How many times have you said this to someone? “We should collaborate on something!” How many times has a successful project, or an ongoing collaborative relationship, resulted from this statement? Yeah. I thought so.
It seems to be a common goal among artists; maybe we want to work with someone we admire (or desire), to combine business and friendship (because we’re such good friends, we should be great at making art together!), to meld our creative life with our romantic one, or just to take the loneliness out of art making. For those of us in academia, we are regularly encouraged to participate in cross-disciplinary collaboration – one of the many buzzwords our institutions of learning and grant-giving agencies love to hear.
I’ve been thinking a lot about collaboration lately, its role in art making, and how it can be instrumental in building one’s personal art community. And after my review in this month’s issue of a book on Dora Maar, the photographer who became Pablo Picasso’s mistress, and who subsequently lost her creative independence (some also say her mind) during her years as his companion and muse, I’ve been thinking even more about hazards and pitfalls of being part of a creative couple.
A few months ago, I assigned my students Robert Adams’ wonderful essay, Colleagues. Adams begins, “Your own photography is never enough. Every photographer who has lasted has depended on other people’s pictures too–photographs that may be public or private, serious or funny, but that carry with them a reminder of community.” He goes on to talk about enthusiasm, luck, idealism, courage, persistence, and the joy to be gained from sharing our thoughts and efforts with fellow artists. He reminds us that we need others for support, encouragement, and to inspire us. Of a friend who was never dissuaded from a dangerous practice of taking pictures while hanging out of the sunroof of his moving car, he writes, “When I hear his voice on the phone now, full of avidity even in old age, I promise myself that I will take grand, unsafe pictures.”
So, in thinking about the ways our peers can inspire us, and the complicated nature of this beast called collaboration, I decided to ask a few people who have successfully created artwork as part of a partnership to share some thoughts on the matter. I interviewed three artists who have made collaborative work a major component of their practice: Julie Anand, whose most recent project with longtime partner and collaborator Damon Sauer is called Ground Truth, Marni Shindelman, whose ongoing collaboration with Nate Larson, Geolocation, is evolving and growing every year, and Jacinda Russell, who regularly works with several different artists on a variety of projects, and views collaboration as a necessary component in her work. Interestingly, each of these artists inhabits a different kind of collaborative relationship: the life/work partnership, the “art marriage”, and the community-based, skill-and-concept sharing model. After talking to these three very different artists, I was energized and inspired. Like Robert Adams, I came away from each conversation with a desire to make grand, unsafe art.
Interview One – Julie Anand and Damon Sauer
Julie Anand and Damon Sauer are artists and educators based in Phoenix, Arizona, and have been collaborating since 2005. I’ve admired Julie’s work for a long time, from her early work with the Land Art of the American West program at UNM to the truly interdisciplinary way she approaches art-making, and the smart ways she investigates boundaries in many iterations. Julie and I held a Q & A session via email about their work.
Why/when did you decide to work collaboratively initially? Was it a specific project? What were your goals for this?
Damon and I met in the Photography MFA graduate program at the University of New Mexico. I think we both felt that we were working on similar root questions, though our practices looked entirely different. Our first collaboration involved putting our solo works together for a two-person exhibition at Rhode Island College. We really started to understand each other through producing a catalog for this show that connected our solo practices through the exploration of issues of interdependence. The catalog had writing from both of our voices.
How did you make it work? What were some of the particular challenges you faced in working collaboratively? Were there any surprises?
Eventually we decided to gamble on trying to make work together. Through conversation, we chose the Venn diagram to describe the ideals that would guide that collaboration—seeking common ground while honoring areas of difference. I think seeking that balance describes the challenges of collaboration pretty well. Our experiment in living and making has continued thus far for twelve years.
How have your subsequent projects / collaborations evolved? How do they intersect with your individual practices - or do you work exclusively as a team?
All of our collaborative projects have in one way or another dealt with issues of boundaries—personal boundaries, perceptual boundaries, physical boundaries…and of course our shared authorship is a mirror of that boundary investigation happening within the work. Right now our project is so intense that we are both devoted exclusively to its pursuit, but in general we have continued to make things on our own parallel to the collaborative practice. My personal work connects with Ground Truth in many ways…I came into art through the natural sciences and my solo works have explored material culture and body/land relations. Damon once made an image per day of the sky for a year collaging that into a visual calendar. He always brings his phone app for stargazing when we go camping.
What do you feel are the advantages or disadvantages of this manner of working?
In some ways it’s easier to work with a partner because you can share skills, perspectives, and labor. In other ways it’s much harder because everything is a negotiation. It’s much more complex that this, but one thing I’ve recognized with the current project is that I tend to reach outward toward contextual relationships and Damon tends to reach inward toward big-picture poetics.
I know many couples who are both artists, but few who genuinely collaborate. As domestic partners as well as artistic partners, how much does this affect your lives and work? How do you negotiate these dual roles?
I guess I would have to say that there isn’t much of a duality left between our roles as domestic partners and artists anymore if there ever was one to begin with. That was part of the initial impulse to get together and to work together—that we were each exploring breaking down dualities/ at least softening them…myself nibbling at art/science and body/land boundaries and Damon softening the edges between self/other.
Do you have any advice for artists who are trying to develop collaborative projects?
Prioritize listening, honor difference, celebrate common ground. That may not be a bad strategy for living in general.
Can you tell us about your recent project, Ground Truth? How did the project develop? How important is your collaborative practice to the evolution of this project?
In Ground Truth, we explore the relationship of a human being to a vast network of information. We are visualizing the pervasiveness of contemporary satellites orbiting the earth in relation to a field of satellite calibration markers that were part of the first spy satellite program during the Cold War. We map the contemporary satellites present in the sky from the vantage of each concrete cross at the moment of photographing.
We got started because Damon bookmarked a NYTimes online article about a mysterious mark in China that people hypothesized was built for satellite eyes. The article referenced a single marker in the desert south of where we live. Eventually we made a field trip to explore and later uncovered that it was a part of a massive system of markers that were historically very significant. Usually we develop projects that are labor-rich and require two people in some way. In this case, the fieldwork is incredibly physical and operating our tethered 16-ft telescoping boom requires two bodies. I bring a deep and long investment in science/art relationships, geeking out on the contextual details, and communication/research skills amongst other things. Damon brings his interests in technology, design skills, and incredible visual precision as well as his sense of the poetics of the exploration among other things.
Interview Two - Marni Shindelman and Nate Larson
Nate Larson, a professor at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), and Marni Shindelman, a professor at the University of Georgia, began working on their Geolocation project in 2009. I caught up with Marni on the phone last week, and we had a long conversation about the powerhouse that is Larson Shindelman.
This May marks their 10-year anniversary as a collaborative duo, and they jokingly refer to their relationship an “art marriage.” Note - they aren’t actually married, or in a personal relationship - theirs is a creative and professional one.When I asked how their partnership began, she laughed and said, “Like any marriage, we even disagree on how we met!” Marni credits SPE for bringing the two together. They had mutual friends, but didn’t really connect until an SPE in Miami, when after a few too many drinks they said those fateful words “We should collaborate!” Their first effort, a “psychic photo project” called Witness prompted their first road-trip together, to Photolucida in the summer of 2008. The following year they started working on Geolocation. Both are interested in ideas of social medial and social justice, and they are always working on side projects as well as their larger primary focus. One of the most recent is #Gratitude, which began in 2016 on a residency in St. Petersburg, Russia. Photographing sites in St. Petersburg and Moscow linked to #ThanksPutinForThis, they saw parallels to the #ThanksObama hashtag in the US, and are now working on photographing Los Angeles and Chicago, the sister cities to their Russian counterparts.
I’ve heard Larson and Shindelman speak together, and they’re fantastic – a perfect comedic duo - but I wanted to know more about how they work together. While they live in different cities, they end up spending about 30-40 days on the road together. Shindelman emphasized how they work, saying, “we hand the work off, back and forth; we don’t hash things out together.” As she put it, their ideas feed off of one another; there’s often a “ping pong of content.” One advantage of working as a team, she said, is that they each peak at different times of day, with different approaches to making work. As Marni put it, they complement each other, “Nate is a night owl and I am a morning person, and my approach is to make work to get through to the better work, while Nate is of the make it harder, make it faster school of thought.”
And while they’ve become closest of friends over the past ten years, Shindelman emphasizes the importance of separating business from pleasure. They call “business meetings” and have learned to divide their labor. Marni is the de-facto travel agent, mapping out the sites and organizing data while beginning a lot of their writing, while Nate is in charge of post-production and the web site. The best result from working as a team, she said, is that you learn so much more about yourself when working with someone else. Having a partner allows them to navigate the business aspects (and the nastiness) of the art world together. Ultimately, she compares it to a traditional marriage, with the necessity for compromise ever-present. When I asked what advice she had for artists wanting to collaborate, she laughed, and said, “Read a dating manual, and take out the word sex and replace it with art-making.” One of the reasons Nate attributes to their longevity is that he has said working with Marni poses more questions than answers, and the questions just keep coming. As we were wrapping up our call, I had one last question for her – what do they disagree on most? Her answer – “Money and saturation.”
Interview Three – Jacinda Russell
I first heard Jacinda Russell speak in 2014, and was fascinated with the range, the humor, and the intelligence of her work. Another artist/educator, she lives in Indianapolis and teaches at Ball State University.
Right away, she told me, “I realized that my first collaboration was actually with my father when I was an undergraduate student!” After her BFA thesis show, her father, a painting professor at the university, proposed a joint show. The showed individual work as well as collaborative pieces, as her father had often used her old test prints in his collage work. This early start led to an enduring, indirect method of collaborating. She wrote me later, “My Art Department series is 75% about my father. He provided me with a letter of the most bizarre circumstances that ever happened to him while teaching at Boise State and I am recreating/responding to them at Ball State University. He also gave me his old teaching evaluations and I paired them with ones of mine that I thought were appropriate.”
Russell estimates she’s had five major collaborative relationships since 2009. The first project ended up fizzling out after the partners couldn’t agree on how the project would evolve. But, she said, “It was transformative in the way I make art now. It gave me permission to be goofy.” After that, she made a lot of work about failure.
Much of Russell’s work is autobiographical. An ongoing project begun in 2011 consists of three parts, one of which focuses on objects used to mark time. One piece, 12 for 7 Years as an Adjunct Professor, consists of 12 photographs of her saved brown paper lunch bags. A longtime friend, Hannah Barnes, ended up taking the bags and created a series of watercolor portraits of the bags. She eventually orchestrated a performance in which they ripped up all of the bags into small pieces, to be stamped and distributed in the context of a group exhibition. Their friendship as it pertains to their art, Russell says, is about helping each other; they formulate their ideas apart, but help each other work through their issues. Sometimes, the pieces intersect. She also collaborates in this manner with her colleague at Ball State, Brent Cole. She and Cole, a glass artist, have been working for the past three years developing a project involving printing cyanotypes on glass. When they met, they found they had something in common - each uses swimming pools as an element in their work. He’s helped her with past projects, and she him. Russell described their relationship as a skills-sharing partnership.
Returning to her work with Camden Hardy, she says they first began an ongoing project in 2012. “We found we had so much in common with how we look at the world and the power of objects. We base (our collaborations) in a mutual idea about how to make art.” For the project, they decided to send each other an object to make work about/with, but with no context provided. Russell sent Hardy a lock of hair, from 1910, that she had received as a gift. He sent her what she described as “a perfect block of concrete.” After three months of trying to figure out what to do with it, she finally obtained his permission to do whatever she wanted with the object. So she began chipping off pieces of the block (called Camden’s Rock) and redistributing the pieces around the world. She chronicled it on her blog, and it took three years to distribute all of the pieces. He eventually told her that it was an object with profound importance to his work as an artist, so when there was one chip of concrete remaining, they deposited it together in Tucson, under the tree where he first found it.
Russell’s approach to collaboration is all encompassing. The more I talked to her, the more the webs of interconnection between her projects and friendships seemed to grow. For her part, she says she is fascinated by the relationships found within making art, and connectivity. She’s constantly opened up to new materials and processes. And like the other artists featured here, she says her collaborative efforts have taught her volumes about herself as an artist. Maybe it’s worth the risk for the rest of us, too.
Lauren Greenwald is an Assistant Professor of Photography at the University of South Carolina.
She lives and works in Columbia, SC.