Session 2. Collaboration as Methodology

Convened by Erin Silver, Assistant Professor, Department of Art History, Visual Art and Theory, The University of British Columbia.
Report completed by Georgia Phillips-Amos, PhD Candidate, Concordia University.

The session Collaboration as Methodology was convened by Erin Silver (Assistant Professor, University of British Columbia) with the assertion that all products of art-historical labour “stand as indexes to multiple collaborative processes.” Rather than focusing on the final results of art historical practice—such as scholarly texts, exhibitions, or artworks—Silver asked instead, “How are historians, curators, editors, and artists working collaboratively in the present?” This question made space for a group of six speakers to consider the various forms of implicit and explicit collaboration they practice.

The session opened with presentations from two speakers who work both as artists and art historians: Mark Clintberg (Associate Professor, Alberta College of Art and Design) and Randy Lee Cutler (Associate Professor, Emily Carr University of Art + Design). Each offered methodological reflections on their own recent collaborative projects, contemplating the challenges and possibilities generated by working with others, and rethinking the tools and institutional frameworks that validate and facilitate shared and interdisciplinary labour.

Following their remarks, four stakeholders presented from their respective fields: Adriana Alarcón discussed her work as Program and Outreach Coordinator, at Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art (MAWA), in Winnipeg; Postdoctoral Fellow, Elizabeth Cavaliere, shared research she has gathered from a nationwide survey on approaches to collaboration utilized and envisioned by instructors teaching Canadian art history in universities across Canada; Kari Cwynar spoke of collaborating with artists in her role as curator of public art at the Don River Valley Park, in Toronto; and Robin Simpson (PhD candidate, University of British Columbia) raised a series of questions about more implicit forms of collaboration in his work as Public Programs and Education Coordinator for the Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery, at Concordia University.

Looking Awry: Collaboration in the Time of Continual Distraction

Mark Clintberg opened his talk with the question, “What responsibilities do I have as a queer-identified collaborator?” As a form of reply, Clintberg outlined various queer currents of collaborative research and artistic practice. Clintberg cited the lead set out by Audre Lorde in her seminal 1978 essay “The Uses of the Erotic,” in which Lorde writes: “In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change. For women, this has meant a suppression of the erotic as a considered source of power and information within our lives.”1 Lorde points to the erotic as a spark for structural change, and Clintberg picks this up—defining the strength inherent in collaboration as an “erotic power.”

Taking on Lorde’s use of the erotic as a powerful political resource, Clintberg employs the term frottage to describe what we do when we collaborate. Through Clintberg’s frottage, we rub up against the ideas of strangers. He explained that by practicing collaboration, we are forced into a position of accountability and honesty with our collaborators. Clintberg spoke of clashes between collaborators in positive terms, as such clashes force participants to encounter and work through difference. He sees this as an important tactic for resisting what Sarah Schulman refers to in her book, Gentrification of the Mind,2 as a loss of imagination. Following Schulman’s warning against the lull of pacification brought on by sameness, Clintberg nurtures frottage in his own practice as a means of continually encountering ideas radically different from one’s own.

Clintberg outlined various examples of interdisciplinary collaboration or frottage in his projects. In creating Passion Over Reason / La raison avant la passion (2014), Clintberg worked with seventeen members of the Winds and Waves Artisan’s Guild, on Fogo Island, to create a series of handmade strip quilts made as a tribute to Joyce Wieland. In 2014, he shared a research residency with Zoë Chan at Articule, in Montreal, where the two combined discussions, poster making, blogging, grocery shopping, and meal making in an exploration of artistic and gastronomic taste and hospitality. In 2016, the Journal of Curatorial Studies published one of several articles co-written by Clintberg and Jon Davies, entitled “Haunted by Queer Affect: Geoffrey Farmer’s The Intellection of Lady Spider House and Allyson Mitchell’s Killjoy’s Kastle,” an exploration of queer affect and the ways in which interpersonal connection and collaboration are central to both the method and subject matter of Farmer and Mitchell’s projects. Clintberg also referred to various serial projects that he has made with the artist Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay, including Garde Rose (2012, 2015, 2019), a recurring flower exchange party, and a shared contribution to the group exhibition For the Last Guest (2014, 2016, 2020), in which flowers wrapped in paper were installed at the Oakville Galleries as tokens which each day the last guests to the gallery were invited to take home.

Clintberg outlined models for queer collaboration that he hopes to continue building upon. These include iterative projects with “sustained conversation with another voice or voices,” interactions between collaborators beyond their shared intellectual or creative goals, an embracing of the benefits of revision with “a genuine openness to redrafting and the insertion of ideas by another,” and encounters with difference which surprise and force collaborators to look awry at their own perspectives. “At its best,” he argued, “collaboration means sharing space and sharing resources to study difference.”

Throughout his talk, Clintberg pointed to the significant imbalance in value conferred to collaborative work, which is often ranked as inferior to solo projects, exhibitions, and publications. In addressing this issue, Clintberg asked a tactical question: “How can we position collaboration in a more flattering light for our institutions and for ourselves?” He concluded by encouraging those present to support collaboration in the production of their own work, as well as in making hiring and grant-giving decisions.

Leaning Out of Windows: Art and Physics Collaborations

Randy Lee Cutler’s presentation centered on Leaning Out of Windows: Art and Physics Collaborations Through Aesthetic Transformations (LOoW), a four-year long (2016–2020) SSHRC Insight funded project developed by Cutler together with Ingrid Koenig. In an attempt to generate interdisciplinary explorations of reality and to broaden the possibilities of communication between faculty members, Cutler and Koenig have designed a platform for collaboration between Emily Carr University and TRIUMF, Canada’s particle accelerator center at the University of British Columbia. LOoW brings artists (including musicians, dancers, writers, painters, sculptors, and photographers) together with theoretical physicists, experimental physicists, and engineers to ask, “How can artistic and scientific exchanges be understood through the field of co-thought, engaging collectively across disciplines? How can we mobilize the diverse languages employed by artists and scientists to generate new insights and their visualizations? In putting our minds to these questions what must we lose and gain in order to construct a more integrated web of knowledge?”

Facing the challenge of establishing shared meanings for creativity, beauty, metaphor, and communication between the realms of art and science, Cutler and Koenig’s project is guided by an interest in what these distinct fields can learn from each other. Their aim, as stated on the LOoW website, is “to transform the grammar of abstract knowledge by specifically addressing the barely discernible phenomena studied in physics through aesthetics, analogy, metaphor and other inventive methods.”3 More broadly, the project is an attempt to generate new methods for interdisciplinary collaboration.

Cutler described a series of “relays,” creative processes in which scientists are asked to frame a scientific a topic without relying on scientific equations or language. Artists, in turn, respond to their concepts with visual art ranging from sculpture to photography, dance, and interactive media. The idea is not for artists to illustrate the work of the physicists, but rather to react to it through their own practice, with their own questions and intuitions.

As a collaborative project, LOoW exhibits much of what Clintberg describes as frottage. By collaborating, participants are made to engage with language and concepts that are unfamiliar to them; they are made to “lean out” of the confines of their disciplines and to look aslant at their own positions. In attempting to develop structures of co-thought, Cutler spoke of the benefits of allowing scatterbrained progress to structure meetings, arguing more meandering dialogue allows the subconscious to move the conversation across divergent languages and understandings. In the interstices between people and disciplines new modes of speaking necessarily come to life.

MAWA and Collaborative Art Practice

Adriana Alarcón spoke about the collaborative projects she helps to organize in her role as Program and Outreach Coordinator at Mentoring Artists for Women’s Art (MAWA) in Winnipeg. MAWA coordinated thirty-two programs for women in the visual arts in the previous year alone. Alarcón discussed the role of collaboration in running MAWA, as well as in a series of collaborative workshops, publications, and exhibitions coordinated by the institution.

MAWA was started in 1984, in response to a realization that women were facing disproportionately low representation in public gallery collections, exhibitions, grants and other professional opportunities. Since then, the Foundation Mentorship Program has been MAWA’s core activity. Alarcón described the Mentorship Program as offering a one-to-one relationship between an established and a developing artist, as well as providing a peer group for mentees, for a full year. Mentors and mentees meet individually for four hours per month, and the whole group gathers for three hours per month for visits from curators, studio visits, discussions, and gallery visits. Each year the program ends in a collaborative project.

Last year, MAWA published Desire Change: Contemporary Feminist Art in Canada, edited by Dr. Heather Davis. Alarcón described Desire Change as the first book-length survey of feminist art across all media ever published in Canada. The publication includes fourteen essays by historians, artists, and curators presenting a range of artistic practices including performance, installation, video, textiles, and photography. Several contributors to the publication were in attendance, including Kristina Huneault (Professor and Art History Graduate Program Director, Concordia University) and Alice Ming Wai Jim (Professor and University Research Chair in Ethnocultural Art Histories, Concordia University).

Alarcón discussed a series of other programing under the title Cross Cultural Crafts, in which Indigenous and new-Canadian women lead craft workshops. These include a breadth of activities from Anishinaabe ribbon skirt making, to basket weaving, and Ukranian cross-stitching. In conclusion, she discussed Resilience, a project curated by Lee-Ann Martin, in which fifty artworks by contemporary Indigenous women artists were to be exhibited on more than 160 billboards across the country in 2018, from June 1st to August 1st. Alarcón described Resilience as an “avenue to share a collective voice across the landscape.”

Networks of Collaboration in Teaching Histories of Art in Canada

Elizabeth Cavaliere, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Gail and Stephen A. Jarislowsky Institute for Studies in Canadian Art, presented on her ongoing institutional inquiry into how Canadian art history is being taught across the country. She described her research as guided by four central questions: “Who is teaching what? How is it being taught? In what ways can it be facilitated? Why do we teach Canadian art history?” Cavaliere argued that the underpinning motivation behind her project has become the nagging, critical question: “Might not university teachers benefit from a collaborative approach in teaching practices and what form do those collaborations take?”

Cavaliere has so far conducted visits to nineteen universities where Canadian art history is taught at the undergraduate level. In each case, Cavaliere had met with university gallery directors and archivists, as well as instructors and researchers, hoping to find the ways in which networks do or do not develop within and across institutions. She described how it quickly became apparent that collaborative networks are “vital for instructors in developing course content.” Beyond networks of knowledge, Cavaliere pointed out that course content tends to be restricted by regionalism, language, and colonialism. According to her research, course content is “fundamentally shaped by access to resources determined by place.” Universities based in cities have broad access to public and commercial galleries, research centers, and archives, while universities located in more remote communities face limited access to such resources. With such disparate resources and yet similar needs among institutions, Cavaliere asks: “What is Canadian Art History—or what are the Histories of Art in Canada—exactly?”

Without offering an exact answer, Cavaliere argued that, based on her research, collaboration plays a crucial role in shaping the teaching of art history across the board in Canada. Collaboration, she illustrated, “moves across the local, national, physical, and virtual”; collaboration can help deepen and enrich the ways instructors situate settler art in “very real and pertinent discussion of colonial histories”; collaboration “brings artists, community members, and elders into the classroom, into the educational experience of students, and into processes of knowledge creation”; and collaboration “underpins a complex and dynamic series of horizontal relationships that move across departments, universities, and institutions.” Cavaliere concluded by sharing that across disparate departments a desire for collaboration consistently emerged, with one program describing that their dream resource would be simply a list of others out there teaching in the Canadian field.

Accompaniment as a Primary Strategy

Kari Cwynar presented on collaboration in the context of her recent curatorial work with the Don River Valley Park Program. She opened her talk by stating that collaboration is central to her practice as a curator and editor in terms of “the ways in which we work contingently,” and a consideration of all the ways of shared working that pre-exist a project’s completion. A guiding theme in her work is the question of “What happens when there is no main person in focus?”

Rather than focusing on one-off collaborations, Cwynar’s presentation reflected on more quotidian and long-term modes of collaboration. Conceiving of the role of curator as one of support, Cwynar discussed her collaboration with artists on designing and installing public art works on the 200 hectares of green space that comprise the Don River Valley. Cwynar described the Program as an attempt to revitalize what was once a thriving watershed close to Toronto’s downtown, which has since been compromised by the building of dumpsites, highways, and rail lines. Cwynar said that Evergreen, the environmental company for whom she works, hope that commissioning art across the area will be part of a larger re-naturalization process. She admitted they also see public art as a catalyst for gentrification.

In her role as curator, Cwynar works with artists to develop and carry out projects on the land following recurring visits to the site, as well as potentially years of conversation between artist and curator in the lead up to carrying out the final work. Initial ideas often have to be scaled back to fit the space. Ideas are reconstructed “in order to meet the restrictions imposed by the city, the environmental organization, and the public.” Despite the long lead-time in coordinating these projects, many of the works Cwynar has commissioned are temporary installations. Maria Hassabi’s STAGING-undressed was a two-day dance performance which took place on July 7th and 8th, 2017, along the valley’s network of paths. In November 2017, the collective Life of Craphead, carried out King Edward VII Equestrian Statue Floating Down the Don. For this project, the collective created a replica of a 15-foot bronze equestrian statue of King Edward VII, currently installed in Toronto’s Queen Park, and carried out a series of performances in which they dropped it into the Lower Don River. Cwynar described one permanent installation, Duane Linklater’s Monsters for Beauty, Permanence and Individuality, 2017, for which Linklater has created a series of cast concrete replicas of gargoyles that adorne prominent buildings in downtown Toronto and has installed them along the Lower Don Trail. Through these projects, Cwynar described the Don River Valley as common ground for collaborative exploration into how monuments, public art, and urban architecture frame and orient the values and histories of the city.

Visiting Without Guarantees

Robin Simpson closed the session by considering less visible forms of collaboration in his work as coordinator of Public Programs and Education at Concordia’s Leonard and Bina Ellen Art Gallery, in Montreal. He began by teasing out the meanings of “implicit” and “explicit” in relation to collaboration. The term “implicit,” he described with reference to the Oxford English Dictionary, implies “enfoldment, entanglement, involvement that is not plainly expressed but occurs naturally.” “Explicit,” by way of contrast, is declarative, “something that is expressed without reservation, free from intricacies.” As workers and visitors to arts institutions, Simpson argued, we are implicated in both modes of engagement.

With his talk, Simpson raised a series of questions about the more implicit forms of collaboration that take place in a gallery setting between exhibition organizers and visitors. He asked: “How does a visitor activate this mode of collaboration within an institution? In what ways can gallery programming bring about forms of inquiry that are transferrable between institutions and visitors?” He also raised the concern that, despite our intentions as visitors and organizers, we can inadvertently find ourselves entangled with collaborators who “maintain systems of oppression.” He reminded those in attendance that in collaboration we might encounter “friction as opposed to frottage,” as we may find ourselves in implicit or explicit disagreement with our visible and invisible collaborators.

In keeping with the entire session, Simpson concluded by asking an open-ended yet critical question: “What are the ethics involved in visiting and in guarding against more insipient forms of collaboration?” Conversations about ethics and methodologies for more generative and transparent collaboration would continue throughout the day.

  • 1 Audre Lorde, “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” was originally presented at the Fourth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, Mount Holyoke College, August 25, 1978, and was later published as a chapter in Sister Outsider (1984).
  • 2 Sarah Schulman, The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination (Oakland: University of California Press, 2013).
  • 3 See