PRINT February 2011


Trinh T. Minh-ha (with camera), codirector Jean-Paul Bourdier (right), and crew on the set of A Tale of Love, 1994.  Moon Gift Films, 1994.

THE UTOPIA OF TRULY SHARED, communal, multiple authorship always seems to be receding from sight. But the dream won’t die: Collaboration continues to be held up as a means of escaping Western, patriarchal mythology and power structures as well as the art-market matrix of originality and authorship. Collectives and collaboratives are still assumed to be intrinsically liberating. Their emancipatory dimension is linked with the elevation of co-labor, of working in teams rather than lingering in the solitude of the studio. According to Mira Schor, the feminist artist and former coeditor of the journal M/E/A/N/I/N/G, the particular activation of the individual immersed in a collective with a shared goal entails “a peculiar relief in going outside the self.”¹

Collaborative and collectivist practices have historically enabled alternative modes of subjectivity; in the best case, they promise to open up divergent routes of being-with-others while subverting the ruling regimes of visibility and representation. Such aspirations made them central to the many feminist, queer, postcolonial, and antiracist cultural practices that became more and more active and visible in the 1970s and ’80s, accompanying the rediscovery in those years of the historical avant-gardes, from the Fauves to Dada to Russian Productivism. Self-organized, alternative spaces, co-op galleries, etc. also emerged on the grounds of new insights into asymmetrical power relations.

Indeed, the analysis of power from the angle of identity (and, ultimately, anti-identitarian) politics relies on the involvement of specific communities rather than individuals. A hegemonic group—for example, that of white male artists—can be contested by a practice of collaboration that confronts ostensibly naturalized power with critical solidarity. Art historian and theorist Irit Rogoff has written (specifically with reference to the Guerrilla Girls and Tim Rollins and K.O.S.) that collectivity not only ruptures the authority of “the artist” but also brings about “the emergence of an author grounded in the collective and social politics of identity formation rather than in the traditional and rarefied realm of identity affirmation.”²

Along similar lines, Vietnamese filmmaker, writer, and theorist Trinh T. Minh-ha—who in her own practice has always dealt, if implicitly, with the relations between collectivities, constituencies, and subjectivities—has pointed out that the “tendency to value collaborative work over individual work [occurs] in contexts where it is almost impossible to escape the burden of representation.”³ As examples of groups in which “a certain rejection of individual authorship may thrive,” Trinh mentions the UK film groups Sankofa and Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC). Shedding light on another aspect of collective practice, John Akomfrah, a cofounder of BAFC, in 1983 stressed its importance as a strategy to “demystify . . . the process of film production”; moreover, his hope was that it “would also involve collapsing the distinction between ‘audience’ and ‘producer.’”⁴ According to this view, which harks back to Constructivist and Productivist models, collectivity becomes a methodology for transforming both the reception of an artwork and its production. It’s not surprising that film, as an inherently collaborative mode of cultural production, features prominently as a medium of collective artmaking from the margins.

Nevertheless, as Trinh also argues, many groups—particularly those that act as collectives of production—tend to organize themselves hierarchically in spite of themselves, granting leadership to whomever has the most compelling plan or vision (or, simply, whomever has more social or economic power). In consequence of this and other caveats, she rethinks the notion of collaboration, proposing that it “happens not when something common is shared between the collaborators, but when something that belongs to neither of them comes to pass between them.⁵ The something-in-between she describes could be defined as the contingent product or outcome of a given collaboration that retroactively emerges as constitutive of the shared project or enterprise. As Trinh sees it, collaboration is thus essentially unintentional; it cannot be planned or anticipated.

Tim Rollins and K.O.S., Invisible Man (After Ralph Ellison), 2007, acrylic on book pages mounted on canvas, 72 x 72".

THIS DYNAMIC of will and contingency, individual and group, resonates with a question in Martha Rosler’s contribution to the 1982 Documenta catalogue: “Was it a struggle within and without, inside the group, against it as well as for it, for a perhaps only utopian collaborativeness-in-general, to occasion individual freedom?”⁶ In that same text, Rosler describes “the fashion for cooperation” as having “faded” by the end of the ’70s. What could be called a “tribal” spirit followed, instigated by punk and New/No Wave and by a newly discovered sensibility of underground primitivism. The idea of community was at this time far less wedded to the political—even though many of the loose, hedonistic, and implicitly oppositional neo-bohemianisms of the ’80s eventually linked up with the new politics of AIDS activism and postcolonial struggles. Writing in 1991, artist Josef Strau considered collectivity as a kind of historical relic, speaking of “leftover models” and “a spirit of well-known, historically bankrupt, wannabe significant ideas of exchange and distribution (co-operatives, networks etc.),” whose remainders he and his partner, Stephan Dillemuth, were about to “restore” in their Cologne artists’ bar/gallery space Friesenwall 120—also as a means of testing the conditions of the art system from a position of self-imposed marginality.⁷

Strau’s plea for a methodical revisiting of abandoned practices of collaboration and political activism indicates both the difficulty and the potential of collectivity in the arts at the beginning of the ’90s. In Europe, a revival of cooperative art production followed—and particularly of exhibition making, exemplified by institutions such as Shedhalle Zurich and Kunst-Werke Berlin. The real return of collaboration and cooperation, however, arguably took place in the 2000s, with a host of activities, exhibitions, and publications on the issue itself, however broadly defined. To sketch a potted history using a few keywords from that decade, the “participatory challenge”⁸ led to “relational aesthetics”⁹ and “conversation pieces,”¹⁰ which in turn engendered “taking the matter into common hands.”¹¹ There were also warnings from quarters skeptical of this resurgence, however—not least critic Claire Bishop in her article in these pages on collaboration’s “discontents.”¹² (Many of these conversations actually revolved around participation and interaction with audiences, rather than addressing a disturbance or multiplication of authorship from the outset.)

THE FUNDAMENTALLY “COLLECTIVE” character of capitalist production, stressed repeatedly in Marx’s Capital, is today increasingly reflected in the systemic or even ontological “collaborativity” of networked cultures, constituted as they are by the immaterial and mostly unpaid labor of participants across the world—whether they are uploading images to the Web, writing on a newspaper comment board, or rating books on Amazon. As collaboration has become generalized, a reassessment of the past and present status of the collective as a form of the social organization of cultural production is crucial. Arguably, the practice of collectivity could offer an alternative to the contemporary governmentality that wants the individual to be both the singular performer of a spectacular self and the obedient and functioning team player. Collective forms might even enable the pursuit of otherwise socially and technologically predetermined aspects of collaboration in a more direct, material, and urgent manner. Blake Stimson and Gregory Sholette, the editors of Collectivism After Modernism, speak of a new “dream of collectivism,” a “fetish” that can still offer activist efficacy. They describe it as “neither the strategic vision of some future ideal” nor “the mobile, culture-jamming, more-mediated-than-thou counterhegemony of collectivism after modernism,” but the engagement “with social life itself as the medium of expression.”¹³

At the same time, though, it would be a mistake to treat the collective as invariably superior to less group-oriented modes of artistic operation. Working in a collective framework does not automatically lead to a critical stance toward the mechanics of originality and individuality: Performing as a member of a group can, for instance, easily become the precondition of an individual artist’s success. The collaboration between protagonists from different fields has also, in the name of academic interdisciplinarity, turned into an imperative for every creative production aspiring to qualify as “innovative research” deemed worthy of government funding. When being able to work well with others and an unconditional openness to difference and diversity are deeply em-bedded in capitalist notions of the team-playing self, aspirations to collectivity are an ambiguous good. Not least for this reason, we should be wary when artists choose (or are chosen for) a collaborative mode of operation today—even if (to borrow the words of New York–based artist-run “platform” 16 Beaver Group) this is done in order “to take our inquiries beyond self-interest and contribute to this pool that some have called the general intellect.”¹⁴

The nostalgia for rare, bygone moments of collective accomplishment still feeds a hope of overcoming, if only temporarily, prevailing patterns of depoliticization. Yet we must remember that each reinvocation and resignification of collaboration and collectivity, as well as any corresponding (self-)criticism, is a response to mutations of the spaces of the political and the possibilities of articulation within and beyond these spaces. One of 16 Beaver’s founders, the artist Rene Gabri, explains why collaboration should not be thought of outside present political upheavals: “I cannot think of new artworlds . . . without implicitly thinking about new worlds.” Arguing that practices that are considered collective, social, collaborative, or participatory often “do more to hide differences and disagreement than they do to confront or reveal them,” he speaks of the collectivity we now need as having to offer “something beyond the kind of social cooperation we have been presented under capitalism.”¹⁵ Collaboration is in danger of losing its disruptive potential, since the novel forms of subjectification it nurtures have either been co-opted already or are at risk of being so: It is the “terms,” as Gabri puts it, and not the mere fact of cooperation, that are today at stake. To find feasible ways of teaming up and working together—ways that go beyond those by which individuals continually and inevitably contribute to and cooperate in culture today—requires a double move: It demands both an acute awareness of the abstract logic that determines the constant appropriation of social and psychic energies by capital, and a willingness to engage with the concrete micropolitics of material, social practices whose outcomes are often unintentional and can never be predicted. In other words, cooperation is a kind of ethics. Now it needs to be wrested from the historical conditions that have given it its shape.

Tom Holert is a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna.

Black Audio Film Collective, Signs of Empire, 1982–84, still from a black-and-white and color slide projection with audiotape transferred to video, 22 minutes.


1. Mira Schor, “On Creativity and Community,” M/E/A/N/I/N/G 15 (1994), reprinted in M/E /A/N/I/N/G: An Anthology of Artists’ Writings, Theory, and Criticism, ed. Susan Bee and Mira Schor (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), 337.

2. Irit Rogoff, “Production Lines,” Team Spirit, ed. Susan Sollins and Nina Castelli Sundell (New York: Independent Curators Incorporated, 1990), 39. Accessible online at

3. Gwendolyn Foster, “A Tale of Love: A Dialogue with Trinh T. Minh-ha,” Film Criticism 21, no. 3 (Spring 1997), quoted in Trinh T. Minh-ha, Cinema Interval (New York: Routledge, 1999), 244.

4. John Akomfrah, “Black Independent Film-Making: A Statement by the Black Audio Film/Video Collective,” Artrage: Inter Cultural Arts Magazine 3/4 (Summer 1983): 29, quoted in Manthia Diawara, “Power and Territory: The Emergence of Black British Film Collectives,” Fires Were Started: British Cinema and Thatcherism, 2nd ed., ed. Lester D. Friedman (London: Wallflower Press, 1996), 129.

5. Quoted in Trinh, Cinema Interval, 244.

6. Martha Rosler, Documenta 7, exh. cat., vol. 2 (Kassel: D+V Paul Dierichs, 1982), 284.

7. Josef Strau, “Friesenwall 120,” Texte zur Kunst 2 (Spring 1991): 174–75.

8. Trebor Scholz, “The Participatory Challenge,” DATA Browser 03: Curating Immateriality; the Work of the Curator in the Age of Network Systems, ed. Joasia Krysa (New York: Autonomedia, 2006), 195–213.

9. Nicolas Bourriaud, Esthétique relationelle (Dijon, France: Les Presses du réel, 2002).

10. Grant H. Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

11. Johanna Billing, Maria Lind, and Lars Nilsson, eds., Taking the Matter into Common Hands: On Contemporary Art and Collaborative Practices (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2007).

12. Claire Bishop, “The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents,” Artforum (February 2006): 178–83.

13. Blake Stimson and Gregory Sholette, introduction to Collectivism After Modernism: The Art of Social Imagination After 1945 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 13.

14. 16 Beaver Group, “Introduction I to Continental Drift,” 2006,

15. Rene Gabri, “Postscript from Rene,” in Billing, Lind, and Nilsson, Taking the Matter into Common Hands, 127–28.