To create a collaborative work requires continual negotiation, a back-and-forth dialogue, a pushing and pulling carried out by those involved—both human and non-human. The interactions between these various collaborators can be understood through an expanded notion of conversation. Taking a conversational approach to creative practice leads to making works out of the relations and interactions between people, materials and contexts, an approach that bears similarities to site-specific and site-determined practices. This expansion opens the door to diffuse notions of authorship in the development and production of creative works, and also provides insight into relations that exist between humans and their surrounding environments. Questions of authorship have a long lineage in artistic practice, from the readymades of Marcel Duchamp and the collage and text experiments of the Dadaists in the 1910s and 1920s through to more recent practices predicated on replication rather than ‘original’ expression, such as those of Sturtevant and Glenn Seator.
In this paper we consider the propositions made by authors associated with ideas of non-human agency, who are sometimes grouped together as New Materialists. Jane Bennett's idea of ‘vital materialism’ posits the idea that materials have their own vitality which can be operative in relations with other materials as well as with living organisms, humans included. Conceiving of matter in this way opens up the idea of creative collaboration as a conversational process between a diverse array of living, inert and environmental ‘actants’. The question then becomes how the conversational exchange between these various entities might be understood and what benefit might emerge from engaging with these other actants in conversation within a creative practice. Bennett asks, “Can we theorize more closely the various forms of such communicative energies? How can humans learn to hear or enhance our receptivity for ‘propositions’ not expressed in words? How to translate between them?”
Unlike Bennett’s insightful but theoretically driven approach, we address these questions as creative practitioners, speculating and experimenting with these ideas through the production of installations and experimental writing projects. All the projects discussed enter into conversation with a particular architectural environment, the RMIT University Design Hub building in Melbourne, Australia. The University's aspiration for this building is that it act as “a new kind of creative environment … for collaborative, inter-disciplinary interaction and education.” The installation projects we produced were conceived of as posing questions back to the building, entering into a conversation with the Design Hub. Our projects were partially shaped by the building but developed their own language in which to ‘speak back’ to the surrounding environment. These ideas were also extended into a reflective writing project in which we used experimental writing techniques to allow a third voice to emerge between our writings, disrupting the already complex process of co-authored writing. Understanding conversation in these expanded ways, not limited only to verbal exchange, implies that each element of the conversation has agency and the potential to speak back to the other parts. That numerous, diverse elements come together to form conversations implies a diffused, distributed idea of authorship. The building we were working in, the people we are working with, the materials, the processes, the resulting projects all have a voice in the ongoing conversations generated through the projects.
This research document describes a series of creative collaborative engagements with the environments of the Design Hub. This began with a series of installations for the Building Movements project in 2013 and was followed in 2014-15 with an experimental piece of reflective creative writing titled Writing Writing Movements Tentatively. The ideas and insights generated through this writing process were then taken up in two subsequent projects: AJ8 in 2016 and Extrusion in 2017. These continued the conversational approach to collaborating with and within the Design Hub that we began in Building Movements. What emerges from this sustained dialogue with the building is a relational approach to creative practice that works with the agency of materials and environments, understood through an expanded notion of conversation.