Toward a Definition of Collaboration: Collaborative Authorship in the Arts

Over the last three decades art-theorists and critics have begun to pay more attention to both collaborative teams and collaboration as subjects of enquiry. Around the time this study formally began in 2003, ‘collaboration’ emerged at the forefront of artistic trends and debates: In 2003, the Chapman Brothers were nominated for the Turner Prize as a collaborative team; in 2004 Third Text dedicated an entire issue to artistic collaboration and Tate Modern commissioned a workshop, Working Together, that both practically and theoretically explored collaboration in art. Whereas only 30 years earlier, many collaborating partnerships and groups such as the Boyle Family and Christo and Jeanne-Claude concealed their collaborative efforts under individual identities in order to appease the art establishment’s 1 demands for named individuals, artists now openly formed collaborations.

Such a development suggests that the art establishment has at long last relinquished its fixation with solitary artistic geniuses– the lonely and suffering Van Goghs. Along with this growing interest in ‘collaboration’ and ‘collaborative authorship,’ however, there have been increased discrepancies as to what these terms mean. Whereas previous art-critics refused to acknowledge creative partnerships, contemporary art-theorists now often veer towards the other extreme— overlooking the individual and categorising various types of participation and interaction as forms of collaboration. Writers such as Charles Green (2001), for example, categorise both assistants and technicians as collaborators. Grant Kester (2004: 11) describes the audience-participant as a collaborator, further noting a ‘collaborative, rather than a specular, relationship with the viewer.’ Other theorists (e.g. Robert Hobbs 1984) describe collaborations with nature, with objects, with art institutions (e.g. artists Cornford & Cross) and even with artists of the past—with historical works that have influenced contemporary projects.

In part, this ambiguity surrounding collaborative and participatory art-practices arose because they became popular around the same time; art on the whole became more interactive and participatory not only in its creation, but also its form and its reception. In order to begin categorising and investigating these new works, theorists began to develop a host of new frameworks and labels. In the 1990’s, for example, Suzi Gablik (1992: 2) published Connective Aesthetics, claiming that with the emergence of interactive and participatory works, ‘a new, less specialized, less monocentric mythology of the artist is emerging that affirms our radical relatedness. At this point, we need to cultivate the connective relational self as thoroughly as we have cultivated, in the many years of abstract thinking, the mind geared to the principle of individual selfhood.’

Six years later, Nicolas Bourriaud 2 (2002/1998) first published Relational Aesthetics, further elaborating on this idea. In his subsequent publication, Postproduction, he ventured that:

The work of art may thus consist of a formal arrangement that generates relationships between people, or be born of a social process; I have described this phenomenon as “relational aesthetics,” whose main feature is to consider interhuman exchange an aesthetic object in and of itself (Bourriaud 2005/2001: 32-33).

In 2004, art-theorist Grant Kester similarly asserted his theory of dialogical aesthetics. ‘Kester suggests that Littoral Art breaks down the conventional distinction between artist, artwork and audience – a relationship that allows the viewer to ‘speak back’ to the artist in certain ways and in which this reply becomes in effect a part of the work itself’ (Doherty 2003). 3

While all of these participatory art-practices both involve and draw attention to a heightened interactive and social dimension in art, it is important to note that they do so in ways that fundamentally differ. When collaborating, artists incorporate this interactive element into the making of the art; dialogical and relational art practices, on the other hand, often include interaction and participation as the subject and/or medium of the art. As Kester (2004: 13) explains in his writings on dialogical aesthetics, ‘I concentrate on works that define dialogue itself as fundamentally aesthetic (as opposed to works centred on collaboratively producing paintings, sculptures, murals, etc.).’

What complicates Kester’s distinction is the fact that relational and dialogical works often incorporate the ‘audience-participant’ into the creative process; as the roles and responsibilities of the author-artist begin to overlap and resemble the changing roles and responsibilities of the spectator, it becomes more difficult to distinguish the interaction among artists and spectators from the interaction among collaborating artists. Consider, for example, groups of artists such as Gelitin or Superflex who work collaboratively as well as create relational works. Or what about instances when artists work together to create a piece, and also include information about the collaboration as part of that piece? Undoubtedly, cases exist in which spectator participation, art as participation, and collaborative authorship cannot be clearly distinguished from one another.

Indeed, one might ask whether such a distinction is even necessary. Both collaboration and relational art practices rework traditional notions of artistic authorship by altering the communicative dynamics conventionally associated with the authoring of a work. Both redistribute ownership over the finished product. If in both cases the added communication affects similar aspects of authorship, then why go through so much trouble to distinguish between them? It is my contention that theorists such as Kester differentiate these fields because, as previously detailed, the ways in which collaboration and audience participation alter communication and ownership fundamentally differ. In order to advance the research in these areas, they must be developed as separate fields. Categorising relational works such as Beagles and Ramsay’s Blood Pudding, in which the artists serve sausage made with their own blood to participants, along with the collaborations of artists such as Suzanne Scherer and Pavel Ouporov, for example, who focus largely on the collaborative production of paintings and photographs, ignores the significance of the interactive element in Blood Pudding as part of the subject and meaning of that work. Routinely grouping the artwork/art-event and creative process together, trivialises both the collaborative efforts of art collectives and partnerships and the artwork itself. Though instances exist when the collaborative process and completed artwork or art-event overlap/coincide, these instances should not camouflage the fact that two different processes are taking place: one that primarily changes the function of the artwork and the spectator’s role, and the other in which the principal changes affect the artist’s role and relationship to the work. As Florian Reither (2008) of the collaborative group Gelitin explains, ‘We work together every day in the studio, the audience is somebody who comes to visit.’


1 Art Establishment in this case refers to the critics, cultural and academic institutions, theorists and publications that help influence what is considered mainstream, trendy and/or acceptable in western art culture. In England, this includes funding bodies such as the Arts Council England, museums such as Tate Modern and buyers and auctioneers such as Sotheby. I would also like to point out that within this thesis, the ‘art establishment’ refers specifically to the institutions, publications etc. within western societies including Europe and North America and/or institutions, publications etc. from other parts of the world that have gained recognition within western culture and/or possess influence within western art culture.

2 The study refers to the 2002 English translation. In order to draw attention to the original dates of publication, this paper will at times reference the date of publication for the edition cited, followed by the original date of publication.

3 [12/12/2007] from:


Beagles, John and Ramsay, Graham. (23/4/05-21/5/05). Sanguis Gratia Artis–Blood Pudding Self-Portrait, (exhibition). The Trade Apartment, London. [23/4/2005].

Bishop Claire. (2004) Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics. October Magazine. 110. pp. 51-79

Bourriaud, Nicolas. (2002) Relational Aesthetics. Trans. Pleasance, Simon and Fronza Woods. Les Presses Du Reel, France. [Originally published 1998]

Bourriaud, Nicolas. (2005). PostProduction. Trans. Herman, Jeanine. Lukas & Sternberg, New York. [Originally published 2001]

Cornford, Matthew and Cross, David. (2004) Inside Outside. Third Text. 18 (6). pp. 657-665.

Doherty, Claire. (2003) Tracy MacKenna and Edwin Janssen: Naming a Practice. [12/12/2007] from:

Dunhill, Mark and O’Brien, Tamiko (eds.) (2005) A Timeline of Collaborative Practices. Collabarts. [6/2007] from:

Gablik, Suzi. (1992) Connective Aesthetics. American Art. 6 (2). pp. 2-7

Green, Charles. (2001) The Third Hand: Collaboration in Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism. The University Of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

Green, Charles. (2004) Group Soul: Who Owns the Artist Fusion? Third Text. 18 (6). pp. 595-608

Hobbs, Robert C. Rewriting History: Artistic Collaboration since 1960. In: Artistic Collaboration in the Twentieth Century. McCabe, Cynthia (ed). Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington D.C. pp.63-88.

Johansson, Troels Degn. (2000) Visualising Realtions: Superflex’ Relational Art in the Cyberspace Geography. (Conference Paper) Asia Europe Forum. Kyongju, South Korea. [5/2008] from:

Jonquet, Francois. (2004) Gilbert & George Intimate Conversations with Francois Jonque. Paidon Press Limited, London.

Kester, Grant H. (2004) Conversations Pieces: Community and Communication In Modern Art. University of California Press, Ltd. London.

McCabe, Cynthia Jaffee. (1984) Artistic Collaboration in the Twentieth Century: The Period between Two Wars. In: McCabe, Cynthia Jaffee (ed.). Artistic Collaboration in the Twentieth Century. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C. pp. 15-44

Riether, Florian (of Gelitin). (2008). Interview.

Sarnoff, Irving and Sarnoff, Susan. (2002). Intimate Creativity: Partners in Love and Art. University of Wisconsin Press.

Schwendener, Martha. (2006). Gelitin: Leo Koenig, Inc. Artforum International. 44 (6). pp. 213+

Rachel Lehrman moved to London in 2002 after completing her MFA in creative writing at the University of Arizona.  She published her first chapbook, Second Waking, with Oystercatcher in 2010.  Her poetry has also appeared in Blue Fifth Review, The Drunken Boat, Fire Magazine, Shearsman Magazine and the anthology Infinite Difference (Shearsman Press 2010).  In 2009 she completed a practice-based PhD on collaborative authorship in the arts. She is a passionate fan of children’s literature and a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

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