Su sanxlen booloo wot wer / Ants come together to find wellbeing.
Béy, bu àndul ak béy, ànd ak cere / Goats who leave the herd, find themselves in the company of couscous.
- Wolof proverbs
Above our heads, this very second, thousands upon thousands of birds are flying in flocks. From the lightest shift in incline of feathers is born a collective moment that allows for protection and efficacy whilst flying over great distances. From the ground there appears to be perfect synchronicity within these flock movements, a marvel that scientists are still trying to understand. Other animals, such as fish and insects, also perform actions in widespread unison, a phenomenon otherwise known as allelomimesis; in Ancient Greek allele describes the mutual relations we have to one another, while mimesis means imitation.
In contemporary science, the emphasis is often placed on this tendency to imitate, and modelling of allelomimesis has been used to study the behavior of entities as diverse as fish and financial companies. While imitation may have somewhat of a bad name in general, it may be generative to study this seemingly natural inclination we have to mimic in light of allelo, our inherent capacity to live in relation. When these two concepts come together to permit bees to swarm and engage in action that is illogical on a singular level, new and more complex behaviors emerge in the space between each bee. A flick of a wing, banal on its own, is the genesis of significant impact when performed with other, similar winged beings.
This fascinating and naturally occurring activity is a useful starting point for Condition Report 4: Stepping out of line; Art collectives and translocal parallelism, which exists as a forum for addressing practices and forms of production that take the cooperating, non-hierarchical group as a guiding principle. As DAS 2020 Seismic Movements invites us to think about the geographically and temporally large-scale shifts that are born from the release of a pressure, CR4 delves into examples of collectivity both historic and contemporary to explore the scope of change possible through the ignition of our relationality. Dreams of cooperation are not always fulfilled, and we acknowledge that the same spirit of resistance, survival or predation that facilitates collective action can wane or backfire, leaving members out of formation. Yet the aesthetic, physical and social fields of intervention that are the focus and fodder of collectives merit attention, in particular given the role they play in the seismic movements that are the focus of DAS 2020.
This symposium, through its form and content, will open up the different lines of enquiry that emerge from collective practice, with a particular focus on the African continent and the web of international solidarities within which it is entangled. Writers and curators will be in dialogue with members of collectives, allowing both critical analysis and historical production to sit side by side with practice. We will open with an investigation into the formal aesthetic of the collective and the forms, structures and shapes that emerge both organically and strategically when we flock together. For the coming together that is CR4, within DAS 2020, we are attentive to the structures and aesthetics in our toolbox, to borrow a term from curator Zoe Butt, and are basing the symposium on the Penc structure from Senegal. The Penc is a designated zone in the public space within which members of the community can come together to work through problems and organise in concertation with one another. Usually outdoors in the shade of a large tree, the space we use in Dhaka is designed to let the outside in and vice versa, as we also propose this form to acknowledge the large number of collective practices that are currently threatened by displacement of entire communities for economic or climatic reasons, who are thus separated from the material space that plays an active role in the affirmation of collective existence.
Moving from concerns around form, the conversation will unpack different propositions for the historicisation of collective practice. Polyphonic in their very nature, collectives have proven complex to anchor in any one narrative. Members may tell different and contradictory stories, highlighting aspects of particular relevance to their own journey or the wider circles within which they move, beyond the sphere of the collective itself. And yet we know that these stories must be told. If we accept this reality, can we think of the generative space between the swarm behaviour of two neighbouring bees? What historiographical approaches are necessary for unearthing and learning from gossip, witness accounts, and inconsistency? As articulated by Elvira Dyangani Ose, how can we “claim history as a participatory experience”? Collectives such as the Laboratoire Agit-Art (Senegal), Art Bakery (Cameroon), Invisible Borders (Nigeria), Keleketla! Library (South Africa), Chimurenga (South Africa) and the Nest (Kenya) have been instrumental in the development of social and artistic movements in their respective countries, and it is our duty to highlight this. International collectivism can at times be even harder to map, across linguistic lines and countries with differing relationships to the archive, and yet we must learn to become suppler and more creative in our historiographical methodology if we want to do justice to these histories.
Engaging in a more frontal manner with the contemporary moment and the crescendo of interest within both the art world and the fields of social sciences and humanities in collectives and collectivism – indeed as a fully fledged “ism” – we will also ask questions related to the relationship between collective practice and economy. Are visions of commons and non-hierarchical labour structures purely utopian within a global, late-capitalist order? Must collectives shun capitalism completely to be legitimate, or is it that as put forward by Blake Stimson – albeit as a provocation to open the debate – collective practice must fall on either side of a state/private dichotomy? In many instances, contexts where there is a lack of state institutions seem to produce larger numbers of and more radical collectives. What’s more, while it would be dangerous to suggest that individualism does not exist in Africa, we cannot neglect to recognise the complex and heavy social and economic ties that endure on the continent and the way that these encourage, or not, collective action and economic production and distribution. How do collectives engage with informal and bartering economies to survive, produce and endure and what lessons can be learnt from these strategies? What’s more, challenging traditional notions of authorship and therefore ownership, artist collectives also serve to challenge and reject the vision of the mythical, singular and historically male artist, drawing attention to the plurality of skills and efforts needed to generate and support a project.
Continuing in this vein, it is worthwhile to pause on the ways in which collective practice can influence how formal institutions function, and to consider to what ends and through which channels we can create new alliances of support across domains. Collectives often move between different spaces; they may have their own semi-public site of activity, intervene and be invited into galleries or formal art institutions while also working in locations beyond the sphere of the art world. The impact of such mobility, while powerful, needs to be understood and articulated and can allow for new ways of working and co-existing within and outside the so-called art world, that shake up existing frameworks. Many collectives also tend to have a shorter lifespan than formal institutions, and we will consider the death and dispersal of collectives as key moments in their existence, drawing on the experience of the Center for Historical Reenactments’ public suicide. When birds disband from the flock formation, it signifies that the need which brought them together is no longer of relevance; a danger has passed, or the aerodynamic support they provided one another has given sufficient time for rest. To be cognizant of how to separate, shift energies and acknowledge the end of a mission is a skill that will also be discussed; what happens after the seismic movement?
Fundamentally, CR4 is an invitation to think about the “we” and the forms of our relationships to one another. We will question and map strategies that allow the flock to fly and get the job done, and then to leave formation without injury, in a bid to open up this prescient field of study while learning and practicing how we can live better together.