There is the occasional blowup, but stress can do that to you,” says Spencer Wilson with a chuckle when asked what it has been like working with the seven other members of the Peepshow Collective for 20 years. “It’s like having a relationship—the stress can come from the pressure of the job more than how we’re getting on together.” In an age where individualism is celebrated and where fame is almost always
a one-person show, it’s refreshing to see strength in numbers. Based in London, the Peepshow Collective specializes in animation, art direction and illustration. The collective won the Emmy for Outstanding Animation in 2015, for its work on How We Got to Now, a collaborated British and American documentary TV series that explored the legacies of great ideas over six episodes.
“We started out as a group of people who all went to college in Brighton and moved to London together. Everyone could continue to work together and support each other in trying to create work,” muses Miles Donovan. “We met in 1995, graduated in 1998 and started the collective in 2000. We’d have one portfolio with everyone’s work in it, and we would take it around, do exhibitions together and print postcards—it would be cheaper when there’s a group of us involved.” This economy of scale was something they all benefited from, and being in a group helped them stay focused and motivated. “Leaving college, you can easily lose sight of what you want to achieve,” Donovan continues. “So being part of the collective or the group… we were all going to the same place, but individually—it made more sense to go as one.”
The Peepshow Collective’s arrangement is unique. Apart from being represented collectively by Snyder in New York and Canada, its members are also represented individually by various agencies in the United Kingdom, the United States and Europe. Take Peepshow member and animation director Pete Mellor, who’s represented by Trunk Animation in the United Kingdom, which is where a big chunk of the collective’s work comes from. “There are also people who would cold-call us or they might have seen our work—we certainly hope that’s the case. And we thought, ‘Oh, that’s nice. Let’s call them,’” Mellor says. The rest of the time, commissions happen a lot more organically; when one of the group members gets featured by the press, she or he mentions Peepshow, and its website gets linked to the article. “We could use Google to track where our traffic is coming from, but life is too short for that sort of stuff,” Mellor says with a laugh.
The Peepshow Collective veers toward more commercial work, but at the other end of the spectrum, the Parallel Universe Collective puts personal projects center stage. With a reach that extends to New York City, Hamburg, Berlin and Stuttgart, the collective was founded in 2012 by Laura Breiling, Cynthia Kittler, Riikka Laakso, Barbara Ott, Kati Szilágyi and Ji Hyun Yu, who met while studying graphic design in Germany. The collective started with the publication of its first zine, Schiff Unter Palmen (Ships Under Palms), which pokes fun at cruise ships, and has continued to create zines on an almost yearly basis, featuring collaborations on ideas and work with different artists. “For each zine, one person or sometimes two people become the art director,” says Kittler. “We share the costs, talk about ideas and collaborate with artists whom we have never met, but whose work we admire. It also pushes us to try something we’ve never done before. The zines we’ve done are low budget, so we aren’t taking risks on huge amounts of money that might threaten our friendship.”
Without a shared studio space, the members of the Parallel Universe Collective keep in touch through constant WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger chats, and as their individual practices grow and they scatter geographically, being in a collective offers emotional support as well as a platform for discussing business. “Sometimes we get pitches from the same clients, but it never feels like competition,” Kittler says. “We get to talk about the client, payments and prices, and we are able to advise each other.”
“Clients choose us based on our work, not because one of us will do it for cheaper, etc. So for us, the collective isn’t a job; it’s about friendship and having fun,” Szilágyi notes.
Being in a collective offers flexibility, too, as in the case of the Organisation of Illustrators Council (OIC) in Singapore. Although the formally named OIC brings to mind a very structured, business-like entity, reality paints a different picture—the collective’s motto is zero paperwork and maximum fun. “The name OIC is a joke,” says cofounder Michael Ng. “We’re not a business or company, and our name is a way of sticking out our tongue at illustration societies. We want to focus on the fun parts of being illustrators and illustrating, rather than having our egos boosted by winning and giving out awards. We’re all about the work.”
The OIC started out as a way to band local illustrators together in a very loose, unstructured way. “We were meeting familiar faces at events, and we thought it would be nice to have a gathering of illustrators to put a face to the name—that’s where it all started.”
The group’s members have since been invited to participate in Red Dot Design Museum, Singapore’s monthly Market of Artists and Designers (MAAD), where they draw portraits for modest fees—a program now in its ninth year. “In the beginning, it was disorganized,” says Ng. “Now, we have an online sign-up form for those who are interested in participating and to know which artists can make it so there won’t be any rude surprises!” MAAD enables Singaporeans to be able to interact in person with illustrators whose work they might recognize from the Internet or through commercial projects. Having a permanent place in the monthly market helps promote the individual members as well, some gaining commercial work and commissions as a result of flexing their creative muscles during the portrait painting sessions.
Collectives are a labor of love for members, and although benefits can be intangible, it pays for a collective’s members to view it as a long-term commitment: the more they put into it, the more they’ll get out of it. A collective is like a co-op in many ways. “To keep the group going, you need volunteers and a lot of groundwork,” says Ng. “Because the OIC has been unstructured for so long, we’re coming up with new ways to see how we can work better together as friends.”
When working within a group—whether it’s an informal co-op, a structured business entity or a platform for fun collaborations, one thing is clear: friendship and a sense of camaraderie are important. “It’s worked for us to be friends first and a collective second,” says Mellor of the Peepshow Collective. “It means that you know people’s strengths and weaknesses. You learn to have conversations and talks that aren’t awkward. We don’t have a human resources department that we can go through if we’re upset. We have to talk to each other.”
In a world where bottom lines are constantly expounded, where profits, numbers and clients take center stage, the sometimes messy and organic way collectives do their work is a refreshing reminder that more may be merrier. As the saying goes, if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together. It seems that doing it together and doing it well have brought these collectives very far indeed. ca