Ruth Barker

Collaboration in the Work of Something Haptic

2006

 

Transcript of a talk given at Perthshire Visual Arts Forum 

 

I was thinking about what to present today and wondering how to talk about our collaborative practice. I’ve decided to use some images of Something Haptic’s work to think around collaboration as an idea, and then to touch on some of the implications of collaboration in terms of the wider context of visual arts practice generally.

 

As in any presentation where one person is speaking on behalf of a larger group, there are a few caveats:

Firstly, although the work I’m going to present is wholly collaborative, my interpretation of that work is necessarily subjective. I’m going to talk about my experience of collaboration, but please don’t take that as the definitive opinion of the group as a whole. Collaboration is a complicated question and I’m sure if you were to ask all four of us, you’d get four very different answers. Perhaps that’s something we can come back to at the end, if Niall wants to put across a different point of view in regard to anything I’ve mentioned.

 

Secondly, although this talk will use the discussion of collaborative practice as a focus, I do want to stress that Something Haptic as a group does not make work about collaboration. That’s quite important to the way that we function, and the way that we generate work. Something Haptic makes work about particular externalised themes and concerns, and our collaborative practice becomes a way to execute that investigation. I just wanted to stress before we start that the methodology and the content of practice are not necessarily the same thing, and that in the case of this group particularly they are distinctly different.

 

So perhaps the best thing to do is to start with a little background. Something Haptic is a collaborative group based in Glasgow. We’re based in the Glasgow Sculpture Studios, and we have a predominantly sculptural practice - we operate to produce works that have a shared collective authorship. We don’t have different roles within the group, and we don’t have a hierarchy.

There are four of us in all, and they are myself; Stephanie Connelly, Niall Macdonald, and Becky Sik. We all maintain separate individual artistic practices as well as the collaborative Haptic practice, and those individual practices are both very different to one another, and very different to Something Haptic’s practice as well. Something Haptic has its own artistic identity, which is distinct from any of ours.

 

The way that we work is quite structured at the moment – that’s not to say that it will never change, but just now it’s the most appropriate way for us to resolve work while still maintaining our other commitments. Just now we come together for specific projects, spending around 3 weeks to a month working very intensively on a single piece together. We don’t have a Haptic studio practice, but instead we work to a particular deadline, starting with an area of interest and refining that until we feel we have a work, exactly as an individual artist might. 

The only difference is that we go through that process as a unit, which you can almost think of as a pluralised artistic consciousness rather than a singular one, which allows us to really pare down the initial idea into what we hope is a resolved and coherent work. This is Siege and Counter Siege, a piece we made in the Netherlands. It’s actually a very early work, and you can see that we built a wooden Ferris Wheel in sections and it was designed so that its dimensions prevented it from reaching completion. As you can see the pivot point is exactly mid-way between the floor and ceiling, but that that leads to a diameter that is too wide for the room. It’s an image of the melancholy failure of grand or noble aspiration, and emerged from a whole series of conversations we were having at the time about political systems, utopias, and the idea of tragedy in quite a classical sense – when a downfall is predicted by a single fatal but implicit flaw.

 

What does that collaborative process actually mean then? For a start it sounds impossible. To have four artists generate a single piece that they all share the conception of, the building of, the authorship of.

Even if it’s not impossible, many people would say that it was at the very least undesirable. Who wants art by committee? Who wants art for the lowest common denominator? The risk of course is that this peculiar process generates a work that’s simply the one that fewest group members hated.

 

There is no answer to that. There is no single reason why Haptic works – if indeed it does work – and so all I can suggest are a few possibilities.  Firstly, we are not a democracy. There is no voting within the group, and no majority decisions are made. If there’s a three against one situation then there’s usually a reason why the feeling is not unanimous. There’s a problem somewhere, and we’ll try to sort that out. That means that clarity of communication becomes a key part of our practice, and that trust and appreciation of differences in taste or personality become critical. This is a piece we made for Generator gallery in Dundee.

It was an installation that took up both rooms of the gallery, and it was suggesting the moment of not-quite understanding, perceiving, or attaining something. We fabricated a large winch or lifting structure in powder-coated steel to support a sewn leather shape that might be a pouch, a strap, or an animal.

The steel structure is tethered to the wall in a space that it’s too large to have been made for. In the second room, a second tether indicates the absent presence of a similar structure, and a second leather shape lies on the ground. On top is a miniature plaster replica of an immense costal defence block and elsewhere there’s a black weather-vane.

 

If the way we practice is all sounding a little too ideal, then I have to disillusion you. The reality is that tempers always fray as the pressure of a deadline mounts, stress makes people say things they regret afterwards, and there’s the inevitable tension between a work that you believe in and a friendship that you believe in. Every decision is argued out – often interminably – and that is a very emotive process.

When we’re mid-production we spend almost every waking hour slaving over the piece in a really pretty unhealthy fashion. Sometimes I feel that Something Haptic is less a collaborative endeavour and more a collaborative psychosis. The piece we made for this year’s Glasgow international festival was a case in point, where we spent at least one 24-hour straight stretch fabricating the final work.

 

This is another image of the same piece. Here you can see the rear of the piece, and again there are quite similar concerns coming through. AND ONE MORE FALL, FAKTURA is a phrase that we’d used previously and which we decided to revisit in order to explore its implications. The word FAKTURA comes from Alexander Rodchenko’s ‘Programme of the First Working Group of Constructivists’ where he’s trying to define a new specialist language to articulate a particular material state or relationship that the movement felt was significant. This is an extract:

 

“… Faktura is the organic state of a worked material or the resulting new state of its organism… Faktura is material consciously worked and expediently used, without hampering the construction or restricting the tectonics.”          

 

We used the single word faktura in a phrase that we felt contained something of the sense of a last push, a last gasp attempt that contains within itself the expression of an inevitable failure. The structure is taken from the isolated form of an art-deco cinema hoarding, and we wanted to convey that sense that you’re seeing an architectural moment divorced from its superstructure but standing quite complete and luminous in this almost derelict space, five floors up on the top floor of a building in Glasgow’s City Centre. 

We wanted the text, when presented as a part of the object, to suggest perhaps an absent narrative in the sense of a title of a film that has never been made, or perhaps a single frame from the speech-board of a silent movie, so you’re seeing a fragment of meaning, and an implied other space where this phrase is contextualised by action.

I don’t want to talk too much about this piece but the other thing I should mention is the very obvious play between the Rodchenko font used for the text and the art-deco design that frames it; reference to two design movements if that are approaching a similar territory, but from totally opposing directions. Rodchenko designed his font during the period between 1923 and 1925 when he was making advertisement and packaging designs for Russian State companies. Conscious of the paradox of using capitalist-style advertising in the pursuit of revolutionary aims, he created graphic images that promoted Communist ideology as well as state products. In that I suppose you can see this repetition of loss, or of the split between the ideology or the abstract, and the indelible pragmatism of the world.

Perhaps that’s also part of the gesture of façade and representation that runs through this piece, with the tension that’s set up between the two views of the work – the one about surface, and the other with more of a utilitarian aspect.

 

One reason why that intensity of practice happens is that through collaboration we try to achieve that elusive grand gesture. Ideas of tragedy, loss, and the enigma of absence are qualities that often emerge through Something Haptic’s work. If you want the viewer to feel a sense of loss or absence, then you have to convey a sense that whatever is not present is something they wish that they could see.  That lean towards the sublime or the expansive, is one that I feel it’s more appropriate to make as a group rather than as an individual.  It seems to dissolve the question of ego that might otherwise come into play.  If it’s true that every member of Something Haptic feels ownership over a particular work, then it’s equally true that none of us feel ownership of a given piece. Though we have produced the work we are still able to feel outside of it.

 

To me, that’s actually the germ of collaboration and the reason why Haptic work looks nothing like any of our individual work. The collective practice happens in the very specific space where the individual concerns and aesthetics of these four artists overlap, but that space is simultaneously outside any of our personal experience. None of us could reproduce Haptic work on our own, and neither could any three of us make it without the fourth. It’s the particular way that we all pull against each other that creates the balance.

 

This piece is quite significant as we start to talk about that actually, because it illustrates how that structure has to be forced into shape to accommodate the realities of the situation. This piece was made for an exhibition in Melbourne, in Australia. It’s called ‘Stories Only Happen to People Who Can Tell Them’ and it was shown in Conical Gallery during Next Wave, which is an international festival of contemporary art.

Due to ill health, one of the group members was unable to go to Australia, and the others then had to come to a decision as to whether they would go or not. In the event two stayed and two went. All four members developed the work as we usually would in Glasgow, where we built a full size model of the piece, and then two members of the group went over to Melbourne to basically re-build the work. In the event, as with the production of any work, the piece changed as it entered the real world, and there were decisions that had to be made. Somehow the group dynamic was able to accommodate that, and although the piece was not the same piece as it would have been if all four members were present, it was still Haptic work – it retained that specific group identity and aesthetic.

The piece itself is based on the structure of the mechanism that swings church bells. We wanted to convey something of that cyclical motion, that repetition and weight, almost as a metaphor in some way for the cyclical patterns of events, or histories, or ideologies. By showing that structure in sections we were able to abstract the metaphor and produce a sculptural piece that dealt with similar concerns. You can see the drop of the rope, the span of the wheel, and the ergonomic quality of the bar that in the original structure should have supported the bell, but which has become more like a yolk, a guillotine head rest, or stocks.

 

The most elusive part of that process is how the piece evolves from an abstract verbal sketch to a physical object. A large part of that happens through drawing as the idea moves towards concretion but there’s also a very fundamental play between the internalised image and the externalised production.

For example, if I asked each person in this room to imagine a chair, the mental images would probably all be quite similar, but still different. We can try and get them closer together – is your chair wooden or plastic? Does it have four legs or a swivel base? Is it painted? Sanded? Varnished? It goes on and on, but eventually through discussion we would all have roughly the same chair in our heads. If we tried to then make that chair together, we would be taking the object out of this very mutable abstract sense and turning it into something that you can feel and see, touch and sit on.

 

That’s as close as I can come to describing the process that we go through as a group, but with the added reminder that rather than reproducing a pre-existing object that we have all seen before, we are trying to make a new object that none of us have seen – although some works are closer to pre-existing objects than others; this is another relatively early work ‘Means to an End’ a 15m steel seesaw shown alongside a text which read ‘A First Step to Find the Perfect Note’.

 

 

You’re sane people I’m sure and so I know that you want to ask why? Why do we do this? Why do we try to reach this almost impossible point of mutual imagination, and maybe the answer is that I don’t know. Or perhaps the answer is that we do it because it’s difficult, or because it results in works that we know couldn’t come about any other way. There’s always a moment when we’re building a piece when the momentum tips and we pile on ahead because we all almost need to see this object come out of our heads and enter the real world. And then it’s up, and people come to see it - but what happens then? When you see the work, your relationship to it changes again. Suddenly the object in front of you has a public existence wholly independent to the struggle you went through to fabricate it. You see it from a totally new vantage point, and you have to re-appraise in order to assimilate your reactions to the work as it is, not as it was or should be.

 

None of this is so very different to what happens with an individual’s practice, but perhaps it’s something in the scale that shifts. Or maybe it’s just that again what is usually quite a private and even a non-verbal process of evaluation becomes explicit and laid bare. As happens throughout the collaborative process – and as is perhaps at the heart of it – your intuitive sense about something, or your gut feeling has to be put into words so that it can be communicated to the people you’re working with.

What can make us vulnerable as individuals engaged in that process is that we risk criticism or dissent in the attempt to achieve articulacy. Conversely, what makes us strong as a group is that by achieving that point of articulation we can move on to the next piece, in theory increasingly able to describe what we want and how to reach it.

 

Something Haptic is not the only collaborative group working in Scotland, and there are as many different models of collaboration as there are people doing it. Collaborative practice as a strategy however, does raise some questions, right down to some uncertainty about okay – I thought that art was meant to be about individual expression? You have to ask what intuition actually is and whether in that case it can ever be pluralized or shared or democratised? Maybe you get into questions about the relationship between fine art and politics – about individualist as opposed to collectivist endeavour.

 

My dictionary defines intuition as ‘the state of being aware of, or knowing something without having to discover it or perceive it’. I’d maybe go further and say that in an active sense, intuition is also the ability to make the right choice without knowing why, but knowing nevertheless that it’s the right choice. Can a group of four do that together? Yes. Can they do that together to make art? Well, if it looks like art and smells like art then maybe it is art. Art is above all perhaps a language that we can use to generate new knowledge about the world by reconfiguring the elements of that world. Seen in that way, collaborative practice becomes a way to just widen that investigation a little. To frame it in a slightly different way, or to use slightly different tools.