Collaboration through Craft (Bloomsbury)

Book review in Crafts (Sept./Oct. 2013, pp. 69)
Collaboration through Craft (Bloomsbury: 2013)
Amanda Ravetz, Alice Kettle and Helen Felcey (editors)

Collaboration is trendy. Cash is tight, our time must be stretched, and many of us – from makers, to curators, academics and gallery owners – juggle an alarming array of career obligations. Enter collaboration: antidote to professional isolation, Viagra for creative fatigue. I say this to help explain why my heart sank on hearing about Collaboration through Craft. I don’t deny that when collaboration works it can be spectacular, but it is rare to hear acknowledgement – from galleries, museums, publishers – that collaboration can also be a disastrous waste of time.

This book hardly defines collaboration as disastrous, but it offers a disarmingly honest reflection on how difficult and confusing it can be. As the editors acknowledge in their introduction, “Collaboration across political and geographical divides can invoke explosive, cathartic or simmering emotions, fuelled by uneven craft economies and craft languages.” In the sixteen chapters that follow, collaboration takes on a gamut of guises: commercial, emotional, industrial; orchestrated and organic; twos, threes and many. What appears throughout is the notion that friction can be a constructive rather than destructive element of the creative process. Stephen Knott, for example, writes about “craft as a strategy for discomfort” at the Royal College of Art’s student-led Department 21. On occasion this feels like a polite explanation for agreeing-to-disagree because murder isn’t really a nice option, but more often this friction feels actively sought.

A number of contributors acknowledge that collaboration raises as many questions as it answers. Alice Kettle, one of the book’s editors, joins David Gates and Jane Webb to author one of the few chapters overtly co-written. The trio cite an interest in pushing beyond lip service to collaboration “to genuinely work together, having witnessed what we all considered at times to be a superficial interchange and subcontracting of skills.” Towards the end of the book, Judith Leemann and Shannon Stratton discuss their curation of Gestures of Resistance, an exhibition that exemplifies Kettle, Gates and Webb’s desire to push beyond the superficial. “We are well aware of deep habits that expect reason to precede result in ways tidy, linear and critically defensible,” write Leemann and Stratton. “But in making and witnessing the unfolding of this exhibition, it is the very beautiful slips and transpositions of reason and result that stand out.” Such curatorial experiments reveal one of the serious challenges facing collaborative practice: how best to present it to others? Demonstrating the honesty that makes this book unique, Lemman and Stratton acknowledge that viewer feedback to the exhibition included “confusion”.

I had the privilege to read a draft introduction to this publication and knew early on that the editors’ intentions were far from a glossy PR exercise for collaboration. Instead, this is a book that feels alive. This may be a result of the first person perspective adopted by many of the chapters’ authors; the sage introductions that frame each of the four thematic sections; or the fact that many chapters, even if penned by one voice, are written with an acute awareness that they are speaking on behalf of their collaborators. All attempt to capture something other than a monotone, for which we should all be grateful.

Debt to Glenn Adamson’s book Thinking through Craft is present in the title of this publication. Here he has penned a curious epilogue, which sees the majority of projects discussed in the book to be “transient artistic collaborations” and suggests that in this context the real benefit of collaboration is to refine the intentions of the individual maker. I agree that collaboration can foreground what we don’t know, as much as what we do. But I don’t agree with Adamson’s reading that the contributors here seek collaboration as a stress test for their own individual practices. As a writer, I would be the first to admit that I am not hard wired to seek collaboration. But in reading this volume I came to accept that many others are.

This book suggests that collaboration can be many things. Some strategies may, with time, prove more useful than others. But the majority of contributors describe a genuine commitment to making, exhibiting and thinking as more than one. While collaboration can slow down, rather then speed up, the arrival of tangible outcomes, this hasn’t tarnished collaborations currency. Instead what this book makes clear is that collaboration offers no short cuts.