This week’s post on collaboration and creativity is an edited version of the introduction to Collaborative Production in the Creative Industries edited by James Graham and Alessandro Gandini and published by the University of Westminster Press.
Collaboration has always functioned as the kernel of creative work. Yet from the artisanal workshops of the Renaissance masters to the globally networked start-ups of the twenty-first century, the character, context and consequences of creative collaboration have been mythologised and mystified in equal measure.
Consider for example how, in the latter half of the twentieth century, high-profile success stories contributed to the building of an aura around the magic that happens when popular artists collaborate. Think about Andy Warhol’s collaborations with Jean-Michel Basquiat in the visual arts, or David Bowie’s in music; about the way the Velvet Underground came together as a band through the addition of Reed to Cale, and then, at Warhol’s suggestion, of Nico as singer. Or, more pertinently, think about how these collaborations catalysed a large-scale production process, through Warhol’s Factory, that in conjunction with broader socio-economic transformations would play a part in reconfiguring creative production as an increasingly business-oriented process and influence trends in popular culture for decades to come.
Collaboration in the shadows cast by the limelight
In contrast to the aura that pervades these iconic collaborations, consider for a moment those who dwell in the shadows cast by the limelight. How many unheralded individuals will also have played some kind of role in the work produced through the headline collaborations, nestling in the wings or noodling in studios? In the case of Bowie alone the list would include a bewildering array of producers and publicists, session musicians and sound engineers, fans and fashionistas.
But even that list would overlook the socio-technical dimension of collaboration, for instance in how the qualities of Bowie’s music also derive from the relationship between the spaces where collaboration occurs and the technologies and techniques through which it is ordered.
In recent years, research into creative labour and cultural work has tended to address the politics of production in these fields, but the socio-technical and aesthetic dimensions of collaborative creative work have not been subject to the same kind of sustained enquiry.
From artist to creative: carrying the romantic ideal of the artist into the market
The technological acceleration, cultural globalisation and economic stagnation that hallmark late capitalism have paved the way for a new model of capital accumulation and governance. In the neoliberal “creative economy” that emerged from this conjuncture, culture would seem in all places and all ways to be commodified and subject to the logic of the market, and so comes to occupy a pivotal role in economic and political as well as social affairs. Conversely, the ideal type of the artist has evolved toward that of the “creative”, a hybrid socio-economic actor who carries the romantic ideal of the artist into the fragmented ecosystem of the market – where the individual is entrepreneurialised and the social relations around collaboration commodified, as Angela McRobbie amongst others has argued.
The promise of creative autonomy that attaches to this figure functions in a similar way to what Sarah Brouillette describes as the ‘ameliorate social balm’ of culture and the arts for a generation born into a precarious world, where work is increasingly defined by competition, risk and individualization. This kind of work is doubtless fun and fulfilling for many, but the reality is that in the creative economy labour is casualised and its sociality divested of political purchase. As Brouillette puts it:
“The impetus against routine work has been brought into even the least apparently creative workplaces, in the form of a management commitment to crediting every employee’s interest in self-realization and personal wellness. In certain industries, for instance the “cool” tech sector, attracting the best employees involves telling people that in their work they will experience the artist’s unique ‘freedom.’”
This scenario will be all too familiar to a great many young people today doing a job they ‘love’ yet struggling to make ends meet.
Collaboration, napping & daydreaming
So what is the appeal and nature of the artist’s unique “freedom”’ to be ‘creative’, exactly?
In a listicle that appeared on the popular digital news-site Buzzfeed in 2014 detailing 10 habits of highly creative people, ‘collaborating’ sits at number four – after ‘moving’, ‘taking naps’ and ‘daydreaming’. The listicle is bite-size self-improvement literature packaged as an ironic joke that will be shared instantly by acutely self-aware ‘creative types’. Nonetheless, the appearance of collaboration on the list is substantiated by an anecdote starring one of the most renowned creative personalities of our times, the late Steve Jobs. It recounts the way in which Jobs redesigned the Pixar Studio campus in 1999 in order to better foster creative collaboration, based on the insight that – as Lehrer related in Imagine: How Creativity Works – “human friction makes the sparks”.
The listicle encapsulates the kind of reflexive irony that serves as the leitmotif of creative work in the era of neoliberalism. The creative worker not only has to negotiate multiple dispositions simultaneously (autonomous artist and exploited labourer, and, in many cases, much more besides – parent, carer etc.), but to survive, let alone thrive, in this world they have to embrace, with stoic good humour, the doublethink necessary for living with the contradictions this entails.
Writing in the Harvard Business Review Ben Hecht argues that “what we’re seeing around the country is the coming together of non-traditional partners, and a willingness to embrace new ways of working together”. Collaboration today is a multi-faceted beast, and collaborative production is undoubtedly an asset for many industries in information-based economies where, as Hecht argues, collaboration is seen as “the new competition”.
What happens to collaboration & creativity when the boundaries between art & business are blurred?
What happens, then, to an artistic notion of collaboration production in the fields from which the practice originated now that boundaries between “art” and “business” are blurred? How has work in the creative industries been reshaped by the managerialised emphasis on collaboration that characterises the current landscape? In what ways might cultural production, conventionally understood, be transformed by the convergent dynamics of digital intermediation and consumption in the contemporary creative economy?
For answers to these and many other questions, download Collaborative Production in the Creative Industries.
Dr James Graham is Senior Lecturer and Convenor of the Promotional Cultures Research Group in the Faculty of Arts and Creative Industries, Middlesex University, London.
Dr Alessandro Gandini is Lecturer in Digital Media Management and Innovation in the Department of Digital Humanities, Kings College, London, UK.
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