I think it’s fair to say that contemporary art is increasingly more interested in the dynamics of the collective group than the alleged genius of the individual artist. Certainly, this is true compared to previous ages. There is always going to still be some level of focus on the name of an artist, of course, as the nature of the market system means that brand identification will remain relevant. But even so, recent attention in art has made a tectonic shift toward the collaborative and the collective. It’s not hard to spot the growth of art collectives, of artist networks and cross-collaborations between artists and other practitioners in areas like the sciences.
There are probably a few factors weighing in on this transition – not least of which would be the advances in communications technologies, the growth in multi-disciplinary practices and a greater awareness of the interconnected relationships between the component parts of creative endeavours. This last point is evident in the popularity of things like ‘relational aesthetics’ – the most perfectly art wanky theory name yet invented. But at its heart is a beautiful idea. Artists use anything for materials, such as paint, wood, marble, textiles, computers and even a pollywaffle in a bucket. So why not treat human relationships as the material of your art?
Of course, technology is an obvious one. We can all flip open our laptops or swipe across the screens of our phones and instantly connect to the network of ‘friends’ we have put together over the years. We can message our best mate in france, play a video that some dude in Sao Paulo recorded on his phone 5 minutes ago and just posted on youtube, and we can pass mp3 files back and forth between 4 members of a band in 4 different cities until a cohesive song is ready to be uploaded onto soundcloud.
Multi-disciplinary practice is also popping up all over the place – artists teaming up with scientists to explore ways to encourage birds into the city or embed empathy into viruses. Musicians working with digital image-makers to create reactive visual displays, clothes designers working with botanists to grow fabrics on the body and architects working with zoologists to develop appropriate inner city living options. The nature of this sort of work means creative people are clearly working in groups toward the accomplishment of collective goals.
This brings to mind a notion raised by artist and sound engineer Brian Eno called scenius. Rather than brilliant ideas erupting in the mind of a gifted individual, scenius refers to the way in which brilliant ideas blossom in the milieu of a community. Genius, the result of a single person’s genes versus scenius, the result of a scene (or a group, a place or a collective). In his words, “scenius stands for the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of the genius.”
The collective group (or scene) provides the fertile environment in which individuals can be inspired and produce their best work. According to Kevin Kelly, scenius is nurtured by several factors:
• Mutual appreciation — risks are encouraged and applauded by the group, subtlety is appreciated, and friendly competition stimulates the quieter members out of their shells. In this way the best of peer pressure is brought to bear upon the motivation of the members and each development is recognised as a success.
• Rapid exchange of tools and techniques — as soon as something is invented, its benefits are lauded and then it is shared amongst the community. Ideas flow quickly because they are flowing inside a common language and sensibility.
• Network effects of success — when achievement occurs such as a record being broken, a hit happening, or breakthrough erupting, that success is claimed by the entire scene. This empowers the scene to further success.
• Local tolerance for the novelties — the local “outside” does not push back too hard against the transgressions of the scene. The renegades and mavericks are protected by this buffer zone.
Scenius can evolve just about anywhere – amongst a small group inside a larger corporation, in a neighbourhood or across an entire region. It’s an idea that also shows up in other wanky academic philosophies like network theory. In amongst all the 5 syllable words no-one really ever uses is the basic premise that networks are just collections of things – physical objects, living beings, ideas and abstract notions. Everything is equally important but it’s the alliances that are created between them (the relationships they develop) that strengthen the power of the network. The stronger the network of connections the more power it generates and the more potent it becomes.
Who knows what might be achieved when like-minded souls bring their collective skills together, and contribute their knowledge, experience and enthusiasm for a shared passion. But clearly the potential is gravitational because there’s more of a focus on this sort of idea than ever before. Communicating is obviously a starting point. A discourse that begins with a few and spreads out into a network of connections is bound to be a driving factor. However it starts, it’s surely got to be organic. And when it gets started, what exciting fun it would be to watch it grow.