Deciding to share your practice isn’t often an easy decision or step to make. Asking others to join you can be more nerve wracking when considering questions of ethics, the pulling of others out of their comfort zone to make something viable and challenging. ‘Do-gooding’1, the assumption that collaborative practice is a ‘given’ and that everyone should or want to participate is also a difficult position to unearth.
More difficult still is approaching a collaborative project in a secondary school where collaboration really ‘gets in the way’. Instead, in an environment where days, hours and minutes are to be planned and negotiated to the final moment; rigidity and certainty has to be undone.
So, with this in mind, I developed a research project with a small group of 14 year old students. Photography was to be the main protagonist, the camera an object to hide our selves and faces behind while investigating ideas. Using digital SLRs encouraged us to seek out how the school building made meaning, but we quickly noticed this became more about how we could create meaning out of the school building.
Over eight weeks we made a set of images and developed a photographic practice that questioned and disturbed ideas of the students’ and adults place and role in the school. Taking advantage of afterschool time, capturing empty corridors, classrooms, cupboards, offices and school equipment. Soon furniture was moved, shelves climbed upon, floors were desks, whiteboards became sculptures and objects ‘left-over’ from lessons used to collage new images.
The collaboration was unrecognisable, a fuzzy ball of an idea of something and probably different for each participant. An un-negotiated idea in a vigilated environment meant that relationships were re-negotiated, opinions formed, strands of ideas drawn out, discussed, changed, tangled, re-shaped, re-formed. Students stepped in and out of a role of maker; of work and decisions as students or artists, while my role as teacher receded.
In negotiating a different type of collaboration, the one between myself and my mentor has been one of slowly revealing similarities and different positions. My mentor is in the enviable position of having completed a PhD, while I stand at the beginning of mine. Our practices are very different, as are our research interests and directions. But a collaboration here occurs in our train journeys to the meetings, reading, conversations, push-pull of ideas, negotiating city/ies, tea drunk, consuming cake and scones, writing and making work.
On reflection, questions should be posed: where is the collaboration defined? Where does it live or sit? Do we decide if it is a specific practice, or a project? Is it what happens, or what is made? It isn’t always where a group of people do something together. Being prepared for things to go wrong, having the courage to wait and see what will be produced, not measuring or marking what has occurred, perhaps then the collaboration will happen without you noticing.
1 Bishop, C. Artificial Hells, Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. 2012. Verso. London.
Joanna Fursman is an artist teacher and a practice-based PhD researcher examining the production and recognition of the future school art-room.