C is for Collaboration

| February 27, 2014

This past week I was introduced to Noche Flamenca and The Electric Company, an experimental theatre company based in Vancouver. Both groups move away from more modernist, linear, hierarchical processes of creation and expression into more interactive, dialogical and emergent scenarios, navigating their way out of modernist practices towards the ‘blurry boundaries’ that come with working in highly collaborative processes.

A brief history from The Electric Company website reads:

“The company’s methodology has evolved but the creative process remains highly collaborative; blurring traditional boundaries between playwright, director, dramaturgy and design”.

It got me thinking of the modernist instinct to divide subject from object, culture from nature, seeking a description of reality in objective, absolute terms – and how we are increasingly confronted with the shortcomings of this conceptual framework. Our reality, it would seem, is something in which we, as the subjects of that reality, are deeply implicated. The experience of an object is as dependent on the properties of the subject experiencing the object as of the object itself. The challenge for these groups of artists is to explore these notions via aesthetic, collaborative practices.

Such collaborative creation echoes the richness of complex systems; a system composed of interconnected parts that as a whole exhibit one or more properties (behavior among the possible properties) not obvious from the properties of the individual parts. This unpredictability, the property not evident in any individual part, is the desire, and it is emergent dynamics, the interactions of the parts, that bring it about. A linear description (so anathema to its subject) would look something like this: Collaborative models spawn interactivity that yields emergent dynamics that unearth the unpredictable. Like any complex system, key questions remain: What are the individual parts, and what are the conditions in which they interact?

Beyond the work of collaboration between different members, a group seeks the creative agency of non-human factors as well, such as the performance site itself. While there are obvious differences between a human colleague and a physical space, site-specificity is very much a species of the same collaborative inclination. The common instinct here is to look for the story not in the internal workings of one’s own mind, but outwards, in emergent interactions, spaces between the agents. In the case of site, attuning oneself to the provocations of one’s context, particulars of the space, physical properties, history, use, ideas and other possibilities that cling to it, the site takes on an influential role, as a character, a kind of provocateur, demanding certain things. As an active, communicative agent, it drives the creative inquiry by destabilizing prior instincts and furthering the unpredictability of the process.

Multiplying the creative agents involved offers thematic richness with many questions coming through from different angles, leading to a creative process featuring multiple agencies, interrogating the product from different angles, layering questions on top of one another and driving the end result towards something that no one could have predicted at the outset and that could not have come from any single authorial voice.

Such an approach, however, demands strategies to structure and stabilize its increased complexity, an ongoing effort, to negotiate both creative challenges intrinsic to the work itself—issues of coherence, focus, logic, structure, clarity, etc.—as well as organizational and professional practicalities such as development strategies, timelines, artistic burnout, creative autonomy, livelihood, remuneration and recognition.  So, the creative act becomes a balance between ongoing assessment, structure, form, and then creating a space for associative dialogue that could turn into experiments if there was a clear agenda to the experiment – in other words, an iterative dialogue between associative freedoms and structural frameworks.

Managing the collaborative element seems to be an ongoing dynamic negotiation, revealing a constantly shifting landscape that positions the collaborative elements anywhere from the backseat to the driver’s seat. While always along for the ride, how much agency it is allotted is something the groups have to structure, to retain the dynamism of the collaborative approach and unpredictability of emergence, while minimizing its capacity to fatigue and frustrate. In other words, the various structures and strategies put in place that seem contrary to the free spirit of collaborative creation, are rather the very means by which such an approach remains viable.