Thomas J. Lax, Curator of Media and Performance at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, considers the implications of Side by Side, a new publication which centers collaborations by artists from the late 1960s through the early 1980s. Lax’s essay reflects on how the values championed by museum collections—the notion of the individual genius, a belief in the progress of history—excluded and rendered illegible ephemeral and multi-authored practices. He argues that these creative strategies, which emerged from various political realities, produced forms of culture whose social possibilities might provide models for museums working today. Side by Side’s attention to the way artistic imaginations are dependent on other people, Lax wagers, recognizes group work and assembly as engines of art's history both within museum galleries and far beyond.
Thomas J. Lax, Preface to Side by Side: Collaborative Artistic Practices in the United States, 1960s–1980s, eds. Gwyneth Shanks and Allie Tepper, Vol. III of the Living Collections Catalogue (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2020). https://walkerart.org/collections/publications/side-by-side/side-by-side-collaborative-artistic-practices-in-the-u-s-1960s-1980s
Side by Side: Collaborative Artistic Practices in the United States, 1960s–1980s is premised on a paradox: How can museums—institutions that have historically privileged their collections as the locus of cultural value—foreground artistic practices that evade museum acquisition? And more to the point of this digital publication: How can an online platform designed to showcase an institution’s collection be used to center histories of art-making that largely live outside its collection, either because these artists’ works were not invited to be accessioned or because these artists rallied to create semi-autonomous alternatives to the museum as they knew it?
The latest volume in the series of online open access publications the Living Collections Catalogue, Side by Side, co-edited by Gwyneth Shanks and Allie Tepper, proposes that a focused consideration of the idea of collectivity—at once artistic and social—might offer one way into this quandary. Group work, collaboration, and assembly, this volume hypothesizes, offer occasions for considering the remains and traces of histories found at the Walker Art Center, and contemporary art institutions more broadly, that do not rely on the protocols and customs of museum acquisition and exhibition making. While their lack of singular authorship is a defining feature of the works assembled in this volume, it is but one factor that has historically made them resistant to collectability. Indeed, as the authors here demonstrate, a refusal to name an individual maker speaks to a broader contestation of the value systems that imagine some objects and actions to be able to live freely on their own, while others remain wholly dependent, ephemeral, and partial.
This approach of examining collaborative practices looks to the archive as an armature for its plot and uses this particular institution to provide a shared backdrop for comparison and contrast. But let’s be clear: this project is not inward-looking. As Gwyneth Shanks notes in her introduction to the volume, Side by Side questions “how formally defined collectives and collaborative artist groups made work in direct relationship to socio-political and identity-based movements.”Gwyneth Shanks, “Introduction: Being With, Thoughts on the Collective,” in Side by Side: Collaborative Artistic Practices in the United States, 1960s–1980s, eds. Gwyneth Shanks and Allie Tepper, Vol. 3 of the Living Collections Catalogue (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2020), para 8, https://walkerart.org/collections/publications/side-by-side/being-with-thoughts-on-the-collective. Rewriting the Walker’s history through the lens of its performing arts programming and the artists’ groups that have found refuge under its umbrella avails other histories of creative production to come into view. These histories place the arts center in its surrounding context and foreground its terms for inclusion as revealing its own persisting presumptions.
Each of the contributions that follow looks to an instance of collective or collaborative artistic practice that arose between the late 1960s and the early 1980s, sometimes within the Walker’s programmatic remit, and at other moments when museums were altogether oblivious of these experimentations. In the process, these authors re-center the networks of artists whose work is narrated only fragmentally both by the institution’s collection as well as by the museum apparatus more generally. In their essays, scholars Ross Elfline, C. Ondine Chavoya, Wendy Perron, and Hillary Miller consider the making and reception of artworks by the Viennese architecture and art collective Haus-Rucker-Co; the East Los Angeles-based Chicano performance and conceptual artist group Asco; the New York postmodern dance group Grand Union; and the New York theater group Mabou Mines. In addition, Side by Side includes an extensive interview with artist Senga Nengudi by Allie Tepper that surfaces new scholarship on the collaborations that have shaped her five-decade career, including her work with a group of black LA-based artists who came together as Studio Z. Each contribution to this volume approaches the collective within a broader set of public demands and describes how these artists organized shared anxieties about their social and political context into open-ended, often participatory artworks. These studies thus fan out to consider the state-sponsored evacuation of public space in Minneapolis; the notion of “mutual dependence” within the black radical tradition; alternatives to nationalism and collectivism within the Chicano movement; grassroots struggles against the atomic bomb across the United States; and practices of anarchism enacted through improvisational, un-authored dance. By moving between these specific practices and their broader contexts, these authors write a history in which form and content, identification and experimentation, and reality and representation are reciprocally constructed and up for contestation.
The five case studies brought together here are organized around asymmetrical lines of association that include artistic discipline, political ideology, racial identification, and national affiliation. It is not a given that they be grouped together in the way they are here; the juxtaposition of these practices is contingent as much on our historical present as it is on their period of emergence. And yet, one can certainly name a set of shared approaches: the disciplines of theater, dance, and architecture have almost always been collaborative endeavors, organized through various divisions of labor. Likewise, artists of African descent and Latino artists have created both formal and informal societies of mutual aid in the shadow of majoritarian museums. Both came to understand this infrastructure as part of their boon (despite its inequitable application), foregrounding it in their work of the period.
However, their presentation in this volume as an ensemble is a result of a belated realization of their similarities premised on both a current turn to performance and a broader art-historical revisionism.The term “collective” is itself implicated in this ideological formation, different as it is from the idea of an assemblage or a multitude, as well as from congregation, chorus, or mass. These discursive terms point to what is made legible as collective work, which here is limited to human interactions with objects and one another, while it might otherwise include, for example, the dances of groups of Arabian babbler birds that Vinciane Despret has described as collective forms of thinking and making. See Vinciane Despret, Naissance d’une theories éthologique: la danse du cratérope écaillé (Paris: Synthélabo, 1996). To put it simply, these five case studies fit into an argument only if we acknowledge that they do not exist in exclusive relationship to one another. Rather, it is the sense of narrative, position, and support that Side by Side provides for that guarantees their proximity here—and provides one model for how institutions might approach incorporating these histories not only onto their websites but also into their collection galleries and exhibition programs.
While this publication alone is commendable, we might hope that it can also be seen as a plan or score for what might happen in real time and space. We could use the structure set forth in this volume as a conditional narrative for the display of a museum’s collection that might function not only as a storehouse of valuable commodities, but also to catalyze claims made by and on behalf of objects. What if museums narrated their history, our histories, not as a chronology of single artists or “masterpieces,” but rather as a story of group work? What if, for example, the Museum of Modern Art—where I work—told a history of modern art that moved from one workshop to another, looking at the black female chorus lines of 1920s Harlem, Paris and St. Petersburg;See Jayna Brown, Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2008). the basketball court basement of Judson Memorial Church of the early 1960s where ballet relevés were juxtaposed with people jogging in circles; and a rented loft on 57th Street called Just Above Midtown, a black-owned commercial gallery in which body-based abstraction and performance flourished in the second half of the 1970s? These histories cannot be narrated through artworks alone because they are contingent, knotted, needy. Still, they attest to the premises of the modern: that artists and their publics mediated the expansion of mechanical reproduction into everyday life as well as the fallouts and attachments produced by rapid urbanization. Yet they do not rely on a set of individual actors or presume a completeness or universality that would typically fit into the history of modernism. This is but one series of examples, animated by my curatorial work at the Museum of Modern Art, an institution itself in the process of reformulating its narrative about the way histories of art-making are told.
What if you, the reader, the arts professional or unprofessional, joined in the acknowledgement of the limits of the collection proposed by Side by Side? How else might the off-site performances, artist residencies, archival materials, and anecdotes used here be re-materialized in forms of display in the places where you get down? To tell a more inclusive history of performance artists and artists of color at the Walker and elsewhere is to question the value systems that prevent their work, even when annexed through acquisition, from being the model for a narrative that imagines a future museum and animates its galleries.
In her introduction “Being With: Thoughts on the Collective,” Shanks warns us of the misuses of the collective when she says that this volume “aim[s] 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.”Shanks, “Introduction: Being With” in this volume, para 10, https://walkerart.org/collections/publications/side-by-side/being-with-thoughts-on-the-collective. Collectivity should be understood as the recognition of difference, antagonism, and conflict, she suggests, rather than interpreted as a stolid, unitary way of being. Under this rubric, position-taking of the kind exemplified in this volume becomes the practice for staking out distinct approaches to narration, value-naming, and ultimately, exhibition display and the writing of history. Each case study represented here skews these terms in their own specific directions according to the aesthetic traditions out of which they emerge and the political horizons to which they aspire. But together they suggest that the floodgates of collectivity open onto a recalibration of a more general history of hierarchy and exclusion, a critique that takes its aim, in some cases, at the complicity of art history and the museum in the maintenance of logics of superiority, be they of media, race or nation. In sum, Side by Side doesn’t simply question what’s in a collection. By scrambling the very notion of authorship that orders the ascription of value and the writing of history, this anthology prompts us to renegotiate the terms by which our social lives can be felt through art and artistic collaboration.
Thomas J. Lax is Curator of Media and Performance at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. He recently co-organized the exhibition Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done and is currently preparing the exhibition Just Above Midtown: 1974 to the Present. At MoMA, he has also co-organized Unfinished Conversations: New Work from the Collection (2017), Neïl Beloufa: The Colonies (2016) and Steffani Jemison: Promise Machine (2015), among others, and edited the book Modern Dance: Ralph Lemon (2016). Previously, Lax worked at the Studio Museum in Harlem for seven years. Thomas is on the board of Danspace Project and teaches at Wesleyan University. He is on the advisory committees of Contemporary And, The Laundromat Project, Participant Inc., and Recess Assembly. Thomas holds degrees in Africana Studies and Art History from Brown University and Columbia University. In 2015, he was awarded the Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement and he was a 2017 Center for Curatorial Leadership Fellow.