Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 30, 2021
Gwyneth Shanks and Allie Tepper, eds. Side by Side: Collaborative Artistic Practices in the United States, 1960s–1980s Living Collections Catalogue, vol. 3. Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2020. Online (9781935963219)

(Click here to view the online multimedia publication.)

“What if museums narrated their history, our histories, not as a chronology of single artists or ‘masterpieces,’ but rather as a story of group work?” Thomas Lax, curator of media and performance at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), asks this question in his preface to the third volume of the Walker Art Center’s Living Collections Catalogue. Side by Side: Collaborative Artistic Practices in the United States, 1960s–1980s, coedited by scholar Gwyneth Shanks and curator Allie Tepper, is a dynamic investigation of how artists have negotiated the politics of collectivity in the shadow of the museum. It provides one (necessarily partial) response to Lax’s query. Clicking through the articles, photos, clips, anecdotes, and newly surfaced archival items gathered in this exhilarating digital publication, viewers are treated to a palpably material history of collective practices that exceed, in various ways, museum acquisition protocols. Rather than mobilizing “the collective” as a static form now easily absorbed by established institutions, this catalog focuses on the sociality of artistic labor, questioning what kinds of practices, politics, and antagonisms “group work” enables.

Now funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Living Collections Catalogue series was originally launched with the Getty Foundation’s Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative, which aimed to increase access to museum collections by reimagining how research on them might be conducted, circulated, and used. Although it was conceived long before COVID-19 lockdowns necessitated a turn to digital exhibitions, Side by Side was coincidentally launched on March 11, 2020, the day the World Health Organization officially declared the outbreak a pandemic. The visual landscape of this digital publication structures the Walker’s web presence as an important extension of its collection and exhibition program. In doing so it represents a compelling hybrid model for digital publishing in the arts, especially regarding the series’ engagement with archival materials. In this volume, filmed documentation of Haus-Rucker-Co’s Food City 1 (1971), for example, is glorious to behold—a luscious technicolor cityscape of stacked bread skyscrapers, frosted shingles, and cauliflower trees. A detail from a 1975 exhibition announcement magnifies Asco artist Patssi Valdez’s lipstick marks for our online viewing pleasure. We are invited to inspect Grand Union’s rehearsal schedule for their 1971 residency at the Walker, or flip through Studio Z’s 1977 exhibition catalog from the Long Beach Museum of Art, California. Like its predecessors, Side by Side animates ephemera from the Walker’s collection, but actually goes far beyond the Minnesota institution to ask more conceptual questions about what it means to document, acquire, participate in, access, and historicize explicitly collective practices.

Side by Side focuses on five case studies: Ross Elfline on Viennese architectural collective Haus-Rucker-Co; Allie Tepper’s conversation with artist Senga Nengudi; Wendy Perron on postmodern dance group Grand Union’s two residencies at the Walker; C. Ondine Chavoya on Chicano art group Asco; and Hillary Miller on theater troupe Mabou Mines. Each casts the issue of collectivity in a different light, elucidating its key questions through the careful recovery of largely performance-based practices. The visual staging of each contribution further frames collaborative performance as deeply entangled with its own economy of reproduction. The publication’s user interface frequently requires readers to click through a series of archival materials before returning to the text—a clever method of slowing the scroll to encourage a more purposeful engagement with performance documentation. These are practices, as Shanks emphasizes in her thoughtful introduction, that are only available to us through the document, “because their pointedly ephemeral, process-oriented, and collaborative aesthetics were, until recently, not considered through the lens of the museum’s collection or granted adequate scholarly attention.” By privileging the minutiae necessary to the distribution, maintenance, and historicization of collective performance—announcements, letters, photos, invitations, even gossip—the collection reinserts underrecognized practices into the historical record while tempering some of the flattening effects of canonization. Shanks understands the term “collective” as “a descriptor for artistic production” that forecloses the singularity of the artist. Harnessing Jean-Luc Nancy’s concept of “being singular plural,” Shanks nevertheless refuses to ontologize collectivity, “asking instead what it means to be with others in particular ways and in particular moments.” The resulting approaches represented here are less hampered by the question of what collectivity is, per se, than they are concerned with what it might do, what kinds of affinities it negotiates or engenders among artists, institutions, and their public(s). Amplifying how such practices emerge from specific social and cultural worlds allows the collection, as a whole, to attend more carefully to the always-already collective conditions of artistic production.

Those conditions are perhaps most clearly addressed in Tepper’s expansive interview with artist Senga Nengudi. Nengudi’s account of her artistic development advances a notion of collaboration as support by repeatedly turning to the material conditions that do or do not enable the making of artwork—from institutional backing, to gallery space, to friendship, to childcare. By way of introduction, Tepper points to Nengudi’s R.S.V.P. series (1975–present), which requires participants to interact with stretched and sand-filled pantyhose, indicating the artist’s approach to collaboration as “a vehicle for experimentation” and “the formation of artistic networks and platforms of support.” Those networks include the work of Studio Z, a loose collective of Black artists working in LA during the 1970s, and those enabled by Linda Goode Bryant’s Just Above Midtown gallery in New York, itself the subject of a forthcoming exhibition at MoMA curated by Lax. Nengudi’s approach to group work is clearly emblematic for Tepper and Shanks, who sourced the title of the catalog from a video compilation of her collaborations with artist Maren Hassinger. The interview thus takes a central place in the collection, further extending the robust archival impulse uniting the other contributions by providing another form of performance documentation of ongoing collaborative practice—in this case, testimony.

Side by Side also queries the relationship between collaborative practices and the social movements with which they are often entangled. Miller’s examination of performance troupe Mabou Mines’ Dead End Kids: A History of Nuclear Power (1980) tackles this question head on by situating Mabou Mines’ brand of political theater in relationship to the shifting visual language of antinuclear activism. Miller shows how the aesthetics of the nuclear disarmament movement mobilized a representational lexicon in conflict with the experimentalism of Mabou Mines, even while, as Miller concludes, “the collective bridged their aesthetic experimentation with unprecedented activist mobilization against a defining threat of the twentieth-century.” The volume’s attention to how contemporaneous political upheavals imbricate artists’ collaborations points to an important move against the depoliticization of practices too often fetishized by institutions seduced by the romance of collectivity. Indeed, the utopia of collective authorship is easy for institutions to celebrate—or instrumentalize, as Shanks points out—while they often remain complicit in the asymmetrical power relations many collective practices aim to disrupt.

LA-based Chicano art group Asco are highly aware of this kind of institutional fetishization. In a brilliant essay on these legendary art rebels, Chavoya thematizes the group’s repudiation of the label “collective.” Quoting Asco member Harry Gamboa Jr., who insists they “were never a collective group     . . . the term was imposed by institutions and scholars,” Chavoya refuses to assimilate Asco to reified categories of art historical analysis. Instead, Chavoya reads the group’s complex negotiations of collectivity through practices of inscription, naming, and affiliation discerned from close readings of the group’s ephemera, including postcard invitations, posters, and other documentation. In doing so, Chavoya traces the way these artists mobilized the visual language of Mexican American wall writing—graffiti-style signatures, or placas—to signal their place within a network of affiliation that is irreducible to “the collective.” Collaboration, Chavoya notes, nevertheless provided the necessary material conditions for art making when institutional support for Chicanx artists was entirely inaccessible. Chavoya’s essay ultimately makes a decolonizing intervention into both institutional and art historical accounts of collective practice, as many, dominated as they are by the arc of Western modernism, fail to account for the cultural specificity of prevailing categories. The essay is also an excellent example of how long-form digital publishing can put archival material into direct conversation with artworks. In this case, Chavoya’s contextualization of the ephemera displayed alongside the text prompts a rereading of Asco’s iconic Spray Paint LACMA (1972). Here, the digital environment allows viewers to engage more meaningfully with materials that might otherwise end up in a vitrine, easily overlooked by even the most assiduous museumgoers.

By the time I reached the end of this rich publication, I was surprised to realize that most of the artists considered never actually identified as part of a formal collective. This points to the fact that Side by Side is ultimately driven by a renewed and specific interest in the conditions of collective artistic production rather than the fetish of collectivism that so often governs the institutionalization of collaborative projects. A remark by Nengudi is particularly keen in this regard: “Being an artist is a solo experience in your studio and so on,” she tells Tepper, “so when you are collaborating with others it gives you a chance to expand, and if nothing else, to be social, I guess.” In other words, the sociality of artistic production forms the key site of investigation here. By foregrounding the entanglements between social worlds, political affiliation, and aesthetic production, Side by Side asks us to consider what happens when we understand art making as predominantly social—a mode that can be messy and contradictory, singular and plural, quotidian and sometimes even virtuosic.

Nadja Millner-Larsen
Faculty Fellow, Experimental Humanities and Social Engagement, New York University