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COLLABORATIONS – A Formless Dialectic – by Katherine Guinness

Posted in: Guest Essay

Artist Ben Kinsley leading a table-tennis clinic and durational performance at the VAPA Swap, a non-monetary art exchange event organized by the author at the Downtown Gallery of Contemporary Art, University of Colorado Colorado Springs, September 6, 2019

It is difficult to gauge collaboration (the “action of working with someone to produce or create something”) when I have difficulty gauging the boundaries of “someone” and “production.” Where am I located within or beyond myself towards “someone-ness”? When am I beyond myself and when do I draw things into myself so well that they become me? When do I become myself so well that others can draw me into themselves? When is something created?

“The formalistic dialectic of post-Kantian systems, however, is not based upon the definition of the thesis as categorical relation, the antithesis as hypothetical relation, and of the synthesis as disjunctive relation. Nevertheless, in addition to the concept of synthesis, that of a certain non-synthesis of two concepts in another is bound to take on great systematic significance, since in addition to synthesis there is the possibility of another kind of relationship between thesis and antithesis.”

I.        It seems that for me, the best collaboration is a tentative balance in which I can lose and not lose myself – it works so well I never feel lost because I never feel exposed in the first place. Having skype chats under the guise of work meetings (and work does get done: texts and efforts and projects and dreams have grown and grown at an astonishing pace– I’m thrilled to have someone who can match my stride so easily) but chats that are also about life beyond work, and helping us see each other in the mirrors of “now” and not rearview (and, perhaps, even future). I find myself not quite sure how I arrived, but feeling invigorated and not exhausted.

“You and I are deep in the act of collaboration and have written about it together, so it seemed weird not to let you know…”

II.        I have another cup-filling, soul-renewing collaboration, but what do we produce? While, the above has produced essays and perhaps even books, this collaboration produces steps on my daily count, an exploration of my neighborhood, and the resonance of human conversation. We have been collaborating through life for over twenty years of friendship now.

“I mentally track the items like an absurd grocery list full of acronyms and abbreviations that make sense to no one else: Bernie; Radium; Giant dead thing song Bicycle; Pressure diamonds. These are the things that I’m saving for the not-quite-scheduled but still-happening-regularly walk and talk. A text won’t do them justice. It would take too much context and explanation in a way that would deflate it all. I need the ‘that’s right!’ of recognition, the odd chuckle of absurdist acknowledgement. There’s no order about what comes when or who goes first. It is a messy park potluck rather than a fine dining experience.”

III.        My most fruitful collaboration, however — the one I can point to and say “Look: That is creation! That is production!” and that fills my CV — comes from my husband. We often get odd looks, even from academic pairs, when we talk about the many articles we’ve written together on long layovers or delayed flights, the book proposals and co-teaching, and how we tend to give conference talks together now as one. This collaboration is the closest to synthesis, which produces the best work but the unhappiest me at times.

When we work together and write, our voices blend seamlessly, and I cannot find myself within the text when I re-read it. We have gotten editors’ notes confused about why the author keeps referring to themselves in the plural – fooling everyone that we are one person, even myself. In academia, this perfect synthesis can be a trap, in which a more senior academic may get more of the credit if two become one. I won’t say this hasn’t happened. However, this is also the work of which I am most proud, that I truly could not have done on my own, the work I love most.

“Almost all of our coauthored works are more clearly the product of thinking with each other rather than a kind of oscillating ‘sharing’ of research — it’s difficult to say that our coauthored articles are the product of two different people rather than a kind of collectivity enabled through writing as a singular (albeit multiple) enunciative subject…I suppose one of the difficulties here is that, intrinsically, collaboration ends up being a deeply intimate relationship, one in which a kind of encounter — ideally, but not always — will be inherently transformative, which shapes the questions, themes, and directions one pursues in their research (and beyond). While there’s some fairly obvious links between what I’m suggesting here and a range of theories of intersubjectivity or even a kind of hermeneutic circle, the implicit result is transformative and expansive…reinventing and reframing modes of thinking and awareness in the world.”

IV.       My final collaboration to discuss here is in many ways antithesis to these brilliant non-syntheses (and dangerously close to synthesis). It shuts down and shows my inability to branch out and become other beyond myself in a generative way. I found myself liking an Instagram photo that they had also liked, and I felt that even this could be a small collaboration. I so constantly want to connect with this person that I will give any excuse. This collaboration does not end with a back-and-forth quote; there is no echo to my own thoughts, just the text dots of an almost reply, one that never came, but that I will always try to synthesize.

Katherine Guinness is a theorist and historian of contemporary art, Assistant Professor and Director of Art History in the Department of Visual and Performing Arts at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. She is also Academic Director of the Downtown Gallery of Contemporary Art at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. Her first book Schizogenesis: The Art of Rosemarie Trockel is forthcoming in December, 2019, from the University of Minnesota Press.