Artistic Research in Performance through Collaboration
Palgrave Macmillan, London, UK, 2020
270 pp. illus. 17 b/w. Trade, $119.99; paper, $84.99; eBook, $64.99
ISBN: 978-3-030-38598-9. 978-3-030-38601-6. 978-3-030-38599-6.
Reviewed by Jacob Thompson-Bell
This volume of essays on artistic research in performance through collaboration, edited by Martin Blain and Helen Minors, adds a constructive new dimension to the literature on artistic research, drawing together for the first time a series of essays exploring the knowledge value of collaborative art making. The collection is divided into two parts, the first setting out some novel frameworks for artistic collaboration in academic research, and the second comprising 10 essays on creative practice from artists involved in collaborative projects within, or in partnership with, academic institutions. In many ways, the contribution of this edited collection can be best summarized by Robin Nelson’s comment in the very final paragraph of his epilogue: “At an historical moment when arts education is under threat and its values not fully appreciated by governments, it will serve us well as a community to be prepared to assist others to understand how the arts are modes of knowing by articulating and evidencing our research inquiries” (p. 259). This volume of essays on artistic collaboration follows Nelson’s injunction, illustrating some of the ways in which collaborative artistic practice can lead to new knowledge, new relationships, and new ways of working.
In Part I, Blain and Minors suggest a holistic, broad approach to artistic collaboration, which attends to the partnerships, ethical frameworks, performance practices, and modes of dissemination through which the work will be carried out. A similar breadth is evident in the collaborative artistic projects explored in Part II, which includes a mixture of conventional performance paradigms, such as music and dance, as well as “less ephemeral” (p. 7) disciplines, such as drawing and craft. This enables connective threads to be drawn between typically disparate practices, and for the distribution of creativity across a range of professionals and non-professionals to be examined. The collection also seeks to bridge gaps between independent arts organizations (IAOs) and higher education institutions (HEIs) as centers of artistic knowledge, investigating both the procedures of artistic practice, and the institutional and political context of UK artistic research. The editors write that, “[…] to expand our understanding of artistic research we could usefully expand the reach of our own academic and practice dialogue stretching beyond usually determined disciplinary boundaries” (p. 30). They are therefore keen to stress that this collection intentionally does not offer a singular definition of artistic collaboration in performance; to do so would be to contradict their own broad minded approach to curating contributions. The collection is framed by Nicholas Till’s foreword, and Robin Nelson’s epilogue, both of which explore the added scope and value which artistic collaboration can bring to academic research, and which academic exegesis can bring to artistic collaboration.
Although the essays in Part II are in many ways highly diverse, they collectively raise several recurrent issues. A principal matter of concern is how individual and collective identities are woven together through artistic collaboration, and how these entanglements raise questions over authorship and ownership. For example, Andy Hamilton (Chapter four) deconstructs binaries of individual genius/collective labor and the planned/unplanned shape of buildings, revealing architectural practice as an inherently collective (or collaborative) enterprise. Alice Kettle, Helen Felcey and Amanda Ravetz (Chapter five) reflect on interdisciplinary arts collaboration as a means of allowing individual identities to be subsumed for a time within collective practice, by challenging established ways of working within one’s own discipline. Mathilde Pavis and Karen Wood (Chapter nine) identify how this collectivism can also lead to more prosaic issues around intellectual property (IP). They use the case of Disability Dance to illustrate how choreographers rely on the idiosyncratic, highly personal, nature of their dancers’ bodies to realize their dance, and yet have their own claim to authorship as the collaborator controlling, editing, and sequencing the range of movements the dancers perform. Pavis and Wood argue that IP is too narrow to adequately encompass the kinds of collaboration which take place between dancers and choreographers. Helen Minors (Chapter seven) draws on the example of Soundpainting, in which a musical director shapes group improvisation through an established repertoire of movements. She proposes understanding ensemble improvisation as a form of distributed creativity for which all contributors should be acknowledged (even if differing roles and levels of control might also need to be recognized). Similarly, Adam Fairhall (Chapter six) maps collective musical improvisation in terms of intertextuality, exploring how freely-improvising musicians are able to successfully introduce groove-based, or riff-based elements into their playing in such a way as to make them feel ‘right’ and welcome to the other players in their ensemble, but not to force them to comply.
Clearly, in a collection so diverse, there are also competing narratives and ideas about the purpose and value of artistic collaboration. One such tension concerns the extent to which collaboration might be seen as a means of identifying new transdisciplinary stakeholders. For Mine Doğantan-Dack (Chapter three), art is the “other” of business (p. 51), focused on private labor, personal wisdom and individual idiosyncrasy, as opposed to the mobilization of stakeholders and exploitation of outcomes. By contrast, Roger McKinley and Mark Wright (Chapter twelve) explore collaboration as a form of multi-sectoral partnership, linking independent art organizations (IAOs) and higher education institutions (HEIs). They reflect on numerous collaborations undertaken with HEIs through the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (FACT). They argue that these collaborations can allow research knowledge to be more widely disseminated in a meaningful, usable, format for different stakeholders, and invigorate artistic practice by emphasizing its civic role through IAOs. In a sense, these being respectively the first and last of the collected essays, their contrasting positions neatly encapsulate the potential for productive friction to lead to new insights, since in defining roles and scoping opportunities, new possibilities for creativity and dissemination may emerge in the spaces between differing positions. As Blain and Minors point out in their introductory remarks, the range of contributions included seeks to embody this principle of “between-ness” (p. 7), articulating some of the spaces for innovation which are opened up when people with differing outlooks, practices, disciplines and expectations, come together.
The intention behind the volume seems to be to galvanize art makers across all disciplines (though with a slight slant towards music) around the common features, or problems, of their collaborative processes, and thereby to examine ways in which artists can be productive members of a research community. In my reading of the edited volume, I found this agenda to be pursued in four key ways. First, the breadth of content pays homage to the diverse ways in which artists collaborate to create new work within and between disciplines. Second, despite this variation of practice, the written exegeses in the collection trace shared lines of inquiry through which artistic collaborations proceed, highlighting common challenges (e.g., copyright/authorship, discipline-specific vocabulary) and strategies, and thereby strengthening the claim of artistic research to be a credible methodology with identifiable features. Third, there is frequent, and critical, examination of aspects of research policy and culture in the United Kingdom that might undermine or obstruct artistic forms of inquiry (e.g., copyright, privileging of sole authorship publications), and an effort to identify the criteria for more inclusive institutional environments.
Lastly, and most significantly perhaps, there is a move in this collection to demonstrate the interconnectedness of art makers to one another, not simply through explicit forms of collaboration, but also, in a poststructuralist sense, through the codes and customs of their disciplines. This last point is especially important, since it problematizes key notions of artistic autonomy, formal innovation, and novelty, around which the inclusion of art practice in research settings has traditionally been based. Editors Blain and Minors make a point of including all contributors within the scope of artistic collaboration, bringing together not only artists but also grant writers, curators, and even those commissioning work, under the banner of “creators” (p. 7), and thus collaborative agents who shape the disciplines with which they are associated. For this reason, instead of emphasizing the professional prowess of practitioners or the perceived aesthetic value of artworks as the measures of researchworthiness, the essays in this collection point towards the importance of the research process - what is being explored, who is involved, what has been learned, how are these findings translated into formats which can taken up by other practitioners and researchers, both within and beyond the arts and humanities? In short, the collection emphasizes intertextuality, and thus synergy, between disciplines and practices, by revealing the working methods and concerns of creative professionals across a broad cultural ecology.
Although no single edited collection can cover everything, there are perhaps some untapped opportunities to cover transcultural collaboration (i.e., how artistic collaboration facilitates or obstructs this), and at least some forms of Indigenous or non-Western art. This would have provided scope to explore the comparative knowledge-value of arts praxis in relation to different cultural and social systems. Another area that, perhaps, demands further exploration in methodological literature on practice as research is that of collaborations drawing together art praxes and scientific forms of inquiry. Sci-art, art-science or STEAM (Science, Technology, Arts, Engineering, and Mathematics) initiatives represent significant opportunities for artistic collaboration and, of relevance to academic research, of crossing between distinct epistemological traditions. Nevertheless, this is a wide-ranging and practically useful contribution to the existing literature on artistic research, and it is welcome to see researchers putting collaborative research under the spotlight, rather than uncritically embracing it as a universally good thing. As well as manifold opportunities, there are challenges, limitations, and risks of undertaking collaborative practice, which the essays gathered in this book do well to address.