Wednesday, August 30, 2006

On the functions of literary collaborations between women

"Collaborative writing, at first glance, would support both these exceptions to professionalism, projecting alternatively an amateur practice (something done for amusement) and an expedient materialism (two can write more efficiently than one) ... Neither explanation, however, fully comprehends these partners’ literary investments. Even the Findlaters, who were reputedly so poor they had to write their first manuscripts on the back of grocers' paper and were in fact supporting themselves and their family by their pens, saw their writing as more than journeymen's labor. These were women, in other words, who did dream of counting themselves as professional authors. Collaboration, I want to argue, facilitated this dream by masking it. For under the guise of collaboration's evident amateurism, a number of women were able to slip into a professional position" ( Bette London, 1999, Writing Double: Women's Literary Partnerships, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 104-105).

"If the literary culture at the turn of the century demanded a single author (if only the single author of individual parts) for writing to be deemed serious, what double writing inevitably achieved was to bring the work of writing into visibility. The very terms that governed public curiosity about these collaborations focused attention, in ways perhaps unprecedented, on the material of writing: on the hands of the author, the control of the pen, the possession of the page, not to mention the mechanics of character and plot construction, the components of a stylistic signature, the art of producing dialogue, the process of revision. Appearing at the very moment when popular writers' guides began to be codify these processes and procedures, literary collaborations could thus be read as a kind of living handbook to the art of fiction."
( Bette London, 1999, Writing Double: Women's Literary Partnerships, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 107).

About the title of the project

The title of the project was inspired by a passage from Henri Bergon's book Laughter. Bergson writes:

"We have dwelt at considerable length on repetition and inversion; we now come to the reciprocal interference [Footnote: The word 'interference' has here the meaning given to it in Optics, where it indicates the partial superposition and neutralisation, by each other, of two series of light-waves.] of series. This is a comic effect, the precise formula of which is very difficult to disentangle, by reason of the extraordinary variety of forms in which it appears on the stage. Perhaps it might be defined as follows: A situation is invariably comic when it belongs simultaneously to two altogether independent series of events and is capable of being interpreted in two entirely different meanings at the same time." (an online version of Bergson's Laughter is
available at , 55).

The notion of reciprocal interference seemed an apt way to title the project because it encompasses two important aspects of the collaborative artmaking process - reciprocity and struggle. While the collaborative artworks produced so far have sometimes been comic, and I have often laughed to see what I have received in a parcel from a fellow-collaborator, it is the "extraordinary variety of forms" that have emerged I have found particularly surprising and exciting. One's work is made strange by friends' interventions. It is fascinating to see how another artist deals with your work-in-process and the direction in which they take it. Because of those interventions, one becomes aware of entrenched habits - some examples in my case were a tendency to work in portrait format, to avoid figures, animals, narrative. It is invigorating to work in new ways, learning from and being challenged by one's friends. And it is scary - the more one admires a work the more one fears wrecking it. These collaborative practices entail putting aside such fears, resisting preciousness, and trusting that this risk-taking will generate good work, not every time perhaps, but often enough to make it worthwhile.

What is the Reciprocal Interference Project?

The Reciprocal Interference Project is a series of art collaborations between pairs of artists who are women and friends. It grew out of a collaborative art project developed by Carol Archer and Suzanne Rawlinson, artists who became friends during a winter school course on artist's books in Sydney in 2004. When Sue visited Carol in Macao in early 2004, the two of them hatched a plan to work together, inspired by a work titled Underground (1993) by the Amsterdam-based artist Marlene Dumas and her (then) five-year-old daughter Helena, and a shared desire to challenge their existing art practices. Initially conceiving the artistic exchange in terms of the rehabilitation or rescue of "failures", the two quickly redefined the function of the other's contribution. It could also supplement, develop, alter, contradict or otherwise shift a work that was not thought to be problematic. The collaborative intervention was initially thought in therapeutic terms - we decided to aim to make our additions to the other's work quick and slight, keeping the notion of play foremost in our minds. It was this playful and irreverent aspect of Helena's contribution to her mother's work that we found particularly exciting.

Sue Rawlinson and I generated a set of "rules" for our collaboration. Absolutely any subject matter could be used. We would work in any media on A4-sized pieces of paper, since this is a size that is easy to post and simple to scan. One of us would post a number of pieces to the other who would add something new to them before sending them back to their originator, along with a number of "starts" of her own. After some time, we elected to send 5 pieces at a time. Although the works would be collaborative, ownership and final control would rest with their initiator. On the return of a package of works, their initiator could deem them finished, add a new layer to finish them, or add to them and resend them to her partner. Works that went back and forth several times would nevertheless end up with their initiator - she would maintain final creative control over them. A time-limit for the return of works was discussed - I think it was 2 weeks - but since we both found this unworkable we opted to be more flexible - aiming to keep up the momentum but not at the cost of our pleasure in the process. The possibility of documenting and later exhibiting some of our works was floated early on, but we determined to keep our focus practice-centred for the time being. The blog titled Reciprocal Interference - documents Sue Rawlinson and Carol Archer's ongoing artistic collaboration.

Because the above-mentioned collaborative art process was so exciting and interesting, I decided at the beginning of 2006 to float the idea of similar collaborations with a number of other artist-friends. All of these collaborations use a similar set of "rules" to those outlined above, but key differences emerged as our respective collaborations proceeded. Mary Grehan (Waterford, Ireland) and Carol Archer, followed the same set of general principles for our collaboration. Take a look at Reciprocal Interference 3 at . However, Sue Taylor (Googong, NSW) and Carol decided at a particlar point to only have one "go" each on a particlar work, so that in each case a work was started by one of us and finished by the other. See the blog titled Reciprocal Interference 2 at . The collaboration between Johanna Trainor (Newcastle, NSW) and Carol has taken a different course again, with Johanna working digitally and photographically to complete Carol's watercolour and mixed media "starts". The details of this collaboration may be found on the blog titled Reciprocal InterferenceI at Johanna introduced Carol to blogging, facilitating the documentation of collaborative processes that is a key part of the project. Hong Kong ceramicist Even Mak and Carol Archer chose to work around a theme - the feet and dance/movement - and simultaneous mark-making, a consequence of living in the same part of the world, is a feature of this collaboration. Works by Even and Carol are included on Reciprocal Interference4 at

The plan has been to work collaboratively in pairs, and use the blogs as a means of documenting the progress of the works generated. Although blogging is new to us, maybe it will also provide a means for other artists to communicate about our works in progress. It is the material processes of collaborative art production that are the main event here. For my own part, I am using this particular blog as a space for making observations, and assembling relevant quotes and theoretical reflections on collaborative art processes, and I warmly invite your comments and contributions.

Notes: For an essay on the complex nature of the collaboration entailed in Marlene Dumas' Underground see Carol Archer, "Gifts and Transgressions: Marlene Dumas' Underground" in Crossings: A Counter-Disciplinary Journal of Philosophical, Cultural, Historical, and Literary Studies. The "Work" of Art (Special Issue), no. 8, 2006, 77-100