A Quick Guide to Collaborative Art

Humans are complex. There is no denying this. On the one hand, we tend to need a certain measure of independence in order to feel like we are accomplishing our own goals. On the other, we are an inherently social species and there is no question that in some ways we work better in groups. For artists, these characteristics ring true and can be put to use in the form of artistic collaboration. As with any practice, collaboration involves some prep work and probably some practice. There will be hiccups along the way and people may argue or even fight. That’s just the way it is when humans come together bringing their own ideas to a single effort. But with some hard work, patience, and a plan in place, collaboration can prove a satisfying and fruitful way to create new and wonderful things. Here are some thoughts and tips to help you make the most out of your collaboration.

When it comes to basic space, there are some things it is useful to know. Proxemics is the study of how much space humans and animals require in order to feel at ease. Generally speaking, humans subconsciously break down their own proxemics in the following ways:

Intimate space: 0-4 inches
Personal space: 18 inches – 4 feet
Social space: 4 feet – 10 feet
Public space: over 10 feet

Of course, these are merely guidelines. Actual spatial needs are influenced by everything from simple personal preference to the culture in which we were raised. For example, Americans, in general, prefer more personal space–toward the 18-inch mark, while some other cultures are comfortable with a lot more casual contact.

What does this have to do with collaboration? Well, everything. It is important to make sure that everyone involved in a collaborative effort feels comfortable enough to open up and create. Ensuring that there is enough physical space for all involved is a very good first step toward creating a safe environment where trust can be built.

Once space is established in which to work, effort must be made to open and maintain the flow of communication. Artist Paul Ryan created what he calls the Threeing Stick. Using this model, a dowel is painted in three colors, red, blue, and yellow with red in the middle and the other two colors on each end. During scheduled communication times (e.g. meetings about the collaborative work at hand) each person is able to hold the Threeing Stick when it is his or her turn to speak. Depending on which color is being held while talking, the speaker indicates what role they are speaking in. These roles can be determined by your group, but a basic guideline may be a question asker, an instructor, and an ideas person. But again, you and your group can determine what roles are most important for your own communication. While each person is holding the Threeing Stick, the rest of the group listens. In this way, you can be sure that everyone is heard and everyone has an opportunity to speak.

One way to capitalize on both the human tendencies for independence and for collaborative work is to assign homework. Ask all members of your group to take away a particular project or problem that needs solving. In the interim between meetups, each person dedicates solo time responding to the homework. When you come together again, all can present their ideas in a workshop setting. Feedback should be constructive, never unnecessarily harsh, and above all, honest. By having more than one mind at work on a single idea and then combining the results, you will come up with combinations and ideas no one person could have achieved.

Respect is critical in any collaborative situation. If one person shows disrespect, it can jeopardize the entire collaborative effort. At the outset, lay down ground rules in this regard. It is imperative that there be a safe environment for all. Be clear that anyone causing distress will be asked to leave the group. It is sometimes better to be upfront about things than to have to clean up after a problem has occurred.

While it is tempting to want a collaboration to be a free-flowing, formless mingling of ideas and methods, humans tend to work better with a little structure whether they realize it or not. Having someone designated as the formal (though not autocratic, of course) leader of the collaboration is a good way to facilitate all of the above. If there is someone in your group who is naturally good at taking the lead, definitely use this strength.

Collaborative art has a long history and will surely continue as long as there are humans making art in this world. It is a wonderful way to break out of your own walls and see things from new perspectives. If you think a collaboration might be the answer for you right now, reach out and see who is willing to come along for the ride. This guide will help you get up and running and create amazing art together.



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