Introduction: Being With, Thoughts on the Collective
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Introduction: Being With, Thoughts on the Collective

From left: Douglas Dunn, Nancy Lewis, and David Gordon, members of Grand Union performing at the Guthrie Theater as part of the Grand Union residency at the Walker Art Center, October 5, 1975. Walker Art Center Archives.

Scholar and curator Gwyneth Shanks introduces the theoretical and historical scope and the new scholarship of Side by Side. Drawing on a range of sources—from art historical narratives of the 1960s and ’70s, to the political imaginary that attaches to the notion of the collective, and the work of French philosopher Jean Luc Nancy—Shanks’s introduction dismantles prevailing myths that attach to the collective. Shanks examines how collectives or highly collaborative artist groups of the period were anti-hegemonic in their organization and often formed in direct relation to sociopolitical and identity-based movements.

Gwyneth Shanks, “Introduction: Being With, Thoughts on the Collective,” an introduction to Side by Side: Collaborative Artistic Practices in the United States, 1960s1980s, eds. Gwyneth Shanks and Allie Tepper, Vol. III of the Living Collections Catalogue (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2020).

In May of 1971, a small help wanted ad was placed in the classifieds section of a Twin Cities newspaper. In bold black letters, it read “WANTED,” continuing: “150 dancers/non dancers/men/women all ages to perform with the GRAND UNION DANCE COMPANY.” The company had formed a year or so earlier under the direction of New York-based dancer and choreographer Yvonne Rainer, and when the Walker Art Center performance curator Suzanne Weil invited the group to perform in Minneapolis, she extended the invitation to “Yvonne Rainer and ‘The Grand Union.’” By 1971, though, Rainer had largely abdicated her nominal leadership role and the group—which over the years included dancers Trisha Brown, David Gordon, Steve Paxton, Lincoln Scott (aka Dong), Barbara Dilley, Nancy Lewis, Douglas Dunn, and Becky Arnold—was organized more or less as a collective. Some seventy volunteers answered Grand Union’s 1971 newspaper ad. The volunteers attended several general rehearsals and performed with the group on May 27 in a dance event that lasted from sunrise until after midnight. The daylong performance event took place in various locations inside the Walker and in two of its adjacent parks: the Armory Gardens (now the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden) and Loring Park.

Grounded in notions of improvisation, Grand Union’s performances were messy, durational, at times virtuosic, and, at other moments, deeply boring; several newspaper reviews in the Walker’s archives note the steady decline of audience members throughout their performance.Paxton was concurrently in the process of developing contact improvisation, a dance form dependent upon maintaining a point of bodily contact between two or more dancers or surfaces and sharing and receiving weight so as to create a movement “dialogue.” Reference review in the Walker Archives from a University of Minnesota newspaper. Because the group rehearsed minimally, they set only the most basic directives for any given performance, generating lists of props and objects to include in a score, and then bringing their considerable—if distinct—talents to bear upon the improvised performance. 

Wanted ad produced for Grand Union’s 1971 residency at the Walker Art Center. Walker Art Center Archives.

For the few short years that they existed—before individual artistic goals and brewing discontent got the better of the group—Grand Union embraced the type of radical movement innovation championed by one of their (more well-known) precursors of the 1960s, Judson Dance Theater. Grand Union welcomed the dancer and non-dancer alike and eschewed narrative arcs, virtuosic movement, and bourgeoisie understandings of pleasure, consumption, and entertainment. Until they dissolved in 1976, Grand Union was a collective fully of the times, spreading their particular choreo-political gospel. Adopting a horizontal approach to the creative process and operating under de-centered leadership, Grand Union’s activities map neatly onto the progressive political commitments of the era. Examining the wanted ad so many decades later, its call for community seems a potent archival trace of the group’s collective ethos. 

This moment from the Walker’s own history is one of several instances of collaborative practice that occurred between the 1960s and 1980s featured in this volume of the Living Collections Catalogue (LCC). The LCC is an ongoing publication series that began in 2009 after the Getty Foundation invited the Walker and eight other museums to generate new models for presenting their collections online. At the Walker, the first two issues of the LCC focused primarily on objects within the art center’s permanent collection of visual art. Linked now to the Walker’s Interdisciplinary Initiative and funded through the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, this volume highlights the institution’s archives, surfacing key moments of interdisciplinary practice from the Walker’s past and presenting several additional case studies from outside of the institution’s own history. Like the Walker’s engagements with Grand Union, these collaborative works and actions now exist largely through photographic or video documentation and ephemera. Many of the projects highlighted here were live or performance-based events, and their pointedly ephemeral, process-oriented, and collaborative aesthetics were, until recently, not considered through the lens of the museum’s collection or granted adequate scholarly attention. 

By focusing on curatorial projects and relationships that, for decades, eluded the Walker’s permanent collections but nevertheless shifted and impacted the tenor of the institution’s programming and mission, this third volume of the LCC joins a growing scholarly and curatorial investment in performance practices, performative works, and collective or collaborative artistic endeavors. The contributions in this volume propose that a consideration of the collective—as, at once, an artistic, social, and activist project—offers a way of making sense of museum histories and institutional policies. By focusing on examples from the late 1960s into the early 1980s, the authors included in this issue trace a rich period of experimentation with certain forms of radical collectivity, aesthetic production, and political mobilization. The essays herein also point to the internal contradictions and challenges of thinking about the collective, particularly within the sphere of the museum. 

Importantly, the case studies that follow explore the aesthetic and affective conditions that arise from collective practice. They foreground the relationships between individual artists and those working in collaborative groups, advancing the term “collective” as a means of articulating what this form of practice and aesthetics do. In the Oxford English Dictionary, “collective” is defined as “denoting a number of persons or things considered as one group or whole,” “involving all members of a group as distinct from its individuals,” and as a “shared, or an assumption of shared, responsibility and creation.”Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “Collective,” accessed April 16, 2019, Across these meanings, the word serves to obscure the individual, asserting instead the importance of the group or the community. As a descriptor for artistic production, then, collective also functions to continually eclipse the singular artist. Indeed, this foreclosure might be viewed as a necessary corrective to the ways that the art market, granting organizations, galleries, and museums can work to produce and re-produce the artist as an individual. However, the distinction between the collective and the artist runs the risk of overly enunciating the ideological connotations that can attach to the former and, in the process, overlook the ways in which tensions between individuals working collaboratively produce a collective aesthetic. 

Maren Hassinger performing with Senga Nengudi's R.S.V.P. at Pearl C. Woods Gallery, Los Angeles, May 1977. Photograph by Harmon Outlaw. Courtesy Senga Nengudi, Thomas Erben Gallery, Lévy Gorvy, and Sprüth Magers.

Each contribution in this volume focuses on collectives or highly collaborative artistic practices arising in the late 1960s through the 1980s (though, it should be noted, some practitioners did not embrace the term “collective,” as C. Ondine Chavoya delves into in the text that follows). Among those discussed here are Haus-Rucker-Co, Asco, Mabou Mines, Grand Union, and the various loose collaborations that artist Senga Nengudi was a part of, including the LA-based Studio Z. In the introduction to the catalogue accompanying the 2018 exhibition Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, curator Thomas Lax notes how many in that particular collective, “associate[d] themselves with the second-wave feminist, anti-Vietnam War, gay and lesbian pride, and Black Power movements—aspirational efforts that differently claimed the intimacy of everyday life as a contestable political space.”Thomas Lax, “Allow Me to Begin Again,” Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2018), 16. Lax and co-curator Ana Janevski articulated a question that is key to interpreting this era of collaborative work: “how did a subset of cultural practices [deeply imbricated with performance and collective practice] offer an opportunity to experiment with ... fraught question[s] of personal and collective identification that … fueled the political gestures of subsequent social and artistic movements?”Ibid., 16.

Judson Dance Theater existed from 1962 until 1964; the collaborative groups considered in the case studies presented in this volume formed in the decade that followed. During the 1960s, mass collective organizing, fights for social justice in the US and around the world, and a series of national traumas indelibly marked the country. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963; Malcolm X in 1965; and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy in 1968. Meanwhile, the Vietnam War raged on; the American Indian Movement was formed in Minneapolis in 1968; and across capitalist nations, students, young people, and leftist radicals took to the streets. If Lax and Janevski propose a kind of historical trajectory in which practices like those espoused by Judson helped inaugurate forms of civic and political contestation, the texts that follow question how formally defined collectives and collaborative artist groups made work in direct relationship to socio-political and identity-based movements. 

Activists with puppets by Amy Trompetter at the Women’s Pentagon Action, November 16–17, 1980. Photo: Diana Mara Henry. ©Diana Mara Henry.

The tumult of the late 1960s and early 1970s continues to hold an important place in the US’s social and aesthetic imaginary. The entanglement of political life and aesthetics born of this era deeply impacted cultural production in the US, and the ripples of this shift continue to impact contemporary art and performance practices in significant ways. Emerging in the wake of civil rights movements, anti-war protests, and created by a generation of disenfranchised and disillusioned young people, the art of the 1970s and early 1980s is often framed through the disintegration of a clear modernist narrative and its privileging of masculinity and whiteness. The art world’s unwavering interest in work of this period bears careful attention. While certainly the passage of forty years has left enough time for historicization, we might also critically question why this period is so seductive for museums, curators, and scholars. What about our current moment proves useful in framing the cultural production of the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s, and conversely, what about this earlier time facilitates a better understanding of our own milieu? 

By foregrounding the relationship between an individual artist and the collective or defined group of which they were a part, the texts that follow aim to dismantle prevailing myths attached to this era of collaborative practice, paying attention to how notions of political efficacy, collective action, agency, and power become instrumentalized through strategic disavowals of the individual. Included in this volume are a preface by Thomas Lax; newly commissioned essays by Ross Elfline, Hillary Miller, and C. Ondine Chavoya; and a new interview with Senga Nengudi by this volume’s co-editor, Allie Tepper. Presented throughout is a host of never-before-published archival ephemera, footage, and documentation. 

Lax’s preface frames Side by Side by addressing broader shifts in focus within institutions that are increasingly turning their attention to artistic practices and artists long over-looked or marginalized by mainstream museums. Elfline’s essay examines the Austrian architectural collective Haus-Rucker-Co and historicizes their playful and performative architectural piece, Food City I, which took place in the Armory Gardens adjacent to the Walker in 1971. Elfline considers the group’s work through theories of public space and performance, revealing how the project rendered legible problematic re-zoning in Minneapolis and minoritarian dispossessions. 

Miller’s essay on Mabou Mines offers a close reading of the avant-garde theatre group’s Dead End Kids: A History of Nuclear Power, which premiered in 1980 and was presented at the Walker in 1982. Miller frames the play alongside concurrent anti-nuclear activist struggles, teasing out the various tensions and opportunities made possible through coalitions between Mabou Mines, anti-nuclear and feminist activists, and teachers. In a new interview with curator Allie Tepper, artist Senga Nengudi reflects on the evolution of her work in the context of collaborative practice and exchange. Together they retrace Nengudi’s work with the Los Angeles-based collective Studio Z; her decades-long collaboration and friendship with artist Maren Hassinger; and many performative experiments with avant-garde musicians, dancers, and visual artists. Central to their conversation is a discussion of how artistic networks formed systems of support and visibility in periods of civil injustice and institutional neglect. Choreographer and performer Wendy Perron reflects on the New York postmodern collective Grand Union (active 1970–1976), which emerged out of Yvonne Rainer’s dance company and the downtown Judson Dance Theater. In a personal account, drawn from her close relationship with its members, Perron discusses the group’s collaborative and improvisatory ethos through a study of its two major residencies at the Walker in 1971 and 1975.

Finally, scholar and curator C. Ondine Chavoya discusses the LA-based group Asco, whose members performed together but staunchly rejected the label of “collective” for its implication of a cohesive artistic ideology and practice. Through an examination of archival ephemera of the period, and first-hand accounts by Asco artists, Chavoya reconsiders the group’s identity through their own self-identification, and through an analysis of their exchanges with other Chicanx artists, primarily the group Los Four. Chavoya considers Asco with an eye to its fluid organization and artistic heterogenity, thus reframing existing art historical discourse.

Patssi Valdez, artist and member of Asco, standing at the site of Spray Paint LACMA. Harry Gamboa Jr., Spray Paint LACMA, 1972, chromogenic print, printed 2012, 16 x 20 in., edition of ten. Courtesy of the artist. ©1972 Harry Gamboa Jr.

Together these essays, photographs, ephemera, moving image clips, and artist reflections attest to the Walker’s long history of supporting interdisciplinary art and the important role that collectives and artist groups played in the development of this way of working, both at and outside of the Walker. They also, however, highlight certain absences: practices not considered by institutions, the Walker included, and artists who were overlooked. While a search for absences in an archive or a collection is, of course, a never-ending endeavor, the Walker’s only-recent engagement with Senga Nengudi (who has been part of two exhibitions) and with Asco (by way of the new scholarship in this volume), are particularly pointed in retrospect. 

Side by Side’s five case studies drawn together here are organized around what might be termed, as Lax notes in his preface, “asymmetrical lines of [art historical] association.” While one might draw out a set of shared creative practices—dance, theater, and architecture, for example—the juxtapositions that emerge across the work of these collectives are equally informative. An important component of both our historical present and this earlier period are and were coalitions formed between activists and artists, as well as solidarities formed across racial, ethnic, gendered, and linguistic lines, often directly counter to and in the shadow of majoritarian institutions.For one particular history of coalitions between activist and artists, see the formation of the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition (BECC) and the group’s relationship with the Whitney Museum of American Art. The museum presented a series of solo lobby gallery exhibits throughout the early 1970s. The majority of these were organized by guest curators, and featured the work of black artists, many of whom were described as “outsider” or “folk” artists. These exhibitions were part of an institutional response to critiques and protests by the BECC, who challenged the museum both on its lack of curatorial representation of black artists and its failure to hire black curators. For a thorough articulation of this history see: Kellie Jones, “‘It’s Not Enough to Say “Black is Beautiful”’: Abstraction at the Whitney 1969–1974,” EyeMinded: Living and Writing Contemporary Art (Durham, NC: Duke University Presss, 2011), 154–180. See also the exhibition Acts of Art and Rebuttal in 1971, at the Leubsdorf Gallery at the Hunter College Art Galleries, on display from October 4–November 25, 2018 in New York City. The exhibition was organized by Howard Singerman and Sarah Watson with Agnes Gund Curatorial Fellows Clara Chapin, Marie Coneys, Miles Debas, Jazmine Hayes, and Tess Thackara. In a different context scholars like Laura Pulido and Josh Kun have historicized such solidarities. In Los Angeles—the focus of their research—formalized coalitions existed between third world radical groups, including the Black Panther Party, El Centro de Acción Social y Autónomo (or CASA) and East Wind. Asco and Studio Z were also both based in LA, making such activist histories all the more pertinent to consider. See: Laura Pulido, Black, Brown, Yellow & Left: Radical Activism in Los Angeles (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2006); Josh Kun and Laura Pulido, eds., Black and Brown in Los Angeles: Beyond Conflict and Coalition (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2014). The historicization of such relationships discussed in each contribution in this volume speak in important and charged ways to current mandates to increase the diversity of museum collections and programs, or take action based on the demands of activist groups like Decolonize This Place. 

While the collective holds a particular importance in the realm of art history, the term also carries particular resonance across philosophy and political theory, engaging questions of individualism, subjectivity, and political consciousness. An attention to the collective has long animated theorists and philosophers, from Frantz Fanon, Stuart Hall, and Édouard Glissant to thinkers including Chantal Mouffe.See: Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2004); Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1997); Stuart Hall, The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017); Chantal Mouffe, Agonistics: Thinking the World Politically (London: Verso, 2013). While this list is, of course, incomplete, it indicates a trajectory of thought informed by a Western Marxist tradition, postcolonial theory, political theory, and the political and affective resonances of 1968. Indeed, the historical climate of the 1960s and 1970s that grounds these theoretical frameworks proves useful for discussing the collaborative groups founded and working during this era. By engaging these and other thinkers in their texts, authors in this volume reveal ways of understanding how collaborative aesthetic practice informs the political. In our current moment, an attention to collective action in service of cultural labor and production seems evermore urgently needed.

The notion of “being with” inherent in these practices recalls the work of French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy. In his text, Being Singular Plural, Nancy defines the concept of “being singular plural” as an attempt to reimagine community and the social in a way that displaces or de-centers the individuated subject. As he describes this concept of plurality, the individuated “I” is not prior to or in advance of a “we.” Rather the state of being necessarily implies a “being with.” Nancy’s ontological articulation of being aims to imagine individuation as a condition of contemporary belonging, a means of framing how we coexist across geopolitical, economic, national, linguistic, racial, class, and gendered subjectivities. Such a viewpoint offers ways to reimagine our political landscape and the cultural labor that it engenders, to move beyond the confines of representative democracy and capitalist consumption. Being “singular plural” attempts to imagine what it means to be in community, what it means to be collective. This notion of community or collectivity, though, for Nancy, evokes not comfort but rather the “contagion, the contact of being with one another in … turmoil … the disturbance of violent relatedness.”Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural, trans. Robert D. Richardson and Anne E. O’Byrne (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000), xiii. “Being singular plural,” thus, is a relational experience, connoting the capacity to be plural with others, a being with in all its proposition of contact, and its evocation of performance and of labor. If obliquely, the texts assembled here take up Nancy’s proposition and challenge his broad ontological concept, asking instead what it means to be with others in particular ways and in particular moments.

The essays that follow approach collectivity as a frame from which to engage an alternative understanding of identity and individuated representation. As a heuristic and historical project, the collective puts pressure on our preconceived understandings of subjectivity, asking how we might trade in narratives of individual creation and artistic genius for a persuasive reappraisal of museums’ pasts and futures.

GWYNETH SHANKS is an Assistant Professor in the Theater and Dance Department at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. Previously she was a Helena Rubinstein Curatorial Fellow in the Whitney Independent Study Program and a Mellon Interdisciplinary Fellow at the Walker Art Center. She earned her PhD in Theater and Performance Studies from the University of California, Los Angeles. Shanks specializes in modern and contemporary performance and conceptual art, with secondary specializations in queer theory and curatorial, museum, and urban studies. Her work is published in X-TRA, Performance Matters, Third Text, and the Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism. Additionally, her work appears in Le Musée par la Scéne (Deuxième époque, 2018), Writing the Body: Staging the Other (McFarland Press, 2018), and Theater/Performance Historiography: Time, Space, Matter (Palgrave, 2015).