Fillip 7 — Winter 2008

Collective Conscious
Johan Lundh

In recent years, the art world has shown a renewed interest in collective creative practices. But the desire to speak in a collective voice has long fueled artistic production. Collectivism has continuously called into question how we view art works that do not represent the voice of a single individual and how collective production affects the concept of art as a means of self-expression. In contrast to individualism, collectivism connotes community, solidarity, proximity, and trust. But it can also signal authority, surveillance, and censorship, depending on the circumstances. Despite its recent popularity, collectivism is not a value in itself. Its value is determined by the quality of relations among those who maintain it and the density of the work produced.

Collectivism after Modernism: The Art of Social Imagination after 1945 engages the history of art collectives during the second half of the twentieth century. The ten essays in the volume offer a diverse rich cross-section of collectives in Africa, Cuba, Europe, Japan, Mexico, Russia, and the United States. The book is welcome, since it sheds light on a largely unwritten and unexamined history. The editors, Blake Stimson and Gregory Sholette, draw upon collectivism’s inherent ambiguities and contradictions in order to explore and examine collectively produced art across an array of cultural, economic, and political contexts. Although the book is missing examples from major parts of the world, it is a first step toward a deeper understanding of collectivist practices in the postmodern era.

The book’s first essay, Jelena Stojanovic’s “Internation-aleries: Collectivism, the Grotesque, and Cold War Functionalism,” is a survey of four influential European art collectives in the 1950s and 60s: CoBrA IAE, Internationale Lettriste, Mouvement International pour un Bauhaus Imaginiste, and the Situationist International. Stojanovic exposes a paradigm shift in the deployment of avant-garde strategies after World War II. By inventing a new mode of encrypted artistic practice, these collectives undermined functionalistic Cold War modernism, pointing out its ideological pitfalls. Their “grotesque” or “carnivalesque” interpretations of the ideals of the time became tactics for interventions into everyday life. “The Internationaleries,” Stojanovic writes, “took upon themselves the immense and utopian task of re-imagining collective subjectivity. That is, of redefining the very notion of utopia for the Cold War era, a time when the ‘colonization of everydayness’ first took on an unconditional presence.” Although the Internationaleries’ collectivism wasn’t able to realize a critique of capitalist and communist systems that stretched beyond the historical circumstances of the Cold War era, their artistic rhetoric (the “Trojan horse,” “institutional critique,” etc.) appears in numerous texts throughout the volume.

During the Cold War there was a lack of institutional links that could have fostered an international cultural exchange that could bridge the gap created by politics. Because of this, most collectives remained enclosed within the borders of their immediate local, national, and geopolitical contexts. Instead of constructing utopian world visions like the modernist collectives, they focussed more on addressing local concerns. Nevertheless, the structural similarities between the collectives featured in the survey are more striking than the differences. From the late 1960s until today, two key notions have been self-organization and knowledge production. In “Art and Language and the Institutional Form in Anglo-American Collectivism,” Chris Gilbert discusses how the group explored the challenges and limitations of self-institutional projects long before they became fashionable in the art world.

Both self-institutionalization and knowledge production were critical concepts for the Mexican art collective Los Grupos during the seventies: Grupo Proceso Pentágono, Grupo SUMA, Grupo Tetraedo, and Taller de Arte Ideologíca. In the essay “The Mexican Pentagon,” Rubén Gallos examines how young artists turned away from state-sanctioned mural production as a wave of independent collectives emerged that reflected the anti-establishment cultural politics of the New Left. One of most interesting groups, Grupo Proceso Pentágono, expressed itself through both the street and the institutionalized art world. Instead of withdrawing from the world, Proceso Pentágono engaged with it, forcing politicians and cultural workers into critical discussion with one another. Their combination of activism and a Trojan-horse strategy of institutional critique points toward more complex present-day collective practices.

The leap from the cultural sabotage techniques used by Mexican art collectives to the hyper-urban culture collectives in New York City may seem long. But Alan W. Moore’s essay “Artist’s Collectives: Focus on New York, 1975–2000” reveals how artistic and activist articulations frequently overlap. He focuses his attention on the history of two well-known groups, the Art Workers Coalition and Group Material, in his text. Moore provides insight on how new information technology such as the camcorder and Internet have shaped and re-shaped collective practices. But it’s his exploration of the connection between activist-oriented collectives and countercultural groups, as well as community-based art and activism, that makes the text intriguing. Moore’s survey makes me long for an in-depth investigation of this connection, since he uncovers just the tip of the iceberg.

With the dissolution of the bipolar Cold War world—the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union—the notion of collectivism had to be redefined. The new opportunities created by globalization also gave birth to today’s predatory neo-liberal capitalist system. Neo-liberalism has made resistance more complicated since it thrives on resistances. Socially and politically engaged practices become commodified and depoliticized before they can make a mark in the world. In his essay “Do-It-Yourself Geopolitics: Cartographies of Art in the World,” Brian Holmes deepens Moore’s discussion of activist-oriented art collectives by analyzing how a new generation of to do-it-yourself collectives in the 1990s used tactical media, such as the Internet, and carnivalesque street celebrations, like Reclaim the Streets, that yet again blurred the lines between art and activism, aesthetics, and politics. He argues that avant-garde and neo-avant-garde discourses can be used as a source of inspiration today.

Like Holmes, I believe that a creative rethinking of the past can outline the shape of things to come. Speaking to the challenges for the near future, Holmes writes:

What matters, at the end of the last century and the beginning of this one, is the slow emergence of an experimental territory, where artistic practices that have gained autonomy from the gallery-magazine-museum system and from the advertising industry can be deliberately connected to attempt at social transformation. The urgency, today, is to reinforce that territory with both words and acts, and to use it for further constructive projects and experiments in subversion.

Collectivism after Modernism makes the case that despite the collapse of collectivization within modernist art production, the practice itself continues to offer a viable alternative to signature articulations predicated on the so-called unique expression of individual artists. At the same time, it demonstrates that collectivism has chipped away at the discrete boundaries separating art from politics, social work, and community building, among other things. At its heart lies the relationship between art and the social imagination in recent times, compelling us to consider and question the depth, scope, and range of that relationship today.

Image: Irving Petling, Lucy Lippard, Leon Golub, and Cindy Nemser join Hans Haacke’s demonstration protesting art censorship at the Guggenheim Museum, New York City, 1 May 1971. Photograph by Jan van Raay. Courtesy of the artist

About the Author

Johan Lundh is an artist, curator, and writer who splits his time between Stockholm and Vancouver. His research-based projects explore connections between social interaction and the mechanics of contemporary art. He is currently working on an interview project as well as a series of collaboratively produced posters with Vancouver-based artist-curator Alissa Firth-Eagland.

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