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Reflections on Collaboration - Feasibility and Sustainability

Lee Simmons, public artist


Public Art South West has commissioned Lee Simmons to write about her practice as an artist, specifically the various collaborative methods she has been part of and how sustainable they may or may not be.

A key underlying question running through this report is; how can artwork reach out and partner neighbouring disciplines, for example regeneration, design, and health, yet maintain conceptual rigour and interest, and therefore sustained passion and dedication from the artist?

I started writing in August 2009 from my situation in a shared studio at Trinity Buoy Wharf and a cooperative called Sanford Walk that I’d lived in since 2007. I wanted to advocate collaborative live / work methods as practical and conceptual art projects (and therefore explorations for potential solutions to a host of modern day environmental and health concerns).

Live / Work

Situations and places that artists live and work within for the duration of a project.

Sanford Housing Cooperative involves shared ownership of an entire street. The democratic decision making process, creative projects and constant internal building projects provide a sustainable environment for individuals to live and work within, engaging with the projects most suited to them.

There are functional and affordable washing, cooking and sleep facilities. Each resident has a private room and pays an equal rent, decided by the cooperative as a whole.

“It has also allowed for more of a balanced lifestyle, whilst close to the subject I am working with, it is possible to cook, sleep and exercise regularly, file and store work, have a legal address, and a base to work and travel from without the threat of a landlord selling on your work (as with a warehouse I was in before) and the ability to choose who you live with and how much you are able to work on in house projects at a time.” Diary entry

The situation at Sanford does allow for a lot of creativity - people set up their own projects and are able to work on their immediate environments with shared ownership.

However it can also lend to the Cooperative overspending as a whole, with people using the environment and facilities for pet projects, or when more confident members push their ideas onto others. Conscientious members can also become overworked by carrying less active residents along.

For artists living and working at the Cooperative it can be distracting, interruptive and can also bring on a sense of guilt for working on personal pieces rather than something for the live-in community.

It can also be stimulating, inspiring and an opportunity to skill share and pool information and resources, which can help to progress knowledge and experience when cost prevents people from accessing further education, training, and early experience in the arts and practicing environments.

"I live in Sanford Housing Cooperative and share a studio at Trinity Buoy Wharf. I spent a year working in my bedroom at Sanford and found the experience quite isolating, difficult to concentrate, very hard to ever properly switch off, and I was in a constant mess. Having a separate workspace in a different location has helped massively with all of the above, although it does mean I'm not at home all that much. For me, I think the most important thing is to have a workspace that is separate from my living space." A.Hillman, photographer

Sanford Street Housing Cooperation
Sanford Street Housing Cooperative. Photo: Lee Simmons
Studios at Trinity Bay Wharf
Studios at Container City, Trinity Buoy Wharf. Photo: Lee Simmons

Warehouse Conversions

Another example of a live/work option that has polemic pros and cons was a project in Manor House, North London, where I helped develop a live/work space.

This project involved paying for the use of the premises, and it was obvious that a clear and thorough contract from the outset was crucial to protect the work put into the space and the interests of all the parties involved.

The building process of the property was all encompassing and expensive, and made it difficult to work on other art pieces and freelance work during this time. We had no privacy, and were without walls for at least four months. Warehouse spaces are very cold in winter and hard to heat, and hot in summer and difficult to ventilate. Although there was an unparalleled freedom and creativity of living and working in such a large space, I also experienced an unusual testing of personal boundaries.

“Wednesday 8.30am. I woke up in a grouch today, probably because the noise last night didn’t stop until after I was asleep which was well after 3, and it is a hot day, and there is no window in my room so it’s stuffy: there is only one to the outside space which means I am able to see other people in the warehouse, and them me. Unfortunately when I was pushing for the rooms to have windows and the exhibition space to have walls, I didn’t push hard enough.

It’s tested my personal comfort zone, there has been no privacy at all, it’s dirty, noisy, uncomfortable, confusing and I am still here, still working, still meeting up with friends, still thinking about how to utilise this experience.

The positives of this living situation are:

1- Learning about living and working with others 24 hours and with no privacy
2- Redeveloping and defining a space through living and working in it
3- Considering usages for these spaces and how develop them
4- Decision making strategies, learnings around compromise and negotiation
5- Not being able to make much independent work so accepting the live / work crossover and making work from and around that critically
Diary extract

A similar project in a warehouse in Dalston involved 3 artists building studios, rooms and a gallery space, which ran for 5 years, although it did involve several change-overs of artists involved in the scheme.

Although photographs, exhibitions and events are examples of how the space facilitated creative output, the administration of the gallery ultimately frustrated the artists, taking them away from their own creative practices. Maintaining a large, hard to heat space also took up a lot of time and resources.

Inner Circle Warehouse conversion
Inner Circle Warehouse conversion
Above: Inner Circle Warehouse Conversion in progress. Photo: Lee Simmons

Artist-led Initiatives

Art projects that begin and end with the artists rather than a commissioning body.

Here follow accounts of three very different artist groups that I have worked within, that each reveal interesting contrasts and highlight some of the varied approaches and aims that artist led initiatives and projects can encompass.

A network of artists’ research and research groups, that evolved from artist collaborations and friendships. Participants organised and took part in reading groups and projects, critically outside of dominant institutions and educational establishments.

Core members met regularly for a few years in London, whilst maintaining a continuous flexible wider network nationally and internationally via Skype and web based social media, along with meetings in person where possible.

C.Cred (artists collective) hosted annual alt.SPACE events for a number of years before amalgamating with some of their partners.

“It's not a question of two different projects or groups per se, just an extension or development of one project into another.” Ola Stahl, founding member of C.Cred and alt.SPACE

An organisers group of seven people naturally formed to host the alt.SPACE Festival in London in 2007. Over a six week period the artists and artist groups met in person and developed a publication, hosted talks, discussion groups, walking projects and artist open mike nights amongst other related activities.

The initial idea was to use Space Media Arts in Hackney, London for six weeks as a base where participants and collaborators would live and work together; however the complications and bureaucracy of hosting a durational event here meant the festival became peripatetic, using domestic and public space as well as a variety of arts venues. This ranged from each others houses to camping, reading groups in parks, gallery education rooms and universities.

The spaces used were provided free of charge, participants and presenters did not receive a fee, and they pooled together for food and materials. Any income that was generated was shared to cover the costs as far as possible of putting on the events. There was no charge for taking part in this festival at any point.

Following the festival the group members dispersed, living in different countries; which made it difficult to continue the working method they had used so far, that was very reliant on face to face meetings, friendship and conviviality. The project continued with close reading groups that were easier to administrate and largely over the web.

“I suppose it could have worked - I mean, it did work, to some extent, when we were in Philly - busy Skype schedules, a lot of recordings made, etc. But I suppose it takes more energy, more motivation and ambition, to keep it going on a 'remote participation' basis than it does when everyone is in the same place, sharing, to a larger extent, a life (similar experiences, everyday hassles and joys, etc.).” O. Stahl

Collaborations still occur between participants on a smaller, closer scale and the website www.alt.SPACE.info remains as a point of reference and is open to change with new interest, time, resources or participants.

To continue the festival components it would have been necessary to have some income for time spent, particularly on administration; though with a more formal approach much of the essence of the project that worked for a significant time would be altered.

EEL (artists group)

A group of artists who were naturally helping each other with projects and spending time together out of friendship, mainly in East London, began to use a space between Hoxton and Hackney to hold exhibitions and events. After approximately six months of exhibitions, in 2004, a need to formalise the group and apply for funding was recognised.

Over a 3 year period over 20 artists, emerging, unknown and established, exhibited for free and with little censorship. There was an idea of this being a stepping stone to larger organisations with many of the artists’ practices being gallery based, along with the interest in creating exhibitions that otherwise would be impossible, even illegal, in London galleries.

Giving up your own time and resources to be a platform for others to achieve, often thanklessly, proved to be only sustainable in the short term. This did prove to be a stepping stone that had served many people well, but in many ways was also an unhelpful use of time and one ultimately quite unrewarding and disheartening.

“I just feel like I wasted a lot of time on it and I'm happier just doing my own art/music projects.” Anon

Lockwood Artists Group

A group of artists began working in studios at Lockwood Day Centre in Guildford, Surrey, alongside the disabled artists and centre users in 2005. There was a vision of what would be achieved from the outset therefore a constitution was written, members formally assumed roles within the group and funding was achieved for an inaugural exhibition.

Management of the building were regularly consulted and the local council offered regular support. Karl Newman from Surry County Council provided assistance and guidance from the outset, particularly with fundraising and providing contacts.

Three years later the group continue to have an annual exhibition and run creative businesses from within the organisation that is now registered as a Limited Company.

Having the base at Lockwood and funding helped continue the project and gave all of the artists support with scheduling, presenting and advertising their work.

The support of the institution and the local government has also assisted the sustainability of the project, though can slow down the creative process due to the legal formalities.

“The project has really moved on, it’s now registered as a Limited Company...[and] it can be slow and frustrating between Lockwood and the Council”, Craig Hills founding member.

Lockwood Artist's Group exhibition
Lockwood Artists Group Inaugural show - work by Craig Hills. Photo: Emma Brown


Artist-led Initiatives present opportunities to create work and events that otherwise would be the domain of established organisations and institutions. They can also inform and sustain a practice that generates networks, and provides opportunities for collaboration, dynamic platforms for ideas, thoughts, concepts, skill sharing and general peer support.

It seems that no matter how nomadic the theories and tendencies of the group or organisation are - a place to come and go from, continue a discourse and have as a point of geographical and personal reference can assist sustainability.

Equally, to know when it is time to move on, re-focus and allow new blood a chance to work with the space can be a helpful and natural progression. For example, situations such as a cooperative residential project, that offer cheap rent and a creative platform for ideas would function more effectively and positively if people moved on when they lost the motivation or ability to contribute.

Following significant collaborative, and particularly organisational projects, artists often go on to work with formal project spaces, public buildings, or take on freelance work with the skills they have developed (e.g. design, curating, teaching), and continue the work in closer collaborations, smaller studios and less demanding, more specific live/work spaces. This seems a helpful and natural way to further disseminate ideas and develop a personal trajectory – though I wonder if it would be the case if more support were available.

A typical collaborative working method involves shifting between disciplines and forming part of regular partnerships. For an artist, maintaining an independent status is a real issue. This may be something that commissioners and employees might consider in contracts, for example factoring in copyright ownership and the owning and crediting of ideas.

It is desirable to gain more recognition and support for the wide benefits of the creative ideas coming from such grass roots communities, and to establish platforms for the groups and individuals exploring them to have output and longevity with their projects. This would help create links into wider society and artistic networks without hijacking or diluting vision, methods and aims.

Further Links

Links to further information on some of the groups discussed.

Alt Space

Guardian article on Sanford Housing Cooperative

Sanford Cooperative

ixia - public art think tank

Lee Simmons website

© Lee Simmons October 2009

Reflections on Collaborative Practices - Feasibility and Sustainability