"The Only Solace We Get Is From Each Other": Ellen Mara De Wachter on How Collaborative Artists Show the Way to a Better Society

"The Only Solace We Get Is From Each Other": Ellen Mara De Wachter on How Collaborative Artists Show the Way to a Better Society
Ellen Mara De Wachter

The aura surrounding art has much to do with the heroic notion of the artistic genius—that lone artists working in their studio are somehow elevated from the quotidian, mystically channeling pre-lingual messages from the divine or the soul. An artwork's authorship has everything to do with it's meaning—and it's value on the market.

So, how do artists who collaborate fit into this equation? How are discreet art objects authored by multiple individuals? And how do collaboritives deal with the fact that the art world, and the market, doesn't quite value them the same way they do individual artists? For curator and writer Ellen Mara De Wachter, collaborative groups of artists are fascinating precisely because they don't subscribe to the cult of authorship, individuality, and genius that the art world holds so dear. Instead, they provide a model that we could all benefit from using—one that values conversation, shared experiences, conflict resolution, and diplomacy.

To get a better understanding of artistic collaboration, De Wachter interviewed 25 collaborative groups (like Lizzie Fitch/Ryan Trecartin, DIS, Elmgreen & Dragset, Guerrilla Girls, etc.) for her book Co-Art: Artists on Creative Collaboration . Here, Artspace's editor-in-cheif (and artist who works exclusively in collaboration with another artist) Loney Abrams speaks with De Wachter about her research.

We've always been fascinated by is this idea of the lone, artistic genius. Why do you think this is so?

I think there are a lot of reasons. Some are sociological, or have to do with the way power is distributed and the way that artists have historically been commissioned by people in power. But I think it’s also got to do with the way we tell stories. I think SUPERFLEX actually referred to that in their interview; they say it’s much easier to tell a story where there’s only one main protagonist, rather than to tell the story of many different people. You see it in literature as well. I think it has to do with the transmission of information about art, a fascination with the hero-figure—and with a patriarchal culture, that’s usually as a man, rather than woman artist. Co-Art really has to do with communication and how we talk about things, and the fact that collaboration hasn’t been really discussed throughout the history of art. That’s why it was important to have the voices of the artists in the book, rather than just me writing an account.

I do think that collaborations are becoming more common. There were quite a few in the Whitney Biennial, for example. Do you think this is because there are simply more artists who are collaborating in this point in time? Or is it that there have always been collaborations, and now the art world is more open to showing them in museums and biennials?

It’s very hard to answer that question scientifically because it’s very hard to make a list of all the artists practicing at the moment, and then to determine who’s working collaboratively. But, we can use certain indications, like you mentioned the Whitney Biennial and the Venice Biennale. But actually, since the book was finished, there’s been the most recent Whitney Biennial, and that had fewer collaborative practices than the one before.

Oh, really?

Well, it fluctuates. It didn’t go back down to zero, but it was a sort of downturn. So, I’m not declaring that it’s a trend on the rise. I’m just saying that it’s more noticeable. I think that, as you said, galleries and museums are more open to it. And I think that has to do with an opening up of the creative process in general, and a willingness to talk about what goes on in the studio or outside the studio where artists are making work.

One of the things I was interested in doing with the book was bridging this gap between what’s known as lifestyle press and academic press—to offer a little bit of insight into the people who are artists, not just artists who make work, but also to treat it in a rigorous way and really test out certain theories in their practice. So, the other point that the book makes is that collaboration isn’t just in those artists’ practices who declare that they’re collaborators. It’s everywhere.

I mean, I look at Howard Becker’s Art Worlds . He’s a sociologist who wrote that book in the 1980s, and his analysis of the way art is produced and how any artwork is the result of the cooperation—that’s the word he uses, “cooperation”—of so many different individuals. Not least the artist, of course, but also their assistants, the fabricators, gallerists, critics, dealers, people who make their supplies, who might fabricate paint or manufacture canvases and things like that. Each of the artworks that we might consider is the outcome of that whole play of the art world. I think that it’s still difficult to determine how you give credit in those circumstances. There’s still an obsession with a name on the banner. Journalists and critics like to review solo shows more than group shows, and that’s an indication of the idea that they prefer the linear story. It’s easier to transmit information that way.

The book tries to unpack that, and to make it interesting and fascinating because, as I said, artists are people, fundamentally, and the relationships they have are human relationships. They’re not absolutely particular to the art world. We can all relate to something in each of their accounts because some of the collaborative groups are romantic couples, some of them are siblings, some of them are friends, etc.

Do you think that some of the collaborators you spoke with are decidedly working in groups as a declarative way to go against the system that values the individual genius?

Definitely, yeah. I would cite Guerrilla Girls as the oldest collective in the book that is still practicing. They’re so strident about that and that’s their whole mission. Their agenda is anti-patriarchal. It’s a strong, feminist agenda. It’s anti-hierarchical. It’s really a democratic kind of group in which everybody has a voice. They use anonymity to facilitate that, and they hide behind masks. They paraphrase Oscar Wilde in saying that you’d be surprised by what comes out of people’s mouths when you give them a mask. That’s a liberating tool for them. I think they’re very much anti-systemic in that sense, and also very critical of the dominant trends in the art world, the market values, and so on.

Do you think that artist collaborations need to be anonymous in order to fully relinquish the idea of authorship or individuality?

Personally, I don’t think so. I think that it’s possible to be part of a group and also be an individual. Some artists in the book navigate that difference in really interesting ways. For example, Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch have multiple practices, one of which is together—Lizzie Fitch/Ryan Trecartin. But then Lizzie has her own practice and Ryan has his own practice. They’re an interesting case because they’re such good friends, too. They told me that even when they’re working on their individual practices, the other one might be involved in some way, at least conversationally if not technically. So, I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to efface your individual identity in order to collaborate well. In fact, I think that that difference has a very strong potential to give more to the work in a way.

RELATED ARTICLE: "We Had Our First Red Bulls Together": Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin on Their Dusk-Till-Dawn Collaborative Process

Is the art market still slow to respond to this new way of working? Have you talked to any artists who seem to think that they’re undervalued because of their collaboration?

Yes. I do think that the art market undervalues collaborative practices in many ways. The first of which is that they don’t multiply the price of a work by the number of people involved in making it. Nor do they do that for fees that a residency provides, or with prize money and things like that. I spoke to most of the artists about the market, and some of them made some very pertinent comments. I think it was GCC, which has eight members, that said a dealer they spoke to was cautioning them, saying, “You don’t have a sustainable business model.” So, in the first place the idea that an artist ought to have a sustainable business model is a hard one to swallow in every case. Although for some artists it’s essential to the meaning of their work.

And then, I found a reference or a quote from Aziz + Cucher, who represented Venezuela in Venice in 1995, and they said that art dealers didn’t want to become involved in their work or represent them because there was what they called a “perceived risk of instability in their brand.” Which is to say that they might break up as a couple, or that their collaboration might not last forever, and that an investment in them as a brand in 1995, might later-on become annulled if they separate. I thought that that was a quite cynical idea on the part of the dealer, to already assume that it would break up. Art collaborations do break up, but also artists who make work and are very successful sometimes stop making work, even though they might still be alive.

There’s still reluctance and skepticism. I looked at the top five dealers, who Georgina Adam in her book Big Bucks identifies as the “five star dealers,” and they represent very, very few collaborative practices. Between them, it came to only about 2.1 percent of all the artists they represent work collaboratively. And actually a number of them are dead artists, so they’re representing their estates. It’s very uncommon in the blue chip market.

You say that collaborative artists suffer because they need to split their income between them, whether it’s coming from the sale of an artwork, or prize money, or whatever. But at the same time, they have more hands on deck—more people working on the same project, which might give them an advantage in that they can work faster and more efficiently, and that production costs and studio costs are also split between them. There’s something I often talk about with my husband, who is also my collaborator, which is that, at least in New York, it takes two people to live one life.

You mean like getting an apartment or sharing an enormous jug of milk?

Yes. And also splitting up tasks and errands; sometimes it takes twice as long to do something just because it takes an hour to go three miles on the subway.

It’s an economy of scale, although the scale is just from one to two.

It’s kind of the same thing with art-making, I think. Having that extra person can really ramp up your production. So, I’m wondering if you think that for some of these artists, collaboration is almost a survival method.

I think the question of survival is a really interesting one. The Japanese collective ChimPom is a great example of this. There are six of them, they’re all based in Tokyo, and they share everything. For example, two of them live with the parents of another member to save money on rent because it’s so difficult to make enough money there. I’m not sure that every artist in this book would agree with you that more people equals that many times more capacity to make work, because in a lot of cases, more people means you can make less work because it’s more difficult to make work together. But with ChimPom, what’s interesting is the way that they’ve adopted this mascot of the super rat, which is something that’s appeared time and time again in their work. The super rats are rats in the center of Tokyo that have adapted to the strongest rat poison, the ratsbane.


They’re really large. In 2006, ChimPom made their first super rat work and went around and caught them with nets. Then they got them stuffed and dyed to look that Pokemon mouse or whatever that animal is. When I first wanted to do this book, I was working with ChimPom on an exhibition and I was noticing at the time—this was about three years ago or so—that quite a few artists in London had been, for the past few years, starting to come together and work together to meet the economic cost of living in London, which keeps rising since the crash of 2008. It’s become more and more difficult to have a studio in London; the rents are doubling and tripling in a lot of places, an some people are leaving the city. I started to think about what might provoke people to work together, what that might mean, and what that might consist of. It’s one thing to say, “Okay, let’s move into a studio together and start making work together.” It’s another thing to actually do that. What happens? That’s when I started to become interested in it. With ChimPom and their figure of the super rat that adapts to survive, I thought that that was quite an interesting way of looking at what artists were doing at the time in London and a lot of other capital cities around the world. It just became a hook on which to hang these ideas and test them out.

It just became a hook on which to hang these ideas and test them out

To go back to your previous question, I think that we have a situation where the art market, as with everything else in our society, is polarized. There’s very little in the middle of the art market. I keep getting emails about mid-level galleries closing in London and no doubt in New York as well. But without the goal of being represented by a gallery, I think artists are, in a funny way, maybe freer to experiment because that hope is gone. It’s really tragic, but maybe on the other hand it enables a different kind of practice where you just say, “Okay, just cut my loses. I’m not going try to make work that a dealer is going come sniffing around and pick up. I’m going to make what I really want to make.” Then, inevitably, you need the support of your peers, because you don’t have the support of a gallery. In a way, a lot of these collaborative relationships are responding to those conditions in London and other cities.

Do you think that the work coming out of these collaborations is somehow inherently different than work that an individual would make? Since each piece is the result of a negotiation or a conversation, and is the manifestation of multiple perspectives and experiences, I wonder if it has an additional layer of meaning—one that says something about the way we communicate with one another.

I wouldn’t necessarily say that there’s an inherent difference. I would say that you can notice tendencies, and some of those tendencies are toward work that has a sensitivity toward human foibles and human relationships and that kind of thing. But many artists who work so-called individually but might have collaborated. You could think of a filmmaker who has worked with a group to create a work; a lot of video artists work in that way where it’s authored by a single artists but it is the result of cooperation.

But on the other hand, you can find some interesting ones that actually don’t necessarily reveal that. For example, Emma Biggs and Matthew Collings of Biggs & Collings are painters, and they have a really interesting practice because, first of all, you’d least expect painting to be on the list of art made by collaborations. Their work is abstract painting, but it’s made by both of them. For them, what characterizes their collaborations is a very specific division of labor in which Emma Biggs designs colors and Matthew Collings paints. So, Emma will mix the pigments and say what goes where, and Matthew will execute her instructions and he’ll be the only one to actually hold the brush. That’s an interesting relationship in a medium where the division of labor hasn’t necessarily been discussed much in the past. Even though, actually, the history of painting is a history of divided labor, because many famous painters have had studios and ateliers where somebody was painting the animals, another person was painting the hands, and only that named artist could apply their signature. I think that that’s the counter-example of that tendency toward being more socially engaged or communal.

I think a lot of individual artists who have assistants would say that the reason they retain individual authorship is because they are making the decisions. I think their can be a division of labor involved in producing a work that’s collaboratively made, or authored by an individual artist. But I’m wondering what the division of labor is like in terms of decision-making amongst multiple artists collaborating together. In your research, did you find that collaborative groups form hierarchies? Does one person get more say in the decision-making process, or is it totally democratic?

It’s a good question. There are lots of different ways. The dominant model is a horizontal, democratic model. But there are lots of exceptions, and ChimPom is quite an interesting one. They have a leader, Ushiro Ryuta, who kind of selected each of the members. He put the group together and he’s still listed as the leader figure. But then, in terms of decision-making, a lot of them talk about conflict as an essential part of making decisions. So, dissent is a dominant factor rather than consensus in a lot of ways. Superflex talks about it as being trench warfare, in that you never know where the lines are because people might bring different opinions to the table and it might change day-to-day. He says it’s actually the person who’s the most insistent that gets their way in the end.

Other people like GCC, who are in the Whitney Biennial this year, use online Google Docs and social media platforms to communicate with each other. Then, they have a yearly summit when they lay out what their plans are for the year and make decisions. So, that’s kind of a diplomatic model, which is interesting. GCC, the Gulf Cooperation Collective, is a real, governmental body in the Gulf States, and that’s a reference for them. They share the same acronym. There are a lot of different modes. It’s like the world—there are a lot of different political systems. People gravitate towards the one that works best for them.

I was surprised to read in your book that there were quite a few people that basically said that decisions are often made by whoever is the loudest, the most insistent, and the most stubborn. It made me wonder whether there’s a certain type of personality that does best in collaborations. Out of all the artists that you met, did you notice any personality trends? Do you think you have to be really assertive and confident to succeed in a collaboration? Or maybe it’s more that you need to be really flexible and adaptable?

That’s a really good question. I don’t think that there’s a rule. There are Type-As in every group. But there are also shy people and quiet people. It’s a balance. But I think they all have a sense of humor. That was something that I noticed in all of them. When they shared anecdotes, often we were able to laugh about them. So, I think they understand their own dynamics really well. If I had to say one trait that they all share, I think it’s openness, but that goes for anybody in any field that wants to work with others.

You said a lot of collaborators are partners or lovers, some are siblings, some are friends. But were there any that stood out to you as, like, “Why are these people working together?”

The best story is Elmgreen & Dragset . The way they tell it is so touching. They met and they became lovers very quickly, and they were together as a romantic couple for ten years. And then, they split up. So, they had to decide what to do about that, whether they were going to split up their art practice as well, or try and salvage that. What were their choices? What were their options? They talk about having to choose between love and art, and they chose art because that could always enable the friendship to continue. They said they made the right decision but that it was very difficult. They talk about a really touching moment where they were working on a show at Tate Modern in London, and the curator was kind of going through something similar and she helped them through it. They shared that emotional moment and worked through it at the same time they were making the work and making the exhibition together.

But, yeah, there are some great, personal tales in here as well. In DIS, there are two couples. Marco told me that actually it was only through working so consistently with Lauren and the others, and realizing that they could have a great art practice together, and that they were committed in a serious way to their projects, that they could feel comfortable making the decision to stay together and start a family together. I think that’s a really touching example of how art-making is also life-making. It’s not just that you’re making work. The dedication is complete. It somehow informs the lives that are living it.

RELATED ARTICLES: How to Collaborate: 25 Leading Art Collectives Share Their Creative Process, Part 1 and Part 2

Do you think that in this moment in history, maybe it’s time to re-evaluate the values we have surrounding the narcissistic pursuit of self-aggrandizement and individuality? Is your interest in collaboration somehow larger than these individual stories? Is there something at stake for you, in terms of how we should be working together and how we should understand authorship and self-interest?

Yes. Yes, it’s absolutely political. And it is why I wanted the book to be about the people who are artists—so that anybody could relate to it, not just people who are experts in art. Everybody in this book has monographs or many articles written about them. So, there wasn’t a need to address their work per se, although that is part of it. It’s really about how you do this, what this is, what it does to a person to collaborate. It changes them. It does. Every account supports that.

The last chapter is really about all these questions. About what is happening in our society and what has happened with various forces in our society, not least the internet, Web 2.0, which in one way can be looked at as the greatest example of collaboration ever, because so many people are involved. So many people are creating content on the internet. They are making it; we are making it. On the other hand, there seems to be higher numbers than ever of mental health problems, higher-than-ever numbers of lonely people, real struggles and real extreme polarity of opinion, and violence, and anger, and so on. So, the internet is not just a good thing, it’s got its bad sides.

I think what we can do in the art world, which is a small world, is that we can actually show the way. It’s a cliché to say that artists show the way for society. I mean, that’s the idea of the genius who sets the rule for the future, which seems crazy at the time but then later it seems normal. But I think there is still something in that, in that I think there’s something about experimental ways of life, which many artists that I know are trying out—ways of living without participating in the 9-to-5, living without feeling like you need to buy all of this stuff all the time, deciding to live in a smaller place, deciding to live in the countryside. I think that to work collaboratively is part of that.

No doubt, in our times when there are so many devastating things going on in the world, the only solace we can get is from each other. So, I think that to come together as human is essential. If we can take the example of people who work together and create together, and who overcome the interpersonal difficulties—because they all talk about conflict—if they can overcome that and actually create something, then that’s inspiring. It doesn’t have to be art that they’re creating, it can be jam or computers or new economic systems or solutions to healthcare. Collaboration exists in every field. It’s just that people are especially fascinated with artists because of the aura and myth around them. But it is absolutely political and it’s very important to collaborate on a micro level and a macro level as well. Change the world!


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