For Common and Decent Things: Resisting Co-opted “Collaboration”

Virginia River Healers watchdogging on the South Branch Elizabeth River en route to the Chesapeake Energy Center. Virginia, 2016.

It’s more than working together. “Collaboration” has enjoyed a distinct currency in the twenty-first century as a buzzword that sailed from the open-office playgrounds of Silicon Valley into almost every professional field. The ethos of collaboration has also decisively embedded itself in the institutions of contemporary art: a way to justify their existence by projecting economic value.

Leaning into a now-familiar market-friendly turn – and parroting other keywords like “innovation” and “disruption” – institutions like the University of Southern California have conscripted art into demonstrating a tangible use-value in the service of capital. For instance, in 2014, with the aid of a seventy million-dollar gift, USC welcomed the first students of the Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology, and the Business of Innovation. The Academy, shepherded by the former dean of USC’s Roski School of Art, promised a “collaborative environment” that offers a “degree in disruption,” and the creation of “breakthrough” products and technologies. (In response to the school’s changes, first year MFA students collectively dropped out in protest in May 2015.) As the late French sociologist Andre Gorz posited, the “techno-scientific knowledge,” produced in collaborative, Silicon Valley-style endeavors, is resolutely “on the side of capital,” and that the “bearers of such knowledge, the engineers, are expressly and ideologically in the camp of the owners of capital.”

The language of “collaboration” provides contemporary institutions with the rhetorical cover necessary to convert artists into “creative entrepreneurs.” Because the new creative class must produce something of quantitative value, eliminate market inefficiencies, or face irrelevancy. Places like the Academy, New Inc., and Digital Humanities departments at universities across the U.S. excel at this brand of relevancy extortion, and herald the instrumentalization of art in the service of enterprise. Co-opting art’s power as a catalyst for meaningful social progress and recasting it as an engine of market innovation, the Academy offers courses that yoke collectivity with interdisciplinary consulting approaches and capstone projects that result in prototypes and startups.

Despite all the social jargon, USC tacitly promotes the rebranding of art workers as lone entrepreneurs: insurgent Elon Musks in incubation, who must work with others, yes, but who are responsible only to themselves. Through entrepreneurship contests and incubators, the once-progressive ideals of collectivity are redeployed with cynical motives in the service of profit accumulation.

The institutional power of co-opted togetherness has been gathering force, and with it, friction. Set against this ubiquitous movement, strongly connected as it is to the infrastructures of private gain, we should ask: what forms of art actually cultivate the shared maintenance of public goods, or in the words of legal scholar Jedediah Purdy, foster concern “for common things?” As an act of intransigence, how can art work for the common? Many cultural workers have taken up the charge of genuinely collective political work, where art meets the struggle for social progress to confront our contemporary moment’s acute deficit of care.

Virginia River Healers, still from “Clean Power Take Breath,” 2016.

Using science, prayer, and civil disobedience, the Virginia River Healers (VRH) established themselves as an important beachhead in this struggle, in 2014. The VRH are an environmentally-focused art organization unafraid to hold a mirror to the aesthetics of America’s right-wing paramilitary groups – like the ones that recently descended on Charlottesville – and militias-for-hire like TigerSwan, which collaborated with police to undermine the Standing Rock protests. Confronting these uniquely American forms of white supremacy, they willfully oscillate between art practice and real-world activism. The group not only makes art – videos, performance protests, and lime-colored prints that call on government officials and energy companies to “DIG IT UP,” a reference to toxic coal ash ponds – they also challenge state energy monopolies like Virginia’s Dominion Power by monitoring the impact of industrial waste on local water sources. “Water is a commons,” the VRH professes, “no one holds the right to destroy.”

Rather than mobilizing their collective efforts towards private production, the VRH leverages its creative labor on behalf of all Virginians. In the video Clean Power Take Breath (2016), we watch an anonymous figure, cloaked by a fluorescent-green ski mask and military camouflage, make demands for greater regulation of Dominion Power. VRH’s scrambled, anonymized message is delivered with chilling effect, primed for internet circulation. Their diatribe for the public maintenance of a commons was delivered at an actual Environmental Protection Agency hearing. The four titular words form a grid behind the VRH’s camouflaged impresario, and are built from the kind of marquee letters one might find on the sign of a church or movie theater in small-town America. The collective adopts the imagery of extremism, but unexpectedly, subversively, commits to democratic processes and slow bureaucratic procedure. Utilizing the rhetoric and aesthetics of religion, militancy, and eco-activism, Clean Power Take Breath is the visual and performative answer to a crucial question: how can ideological extremes be made material and work for common things?

Olivia Plender, “Machine Shall be the Slave of Man, but We Will Not Slave for the Machine” (detail), Tate Triennial, Tate Britain, 2009.

Political art projects that foreground the importance of what we universally share are, of course, not new (consider the emergence of social practice since the ‘60s). Moreover, it’s important to recognize that works of art need not perform a service for the public sphere in order to be about the common. For instance, Olivia Plender’s installation-cum-historical display for the Tate Triennial, Machine Shall Be the Slave of Man, But We Will Not Slave for the Machine (2009), brings into focus the radical initiatives of the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift, an early 20th-century occultist group that aspired to remake the world for all: promising pacifism, emancipation from exploitative labor, and a universal basic income. Featuring reconstructions of the Kibbo Kift’s prismatic uniforms, a diorama of a ritualistic camp site, and a video that charts the artist’s research process, Plender’s installation shows how past forms of collectivity were a world apart from the kind of collaboration designed to produce new commodities. Plender’s presentation of the Kibbo Kift’s ephemera – however imagined or real – also demonstrates the importance of aesthetics to a political movement’s form. But, quite crucially, a work like this produces a type of aboutness, a rupture at the epistemological level that makes us perceive our shared experience anew. By creating a sense of aboutness, art helps us arrive at new forms of knowledge without necessarily producing something actionable or concrete. Works of art like Plender’s refuse to become instrumentalized and “do” something; it is very much about a starry-eyed dream of anti-market collectivity. Plender beseeches us to look anew at past forms of collectivity, the course away from profit production, to envision another way we might live together.

We should not be astonished that the artworld’s jubilant embrace of the buzzword “collaboration” has emerged alongside its creeping financialization. As universities and museums seek to demonstrate how art can generate profit and product, the market for contemporary art has likewise ballooned as a site of unprecedented speculation. When collaboration takes center-stage in artistic discourse today, it cannot be estranged from the libertarian dream that would see us all become islands of entrepreneurship, sacrificing ourselves for economic value at the expense of our society’s shared maintenance.Yet, in the United States this material shift has remarkably dovetailed with the reemergence of universals: single-payer health care and college education without debt are once again sites of plausible political debate. Cultural institutions would do well to avoid the values of corporations that seek to erode such shared pursuits, decent and common things upon which art’s workers depend.

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