I love letterpress. So years ago, while working on a printmaking project that included brief lines of text, I decided that the type should be set by hand—my hand. I was at a month-long residency at Women’s Studio Workshop, which provided the equipment and supplies I needed. But after a week of frustrated attempts, all I produced was a big mess. What I really needed was an expert.
When I returned home, I found and commissioned an excellent letterpress printer—a sole practitioner who had a studio behind his house. I was careful to provide clear specifications, and he carried them out perfectly. His deep familiarity with type, paper, ink and presses came from years of work. I was more than satisfied with the finished pages, grateful for their technical precision.
A few months later, I went back to the printer’s studio to pick up leftover paper. I’d been there only once because I’d extracted myself from the hands-on aspects of printing. On this visit, I realized that I had overlooked the lively array of equipment and the diversity of materials, proofs and other vestiges of his projects—exuberant collaborations with poets and visual artists.
As I left the studio with packages of blank sheets, I wondered: By focusing so starkly on a specific outcome, had I missed an opportunity? Was there another part of the project waiting to be explored? My narrow definition of commission had excluded “collaboration.” When you seek another artist’s expertise, you should, of course, respect their turf. But that doesn’t mean you have to remove yourself from it.
My next venture involved a very different medium: live performance. My role was to develop visual components of moving imagery and typography for a theatrical production. I wanted to use computer-based tools to experiment, and I needed technical expertise to code and build the software and hardware.
I had the good luck to meet Michael Chladil, then a graduate student at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. Michael was working on his thesis, a “modular system for media playback that consisted of ropes and pulleys that people could use to control recorded loops of music.” In other words, use your body to move the music.
Michael decided to do an internship with me, during which he would expand his programming to incorporate video and text segments. I was determined to go beyond my previously myopic view of expertise, so a large chunk of our meetings consisted of us talking about our interests. The more I learned about his background and creative pursuits, the more I saw how our goals overlapped. We were both determined to make work that brought spirited physical action to technology.
Over the next two years, Michael and I developed tools and practices that went far beyond our initial plans. In 2009, when I was asked to create an exhibition for the gallery@calit2 at the University of California–San Diego, I invited Michael to join me as co-artist. The result was Overheard, an interactive installation that I could not have imagined without our years of collaboration.
Now when I see the work of artists who have commissioned outside expertise, I look for the evidence of erased boundaries. I try to imagine how both artists went beyond the early technical specifications and allowed their shared openness to nurture their imaginations. In the best cases, the mutual influence goes so far as to blend—and even reverse—the predefined roles.
I found a famous example at the recent Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) show Picasso Sculpture: the wire constructions that Pablo Picasso made with sculptor Julio González. It’s hard to say where Picasso’s “commission” stage—the early ideas he brought to be built—morphed into collaborative experimentation, but who cares? The results are what matter.
In a gallery that included metal sculptures made in González’s studio, the wall text explained the artists’ fluid roles: “González welcomed Picasso into his small metalworking studio in Montparnasse, where he straddled the roles of tutor and assistant, at first translating into wire Picasso’s line drawings of 1928, and eventually partnering with him on the complicated planes and angles of the constructions of 1929–1931.”
A 1956 MoMA press release for González’s first exhibition in the United States describes Picasso’s influence on the sculptor: “‘From this collaboration,’ Mr. Ritchie [then director of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA] says, ‘one can only conclude that the greatest inventor of imagery in the 20th century transmitted a new vision to his old friend and technical advisor.’”
It’s smart to come to an expert with a specific goal and clear specifications for your vision. But if you approach a project with too much clarity, you run the risk of calcifying. Instead, consider letting the expertise of both sides blur. You might move on to achieve something unexpected that changes both of you. ca
© 2016 W. Richmond