“I would speculate that with everyone coming from a different discipline, all working on something that they have no expertise in, or bringing their own expertise into something in which they have no expertise, that equalizes everyone in a wonderful way.”—Anthony Graves
Anthony Graves + Carla Herrera-Prats + Lasse Lau: Co-Founders, Camel Collective / Brooklyn NY
“i would speculate that with everyone coming from a different discipline, all working on something that they have no expertise in, or bringing their own expertise into something in which they have no expertise, that equalizes everyone in a wonderful way.”—anthony graves
What are the origins of Camel Collective?
Anthony: Over the course of seven years, the people involved in Camel Collective has changed pretty radically. We started meeting at the Whitney Independent Study Program (ISP) as a reading group. Starting off, we were anywhere between ten and fifteen people. During that time, the 2004 Whitney Biennial was known as the “collaboration biennial” because it included multiple collaborative groups.
I think the context is important: Camel Collective formed during the Bush administration, Iraq War, and the RNC had just met. A lot of us were coming out of a career in active engagement, cultural opposition, and political discourse. Our reading group coalesced around these ideas, questioning the politics of affect. But our agenda shifted over time. We became interested in how collaboration was being strategically used by institutions in valorous, affirmative ways. We were suspicious of that. We left affect behind and formed a research group focused on the history of collaboration and collaborative groups in New York. A lot of us were artists, but there were a few architects, writers, and curators. We were asked to participate in a few shows in New York, one of which was When Artists Say We, curated by Andrea Geyer and Christian Rattemeyer at Artists Space in 2006.
The question was, “If all of us are engaging in the same shows, then why aren’t we working together?” And, “Perhaps we should have some sort of collective identity?” So that’s how Camel Collective formed. We formed out of certain opportunities, questions, formalities, and pedagogy, which was: How can we exist in this post-Marxist, Neo-left ISP, while separately trying to mark out our own specific territory of artistic practice, when the entire ethos of the program was about solidarity?
In those early days, Camel Collective was primarily research-based and the meetings were conducted on a regular basis. We talked about initiatives that were primarily not artistic, and we looked at a particular historical moment: A proto-Situationist moment in 1956, in which Asger Jorn and Pinot Gallizio were called the International Movement for an Imaginist Bauhaus. They criticized the pedagogical institution of Max Bill’s Bauhaus at their First World Congress of Free Artists, and we wanted to resuscitate that ethos to be a congress of artists in New York. We called it The Congress of Free Artists and the purpose was to make certain claims about artists’ rights through potential unionization and healthcare. In the beginning, we were more political than aesthetic. There were serious conversations and debates about whether we were primarily an artist collective, or a research group, or an activist group. From these conversations, and due to people’s professional lives, we condensed down to a core of about three people. This included myself (American, painter), Carla Herrera-Prats (Mexican, photographer and conceptual artist), and Lasse Lau (Danish, filmmaker).
We traveled to Denmark to put together this large-scale project called the Second World Congress of Free Artists, which took the form of multiple collaborations, a book, dramatic performances, and installations. Our dynamic became: who had the time and energy to devote to what? And, who had the technical capacities to do certain things? For example, I’m the only native English speaker in the group, so I became the de facto writer and editor on the book version of the Second Congress and our online project c-m-l.org. In Denmark, Lasse took on an organizing role in the project. We also work in Mexico City, and Carla tends to lead there.
Second World Congress
courtesy of camel collective
Now, I would say it’s more like a family than any sort of division of labor. We do assign roles, however it is more flexible than in the beginning.
Carla: I had some collaborative practice when I was in Mexico City, prior to Camel Collective. For two years, I owned a gallery space called Acceso A with two close friends before coming to the States for my MFA in Photography at CalArts. Running the gallery was like a big collaborative project, though collaborating on a business is not the same as collaborating on work.
I applied to the Whitney ISP after graduating from CalArts, where I met Anthony and all of the other people who were a part of Camel Collective in the beginning. When I was working at the Whitney, I still had my personal practice: I was working on two individual exhibitions at the time and it was a struggle to do both. To complicate it even more, after the Whitney ISP, I was hired in Boston to teach full-time at SMFA. It was too much work. In 2010, I decided I would not continue my personal practice and cut back on teaching. I stopped making my own work and focused on the projects that we had. From 2010 until the present, it has primarily been Anthony and I working in our studio in New York, and collaborating with Lasse remotely.
So you gave up your own personal practice because you preferred working within the collaborative?
Carla: Yes, it became very clear to me that what I enjoyed most was having discussions with Anthony and Lasse. I like making work, but I like to talk about work and bounce ideas back and forth a lot more. It also became clear that, if we wanted Camel Collective to make it to the next level, that meant we had to devote more time to it. Now, it’s just Camel Collective, and we set up shop in Brooklyn. I have a program at SOMA that I run in Mexico City during the summer. It’s easier this way. This summer, seminars and visits will focus on ideas around collaboration and participation in art.
Do you have any defined process?
Carla: Anthony and I talk about work all of the time. Sometimes we’re not actually producing any work, but we spend copious time talking about work.
When people collaborate, they often end up compromising. But Anthony and I want to make sure that we never lose our personal interests for the sake of doing a project. That is something I think Anthony is very good at: He forces me to think about my personal investments in a collaborative project. Or else, it becomes too much like a machine. A collaborative machine makes people more separate than together. I would say we operated more like a machine with the work before 2010. I think that was partly because the collective included a lot more people, making collaboration a lot less clear. But I also think that a lot of the personal investment from people was not there yet. When people don’t have an honest stake, it makes collaboration difficult to actually care about.
It seems that you have chosen to collaborate in mediums that are not traditional for artists, like research and writing.
Carla: That’s where the discussion happens. For instance, on our most recent project, we are doing a lot of research for pieces that are text-based. Both of us will come up with a list of suggested readings and then we respond. A lot of our conversations are based on these texts. The collaborative helps us parse lots of information when researching. The discursive approach to research is maybe the most natural collaborative process we have. Sharing research is a lot of fun. It’s similar to how we started as a reading group, and something that we’ve kept. It’s like being in a seminar; it’s the most enjoyable part about collaboration for me. It’s way harder to make aesthetic decisions about a project than to talk about ideas and research.
For instance, right now we are reading about theater. We don’t really know much about theater, even though we work a lot with theater. I think that there has been an interest in theater that has existed in each of us individually, but together, that is becoming more clear. We have been able to feed each other. There are some other common interests, like the idea of pedagogy, collectivity, and labor. These things existed in our work well before the collaboration, but we are still investigating them.
Would you still describe what you’re doing as research-based art?
Anthony: Yes. I would say that is still one of our main methodologies. When we say that we are a “research practice,” that relates most closely to our relationship with archives, and particularly photo archives. For example, when we did the project A Facility Based on Change at Mass MoCA, we went into the photo archives of a newspaper there called, The Transcript. We became particularly interested in a labor strike that happened in 1970, and wanted to uncover some of the labor history associated with the site of Mass MoCA. So we did a lot of photo and historical research. For the project we did at the Trienal Poli/gráfica de Puerto Rico, we thought we would apply the same research processes, but it turned out that because the labor union at the University of Puerto Rico didn’t sign a contract, the university archives were closed. We contacted Beta-Local, a residency and project space in San Juan, who were very knowledgeable about labor and politics in Puerto Rico, and our research took place through a series of conversations instead. In that sense, we mimicked how a sociologist might go about empirical research, by conducting interviews. We were introduced to an art historian, Luis, and he told us that the idea of labor has to do primarily with an image of industrial labor in the US, but Puerto Rico doesn’t have that same sort of history. Puerto Rico went from a campesino culture through colonization to attract a consumer culture, without any industrialization. That’s when we realized that we should really be looking at intellectual labor, and its relation to politics. Our adapted research process led us into a completely different relationship with archives via a living archive.
courtesy of camel collective
Carla is very precise about research. For me, it’s a way to discover a set of potential relationships; it’s a methodology that engages a particular history. However, Carla is very concerned with the nature of archiving and the archive itself: how archives function socially, culturally, and politically. Between us, we look at the entire spectrum of an archive of knowledge. I’m not sure that working solo would really have such a holistic generative dialectic.
How much does geographically-dispersed collaboration influence how projects are executed?
Carla: Working with Lasse remotely from Brussels is very difficult. Trying to set up a three-way Skype session and coordinate everybody’s schedules is tough. It’s tiring to find the time to work together. That’s why proximity is very important to me. I think our work feels much closer to Anthony and I now, because we are working together in the same space and I can pop over to see Anthony in a second. I am terrified of the idea of having to work apart again.
Anthony: Carla was teaching in Boston, Lasse was working in Brussels and Copenhagen, and I was in Ithaca and Brooklyn. We were all constantly moving around with our own jobs. It was really difficult, geographically-speaking, to formulate coherent projects. During that time, we figured the best thing we could do was continue the research-based model that we began after the Whitney ISP. We collaborated through c_m_l.org, which we thought of as an online research platform and archive for social and activists practices.
After the Second World Congress of Free Artists, Carla and I located ourselves back in New York, and decided that we really needed a studio space—a physical meeting space where we could produce work. We were interested in producing object-based work and becoming a material practice that wasn’t based on these Sunday Skype meetings, which became really grueling and unfulfilling. Geography had a lot to do with what kinds of work we focused on.
Once we started the studio, everything changed. For one, I started to feel more at home.
What is the distinction between a collective and collaborative?
Anthony: I think collaboration has become a sort of buzzword. I would argue that it has taken on a very ideological connotation. The idea of collaboration is totally amenable to corporate forms of capitalism, and neoliberal ideas about the freelance worker, the fluid nomadic, and new cognitive labor. On the other hand, the dark side of that would be the precarious, exploited freelancer, who always has to be malleable and collaborative in both senses of the term, meaning 1) A willingness to work with others, but also 2) Working with a system that he/she may not be completely in line with.
Whereas, the idea of collectivity also has its own ideological baggage, but I think it has a very strong political dimension to it too. I don’t link it to any sort of communist ethos. Rather, I link it more to the idea of co-equal responsibility for a particular identity. Within our practice, we also collaborate. But those collaborations come and go. The collective is Carla, Lasse, and I, and the relationship and responsibility that we share to our projects. I would never demand the same level of interest, let alone sacrifice, from the people that we collaborate with, as compared to what the collective demands of each other.
What does a collective give you that’s different from working individually?
Anthony: On a practical and everyday level, everybody has his or her own capacities, and in that sense, a collective can broaden a practice. We all come from very different political and aesthetic backgrounds that often don’t agree with each other. Because we rarely agree with each other on anything, we’ve evolved a way of thinking that we might not have encountered otherwise.
At the same time, I think there’s another interesting thing that happens. In the process of working with Carla and Lasse, I’ve found that I will anticipate their positions. This happens entirely in my own head. I find myself talking to my projections of these people, role playing their position. For instance, I’ve found myself becoming far more of an activist when I’m working with Lasse. There’s a really interesting inter-subjective relationship in the collaborative process in which collaborators envision an imaginary other and what they want from us. Sometimes we attempt to fulfill it, and sometimes we thwart it, or circumvent it. Any collaborative practice should probably take into account how a conversation produces a strategic mindset.
Can you describe your New York studio space? How has it impacted the type of work that you do together now?
Carla: I never had a studio before because I was doing work that was based on the computer. It’s kind of like the egg and the chicken: because you have a studio, the Collaborative changes. But also, the Collaborative had to change because we needed a studio. Having a studio was a good way to go back to something much more basic about why we decided to do art in the first place. It gave me permission to collaborate for real, and I went back to the basics. Somehow, schooling had made that very difficult for me to do on my own and it was good to go back to something way more hands-on. Anthony and I never would have had a discussion about, “Should we make it red or yellow?”
Anthony: Our studio is located in Gowanus, Brooklyn. It’s one studio in the midst of a larger group of studios that a few Yale grads put together called Top Top. It has shared spaces in it, like a photo studio and wood shop that anyone can use, and there’s a lot of communal photo equipment available. I think that’s very helpful.
We do a lot of screen printing, which is a good medium for Carla and I to meet one another aesthetically—through Carla’s photography and my painting backgrounds, screen printing make sense. Screen printing is interesting to us because of its immediacy, its political history, and the collaborative nature of printing in general.
When we were working on the project we did for Mass MoCA called A Facility Based on Change, we were very conscious of the industrial processes we were using, and the size of the works for that show related directly to the scale of our studio. One of the paintings is fairly large, and we could have easily outsourced it, but it was very important to us to not outsource any of our work. And that became the core idea of the studio, that we wanted to engage in a discursive practice, which is highly language-based, collaborative, and often fluidly collaborates with other forms of labor like art historians, designers, or other academics. We never want to leave the position of being artists in the studio.
The studio is primarily set up as a screen printing studio, so we have a darkroom, washout sink, and big table, but then we also have a set of desks, computers, printers, and things like that. We juggle multiple projects at once, so we’re constantly moving things around and shifting how the studio functions. Sometimes, it looks a lot like a screen printing studio, with a rack and screens lying around. Other times, it looks more like an office. It all depends on what stage of a project we’re at.
There’s actually been an interesting development, which is Carla recently had a baby. So that’s changed our practice quite a lot, particularly in how we use the studio space: she’s working from home more often, but I still go into the studio. Our roles shifted during her pregnancy. When we were working on a show for Bard, it required a lot of semi-toxic materials. Because you can’t really have toxins near a baby, our division of labor meant that I took on more physical work while she focused on more social and intellectual work.
Have you found that there are certain processes that your collaborative projects go through?
Anthony: Our processes are very situational. When it’s Carla and I working on a project, it isn’t programmatic. Carla often starts the research and I often write, but the roles aren’t always explicitly divided in that way. If there is any sort of methodology, it’s sitting across the table from one another over beers or coffee, and talking something into the ground. We talk constantly. Our collaborative process is primarily discursive. The project-based works are usually commissioned by a museum or project space. So there is a necessary bureaucratic operation like, what’s the budget? When are we going to get the grant? Who is it for? What is the timeframe?
How do you do collective painting?
Carla: We have tried different methods and we are still trying to find the best way to paint together. Painting seems to be a difficult medium for collaboration, but we make decisions in the studio together. We stand next to each other and justify why one thing is better than another thing. I don’t want to sound dramatic because it’s not, but, it is a little painful.
We have tried to work in different moments on the same painting: I work on the background, and Anthony works on top afterwards. It’s kind of like the exquisite corpses thing that surrealists did. I will do one part, and Anthony will respond to it, or vice versa.
Anthony: We try to work on projects whereby we’re not working on the same decision at the same time because I think that can be really debilitating, particularly when you’re discussing what shade of red you are going to use. Some things shouldn’t be discussed. There needs to be some individual spaces.
How and why do you teach collaborative processes?
Anthony: The class at RISD called ADColab encourages people to begin collaborating with materials, and in one case, without speaking to one another. They just have to make an object together.
Part of my impulse to teach in a collaborative, interdisciplinary space has to do with the way in which collaboration has become valorized in a fairly uncritical way. In terms of the hegemonic culture of capital and neoliberalism, collaboration attached itself to the creative class, and was used as the exemplar of free labor. When I teach my class on collaboration, my students come in with this really positive desire to collaborate with each other, and work across disciplines, in a very affirmative way. I often find myself countering some of those desires with this very critical narrative about capitalism and labor.
Another reason is for my own practice and fulfillment. My students teach me a lot about how collaborative practices can work. AD Colab is an experimental laboratory that invites graduate students across all of the graduate programs. So there are a lot of intersubjective relations and we have discussions about power, gender, and culture. Culture is a very big discussion, and in fact, one of my groups of students spoke four different languages and came from four different disciplines. It took them a while to figure out how they would do anything together. That group really mirrored Camel Collective. I don’t want people to erase any kinds of cultural specificity in a collaborative process that relies too much on consensus models. It’s easy to erase cultural differences. I have learned to encourage the idea that consensus and non-agreement isn’t a bad thing. It’s actually the core of the Democratic process—not compromising or making consensual arrangements between people. Somebody always loses in a majority rule.
I think there is something really important about acknowledging that disagreement exists. And that there are positions that are incommensurable with each other. And that conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. I think with a lot of American art culture, there is this idea that, “Everything goes.” That we’re in some sort of post-ideological state, in which every practitioner can do whatever they want. That’s not healthy and it’s not true. This mindset masks or represses a lot of antagonisms. I think it’s just as important to acknowledge that not everybody does things the same way. There are interesting frictions to be discovered when one goes from an architecture critique to a sculpture critique. The criteria are totally different. The judgment calls that are made are totally different. And the level of professionalism that is demanded by faculty or the profession itself are very different. I think that is worth acknowledging as both a practitioner and an educator.
Can you give an example of how antagonism has played out to your advantage?
Anthony: The Second World Congress. For the book, which is a collection of academic essays that we solicited from various artists, writers, educators, critics, and curators, we asked these people to produce a text for Congress critiquing the political economy of pedagogy. I’m sure you can imagine that with 30 different writers all presenting text on the subject of art, pedagogy, and neoliberal education, that there were some disagreements between us as Camel Collective, and what we were receiving. There was a question of how were we going to represent this thing that we might not entirely agree with.
We did not attempt to mold other people’s thoughts into something that we might have wanted, which is what some magazines are quite good at. Rather, we found some really interesting antagonisms that happened within the text which led us to question some of the writers, and how they should be represented. So Carla, Lasse, and I decided to dramatize the writings. We had the scripts performed by actors. By pairing academic language with a dramatic form, we were able to create really interesting frictions. I think this antagonism is what made the work more compelling. The ideological antagonisms that I disagreed with in the text didn’t need to be resolved, it just needed to be spoken and made explicit in conversation.
How has collaborative antagonism worked for your students?
Anthony: A very simple project I have them do is to create a working model that is somehow indexed within the work itself. The goal is to get people thinking about the form of collaboration, and how that finds its way into an artifact, rather than just creating an artifact. The results are interesting, particularly because of the disciplinary differences amongst people. Getting a designer, sculptor, furniture maker, and programmer to all work on the same thing is difficult because they are all going to bring their own profession-oriented expectations to it, and that produces all kinds of interesting friction. For instance, if an architect was only working with other architects, certain things would go unspoken. But the kind of astonishment a designer has when watching a sculptor work, is balanced by the designer’s demands that a sculptor articulate something in advance, which of course, the sculptor will have to do in the future when he/she applies for grants or enters the bureaucratic world of art. On the same token, at some point in a designer’s career, the designer may have to engage in a non-client-based, self-initiated project, in which there aren’t any givens. The end result is, nobody can predict what something is going to be. I think putting people in a position in which they have no expertise, is really productive. That is something that we have found also works for Camel Collective.
What do educators need to address in terms of collaboration?
Anthony: Definitely one thing that needs to be addressed are the ways education, and arts education in particular, is based on this model of individuating students, and separating them out from each other. And that starts at the earliest possible age. But particularly in an MFA program, students are pressed to turn themselves into a branded individual, separate from other individuals, and become gallery-ready. It’s a very German, romantic, educational idea that education is here to help a student to archive his or her own voice and realize their own mode of expression.
Collaboration can alter the value of education. And I think it’s something that a lot of people and a lot of students actually crave at the moment. I’m not sure if they crave it more than they used to, but I’m finding a lot of people that actually want it.
Perhaps it has something to do with the kinds of communication technologies that everyone has in their pocket. We are connecting with people far more and far faster than we ever used to. My students are incredibly savvy in terms of media. I think part of it is that people just have more tools. The means of working with one another is easier.
I think it also has something to do with the political background that we are living in at the moment. Social movements are now representational, and anyone can watch a protest on Facebook or see the Arab Spring unfold on YouTube. That creates desire for solidarity in people. There is also a dissatisfaction in terms of the economy that has forced people together. So for example, I think shared office spaces and office collectives—where architects, artists, designers, and writers are renting a shared space—are a result of the conditions of unemployment. Students are not getting jobs in firms, so they have to do something. They have to find ways to survive. And I think it’s easier to survive together than it is to survive alone.