The impossible collaboration between artists

by Adam Zoltowski

Adam Zoltowski, 2017, installation view, ‘Foreign Bodies’, London. Photo credit Kelise Franclemont.

Adam, Anna and Monika. Connect Katowice project 2016-17

Artists are the worst collaborators in the world aren’t they? We set ourselves outside the everyday work of life with our selfish activities. The writer William Burroughs once said that the only thing worse than two writers being friends is a whole group of writers who are friends. O.K., he was an arsehole, but I’m comfortable with that statement, you know? What I’m UNCOMFORTABLE with is the idea of collaboration with OTHER PEOPLE. And I guess that you are too. And this is the thing, EVERYBODY, mostly, finds it awkward, difficult, tedious, boring, stressful.  It’s HARD WORK. Nothing more. Collaboration is work. That’s why a collaboration between artists is particularly hard. Because it makes art into a JOB. And this is a job with no boss, no product, no daily timetable, no structure, no uniform. Or rather, there is just enough of these things to make sure that your failings will be PUBLIC. When you are working alone in the studio as normal, all your terrible failures can be quickly swept away into the bin, you can even prevent yourself from witnessing them too closely. All the false starts, blatant plagiarism, and self-important posturing. But to share this with others? And not with your little friends – your cosy support group – but with strangers? IMPOSSIBLE.

So what will you do? How will you cope with this situation? You can fuck it up in so many ways! We are social animals, so you will probably start by establishing STATUS. Who will lead/who will follow? Many collaborations will end right here. If you both think that you’re the boss, then this relationship is OVER before it began.

But you are all intelligent people, it doesn’t need to be a dictatorship – democracy is the thing! A companionable socialism – to each according to their needs, from each according to their abilities. Or maybe a corporate top down structure, with age and experience at the top and youth and energy in the ranks! All working to one single VISION. Good luck with that – it’s like herding cats.

So many ways to fail, hell is other people! So why bother? Why not go back to the nice quiet studio. Some did just that – and who can blame them? Life is short and time is precious. But many of us did choose to continue. To reach out – only to be rejected, to experiment and to fail, to speak up only to be ignored or misunderstood. We argue, disagree, our feelings are hurt, we say things we regret, but we kept at it, we made a CONNECTION and kept it open – even if nothing happened. We waited, and we learnt to LISTEN and to SEE each other, and maybe to see ourselves, as others see us.

I collaborated with three people separately, Izabela, Monika and Anna. It is hard for me to avoid giving this group some kind of mythological characteristics. Three is a magic number. Three witches! This meant three widely differing relationships and widely differing results, only a proportion of which are art objects in the conventional sense, that you can see in the exhibitions we have done. With Izabela, I made a true collaboration, and we talked, and talked, and talked! With Monica, I worked side by side in the studio – easy to say, hard to find. With Anna almost nothing! But we met in Katowice and in London and she made a powerful impression on me; in my mind, our connection was equally important and valuable in a way that only art can be.

It is these connections themselves that has been the real result. A connection through art. Not work. Not the effective collaboration towards the production of cultural artefacts. This is about personal transformations. The magic that occurs when separate minds choose to merge – however messy or chaotic or ridiculous the results. It is this act of reaching out, of the open hand, with no hard expectation of a concrete result, that is where the art lies. I retain within me now, something of all three of these artists, something that is retained in everything I make. This has been the great secret of the Connect: project, that by opening up, by relinquishing control, by allowing your identity to diffuse – nothing is lost, creativity is not from me, it is through me.

But hey, don’t take my word for it; ask them. They’ll probably say I’m full of shit.

Collaboration between Adam and Izabela

Iza, impatient to begin, contacted me independently, before the assignments were made by the curators. So began a long email correspondence between us. As we got to know each other better, we became more familiar, less diplomatic. Many ideas were voiced and rejected. The circles project came from this exchange.

‘Circles’, 2016/17, is a mail art collaboration. Our aim was to make an equal  collaboration, with the input of both participants perfectly balanced. After a chance remark that we were ‘going in circles’ with our ideas, I sent Iza a drawing of a circle, freehand, which I scanned and emailed. The idea was that she would copy my drawing of a circle, I would respond, and so on. The result was a portfolio of 60 or so drawings. Gradually morphing from a rough circle to a crazy convoluted amoeba like shape, the result of repeated copying. The best analogy is ‘Chinese whispers’ where each utterance adds a new abstraction to the initial statement. We presented a screen based slide show or animation which showed all the drawings in sequence, fading from one to the next gradually losing the original circle and taking on a life of their own independent of either of us.

Collaboration between Adam and Monika

Started several months after beginning with Iza, my work with Monika built on what I had learnt with Iza. I was more relaxed about the boundaries of collaboration, less concerned about balance and authorship. I was more open to unexpected digressions, less controlling. When I saw Monika’s paintings of faces, I recognised something from my past I could work with. She is quite shy and much younger than me, but because of my relationship with Iza, I felt that we could be ourselves and each contribute something essential of ourselves without compromise.

I returned to the subject of faces or masks as a way of working with Monika. I have a history of making these things although not for many years. It started by asking Monika to do some paintings bases on a selfie I sent her. One of her first quick sketches I thought I could make into a sculpture. Very fast, I produced a large scale work with experimental techniques that I have slowly been developing over the years. This collaboration provided exactly the right sense of spontanaiety and freedom needed to complete the process. Other works followed, a selfie from Monika, a large sketch, a self portrait… my first idea had been to create a balanced collaboration with Monika’s paintings and my sculpture, but it didn’t work out like that. Her paintings were too free to just simply cut out – she hates boundaries! We had a great time both in Katowice and London working side by side, often on the same pieces, we work really well together. In retrospect I tend to pull her wilder work into something more coherent; she starts things, I finish them.

This was so different from my work with Iza, and yet linked by the project. Never easy, never perfect. But with the best intentions. A fertile time. ‘Foreign bodies’ (Spring 2017) was a later solo exhibition of sculpture and painting made by me, but rooted in my collaboration with Monika for Connect:.

 Collaboration between Adam and Anna

I nearly gave up on Anna several times, but in the end she made a significant impression on me. Maybe it’s the language barrier, or temperament, or both. But it was hard to establish a dialogue. She is not a big talker, not great for a correspondent,  but much better in person. I was determined to meet her in Katowice, and was glad to spend a day with her, seeing the museums. She has an intense, saturnine vibe. In my mind, she is steeped in the past, in strong feelings about the past. She is one of those people who holds back and she creates space around her. Great for art. My original idea for Connect: had been to do with my Polish heritage, my ancestral home in Poznan, the recent death of my father, and the returning of his ashes to Poland. Anna has a preoccupation with place and memory, and this really pulled me towards her in the hope that I would learn something about this shadowy aspect of my family history. As it turned out, we have not to date developed a collaboration, except, as a postscript, she came to my first solo show [Foreign Bodies] in London! It coincided with a visit to her sister in London, but nevertheless, it was important to me. There was art in this connection, I felt it.

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