Interview with Charles Green

Art of Collaboration

Australian Art Critic and Author of The Third Hand, Collaboration in Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism Charles Green has written an extraordinary rich and well-documented work about conceptual art in the late sixties and seventies. As the title indicates The Third Hand shapes art history in a methodological matter. Collaboration is a metatag to order works. There is no talk here about schools or chronologies. Instead there are specific contextualized works, events, happenings, installations, breaking away from painting and the cave of language, meant to capture art. For Green, collaboration became an entry point to open up histories which, despite their fame, are at brink of being forgotten. Collaboration is not so much a mode of production as it is a trajectory. Green is drawing traces which makes it possible to tell stories and make the often abstract and complex conceptual art works alive again. This alternative way of reconstructing art history pays respect to the original intentions of the artists. In separate chapters Charles Green deals with Gilbert & George, Marina Abramovic and Ulay, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Joseph Kosuth, Ian Burns, Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison and a few more.

Having collaborated myself a great deal, for instance as a member of the media theorist association Adilkno, my interest in this topic grew when Klaus Theweleit published his Book of Kings (Part I, 1988) in which he describes the psycho-analytic aspects of artist collaborations. Theweleit’s account is a bloody one and deals with the (male) violence, using female partners to metamorphorize into a next, higher stage of art production. Charles Green has refrained from psychologism. The Third Hand is not dealing with the internal dynamics. Instead teamwork is presented as an almost necessary step towards 80s postmoderism and its questioning of identities and reconfigurations of meaning. In this email exchange Charles and I have tried to put the 70s conceptual art experiences into the contemporary framework of new media.

GL: After you have done so much research, would you say that the origin of collaboration in art since the sixties is lying in the crisis of the 19th century ideal of the artist as universal genius

CG: No, I don’t see a crisis created by an ideal of universal genius as behind any origin of collaboration in art as a widespread phenomenon during the 1960s. In my book, The Third Hand, I was trying to be both more specific and more generalized, and above all my narrative was relevant to art practice right now. On the one hand I wanted to re-explain in a very focused way a narrow, definite period – the ten years or so between around 1968 and 1978. You see, I think that period is absolutely foundational to art today, but its significance got lost during the period of classic postmodernism in the 1980s and then again in the identity politics-based early 1990s. The period is one of those fascinating phases, riven by crisis and exploding with possibilities and multiple futures, that require very patient rethinking, and this rethinking is just beginning now.

I’m certainly not the only person to want to do this, but I chose to think this through collaboration, and it so happens for multiple reasons this is important all through visual culture, including internet culture, now. I find most of the explanations of that time, in art history at least, myopic. This is partly on account of the authors’ generational status, as members of a generation that came to self-consciousness immediately AFTER the period. I’m thinking of writers like Hal Foster, for example, who are slightly too young to have first hand experience of the period. And of people who did, I know also that participants who write, figures like Lucy Lippard, Harald Szeemann, Benjamin Buchloh, the artist Jeff Wall, have part of a story to communicate but not a panoramic view, since they are so implicated as participants in the action. On the other hand, since my main area of interest both as an artist and as an art historian is the art of our time, is contemporary art, I wanted to see if an intuition, that the art that interests me most represents the resurfacing of those 1968-78 points of origin but at different points on the map, was right.

The most exciting art of our time often centers around new media, around really wild new forms of author/artist, often OUTSIDE New York in centers like Taipei, Seoul, Sydney. We DO see much of the best art circulating in the globalized networks of curated exhibitions, so I’m not hypothesizing an excluded canon at all. But throughout the book, I saw the 20th century, not the 19th, as the locus of the problem: the memory crisis best formulated by Benjamin is manifest at the start of modernity, but it intersects throughout this 20th century – so different in the 21st century – with the refusal of optical and visual knowledge traced so clearly by Martin Jay. That is one aspect underneath the late 1960s crisis, but it is still only one aspect. Another was the shift in the nature of artistic work; yet another – my particular concern – was the shift in the nature of the artist. All occur in response to crises specific to that moment but present, as your question suggests, from the start of modernity as well. I suppose ultimately the collaboration area that interests me lies in the tensions thrown up just BEFORE there is any clear sign that the transition from modernism to postmodernism is underway. I definitely do not think that collaboration in art is particularly radical, not that it arose in the 1960s. But I do think that at this foundational time it occupies a specially instructive place.

GL: In the period you discuss, from the 60s to 80s, specialization has become a general social phenomenon, there is more than the ‘defeat of painting’. Don’t you think that collaboration within the arts should be seen in the broader perspective of a rapidly increasing division of labour and professionalization during that period?

CG: The idea of a defeat of painting so close to conceptual artists’ hearts – and I started my artistic life as an art student making conceptual art works alongside paintings at the very start of the 1970s – was really always something else, and this is clear in those artists’ writings and statements: Painting was a cipher, a metonym, standing in for the 19th century idea of the bohemian artist that artists came to despise. This is the identity that you mentioned a moment ago.

GL: One could say that the artists you discuss are not so predicting such a shift in an avant-garde way but rather responding to and reflecting this long-term trend so visible on the work floor, within academic disciplines and in everyday life. We see advanced forms of the division of labor reflected in hybrid art practices transcending singular subjects and media. Or is this reading perhaps a banal and mechanical Marxist interpretation?

CG: You are very right at one level, but there’s more to it than that, for the productivist aesthetic implicit in Marxist-oriented modernism was also rejected by those artists, at least for the most part initially, though that model, which ends up entailing a more conventional idea of collaboration – the collective – returned later. Their collaborations were not so much a way of connecting with a social project – though it was in the case of Art & Language AFTER its start, whose history I leave to the many other people who are working on it – as a way of working out if it was possible to engage in such activity. As time went on, and so many writers have traced this, the desire to see political action in art through collective work increasingly replaced the desire to see if collaborative action could facilitate, through the removal of the artist, a new zone between art, writing and history. THIS zone fascinated me, not the ability to connect art and politics, and I think it is implicit in a lot of the activity around now, in defining the new intermedia genre in contemporary art, only some of which involves new media, and some of which involves a kind of dumbed-down sneaker aesthetic.

GL: What can you tell us about the art of collaboration? Gilbert & George re still together but Marina Abramovic and Ulay broke up in a rather sad way. People these days invest a lot of their time and energy in (online) collaborations and get deeply disappointed when collaborations are falling apart. I have to think here what Michel Foucault writes about friendship. You have are collaborating yourself. You must have thought about this.

CG: Abramovic and Ulay apparently met again recently on the occasion of Marina’s 50th birthday, and they danced the frozen tango position immortalized in one of their endurance works together, or at least a friend tells me so. There’s something else to remember. Collaboration is not the same as friendship, and by friendship connotes cooperation. Friendship is always fragile since its contract is so unenforceable. Demands in and on friendship are always ultimately unsustainable, unless friendship is governed by an economy of civility. Collaboration involves much, much more. Collaboration involves the articulation of contractual relations.

As I worked on my project, which as I said before started out as an attempt to explain a foundational moment in art that was specifically important to me, I realized that artistic collaboration was one lens through which to explain the wider world of artistic change. It was a microcosm, and I’m an art historian rather than an art theorist, whatever that is, horrible term. But it was also important at a certain moment for the reasons I mentioned earlier – outmoded ideas of what an artists does, where, and how, even why, all these had to be defeated if a convincing post-studio art was to emerge (I’m borrowing, as I do in the book, Michael Fried’s priority: the art of a specific time has to convince its viewers of that time, and it can’t do that through stale clichés). Then way after that, and here I come back to your question, I realized that the typology of types of collaboration I had drawn up (cooperation in collective, short-term cooperation; corporate, bureaucratic groups or partnerships; married couples and families; and finally intensely and publicly bonded couples who created “third artists”) also formed itself into a narrative, for certain types of collaboration were answered by others as each proved to be inadequate in the solution of artistic problems. Productivism gone mad. The final type of collaboration I list – the couple who identify themselves with their art – is exemplified by both Marina Abramovic’s work with Ulay, but also by Gilbert & George.

I don’t know that there are any rules about collaborative longevity, but it seems to me that the collaborations that modeled themselves on family structures, with the collaborative identity rather like a castle wall behind which roles could be swapped and reversed – was an easier model to sustain than this unless civility was the basis of relationship, which it overtly is with Gilbert & George, who are even models of cooperation and generosity to intrusive art critics like myself. Self-revelation was implicit in the “third hand” collaborations, and is unsustainable since its comprehension, even by the artists themselves, always comes a moment after experience, which in turn comes a moment after the event of illumination, as Buddhist theology argues.

I’m interested that you mention the difficulty of on-line collaborative sustainability. I know that sustainability and the particular types of collaborative contract are linked. The problem lies, again, in confusing collaboration with friendship. Collectives are not the same as collaborations. All of the artists I researched worked together for long periods of time. It is highly unlikely that Christo and Jeanne-Claude, or Ann and Patrick Poirier, or Helen and Newton Harrison, or Gilbert & George, or a host of others, would choose to work outside their collaboration. Too much invested and too much mutual pleasure is obvious. But other collaborations, like Mel Ramsden and Ian Burn, who later joined Art & Language, were not based on sexual partnership at all, and even in their case the contractual relationship seemed to have been articulated fairly early and fairly clearly.

When we started to work as a collaboration – Lyndell and I – we realized that we needed to commit to working together for the rest of our lives, and slightly later we realized that we had to completely abandon any idea of part-time solo production. We can give over a whole series of work now to one of us to produce – that, I think, is not unusual – but everything is under the umbrella of teamwork.

GL: Brion Gyson and William Burroughs are discussing collaboration in terms of the creation of a ‘third mind.’ Other artists in your book use similar terms. It is almost as if a new identities, a new persona is created. Where is this will to become someone else, to design another identity is coming from and what’s exactly so liberating about this desire?

CG: What is liberating is liberation. What is liberation? Freedom from the prison-house of language, or reconciliation to it, as in successful psychoanalysis? Artists who constructed doppelgänger or doubles were involved in flight outside the prison-house of language—if it can be judged to have been successful-and this was possible precisely because of collaboration, which means the teams’ escape as individual “artists” from their personal bodies into the uncanny but mobile realm of phantoms. Buried in my footnotes in the book are constant arguments through, not references to, the concept of absence—the absence as ground familiar from well-known post-War philosophy, from Heidegger & Co., but also specifically through later Mahayana Buddhism that denies the ultimate reality of all essences. Abramovic and Ulay happened to have become involved directly in this philosophy from one point of their collaboration, and they were acknowledging a sophisticated, non-Western, quasi-deconstructive precedent in Mahayana Buddhism. But I’m not doing anything so obvious as conflating absence with the restoration of the past, of a spurious humanism, however well-intentioned, that seeks to oppose “spirituality” against “deconstruction”. Abramovic/Ulay’s performance actions are NOT Buddhist, just as Barnett Newman’s zip 1960s paintings are not Kabbalism. It’s more complex than that.

GL: So you’re saying that collaboration, in these specific cases, is an act of disappearance, not born out of a Will to Production, to create a new born identity, out of a desire to break through the limitations of the Self but to neutralize. Not 1 plus 1 makes 3 but 1 minus 1 is zero. Is the drift towards absence perhaps a secret history, underneath the perhaps all too obvious psycho-analytic dynamics between the two parties involved?

CG: Good point. Absence is ground. It is a secret history, entangled with the more public history of the impact of Buddhism in Western culture and art, especially post-1945. Not that Mahayana EXPLAINS anything artistic, but is it another contextual framework for understanding what is happening. You see, in the West we are awfully Ameroeurocentric. So when we think about camouflage and withheld identity and withheld self-disclosure we look to particular, belatedly canonic texts, to writers like Callois or Bataille. But on the ground, amongst artists, a whole other genealogy is already at work, BEFORE we even get to the task of interpretive frameworks. The exceptions – and their work is immensely exciting – are the books of Leo Bersani and Alysse Dutoit, books like Caravaggio’s Secrets or Culture of Redemption. This is a very sophisticated anti-psychoanalytic method of reading texts. It’s critically important if we think about improvisatory authorship, or artistic collaboration.

GL: These days more and more theorists are questioning the revolutionary potential of the identity change. New identities are becoming commodities. One could almost see such ‘third bodies’ or shared spaces as an natural next step in the capitalist development rather than a subversive practice. But that’s perhaps nothing new. Such a cynical analysis of the late sixties perhaps destroys the primal drive of that time, which was so full of energy to discover other dimensions.

CG: I can see that.. Through the 1990s the discourse of the Other, of marginalized groups, became just another rhetorical lingo. Sarat Maharaj is particularly acute and cutting on this topic. And so I’ll be interested how he and Okwui Enwezor negotiate this in the process of creating Documenta XI. The question is – and it’s easy to answer – whether authenticity and inauthenticity can be mapped onto the contemporary landscape any differently to the 1980s (Saint Andy Warhol’s decade). How do we imagine September 11? Do we blame? What are the ethics in taking human life under any circumstances? Similar questions came up in Australia in the early 1990s, as artists realized that the image haze of image-scavenging simply could not include Aboriginal motifs.

GL: Within theatre, film and music collaboration is a necessity otherwise there is not art work to be experienced in the first place, except for a solo work performed by the artist him or herself. Within new media art a collaboration between the programmers, designers, curators and installation builders seems almost essential and this process is only getting more complicated with the development of more sophisticated hardware and software. There are hardly any new media art work produced by a single person. However, often there is no shared authorship as you discuss in your book. The collaborations between the visual artists you describe seem to happen on a fairly equal basic. In many cases however there are big fights over authorship which all have financial repercussions in terms of reputation and careers. You’re not really touching this topic in your study. Is that because the idea of collaboration within the conceptual arts discourse is still a young one?

CG: No, not at all. Many of the players are still alive and litigious, so it is sometimes hard to work out the truth. Conceptual art, especially, has been marked by a fierce, absolutely fierce series of attempts by many different artists to claim primacy and position, and in the process old friends become enemies. You are right, though, to suggest that the discussion of collaboration is young, especially if it has the significance that I ascribe to it. There’s been very, very little analysis of the issues I describe, though a lot on other areas. Strangely enough, most artists have a massive investment in their own interpretation of their works, and in actively policing other interpretations. This desire to police the audience now seems both distant and odd, but those artists were determined to avoid “misinterpretation.” One artist said, “What I say is part of the art work. I don’t look to critics to say things about my work. I tell them what it’s about.” All the art that really interested me – and most of the art that currently interests me – involves, to some extent, the abdication of authorial intention as the exclusive determinant of reading. I have run foul of this before. Recent moral rights legislation will concrete and solidify this control, and artists have been very reluctant to understand that the few cents they derive from copyright fees will be offset by more and more strict rules against appropriation and copying, which is how artists have always worked. This will have a huge impact of web-based art. Traditional expressive modes or production are privileged under these legal regimes, and these are by far the most aesthetically bankrupt.

GL: Certainly. Over the last decades collaboration has become so closely tied to legal issues. Is the legal business in danger of destroying the aura of collaboration? What would you advice artists if they are thinking about engaging themselves in a long-term collaboration? Would you encourage them to make contracts or is that a step in the wrong direction? I have seen many cases in which the bureaucratic partner in crime ran away with the contracts, IP, ownership of content, equipment and brand recognition, while the creative partners were left out in the cold. Who’s the happy one remains to be seen. Is there anything to be learned from the seventies generation?

CG: I don’t want anyone to think that I’m valorizing or glamorizing artistic collaboration. It’s inherently no more important than anything else. I’m not the least bit impressed by any supposed aura surrounding any mode of production. And the legalism of conceptual artist collaborations was part of the point of the work. The discourse surrounding the work WAS part of the work. Contracts aren’t worth the paper they are printed on in the art world, which is why the artist/dealer contract movement never got anywhere, much like resale royalties (droit de suite), but is why its spin-offs (dealers usually now spell out in writing the terms of their association with each artist) were useful. The point about artistic collaboration is that it is a test in which individual identity is subordinated to a so-called higher good – the work of art. It’s a lot like working on a magazine. Not everyone is suited to cooperation, but the art world glamorizes narcissism and has an incredibly short attention span. My simple point is that self-presentation is constructed, usually self-consciously, and that the resulting figure is sometimes central within the work of art. The lesson of the seventies generation is that they did not compromise, and that they worked out protective structures to allow that.

I approach new media from the point of view of a participant in the world of contemporary art, and it’s worth understanding that the two are not the same. I gave a paper at a conference recently – “Dislocations”, which was organized by Cinemedia (Melbourne) and ZKM (Karlsruhe). Peter Weibel and Lev Manovich were the keynotes. Weibel’s point, apart from his sci-fi, William Gibson behaviouralism and the mistaken idea that memory exists, was good: new media is in a bleated revolutionary, avant-garde phase in which the invention of new technologies and forms is more important than the deconstruction of those forms; new media, however, he says, has a long pre-history from the period around the 1970s onwards. The other keynote, Lev Manovich, was thinking in the opposite direction, horizontally, at the level of a taxonomy of data-base-based new forms, principally of internet cinema. But listening to Lev, I wondered if his disdain for narrative was echoed in the impoverished visuality of many of his quasi-interactive Internet project examples, and why, given the role of montage in most of these new works and theories, Jean-Luc Godard’s theories of montage and sound (both pre and post Histoires du Cinema), we are compelled to reinvent Godard’s wheel. As Peter Lunenfeld reminds us all in Snap to Grid, this milieu faded to black. I suppose the thing that worried me about Lev Manovich’s presentation was the way he was positing video artists like Doug Aitken and Douglas Gordon (we can add Mariko Mori, Shirin Neshat, Matthew Barney) as belated popularizers, the same way avant-garde film-makers used to look down on art-house movies. He was working straight out of a productivist set of criteria, horizontal and unstratified, in which technological take-up and formal difference govern attention. What kind of cultural dynamic is at work here historically? Are we witnessing the re-creation of the same space as that once occupied by alternative, experimental, avant-garde cinema?

GL: I suppose art critics are in a better position to answer this question. I would say that we are in worse situation, compared to the golden days of Godard. Art, and with it experiental electronic arts, has become isolated and can therefore no longer claim an avant-garde position. Within this tragic, inward looking position, having been neutralized of any substantial potential, art is hidden within academia, self-referential circles and the thick walls of the museum and galleries. The caved art system has created its own autonomous space in which it can celebrate its won freedom. The price for the gained sophistication is its isolation from society. No matter how innovative, subversive or creative media works are, they seem unable to bridge the Disciplinary Divide. So, yes, new media artists can reinvent Goddard’s wheel and create a exciting new school of digital modernism (or give it a name) but their works will remain unknown—and will be of homeopathic influence on the global mediascape.

There is a total lack of mediation between the artworks and popular culture. This situation prompted pioneer computer game developer Brenda Laurel to publicly distance herself from art (and activism). “It took me years to discover,” she writes in her latest post dotcom essay, “that I couldn’t effectively influence the construction of pop culture until I stopped describing myself as a. an artist, and b. a political activist. Both of these self-definitions resulted in what I now see as my own self-marginalization. I couldn’t label myself as a subversive or a member of the elite. I had to mentally place myself and my values at the center, not at the margin. I had to understand that what I was about was not critiquing but manifesting.” (Utopian Entrepreneur, The MIT Press, 2001). How sad (and true) this all sounds, specially if one compares it to hopes and dreams of the roaring twenties—and sixties. This is why many in new media culture re-label themselves and work as designers and look for a way out in science, architecture and film. Brenda Laurel thinks that “culture work” is a more appropriate description of what she does.

CG: I hate to remove the drama from a text, but I agree with you completely, and I’m speaking from the other side of the wall, as an artist and as an art historian whose life has been bound up in art. So the problems are double. For a start, Manovich’s horizontal taxonomic approach is good reportage and important right at this moment but it trivializes the issues and the stakes. The cards then get dealt behind the scenes. We know by now, from indexical events like the Whitney Biennial, that the art world has been slow to take up technological innovation except in marginal and cosmetic ways, and because new media is only partly concerned with itself as art, it tends to have a somewhat touching and definitely naïve belief in either art or its irrelevance. This overlaying of “art” onto information, this understanding of the aesthetic as a surplus, I wrote somewhere recently, inevitably obscures the very information function we value about the internet. It occludes any archival function – any real data-base truth-value – in terms of information storage, even as it insists on a memorializing and educational function (not at all the same thing as an artistic function). Why make art when you can take a photograph, write an e-mail or make a film? The alternative lies in understanding the priorities involved in contemporary art, for a start. The necessary commodification involved in a successful art practice eliminates certain trajectories, but not in the way you’d think. Scarcity, branding, uniqueness, aura, charisma, all survive the elimination of the unique work, oil paint, traditional media, and personal manufacture and handiwork, even complete deskilling, which was a basic 20th century avant-garde tactic. But if we take all this on board, we still have to admit art’s almost total loss of a vanguard cultural position. I’m still left with the question of how to explain the art world fascination with new media right now. Increasingly, the term “intermedia” is being used to define works that involve translation and retranslation from medium to medium. Often, as in the works of the South African artist William Kentridge, this results in a suite of works in different media ranging from animated films through traditional prints through to puppets. My point is that copying and compositing are definitely NOT the sole domain of new media right now. But right now, in many people’s minds, new media occupy a role related to and ALMOST equivalent to intermedia. There’s a window of attention that briefly coincides with the windows of technological innovation and media evolution, but it’s none of the three that ultimately govern attention except in a sub-culture. Geography, culture, injustice, globalization: all of these forces periodize new media instantly.

Charles Green, The Third Hand, Collaboration in Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism, University of Minnesota Press (USA)/University of New South Wales Press (Australia), 49.95 AUD. More info: