What makes two artists click? How can you avoid problems when you start a new relationship? Unlimited 2018 artists share their experiences of working in collaboration
Don’t be afraid to collaborate
A Series of Movements by Barak Ade Soleil. Photo: Marcus Polk
The Southbank Centre's Unlimited festival returns from 5–9 September, presenting a packed programme of work by d/Deaf and disabled artists and with an exciting symposium taking place beforehand. The British Council is bringing over 100 international delegates to these events, to connect them with talent from the UK. But what’s the best way to develop a collaboration? Unlimited artists and delegates, from Brighton to Harare, share their thoughts.
Raquel Meseguer, Founder of Unchartered Collective and Co-Founder of Lost Dog, UK
I find artistic collaborations to be like intimate relationships: you need to trust one another in stressful situations, with tight budgets and deadlines, to birth something entirely new. So, I prefer a slow burn approach: to know an artist and their work over time, before I invite them to collaborate on a project. The composer Jamie McCarthy, a key collaborator on A Crash Course in Cloudspotting, was my tutor at London Contemporary Dance School way back in 2001. I still remember very vividly our meeting on my first day, as a green and fresh-faced contemporary dancer.
After a tricky recent collaboration, where roles were muddied, I now begin collaborations with a set of questions including "what do we both understand our roles to be?", "what do you need to do your best work?" and "what are our guiding creative principles?"
"I lacked the experience or confidence to say anything and instead just bottled my frustration"
Alex Bulmer, writer, director and performer, Canada
Amongst my most rewarding collaborations is the making of Breathe for the 2012 Olympic opening ceremonies in Weymouth. Over 212 artists worked together across the UK and Brazil, disabled and non-disabled, English speaking and Portuguese, young people and adults. It was the most improbable set of circumstances and challenges, but often the most improbable ideas spark unexpected moments of brilliance and create great art beyond anyone’s imagination.
Working collaboratively as a blind or disabled artist can have unique challenges. On one project I was working on, members of the team flipped back and forth through a script, establishing ideas before I knew what page they were on or what they were referring to. They were working according to the expectation of seeing and reading – quickly.
At that time I lacked the experience or confidence to say anything and instead just bottled my frustration which led to destructive feelings of anger and exclusion. Don’t remain silent. Even better, ensure that needs are discussed at the start – give everyone on the collaborative team a chance to inform others of their needs and strengths. Rather than thinking the “needs” conversation is slowing everyone down, claim it as leading the way toward respectful group dynamics.
"Each artist has offered a truth important to the conversation"
Tarik Elmoutawakil. Photo: James Bellorini
Barak adé Soleil, artist and curator, USA
I am a black, queer, disability identified artist who has been making live art for over 30 years. Throughout my creative career, I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with various artists and communities in the States, where I’m based, and internationally.
The collaborations that have most deeply resonated for me have affirmed the artistry of everyone involved in the process of making the work. Each artist has offered a truth that has been important to the conversation. In doing so, we have ultimately deconstructed notions of hierarchy. Collaboration amplifies the aliveness of being in relationship to another individual.
"Don't hide your disabilities and needs from others"
Tarik Elmoutawakil, artist and producer, Marlborough Theatre, UK
When working with other artists, it’s important that we have an easy flow of conversation. I would begin with having a chat, either in person or online. It’s important to understand if we can maintain a conversation, even after disagreeing on a difficult subject. I like to have ownership of my vision, but then to let it bleed into someone else’s.
Creating an Afro Futurist Space Church themed party for queer/trans/intersex POC (people of colour), especially those with disabilities, has been both a wild ride but also incredibly healing. There was always a feeling of collaboration, that the work is made by a whole collective, the community and the audience.
My advice to disabled artists is, if you are disabled, own it! Don’t hide disabilities and needs from others, or yourself. And for those collaborating with disabled artists, understand why you are doing so. Ask yourself if you are willing to let the other person benefit more from the collaboration than you are (ideally this is the intention of all collaborations).
"Working in collaboration has led to working internationally"
Raquel Meseguer's A Crash Course in Cloudspotting. Photo: Raquel Meseguer
Jess Thom, Co-Founder, Touretteshero, UK
Collaboration is at the heart of what Touretteshero is about as an organisation. The core of my embracing and working with my tics has been sharing my experiences with other artists, organisations, young people, poets, musicians, puppeteers and many more. Touretteshero has been involved in collaborations with individual artists and with large organisations such as Southbank Centre, Battersea Arts Centre and Tate.
We work across a range of different artforms and we consider ourselves a transdisciplinary organisation. We work with theatres, museums, galleries, local authorities, voluntary sector organisations, scientists, musicians, poets, digital artists, BSL (British Sign Language) performers, puppeteers, giant cats, dancing biscuits and dancing penguins (potentially).
Working in collaboration has led to working internationally. We collaborated with an amazing puppeteer and theatremaker called Jess Mabel Jones, co-creating a show called Backstage in Biscuitland. We made this show with the intention of taking it to Edinburgh Fringe and that was our imagined end point. Four years later we had toured to places like Sydney Opera House, San Francisco, Vancouver, New York and Toronto, connecting with people and sharing the message and power of inclusivity.
I would suggest that people watch a lot of work and not be afraid to approach artists they are interested in. Take time, because good collaborations don’t happen overnight and allow and nurture unexpected outcomes. And finally, be kind to the people you are working with!
"You need to trust one another in stressful situations"
Blessing Fire, dancer, 4GO10 Tribe, Zimbabwe
I’ve worked with several artists around the world from various backgrounds. I was part of an event called Mix Up Hip-Hop in 2012 organised by British Council, collaborating with artists from France, Cape Town and Johannesburg. I’ve met and collaborated with Korean artists, in Harare.
I’m currently working with artists in Zimbabwe from other artforms such as music, spoken word and acrobatics. I’ve been working with a hip hop youth network called Heal the Hood in South Africa, visiting schools in Cape Town to raise awareness against drugs.
My advice to anyone in search of collaboration is, don’t be afraid to approach people that inspire you or you want to learn from. There are no limits in collaboration as long as you are open to engaging.
The artists were speaking to Asya Robins, our Theatre and Dance Showcase Coordinator.
Find out more:
> Watch a video of Blessing Fire AKA Zimbabwe's King of Breakdancing
> Read an interview with Jess Thom
> Discover more about Raquel Mesegeuer's Crash Course to Cloudspotting
> Check out Barak adé Soleil talking about disability arts
> Follow the Unlimited 2018 series on our blog