Beyond Artistic Borders And Into The Future
August 14th, 2021
The Writing and Society Research CentreCross-artform collaboration and its potential to foster new audiences and innovative practices for writers and storytellers.
This is an extract from a seminar held at The Writing and Society Research Centre, WSU on August 13, which featured the writers and cross-disciplinary artists Marian Abboud, Felicity Castagna, Sheila Ngoc Pham and Emma Saunders.
Words by Felicity Castagna
In artistic disciplines such as the visual and performing arts collaborations between artists working in different modes are commonplace, unlike the field of writing where the general attitude towards collaboration is much more conservative and practitioners have traditionally chosen to stick to their own discipline, and furthermore not collaborate within it.
The term cross-arts, multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary arts is a difficult one to define mostly because the outcome can be extremely different depending on the collaboration and because definitions inherently speak usually to outcomes rather than process, which I would argue has a larger weight, takes more work and energy and is sometimes the art in itself when we collaborate in an interdisciplinary way. Collaborating across artistic forms happens in an unpredictable way and inevitably involves a curiosity about what others do. It challenges our experience of making art because it shifts our focus away from our skills, to our capacity to listen and learn and create in ways that we are uncomfortable with. What collaborative interdisciplinary art means can only be understood through observing both process and outcome. It is defined by the moment an artist, or artists in collaboration, cross their own discipline borders to make art that is vibrant, alive and speaks to an audience, small or large.
This is not to say that this kind of dynamic artmaking isn’t already happening but that in particular, we don’t talk about what this means to writers or what writers bring to interdisciplinary collaborations. I think that increasingly the romantic image of the lonely writer making a book in a corner is an old-fashioned one and one that appeals less to a younger generation of writers. Sticking to the excellence of their own discipline doesn’t always answer the artist’s need for innovation. Reaching out to new audiences through new media and creating art in new social settings is becoming increasingly important for young artists and more established artists seeking to experiment and reinvent their practice. Western Sydney where I’m based had a strong visual arts, dance and theatre scene long before it actually had a writing scene and this has meant that many of its writers have come from other artistic fields or were at least emerged in other artistic cultures before they found their disciplines as writers.
I think these are important considerations for institutions that teach the arts or that house the arts. In universities we tend to compartmentalise the arts, we have writing courses and music courses and dance courses etc but we don’t foster ways of those students working together, nor do many arts organisations which are also largely segmented by discipline. This tendency of compartmentalisation is not beneficial for supporting writers’ desires to collaborate outside their own field nor does it offer up new ways of thinking about collaboration that many writers never get exposed to.
Perhaps this is really because the pedagogy is something that makes us uncomfortable. Teaching students and artists to work in collaborative ways really shifts the focus away from traditional teaching to mentoring and coaching. It requires us to ask a lot of questions and instead of emphasising training skills we need to focus on learning by sharing experiences and performing experiments. We all need to become a community of learners.
Indeed this is what we all become when we collaborate across disciplines. We become a community of learners. One of the paradoxes of learning is that we don’t always know what we need to learn until we are in the process of doing, and necessarily practitioners in collaborative arts often have to jump on in, finding the gaps in their knowledge and learning about other’s art forms as they go. It requires a deep level of reflection and self-awareness and a willingness to dialogue that some artists may not be prepared for. This means that projects which succeed are ones in which we rise to the challenge to find a common language, dig deep into each other’s disciplines, get to know one another and start to collaborate beyond our own artistic skills.
It’s important to note here that artists, including writers, are not always defined entirely by their discipline but rather by their field of research or by the questions about the world that their art explores. I find that one of the great commonalities of artists working in cross-artform collaboration is that there is a greater level of interest in works that are public or participatory and which involve community engagement and that they are making works together which respond to specific sites, are of or about the places that they are shown in and which are responsive to contemporary contexts whether that be about a particularly prevalent political or social issue or a very local subject or circumstance that deserve exploring because they might not be noticed otherwise.
The competition for audience and the increasingly limited funding and platforms in the current climate of crisis for the arts means that writers and indeed all artists need to be looking at artistic partners and new contexts for making work. Some practical considerations are How can we understand each other’s artistic work? How do we communicate to be able to work together? What skills from our individual fields can be supportive to this collaboration? How do we rethink how we work in environments where the emphasis is often on presenting process and exploration rather than working to a predesignated result from the start? How do we create new settings to present such work and build on existing and new audiences?
These are questions that I’ve been asking myself over and over again in my own work as I move increasingly into the filed of being a writer who collaborates with artists in other disciplines. Growing up I always wanted to be in a band because I’ve always enjoyed making things with others but I can’t even clap to a tune and writing has always been more my thing. I’m grateful to have had the experience of being an artist-in-residence, as a writer at The Parramatta Artists’ Studios from 2015-2017, where I got the rare opportunity to work with artists in other artistic disciplines and I started to develop a network of relationships that led to greater artistic collaborations. Artists like Linda Brescia with whom I recently worked on a project called Skirts for The Museum of Contemporary Art’s C3West Program. In this project, I worked with women from Kingswood in order to create a manifesto on what they wanted from their community, which later became the basis for an installation work in a local park. I’ve also helped to produce a storytelling project for Art Month in collaboration with WeaveParramatta, which saw several writers and artists come together to host a lunch in which participants collaborated in making a collective artwork by finger weaving while listening to stories that also shared the theme of weaving.
More recently, I’m back as a resident of The Parramatta Artists’ Studios again, this time at their Rydalmere facility, where I’m working on a couple of novels and I’m also helping to re-invision a mentorship program for western Sydney women I helped to found called The Finishing School as a collective that works on complex and exciting collaborations with artists in other fields in order to create new audiences, new relationships and new spaces for the great writing in this community. Most recently, we’ve been residents at UTS Library where we are working with the visual artist Marian Abboud in order to create a large scale, text-based installation work that responds to the space and will become a permanent feature.