Collaborative Processes

and the Crisis of Attentiveness

Hanna Kuusela


In 2012, I started a research project on collaborative writing practices, or collective writing practices, as I then called them.


I wanted to find out if collaboration or collectivity as the basis of artistic (in my case the literary) work could challenge the contemporary constellations, in which not only land and real estates, but also thinking, writing, art and language are understood, above all, as private property. I wished to understand if the emerging forms of collaborative writing could offer ways out of our current culture that is obsessed with copyright laws and that sees art and creative work, above all, as potential sources of economic profit (see e.g. Florida 2002, Coombe 1998).


My research proposal, written in 2011, asked:


  • ‘Do they [collective writing practices] challenge the dominant contexts of cultural production, or are they themselves caught up in the dynamics of the late capitalistic, knowledge-based, consumer cultures (for critique of adaptations and collective production as threats to artistic quality, see e.g., Horkheimer & Adorno 1972)?’
  • ‘And finally, do they pave way for stronger intellectual commons and a public domain, or should they be named as intellectual thefts, forgery and piracy (Johns 2010, Boon 2010)?’


In the course of my research, I found a pile of literary and other artistic works that celebrated their collective roots. Novels have been crowdsourced and poems have been written together in workshops. Different writing collectives have experimented with collaborative creation (Kuusela 2015). Moreover, I came across numerous media commentaries that praised the collaborative methods behind such works. These praises and manifestations included references to democracy, communality and equality. The act of doing things together was, as if automatically, supposed to be subversive, politically progressive and democratic.


But more than once, when reading these books, I was left untouched. Most of these books left me cold.


This is when I learned or discovered that these works were not that much about the literary texts I had tried to read, but about the processes behind the texts. I also learned that, according to the proponents of collaborative writing practices, most readers had not understood these artistic acts properly, but instead missed their real originality. A research report on the wikinovel, A Million Penguins, for example, noted that


‘Much of the media
commentary about A Million Penguins’ ---
 treated the project as a failure because no community was seen to form and no recognizable novel was written. The research indicates, however, that many of the commentaries show a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the processes behind the wikinovel and of the final product itself.’ (Mason & Thomas 2008, 2, emphasis added.)


Similarly, one initiator of a crowd-sourced writing experiment explained to me that according to his own thinking, ‘a lot of people missed the point though, in that the story wasn’t actually the focus, but more the system of interactions behind its creation.’


Yet another literary collaborator told me that their collaborative project ‘has to do with a kind of simultaneity, in which people are all performing simultaneously, but that doesn’t mean exactly at the same time. And so there are these responses that are . . . lines that are being picked up on.’


These comments attached the collaborative method to the process of writing or creation. Such a shift from the object to the process has a long history in post-structuralist thinking and in the aesthetic theories of the 20th century, so much so that in the 21st century a process-oriented approach seems to have become the mainstream. This volume of Ruukku, with its focus on the process, is but one example of the trend. One of the latest proponents of a process-centred perspective in art, Brian Massumi, for example, develops the idea of the occurrent art and writes about the fundamentally nonobject philosophy, in which the ‘fundamental concepts are activity and process’ (Massumi 2013, 2–6, cit. Whitehead 1968, 140). Such thinking is largely rooted in the traditions of process philosophy and process ontology, which, in short, emphasize becoming and changing as well as relations and relationality over static being (see e.g. Whitehead 1979, Deleuze 1995, Latour 1993, 2005).


In writings inspired by such orientation, the artist turns into someone who places himself or herself and his or her work inside the social process, commenting on it, working on it and living through it. As Nicolas Bourriaud (2009, 13) in his Relational Aesthetics writes, ‘the role of artworks is no longer to form imaginary and utopian realties, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real’. Bourriaud's (2009, 14, 17) answer, the relational art, takes as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context and turns these into artistic issues. Even if Massumi (2013, 73) finds Bourriaud's writings too attached ‘to notions of interaction understood in terms of mediated intersubjective exchange’, implying that Bourriaud is perhaps ontologically too un-ambitious, they do share certain practical starting points and can be taken as different examples of the process-oriented paradigm in arts. From realties we have moved towards living and relationality. 


In more everyday language and contexts, this orientation has come to mean the rise of community art, participatory art and collective art, more generally—a development that Claire Bishop (2012) has called the social turn in arts. Bishop (2012, 12) writes that along ‘with “utopia” and “revolution”, collectivity and collaboration have been some of the most persistent themes of advanced art and exhibition-making of the last decade’. According to her, this rise of the collaborative is repeatedly presented as a critical response to neoliberal individuality. Collaborative practice is perceived to offer an automatic counter-model to the branded neoliberal individual (Bishop 2012, 12). She notes that ‘references to community, collectivity (be this lost or actualised) and revolution are sufficient to indicate a critical distance towards the neoliberal new world order. Individualism, by contrast, is viewed with suspicion’ (Bishop 2012, 12).


Moreover, as Bishop (2012, 11) argues, this idea of collaboration is tied to the critique of the object as the basis, or the aim, of artistic doing: ‘Given the market’s near total saturation of our image repertoire, so the argument goes, artistic practice can no longer revolve around the construction of objects to be consumed by a passive bystander. Instead, there must be an art of action, interfacing with reality, taking steps – however small – to repair the social bond.’ Consequently, what stands against this object-based art, is of course, the process. We need less artistic objects and more artistic processes. Even more so, the process is not necessarily supposed to lead to any ‘end’ result, but rather stay in the infinite state of becoming (Kuusela 2015b). Art is supposed to be occurrent, and it should grow out of something that Massumi (2013, 3) calls bare activity, ‘the just-beginning-to-stir of the event coming into its newness out of the soon to be prior background activity it will have left creatively behind’.


For Massumi, bare activity marks the moment of just-beginning when the activity is about to turn ‘into the singularity of the coming event’. It is what ‘lies at the very threshold of experience just coming into itself’ (Massumi 2013, 3). It is, thus, a crucial moment, not least in art and creation.


Kimmo Jylhämö, Untitled, 2011.

Kimmo Jylhämö, Untitled, 2011.

Kimmo Jylhämö, Untitled, 2011.

Kimmo Jylhämö, Untitled, 2011.

"[M]any of the commentaries show a fundamental
 misunderstanding of the nature of the processes 
behind the wikinovel and of the final product itself.”

“A lot of people missed the point though, in that the story wasn’t actually the focus, but more the system of interactions behind its creation.”