Collaboration is today’s buzzword. Coffee shop conversations cluster around talk of collaborative consumption, the sharing economy, and companies like Lyft and Airbnb. All thrive on communities who engage in a new kind of marketplace, which in many ways is defining of our early decades in the 21st century.
Against the last century’s backdrop of cultural individualism, collaboration – although nothing new – is a breath of fresh air. But its use has become ubiquitous to the point of losing meaning. As a concept, collaboration begs to be viewed through fresh light, especially when it comes not just to individuals but institutions.
Our collective backgrounds at the intersection of art and scientific collaborations mean that we share a similar perspective on how to foster meaningful encounters. Let’s take Science Gallery London.
In 2013 the launch of Science Gallery London was announced, an initiative to ignite creative collisions between science and art. As we count down to the opening, we are producing Frequencies: Tune into Life as the first in a series of experimental programmes. And meaningful collaboration is at the core.
Frequencies aims to bring together artists, scientists and local communities to generate new works and draw in public communities. It also seeks to engage key stakeholders in the consultation process towards the construction of Science Gallery’s new physical site.
From the start the commissioning process was deliberately open. Those who answered the call would bring their own ideas, ambitions and personal drive. Key stakeholders – healthcare practitioners from Guy’s Hospital, representatives from King’s College London, local families, students and businesses – were invited to be active partners. In return for this ‘stake’ these multiple individuals have helped shape the Frequencies project into one that teems with alternative perspectives and creative interpretations.
The principle is something we call read-across, and it is underpinned by a concept we think of as narrative generosity. At its crux are collaborations where each partner contributes to the collective narrative, all the while crafting their personal stories as well. Each individual maintains their own trajectory, with beginning, middle and end. But across, characters and arcs appear in others’ chapters for a discrete period of time. Generosity here is the informing principle, transforming individual narratives into mutual invitations to feature in each tale, even if just momentarily so.
A specific snapshot from Frequencies can illustrate. People were drawn from across the stakeholder groups: doctor, porter, student, counter server, gate line ticket inspector, local mum, patient; all of whom experience a life cycle in some form. Eight sound artists or composers were then commissioned to work with them to create a minute of sound in response. Collaborators include hip hop rap artist Shay D, music producer Jimmy Logic, and Neuroscience student and KCLSU women’s officer Rachel Williams who are exploring the rhythms produced by our brains. The whole process was documented and interrogated by a media team from the target audience (15-25 year olds). The result was a rapid, reactive collaboration.
Throughout any read-across collaboration, the interpretation of activities is inherently diverse and unexpected. In fact it’s encouraged to remain so. Because in read-across each individual brings their own perspective, to the observer – or indeed collaborator – each contribution might appear light, ephemeral, unique. But this frees up the possibility to experience the work beyond anything seemingly prescribed, away from what you think is ‘right’ to instead what you see, feel, and construct meaning from. Read-across opens up the space for phenomenological encounters, where the personal understanding of each individual is valued above all else.
Enlightened self-interest is another useful notion here: it is the mutual awareness and overlap of different individuals’ motivations – just because something is good for me doesn’t mean it can’t be good for others too. Throughout, the commissioner is conscious of partner motivations, and of the spaces where they can equally benefit his or her own. Instead of being a barrier to engagement, it becomes the catalyst for interesting collisions and ideas to emerge. Over-engineering the parameters limits possibilities for imagination, choice and full engagement. Ignoring (enlightened) self-interest makes it harder to act with conviction.
As a platform for encounters with enlightened self-interest that celebrates unique worldviews, read-across is about moving beyond top-down commissioning, especially when terms like ‘collaboration’ can act to cloak the process as being something else. In this way, read-across addresses the inevitable power dynamic between commissioner and collaborator. With respect and active acknowledgment of mutual interests and diverse perspectives, the components of power relations – status, wealth, etc – can more easily come into balance.
Other movements also emerging into the mainstream, for instance co-creation and citizen science, resonate here: they involve processes with the contributions of many and the facilitation of multiple communities from the powerful to the marginalised. There are problems still (eg questions of rightful compensation and copyright) but the terms enable forms of collaboration that are more equal, more meaningful than perhaps similar projects in the past.
Read-across is a process of commissioning that carves out the space for self-direction, spirit of character and empathy. It encourages personal drive, phenomenological interpretation, and a certain degree of risk and uncertainty. All of which builds towards encounters that energize all who are involved, albeit in different ways and quite possibly with distinct final interests. Together encounters through read-across craft a series of narratives that for this one particular time co-exist on the same page.
Emilie Glazer has written an accompanying post on read-across on the artscience prize website.