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(Un)common Ground: Creative Encounters across Sectors and Disciplines

by Cathy Brickwood, Bronac Ferran, David Garcia and Tim Putnam, Editors
BIS Publishers, Amsterdam, 2007
159 pp. Paper, $N/A
ISBN: 978-90-6369-166-0.

Reviewed by Jonathan Zilberg


(Un)common Ground: Creative Encounters across Sectors and Disciplines is an inspiring collection of reflective case studies of multi-dimensional cross-sector collaborations between the academic and commercial worlds, specifically in the context of a partnership between the Utrecht School of the Arts (HKU) and the media center Virtueel Platform with support from Arts Council England. The book itself, written in the spirit of "radical pragmatism," emerged from a seminar for media experts at Amsterdam’s Cross Media Week in 2006. Its aim is to investigate the dynamics of interdisciplinary practice and identify research methodologies so as to better understand how academic research and the creative industries involved in new media can engage in collaborations in mutually enriching ways. Above all, it is the intriguing notion of uncommon rather than common ground that make this such an intellectually interesting book, that is, in participatory challenges and in the contingencies, the incommensurability and the provisional relations through which knowledge emerges in inter-disciplinary cross-sector collaborations.

True to the title, each chapter reveals how creativity emerges from uncommon ground and how inter-disciplinary projects that nurture this natural incommensurablity can produce unintended creative consequences. One of the most interesting aspects of the study is how it self-reflectively documents the unfolding of its own creation. The way in which it does so not only provides a useful model for conceptualizing, organizing, managing and documenting such projects but a record of some interesting new ventures. For instance, in the realm of art education, a guild system has been revived to provide a transitional space for art students entering the market place. Other ventures can be found in the emergent fields of inclusive design and consumer driven innovation and in the use of inclusive design in the public sphere in grass roots creative communities and much more. In addition, the (Un)common Ground describes the emergence of tactical innovation media labs and lab culture as a service industry that can be combined with educational projects so as to provide a context for enabling generative and constructivist learning environments linking academia and industry. In short, no one interested in working in new media and cross sector inter-disciplinary collaborations can afford not to read this book.

That being said, the problematic aspect of this study lies in its underlying idealist tension that there is an irresolvable contradiction between creativity on the artist’s part and control in industry, that is between the desire for uncontrolled expression and the power and need of the organizer to facilitate and control that expression for the purpose of the collaboration. Beyond that tension, the most interesting insights in this study have to do with how knowledge emerges in such contexts. Here it is Ann Galloway’s fascinating conclusion that stands out as remarkable. Galloway explores why we need to closely examine the scars and seams that in effect structurally define these projects. As she relates, it is important to understand what gets cut, where, when and why, and of how knowledge comes to lie in the fold. Thus beyond the markedly brief case studies, it is Galloway’s reflection combined with Trebor Scholz’s reprinted article "The Participatory Challenge" from Curating Immateriality (2006) that provide the kind of intellectual labor that both intellectually oriented managers and artists will want to attend.

Some of these more theorized discussions are indeed surprisingly stimulating, surprising in terms of how while they come across as intellectually playful they are nevertheless rigorous and important for understanding new media and the changing nature of the world in the age of mass participation, or should we say potential mass participation. For instance, Charles Leadbeater, introduces the notion of the beach ethic, drawing on the ordered and self-regulated behavior we experience on beaches without overt control. His insights into the profound shifts occurring in contemporary society make for fascinating reading. When read against the tensions expressed with the participatory and collaborative challenges as evident in the wide-ranging discussion of ownership, constraints and dissent in open and closed systems in Ferran’s article, the fully collaborative intellectual nature of this project becomes particularly evident.

There are several interesting issues relating to collaborative projects that stand out in this study. Historically, the project is interesting because it documents the creation of a new artists’ guild society in Holland where such guilds first originated, but this time in the institutionalization of interdisciplinary cross-sectoral collaborations. In terms of team building, the project is interesting as these collaborations rely on bringing together individuals that have sufficient common ground in terms of their broad competencies and uncommon ground in their respective specialist depth. And yet, despite the claims for a unique productive nexus of professionalism and achievement of the aims of the inter-disciplinary creative quest, stark contradictions and shortcomings emerge, indeed un-common ground.

Two central assumptions of the study are questionable: the said rarity of successful collaborations and the importance of accepting anti-consensus over the importance of achieving consensus. Moreover, it is perhaps telling that after the collaborations, every artist stated that they would have been keen to accept a job with the companies they had worked with and yet in no instance did the companies make any such offers. The question then might be asked that if these type of collaborations were as successful as claimed, in terms of being innovative and economically productive, then why did industry not hire any of these artists with the mutual diplomatic caveat of-course instead of allowing for the possibility of future such internships and collaborations?

What has been left unsaid here, what has been cut out to a large degree is industry’s perspective, wherein in fact lies the essential differences in the critical folding process. These are the questions that I am left with especially considering how exceedingly scant the bibliographies are in terms of engaging the enormous literature on collaborations more generally. This is particularly revealing, perhaps, in that inter-disciplinary cross-sectoral collaborations are highly productive when common ground and common aims are established to achieve specific ends. One is left wondering whether collaborations involving new media are so different from other forms of collaboration that the larger literature on collaboration could not have been bridged, abridged, or in the language of this study - folded in. Simply put, in the cutting and folding process, the whole history of collaboration in the arts, science, academia and industry has been left out of the equation.

Besides the challenge for more academically rigorous work, it is arguable on another level that the flaw in this study lies in the privileging of the anti-consensus model. Artists are herein being treated as gifted outsiders whose egos have to be protected in order to sustain the collaboration. Crudely put, they have to be tolerated for their potential creative input in a process in which the requirements of business to achieve particular types of products for specific ends are seen oppositionally as antithetical to the creative process. For instance, in the spirit of allowing for uncommon ground and an anti-consensus model the concerns of the managers are set aside in order not to dampen the artist’s creativity. In these instances, as predicted by business, the results were indeed unsuccessful. It seems to me that there is a double-standard at work in which the knowledge of the managers of the requirements of the market is not taken on equal standing as the need to pamper the artist. On the other hand, when one examines any successful creative industry, I would contend, that acute creative consensus and acceptance of the need to sometimes make difficult and contentious decisions is part of the process of creating any great work of art, product or project. It is surely this delicacy over avoiding rather than accepting conflict that weakens this project in its practical dimensions over and above the acceptance of the plurality of difference.

Indeed, in order to analyze and reflect upon this range of experience, an anthropologist, Samuelle Carson, was hired by Arts Council England to report upon the Interact Programme in which artists were placed in creative industrial contexts. In stark contrast to the other articles in this study, Carson emphasizes a great deal of common ground and how the real differences devolve upon ownership of intellectual property generated during such collaborations. In significantly furthering this discussion, Bronac Ferran provides a critical article on contracts "Models of Ownership in Challenges of Contemporary Creativity" which highlights the 2006 Intellectual Property Summit: Codes and Creativity through drawing together comments by key figures in new media collaborations such as Roger Malina. In this domain, it is particularly interesting to read how contracts are seen as boundary objects that allow for security and common ground.

Ultimately perhaps, it is the dynamic between creativity and control that emerges as this study’s contribution, an issue of substance which to which Sholz and Galloway add powerful insight. However, all in all, considering that the seminar in Amsterdam (out of which this book emerged) was organized in the spirit of a radical pragmatism with the explicit goal of examining "what actually happens
" in collaborations so as to dramatize differences, surely a more nuanced perspective on power and the irreducible difference between pure and applied creativity is required. In order for managers, educators and art and design professionals to engage in productive cross-sector collaborations, one has to achieve at least provisional common ground in order to create a successful product or manage a successful collaboration. And there not only should we nurture and accept friction as conflict zones in which decisions as to what to cut and how to fold inevitably have to be made but draw on the virtually galactic history of such experience both positive and negative.

For instance, perhaps the starkest contradiction in the inter-disciplinary era lies in the claim that while academic institutions are populated by the most creative, innovative and individualistic of people, these same institutions, in contrast to industry when required, show the greatest resistance to change. In some degree this is certainly the case in the sense that fully inter-disciplinary work can only be done from the professional safety of a firm location within one’s own discipline. In fact, as inter-disciplinary work is deeply constrained by turf wars between and within disciplines, it might best be seen as a zone of productive conflict akin to the folding process defining uncommon ground. While the struggle between cultural studies and anthropology is a particularly divisive example, when one considers the extraordinary vitality of the emergence of new cross-connecting sub-fields in biology, genetics and biochemistry, the vast productive nexus of university research and industry and the whole history of the industrial revolution and design, and the response to it in the Arts and Crafts Movement, never mind the penultimate example of Leonardo Da Vinci as an arts and scientist arms consultant, one has to wonder at the way in which this new Dutch guild assesses the assumed irresolvable differences between business and academia, arts and sciences, process and product. Perhaps the greatest value of better understanding uncommon ground then is that it provides us with a means to achieving more productive common ground.



Updated 1st February 2008

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