Notes on collective art practices | A symbiotic production methodology
We are Medea Electronique, a cross-arts collective. Our activities consist in: multimedia performances, installations, experimental extended reality events, compositions of electroacoustic music, sound art and the artistic residency Koumaria in Sellasia, Sparta.
What follows emerges from decade-long collaborations and discussions amongst the four Medea members whose comments follow. These represent but a small part of the ongoing discussion all Medea members constantly have concerning what we are, what we want to be, and how to move forward. Such discussions are multiply refracted by each Medea member’s distinct concept of our past. We view what follows as but a ‘frozen moment’ of an ongoing improvisation between the four of us which, in combination with our collective art practices, helps ground our sense of solidarity and community. We would love to have Panagiotis Goumbouros in this discussion, one of Medea Electronique’s oldest members; always subversive, always reflective. It’s already been four months without him. We dedicate this text to him. His memory, here, lives on.
With love from Athens and Montreal,
Medea Electronique is a cross-arts collective
Manolis Manousakis: While there are varied ways in which art collectives manifest their collectivity and identity, an art collective doesn’t have to form a community, follow an extended family model, have a shared political background or even a common philosophical outlook. A collective could be simply a production prototype formed to serve the artistic purpose of the participating artists. It can be a vehicle for accessing the contemporary art market and a tool to help them independently produce cross-art works that can succeed in this market.
The core notion of what constitutes a collective work of art is any work for which the ethical responsibility is shared by more than one individuals.
Medea Electronique is a collective which produces cross-arts works that draw upon music, video art, photography, set design, animation, installation art and other creative practices. Producing cross-arts in the independent art world requires the creation of groups of artists of varied sizes that are willing to collaborate. Collective schemes could prove to be a cost effective method for the production of large works, with an increased possibility for success. The nature of the cross-arts and the necessary involvement of a large number of artists in the creative process makes it vital (as in any media production) to develop a consensus between the artists. This tacit agreement can constitute the basic structure of a collective or collaborative work, and become a key element of a production method that will help producers and artists who are active in cross arts to collaborate effectively.
The collective work of art
Eric Lewis: For me the core notion of what constitutes a collective work of art is any work for which the ethical responsibility is shared by more than one individuals. As a member of Medea I hold myself responsible for our projects in total, good or bad. A collective is in this sense akin to an individual artist. In this sense almost all Medea works are collective. A video piece foregrounding a dancer dancing could not have been realized without the dancer, but equally it could not have been realized without the person who drove to the bus station and picked them up. While some collective works might be products of ephemeral and temporary groups of individuals working together, collective works produced by self-identifying collectives are unified by this shared sense of responsibility and distributed agency. For the ancient Stoics a part is neither different (heteron) from a whole nor identical with it. This holds true of members of collectives to the collectives themselves – I am neither different from Medea Electronique, nor identical to it, but what is true of the whole is often true of me, including authorship and responsibility for the works we produce.
Manolis: In a collective there is a group aesthetic decision that is made, and that is to eliminate personal aesthetics over collective direction. This elimination process is the basis for a new approach towards art production. In order to be able to achieve this level of mature behaviour one needs to change more than just his/her art habits.
Moreover, what becomes evident via collective art practices is the need for general social reform. Art collectives are a microcosm of our society and they represent an example of human behaviour within a social structure. There emerges a single goal, a single aesthetic, which forms a cohesive art language resulting from a shared aesthetic approach and a collective effort. Realizing this is the challenge that cross-art productions face. Collectives are always subject to changes in membership whose involvement in projects varies from time to time. Projects within the same collective are materialized by different leading figures based on their interests, availability and the changing membership of the collective. Medea Electronique is characterized by a conjunction of its members’ aesthetics and art practices. The importance of eliminating personal aesthetics over collective direction in order to achieve a cohesive result is as important as the ongoing recruitment of new members necessary to ensure a long lasting collective production scheme.
In a collective there is a group aesthetic decision that is made, and that is to eliminate personal aesthetics over collective direction. In order to be able to achieve this level of mature behaviour one needs to change more than just his/her art habits.
This renewal process is as essential as food is to a living organism; for Medea’s energy and very existence relies on the efforts of its new members as much as on the experience of the old ones. Therefore, someone could say that what generally defines Medea Electronique as a collective is that we are a group of artists sharing the same predisposition for the arts and having the shared desire to fulfill these dispositions within a common art project. More so, its members aim to create a unified approach by eliminating personal aesthetics over collective direction, as someone would expect from a multiply-authored work.
The death of the director (we are all directors)
Eric: Often I am asked to respond to the question ‘Do you think that good art can be produced without a director?’ I would contend that one could, and should, turn this question on its head, and ask ‘Do you think that good art could be produced with a director?’ The statement ‘the 20th century was for performing arts the century of the director‘ is to already assume an answer to the question, and to engage in colonial thinking applied to the arts. The two most obvious artforms to develop in the 20th century are jazz and film. The former, deeply embedded in the black experience as a product of white supremacy and colonialism, is clearly a counterexample to this claim, since collective musical creation is foregrounded; while film, an artform which to this day attempts to re-inscribe its whiteness, in many ways builds colonial thinking into its very production structures.
Yes, film prioritizes the director, but why -it is hard to imagine an artform where responsibility and agency is more distributed and collective than film production, but this is all buried under the notion of the director-genus and their (usually his) single unifying artistic vision. New media art is also a product of the 20th century, and is by its very nature collaborative, since the possible forms it can take are highly determined by the precise technologies employed, software run, documentation devices used. The ‘director’ in many ways is simply the high-Romantic ‘genus’ clothed anew for modernity and beyond.
Perhaps the avant-garde in new media art and music comes from those who have moved beyond the digital, many of them exploring wonderfully analog worlds.
Yes, Medea’s works lack ‘director’ credits, but they are not uncredited -even if they are often credited to the collective. It is a mistake to assume that by lacking a director there is no direction – no plan, no control, no structure, no vision. Our works develop, evolve and ultimately manifest all these features, yet they are negotiated, often in real time, amongst the members of the collective. The mundane answer is ‘well it depends’. As individual projects develop from planning through implementation, individual Medea members, based on a complex of reasons (personal aesthetic, technical abilities, other commitments etc.) may play a greater or lesser role. They may begin enthusiastically, then drop out, they may know very little about a project, but be brought on board late in its development -there are endless possibilities, many of which are the product of social and ‘lived experience’ concerns as much as anything else. We trust each other and, while we discuss how projects might unfold, once we pass a project on to another member in order for them to realize a new aspect of it (say compose a musical score to accompany a video), then we have ceded authority and control over this element to another. Further debate and discussion is always welcome, but each member has final control over those elements they create.
Did John Coltrane make a final decision about how My Favorite Things should go? Our works represent fixation decisions, but not necessarily final decisions. We archive all our data, and individual projects can be revisited, their components reused, their meaning altered. We do not need a director to make final decisions because we do not put so much weight on notions of finality. The completed art-object is another 20th century invention, one which the fluid, technology-dependent, site-specific, and highly improvisatory work which Medea produces calls into question.
Avant-garde is not about the medium but rather the worldbuilding (?)
Tim Ward: As a musician and composer it is very difficult to sit at the end of the 20th century and consider oneself an innovator or part of an avant-garde. The changes that music has undergone in the 20th century have been so vast, so earthshaking, that it is much more natural to feel like someone on the other side of an avalanche or a tsunami, looking out at a world changed beyond recognition.
Of course avalanches or tsunamis leave behind them destruction and a more sterile landscape, wiped of the evidence of human organization and creativity. In the case of music in the 20th century the opposite was the case. The avalanche that technology brought upon music in the 1950s and 1960s didn’t leave things more sterile but opened things up to a degree that remains hard to grasp even today – music embraced noise, music became sound art. So today how can a ‘simple’ computer alone enable one to be more pioneering than the sound artist of the 1950s venturing outside for the first time with a microphone before returning to the studio and the new magic of the tape recorder and editing razor blade?
Unfortunately, there is not a new look to things. In contrast, avant-garde was focused on articulating a new story for humanity, attempting to respond to the question about ‘how one should live in the world.’
Perhaps the avant-garde in new media art and music comes from those who have moved beyond the digital, many of them exploring wonderfully analog worlds, perhaps circuit-bending or anarchically post-digital in their tactile and random natures. Or perhaps it comes from the creative coders who take the digital world apart for our entertainment. Medea Electronique I think has contributed by bringing artists together within live performance -digital, analog, bent, creatively coded- whatever and however, all approaches actively embraced, as long as the desire is to explore and create within the new worlds opened up by earlier pioneers.
Angeliki Poulou: Digital art does not a priori constitute an avant-garde. Artistic radicalism, aesthetic utopias and avant-gardes have, in our present age, been replaced by a new modern system of branding, by ‘modest’ art, especially regarding its ambition to transform the world. In theatre, we are no longer talking about big schemas but about small situations, which are presented in an ironic and playful way, rather than a critical and accusatory one. Consequently and unfortunately, there is not a new look to things or a great schema for man and the world. With a few exceptions, most of us, like young children, build and rebuild their hut with the same material, repeating the dominant perception of things and narratives. In contrast, the historical artistic avant-garde was not focused only on aesthetic formalities or new tools of expression, but on articulating a new story for humanity, attempting to respond to the question about ‘how one should live in the world’.
In relation to contemporary art, I would say that the emerging discussion about the post-digital is valuable and needed. If in the beginning of the 20th century digital technology was considered a saviour and a magician, a renewer of art and life, we quickly realized that finally new forms, new tools need new content to be able to really transform art and aesthetic experience. So we are looking to understand what is coming next. Now that digital culture constitutes our everyday life, what are the implications for art, theatre and ways of living? The debate has already moved in two directions with vast implications: on the one hand, the debate on the post-human, and on the other, the debate on the new age of humanity, the anthropocene. The reflections raised by the debate on the anthropocene set aside digital culture and innovation, insisting on exploring the question ‘how to live in the world?,’ confronting humankind with its own existence, the planet, its choices, making the debate about the tragic, the man and the chaos of the world relevant again. I think something good can come out of this whole story.
Digital is different from online
Tim: I would start by switching the term ‘digital’ for ‘online’. Often these two are used interchangeably, but while something that is online is by necessity digital, the opposite is not necessarily also true. Things can be digital but take place entirely offline.
Well, I think the greatest changes have come from the online rather than the digital, and the pandemic has just reinforced this. Book publishing, for example, has experienced massive disruption to its business model thanks to online models. There are the obvious impacts here such as in printing and distribution, but also the less obvious such as editing and guidance. There must have been significant changes and losses for authors in these less visible fields. In the music sector the impact has been perhaps even more significant. Much greater revolutions with regards to easy access and cost are in the foreground here, but behind them sits the loss of power of music labels to online distributors and the huge difficulties artists face in negotiating financial terms with vast global companies.
Of course these points purely relate to the online, but in the context of the pandemic this has come to the foreground almost to define digital and the arts. Pre-pandemic I think that in these same sectors the living spectacle was still strong. I have only colloquial evidence but I don’t hear of a huge decline in readership, and live performance in music still had a central role, if not one that was regaining ground rapidly.
We do not need a director to make final decisions because we do not put so much weight on notions of finality. The completed art-object is another 20th century invention, one which the fluid, technology-dependent, site-specific, and highly improvisatory work which Medea produces calls into question.
Turning to Medea Electronique specifically I would say that we have been intensively engaged in digitizing the performing arts but only rarely engaged in putting the performing arts online. So in pure disruptive terms as discussed above I don’t think we took part. I would say that Medea Electronique has mainly worked with live performance with extensive digital elements rather than digital-only performance itself, and I think we have done this because we recognize the magic and immediacy that comes from live performance, and the additional magic that can be added by digital elements.
Theatre is a hypermedium
Angeliki: The coronavirus pandemic has brought to the fore a controversy about the ontology of the theatre and the ‘threat’ of technology. Two opposing trends prevail: the fetichization of digital culture vs. its demonization. In Greece the debate revealed stereotypical schemas regarding the nature of a theatrical event and the threats that digitizing live art raises. The term ‘digital theatre’ comes up, though not signifying a performance that involves digital technology in its dramaturgy, but a digitized performance. The worry is that the remote viewing of a performance through a digital channel threatens the viewer’s experience by distorting it, since shared physical presence and immediacy are central to the theatre.
Theatre has played a crucial role at every turning point in media technology. This is the case both in the introduction of the phonetic alphabet and in the invention of perspective, typography, and more recently, in ‘mechanization’ and ‘computerization’. Theatre adapts and spreads new cognitive strategies, every time new technologies become dominant. It ends up integrating these new media such as cinema, television and video.
So the question should not be whether live spectacle is threatened by digital technology but the terms of their encounter. Theatre, after all, as a hypermedium, will remain the space of the embodied, tangible, unmediated experience.