Wednesday, March 16, 2011

More thoughts on collaborating in the book arts


When I last wrote about collaboration in the book arts here, the subject seemed to interest quite a few of you. Since then, I’ve thought a little more on the subject and I’ve put together two related posts.

In the first (which you are reading now) I’ll (very) briefly talk about the history of collaboration, both in art in general and specifically in the book arts. Then I have an recent example to show you, as well as highlighting the potential benefits of collaborating with others.

The second post appears on Book*Art*Object and follows on from this post by suggesting some ways that the artists in that group might like to organise to collaborate on books in the future.

Collaboration in the 20th Century

It’s rather arbitrary where you start with the art history of collaboration. Certainly major artists had assistants and employees, and it’s likely some of these may have collaborated in some sense of the word. However, early in the 20th century, artists associated with Dada and the Avant-Garde worked together with the specific aim of exploring collaboration.

Exquisite Corpse

The 1960s and ‘70s saw collaboration in art extend from movements like Fluxus and Art & Language to long-term duos like Gilbert & George and Christo & Jeanne-Claude. Today it’s an accepted, though not prevalent way of working.

Collaboration in the Book Arts

I think its interesting that collaboration was a part of the book arts from very early. In part this is due to the central role that artists books played in the art movements named above, already strongly incorporating collaboration.

Traditionally there are probably three pairings that are often seen in the production of artists books. These are:

  • artist and master printmaker
  • writer and visual artist
  • artist and bookbinder

Additionally, there are collaborations between artists and publishers, where the aim is to move beyond the handmade to achieve increased distribution of the artists book.

Exquisite Corpse

Recently a lovely book was published which based its concept on a variant of the Surrealist game of Exquisite Corpse. There are a number of variants of the game, but in the one I’m most familiar with one person starts by drawing the top part of a person, then folds the paper so that only the end of the drawing is visible. The paper is passed to the next person, who adds the next section before folding the paper again and passing it on. The third person completes the drawing which is then unfolded to be seen in its entirety.

The recent book is called “The Exquisite Book” and it has 100 artists who collaborated to create 10 fold-out double-sided accordions within the one book. Each accordion has a theme along the lines of “In the clouds”, “in the jungle”, “in the city” etc. and within each accordion there is a continuous horizon line. During making, the artists saw only the work that preceded theirs, but no others.

Here are a couple of photos of spreads from my copy of the book. Please excuse the rubbish photography (still grappling with a new camera).


Above: L-R Jen Corace, Pablo Amargo, Mel Kadel

Below:: L-R Sophia Martineck, Joseph Hart

Martineck-Hart close

I love this book and have spent more time than I’m prepared to admit admiring it and delighting in the detail and beauty of so many of the drawings it contains. I think the book is an excellent example of why collaboration is so worthwhile.

Benefits of Collaboration

These are numerous, and to an extent personal. Each person will have a slightly different take on the experience, and benefits will also differ according to the way the collaboration is organised. Some of the major points for me are:

  1. The whole is greater than the sum: or the work created will be something quite unique and different from the creations of the individuals.
  2. Collaboration enables more complex works than an individual could manage.
  3. A number of artists will possess a greater variety of skills and approaches which can be used to create the work.
  4. Learning from others – need I say more? I love learning.
  5. For artists concerned by issues like “self” vs. “the collective”, collaborating with other artists can be a solution.


BAO is already a collaborative project in some ways. When its time to choose our source material, every member is encouraged to make suggestions. The group selects the texts to be used as inspiration by voting. We make our books or objects individually, although the process is blogged – the level of detail is up to the individual artist. Finally, the works come together as a group when they are exhibited and so the final impression on the viewer is cumulative.

There are many other forms and directions that collaboration within BAO could explore. I have some thoughts, which I’ve offered up over on the BAO blog. I’m sure other group members will have ideas of their own. If you’re interested in following the discussion, you will find it here.

What’s your experience collaborating?

Library collaboration

Before I finish, I’m wondering how many of you have experience collaborating with others on an art project? I would say that I only have a little myself, including my recent experience with Monica Oppen, which I wrote about in the previous post about collaborating. I would be very interested to hear how collaborating worked for you. What were the benefits? Are there any pitfalls? Would you try it again?

And what about group exhibitions? Aren’t they collaborations too? I think in a loose sort of way they are, more so if there is a theme and the works undergo selection. In this case, it’s up to the curator/s to make sure the show has unity, and I would argue that by the lack of interaction between participants while they are working, a lot of the benefit of collaboration is lost. But definitely not all in terms of the cumulative impact of different works by a variety of artists, which have the potential to play off one another for the viewer.

Still, my point is that collaboration is about regular interaction, and a dedication to communicating with your co-collaborators is the best way to ensure success.


  1. as you know I am part of the BAO group too and the collaboration part drew me in from watching the blog from the first edition. i have since completed a quick mini book art 'swap' through artistbooks 3.0 which was great to do and made me think about new ideas and also made me aware of problems that i can now overcome in future projects. i found it extremely useful to my own practice as well as rewarding to discuss work with other artists and also to get a piece of their work in the end. my book was even more collaborative in that I left a page blank for them to add their own additions to. i'm still waiting to see what they each came up with.

  2. Thanks for your comment Abigail. I have just taken a look at the thread on AB3.0 and the books look stunning! I also think its terrific that the process is documented there on AB3.0 within the "community" where it began. I think the folks over at BAO would be interested to hear about this too.

  3. you think i should do a little post on it?