Why Do Art Collectives End?
Former members of artist duos and groups discuss how and why art collectives form, and eventually come to pass
Former members of artist duos and groups discuss how and why art collectives form, and eventually come to pass
Art collectives, from a distance, seem fun and exhilarating – full of momentum and predicated on a shared mission to incite change or cause disruption. The age-old adage of finding strength in numbers means that collectives are promulgated on building a support network to navigate the competitive art world, whilst working together to create something larger than the sum of its parts. But working cooperatively has its challenges: egos surface, internal frictions develop and coming to a consensus is time-consuming. It raises the question: how long can an art collective last amidst personal differences or the financial hardships faced in an increasingly capitalist art market? For this roundtable discussion, we invited five former members of artist groups – Todd Ayoung from Godzilla: Asian American Arts Network; Patterson Beckwith from ART CLUB2000; Simon Bedwell from BANK; Vanessa Disler from Feminist Land Art Retreat; and Dena Yago from K-HOLE – to discuss the ins and outs of what it means to be involved in a collaborative practice and why, like all things, collectives come to an end.
Simon Bedwell The premise of this conversation is why collectives end. But, I feel I should say at the outset that we at BANK never used the word ‘collective’ about ourselves. Other people talked about us in those terms, but we just thought of ourselves as an art group.
Dena Yago K-HOLE never self-described as a collective, either. We specifically referred to ourselves as a trend-forecasting group and saw ourselves as five young cultural producers from New York.
Todd Ayoung Godzilla, which was a huge group – 33 members overall from when it launched in 1990 – also strongly resisted the term ‘collective’, because we didn’t make singular artworks together: we co-produced petitions and statements or made individual artworks that were exhibited together. Nonetheless, I think the collective is a really important concept, especially in the US, where individual agency tends to be prioritized over collaborative, grass-roots initiatives. Another significant issue for me is how certain agents within the collective leverage their position to obtain access and exposure – to secure gallery representation, for instance – in direct opposition to what lay at the heart of the initial formation, which could be social justice, equity or inclusion.
Dena Yago When we started K-HOLE in 2011, we were graduating from university in a recession, and we wanted to resist getting sucked into the world of branding and marketing – as a bunch of our art-school peers had – where the language of collective action was being used to commercial ends. But it’s also important to say that the other members of K-HOLE were designers, music producers and writers, so we were definitely not a group of single-minded artists.
Vanessa Disler Was K-HOLE a project that came out of friendship?
Dena Yago We weren’t that close when we started: we really cemented and gelled through partying together in our early 20s.
Simon Bedwell BANK was extremely organic in the same way. In the mid-1980s, I shared a studio at Saint Martins in London with John Russell. Then, years later I formed another group with other artists: when those two groups merged, it became BANK. It was a rubbish name but we needed a name and the first show we did was in a former bank. It was that simple! Within three years, it became clear that the shows and the objects we were making as BANK were far more interesting than anything we were doing individually. Although my experience of BANK wasn’t 100 percent positive, I still recommend this way of working to anyone because it’s the best way of learning how to diffuse authorship, which is an important process for an artist.
Todd Ayoung What I’m hearing is that your groups were founded on the pretext of having fun, whereas a lot of the groups I’ve been a part of – REPOhistory, for instance, was a large group of left-leaning writers, performance artists and visual artists – wanted to address real political issues. If projects involved artworks, there would be individuals behind those particular pieces, but the statements, petitions and press releases were all written collectively.
One of the key motivations for Godzilla was the lack of inclusiveness within art institutions –the fact that very few Asian artists had shown in the Whitney Biennial under the directorship of David Ross, for instance – while Interim Sites aimed to address issues of urban renewal and the erasure and gentrification of certain neighbourhoods. A sense of fun can be important in tackling political issues, but it wasn’t the main driver for us.
Simon Bedwell I think it was the main driver for BANK. We deliberately took the piss out of all the things you just listed because that seemed more fun than pretending we could do anything about it. I don’t know about New York or elsewhere, but the art world in London was – and still is – incredibly conservative.
Vanessa Disler We had a similar experience when we made our first collaborative work – a poster for a Feminist Land Art Retreat [FLAR] – in 2010. We were art students trying to figure out our place in relation to previous generations of feminism, during a time when a lot of our peers would not identify with it at all. There was a history of back-to-the-land utopian projects and land art on the West Coast that we were responding to. We made it partly as a joke, or as a provocation, but also out of a desire to imagine what form a Feminist Land Art Retreat would take, well aware that this utopian activity would be totally dysfunctional. Would it include both men and women? Would it be intergenerational? Would we just buy crates of wine and go into the forest for a weekend? People were either really into it or had strong adverse reactions, which interested us. Some even accused us of making a joke of feminism, but there was a totally different climate around feminism at the time. For years we just made commemorative posters for unrealized retreats, each time making a new graphic identity for what it was, and if we would really do it.
Dena Yago Naming our collective K-HOLE haunted us – and still does – because people assumed we were satirical, but everything we did was actually dead serious. Eventually, our tactics ended up getting co-opted by branding to such an extent that what we were doing – which originally felt challenging or critical – became the norm. And I would say that was a big factor in why we broke up because we were just left thinking: what is the point of this conceptual project that is no longer fulfilling its critical capacity?
Todd Ayoung Because our group was so large, we just started to lose steam at a certain point. But I’m still in touch with the other members. In 2020, New York’s Museum of Chinese in America approached us about a Godzilla retrospective. But, when we found out that they had been willing to take US$35 million from former New York mayor Bill De Blasio to support his plan to build a vast jail in Chinatown, we withdrew from the exhibition. Nonetheless, it sparked a lot of conversation between us, which continues to this day.
Dena Yago Collective endeavours that you start when you are young, dumb and full of potential can result in very different group dynamics.
Patterson Beckwith Dena, I was interested in what you were saying about ‘co-option’; I think collectives are more susceptible to that. The research and development wing of popular culture always draws from art: it’s not uncommon to see your friend’s artwork showing up in, say, an ad on a bus stop. But, when I was in ART CLUB2000, it was just about youth culture and being 20 years old, really. At the time, we were studying at Cooper Union with Doug Ashford and Hans Haacke. Now, I teach college classes myself, so I know our brains weren’t fully developed! We had a leader: the artist and art dealer Colin de Land, then in his 40s, who helped us form the group and navigate the art world. De Land worked under various pseudonyms and had a collaborative practice with Richard Prince. He was interested in conceptual art and, at that point, in 1992, he was extremely frustrated with the art world and the way it worked. He wanted to lay all that bare for us. But, although he held a veto power over what we could show in his gallery at the beginning, he wasn’t that involved or interested in the making of the art itself. When it came to how we identified ourselves, I think we used the term ‘collaborative’, but ‘collective’ also applies.
Simon Bedwell Perhaps I was a bit pedantic in bringing up a problem with the word ‘collective’. I mean, five of us making a sculpture together was clearly a collective activity. However, the noun ‘collective’ is slightly different: it has an unearned whiff of insurrection and that’s what I was flagging up as being pretentious. BANK was more like a dysfunctional family than a collective: without going into too much detail, the interpersonal relationships were a big fat seam running right through the group.
Dena Yago There were five of us in K-HOLE but we worked adjacent to a number of other groups. For years, we shared a studio with the fashion label Eckhaus Latta. It felt very much like a scene with these different little bubbles that were not very porous. In terms of our roles, Chris Sherron was lead design while Greg Fong and I did the photography. Emily Segal, Sean Monahan, Greg and I all contributed to the writing. We used Google Wave, or some similar early collaborative tool, to write in sessions until an organizational brand voice emerged that was not specific to our individual writing styles, and we soon learned how to write in the voice of K-HOLE.
Vanessa Disler FLAR was actually a duo – Nicole Ondre and I – and by the time we really started making art under the FLAR moniker we were based in different cities, so we would work predominantly through Google shared folders, adding music playlists and Pinterest boards. Then, when we were collaborating on a project, we would live together for two to three weeks and, during that time, we would adopt a new logic in terms of how we made decisions as FLAR. It was quite an intense process because we were working together 24/7 and it got very stressful at times.
That being said, a huge part of our project was humour and equally important was the social aspect of going out together with friends and talking through ideas. So, at a certain point, we had to recognize that FLAR was its own entity, our friendship was another entity, and we were each coming into the collaboration as two artists with separate practices. Once we identified these different dynamics, it was easier to work through difficult periods of discussing and exchanging ideas on a very short timeline.
Dena Yago Talking was also central to our practice, but the medium was the struggle, and friction built around that. In K-HOLE, everybody was allowed to veto something they felt was not going to fly ideologically. And, once things started getting less productive, to put it in a nice way, people started weaponizing that veto power. For instance, I remember getting into a huge argument about whether or not to include an image of Will Ferrell from Elf  in a report. It escalated to the point where I felt like my life depended on it. I don’t even remember what my position was with respect to this, but I just remember going at it with another member of K-HOLE. And then the next day being like: ‘What the fuck is going on?’
Simon Bedwell We basically had to get rid of some people because of this same problem. We just had to say: ‘Sorry, this is not working.’
Patterson Beckwith The one thing we all had in common in ART CLUB2000 was the idea that humour was the best thing possible. And we all had veto power. It was never quite a consensus with seven people in the group, but we would get to a point where nobody was objecting strenuously. We did have one member leave right after our first show because she just couldn’t take it. She even did some writing about it later saying how she wasn’t comfortable being associated with the group and how the process didn’t work for her as an artist. Ultimately, we all subsumed our personal artistic ambitions for the entire length of the project.
I’ve worked in artist duos and had a long, successful collaboration with Alex Bag, making a television show for several years. Think of Gilbert & George or Bernd and Hilla Becher: it’s easy to work with one other person; you bounce off each other, support each other. With seven people, the notion of authorship is a bit of a fiction. That’s probably also part of why the work of collectives is so unsalable: because it doesn’t have a signature. It’s a slightly anti-capitalist project even to be in the art world with more than two people.
Dena Yago We got told all the time: ‘Nobody collects collectives.’
Simon Bedwell It’s a strange relationship between this lack of financial success, with which I think we can all identify – it’s certainly true of us – and how easily ‘incorporateable’ the work of collectives is. So, on the one hand, you’re challenging authorship and there’s a real cost to that, as you’ve just described. On the other hand, you get magazine coverage in articles that say: ‘Oh, isn’t it interesting how they’re challenging authorship.’ So you’re incorporated, yet your work doesn’t sell. It’s quite odd.
Todd Ayoung Actually, I find that interesting, because the notion of gallery representation, or even of sales, was never a factor in any of the groups I’ve belonged to. Many of us are involved with pedagogy – we work in high schools, colleges and universities – so sales were not even part of the discussion.
Dena Yago When you start a collective in your early 20s, you’re partying a lot, your ambitions are all wrapped up with one another, your brains aren’t fully formed and your sense of self is not clearly delineated. As a result, some members of the group can lose themselves while others go off and want to have a solo career. When K-HOLE came to an end, it felt like the break-up of a band.
In 2016, we got invited to speak at the World Economic Forum. I remember thinking: ‘Well, the jig’s up.’ What is our role in this space? Do we have any critical capacity? So that, plus some other very human factors – like drug usage or undiagnosed mental illness – are things that will deeply and fundamentally determine how long a collective can healthily operate without causing irreparable damage to those involved. And you just don’t know that when you start. Collective work is potentially a very traumatic thing, so coming back to it can be very difficult for certain members. But it’s worth saying that, around two years ago, we reunited to create Normcore as an NFT. And we’re all in a group chat again, for the first time in many years, which has been a positive experience.
Todd Ayoung In my case, I jumped from one collective to the next, and I’m still in touch with everyone I’ve worked with. So, if the need arises, because that name is out there, we’ll get back together to do a project with whoever still has the energy for it.
Simon Bedwell In 2021, Galerie Neu in Berlin organized an exhibition with an accompanying publication that collated all the works from our ‘Fax-Bak Service’ [1998–99] – a project in which we annotated gallery press releases and faxed them back. The show was titled ‘Status Quo’ and I wanted to use a photograph of the rock band Status Quo on the invite to acknowledge that it’s mildly embarrassing to revisit stuff from so long ago, even though you have to do it. That show was effectively a retrospective; there is no prospect of us working together again in any other ‘one last gig!’ way, though.
Patterson Beckwith It was different for us because we knew from the outset that we were going to quit in 2000 – it was even in our name – and, since we only did one yearly show, it wasn’t a constant endeavour. We’d get together for these annual summer exhibitions but, after a while, people began moving out of the city, so we weren’t all based in New York anymore.
Vanessa Disler We only stopped actively making work a few years ago in 2020, when we had our last show and exhibited our archive, so my experience of FLAR feels pretty fresh. We are technically on hiatus but remain open to the possibility of a real retreat someday.
Simon Bedwell I always thought BANK was an entirely romantic enterprise. In a melancholy way, and without really knowing it, we were reenacting the history of the avant-garde, especially that idea of advancing heroically into a hazy future. We didn’t get any reviews for our best shows in the prestige art press – lots elsewhere, however – and we always liked to think that’s because we were slagging people off so relentlessly that they just hoped we’d go away and shut up, which we didn’t.
Patterson Beckwith In the days before the internet was as big as it is now, getting press coverage was what kept us going. Being in Artforum the year after our first exhibition meant we got invited to do shows in Europe. It was just luck in a lot of ways, but we probably would have broken up without it. I think this definitely ties into what we were saying earlier about the inherently political, anti-commercial nature of collective endeavours.
Vanessa Disler I feel that, to have vitality, collectives have to resist institutionalization: they need something to butt up against to make them resonate. For us, the increasing speed at which feminism was being co-opted by brands to sell products and the way advertising began to mimic the visual language found in artworks, was part of the reason we put everything on ice. Everything started to feel too close. We decided just to let the energy settle and maybe come back to it in the future.
Dena Yago Some of the more interesting things happening amongst my younger friends – bedroom brands, local radio stations – aren’t even operating within the art world. They aren’t taking up the same audiences that we were. Maybe that’s due to the economic reality of having to operate at a different level of productivity: sharing your work on Instagram and using Shopify to fuel it.
Simon Bedwell The anti-establishment tendency, which is probably what unites us all in some way, is a significant driver of collectives. In his essay collection Air Guitar (1997), Dave Hickey says: ‘You move into a city. You hang out in bars. You form a gang, turn it into a scene, and turn that into a movement.’ Then, I would suggest, when your movement hits the museum, abandon it. But the thing is, hardly anyone ever does that. I mean, maybe the Sex Pistols, but I can’t think of many others that stop exactly when they shouldn’t: at the top of their game.
Todd Ayoung Institutional critique was our original mandate and it was pretty straightforward: we were in opposition, we weren’t going to ‘win’ and all we could do was make jokes about it.
Simon Bedwell The thing is to make the jokes good and enjoy making them.
Patterson Beckwith Yes, because otherwise you can start to get really mad. The institutions enforce the rules that are set by the collectors, which shut us out of the canon for being anti-authorship. And that’s why collectives are inherently political.
This article appeared in frieze issue 233 with the headline ‘The End Of The Line’.
Main image: Feminist Land Art Retreat, Karl Marx Allee, Berlin, July 22, 2014, offset lithograph, 59.4 × 84.1 cm. Courtesy: the artist