Systems of Collaboration

[Note: The following is a talk given as part of a panel on collaboration that took place at the Summer Writing Program of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University on July 3, 2012.]

I want to trouble collaboration a bit by presenting two constellations of questions.


First constellation:

It’s common to think of collaboration as two or more people working together to create a harmonious, unified result. But I want us to think of a less unified model for a minute: John Cage’s Roaratorio, an Irish circus on Finnegans Wake (1979).

Cage is reading/singing the mesostics that he wrote through Joyce’s Finnegans Wake,viagra online and there are layers of sound effects inspired from the text, as well as Irish traditional music being played all around the space. None of these elements are meant to be harmonious or to respond to each other. This collaboration is a system of respectful non-interference.

As with many of his pieces (particularly his collaborations with Merce Cunningham), Cage sets up a situation, creates a framework, but each individual participant in that structured collective is free and has autonomy. In this form of collaboration, dissonance and contradiction (and thus freedom) can exist alongside affinities. The results are complex and ideally they mirror actual relations between people as we each do our own thing while being part of a human mass on earth.

So with this form of collaboration in mind, I also want to think about the collaboration that is the flashmob.

This was a promotional stunt for a TV program that took place in an Belgian train station in 2009. 200 people participated. This video went viral.

In this video, the flashmob consists of 300 Chilean students dancing in protest in 2011 in front of La Moneda, the presidential palace.

The students were protesting the lack of affordable education; the zombies were supposed to represent the state of the education system: “rotten and dead.” One protestor had a sign that said “I’m selling my organs to pay for my education”

It seems that in this age of wikis and memes, viral videos and flashmobs, we are in love with situations of seemingly leaderless emergence on a massive scale. These situations cause the kind of unitary (and unifying) feeling that fuels every hit pop song or Broadway show or successful political protest. So my question is, is there a way to combine this kind of model of unitary emergence with the kind of collaboration that Cage proposes—-one that allows for dissonance and contradiction, autonomy and complexity?


Second constellation:

Starting again with John Cage; he was an orchestrator. As I said before, he set parameters for experimentation in the hopes of discovering something he didn’t already know/something he hadn’t already heard/something he could not have anticipated. For example, in his 1960 composition Imaginary Landscape No. 4, 24 performers ‘play’ 12 radios, 2 per radio. Chance operations determine the frequency/tuning, duration, and volume.

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So I want to propose that John Cage is a kind of DJ here, treating his performers as samples to be combined in order to produce new experiences. To what extent is such a producer a collaborator?

In thinking through this question, I find myself looking to visual art models. I’ll mention the first two that came to mind while writing this up:

This Progress

Tino Seghal, This Progress: This piece took place at the Guggenheim in 2010. There was nothing on the walls. When you got to the bottom of the ramp, you were met by a child who asked you how you would define progress. The child then brought you up part of the ramp to a young adult and tried to repeat your definition. The young adult then chatted about their take on progress while taking you up the ramp to someone middle aged, who then took you further up to chat with a senior citizen. At the end, at the top of the Guggenheim ramp looking down, you can see pairs of people strolling upward in conversation. This example is perhaps parallel to the situation in Cage’s Roaratorio, where parameters are set, but what happens within those parameters is unpredictable.

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Francis Alys, When Faith Moves Mountains (2002, Peru), in which 500 people moved a sand dune 10 centimeters from its original position.

A participant said “it’s about doing things together,” “people together can do things that would otherwise be impossible,” “the fact that it took on such a huge dimension means that it will generate one story after another and the story will be passed on like an oral tradition.” This example is perhaps parallel to a flashmob—-there is very little freedom, but participants feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves.

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Both of these pieces required participation by a group of people in order to fulfill the parameters set by the artist. Can we call this collaboration? Or is the artist too much of a power broker here, manipulating his cast of thousands?

Last fall, the excitement behind the Occupy movement was due largely to the fact that there was no leader, that people were coming together without being told what to do and creating an alternative model for how to be together. Can art also present such an alternative?


So to sum up my questions with more questions: What are the models of writing that allow for us to be together, to create together, without losing our ability to converse through our differences? What are the models of writing that allow us to make things together that don’t require a prime mover, that don’t need a DJ to set the parameters? Can artistic collaboration operate as a form of emergence?

I don’t know the answer to the questions I’m asking, and I don’t know if music and visual art can serve as true analogs to what happens when we write. However, I hope these questions help complicate common assumptions about collaboration.

Where writing is concerned, making things together can offer a way of being together—-providing a generative sense of community (what Robert Creeley called ‘company’) in a genre that often requires working in solitude. But as new technologies enable more and more opportunities for collaboration, I think it’s important to consider these modes as systems, each modeling a different way of being in the world.