is a writer and editor based in Berlin and the founder of New Models, a pro-complexity media node for the critical analysis of art, tech, politics, and pop culture. She moderated the panel “Co-Ideology: Perks and Problems of Sharing” as part of Lafayette Anticipations x KALEIDOSCOPE MANIFESTO in Paris (17-18-19 May, 2019).
Photography by Martin Argyroglo.
Polaroids by Jonayd Cherifi.

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