Reflecting on Being in Mutual Encounters
Of the many romances surrounding the notion of being an artist, the solitary nature of studio work is one of the most prevailing. This despite the fact that solitary practices, particularly among emerging artists, are increasingly untenable. In a practical sense, facilities, equipment, and studios are frequently unsustainable on a single income. In a practice sense, interdisciplinarity, hybridity, and social media bring people together. And yet collaborative work is more than a symptom of an expensive and “interconnected” world—it is also an antidote.
Mutual Encounters unfolded in this context. Curated by Anina Major (MFA Ceramics 2017) and Vanessa Nieto Romero (MFA Printmaking 2017), the exhibition, on view this spring in the RISD Museum’s Gelman Gallery, featured women student artists paired across disciplines and invited to produce new works together.
Watch out, women working.
Allow the following conjecture: many years spent in collaborative situations suggest to me that women tend to show up. Maybe it’s because women’s work is historically communal (therefore underappreciated as it fails to bolster the genius myth), or maybe it’s because it tends to be labor intensive, but clearly there is something about presence that women, consciously or not, understand. Mutual Encounters materializes this collaborative being.
Although collaborative practice is a term that gets thrown around a lot, I am referring to old-school, breathing the same air, cara a cara collaboration. Sure, you might be uploading your research to Google-drive and We-transferring audio files, but at the end of the day, you are forced to sit in a room and look someone in the eye and tell them you have no idea what they are talking about. In-person collaborations temper the “me-centeredness” fostered by our digital worlds. There is materiality to collaboration, mass to presence, body in work.
Indeed, many of the works in Mutual Encounters unabashedly beckon the body: sit on me, sniff me, feel me. The show favors experience, moving beyond the visual into sensorial generosity. Unsurprising, considering the world takes every opportunity to remind women that we present body first. No bodies are neutral but women’s especially bear the brunt of scrutiny and regulation, of being called at, litigated over, grabbed. We cannot help but be hyper-aware of our corporeal selves.
The works assert this focus through multiple mediums, implicating the bodies of viewers in interactive work, vestiges of the body in textile, glass, ceramics, and the bodies of the makers themselves, present through video, audio, performance.
Presence not only changes the materiality of the work, but furthermore alters how we collaborate. The physical insistence of the body ruptures through the aestheticized, lubricated disconnect promoted by our digital worlds. Something heavy and real and human impedes the otherwise Newtonian properties of modern cognition; a thought once in motion will continue on a self-affirming path. Posting huffy and/or sanctimonious rebuttals on Facebook is qualitatively different than the threat of spittle flying in your general direction, or, more graciously, a flash of recognition in a quick smile vs. an aseptic blue-thumbed Like.
Collaborative practices demand participants’ humility, starting from knowing that one does not know, cannot know—that ego will be the end to us all.
Collaborations force dormant assumptions to surface from their murky and complacent roost, and, in doing so, dispel the tyranny of normalcy. My actions become strange to myself through the lens of someone else’s furrowed brow. Under the shadow of the hegemon, it is now more than ever pressing to nurture thought rhizomatically, to be reminded that the sum is greater than its parts.
And then, when the planets align and we have looked each other in the eyes, consensual indeterminacy can generate something wailing, beautiful, and alive.