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Observations on Collective Cultural Action

After reviewing the current status of the U.S. cultural economy, one would have to conclude that market demands discourage collective activity to such a degree that such a strategy is unfeasible. To an extent, this perception has merit. Financial support certainly favors individuals. In art institutions (museums, galleries, art schools, alternative spaces, etc.), the Habermas thesis, that Modernity never died, finds its practical application. In spite of all the critical fulminations about the death of originality, the artist, and the rest of the entities named on the tombstones in the Modernist cemetery, these notions persist, protected by an entrenched cultural bureaucracy geared to resist rapid change. If anything, a backlash has occurred that has intensified certain Modernist notions. Of prime importance in this essay is the beloved notion of the individual artist. The individual's signature is still the prime collectible, and access to the body associated with the signature is a commodity that is desired more than ever - so much so that the obsession with the artist's body has made its way into "progressive" and alternative art networks. Even "community art" has its stars, its signatures, and its bodies. This final category may be the most important. Even a community art star must do a project that includes mingling with the "community" and with the project's sponsor(s). Mingling bodies is as important in the progressive scene as it is in the gallery scene. This demand for bodily commingling is derived from the most traditional notions of the artist hero, as it signifies an opportunity to mix with history and interact with genius.

The totalizing belief that social and aesthetic value are encoded in the being of gifted individuals (rather than emerging from a process of becoming shared by group members) is cultivated early in cultural education. If one wants to become an "artist," there is a bounty of educational opportunities - everything from matchbook correspondence schools to elite art academies. Yet in spite of this broad spectrum of possibilities, there is no place where one can prepare for a collective practice. At best, there are the rare examples where teams (usually partnerships of two) can apply as one for admission into institutions of higher learning. But once in the school, from administration to curriculum, students are forced to accept the ideological imperative that artistic practice is an individual practice. The numerous mechanisms to ensure that this occurs are too many to list here, so only a few illustrative examples will be offered. Consider the spatial model of the art school. Classrooms are de signed to accommodate aggregates of specialists. Studios are designed to accommodate a single artist, or like the classrooms, aggregates of students working individually. Rarely can a classroom be found that has a space designed for face-to-face group interaction. Nor are spaces provided where artists of various media can come together to work on project ideas. Then there is the presentation of faculty (primary role models) as individual practitioners. The institution rewards individual effort at the faculty level in a way similar to how students are rewarded for individual efforts through grades. Woe be to the faculty member who goes to the tenure review board with only collective efforts to show for he/rself. Obviously, these reward systems have their effect on the cultural socialization process.

On the public front, the situation is no better. If artists want grants for reasons other than being a nonprofit presenter/producer, they better be working as individuals. Generally speaking, collective practice has no place in the grant system. Collectives reside in that liminal zone - they are neither an individual, nor an institution, and there are no other categories. Seemingly there is no place to turn. Collectives are not wanted in the public sphere, in the education system, nor in the cultural market (in the limited sense of the term), so why would CAE be so much in favor of collective cultural action?

Part of the answer once again has to do with market demands. Market imperatives are double-edged swords. There are just as many demands that contradict and are incommensurate with the ones just mentioned. Three examples immediately spring to mind. First, the market wants individuals with lots of skills for maximum exploitation - it's a veritable return to the "renaissance man." An artist must be able to produce in a given medium, write well enough for publication, be verbally articulate, have a reasonable amount of knowledge of numerous disciplines (including art history, aesthetics, critical theory, sociology, psychology, world literature, media theory, and history, and given the latest trends, now various sciences), be a capable public speaker, a career administrator, and possess the proper diplomatic skills to navigate through a variety of cultural sub-populations. Certainly some rare individuals do have all of these skills, but the individual members of CAE are not examples of this category. Consequently, we can only meet this standard by working collectively.

Second is the need for opportunity. Given the overwhelming number of artists trained in academies, colleges, and universities over the past thirty years, adding to what is already an excessive population of cultural producers (given the few platforms for distribution), the opportunity for a public voice has rapidly decreased. By specializing in a particular medium, one cuts the opportunities even further. The greater one's breadth of production skills, the more opportunity there is. Opportunity is also expanded by breadth of knowledge. The more one knows, the more issues one can address. In a time when content has resurfaced as an object of artistic value, a broad interdisciplinary knowledge base is a must. And finally, opportunity can be expanded through the ability to address a wide variety of cultural spaces. The more cultural spaces that a person is comfortable working in, the more opportunity s/he has. If designed with these strategies in mind, collectives can configure themselves to ad dress any issue or space, and they can use all types of media. The result is a practice that defies specialization (and hence pigeonholing). CAE, for example, can be doing a web project one week, a stage performance at a festival the next, a guerrilla action the next, a museum installation after that, followed by a book or journal project. Due to collective strength, CAE is prepared for any cultural opportunity.

Finally, the velocity of cultural economy is a factor. The market can consume a product faster than ever before. Just in terms of quantity, collective action offers a tremendous advantage. By working in a group, CAE members are able to resist the Warhol syndrome of factory production with underpaid laborers. Through collective action, product and process integrity can be maintained, while at the same time keeping abreast of market demand.

These considerations may sound cynical, and to a degree they are, but they appear to CAE as a reality which must be negotiated if one is to survive as a cultural producer. On the other hand, there is something significant about collective action that is rewarding beyond what can be understood through the utilitarian filters of economic survival.

Size Matters: Cellular Collective Construction

One problem that seems to plague collective organization is the catastrophe of the group reaching critical mass. When this point is reached, the group violently explodes, and little or nothing is left of the organization. The reasons for hitting this social wall vary depending on the function and in tention of the group. CAE's experience has been that larger artists'/activists' groups tend to hit this wall once membership rises into the hundreds. At that point, a number of conflicts and contradictions emerge that cause friction in the group. For one thing, tasks become diversified. Not everyone can participate fully in each task, so committees are formed to focus on specific tasks. The group thus moves from a direct process to a representational process. This step toward bureaucracy conjures feelings of separation and mistrust that can be deadly to group action, and that are symptomatic of the failure of overly rationalized democracy. To complicate matters further, different individuals enter the group with differing levels of access to resources. Those with the greatest resources tend to have a larger say in group activities. Consequently, minorities form that feel underrepresented and powerless to compete with majoritarian views and methods. (Too often, these minorities reflect the same minoritarian structure found in culture as a whole). Under such conditions, group splintering is bound to occur, if not group annihilation. Oddly enough, the worst-case scenario is not group annihilation, but the formation of a Machiavellian power base that tightens the bureaucratic rigor in order to purge the group of malcontents, and to stifle difference.

Such problems can also occur at a smaller group level (between fifteen and fifty members). While these smaller groups have an easier time avoiding the alienation that comes from a complex division of labor and impersonal representation, there still can be problems, such as the perception that not everyone has an equal voice in group decisions, or that an individual is becoming the signature voice of the group. Another standard problem is that the level of intimacy necessary to sustain passionately driven group activity rarely emerges in a midsize group. The probability is high that someone, for emotional or idiosyncratic reasons, is not going to be able to work with someone else on a long-term basis. These divisions cannot be organized or rationalized away. Much as the large democratic collective (such as WAC) is good for short-term, limited issue political and cultural action, the midsize group seems to function best for short-term, specific issue cultural or political projects.

For sustained cultural or political practice free of bureaucracy or other types of separating factors, CAE recommends a cellular structure. Thus far the artists' cell that typifies contemporary collective activity has formed in a manner similar to band society. Solidarity is based on similarity in terms of skills and political/aesthetic perceptions. Most of the now classic cellular collectives of the 70s and 80s, such as Ant Farm, General Idea, Group Material, Testing the Limits (before it splintered), and Gran Fury used such a method with admirable results. Certainly these collectives' models for group activity are being emulated by a new generation. However, CAE has made one adjustment in its collective structure. While size and similarity through political/aesthetic perspective has replicated itself in the group, members do not share a similarity based on skill. Each member's set of skills is unique to the cell. Consequently, in terms of production, solidarity is not based on similarity, but on difference. The parts are interrelated and interdependent. Technical expertise is given no chance to collide and conflict, and hence social friction is greatly reduced. In addition, such structure allows CAE to use whatever media it chooses, because the group has developed a broad skill base. Having a broad skill base and interdisciplinary knowledge also allows the group to work in any kind of space.

Solidarity through difference also affects the structure of power in the group. Formerly, collective structure tended to be based on the idea that all members were equals at all times. Groups had a tremendous fear of hierarchy, because it was considered a categorical evil that led to domination. This notion was coupled with a belief in extreme democracy as the best method of avoiding hierarchy. While CAE does not follow the democratic model, the collective does recognize its merits; however, CAE follows Foucault's principle that hierarchical power can be productive (it does not necessarily lead to domination), and hence uses a floating hierarchy to produce projects. After consensus is reached on how a project should be produced, the member with the greatest expertise in the area has authority over the final product. While all members have a voice in the production process, the project leader makes the final decisions. This keeps endless discussion over who has the better idea or design to a minimum, and hence the group can produce at a faster rate. Projects tend to vary dramatically, so the authority floats among the membership. At the same time, CAE would not recommend this process for any social constellation other than the cell (three to eight people). Members must be able to interact in a direct face-to-face manner, so everyone is sure that they have been heard as a person (and not as an anonymous or marginalized voice). Second, the members must trust one another; that is, sustained collective action requires social intimacy and a belief that the other members have each individual member's interests at heart. A recognition and understanding of the non-rational components of collective action is crucial - without it, the practice cannot sustain itself.

The collective also has to consider what is pleasurable for its members. Not all people work at the same rate. The idea that everyone should do an equal amount of work is to measure a member's value by quantity instead of quality. As long as the process is pleasurable and satisfying for everyone, in CAE's opinion, each member should work at the rate at which they are comfortable. Rigid equality in this case can be a perverse and destructive type of Fordism that should be avoided. To reinforce the pleasure of the group, convivial relationships beyond the production process are necessary. The primary reason for this need is because the members will intensify bonds of trust and intimacy that will later be positively reflected in the production process. To be sure, intimacy produces its own peculiar friction, but the group has a better chance of surviving the arguments and conflicts that are bound to arise, as long as in the final analysis each member trusts and can depend on fellow members. Collective action requires total commitment to other members, and this is a frightening thought for many individuals. Certainly, collective practice is not for everyone.

Coalitions, Not Communities

While cellular collective structure is very useful in solving problems of production, long-term personal cooperation, and security (for those involved in underground activities), like all social constellations, it has its limits. It does not solve many of the problems associated with distribution, nor can it fulfill the functions of localized cultural and political organizations. Consequently, there has always been a drive toward finding a social principle that would allow likeminded people or cells to organize into larger groups. Currently, the dominant principle is "community." CAE sees this development as very unfortunate. The idea of community is without doubt the liberal equivalent of the conservative notion of "family values" - neither exists in contemporary culture, and both are grounded in political fantasy. For example, the "gay community" is a term often used in the media and in various organizations. This term refers to all people who are gay within a given territory. Even in a localized context, gay men and women populate all social strata, from the underclass to the elite, so it is very hard to believe that this aggregate functions as a community within such a complex society. To complicate matters further, social variables such as race, ethnicity, gender, education, profession, and other points of difference are not likely to be lesser points of identification than the characteristic of being gay. A single shared social characteristic can in no way constitute a community in any sociological sense. Talking about a gay community is as silly as talking about a "straight community." The word community is only meaningful in this case as a euphemism for "minority." The closest social constellation to a community that does exist is friendship networks, but those too fall short of being communities in any sociological sense.

CAE is unsure who really wants community in the first place, as it contradicts the politics of difference. Solidarity based on similarity through shared ethnicity, and interconnected familial networks supported by a shared sense of place and history, work against the possibility of power through diversity by maintaining closed social systems. This is not to say that there are no longer relatively closed social subsystems within society. Indeed there are, but they differ from community in that they are products of rationalized social construction and completely lack social solidarity. In order to bring people together from different subsystems who share a similar concern, hybrid groups have to be intentionally formed. These groups are made up of people who are focusing their attention on one or two characteristics that they share in common, and who put potentially conflicting differences aside. This kind of alliance, created for purposes of large-scale cultural production and/or for the visible consolidation of economic and political power, is known as a coalition.

CAE has supported a number of coalitions in the past, including various ACT UP chapters and PONY (Prostitutes of New York), and has organized temporary localized ones as well. One of the problems CAE had with such alliances was in negotiating service to the coalition while maintaining its collective practice. Coalitions are often black holes that consume as much energy as a person is willing to put into them; hence membership burnout is quite common. CAE was no exception. After a few years of this variety of activism, members were ready to retreat back into less visible cellular practice. CAE began looking for a model of coalition different from the singleissue model.

One potential answer has come by way of CAE's affiliation with Nettime.* Nettime is a loosely knit coalition of activists, artists, theorists, techies, collectives, and organizations from all over Europe and North America that have come together for reasons of generalized support for radical cultural and political causes. It has approximately seven hundred members, and has existed in various forms for about six years. Nettime functions as an information, distribution, and recruitment resource for its members. The core of its existence is virtual: Member contact is maintained through an online list, various newsgroups, and an archive. In addition, the coalition holds occasional conferences (the first two, Metaforum I and II, were held in Budapest in 1995 and 1996; Beauty and the East was held in Ljubljana in 1997), produces and contributes to the production of cultural projects (such as Hybrid Workspace at Documenta X), acts as a resource for various political actions, and produces readers and books from its archive (the most recent being README: ASCII Culture and the Revenge of Knowledge).
(*The description of the Nettime coalition given in this essay is solely from CAE's perspective. It was not collectively written nor approved by the Nettime membership.)

From CAE's perspective, one of the elements that makes Nettime a more pleasurable experience is that unlike most coalitions, it is anarchistic rather than democratic. Nettime has no voting procedures, committee work, coalition officers, nor any of the markers of governance through representation. Hierarchy emerges in accordance with who is willing to do the work. Those who are willing to run the list have the most say over its construction. At the same time, the general policy for coalition maintenance is "tools not rules." Those building the virtual architecture govern by providing space for discussions that are not of general interest to the entire list. They also direct the flow of information traffic. Whatever members want to do - from flame wars to long and detailed discussions - there is a place to do it. For events in real space, the primary rule of "those who do the work have the biggest say" still applies. Indeed, there is considerable room for exploitation in such a system, yet this does not occur with much frequency because members have sufficient trust in and allegiance to other members; the coalition as a whole won't tolerate system abuse (such as spamming, or selfaggrandizing use of the list); and there is a self-destruct failsafe - members would jump ship at the first sign of ownership and/ or permanent hierarchy.

Perhaps the real indicator of the congeniality shared by Nettime members is its cultural economy. Nettime functions as an information gift economy. Articles and information are distributed free of charge to members by those who have accumulated large information assets. Nettimers often see significant works on the intersections of art, politics, and technology long before these works appear in the publications based on money economy. For real space projects, this same sense of voluntarism pervades all activities. What is different here from other cultural economies is that gift economy is only demanding on those who have too much. No one is expected to volunteer until they suffer or burn out. The volunteers emerge from among those who have excessive time, labor power, funding, space, or some combination thereof, and need to burn it off to return to equilibrium. Consequently, activity waxes and wanes depending on the situations and motivations of the members.

CAE does not want to romanticize this form of social organization too much. Problems certainly occur - quarrels and conflicts break out, enraged members quit the list, and events do not always go as expected. However, Nettime is still the most congenial large-scale collective environment in which CAE has ever worked. The reason is that this loose coalition began with the romantic principle of accepting nonrational characteristics. It believed that a large collective could exist based on principles of trust, altruism, and pleasure, rather than based on the Hobbesian assumption (so typical of democratic coalitions) of the war of all against all, which in turn leads to a nearly pathological overvaluation of the organizational principles of accountability and categorical equality. Nettime functions using just one failsafe system - self-destruction - and it thereby skips all the alienating bureaucracy necessary for managing endless accountability procedures. If Nettime self-destructs, all members will walk away whole, and will look for new opportunities for collective action. An alliance with the temporary is one of Nettime's greatest strengths.

Final Thought

Although they are in a secondary position in terms of cultural organizational possibilities, cells and coalitions still present a viable alternative to individual cultural practices. Collective action solves some of the problems of navigating market-driven cultural economy by allowing the individual to escape the skewed power relationships between the individual and the institution. More significantly, however, collective action also helps alleviate the intensity of alienation born of an overly rationalized and instrumentalized culture by recreating some of the positive points of friendship networks within a productive environment. For this reason, CAE believes that artists' research into alternative forms of social organization is just as important as the traditional research into materials, processes, and products.



Critical Art Ensemble (C.A.E.) is a collective of six artists of different specializations committed to the production of a new genre art that explores the intersections among critical theory, art and technology.
http://www.critical-art.net/