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Tools for collaborative creativity

Art and MusicPosted by john sloboda Mon, January 21, 2013 09:52:41

Tools for collaborative creativity

A “touch paper” from John Sloboda

Monday 21st January 2013

The problem

Many important and interesting problems require human collaboration for their solution.

In the field of art, however, the vast majority of solutions (i.e. published work in music, through visual art to literature and drama) are the product of one person (the named author).

In cases where there are two or more authors, the contribution is often on different aspects (as in when an opera has the libretto created by one person, and the music by another).

The number of celebrated “integrated” collaborations are tiny (I can think of Gilbert and George in art, and that’s about it!).

Where work is developed in a more collaborative space (e.g. the films of Mike Leigh) one person retains the final artistic judgement.

The relative absence of artistic collaboration strikes me as strange.

Is there something inherent to the artistic process that requires that one person dominate the creative space, or is true and meaningful collaboration a “missed opportunity”?

I’d like to collaboratively explore some of the issues around creative collaboration, both intellectually and practically. By intellectually, I mean getting a clear understanding of the underlying processes (informed by any relevant intellectual discipline or body of knowledge). By practically, I mean that I want this to lead to actual attempts to collaborate creatively (on art) in which I am in some way involved.

Here are some questions that occur to me.

Are there certain kinds of artistic problem which can only (or best) be solved by individual effort?

Can artists learn from models of collaboration developed in the non-artistic world (e.g. science, politics, business, government)?

Are there tools / processes which could assist creative collaboration? [just for a start, something along the lines of the toolset developed by Wikipedia]

Are there constraints on collaboration which need to be understood and overcome? For instance, in a space governed by some sort of democratic process how does one shape decision-making so that outcomes are excellent rather than “lowest common denominator”? How do resources (of skill, time, materials) get consensually shared. Does the value of collaboration necessarily decrease as a function of the number of collaborators increases, or are there smart ways of managing large-n collaborations?

Are there socio-emotional issues at stake (e.g. ego, status, reputation, intellectual property, respect, trust), and how are they best addressed?

Reasons for wanting to work on this problem

There’s a broad interest in the organisation I work in (Guildhall/Barbican) in potentials for creative collaboration (see: By and large, this interest has focused on existing or emerging collaborations mainly in the area of performance art (where there is already an established tradition of collaboration through improvisatory and related practice) I’m interested to go beyond this work onto a broader canvas (both institutionally and artistically) – and tackle head on a more difficult issue, such as what it would be for a group of artists to collaboratively author a painting, a poem, or a musical composition that would have the potential to gain recognition as a significant creative contribution (4* in parochial UK terms).

A wish to understand and capitalize on the potentials of new technology and new forms of communication and dissemination (particularly the web and social media) in the production and display of creative work.

An awareness that some of the world’s most pressing problems (political, social, economic, environmental) are stymied by a lack of creative solutions and a “zero sum” approach to decision-making which leads to blocked progress and “lowest-common-denominator” outcomes. I’m interested to see whether artists could incubate new forms of creative collaboration which could have transformational value outside the world of arts.

A belief that work in this area could be fun, rewarding, and capable of attracting the energy, enthusiasm, and resources of a high-expertise collaborative network.

  • Comments(3)

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Posted by john sloboda Thu, August 08, 2013 19:45:30

Thanks both for interesting responses.

Sinead, it is precisely the statement that "writing a poem or painting a picture is a task that is inherently individual" that I want to explore and potentially challenge. You may be right, but it would be really interesting to find the contexts in which it could be be overturned.

Alex has identified a really important potential brake on the kind of collaboration that I have in mind. The deep connection to emotional well-springs may be only alignable in people who know each other deeply and over a long time. Perhaps that is why the only equal collaboration I know in painting, that of Gilbert and George, is a collaboration of life partners who do much more together than paint.

Posted by Sinéad O'Neill Wed, July 31, 2013 17:45:35

Hi John,

Some thoughts!

I have worked for some years now in theatre and opera production. I am very interested in teamwork and how it operates, precisely because it is so noticeably an important and exciting part of theatre production (or any live performance, or film, or television, etc). I have not experienced or observed the same level of sophisticated and complex teamwork in any other field of work (or play).

Now, you might argue, since theatre and opera usually have a director, that 'one person retains the final artistic judgement,' but I believe that would miss the point. Imagine a play that consisted only of the director, standing on the stage with her final artistic judgement. Her artistic judgement is not an independent entity or thing, it only has meaning in the context of collaboration.

I think it is important to consider whether the task in hand is a collaborative task or an individual one. For example, playing a symphony is a collaborative task. Playing the violin is an individual one. It would be missing the point of the nature of collaboration to look at a symphony orchestra and say 'why is only one person playing each violin - why don't they collaborate?'

What I have always found most exciting about teamwork is that in a successful team, each person's task is clearly defined, and in a very lean team, like an orchestra or a theatre company, only that one individual can do their own task. For the collaboration to work, everyone has to do their own task to the best of their ability.

Isn't it possible that writing a poem or painting a picture is the sort of task that is inherently individual, like playing the violin? While putting on a play is inherently collaborative?

Enough - I'm sure we will discuss this more...!

Sinéad O'Neill

Posted by Alex Duncan Mon, July 29, 2013 16:32:30

Great blog John. Plenty of food for thought. Close to the end, I was reminded of a podcast I heard some years back about the unpredictable nature of predicting whether a work of art will 'make it' into that top ten class. It was the story of this up and coming pop artist, I think he was called Kenna, and after listening to the podcast, I bought his debut album (which despite all predictions and music industry pre-launch listening surveys, was a total flop). I don't use my brain in the academic sense these days, so forgive me if my contribution is of sub-standard quality. This is a really important point I feel. What is at play beyond the actual work of art that defines how much success it will achieve? So much of it depends on who you know, and how your art is being driven towards those who should appreciate it, i.e. the post-creative or post-birth factors. Actually, that makes me think of metaphor of a human life and success. If I am born 'high quality' does that mean I will become successful? So many other factors, like my social class, name, birthdate) I suspect that the largest obstacle to genuine co-creativity in art and music lies with the fact that you are asking a number of individual minds to converge on a single outcome. Our sense of individuality is deeply rooted in our psyches, and is at the centre of the spiritual dilemma, which invites us to become selfless in a sense, and which is apparently so hard for most people to achieve. I imagine that the truer the co-creation is, the closer, the more tuned-in the collaborators must become, and more selfless. But in order for an artistic creation to become widely accepted as a great work of art, it tends to need to have a really strong personality driving behind it, no? Perhaps not? Somehow though, I feel that the reason most music groups get really good is because they have at least one strong identity/leader who carries the team forward. Frank Zappa was an example, and by all accounts, he was a ruthless musical team leader. I suspect that the reason why genuine co-creation in art is uncommon has some kind of basis in the innate nature of how an individual mind is programmed and functions. So much of what drives the artistic process is, I feel, the acute personal emotional realm of the individual creator. Connecting and being on the same wavelength with your fellow co-creators must require to some extent to share that emotional landscape, to be coming from a coherent place, so that the work of art is also coherent... I think I ought to stop rambling now!