On Collective Terms: Possibilities and Responsibilities
By Leilani Lynch, in response to Tilt West’s roundtable on Artist Collectives and Collaboration
In November 2022, Tilt West’s roundtable convening took ‘Artist Collectives and Collaboration’ as its topic. Over the course of the discussion, we mused on foundational aspects of collectives and collectivity: critical definitions of their function and role, the types of power they hold, and the benefits or risks they could yield. Being a fresh Denverite, I was grateful for the rootedness of the discussion in local collectives, past and present. Participants included artists and members of collectives, co-ops, and collaborative projects, such as isPress, Denver Digital Land Grab, and Mo’Print, among others. The resulting meditation on collectivity was situated in personal experience and knowledge.
The conversation began with a parsing of definitions: What constitutes a typical artist collective? Are formal membership, hierarchy, or organization necessary? These questions, posed by co-prompters Anthony Garcia and Raymundo Muñoz of Globeville’s Birdseed Collective, reflected a desire to identify the nature and potential of collectivity within the artistic and cultural realm. As practicing members of a collectively run organization, Garcia and Muñoz spoke from firsthand experience of wanting to amplify the impact of their individual work as artists by working together to engage the non-artist community. True to its name, Birdseed Collective, founded in 2009, endeavors to collectively plant the seeds for a thriving community, functioning as an “outreach organization that is dedicated to improving the socio-economic climate of Denver, Colorado through innovative arts and humanities offerings.” Birdseed follows in the footsteps of other community-focused, collectively run cultural organizations in Denver like Chicano Humanities and Arts Council (CHAC), which was founded in 1978 by a group of visual and performing artists. CHAC began as a place where Chicano/Latino artists were provided with a venue to explore visual and performance art and to promote and preserve the Chicano/Latino culture through the expression of the arts. As community supporters and generators, CHAC and Birdseed provide cultural sustenance through collective work and a belief that shared talents, experiences, and resources are stronger than those of individuals.
A Lexicon of Collectivity
So, what constitutes an artist collective? How is it different from or related to other terms like collaboration and cooperation? The inherent flexibility of collective work imbues it with a slipperiness that makes it difficult to define in totality. Perhaps the sense of wholeness derived from being part of a group rather than working as a singular individual is tricky to understand within the capitalistic, patriarchal societies of the western world. To be part of a collective implies a named commitment to a set of shared stakes, shared values, and shared resources. In short, collective work requires the sense of generosity that informs the counter-societal structures mentioned above. Often eschewing hierarchy, collectives propose horizontal organizational structures that distribute and harness power across their membership.
Within an artistic context, collectivity has been defined as a group of artists “united by shared ideologies, aesthetics and, or political beliefs.” The Toolkit for Cooperative, Collective, Collaborative Cultural Works, published by Press Press and the Institute for Expanded Research in 2020, outlines the following definitions:
Collaboration: Collaboration means being a co-author of the work in some way. Collaboration may feel closer to your heart.
Collective Work: Collective work is a broad term that can be used to describe different types of processes and structures that involve a group of people working together in some way. It may imply a longer-term working relationship that spans multiple projects.
Cooperation: Cooperation is an act or instance of working or acting together for a common purpose or benefit. Cooperation can happen with many people and may include a more hierarchical structure.
The Toolkit is the written result of multiple convenings and discussions around collective practices by collective practitioners in the Baltimore and Los Angeles areas. Much like the Tilt West discussion, the Toolkit convenings, and subsequent publication aimed to identify, “why we choose, or are often compelled, to do our work through collective models, the challenges we face, and advice we can offer on how to address our various difficulties…[as well as] the circumstances, intentions, and desires that drive the collective work models we engage with, thrive within, and sometimes struggle through.”
The Fruits of Collective Practice
While each of these terms share values of togetherness and shared work/outputs, I see the transition from collaboration to collective as marked by intentionality. In a collective, collaboration is given a structure, mission, and perhaps a name. Once the decision to exist and work collectively is made, possibilities abound.
The output and practices of collectives can vary, often adopting a malleable approach to the needs of members (internal) or of a community (external) served or interacting with their work. Whatever the shared goal of a collective may be, all collective work is ultimately political because it offers a model that is alternative and resistant to hegemonic, capitalist ideologies. Collective art practice can expand on and complicate an individual’s practice, amplifying a conceptual message through shared authorship and faculties. Artists have come together to organize and collectively rent, buy, or occupy studio space in the absence of more affordable options, as in the case of TANK Studios or the now defunct Rhinoceropolis in Denver. Collectives can emerge through affinities based on physical and cultural proximity. Neighborhood-based orgs like Birdseed, CHAC, and the newly formed North Side Arts Collaborative are a few local examples. Collectives can also operate as skill-sharing networks and educational platforms filling gaps in conventional school curricula. Gudskul, the Jakarta-based super collective formed by ruangrupa, Serrum, and Grafis Huru Hara operates a school for collectives open to anyone “interested in co-learning, developing collective-based artistic practices, and art-making with a focus on collaboration.”
Collectivity and collaboration have been at the forefront of the art world zeitgeist in recent years. In 2019, the nominees for theTate Museum’s prestigious annual Turner Prize opted to collectively share the prize winnings; in 2021 all the nominees for the prize were collectives. Recently, ruangrupa, the 22-year-old artist collective from Indonesia, was appointed to curate documenta, the important quinquennial. Although artists have been working as collectives at least since the first half of the 20th century, perhaps the advent of the “post-truth” era, the political and social fracturing of the Trump presidency, and the COVID-19 pandemic have now jolted a broader public to consider the value of shared world-building, knowledge exchange, and mutual aid as alternatives to the dominant institutions at play. The accolades and platforms recently offered to artist collectives legitimize collective practices and increase study and scrutiny of their machinations.
The freedom from individualistic thinking and making, and this turn towards giving and sharing, don’t necessarily negate responsibility for one’s own actions when operating within a group. Participation in a collective also includes shared risks and responsibilities, whether they be moral, financial, or physical. This point is not meant to expose a “dark side” of collaboration or collectives, but rather to move beyond the notion of collectivism as a utopian ideal and to illuminate the potentiality of applying collectivity as a model at different scales or contexts.
Collective Power and Responsibility
Sayings like “many hands make light work,” “strength in numbers,” and “stronger together” indicate the power embedded in collectivity. Though often formed in resistance to hegemonic structures of power, collectivity generates its own power — be it social, political, physical or otherwise.
Another adage warns that with the influx of power comes great responsibility. How does an ethos of responsibility play out collectively? With collectives, the locus point of power is obscured, if non-existent, so the dynamics of individual responsibility while participating and acting as a collective become slippery. This interplay of relations between individual and group actions/work/practices was at the crux of controversies that arose over the recent documenta fifteen, curated by ruangrupa in Kassel, Germany.
documenta fifteen unfolded over 100 days, from June to September 2022, adapting ruangrupa’s ethos of lumbung, a shared pot of resources derived from Indonesian and Southeast Asian communal food pantries, as the conceptual and curatorial framework for the city-wide exhibition. For ruangrupa, “lumbung is not only a building or object but also a set of values and a cosmology that describes the living practice of a society.” ruangrupa’s dually embedded approach unfolded through work with partners locally in Kassel and a strong rootedness within a global network of 14 lumbung members — community-based, activist, and creative groups operating around the globe — from Cuba and Colombia to New Zealand, Mali, and Dhaka. The resulting exhibition was a rich constellation of collective work, varying widely in form, method, message, and medium,and reflective of diverse world-views and social, political, and environmental concerns. Documentation of the process of working collectively to organize the exhibition and the resulting knowledge production was also displayed.
Core to ruangrupa’s approach was a decentralized mode of operating: lumbung collectives were asked to invite others to join the exhibition, eventually totaling around 1500 participants. With this volume of minds, thoughts, and contributors based around the world, a lack of control seems inevitable. Indeed, in this case it was intentional. One member commented that the “approach always comes with a degree of risk,” while another characterized the scaled-up collective model as “not fully controllable…That’s fine, we don’t want to control.”
While this approach to curating an exhibition through horizontal, non-hierarchical methods of collectivity is a valuable model, the strategic lack of control seemed to avoid the critical oversight that curators are traditionally tasked with having over artists or artworks. ruangrupa was subject to public outcry and criticism for the inclusion of People’s Justice (2002) by another Indonesian collective, Taring Padi. Made in response to the collective’s “disappointment, frustration and anger as politicized art students who had also lost many of our friends in the street fighting of the 1998 popular uprising that finally led to the disposal of the dictator,” the work contained imagery that evoked antisemitic tropes, which were triggering and offensive to many of the public. Although ruangrupa and Taring Padi publicly apologized, attempting to give context to the work’s creation, the work was eventually covered, and the controversy overshadowed the inclusive and convivial atmosphere intended by the exhibition.
Who was to blame? What is the responsibility of the collective here? In this case, is the responsibility solely with Taring Padi, with ruangrupa for allowing the work to be included, or with documenta as an institution for lack of oversight? The answer is complicated by the shared authorship embedded within the entire project. In the absence of a single “culprit” behind the charged imagery, the implications refracted across the network of collectives.
The documenta controversy called into question ‘collectivity as method’ and its tenuous legitimacy within conventional artworld structures. Analyzing how the events unfolded, Indonesian cultural scholars Wulan Dirgantoro and Elly Kent reflected on how the controversy was likely further exacerbated because of the friction between cultural institutions like documenta and the collective model. They note:
Cultural institutions are notoriously risk-averse, with the primary motivation being to avoid reputational damage. A side-effect of this reputational risk aversion is that contextual and cultural sensitivities are usually managed, and creating a safe environment for audiences, artists and artworks is prioritized. All of this is achieved through a hierarchy of responsibility which ultimately means the institution has a duty of care to all its stakeholders. Artists, at the bottom of the institutional hierarchy but simultaneously the most visible part of it, are somewhat off the hook. It’s a paradox that also deserves scrutiny, and experimental methods like lumbung take this on.
Despite these controversies and perceived failures, the annual “Power 100” list by Art Review of the most influential people in the artworld listed ruangrupa as #1 in 2022. The text accompanying the ranking cited the collective’s exposure and disruption of hierarchical power structures as the reason for their top place. Decrying the documenta organization, the article argues, “you can’t, as a powerful, hierarchical organization, pretend to value delegation, collaboration and devolution of power only to be surprised when events no longer stay under your control.” This ranking does not absolve them for the misstep of including Taring Padi’s People’s Justice, but does foreground the closing questions from our Tilt West roundtable: What kinds of projects benefit most from collaborating? What kinds of new relationships might intra- and inter-collective collaboration foster? Perhaps extra-collective collaborations between collectives and institutions, government bodies, and cities–like those exemplified by ruangrupa and documenta–may be the most necessary, despite being messy and uncomfortable at times.
The Tilt West discussion showed that there are manifold methods of practicing collectively, each with its own structure and vision. Collectivity is an active state. It is a practice that requires continual shared commitment and care to maintain. It’s heartening to see how artists and creators locally and internationally have found ways to thrive and amplify their work through shared authorship, valuing multiplicity and abundance over solitary gain. Yet, although the value and necessity of collective work are evident and visible (at least in the artistic realm), the question of sustainability remains. How can we nurture and sustain alternative structures like collectives so that they may continue to challenge notions of hierarchy, power and control? While I’m not exactly sure how, I know we should work on it together.
Leilani Lynch is Associate Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. Her curatorial practice champions experimentation and critical engagement with the most urgent ideas circulating today. Working collaboratively with artists, her exhibitions and programs analyze the human experience and are inclusive of diverse and wide-ranging audiences. Prior to joining MCA Denver, Leilani most recently served as Curator at The Bass, Miami Beach.
 https://cdn.filepicker.io/api/file/TmD42gh4QyXdzkuWjrPc?&fit=max, p.9.
 https://cdn.filepicker.io/api/file/TmD42gh4QyXdzkuWjrPc?&fit=max, p.4.
 “Lumbung Calling — a Series of Conversations Marks the Start of the Public Program,” documenta fifteen, March 18, 2021, https://documenta-fifteen.de/en/news/lumbung-calling-a-series-of-conversations-marks-the-start-of-the-public-program/.
 The full list of Lumbung Members comprises Britto Arts Trust (Britto, Dhaka), FAFSWAG (Auckland), The Fondation Festival sur le Niger (Ségou), Gudskul (Jakarta), INLAND (various locations in Spain), Instituto de Artivismo Hannah Arendt (INSTAR, Havana), Jatiwangi Art Factory (JaF, Jatiwangi), Más Arte Más Acción (MAMA, Chocó), The OFF-Biennale (Budapest), Project Art Works (Hastings), Question of Funding from the Khalil Sakakini Cultural Center (KSCC, Ramallah), Trampoline House (Copenhagen), Wajukuu Art Project (Wajukuu, Nairobi), ZK/U — Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik (ZK/U, Berlin)
 Dirgantoro, Wulan, and Dr. Elly Kent. “We Need to Talk! Art, Offence and Politics in Documenta 15.” OnCurating, no. 54 (November 2022): 51–56. https://on-curating.org/issue-54-reader/we-need-to-talk-art-offence-and-politics-in-documenta-15.html#.Y9CUy-zMLMI.