Originally published in the Wellington Collaboratorium publication – WHITE PAGES: DARK MATTER, 2010.
Local Time has been named as a collective for four years, and our working relationships with each other stretch back over a decade. Yet when we began our series of interviews with other practitioners on the topic of collaboration, a curator voiced some suspicion. How could we could even begin to define collaborative practice or to “research” it? After all, every practitioner collaborates in her or his own way. For us, however, it was precisely the naming of collaboration that it was interesting to question: What is a collaboration? What is a collective? Who shares our values about it? Can we learn from them to support our own work?
Both naming ourselves and undertaking this research have been useful ways to evade our own formalisation. Another curator once pressed us for details on “what we were doing.” Why was it hard to answer? We do lots of things. Clearly implied in the well-intentioned probe was that if we could make ourselves and our trajectory recognisable, we could perhaps find a role in bigger plans. No doubt this might bring resources and opportunity, but how could the —at that stage and still—deliberately indeterminate nature of our collective survive the professionalising forces activated by institutional engagement? Our ongoing project to find our own protocols was clearly at odds with them.
Our peculiar sensitivity about protecting our working practices from professionalisation may be explained by the way that we work in both the highly-regulated “public” language of institutional discourse (in the universities where we usually work, and in the art world where we often practice) and in communities who have not only been excluded from that public, but who also, in the indigenous setting, have a distinctly different philosophy around public and private, the collective and the individual. Here the otherwise inspirational existing histories of collaborative practice within Western art history provide few guides.
Our basic working question is: How can we effectively work at what Martin Nakata calls the “cultural interface”? The gaps between the histories of Maori and Pakeha (to take the relations negotiated in our own group) and their scale increasingly provide more questions than answers. We may be becoming less sure of what we can do, just because we are more certain about the way we want to do it. This situation resembles what Spivak describes as “permanent fieldwork”, in which we are always taking notes on our impressions, but rarely reporting back findings. “If your energies are focused toward [digesting the material for production], you are constantly processing, and you are processing it into what you already know. You’re not learning something,” she cautions, flatteringly enough. Our experiences always leak into our individual practices, of course, whether we document or not, but perhaps general answers are more likely to be found by practitioners to come, for whom navigating the multiple contexts will likely be a default mode.
Sometimes it seems that the bulk of what we do is just conversation, and in other ways, the language to describe those conversations is only beginning to exist.