Recently I was invited by James Wilkes to attend a practice sharing workshop as part of Hubbub, a research project based at the Hub at Wellcome Collection. It was addressed to practioners who share an interest in collaborating with people from, or making work that interacts with, fields and disciplines beyond arts (including but not limited to neuroscience, psychology, mental health practice, environmental science etc.) Having plucked a stellar range of participants from organisations such as Guerilla Science and London Fieldworks, plus poets, artists and curators, James asked each of us to think about how we might answer to the following prompt:
If you could design a new collaborative project from the ground up, what would it be like and why? What would be your priorities be? Who would you like to work with, what would you like to work on, and how would you like to work?
We used this as a starting point for discussion, and as the session developed we hit on a number of common themes that were pertinent across several of our practices. James then set us on the task of generating a few key questions that we were most concerned with as part of our collaborative work. So much of what we talked about seemed valuable I thought I would document it – although this is very much tainted by my own personal perception of what I found relevant and most compelling!
Holly Pester used the issue of email as a way of flagging how labor-intensive collaborative projects can become – by simply asking do I have to reply to your email? This seemed to be tied into notions of bureaucracy that can be generated by winning funding for arts science collaboration – whether this is helpful and necessary or whether actually the most conducive collaborations are those that happen in an unpressurised and very informal way. Other key questions that were flagged up on this topic included whether the duration of a project should be dictated by funder-imposed timelines/targets and how to evidence the intangible benefits of collaboration for evaluation. Nathan Jones also posed a question related to funding sustainability for artists, which I thought was interesting: can artists use the relationship with science to adopt a similar funding structure – ie long-term, distinct from arts institutions? There was some disagreement between Nathan and another attendee Alex Julyan about which funding system is more difficult and demanding – arts funding or science funding? I suspect this comparison is actually far more complex than we were able to acknowledge in our discussion, but the conversation made me interested in better understanding how science is funded. Note to self to pick this up again another time.
Equality in collaboration
Tamarin Norwood had a lovely way of expressing her ideal art science collaboration as a process with ‘bilingual outcomes’ – something that communicates in both domains. Several participants flagged up that working with an artist does often have the benefit for scientists of fulfilling their ‘public engagement’ remit – something that we thought might not be the ideal motivator for collaboration. Jen Wong asked simply how do we make collaborations that are meaningful for all collaborators involved? The issue of frameworks and managing expectations seemed to be important here. It was felt that protocols and safety nets help to keep things cheerful and convivial if things start to go wrong. The phrase ‘ego stroking’ was used several times, which did make me wonder what exactly scientists get out of being part of artist’s projects!
A couple of my favourite points of the day were posed by Nathan Jones in relation to the presence of audiences. He spoke about audience as a ‘shared site’, a place that should inspire equal investment from all collaborators. He also asked the group, can you make the most important thing to you, valuable/visible for an audience? I thought that this was a very nice way of offsetting some of the anxiety that was clearly manifesting about generating outcomes from collaboration and the way that we translate these outcomes for funding bodies and people who have not been first person participants.
I went into the workshop with a set of questions very much coloured by my recent experiences of curating and evaluating Group Therapy. My issue was how do I get people to engage with each other in the process of collaboration while abandoning their own sense of their expertise or disciplinary framework. I have had some encounters where I felt that both scientists and arts workers were allowing themselves to be limited by the way that they are conditioned to approach problems by their job title. Stephen Fowler was quite strongly apposed to the notion that disciplinary specialisms need to be overcome, suggesting that actually is the prospect of specialist knowledge that makes scientists so attractive to artists and visa versa. In conclusion I guess we could assert that collaborations might work best when the individuals present are able both to hold on to their expert knowledge, but also recognise the value of experimental and expansive thinking.
It occurred to me while preparing for this session that the visual matrix could be a valuable tool for helping to activate this move beyond disciplinary boundaries – given that when it works well it offers the opportunity for sharing ideas in a way that negates dialogue and group dynamics. When a matrix works, it builds imagery using free association, memory and imagistic responses and moves people out of the roles that they might be inclined to adopt in intellectually driven discourse. Again this is something to revisit in my future thinking about methodology for my PhD.
This was a short session, which I suspect could have endured over several days given the richness of the discusssion. Thanks to James for inviting me and I hope to meet other participants again soon!
Full list of participants