We are not here

We are not here - Vane

Paul Carter, Do it, 2000, ‘We Interrupt This Programme’, Vane2000

Graham Parker

As an artist, it’s only very occasionally that you get the chance to truly articulate your experience of collaborative practice. Even for those artists involved in the delicate process of ‘legislating’ work into being – via funding systems and applications, for which a description of aims and working processes is required – a certain coyness about the true nature of collaboration prevails. The norm in this tends to be a particular tone in which collaboration is written as a utopian goal of the workers (who are only too pleased to subsume their individual vision to the need for more and better tractors). This disingenuous approach is perfectly understandable in some contexts and indeed there are usually very laudable aims for actively seeking out a collaborative working process, beyond the imperatives and occasional whims of state funding. More often though, it ‘just happens’ or, as in my case, it becomes a ‘default’ mode of production, borne of strengthening the loose coalitions you form in those first few vulnerable years after graduation.

For me, those coalitions initially and persistently emerged in and around the city of Manchester, with a shifting cast of collaborators. On graduating, I made a decision (or rather didn’t bother to make a decision) to stay in Manchester, where I began working with the cooperative, Index, whose members included Nick Crowe (artist and sometime Annual Programme director) and Paulette Terry Brien (current co-director of Work & Leisure International and the gallery space, International 3). Working originally in devised performance and latterly in site-specific installation and video, our day-to-day working practices involved a very pragmatic application towards positioning our work – whether through actively negotiating tours, writing press releases, or the general arguments and discussion of devising and refining projects. In those early post-graduation years your cheapest resource is yourself and one tends to exploit that resource however possible, but if there was a romantic mythical model for our work, it was more the hustle of the nineteenth century actor-managers than the driven mania of the artist in their garret, awaiting discovery.

Indeed, through all my work, whether collaborative or not, I’ve been deeply suspicious of that latter myth and the processes which support it. Yes, collaboration in production of work is not for everyone, and some artists do make work because that’s all they are driven to do. But the image of the starving artist and its corollary, the artist as advance scout for the gentrifying property developer, always seemed based on a horribly static and class-ridden understanding of the limited potential of the artist as a creative citizen. Like most artists based in studios I’ve acquired certain unwanted skills in the reading of the upward mobility of areas (as preface to your likely expulsion). In the 1990s the three ‘C’ clues for this were Ciabattas, re-laid Cobbles and Contracts for sandblasting firms. Recently, with city councils casting envious glances towards Dublin’s Temple Bar and the contribution of the creative industries there, the understanding of the value of the artists’ presence in areas has improved. Although this may have as much to do with the patterns of a post-Thatcher economy – where short-term contracts and the ‘flexible workforce’ fallout of 1980s demarcation disputes have become a working norm more closely aligned to that of the artist working outside the context of academic support.

And the role of the art schools in this working culture of artists is important. In Manchester, as elsewhere in the early 1990s, the prevailing model for artists’ studios was of warehouse-based groups who tended to replicate the dominant disciplines of the fine art courses. The re-emergence of looser pop art forms, an academic shift towards interdisciplinary work and the rise and impact of affordable new technology have played themselves out in different ways in different cities and in Manchester they have certainly contributed to change the landscape we were working in over the past decade. A watershed show in this process was 1995’s ‘Ha!’, a group show organised by the nascent Annual Programme to coincide with the opening of the ‘British Art Show’ in venues across the city. This was achieved through a combination of enthusiasm and chutzpah, copied not just from the ‘Freeze’ generation, but the dynamism and ability to create an effect disproportionate to their numbers and resources common in Manchester’s renowned club culture. The opening attracted at least as many people as any of the official venues – possibly fuelled by Pizza Express bringing their ovens and limitless champagne to our space, by way of trumping the lukewarm house white on offer elsewhere.

More importantly, those who took part felt as if they were participating in a process with their peers, not just in the city, but also against a broader cultural backdrop. Many of the artists involved had navigated a difficult path since graduation – often with little critical support and a sense of their practice judged only against itself and the often underestimated filtered influence of the art press. As the Annual Programme initially and later NICE, Brass Art and From Space began to develop, there was a palpable sense of participation and ownership amongst the artists that fuelled our confidence. In some ways it reminds me a little of Germaine Greer’s anecdote about being corrected on her pronunciation of Proust on her first day at university. The sense of joy at having a verbal forum to apply her knowledge overrode any embarrassment at her error and likewise, most of the artists in ‘Ha!’ were more excited by the chance to show and develop their work on their own terms than they were afraid of being compared unfavourably to the main ‘British Art Show’, or being patronised as provincial cousins.

And yet, and increasingly as further collaborations have emerged from that period, a confidence in expressing the condition of indeed, being provincial, has come to mark some of the work made in the city. In my own work with David Mackintosh (whom I met during the making of ‘Ha!’) as Bono and Sting, I found myself jointly exploring the shared tone that comes from occupying a received territory – whether that be the warped modernist vision of 1960s planners or the half-heard reports of conceptual terrain staked out in metropolitan centres far from the Irwell, Mersey or the Tyne. Our situation as outlying nodes on the web of commercial art centres was something that we allowed to inform the work, even as we were taking positive steps to establish alternative networks with kindred initiatives, literally around the world. Centres shift and paradigms alter, but we managed to make great play of a consistent underdog status. So for example, we may at times have constructed press releases more in hope than expectation, but we used a mailing list established over a long period of time and carefully nurtured contacts and, in a way, treated these releases almost as works within their own right – unsolicited allegations about a world that many of the intended recipients may continually ignore.

Reading back over that last paragraph I’m aware that I’m slipping into the oratorical of the first person plural, but perhaps that is the greatest testimony to the contribution of collaborative practice to my work – that I feel that there is a body of activity and people whom I can call on at no cost to contextualise my practice, and that in turn this body values my contribution towards it. If that sounds quaint or anachronistic I make no apology. Maybe one inspiration has been the speed at which eastern European artists applied the necessities of their vital pre-1989 networks to the liberating possibilities of the internet. The lesson being that, however strategically and pragmatically you work, you never know how your understanding and shaping of your territory will eventually inform your actions on a wider stage. But in the meantime you live here. You know what it’s like. It’s as good a place as any to start.

Graham Parker is an artist and curator. At the time of writing he was based in Manchester. First published in the Vane2000 Catalogue.