geert lovink on Sun, 9 Dec 2001 06:33:24 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Interview with Charles Green

The Art of Collaboration
An Interview with Charles Green
Australian Art Critic and Author of The Third Hand, Collaboration in Art
from Conceptualism to Postmodernism
By Geert Lovink

Charles Green has written an extraordinary rich and well-documented work
about conceptual art in the late sixties and seventies. As the title
indicates The Third Hand shapes art history in a methodological matter.
Collaboration is a metatag to order works. There is no talk here about
schools or chronologies. Instead there are specific contextualized works,
events, happenings, installations, breaking away from painting and the
cave of language, meant to capture art. For Green, collaboration became an
entry point to open up histories which, despite their fame, are at brink
of being forgotten. Collaboration is not so much a mode of production as
it is a trajectory. Green is drawing traces which makes it possible to
tell stories and make the often abstract and complex conceptual art works
alive again. This alternative way of reconstructing art history pays
respect to the original intentions of the artists. In separate chapters
Charles Green deals with Gilbert & George, Marina Abramovic and Ulay,
Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Joseph Kosuth, Ian Burns, Helen Mayer Harrison
and Newton Harrison and a few more. Having collaborated myself a great
deal, for instance as a member of the media theorist association Adilkno,
my interest in this topic grew when Klaus Theweleit published his Book of
Kings (Part I, 1988) in which he describes the psycho-analytic aspects of
artist collaborations. Theweleit's account is a bloody one and deals with
the (male) violence, using female partners to metamorphorize into a next,
higher stage of art production. Charles Green has refrained from
psychologism. The Third Hand is not dealing with the internal dynamics.
Instead teamwork is presented as an almost necessary step towards 80s
postmoderism and its questioning of identities and reconfigurations of
meaning. In this email exchange Charles and I have tried to put the 70s
conceptual art experiences into the contemporary framework of new media.

GL: After you have done so much research, would you say that the origin of
collaboration in art since the sixties is lying in the crisis of the 19th
century ideal of the artist as universal genius?

CG: No, I don't see a crisis created by an ideal of universal genius as
behind any origin of collaboration in art as a widespread phenomenon
during the 1960s. In my book, The Third Hand, I was trying to be both more
specific and more generalized, and above all my narrative was relevant to
art practice right now. On the one hand I wanted to re-explain in a very
focused way a narrow, definite period - the ten years or so between around
1968 and 1978. You see, I think that period is absolutely foundational to
art today, but its significance got lost during the period of classic
postmodernism in the 1980s and then again in the identity politics-based
early 1990s. The period is one of those fascinating phases, riven by
crisis and exploding with possibilities and multiple futures, that require
very patient rethinking, and this rethinking is just beginning now. I'm
certainly not the only person to want to do this, but I chose to think
this through collaboration, and it so happens for multiple reasons this is
important all through visual culture, including internet culture, now. I
find most of the explanations of that time, in art history at least,
myopic. This is partly on account of the authors' generational status, as
members of a generation that came to self-consciousness immediately AFTER
the period. I'm thinking of writers like Hal Foster, for example, who are
slightly too young to have first hand experience of the period. And of
people who did, I know also that participants who write, figures like Lucy
Lippard, Harald Szeemann, Benjamin Buchloh, the artist Jeff Wall, have
part of a story to communicate but not a panoramic view, since they are so
implicated as participants in the action. On the other hand, since my main
area of interest both as an artist and as an art historian is the art of
our time, is contemporary art, I wanted to see if an intuition, that the
art that interests me most represents the resurfacing of those 1968-78
points of origin but at different points on the map, was right. The most
exciting art of our time often centers around new media, around really
wild new forms of author/artist, often OUTSIDE New York in centers like
Taipei, Seoul, Sydney. We DO see much of the best art circulating in the
globalized networks of curated exhibitions, so I'm not hypothesizing an
excluded canon at all. But throughout the book, I saw the 20th century,
not the 19th, as the locus of the problem: the memory crisis best
formulated by Benjamin is manifest at the start of modernity, but it
intersects throughout this 20th century - so different in the 21st century
- with the refusal of optical and visual knowledge traced so clearly by
Martin Jay. That is one aspect underneath the late 1960s crisis, but it is
still only one aspect. Another was the shift in the nature of artistic
work; yet another - my particular concern - was the shift in the nature of
the artist. All occur in response to crises specific to that moment but
present, as your question suggests, from the start of modernity as well. I
suppose ultimately the collaboration area that interests me lies in the
tensions thrown up just BEFORE there is any clear sign that the transition
from modernism to postmodernism is underway. I definitely do not think
that collaboration in art is particularly radical, not that it arose in
the 1960s. But I do think that at this foundational time it occupies a
specially instructive place.

GL: In the period you discuss, from the 60s to 80s, specialization has
become a general social phenomenon, there is more than the 'defeat of
painting'. Don't you think that collaboration within the arts should be
seen in the broader perspective of a rapidly increasing division of labour
and professionalization during that period?

CG: The idea of a defeat of painting so close to conceptual artists'
hearts - and I started my artistic life as an art student making
conceptual art works alongside paintings at the very start of the 1970s -
was really always something else, and this is clear in those artists'
writings and statements: Painting was a cipher, a metonym, standing in for
the 19th century idea of the bohemian artist that artists came to despise.
This is the identity that you mentioned a moment ago.

GL: One could say that the artists you discuss are not so predicting such
a shift in an avant-garde way but rather responding to and reflecting this
long-term trend so visible on the work floor, within academic disciplines
and in everyday life. We see advanced forms of the division of labor
reflected in hybrid art practices transcending singular subjects and
media. Or is this reading perhaps a banal and mechanical Marxist

CG: You are very right at one level, but there's more to it than that, for
the productivist aesthetic implicit in Marxist-oriented modernism was also
rejected by those artists, at least for the most part initially, though
that model, which ends up entailing a more conventional idea of
collaboration - the collective - returned later. Their collaborations were
not so much a way of connecting with a social project - though it was in
the case of Art & Language AFTER its start, whose history I leave to the
many other people who are working on it - as a way of working out if it
was possible to engage in such activity. As time went on, and so many
writers have traced this, the desire to see political action in art
through collective work increasingly replaced the desire to see if
collaborative action could facilitate, through the removal of the artist,
a new zone between art, writing and history. THIS zone fascinated me, not
the ability to connect art and politics, and I think it is implicit in a
lot of the activity around now, in defining the new intermedia genre in
contemporary art, only some of which involves new media, and some of which
involves a kind of dumbed-down sneaker aesthetic.

GL: What can you tell us about the art of collaboration? Gilbert & George
re still together but Marina Abramovic and Ulay broke up in a rather sad
way. People these days invest a lot of their time and energy in (online)
collaborations and get deeply disappointed when collaborations are falling
apart. I have to think here what Michel Foucault writes about friendship.
You have are collaborating yourself. You must have thought about this.

CG: Abramovic and Ulay apparently met again recently on the occasion of
Marina's 50th birthday, and they danced the frozen tango position
immortalized in one of their endurance works together, or at least a
friend tells me so. There's something else to remember. Collaboration is
not the same as friendship, and by friendship connotes cooperation.
Friendship is always fragile since its contract is so unenforceable.
Demands in and on friendship are always ultimately unsustainable, unless
friendship is governed by an economy of civility. Collaboration involves
much, much more. Collaboration involves the articulation of contractual
relations. As I worked on my project, which as I said before started out
as an attempt to explain a foundational moment in art that was
specifically important to me, I realized that artistic collaboration was
one lens through which to explain the wider world of artistic change. It
was a microcosm, and I'm an art historian rather than an art theorist,
whatever that is, horrible term. But it was also important at a certain
moment for the reasons I mentioned earlier - outmoded ideas of what an
artists does, where, and how, even why, all these had to be defeated if a
convincing post-studio art was to emerge (I'm borrowing, as I do in the
book, Michael Fried's priority: the art of a specific time has to convince
its viewers of that time, and it can't do that through stale clichés).
Then way after that, and here I come back to your question, I realized
that the typology of types of collaboration I had drawn up (cooperation in
collective, short-term cooperation; corporate, bureaucratic groups or
partnerships; married couples and families; and finally intensely and
publicly bonded couples who created "third artists") also formed itself
into a narrative, for certain types of collaboration were answered by
others as each proved to be inadequate in the solution of artistic
problems. Productivism gone mad. The final type of collaboration I list -
the couple who identify themselves with their art - is exemplified by both
Marina Abramovic's work with Ulay, but also by Gilbert & George. I don't
know that there are any rules about collaborative longevity, but it seems
to me that the collaborations that modeled themselves on family
structures, with the collaborative identity rather like a castle wall
behind which roles could be swapped and reversed - was an easier model to
sustain than this unless civility was the basis of relationship, which it
overtly is with Gilbert & George, who are even models of cooperation and
generosity to intrusive art critics like myself. Self-revelation was
implicit in the "third hand" collaborations, and is unsustainable since
its comprehension, even by the artists themselves, always comes a moment
after experience, which in turn comes a moment after the event of
illumination, as Buddhist theology argues. I'm interested that you mention
the difficulty of on-line collaborative sustainability. I know that
sustainability and the particular types of collaborative contract are
linked. The problem lies, again, in confusing collaboration with
friendship. Collectives are not the same as collaborations. All of the
artists I researched worked together for long periods of time. It is
highly unlikely that Christo and Jeanne-Claude, or Ann and Patrick
Poirier, or Helen and Newton Harrison, or Gilbert & George, or a host of
others, would choose to work outside their collaboration. Too much
invested and too much mutual pleasure is obvious. But other
collaborations, like Mel Ramsden and Ian Burn, who later joined Art &
Language, were not based on sexual partnership at all, and even in their
case the contractual relationship seemed to have been articulated fairly
early and fairly clearly. When we started to work as a collaboration -
Lyndell and I - we realized that we needed to commit to working together
for the rest of our lives, and slightly later we realized that we had to
completely abandon any idea of part-time solo production. We can give over
a whole series of work now to one of us to produce - that, I think, is not
unusual - but everything is under the umbrella of teamwork.

GL: Brion Gyson and William Burroughs are discussing collaboration in
terms of the creation of a 'third mind.' Other artists in your book use
similar terms. It is almost as if a new identities, a new persona is
created. Where is this will to become someone else, to design another
identity is coming from and what's exactly so liberating about this

CG: What is liberating is liberation. What is liberation? Freedom from the
prison-house of language, or reconciliation to it, as in successful
psychoanalysis? Artists who constructed doppelgänger or doubles were
involved in flight outside the prison-house of language--if it can be
judged to have been successful-and this was possible precisely because of
collaboration, which means the teams' escape as individual "artists" from
their personal bodies into the uncanny but mobile realm of phantoms.
Buried in my footnotes in the book are constant arguments through, not
references to, the concept of absence--the absence as ground familiar from
well-known post-War philosophy, from Heidegger & Co., but also
specifically through later Mahayana Buddhism that denies the ultimate
reality of all essences. Abramovic and Ulay happened to have become
involved directly in this philosophy from one point of their
collaboration, and they were acknowledging a sophisticated, non-Western,
quasi-deconstructive precedent in Mahayana Buddhism. But I'm not doing
anything so obvious as conflating absence with the restoration of the
past, of a spurious humanism, however well-intentioned, that seeks to
oppose "spirituality" against "deconstruction". Abramovic/Ulay's
performance actions are NOT Buddhist, just as Barnett Newman's zip 1960s
paintings are not Kabbalism. It's more complex than that.

GL: So you're saying that collaboration, in these specific cases, is an
act of disappearance, not born out of a Will to Production, to create a
new born identity, out of a desire to break through the limitations of the
Self but to neutralize. Not 1 plus 1 makes 3 but 1 minus 1 is zero. Is the
drift towards absence perhaps a secret history, underneath the perhaps all
too obvious psycho-analytic dynamics between the two parties involved?

CG: Good point. Absence is ground. It is a secret history, entangled with
the more public history of the impact of Buddhism in Western culture and
art, especially post-1945. Not that Mahayana EXPLAINS anything artistic,
but is it another contextual framework for understanding what is
happening. You see, in the West we are awfully Ameroeurocentric. So when
we think about camouflage and withheld identity and withheld
self-disclosure we look to particular, belatedly canonic texts, to writers
like Callois or Bataille. But on the ground, amongst artists, a whole
other genealogy is already at work, BEFORE we even get to the task of
interpretive frameworks. The exceptions - and their work is immensely
exciting - are the books of Leo Bersani and Alysse Dutoit, books like
Caravaggio's Secrets or Culture of Redemption. This is a very
sophisticated anti-psychoanalytic method of reading texts. It's critically
important if we think about improvisatory authorship, or artistic

GL: These days more and more theorists are questioning the revolutionary
potential of the identity change. New identities are becoming commodities.
One could almost see such 'third bodies' or shared spaces as an natural
next step in the capitalist development rather than a subversive practice.
But that's perhaps nothing new. Such a cynical analysis of the late
sixties perhaps destroys the primal drive of that time, which was so full
of energy to discover other dimensions.

CG: I can see that.. Through the 1990s the discourse of the Other, of
marginalized groups, became just another rhetorical lingo. Sarat Maharaj
is particularly acute and cutting on this topic. And so I'll be interested
how he and Okwui Enwezor negotiate this in the process of creating
Documenta XI. The question is - and it's easy to answer - whether
authenticity and inauthenticity can be mapped onto the contemporary
landscape any differently to the 1980s (Saint Andy Warhol's decade). How
do we imagine September 11? Do we blame? What are the ethics in taking
human life under any circumstances? Similar questions came up in Australia
in the early 1990s, as artists realized that the image haze of
image-scavenging simply could not include Aboriginal motifs.

GL: Within theatre, film and music collaboration is a necessity otherwise
there is not art work to be experienced in the first place, except for a
solo work performed by the artist him or herself. Within new media art a
collaboration between the programmers, designers, curators and
installation builders seems almost essential and this process is only
getting more complicated with the development of more sophisticated
hardware and software. There are hardly any new media art work produced by
a single person. However, often there is no shared authorship as you
discuss in your book. The collaborations between the visual artists you
describe seem to happen on a fairly equal basic. In many cases however
there are big fights over authorship which all have financial
repercussions in terms of reputation and careers. You're not really
touching this topic in your study. Is that because the idea of
collaboration within the conceptual arts discourse is still a young one?

CG: No, not at all. Many of the players are still alive and litigious, so
it is sometimes hard to work out the truth. Conceptual art, especially,
has been marked by a fierce, absolutely fierce series of attempts by many
different artists to claim primacy and position, and in the process old
friends become enemies. You are right, though, to suggest that the
discussion of collaboration is young, especially if it has the
significance that I ascribe to it. There's been very, very little analysis
of the issues I describe, though a lot on other areas. Strangely enough,
most artists have a massive investment in their own interpretation of
their works, and in actively policing other interpretations. This desire
to police the audience now seems both distant and odd, but those artists
were determined to avoid "misinterpretation." One artist said, "What I say
is part of the art work. I don't look to critics to say things about my
work. I tell them what it's about." All the art that really interested me
- and most of the art that currently interests me - involves, to some
extent, the abdication of authorial intention as the exclusive determinant
of reading. I have run foul of this before. Recent moral rights
legislation will concrete and solidify this control, and artists have been
very reluctant to understand that the few cents they derive from copyright
fees will be offset by more and more strict rules against appropriation
and copying, which is how artists have always worked. This will have a
huge impact of web-based art. Traditional expressive modes or production
are privileged under these legal regimes, and these are by far the most
aesthetically bankrupt.

GL: Certainly. Over the last decades collaboration has become so closely
tied to legal issues. Is the legal business in danger of destroying the
aura of collaboration? What would you advice artists if they are thinking
about engaging themselves in a long-term collaboration? Would you
encourage them to make contracts or is that a step in the wrong direction?
I have seen many cases in which the bureaucratic partner in crime ran away
with the contracts, IP, ownership of content, equipment and brand
recognition, while the creative partners were left out in the cold. Who's
the happy one remains to be seen. Is there anything to be learned from the
seventies generation?

CG: I don't want anyone to think that I'm valorizing or glamorizing
artistic collaboration. It's inherently no more important than anything
else. I'm not the least bit impressed by any supposed aura surrounding any
mode of production. And the legalism of conceptual artist collaborations
was part of the point of the work. The discourse surrounding the work WAS
part of the work. Contracts aren't worth the paper they are printed on in
the art world, which is why the artist/dealer contract movement never got
anywhere, much like resale royalties (droit de suite), but is why its
spin-offs (dealers usually now spell out in writing the terms of their
association with each artist) were useful. The point about artistic
collaboration is that it is a test in which individual identity is
subordinated to a so-called higher good - the work of art. It's a lot like
working on a magazine. Not everyone is suited to cooperation, but the art
world glamorizes narcissism and has an incredibly short attention span. My
simple point is that self-presentation is constructed, usually
self-consciously, and that the resulting figure is sometimes central
within the work of art. The lesson of the seventies generation is that
they did not compromise, and that they worked out protective structures to
allow that. I approach new media from the point of view of a participant
in the world of contemporary art, and it's worth understanding that the
two are not the same. I gave a paper at a conference recently -
"Dislocations", which was organized by Cinemedia (Melbourne) and ZKM
(Karlsruhe). Peter Weibel and Lev Manovich were the keynotes. Weibel's
point, apart from his sci-fi, William Gibson behaviouralism and the
mistaken idea that memory exists, was good: new media is in a bleated
revolutionary, avant-garde phase in which the invention of new
technologies and forms is more important than the deconstruction of those
forms; new media, however, he says, has a long pre-history from the period
around the 1970s onwards. The other keynote, Lev Manovich, was thinking in
the opposite direction, horizontally, at the level of a taxonomy of
data-base-based new forms, principally of internet cinema. But listening
to Lev, I wondered if his disdain for narrative was echoed in the
impoverished visuality of many of his quasi-interactive Internet project
examples, and why, given the role of montage in most of these new works
and theories, Jean-Luc Godard's theories of montage and sound (both pre
and post Histoires du Cinema), we are compelled to reinvent Godard's
wheel. As Peter Lunenfeld reminds us all in Snap to Grid, this milieu
faded to black. I suppose the thing that worried me about Lev Manovich's
presentation was the way he was positing video artists like Doug Aitken
and Douglas Gordon (we can add Mariko Mori, Shirin Neshat, Matthew Barney)
as belated popularizers, the same way avant-garde film-makers used to look
down on art-house movies. He was working straight out of a productivist
set of criteria, horizontal and unstratified, in which technological
take-up and formal difference govern attention. What kind of cultural
dynamic is at work here historically? Are we witnessing the re-creation of
the same space as that once occupied by alternative, experimental,
avant-garde cinema?

GL: I suppose art critics are in a better position to answer this
question. I would say that we are in worse situation, compared to the
golden days of Godard. Art, and with it experiental electronic arts, has
become isolated and can therefore no longer claim an avant-garde position.
Within this tragic, inward looking position, having been neutralized of
any substantial potential, art is hidden within academia, self-referential
circles and the thick walls of the museum and galleries. The caved art
system has created its own autonomous space in which it can celebrate its
won freedom. The price for the gained sophistication is its isolation from
society. No matter how innovative, subversive or creative media works are,
they seem unable to bridge the Disciplinary Divide. So, yes, new media
artists can reinvent Goddard's wheel and create a exciting new school of
digital modernism (or give it a name) but their works will remain
unknown-and will be of homeopathic influence on the global mediascape.
There is a total lack of mediation between the artworks and popular
culture. This situation prompted pioneer computer game developer Brenda
Laurel to publicly distance herself from art (and activism). "It took me
years to discover," she writes in her latest post dotcom essay, "that I
couldn't effectively influence the construction of pop culture until I
stopped describing myself as a. an artist, and b. a political activist.
Both of these self-definitions resulted in what I now see as my own
self-marginalization. I couldn't label myself as a subversive or a member
of the elite. I had to mentally place myself and my values at the center,
not at the margin. I had to understand that what I was about was not
critiquing but manifesting." (Utopian Entrepreneur, The MIT Press, 2001).
How sad (and true) this all sounds, specially if one compares it to hopes
and dreams of the roaring twenties--and sixties. This is why many in new
media culture re-label themselves and work as designers and look for a way
out in science, architecture and film. Brenda Laurel thinks that "culture
work" is a more appropriate description of what she does.

CG: I hate to remove the drama from a text, but I agree with you
completely, and I'm speaking from the other side of the wall, as an artist
and as an art historian whose life has been bound up in art. So the
problems are double. For a start, Manovich's horizontal taxonomic approach
is good reportage and important right at this moment but it trivializes
the issues and the stakes. The cards then get dealt behind the scenes. We
know by now, from indexical events like the Whitney Biennial, that the art
world has been slow to take up technological innovation except in marginal
and cosmetic ways, and because new media is only partly concerned with
itself as art, it tends to have a somewhat touching and definitely naïve
belief in either art or its irrelevance. This overlaying of "art" onto
information, this understanding of the aesthetic as a surplus, I wrote
somewhere recently, inevitably obscures the very information function we
value about the internet. It occludes any archival function - any real
data-base truth-value - in terms of information storage, even as it
insists on a memorializing and educational function (not at all the same
thing as an artistic function). Why make art when you can take a
photograph, write an e-mail or make a film? The alternative lies in
understanding the priorities involved in contemporary art, for a start.
The necessary commodification involved in a successful art practice
eliminates certain trajectories, but not in the way you'd think. Scarcity,
branding, uniqueness, aura, charisma, all survive the elimination of the
unique work, oil paint, traditional media, and personal manufacture and
handiwork, even complete deskilling, which was a basic 20th century
avant-garde tactic. But if we take all this on board, we still have to
admit art's almost total loss of a vanguard cultural position. I'm still
left with the question of how to explain the art world fascination with
new media right now. Increasingly, the term "intermedia" is being used to
define works that involve translation and retranslation from medium to
medium. Often, as in the works of the South African artist William
Kentridge, this results in a suite of works in different media ranging
from animated films through traditional prints through to puppets. My
point is that copying and compositing are definitely NOT the sole domain
of new media right now. But right now, in many people's minds, new media
occupy a role related to and ALMOST equivalent to intermedia. There's a
window of attention that briefly coincides with the windows of
technological innovation and media evolution, but it's none of the three
that ultimately govern attention except in a sub-culture. Geography,
culture, injustice, globalization: all of these forces periodize new media

Charles Green, The Third Hand, Collaboration in Art from Conceptualism to
Postmodernism, University of Minnesota Press (USA)/University of New South
Wales Press (Australia), 49.95 AUD. More info: and

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