The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context

February 9, 2012

Perhaps it is the loneliness of the studio that has traditionally encouraged artists to hang out in social and stylistic groups. Think of the Impressionists and their Montmartre cafés, or the Abstract Expressionists and their wild nights in the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village. But no matter how much they bonded socially, they would always return, alone - the solitary genius - to the studio, to scale the last remaining peaks of Modernism.

Not any more. Artists these days are more likely to work like rock bands, taking collective decisions and creating everything from social sculpture to fictional identities. This book brings us right up to date on the subject, and for me has served to highlight a missing link in the documentation of these tendencies.

About a decade ago, Charles Green wrote The Third Hand: Collaboration in Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism, the classic text on the history of artists who work as teams or in partnerships with others. He focused mostly on a few well-chosen and significant examples: Gilbert and George; Art and Language; Anne and Patrick Poirier; the Boyle family; the Harrisons; Marina Abramovic and Ulay. In The One and the Many, Grant Kester pays tribute to Green's research, but mostly targets the here and now, the very contemporary practices of groups such as Park Fiction in Hamburg, Ala Plástica in Argentina, Huit Facettes in Senegal, and the group Dialogue, which brings hand pumps and fresh water to Indian villages as a form of creative intervention. Importantly, he also looks at the work of solo artists, including Francis Alÿs and Santiago Sierra, who collaborate with members of the public or particular societal groupings. In doing so he succeeds splendidly in delivering to us the promise of the book's subtitle: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context.

Like all good researchers, Kester started with a simple question, which was, "Why have so many artists over the past decade and a half been drawn to collaborative or collective modes of production?" Secondary questions soon emerged. "What forms of knowledge do collaborative, participatory and socially engaged practices generate?" And, adding complexity and depth, "How do we determine which transgressions matter in the arts?" Kester takes us on a journey from performance photographers in Myanmar to project housing in Alabama, and along the way details, through methodology more often associated with the social sciences, how artists blend creativity with a sense of social conscience and still manage somehow to keep it visual. A feeling of dislocation is often introduced for spectators and participants alike, as with the group Superflex's project, where a group of guarana berry farmers was brought from Brazil to the 2003 Venice Biennale to set up a stall selling an ethical brand of energy drink along the Grand Canal.

What is missing from Kester's book, however, is an equally illuminating linking volume that would look in depth at many of the artist groups from the past 30 years who, if he mentions them at all, are referenced only in passing. This linking volume would have to include the Seymour Likely group from Amsterdam, Group Irwin from Slovenia, Joan Fontcuberta and Pere Formiguera from the Basque region, the Kingpins from Sydney, Dalziel and Scullion from Scotland and the Bruce High Quality Foundation University from New York City. The list is long.

The many pages of notes at the end of this book were full of fascinating information that might better have been woven into the main body of the text. Not wanting to miss any, or read them out of context, I entered a strange flapping dance that might itself have been an art performance, as I journeyed back and forth, back and forth.

The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context

By Grant H. Keste. Duke University Press. 320pp, £70.00 and £16.99 . ISBN 9780822349723 and 9877 . Published 30 November 2011

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