[Ed. note: This “Dossier on Collaborative Documentary Practice: Histories, Theories, Practices” will be posted on Afterimage Online in three parts, beginning May 15 with the Introduction and Essay One, followed by Essay Two on May 22, and Essays Three and Essay Four in June.]
Dossier on Collaborative Documentary Practice: Histories, Theories, Practices
We find ourselves in a pivotal moment when the participatory documentary demands to be reclaimed, considered anew, and reenergized.
The piling up of new technologies, affordances, social relations, and political challenges prompts us to reexamine the forms, functions, and changing roles for documentary practices.
No longer a fixed object, documentary is moving to iterative, shape-shifting forms. No longer simply located on one screen in one place, documentary now migrates toward trans-mediated structures.
Yet, while all this exciting activity unfolds, the field of documentary studies has focused almost exclusively on the cinematic forms and structures of legacy analog artifacts.
In the background and still marginalized, there exists an invisible documentary history that revolves around a different set of vectors.
These new vectors displace the centrality of the auteur/director’s finished artifact. They recalibrate the form toward a more place-based, environmentally located practice of co-creation, collaboration, and community.
This counter history, where documentary is framed as a participatory practice, discovers new communities and invents new use values. The field of social practice art—a major force in the art world in recent decades—actually has a long history in documentary that is not situated in theatrical, broadcast, or festival settings.
If the director/producer model is a vertical practice, then participatory documentary offers a scaffolding that is horizontal. The documentary director now has the ability to transform into “community designer” for the purpose of convening people around issues that are repressed or suppressed, contradictory and unresolved.
In this model, the production becomes a process for community mobilization, renewal, and a provisional restructuring of the public sphere.
This dossier proposes to mine and explore the practices, theories, and histories of the participatory documentary in relation to new interfaces and new theorizations.
PATRICIA R. ZIMMERMANN is professor of screen studies at Ithaca College, co-director of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival, and author of many books on documentary. For more information see http://faculty.ithaca.edu/patty.
Another Way of Being: Hidden Histories of Collaborative Documentary Practices
By Reece Auguiste
In 1964, Werner Haftman, director of the documenta III exhibition in Kassel, Germany, made the following declaration:
The idea of work sharing and teamwork, which produces wonderful results in the modern industrial world, is not appropriate for the art world. In the art world, it is, in fact, a bastard idea. The documenta exhibition wants to show the singular individual instead, the singular creative spirit of the artist.1
If, as Gilles Deleuze contends, the history of philosophy is a history of posing problems, then the history of documentary practice is a history of posing problems about how this work should be conceptualized and realized. The central issue is that the conventional model of artistic practice has engendered a crisis in documentary production practices, demanding that we rethink questions pertaining to the materiality of artistic production. More specifically, implicit in documentary practice are hermeneutic questions that pertain to politics, culture, and representation of the exigencies that have come to define our historical moment.
The question, then, is how should documentary practitioners confront, explore, and articulate shifting critical issues in local, national, and global political discourse? We must think of this question not in the abstract but as concrete, material, and lived experience. It requires that documentary practitioners and scholars remain vigilant and critical of their own epistemic assumptions as to what actually constitutes documentary practice and what those assumptions imply.
This in turn raises an ontological question: How is the artist constituted in relation to the material conditions of cultural production? I contend that the artist’s ontology, or existence as an artist intersects with documentary practice and is shaped by its traditions, while simultaneously such intersections tend to reconfigure the nature of artistic work. Therefore, the artist embodies a way of being in the world in relation to the politics of artistic production, which is often the result of (unacknowledged) ideological proclivities embedded in the traditions of practice. In my opinion, documentary practice cannot exist without the operational exactitude of being. In other words, the artists’ historical consciousness always exists in relation to the documentary tradition, so an awareness of the cultural tropes that constitute one’s being is essential to the formation of a documentary practice that is critical of the past while simultaneously forging new modalities of practice and aesthetics. Therefore, being, its formation and material operations, is the modus operandi that structures documentary practice and gives the form its potentiality for different modes of representation.
The artist’s inscription at the center of documentary practice must acknowledge that any method of practice necessarily occurs within the ontological field of operation and its political and cultural context. These contexts are the fabric, the materiality of the artists’ mode of being in relation to any given historical or unfolding event. Therefore, we must endeavor to examine why it is that auteur practice has assumed a hegemonic position in our public discourse about artistic production while it has simultaneously served to marginalize collaborative practice as a viable mode of creating work.
Clearly, the academy has served a strategic and ideological function in the promotion and legitimization of auteur practice, as is evident in the volumes of film courses on auteur theory in which the film director is valorized as the singular agent of creative production. This has resulted in the marginalization of the kind of dialogic reasoning that comes with collaborative practices as alternative modalities of making artistic work. Collaborative practice does not revolve around the operations of a singular ego but rather embraces another way of being in the creative process. Two interrelated processes are at work here, being-for-oneself and being-for-others, and the interplay of these two operations determines artistic collaboration. It is in the intersection of these two movements that collaborative practice is constituted and through which it must realize its potential.
In spite of academia’s marginalization, artistic collaboration has maintained a constant parallel presence in relation to auteur practice’s hegemonic position. Regardless of the personal and professional costs to artists, collaboration is the movement that refuses to disappear.
We can look to the cultural practices of the nineteenth-century Société Anonyme Coopérative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, et Graveurs (Cooperative and Anonymous Association of Painters, Sculptors and Engravers) to identify instances in which early collaborative practice took the form of social distribution and exhibition. Born in opposition to the corrosive impact of the official annual Salons, the founding figures Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Camille Pissarro, Auguste Renoir, and Alfred Sisley established this independent cooperative as a forum for artists to meet, discuss, exchange ideas, and exhibit their work. It was this group that launched the impressionist movement in 1874. In fact, between 1874 and 1886, Societe Anonyme des Artistes organized eight independent Salons in Paris.
The early twentieth-century European avant-garde emerged on a continent that was engulfed in the chaos ushered in by World War I, the 1917 Russian Revolution, and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867–1918), which significantly transformed the European political and cultural landscape. Thus, the early twentieth-century avant-garde ascended from the collapsing Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was itself the last remnant of the Habsburg Empire. It can be argued that the emergence of the European avant-garde was not only a response to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but a commitment to a cultural politics of social transformation driven by both dystopian and utopian narratives of self and nation. In this context, new forms of structured and unstructured social organizations and new ways of making art emerged. For example, Dada as an art movement (which I will explore later) emerged in Zurich, Switzerland, in response to the nationalism that had spawned the horrors of World War I, with a cultural agenda that was antithetical to the bourgeois aristocratic order. To underpin this historical trajectory, I will briefly reference examples of collaborative practice that were integral to the formation and evolution of the avant-garde.
On the eve of World War I, a strident group of German artists thrived between 1911 and 1914 in Munich. Known as the Der Blaue Reiter (the Blue Rider) this group was cofounded by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc and was comprised of the artists Albert Bloch, Lyonel Feininger, Alexei Jawlensky, Auguste Macke, Gabriele Münter, and Marianne Von Werefkin. These artists aggressively promoted the modernist project and did so collectively in the production and distribution of The Blue Rider Almanac (1912). Their first publication contained more than 140 illustrations including Pablo Picasso’s Woman with Mandolin at the Piano (1911), an article by Arnold Schoenberg, German woodcuts, Chinese paintings, and a facsimile of Alexander Scriabin’s symphony Prometheus: The Poem of Fire (1910). In the preface to The Blue Rider Almanac was inscribed this call to other artists:
Art, literature, even “exact” science, are in various stages of change in this new era; they will all be overcome by it. Our “first and” most important aim is to reflect phenomena in the field of art that are directly connected with this change . . . we are therefore asking those artists who feel inwardly related to our goals to turn to us as brethren.2
Unfortunately, due to the onset of World War I, Der Blaue Reiter’s activities were severely disrupted—a situation that was further compounded by the untimely deaths of Macke in 1914 and Marc in 1916, both on the war front. In the interwar period, Hugo Ball’s Dada manifesto of 19163 declared a new tendency in European art practice that also simultaneously signified the formation of a radically new artistic consciousness. Influenced by futurism, constructivism, cubism, and expressionism, Dada’s root-like structure, its unevenness, its heterogeneity, its multiple forms of artistic engagement including poetry, sculpture, theatre, photography, performance art, and painting, enunciated not only new modes of artistic practice but also a commitment to working through nonhierarchical organizational structures. For example, Richard Huelsenbeck’s delivered “First German Dada Manifesto” in January 19184, which was signed by Raoul Hausmann, Franz Jung, George Grosz, Marcel Janco, Huelsenbeck, and others, gave voice to the loosely collaborative nature of Dada in Germany, and explicitly stated that “Dada is a club which has been founded in Berlin which you can join without any obligations. Here, every man is president and everyone has a vote in artistic matters.”5 In the wake of Dada’s manifesto arrived Vladimir Tatlin’s Russian constructivism with the underlying philosophy that art is something that can be constructed—that art was a practice linked to a political and social project.
Constructivism assumed multiple pathways to collaborative artistic practice, such as Alexander Rodchenko’s photomontage illustrated interpretations of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poem “About This”; Vladimir Tatlin’s architectural project Monument to the Third International (universally known as Tatlin’s Tower [1919–20]); and the formation of the constructivist collective journal Left Front of the Arts (LEF)—all of which point to a collaborative endeavor by artists to defend the avant-garde against the emerging doctrine of Soviet socialist realism. For this group, artistic collaboration was the central organizing category for cinematic production. For example, the intertitles and animated sequences for Dziga Vertov’s Kino Eye (1924) were designed by Rodchenko, and the production design and costumes for the science fiction film Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924, directed by Yakov Protazanov) were designed by the futurist/suprematist/cubist painter Aleksandra Aleksandrovna Ekster.
In 1921, Gregori Kotzinsev and Leonid Trauberg established the Factory of the Eccentric Actor (FEKS), which served as both theatre and studio with the objective of training actors and pursuing collaborative artistic production of film and theatre. Kozintsev and Trauberg collaborated in the making of a number of experimental films including The Adventures of Oktiabrina (1924), The Overcoat (1926), and The New Babylon (1929). Their collaborative practice continued until 1945.
In 1924, The Association of Revolutionary Cinematography (ARK) was launched by Sergei Eisenstein, Kozintsev, Lev Kuleshov, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Trauberg, and Vertov as a significant collaborative platform for artists to engage in public discourse about the role of cinema in the social, political and, cultural development of a Soviet socialist society. They also produced the journals Kino-Zhurnal ARK, Kino i Kultura, Proletarskoe Kino, and Kino Front. In a critical essay about collaborative artistic practices between 1937 and 1943, Horace Brockington writes that:
acts of human collaboration became essential for survival at a time when the word collaborator had a double meaning. . . . Through collaborative acts, the artists and their supporters found viable vehicles against the forces that threaten the very notion of what makes us human: will and creative imagination.6
This was the environment in which the Cuban cubist painter Wilfredo Lam collaborated with French writer and founder of surrealism Andre Breton in the production of Breton’s Fata Morgana shortly after Lam’s arrival in Marseilles in 1940. Lam’s method entailed the selection of stanzas from Fata Morgana that evoked images akin to surrealism, which he illustrated with China ink on strips of parchment paper. The artists declared themselves to be co-authors of the document.
This cultural map suggests that collaborative practice between 1912 and 1940 was a decentralized and transnational movement defined by its loose structure of multiple practices across artistic mediums. Consider the following geographical locations in which artists with different cultural, aesthetic, and political agendas have pursued collaborative practice.
In 1963, the artists Genpei Akasegawa, Jiro Takamatsu, and the neo-Dadaist Natsuyuki Nakanishi formed the Hi Red Center (HRC) which staged a series of street performances and cultural events in Tokyo such as the “Street Cleaning Event” during the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games in response to a government mandate to present clean images of the city. HRC’s activities raised questions pertaining to Japan’s surrender after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the role of the individual, centralized order, and authority.
In 1979 in New York City, Group Material was constituted as a not-for-profit organization. Between 1979 and 1996, Group Material produced a body of collaborative projects that signaled innovative ways to create art and pursue curatorial practice as collective endeavor. In an insightful assessment of Group Material, Alison Green writes that it can be discussed in a number of ways: as a collective rather than an individual practice, as activists and ‘brand hackers’, as a clever deployment of postmodernist theory and of their innovations as artists working curatorially5 in opposition to conservative mainstream art of the period.
Cine de la Base (Cinema of the Base) was founded in 1973 by Raymundo Gleyzer to clandestinely produce, promote, and distribute films about the Argentinian workers and the trade union movement. Following the 1976 Argentine military coup, Gleyzer “disappeared” in 1976. Also in Argentina, the Grupo Cine Liberación (Liberation Film Group) was founded as an art collective by Octavio Getino, Gerardo Vallejo, and Fernando Solanas to produce films “anonymously.” In the Argentinian political context of the 1960s and ’70s, collaboration had additional benefits; the collective authorship movement helped to erase individual signatures out of a desire for self-protection from political repression.
In each of these instances, collective practice was in response to social crises and political realignments and new institutional forces.
In my own experience as a founding member of the British-based Black Audio Film Collective (BAFC), our initial response was to a new historical ethos of structural, institutional, and ideological shifts created by Margaret Thatcher’s conservative revolution of the 1980s. BAFC was constituted in 1982 with the singular objective of making a significant intervention into British audio-visual culture by challenging the marginalization of British post-colonial subjects in both the British mainstream media and the independent film sector.
As a newly constituted collective we started by asking ourselves a set of concrete, historically informed questions such as “Was a collective practice possible, and if so, what would that entail?” Could a group of high-strung individuals from a diverse range of disciplines (psychology, sociology, photography, mixed media, and Althusserian philosophy) form a working collective? How could the fusion of these disciplines into one composite structure create discursive, dialogic, multilayered, compelling, and provocative aesthetics?
BAFC had three main objectives: cultural production, exhibition, and participation in symposia/conferences. The challenge was putting these elements in place. At the time, there were no contemporary models in Britain’s diaspora of black artists that we could emulate. Because the auteur model reigned supreme and many of our predecessors had folded into its field, collaborative practice was considered nearly impossible. However, we knew that historically, artists had pursued collaborative practice—and quite often successfully. We looked to the Dada movement, which says that anything is possible, but you must create your own blueprint. You develop the model of practice that can best meet the political, ideological, and philosophical challenges of the moment. And for a young bunch of refusniks it had to be collaborative practice.
We were part of the first wave of UK postwar immigrant children who had the benefit of a university education. With that came a moral responsibility, an ethical commitment to make sense of ourselves historically, politically, and culturally in a hostile society. Our post-colonial presence in Britain was viewed as a problem for the host community. We could not be ignored, but our existence contradicted notions of Britain as an idyllic and exclusively white world fueled by narratives ranging from King Arthur and Robin Hood to Christopher Robin and Mary Poppins. So we had to address the notion of being in opposition to this imagined Britain and in relation to the postcolonial moment in practice and new forms of representation.
Questions of aesthetic, political, and historical representation were immediately placed on our agenda as issues that could only be resolved collectively. We created counter-narratives of representation, identity, and alternative practices as a means of legitimizing ourselves as black British postcolonial subjects; and that project of cultural archaeology began with the two-part tape-slide show Expeditions: Signs of Empire and Images of Nationality (both 1983).
The catalyst for continuing our intervention was the so-called Race Riots in 1985. That event threatened to define us and called for an alternative account to mainstream media’s discourse about immigrant communities. We wanted to say something new, and the result was Handsworth Songs (1986).
As we worked on the project of the moment, we met once a week to pitch ideas and to map out future work. Sometimes the discussions would continue in our local pubs. Each project idea was placed under collective scrutiny, as we discussed and tested the viability of the project idea logistically, ideologically, and aesthetically—in fact, more ideas were shelved than realized; many projects that the collective agreed to pursue did not get made. For example, the Salman Rushdie Project In the Forest of Things, the Zora Neale Hurston project In the Garden of Heavenly Rest, and the Chris Marker project were postponed indefinitely. Scripts were collectively produced and critiqued—everyone had an opportunity for input; different group members conducted archival research, assuming different roles in the production and post-production process.
My historical experience of collaborative practice suggests that it is the only alternative practice to the auteur model. Collaborative practice requires participants to let go of their individual egos and embrace being-for-oneself and being-for-others in the pursuit of a practice capable of addressing the shifting historical conditions of our existence. Because of the explosive impact of digital technology and new tools of communication, working collectively could mean different structures of organization, communication, and workflows. We can now establish transnational forms of artistic collaboration impossible in previous eras. The proliferation of new technologies and the possibilities presented by new production platforms mean that collaborative practice is the only alternative to the hegemonic auteur model. Though it is tempting to say that the auteur model is becoming increasingly obsolete, it is probably a fairer assessment to say that the auteur model will continue to have a presence on the cultural a landscape. However, with the proliferation of new media technologies, collaborative tools and environments, artists will become increasingly aware of the impact and benefits that new technologies can bring to large projects nationally and transnationally. In these emerging and shifting production contexts artistic collaboration is indeed a viable model for creative work, dialogue, and curatorial practice.
REECE AUGUISTE is a transnational documentary artist and assistant professor of critical media practices at the University of Colorado, Boulder. For more information see www.colorado.edu/cmci/people/critical-media-practices/reece-auguiste.
NOTES 1. Nina Zimmer, “Concepts of Collaborative Art in the Divided Germany of the 1960s” in Artistic Bedfellows: Histories, Theories and Conversations in Collaborative Art Practices, ed. Holly Crawford and Vladimir Belogolovsky (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2008), 64. 2. Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, “Preface to Der Blaue Reiter Almanac” in 100 Artists Manifestos: From the Futurists to the Stuckists, ed. Alex Danchev (London: Penguin Classics, 2011), 36–37. 3. Hugo Ball, “Dada Manifesto” in 100 Artists Manifestos: From the Futurists to the Stuckists, 126. 4. Richard Huelsenbeck, “The Dada German Manifesto” in 100 Artists Manifestos: From the Futurists to the Stuckists, 145. 5. Allison Green, “Citizen Artists: Group Material,” Afterfall, www.afterall.org/journal/issue.26/citizen-artists-group-material. 6. Horace Brockington, “Creative Occupation: Collaborative Artistic Practices in Europe 1937–1943” in Artistic Bedfellows,