Post-Conference Ecoes Submission

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Aesthetics and Audience: Disseminating Ecoes as a Collaborative Art Project Concerned with Making Public Group Dissent

Co-authored by Marsha Bradfield, Cinzia Cremona, Jem Mackay, Corrado Morgana and Michaela Ross

Abstract: Inspired by Bruno Latour’s research on Actor-Network Theory (ANT), Ecoes is a collaborative art project that explores the possibility of using this sociological method to edit a video ‘account’ of a site-specific art event: The Market of Ideas organised by Critical Practice research cluster (spring 2008). This paper considers the development and design of this ‘account,’ specifically the challenges involved in its collaborative production. While the first part offers an overview of Ecoes to date, the second part is composed as a dialogue between the five project collaborators. Together they consider various concerns propelling their investigation, including the aesthetic desires informing the video ‘account,’ questions related to disseminating the project and perhaps most importantly, some of the controversies shaping the group’s working practice. The aim of this paper is to frame Ecoes as a case study that models ANT as a method for co-authoring a heterogeneous ‘account’ of collaborative art research.

Ecoes is a research project that experiments with applying Actor-Network Theory to collaborative art making. For Networks of Design, collaborators Marsha Bradfield, Cinzia Cremona, Jem Mackay, Corrado Morgana and Michaela Ross tested ANT in relation to the discourse and practice of collaboratively editing a video 'account’. This 'account' originated with The Market of Ideas, an event organised by Critical Practice research cluster (Chelsea College of Art and Design, London) as part of the London Festival of Europe (March 2008). Structured as an ‘information bazaar,’ The Market addressed the question, ‘What is cultural about economics?’ by bringing together artists, anthropologists, economists, theorists and others to exchange their knowledge with a milling crowd.

Initially, Ecoes intended to trace the circulation of memes through The Market. In practice, however, the project focused more on ANT as a possible method for editing video footage of this event, and on collaborative art practice in general. The working group held regular meetings to discuss aspects of this theory, specifically its applicability to the video assemblage and the forum presentation, which together comprise the project's initial research outcomes. Five significant points of dissent around using ANT in Ecoes include (1) determining where to focus our observations; (2) the implications of both video inscription and editing for representing this network; (3) concerns around the relevance of this sociological method for art research; (4) the individual/group role of the artist/collaborators in constructing the 'account'; and (5) the ways in which the group attempted to assemble a (dis)assembly of accounts. Through these and other controversies, Ecoes self-organised into a compound-complex investigation that remains open-ended.

Informing the project is the critical question of 'How to make things public?' raised by Bruno Latour in his catalogue essay for ‘Making Things Public – Atmospheres of Democracy’ (ZKM, 2005b). While some of the clips comprising the video ‘account’ followed actors in The Market and mapped their contingent relations, others focused on specific aspects of video editing typically effaced in the final output. These include the ways in which transitions between clips structure the video’s narrative, as well as the decision-making process of editors as they organise their accounts. At the same time, the internal dynamics of the collaboration became so central to Ecoes that interest in the video was eclipsed by issues of 'assembling': how the group members' respective positions came together and fell apart. To honour this discord and to reflect the members’ respective interests, both the video assemblage and the forum discussion juxtaposed different points of view. While the interactive DVD brought together clips primarily edited by individual collaborators, the forum was composed of short position statements, in which members addressed some of their affinities and the diverse approaches at play in the group.

In both instances, the primary audience for these outputs was the group itself - a self-reflective/reflexive interest that ran the risk of imploding at the point of dissemination in the forum. As a secondary audience, some attendees, including Bruno Latour, seemed frustrated with this focus, while others chose to actively engage the panel through a lively question and answer session following the presentations. This discussion underscored the challenge of presenting a discursive and multi-part project like Ecoes, which remains in a state of becoming. On first impression, the interactive DVD appeared to some attendees as 'the artwork', the collaboration’s final outcome. But the forum attempted to correct this perception by highlighting our coming together at the conference as itself an integral part of the project. One contributor addressed this dynamic when he observed that it was as though the audience and the panellists were together elucidating Ecoes through their dialogue. The challenge remains, however: when the collaborative activity of a group is an important component of the artwork, what are the possibilities for actively engaging audiences in the project rather than sharing it with them through a descriptive report?

In the spirit of ‘making things public,’ the second part of this reflective paper is composed as a discussion inspired by the dialogues modeled in ANT literature such as Michel Callon and John Law's (2003) ‘On Qualculation, Agency and Otherness,’ and Latour's (2004) ‘A Prologue in Form of a Dialog Between a Student and his (somewhat) Socratic Professor’. Ecoes contributors consider some of the issues raised by this collaboration as well as various concerns marking this ANT-inspired project. This dialogue is followed by a few speculations on the next iteration of Ecoes, which will be presented at the 'Art of Research: Research Narratives Symposium' (Chelsea College of Art and Design, London) in October of 2008.

Marsha Bradfield: Perhaps it's useful to begin by identifying this dialogue as a kind of echo of Ecoes, a platform for reflecting on both the process and product of the project as it was presented at Networks of Design. As such, this discussion is a kind of (re)construction but for whom? The current Wikipedia entry on Actor-Network Theory (September 2008) critiques this sociological approach on the grounds that, and I quote, 'ANT case studies are often highly descriptive and, not providing explanations, can seem pointless to some critics.' It seems this dialogue runs the same risk, in part because the collaboration has developed a significant body of tacit knowledge. While making this knowledge public lies beyond our exchange here, it might be useful to sketch some of the more relevant concerns this body has coughed up. Let me begin by saying that, in retrospect, the interplay between the project's four main aspects made it curiously complex. Ecoes' relationship to The Market of Ideas, its interest in ANT and video editing, its collaborative structure and its presentation at Networks of Design meant this research brought together diverse interests, sensibilities and considerations.

Cinzia Cremona: As this text also shows, within Ecoes distinctive voices have remained recognisably separate. We have experimented with the dynamics of coming together and coming apart – associating, relating, exchanging, and transacting. We have also experimented with translating our splintered collaboration into aesthetics of matters of concern. We have variously talked about relations, collaborations, games, togetherness, exchanges, organizations. We have assembled and disassembled around video clips, texts, glasses of wine, references and events. Some of these concerns have coalesced into an interactive DVD that attempts to compile and visualise our different approaches. It echoes the difficulties of our associating, and opens a different line of reflections on collaborative projects. Ecoes started from the idea of collaboratively editing some already existing video footage, but the product – the edited videos – was only one of our goals. I have since been wondering what else this project could offer to those who were not part of it.

Jem Mackay: Ecoes was also about getting to know ANT better. This theory can be difficult to understand, first off, but the context of where ANT appears, particularly in the ART world, is very interesting. ‘Making Things Public’ (see above) is a great example of this. People may have heard of ANT's method of documenting social networks and they know that it seems to be important to learn more about. But what is ANT exactly and what is it good for? As Cinzia says, it seems to be about the dynamics of getting together, making ANT a useful field of study. To try and edit video according to ANT, then, became an important experiment for us as a group. How could it work? What could one learn from trying to apply it in a practical situation?

Michaela Ross: I too came to this project as a researcher with an interest in ANT as a way of addressing ongoing and unresolved questions about my relationship to ‘data’. In particular, I was looking for ways of working with data that would trick me out of my habitual ways of viewing the world. ANT seems especially useful in this sense, in particular through its insistence on placing human and non-human actors on an equal footing. This was keeping the theory at arms length, however. In retrospect, ANT becomes potentially more pertinent when reflecting on the collaboration itself (the actors as ‘data’).

CC: I appreciate Jem's point about wanting to learn. I am inclined, however, to focus on the fact that as cultural producers we are engaged in a wider dialogue that is always already beyond the 'primary audience' - as Marsha described ourselves in the introduction - of the collaborators. In ‘Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory’, Latour (2005a) writes that 'to study is always to do politics in the sense that it collects or composes what the common world is made of. ... We claim that the controversies about what types of stuff make up the social world should not be solved by social scientists, but should be resumed by future participants and that at every moment the 'package' making up existing social links should be open for public scrutiny.' (p. 257) In terms of Actor-Network Theory, we are actors and researchers at the same time within Ecoes - if not social scientists. As artists/PhD students, our practices are at the centre of our observations, enquiries and reflections. We are all deeply involved in the ‘objects’ of our research. For example, beyond Ecoes, I am working on a practice-based PhD at the University of Westminster, looking at my own art practice in the context of relational and performative discourses. In other words, here too I am the main object of my own research. When Latour says ‘follow the actors’, as an actor-researcher I translate this suggestion into ‘let yourself be an actor first’. My ‘acting’ and reflecting function at the level of representation, but also enact performatively my own actions, relations and ethics.

MB: Ecoes seems to be engaging with this very issue of (re)presentation in different ways. These include addressing the twin concerns of authorship and audience: who says what to whom – and who is this ‘who,’ who is this ‘whom’? Additionally, there is the question of intent: what does this project aim to achieve? As Cinzia observed, ANT challenged us to speculate about what Latour calls 'an aesthetics of matters of concern'. I understand this as a representation of group dynamics—a (re)presentation that not only conveys the interests that make a collection of people into a group but also the issues that threaten a group as a network of sorts. One of the problems with collaborative practice is that it tends to collapse the 'form' of this approach to production into the ‘content’ explored through the group’s artwork. In other words, there is often a slippage between content and form in this kind of making. Collaborative art is often about the theory and practice of collaboration itself, even when this is not the artwork’s primary concern.

JM: Mixing up the product with the process can be very confusing. A lot of collaborative art holds up the process as a product. Collaborations present reams and reams of transcripted discussions, but the best collaborative art creates the product that is a distillation of the process.

MB: Distillation of the process? Are you referring to the artwork being 'resolved'?

JM: Not necessarily. But there are always points in the evolution of a project where the project can be more easily presented to others. In software, it would be the major upgrade version, perhaps, rather than the minor edits within the current phase. Those points are much more easily communicated because the process is evident in what is being presented. That's what I mean by distillation. Take Rirkrit Tiravanijia cooking noodles in an exhibition and serving them to visitors. The point is the ability to show that the ‘art’ is basically conviviality, pure and simple. That's the distillation I would say.

MB: This brings us back to the critical differences between normative and collaborative aesthetics, assuming one can make such a distinction. I'm not sure much has 'distilled' in Ecoes. This is partly because distillation takes time. It's often a slow and iterative process. Collaboration, however, is also typically slow and iterative. The very practical challenge of getting all the collaborators together and interested - of getting them and keeping them networked - should not be underestimated.

CC: I am wondering if The Market itself was closer to an aesthetics of matters of concern than Ecoes’ processes and products. I feel that both projects enact performatively my - perhaps even our - actions, relations and ethics. I am using the term performativity in its meaning of ‘utterance that performs an act’, with reference to the consequences of what we do: how do we transform our relations, practices, discourses and environments through our actions and reflections? My work and reflections are my discourse, and my discourse creates and informs relations. Latour himself underlines that ANT’s purpose is to better understand the dynamics of our getting together, so that we can get together better. From this point of view, how can Ecoes become a useful source of reflections towards effective ways of associating?

Corrado Morgana: It is a response to the question 'What is ANT good for?' - specifically in relation to art and artefact production. This is something that has troubled me since our initial collaborative discussion. The texts on ANT that I have researched maintain it is a descriptive form and may be impossible to port over as a set of guidelines for grounding production. I am still ambivalent about these possibilities...During our negotiations, we discussed various ways of enacting ANT through our documents, especially our video edits. Cinzia, for instance, mapped her mouse movements whilst editing...

MB: Yes, various kinds of movement in this project indicate how the collaborators spend their time and energy. I have recently become interested in the spread of emotion through Ecoes, how individual collaborators experience the group and, in so doing, shape the project’s emotional climate. One can invest significant time, for example, in trying to ascertain both the assumptions held in common by the collaboration and the expectations of individual members. Determining what comprises shared knowledge and understanding is one (albeit challenging) way of mapping collaborations as heterogeneous and precarious networks.

CC: At this stage, Ecoes raises for me a series of questions that might be useful for reflecting on the dynamics of collaborative projects, and their significance for an empirical understanding of 'the social' ...

MB: By which you mean?

CC: By which I mean, in Latour's words 'what is glued together by many other types of connectors.' (2005a, p.5). When we first started focusing on the processes of assembling Ecoes, we realised that we could not do it with rigour, by collecting all the data of our associating as well as (en)act them. This 'contretemps' - to use a term from Derrida - means that I have to try and reflect now, after having acted, but while still enacting Ecoes, to elaborate on the ethical and performative weight of this project in relation to other modes of associating. This dialogue is for me the first airing of a series of concerns that, at this stage I can only articulate as questions: Based on what criteria can a collaborative project be said to ‘work’ or ‘not to work’? How elective is an elective collaboration? Should, or could a collaboration be elective anyway? If a collaboration fails ‘in my terms’, according to my criteria – or the criteria of any one of its members – has it failed? Does it mean it should continue without me? Does it mean that I have failed the collaboration? What bearings have personal relations on the dynamics of a collaboration? And how do these translate into social relations?

JM: Two points on this: One, I think a successful collaboration is when everyone involved is happy with the end result and two, speaking about the dynamics of collaboration, it is important that different people have different approaches to the project.

MR: I’m interested in the pressure to arrive at consensus in collaboration. It reminds me of Latour’s example of the Space Shuttle Columbia (again reproduced in the exhibition ‘Making Things Public’) where NASA is foregrounded only at the point when it tries to reassemble the debris of the destroyed Shuttle. It seems that collaboration is most usefully described at moments of assembly and disassembly, but we tend to focus on the former.

CM: With respect to the way I edited the video, I eventually decided that if we are to enact and if we are acting as individuals actors within a productive collective, then the only way to rationalize this was to introduce my own procedures and practices into the equation.

JM: This is really interesting, because although a collaboration is about different collaborators coming together towards a common goal, people always seem much more comfortable when it is their territory that is being explored by the group.Ecoes originally started off as a documentation of the flows of memes within The Market of Ideas. The concept of different ideas becoming an economy in itself has definitely developed into a method through which members of Ecoes have adopted their own personal stances towards the dialogue of practice. Maybe we can only get involved in group intentions if our own intentions are being met at the same time?

MB: Clearly, Ecoes has raised more questions than it has answered. In addition to the outstanding issues mentioned above, there is Latour’s question to the collaborators in the forum. I will paraphrase it as follows: what are the possibilities for developing an aesthetics of matters of concern that more effectively communicates the collaboration’s decision-making process? Taking up this challenge, Jem and I will develop another iteration of Ecoes. We will draw on the insights the project has generated thus far as we create a website to map the controversies that make this collaboration such a thick and rich art research project. Ecoes thus enacts Latour’s sense that ‘design is necessarily (re)design,’ which he discussed in his keynote address for Networks of Design. By grappling with the (re)presentation of Ecoes, we will continue exploring collaborative art research as an opportunity for coming together in critical and creative ways.

References

Actor-Network Theory. (2008, September 20). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved September 20, 2008, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Actor-Network_Theory

Callon M., Law J. (2005) On qualculation, agency, and otherness Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 23(5) 717 – 733

Latour, B. (2004) A prologue in form of a dialog between a Student and his (somewhat) Socratic Professor In C. Avgerou, C. Ciborra, and F.F. Land (Eds.), The Social Study of Information and Communication Study (pp.62-76). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

--- (2005a) Reassembling the Social: an Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Clarendon.

--- (2005b) Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy. Cambridge: MIT Press.



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