Text by Penny Rafferty
The brooding sprawn of collectivity, an endless pursuit of constructing. Collectivity is fundamentally a mode of production, one is never inactive when they are being collective.
It’s almost impossible. The very act of plurality is a modus for exchange, which is probably why art, technology and politics lean so heavily on this mutated form of group dynamics. The term “collective” is generally seen as a group of people who share a common interest or who are motivated to a achieve a common goal. Combining skills to create decentralized or “majority-rules” decision making practices is typical of a collective, however the word and frame of collectives is generally a word open for interpretation and can be applied to horizontal and hierarchy collective structures. Hence why I used the word mutated, to move us away from the idea that a collective is always a good practice. Often these human assemblages—known as collectives/communities—hold various different hierarchies and tiered systems. The crux of collectivity does not always have an entirely positive outcome in the real world either. Especially when the collective formation is built on lucidity just as you find in the arts: think radical right The Daily Stormer or the commune built on conspiracies The Manson Family.
Saying that collectivity in the arts is generally easier to identify, the single artist output vs the plural collective. It is not a new idea per se, in the arts. It has been the tried, tested and over the years has often found itself outside economic market success. Only two nights ago, I was sitting with a group of professional curators and artists as they gleefully declared that collectives are non-profitable and doomed to fail in the contemporary art sphere, which is why they are such seductive formats to rebels. Becoming the underdog is a positive place for the arts generally because these microstructures very rarely have the stifling blue-chip market down their throats, nor do they have the fear of not making it because they are already aware they are disabled by not being a single white, male, aka saleable. To name but a few up and coming collective forces Young Boy Dancing Group, New Scenario, Leckhaus, New Noveta, HellFun and HARD-CORE are all much more fascinating than the boothed and cubed works of their singular peers.
One of the first formations of a group as artwork was The Situationist International, founded in 1957: the coalition of artists, writers and intellectuals became the art world pin-up of collectivity. Guy Debord was a notorious de facto leader who often expelled people who didn’t commit enough time to the ideas and practices of the SI. They were also dubbed to be the prime influencers behind the May ’68 events in Paris, which created yet another spin-off to their global collective known as the ’68 movement. This turbo-blender of political action under the cover of art is potentially the driving force behind many subsequent collectives such as Luther Blissett, a name that has been used by hundreds of artists and activists all over Europe and America since 1994. The pseudonym first appeared in Bologna, Italy, when a number of cultural activists began using it to stage pranks and experiment with new forms of authorship and identity. The theory been, anyone can claim that they are Luther Blissett, a tactic not too dissimilar to the Black Bloc which we could easily liken to the contemporary ’68 movement. The decentralized group Luther Blissett is still active today, and over the years they have created several works such as exhibiting the female chimpanzee and former victim of sadistic pharmaceutical experiments, Loota’s paintings at the Venice Biennale of Contemporary Arts in 1995 (it was revealed she was fictitious after the event). Later that year LB also ‘leaked’ that the K Foundation, a retirement fund for the electronic band KLF, had burned a million pounds in cash on the Isle of Jura, Scotland. Most recently in 2007, a month before J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was released, LB sent the leaked ending via email to the Full Disclosure mailing list, declaring themselves to be Catholic hackers. In 48 hours CNN, BBC, Reuters and thousands of blogs proffered the claim and subsequent ending. Three days after LB claimed responsibility but it was estimated the psyop may have been the cause of a -5% drop in the Bloomsbury Publishing PLC on the London Stock Exchange. I would argue that all three examples here are brilliant works of art, they illuminate the viewer’s mind, bleed art into Life and reflect societal infrastructures as potential imaginariums—they are the Happenings wet-dream and Allan Kaprow’s prodigal children run amok.
Both Situationist International and Luther Blissett use the material of Mythopoesis to form their practices. Mythopoesis is a social process of constructing myths: this is not the same as contemporary “fake news” or “false stories” because these tales are specifically created to be told, shared, re-told and manipulated by a global and multifarious community not a singular idiom. Radical movements have always found themselves rooted in myth-making as they will not gain space in the common populous media. This social sculpture is at once the anti-Christ of the art world market, as who can sell a myth, who can profit, or control the number of editions of said myth; no-one, not even the artists. One incandescent example of another collective who set them up at the start to be the antagonist of the art oligarch and used mythopoesis is whereisanamendieta. A group of predominantly female activists who have created performative acts to disrupt the viewing of the minimalist sculptor Carl Andre’s work since 1992 and had recently re-emerged with a new lease of life headed my Liv Wynter in 2016. The group’s practice often works as a duality, on the one side they act as a protest. Arguing the acquittal and subsequent rise to fame of Andre after his involvement with his then-wife Ana Mendieta’s death in 1985. The other side of their practice, is to reenact Mendieta’s works and bring them into their rightful place in art history. Up until last month, when her show opened at Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin, Mendieta had never had a full large-scale retrospective of her work, even though she was notably an influential figure in feminist performance art.
Since the mid-’90s, public space has not been the only place for autonomous art actions. Today the majority of people don’t adhere to the latent hope as SI did that “beneath the streets is the beach.” We have moved into the global hub of code, the Internet. The act of being online is about as collective as it gets now, whichever way you want to look at it. Pirating music, uploading on social media or joining the speculative market of cryptocurrency, these are all enabled by a collective body. You have to have the possibility to become another user to be able to create a transaction online, not just economically but also emotionally. The Internet holds the potential to be the only public space to offer a horizontal power structure, the online is literally the digital meta-beach the SI hoped for. In 1994, net artists quickly located this as a site for ‘social responsibility,’ drawing attention to the participation of vested spaces, net artists used it to buy, steal and distribute amongst themselves and those using this new public domain. The commune went online. That same year, Debord coincidentally shot himself through the heart with a single bullet. It was said to be his last act against ‘the spectacle’ by many who knew him, the literal human strike but to others, the very act of shooting oneself through the heart seems like the ultimate spectacle. Could a man who so often cited that “work was a disgrace” and “the concept of leisure was an insult” see so clearly into the future now! Where a recreational leisure is so often an act of producing latent material for the big boss. The question ‘what is a spectacle?’ can be traced as far back as probably the noun, Art. All of the above are forms belonging to art. These practices align themselves with the infrastructure of society, not the political superstructure, they all aim to create micro-societies, not state institutions.
In the last years, within the isolated sphere of the art world, we have seen again a spurt of lust for collectives. Seduction is the best virtue when it comes to gaining followers on and offline right now, it seems people are following the collective self over the individual. This tryst is made possible via ritual, ceremonies and nurtured beliefs which have predominantly been created online but then make their way into the offline world. A solid-state example of this was Agatha Valkyrie Ice, originally created by Dorota Gawęda and Eglė Kulbokaitė. Ai (Agatha preferred pronoun) began as a character that the duo created through social media, anyone with the relevant passwords could shape Ai’s ‘personality.’ They could also communicate as Ai both collectively and anonymously as Agatha. This idea of a multi-platform/user is very similar to Luther Blissett, apart from the fact that you had to have the keys to Ai, hence it was a closed community, not a public identity. This definitely levered the work to a more clique group like the Situationist, but an even more compelling act happened in 2015-2017, when Agatha became the artistic director of Oslo 10 in Basel. During that time Agatha curated shows, events, and gigs inside her gallery, building up a real-world hub from a social media identity. Agatha’s collectivity is much stronger than Ai’s individuality in this way it creates a very specific type of alienation, almost a paradoxical one. Harnessing both inclusion and exclusion reflexes of the user/s. This type of modus can also be applied to projects like Gelitin, Reena Spaulings, Ying Colosseum and International Necronautical Society, all of which have different approaches to the art market but all produce artworks from their own social structures.
All these forms of practice can easily be tied into the Situationist International approach to “détournement” (the act of hijacking or rerouting) or in a byproduct of Luther Blissett tactical media outputs, which offers a blurry line when it comes to hacking and agitprop practices. Even New Noveta’s use of negated female hysteria practices to induce a status on the viewers for re-reading feminism discourse offers an arena of disruption to the contemporary art world. Considering the social now, one thing that seems glaringly obvious is we all want the collective, even those who declare it as mutiny, relish its movements. Whether it’s by becoming it or viewing it from the sidelines, it’s without a doubt the most compelling part of the avant-garde and arguably always has been. Not only for the material it creates but for what it does to the viewer. In the words of the famed collective The Bernadette Corporation, one must “Get Rid of Yourself” in order to be able to view collectivity. In a world in which the artist has become the professional, the collective is the only undocumented immigrant left alive, who survives by seizing the chances life offers, and let us not forget smaller groups of people have changed the art world.
All images New Scenario’s HOPE, 2017
Courtesy: the artists and New Scenario Photos: Stefan Schrader, Christoph Simon