The phenomenon of the artist collective is promising ground for understanding the production of art, artists’ identities, and networks between artists both local and global. Historically, internationally influential movements have originated out of them: the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood or Der Blaue Reiter, for instance. Close to home they arise from and respond to immediate pressures, expressing regional identity and issues, but as globalization increases and becomes localized, it becomes difficult to discern what is local and what is global in origin. Understanding the collective gives a social context in which to situate the activities, creative processes, and final works made by members, and the reception of them, in a constant push-pull of difference and amalgamation.

The relationship of the global multiple to the local singular is replicated in the relationship of the collective to the artist, where the sole entity must negotiate with the conglomerate for its identity, yet in doing so can affect the nature of that conglomeration to advantage. Artist collectives are mediators of influences, important customhouses brokering powerflows on behalf of their communities—both the ones in their backyards and the ones made possible worldwide by communication technology.

In the sense that they are alliances with the power to self-define discrete from institutions like government, university, business, or custom, collectives provide alternative means of expression, communication, and advocacy. Their independence can contribute to diversity, subversion, and renewal, as well as to homeostasis, stability and tradition in the face of unwanted change. In a hostile environment—physically, politically, economically, socially, psychologically—the collective is a survival mechanism for its members. The shared vision provides motivation when conditions are adverse. Collectives generally begin in friendships and are sustained by the reward of working together for a common goal. They help artists take a stand, define a purpose, and develop a theoretical base, which in turn partly determines the resulting forms of art. The motivation might be intrinsic, as in something enabling the production of art by getting better studio space and equipment; or extrinsic, as in responding to a social need by mobilizing public opinion; or both. Collectives foster collaboration, both intentional and subconscious. Collaborative synergy does not add one and one to produce two, but instead makes multiple outcomes possible from the collisions, connections, and complications of intersecting wills and talents in close intellectual and/or physical quarters.

The collective amplifies the artist’s voice on a scale more likely to be heard at the global level. The united effort of the group accomplishes more than each individual could ever muster alone, by pooling resources just as shareholders in business combine capital to take on more and bigger projects. Artists with a collective identity can exploit information systems by levering airtime for all the members in the same timespace it takes to promote an individual. A collective can manipulate public fascination by advertising, branding, and other kinds of self-promotion, thereby communicating its messages and products more effectively. If it is successful, the collective can polemically have a real impact on other artists, communities, and societies, ensuring its renown beyond its own time and place. In this sense, collectives can be seen as a necessary career strategy in a capitalist society, where even non-commercial artistic production must still compete for exhibitions, grants, and critical attention; and as a necessary loudspeaker in a media saturated world. At the same time, artist groups have the promise of being able to circumvent such mass and institutional determinisms because of their autonomy, ability to invent new modes of communication, and their roots in local diaspora.

The collective has an impact on the kind and quality of art it represents. Higher motivation results in better work, as does friendly competition. It can provide peer evaluation either formally, by self-adjudication for exhibition for example, or informally, by feedback during the creative process. It can bring outside criticism to bear on its production, or fend it off. Collectives are dual in nature, both liberal and conservative: the interconnections between members can result in wild experimentation and new forms, or serve to keep work within the confines of a group mandate. Whether the impetus at a given moment is progressive or confining, the collective is always a testing ground, and for that reason is as determining as the self-directed activities of each member. The exchange between member and group, and group and world, is a vital dialectic in the definition of the resulting art and its social role.

- Jaleen Grove

Visible City: Project + Archive is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of CanadaCanada Research Chairs, York Research, Ontario Innovation Trust, and the Canada Foundation for Innovation. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.