Winston Macdonald: “That’s my biggest piece of advice: work with as many people as often as possible from the beginning.” Luke O’Sullivan: “Yeah, once you turn 30 years old, you’re screwed.”
Luke O’Sullivan + Colin Driesch + Dominic Casserly + Andrew Meers + Winston Macdonald: Co-Founders, !nd!v!duals / Boston MA
winston macdonald: “that’s my biggest piece of advice: work with as many people as often as possible from the beginning.” luke o’sullivan: “yeah, once you turn 30 years old, you’re screwed.”
Can you talk through the origins of !ND!V!DUALS?
Colin: !ND!V!DUALS started at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Nashville, TN. I went to college with Dom Casserly and Andrew Meers at MassArt. Through them, I met Luke O’Sullivan, who is another member. Those three guys grew up together in Holliston, MA. They were lifelong buddies and I got connected with them through that. Luke was in school at AIB, and there was a professor there who was holding these collaborative group building sessions down in Tennessee for Bonnaroo. He invited Luke, and Luke brought us along. They had 12 different areas, and each area was given a different material. With that material, you were supposed to create something interactive and participatory for the crowd. They handed us lots of dirty wood. Ultimately, that’s where everything spawned from. We played around with it. We ended up building this massive treehouse with all of these crazy flags coming down from all sides. It was visually progressive and stood out. Through that, we kept getting invited back to do different Bonnaroo installations. They kept giving us wood as a boundary, so we expanded on that. After a couple of years doing that, we were asked to do a gallery show, and that’s the way we started.
The Outside of Inside Courtesy of !nd!v!duals
courtesy of !nd!v!duals
Winston: Three of the five of us grew up together. We played in the woods and made treehouses together. Two of those guys ended up going to MassArt together and met Colin there. We knew each other for a long time, and that is a big part of it, to be able to coalesce a collaboration like this, where everybody is so involved in everybody’s space and working side-by-side. I think it wouldn’t work if we hadn’t known each other for such a long time.
In what ways does that familiarity help the process?
Winston: We can be really honest with each other. We are super close. We appreciate each other. There are some times where we get mad at people for shit, but ultimately, it has worked out; now we are so close that we really couldn’t do what we do without each other.
Luke: We started off as younger people making stuff with rope and sticks. We’ve added more tools, but we are pretty basic in terms of assembly and process. We don’t worry about refining anything too much. We want to get to our destination as rudimentarily as possible.
Colin: We get the ideas out as fast as possible.
Luke: It creates less friction.
Colin: I think that goes along with having known each other for a long time. We know what everybody’s skills are, what everybody is really good at, and the way people work. I know that Meers is a meticulous craftsman, so when you hand him a project, he is going to make it super detailed. If you tell him to make a wood garment, he comes back with something that is all about action and moving parts. If you were to tell Dom to make a wooden gun, he would cut off a branch of a tree and put a couple screws in it and call it a gun. We already know where everybody is coming from. It meshes quickly, so we don’t have to even bring up that question in our dialogue.
Is there an !ND!V!DUALS process?
Luke: Every single thing we do starts with drawing.
Winston: It starts with listing before that, just listing ideas. We sit around the kitchen table throwing out ideas left and right. Then we move to sketching with Sharpies; Luke and Dom are pretty incredible at that.
Luke: To backtrack even more, almost every project is site-specific, so we are initially responding to a space. We all visit a space and soak it in. We get a few drinks and talk over the kitchen table. Once the ideas start, it is straight to the drawing board with Sharpies. Simple stuff, which actually doesn’t necessarily help us get jobs, because we have these very crude illustrations of what we are planning on building. It is somewhat lost in translation, but the final product always looks exactly like these extremely simple line drawings.
courtesy of !nd!v!duals
Colin: We have to show clients past projects with the Sharpie drawing next to the finished product, so we can reassure people that they can trust our Sharpie drawings, and that it is going to come out okay.
Luke: We need to send our Sharpie drawings to China and get high quality illustrations of our work mailed back.
Colin: There are a lot of trust issues with some galleries and curators, so we promise them that it always works out as we draw it up. People get nervous.
Luke: There is a loose, organic way of creating these projects. People want to know what the processes are and how we put all of this stuff together. It’s a couple of guys sitting around, chatting, and sketching stuff on the back of pizza boxes, napkins, or restaurant placemats.
Winston: From there, we take that pizza box lid, with its little pretty sketch, and we have two or three people break off into groups. We have a list of things that we need to build for the concept. We might sketch on the spot or have earlier sketches, and then people pick what parts they want to execute. It goes straight from Sharpie drawings to buddy groups for the construction process.
Colin: A lot of those pieces end up building themselves. Everything that we do uses found and used materials, so it depends on what we end up finding. We never know exactly what we are going to get, or what dumpster we are going to find things in. We can sketch stuff out. We can doodle. We configure all of that stuff ahead. Ultimately, we don’t really know what it is going to look like until we find the materials. That is the fun part. We don’t necessarily know what some of the colors are going to be. It is whatever the community throws away. We take their chairs and dressers and build it up.
Do you have a shared studio space?
Colin: There are three of us that are in Boston right now. We all work out of Winston’s two-car garage, which we have completely taken over and turned into a makeshift wood shop/junkyard.
Winston: We build to the size of whatever space we’re in, like fish in a bowl. If we have a huge space, we end up building huge stuff. We have garage doors that open up, and eventually every build starts creeping out the door, onto the driveway, and through the yard. There is a giant junkyard of wood scraps and tools everywhere. When we are in the middle of a build, there will be many cutoffs and scraps, which is super useful because every piece of scrap becomes the material for the next object that you are building.
The Outside of Inside Courtesy of !nd!v!duals
courtesy of !nd!v!duals
Colin: Literally, we reach down and grab stuff. All of the wood covers the ground. You know that scene from Star Wars, where they are in the trash compactor, and everything starts crunching and rising and the walls close in? It gets claustrophobic.
Winston: We have all of the tools set up there, so when we get all five of us in the space, which happens kind of rarely, everything is within reach, and we are all crawling over a giant pile of wood. Things happen so quickly.
Colin: Three of us are in Boston, Luke is in Philadelphia, and Meers is in Memphis. We all still collaborate. When we have bigger projects, everybody comes together in the Boston studio to work. We have a big show up right now, and everybody came together for a couple of weeks and worked on things as a group. When we had to separate, Luke worked in Philly screen printing, and Meers worked in Memphis doing welding and putting pieces together, then shipping them back.
How do you collaborate when you are separated?
Luke: Mostly email and texting.
Winston: Our text chains are absurd. They are miles of useless information and gibberish.
Luke: I want to print out the whole text chains on receipt paper.
Winston: Sometimes it’s group things; sometimes it’s one-on-one.
How does the mix of skills and personalities impact the collaborative?
Luke: There is a solid mix, but there are skills that everyone is happier to utilize. Meers does metalwork. He used a modified Red Ryder BB Gun for this last project, and it took him probably half of a day. It would have taken any of the rest of us a week. There is an advantage to having those specialized skills and bringing them to the table. There is some crossover, too. I studied printmaking pretty seriously and in depth. Winston, Colin, Dom, and Meers know how to do it now because of me, so we can work on those things together. That being said, it is still my task to print 100 posters in Philly and bring them back to the show. I might as well just do that on my own, and we can build all of the other stuff when we are together. Dom is a photographer, so he is able to document the things we build at a professional level. Winston is a videographer, so he is able to compile videos for online viewing. We try to take advantage of all of these skills for every project.
Colin: There is no way we would have accomplished these things without different skill sets. We all learn from each other’s specialties.
Luke: For example, we have made lots of screen printed textures, and we printed a ton of wood. That was a nice way to bring printmaking in, because it was a particular skill of mine, but a simple way to add additional layers.
How did playing with rope and sticks growing up evolve into what you do now?
Luke: A lot of that was Dom. He is the creative guru of the group. The way he conceptualizes things is kind of innocent. Going back to when we were kids building treehouses, building forts, building little weapons, or whatever we all lived together. As a kid, that is all that you can get your hands on. You’re not allowed to use power tools. By the time we were 18 and starting college, it became more elaborate. The treehouses had to be big enough for houses. We challenged ourselves more.
Winston: Dom has this creative eye that is beyond all of us, but he struggles the most with physically building things and using power tools. That’s where the collaboration comes in. Dom will have an awesome idea for a wooden bazooka that he wants to make, and he can see that some chair leg should be its scope, but if he tried to assemble that, it would not stay together. That’s when it is really nice to have all of us there, so somebody can help him with the construction process.
Luke: You have to shout at him and go step in, or things completely fall apart.
Have other influences trickled into the work?
Luke: The range of things that you can do on your own is minimal compared to what you can do by having extra bodies and extra hands and extra time. We look at AJ Fosik as a nemesis. We did all of these anthropomorphic figures, and he skyrocketed with the same. A lot of people talk about his work. So, what do we do differently? What are our strengths that we can emphasize as an independent group?
Winston: That can be a really hard thing, because you look at AJ Fosik, and it is very refined. Maybe we should start to clean up what we do and refine it. But that is not us. You don’t want to cross that line of who you are and what your work is about. We have to make sure we stay true to our original aesthetic, and what makes us different.
Luke: I think we would jive well with a lot of West Coast galleries, but we have never had the chance to show out there. We try to keep up to speed with what’s happening in the up-and-coming galleries though we’ve never sat down and round-tabled about specific artists.
Winston: I think that our influences are more ’90s cartoons than contemporary artists.
Colin: Growing up in the woods. Being sarcastic. Humor. Bouncing a lot of stuff off of each other. Our main influences are each other. We riff off of each other and do our own thing.
Winston: I talk a lot about it with video work. It’s more than just having the extra hands in a collaboration, it is a springboard for having those extra opinions. Having all of those motivators around you means that you are receiving those ideas constantly. A lot of artists will contract the work out when they do a large-scale project. It is not hard to find interns and labor, but having the five of us for physical labor is exciting. The important part of it is getting five people working conceptually together, which makes things happen very quickly. It gives you confidence and moral support to bounce those ideas back and forth.
Luke: One of the first things for our Brunswick show was that we talked about the sense of humor in our group dynamic. We are always going for laughs and trying to one-up each other. If it makes us laugh, if we find it fun and interesting, chances are we try to put it into the work. There is a humor element to group dynamics, and it helps us to make decisions.
With that many voices involved, do ideas ever get diluted?
Colin: People take turns. Within every show, things start with one person or concept. It takes five of us to add in all of our bits and pieces and flesh things out. We designed an entire doughnut shop for our last show. That was a concept that Luke came to us with. He said he took a shower and thought about how cool it would be to make a doughnut shop. We needed a full narrative, so we added this other idea of a gun shop behind the doughnut shop. They were running a doughnut shop as a front and smuggling in all of these weapons through doughnut boxes. It takes everybody to make a good concept.
Luke: Colin had the idea for Meers to create doughnuts to put into boxes. Dom added an arms dealer in the back, and everyone agreed. We made a whole marketing push to trick people into thinking they were going into a real doughnut shop; we set up websites and Facebook and Instagram. We caught a lot of press with local media. You go into what you think is going to be a doughnut shop, then you find yourself in a fake doughnut shop, then you end up in the back area and realize it is an arms dealer, and the last layer is that we made a live BB gun range so it is interactive.
Winston: Going back to the original question, it is not like a pop band where there is a lead singer’s voice that is the focus. It’s like an instrumental band: people take the lead on different parts of the song.
Luke: We’re like Phish!
Winston: You would think that there would be more problems with having that democratic approach to making things. But we all have a lot of our individual focuses involved. Our individual time is playtime, and then we get together without as much pressure. It is us getting together and having a blast making things.
How important is the local community to what you do?
Winston: Boston is a weird city for art because of its transience. There are tons of colleges here. It is strange that we are working out of Boston. A lot of our contemporaries and peers that are doing big wood installations, are mostly based in the West Coast somewhere. Boston is great, because there is a lot of tenant turnover, and they all throw away their wooden furniture.
Colin: There is a benefit to what we do because nobody in Boston is doing the weird wacky stuff that we are doing.
How important is art school?
Luke: I think that we all came together because of art school. I went to school for film. None of the skills that I learned in school are what we are doing now. I know Winston went to school for biology. Dom was the only one working with sticks and wood and sculpture, but he also did some animation. But if we had just met up at Bonnaroo, it would’ve been the exact same thing as if we hadn’t gone to art school.
I don’t want to totally shit on art school. There is some value in learning creative problem solving. I bartend, so I am always in conversations with people who have no idea what art is about. There is a curiosity regarding what exactly happens in art school. The whole screen printing and technical stuff that I have learned was valuable, but there was a lot of value in seeing the world differently. When we started building stuff, we didn’t have any money, so obviously we were going to dumpster dive. It seems simple, but a lot of people might not be resourceful.
Is there anything that you wish you had learned that you didn’t learn?
Colin: Probably the whole business side and learning how to deal with curators and other people in the art world. We had a rough start and burned a lot of bridges and upset a lot of people. We got thrown into being a collective and having a gallery show, and we didn’t understand how to deal with other artists. Professional development courses don’t set you up for success in any way. They give you a limited view. We had to learn how to be our own bosses.
Winston: We had no background on how to be a collective or put together shows. Maybe if we were all in school together and developed a bit more, it would have been a smoother transition. Now, we are pissing people off a lot less these days. I consider that a win.
What would be a dream project?
Luke: Being in Boston, that is MASS MoCA. We have always talked about that. Our work lends itself to working big, and we love the challenge of working big. We don’t know of anyplace as suited for us beyond MASS MoCA. We are shooting for the top.
Winston: The scale is exciting, and a place like MASS MoCA would allow us to do something three stories high. All of our installations are site-specific. We build to the space. Having a vehicle like that to build to, is really exciting. I don’t know exactly what the concept would be, but I think that the dream is to get a space like that, and have free rein in it for four or five months.
Colin: We’ve always had issues with time constraints. I don’t know that we have worked on anything longer than a month. Everything is so jam-packed and intense for 30 days. Space and time is what I am most excited about.
Luke: That is the name of the game for all artists. Space and time. It would be huge if we somehow managed to swing a residency. I don’t think most residencies are equipped to offer space for what we do, which is another issue. There are five of us, so where are you going to put us all? If we are going to build bigger stuff, we should probably have a bigger space. Another dream scenario is getting all of us together for several months. We have no idea what we could even do.
courtesy of !nd!v!duals
Do you have any advice for someone interested in working collaboratively?
Winston: It was hard for us. We were lucky in that we were friends beforehand. Being an artist and finding another artist to work together with is a lot of pressure, because you are coming at it as individual artists first. Creating a relationship is difficult. You have to have that kind of relationship before you are comfortable with each other and can yell at each other. You have to foster that before you can get to being productive with people. That is wrong in a professional sense. If you are dealing with clients as a professional, you have to be polite. But if you are trying to make an expression, you kind of have to create a deeper relationship.
Colin: You can’t come into something being the lead singer all of the time; it has to be a complete partnership for anything to work. My advice for people who haven’t done stuff like this, is to try it and see what you can put together. I went to art school. I did tons of projects. I did sculpture projects all on my own, and they were fine, but I never thought that I could partner with people to produce the type of work that we do. As far as collaborations go, I think this is pretty rare.
Luke: That’s what makes it special. You shouldn’t be afraid to try it. Embrace any moments that are working. We started really small with trash. Embrace the challenge. It is hard working with other people. You will argue. You need to embrace criticism. You need to be ready to have a lot of ideas shot down. But that is the great part about the process, that it is never the first idea. The 50th or 60th or 80th ideas all mix together, and that makes it unique. That’s what makes it a collaboration.
How did you produce the doughnut shop?
Colin: I have doughnuts on the brain all of the time. I am dreaming in doughnuts.
Luke: It was such a grind. I can’t believe we pulled that off. It was an ambitious project that came together. As a group, we have discussed that we discovered this new way of approaching things like we are creating businesses. We are thinking about fleshing things out. Instead of just making our installations, we are wondering if we can have a whole identity. It is pretty exciting, because it worked well with the doughnut shop. We think of things as designers and business owners, coming at it from multiple dimensions.
Colin: We are adding a whole extra element to how we approach things. We had never done as much marketing as we have with this project. We created a whole social media campaign. We designed an entire business. We are thinking about blending those two worlds: art and marketing. Even though the show is over, how do we keep the brand alive? It can open somewhere else.
Colin: A lot of gallery shows work by dropping of work, walking away, and the gallery does everything. With this, it is a living thing. People are coming in and out every day. People are coming in being fooled into thinking it’s a real doughnut shop. Some of them want to trick their friends.
Winston: I think the most important thing in collaboration is to jump into it as soon as possible, because it gets harder further down the line. I can’t imagine starting what we have now and taking on these projects. It helped that we started small before we got set in our ways. If you can include people and collaborate from the get-go, that will mature further along the line as the work expands. That’s my biggest piece of advice: Work with as many people as often as possible from the beginning.
Luke: Yeah, once you turn 30 years old, you’re screwed.