Help Desk is where I answer your queries about making, exhibiting, finding, marketing, buying, selling–or any other activity related to contemporary art. Submit your questions anonymously here. All submissions become the property of Daily Serving.
A few months ago I tried to collaborate with a good friend, but we didn’t complete any work. It’s not that we spent the time just hanging out—we worked, but it just didn’t go anywhere. It seemed like neither of us could make the final decisions that would push the work in a real direction. Instead, we just fumbled around until we both lost the energy for it. But I really like my friend’s work and think that we could make something great together. Should we try again? If we do, how can we make something happen?
Ah, collaboration. There’s the oft-touted idea that two minds are better than one, but that largely depends on the minds and what they are doing collectively. Like flint and steel, they have to rub together in precisely the right way to make a spark. Without the proper friction, there’s just a bit of metal and a lump of rock instead of a Gilbert and George, or an Abramovic and Ulay.
The question is, can you force an electric arc? Is there a pat formula for success in collaboration? Not really, but by being mindful of a few basic principles of working with others, you’ll have a better chance of not watching your initial flicker of light dwindle into darkness.
To start, I want you to read “How To Collaborate Without Killing Someone” by J. Maureen Henderson. Her very first point, clarify your expectations, is crucial to achieving your aims. It’s possible that your project didn’t work out because you and your pal weren’t upfront with your intentions. If, for example, you say, “I want to complete the project by October 31 and have at least ten pieces,” that would give you a starting place from which to negotiate; your friend might counter, “I think we can do five pieces, and have them done by Thanksgiving.” In turn, this could open a conversation about media, process, and the assigning of specific duties. Remember that even though you are already friends, a collaboration is a working relationship; you should map out the responsibilities and tasks as clearly as you can from the outset.
However, assuming you already did that and still lost your energy, what else could have gone wrong? Take the time to read “How Smart People Collaborate for Success” by Kevin Daum. Perhaps your two-person ship ran aground on the shoals of what he calls quiet politeness: “What good is working with a bunch of smart people if they won’t be honest and sharing? People need to be willing to open themselves and be challenged. Creative conflict is powerful and productive. Find innovative, fun ways to stimulate passionate debate. Reward openness and authenticity with admiration. Real groundbreaking ideas only surface when people go all-in and get vulnerable.” If neither of you felt comfortable making decisions, it might have seemed pushy to voice an opinion. But remember that by bringing your assessments and points of view to the table—provided that you do it in a respectful manner—you create space for your collaborator to do the same. Don’t be afraid to say what you think.
Should you try to collaborate again with this particular friend? The answer depends mainly on your personalities. If both of you are relatively passive, and neither one of you is prepared to take the reins, then perhaps you should look for a new, more assertive partner. However, if you can both communicate clearly, develop an idea and a plan, and work through changes and pitfalls with mutual respect, then by all means, give it another go. For more information specific to collaborating in the arts, check out the bibliography and links on this site. Good luck!