Collectives, Art and Neoliberalism

Kim Charnley
, Open University,

Louisa Lee, Independent Researcher,

Since the 1970s, art collectives have featured prominently in critical opposition to white, patriarchal, heteronormative cultural values. Art activism continues to be closely identified with collectivist forms of social organisation and invocation of collectivity still retains the glamour of the revolutionary avant-gardes. Yet, collectivism can sometimes seem an empty rhetorical gesture now that a globalised art world encourages fluid networks and art collectives achieve mainstream recognition. 

In recent years, art collectives have been increasingly prominent in the discourse and programming of contemporary art. As recipients of art prizes and curators of biennials, art collectives inhabit a place of contradiction where they are prominent both in global art institutions and in attempts to conceive radical alternative to them. The appointment of the Indonesian collective Ruangrupa as curator of Documenta 15 exemplifies this tendency. 

This session proposes to explore the contradictory figure of the art collective within the political and economic formation of neoliberalism. What perspectives on the political and social role of art might be gleaned from the study of art collectives in the context of the global inequalities that neoliberalism has created? What is at stake in a decision to work collectively? Might a global art history of art collectives provide a new perspective on the social and political character of contemporary art? 

Speakers & Abstracts

Camerawork: co-operative politics and individual subjects in Thatcher’s Britain

Alexandra Symons Sutcliffe (Birkbeck, University of London)

Camerawork magazine (1976-1985) was a London based, bi-monthly, publication dedicated to the political uses of photography. Notable contributors included Jo Spence, John Berger, Victor Burgin, and Stuart Hall, who wrote on issues, of class, gender, property, and nationality. The nine years in which Camerawork was in operation were some of the most politically significant in Britain’s post-war history. The economic and cultural changes brought about by Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, including the privatisation of national industries and council housing, the diminution of public funding for education and the arts, as well as reactionary cultural policies at home, and war abroad, fundamentally changed the character of British civic society. The rise of what is now referred to as the neoliberal socio-economic order was documented and debated in the pages of Camerawork

Founded as a co-operative organisation by Jo Spence, Terry Dennett and joined by (among others) Mike Goldwater, Janet Goldberg, Marilyn Noad, and Paul Trevor, the magazine’s history is marked by editorial splits and reinvention. This paper proposes the magazine’s structure as the lens through which to view its politics. Mapping the history of Camerawork through its various stages, relationships within the editorial team and to public funding and discourse; to argue that as a publication dedicated to photography—specifically documentary and portraiture— Camerawork was an acute chronicle and metric to the changing identity of politically active subject in Britain during the late 1970s and early 1980s.

We interrupt this Broadcasting Act: the Workshop Declaration, Channel 4 and feminist filmmaking in the 80s

Ash Reid (Goldsmiths, University of London)

In 1982, an agreement known as the Workshop Declaration was set up between the British trade union ACTT, the BFI and the newly commissioned Channel 4. The Declaration funded groups of independent film and videomakers working in working in socially- and politically-engaged, community-led projects under an integrative practice model, adding distribution and teaching work to production in exchange for a more regular and sustained source of income. Work created through the terms of the Declaration would radically shift the output of national broadcasting throughout the decade, creating a network of production groups whose documentary, experimental and artist moving image works provide a rich document of activism and organising work that sought to record and critically address the embodied effects of the Thatcher government’s neoliberal austerity policies, policies that in turn would lead to their de-funding by the end of the 1980s.

Viewed now, the public celebration of these groups shares much with the contemporary art market’s current interest in similar modes of production, the critical and expository observations of the groups somewhat at odds to the wider cultural landscape they are placed within as a result. Looking at two feminist film collectives from the period, WITCH in Liverpool and the Sheffield Film Co-op, this paper will explore what the implementation of ‘community’ means in terms of policy frameworks like the Declaration, asking what can be learnt from these histories in a present once again focused on collective production whilst being monitored by an increasingly far right oppressive ruling class.

Conceptual Art and Politics in the UK c.1970-1985

Paul Wood (Open University)

The present panel seeks to debate collectively-organised art activities in the period from the 1970s to the present, emphasising a contemporary agenda informed by identity politics – citing “critical opposition to white, patriarchal, heteronormative cultural values”. Yet in the fifty-year period under review, critical art practice has by no means been entirely circumscribed by such concerns. For example, two key terms which are absent from that agenda, but which were influential historically in prompting critical art activity in the 1970s and 80s are ‘Modernism’ and ‘Marxism’.

This paper is a kind of ‘report’ on one such practice, by a participant in it, many years ago. It is worth doing for two reasons. One is to underline the need to remain alert to discrepancies between historical practices in all their contingency and messiness, and the designs of retrospective explanatory frameworks. The other is simpler: to amplify the art historical record with an account of a collective practice which remains little-known today, despite the much-vaunted ‘expanded field’ of art enquiry.

That practice was influenced by the Art & Language tradition, though also distinct from it in terms of motivation and overt political commitment. The work concerned formed a strand of conceptual art in Britain focussed initially on the crisis of modernist art and art education, which subsequently developed into a transitional practice engaged with wider areas of culture and politics, including racism, anti-fascism and trade union activity. Diverse in character, the work included essays, pamphlets, videos, leaflets, posters and installations. It was produced in South Wales, the English Midlands and Edinburgh, Scotland between c.1970 and the mid-1980s. Where it can be placed in terms of a history of art after modernism depends very much on the categories with which that history is constructed.

Coming together as a collective in neoliberal times. The case of Tim Rollings and K.O.S. (Kids of Survival)

Ginevra Ludovici (IMT School for Advanced Studies, Lucca)

In recent years, the art world has increasingly embraced socially-engaged practices, which now appear regularly in the programming of many institutions and biennials.
Such trend points out, on the one hand, to the emergence and proliferation of more participatory, collaborative and inclusive practices, which are showcased in internationally established organizations; on the other, it makes visible the risk of co-optation by these institutions of practices that in the past were considered “the alternative” to dominant neoliberal narratives.

In these entanglements, a prominent role is played by art collectives, which can be considered as examples of self-organized, non-competitive and radical groups for producing experimental and embedded artworks, situations or discourses.
Indeed, especially since the 1970s, art collectives have challenged the romantic idea of the artist as a solitary genius by creating the conditions for a counter-narrative to take place. However, many of the innovative micro-histories of art collectives of that period are not present in the official accounts of art history.

The contribution focuses on the case of Tim Rollins & K.O.S. (Kids of Survival), an art collective founded in 1982 by the educator Rollins and a group of students from the South Bronx. By practicing an innovative educational methodology based on the possibility of emancipation through art-making, the group gained international exposure over the years of their activity.

The paper retraces the collective’s history to highlight its distinctive features and to discuss, in particular, the debated theme of authorship and the factors contributing to its legitimation by the art world.

Collective Struggle Photography

Marie Meyerding (Freie Universität Berlin)

The idea of the collective played a major role in South African photography during the last years of apartheid. The work of the collective and picture agency Afrapix which was founded in 1982 drew the world’s attention to the daily violence and injustice happening in the country. When Afrapix dissolved in 1991, another group of photographers, who are usually not referred to as a collective but who often worked collectively, gained international prominence. The Bang-Bang Club, consisting of four young men, covered the eruption of violence in South Africa’s townships. Similar to this group, Afrapix, though comprising female members, was largely perceived as masculinist because of the prominence of its male members and the organisation’s male-centred hierarchy.

At the same time, another photography collective entered the ranks of the country’s documentarians: Mavis Mtandeki and Primrose Talakumeni. Though it is assumed that they were among the first black South African women practitioners, the country’s photography historiography seldom moves beyond mere mentions of their names and training. Both learned to photograph in a politically motivated one-year media course in 1989. Subsequently, they operated as a team, focusing their lenses on the lives of the women surrounding them and exhibiting their photographs in art institutions in South Africa and London. This paper considers the political and economic conditions under which the duo’s photographs were produced, distributed and received, examining the extent to which the reception of their work was influenced by a growing transnational curatorial and market interest in art from Africa.

Collective futures: the dual economies of lumbung and documenta fifteen

Harry Burke (Yale University)

Through an interdisciplinary methodology that considers the lenses of art history, environmental anthropology and Black studies, this paper reflects on the relationship between ecology and global contemporary art in the twenty-first century. The Jakarta-based collective ruangrupa are artistic directors of this summer’s documenta fifteen in Kassel, Germany. The group’s curatorial concept for the quinquennial is lumbung, an Indonesian word for a community rice barn. This aims to establish a sustainable structure grounded in the sharing of resources for collective wellbeing. In its attempt to appraise this dynamic, collaborative method, this paper traverses local contexts in Germany and Indonesia. Its framework for doing so is environmental anthropologist Michael Dove’s notion of the “dual economy,” which explains the complex interactions between global markets and local subsistence agriculture in Dayak areas of Borneo. Building from Dove’s model, the paper seeks to attend to the local activism of collectives like Jatiwangi art Factory (a “lumbung member,” or fellow steward, of documenta fifteen), who formed in the context of post-industrial austerity in central Java following the 1997–98 Asian Financial Crisis, in the same breath as the institutional politics of global contemporary art, and to trace the afterlives of plantation capitalism within the neoliberal museum.

The Art of Good Governance in Artistic Collectives

Dr. Gráinne Coughlan (Dublin School of Creative Arts)

When artists work collectively, they often do so under the banner of egalitarianism and democracy, however, social complexities may increase the risk of inefficient management, communication conflicts or egocentrism. Responding pragmatically, such groups may choose to behave more like organisations or institutions, as media artist and academic Warren Sack suggests; the “art of governance” is a response to the collective need for practical organisation.

That said, organisation and management of artists’ collectives is not always so straightforward, collectives such as SUPERFLEX often appropriate methods of corporate organisation, such as branding and mission statements to establish legitimacy or perform criticality. Such strategies often mirror the entrepreneurial spirit of Neoliberal subjectivity and modes of governance.  Against this backdrop, we need new frameworks to describe what hierarchies operate, and analyse visual cues rather than take them at face value. 

However, lack of consensus exists in art history and cultural policy regarding analytical approaches. As response, in the context of ongoing postdoctoral research developing new evaluation frameworks for socially engaged practice, with Create, Ireland’s national development agency for collaborative art, this paper will describe three nodes: stakeholder reflexivity, consolidation of voices, and organisational aesthetic as novel ways to analyse collective organisation, as opposed to its rhetoric by focusing on relationships, co-creation strategies and decision making processes often overlooked by instrumental evaluation.

Interrogating these micro politics of collective work serves to bring the macro relations structuring our society into greater relief, encouraging us to question rather than accept political realities by interrogating the social and aesthetic organisation of our collective life. 



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