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Five Fragments on COLLABORATION by Way of Claire Bishop, Fred Moten, Hito Steyerl, and Brad Troemel – by Tom Leeser

Posted in: Guest Essay

Play Active Collaborative Workshop
Play Active Collaborative Workshop, Kathmandu University. Photo by Tom Leeser.

You just have to get together with people and try to do something different. You know, I really believe that. But I also recognize how truly difficult that is to do. Fred Moten (1)

 1. Networked Dependency 

“The art field is a space of wild contradiction and phenomenal exploitation. It is a place of power mongering, speculation, financial engineering, and massive and crooked manipulation. But it is also a site of commonality, movement, energy and desire. – Hito Steyerl (2)

Writing is collaboration. The marks on this page (or screen) spark a biological and neurological occurrence causing an experience. I’m joining with you, the reader, in an exchange–– a collaboration with four unsuspecting writers and artists. Consider these five fragments to be situated somewhere between verse and prose, shared through our immediate imagination and future memories.

Let’s begin ––

It is impossible to step outside of collaboration, given the networked dependencies that constitute our survival. We can move between collaborators, however all art (and life) depends on a constant condition of sharing and kinship.

This condition makes art, technology and knowledge creation possible.

Collaboration is a process not a fixed space. It is not an object. It is an “intra-action” between nature and all the planetary species, engaged in being and becoming.

We are all in the same boat –– together.

2.The Sixth Sense

Shock, discomfort, or frustration—along with absurdity, eccentricity, doubt or sheer pleasure–– are crucial to a work’s aesthetic and political impact. Claire Bishop (3)

You, the individual reader is silent. Outside of this virtual space, lies physical collaboration–– sound, sight, smell, taste and touch within each body and in an ever growing digital-body politic. Collaboration then is our sixth sense–– somatic, conceptual, passive and active.

We arrive at the crossroads as intersectional participants generating social transitions of disruption and continuity.  While in this alliance we are oblivious to the act of collaborating. The self becomes the thing that is negated. The  process comes to life through the development of intuitive activities carried out by entropic bodies.

3. Education and Gesture 

We are committed to the idea that study is what you do with other people. It’s talking and walking around with other people, working, dancing, suffering, some irreducible convergence of all three, held under the name of speculative practice. The notion of a rehearsal–– being in a kind of workshop, playing in a band, in a jam session, or old men sitting on a porch, or people working together in a factory—there are these various modes of activity. The point of calling it “study” is to mark that the incessant and irreversible intellectuality of these activities is already present. Fred Moten (4)

The body’s gesture is the interface; discourse occurs through interdependent multiple identities establishing collective knowledge, provisionally. As artists, we reconfigure the cultural regime into a series of turbulent events, and hopefully, in the process we can make this world a better place.

The collaborative impulse grows within individuals through the desire for a new social dynamic. It is an act of one’s own survival, driven by common and uncommon tendencies. It is a “study” that is realized and yet unrealized, eternally sought after through an invisible network.

4. Aesthetics and Politics

Aesthetics and politics overlap in their concern for the distribution and sharing of the sensible world. – Claire Bishop (5)

Rather than a restriction, collaboration can foster a different realization of liberation, a freedom from the tyranny of the individual, the market and the romantic ideal of the rebel.  We traverse the polis as creative mendicants, digital vagabonds and “birds of passage.” We collaborate by necessity, we share because we have to, like breathing and eating, etc.

We live and work in the “sensible world” and we make art by cribbing from life’s unwritten cookbook. Subsequently, collaboration can be a recipe for both disaster and joy.

Since collaborations are not static objects, they rely on impermanence and entanglements.  Therefore conflict and crisis are ultimately resolvable. Politically, we should not simply initiate acts of condemnation; together we must discover new sites of commonality.

However there are no guarantees.

5. Forgotten Media

The underlying promise of Rate/Comment/Subscribe! culture is that viewers can engage in a more direct form of fandom, in which their tributary comments and reblogs are directly acknowledged by artists and eventually become an element in their creative process. Audiences can now believe they are co-creators, collaborating with artists by appreciating them.  – Brad Troemel (6)

We are continuously attracted to transgression, jumping the fence of each other’s “autonomous zone.” As an aesthetic practice, media can mutate into participation and common authorship.  It sometimes passes through solid material like a ghost inducing ephemeral currents of exchange and at times, spectacle.

However we need to be on the lookout as Claire Bishop warns–– sentimentalizing collaboration can lead to the “reinforcement of art’s autonomy.”

Social Media can appear as the activities and actions of art, but through endless looping and mundane repetition, it’s at risk from becoming overly transactional, a deadening process of hyper-commodified production–– a performance that undermines collaboration by colonizing it as mere personal branding.

Radical collaboration consists of complex ventures where authorship is co-dependent and communication is horizontal both online and offline. Each collaborative initiative needs to mine its own unsettled territory with an acute critical awareness.

Histories within these territories are precarious temporalities that should be  continually activated since media is now written in real-time, spatially distributed, and then quickly forgotten. Aesthetic action can serve as a buffer to this precarity–– rendering  collaborative practice as creative activism–– a life sustaining bio/geo/political event.


  1. David Wallace, Fred Moten’s Radical Critique of the Present, The New Yorker, April 30, 2018
  1. Hito Steyerl, Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy
  1. Claire Bishop, The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents
  1. Fred Moten, The Undercommons
  1. Claire Bishop, The Social Turn: Collaboration and Its Discontents
  1. Brad Troemel, Athletic Aesthetics

Tom Leeser is a media artist, curator, educator, and writer. He is Program Director of the Art and Technology Program and Director of the Center for Integrated Media at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).

Tom received his BFA and MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI). His film, video, online work, interactive installations, and public performances have been exhibited at Navel, Harvestworks, Eyebeam, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, The Echo Park Film Center, The Alabama Center for Contemporary Art, Machine Project, The Mount Wilson Observatory, MassMoca, The Santa Monica Museum of Art, The Fowler Museum, Redcat Theater, The Kitchen, The Millennium, Siggraph, and film and video festivals worldwide, with support from Art Matters, Creative Time, and the Daniel Langlois Foundation.

Projects and Exhibitions include: The Scream Project at Navel, Heard in LA at the  Electronic Arts Festival at Harvestworks, DryRun, a public art and sound/poetry project for the City of Santa Clarita, CA, History Refused to Die and The Futures Project at the Alabama Contemporary Center for the Arts and the Los Angeles Filmforum, Alternative Projections, Filmforum at the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time, Artist Resident for a Day at Machine Project, Radical Cosmologies at ISEA2012, Indirect Intention—A Home and Garden Intervention at the Museum of Jurassic Technology and the Center for Land Use Interpretation, Future Imaginary at the Ben Maltz Gallery of the Otis College of Art and Design, The Lament Project—An Evening at the Manual Archives, Underground Cinemamachine at Machine Project and Object Lessons for Gigantic Artspace in New York City.

He is an editor and producer for the web-based journal and curatorial project

Tom Leeser will be curating an art and technology group exhibition at the George Segal Gallery at Montclair State University in 2021 titled Tech/Know/Future.