Vague Terrain 17: Collaborative Spaces

Neil Wiernik & Corina MacDonald

Neil Wiernik: According to the world's largest collaborative tool Wikipedia: "Collaboration is a recursive process where two or more people or organizations work together in an intersection of common goals by sharing knowledge, learning and building consensus. Most collaboration requires leadership, although the form of leadership can be social within a decentralized and egalitarian group. In particular, teams that work collaboratively can obtain greater resources, recognition and reward when facing competition for finite resources." Most recently, collaboration has taken a turn where virtual spaces have become a focal point of people coming together to engage in a variety of collaborative processes. New services are popping up all over the place most notably in the world of audio or music making these on line collaboration tools have been around for some time now and obviously have their roots in the collaborations that came out of the on line worlds of IRC channels, BBSs, mailing lists, message boards and other early forms of social media before Web 2.0. These ideas or tools are not exclusive to music makers but can be found popping up in other places as well – virtual spaces for thinkers, coders/programmers, photographers, designers, video makers and others, spaces where the denizens of the digital world can practice their crafts and collaborate on projects.

So Corina, you and I worked together remotely you in Montreal and myself in Toronto to put this issue together, we used some collaborative tools to do so. Keeping in the spirit of the issue theme, what's your opinion? Do you like the idea of working collaboratively completely online, or do you prefer to be face-to-face? Do you think online collaboration eventually will replace in-the-flesh sessions for culture makers?

Corina MacDonald: ‘Social media’ has become a ubiquitous term to describe the platforms and tools that enable interaction through digital networks. Although the term is fairly recent and generally used to refer to recent technological developments, the internet has been a social space since the beginning as evidenced by many of the older tools you mentioned. Of course today we’re moving at an exponentially faster pace and the collaborative spaces available are much more sophisticated. I think I see collaboration on a spectrum across physical and virtual space and synchronous and asynchronous communication, depending on the constraints of a particular project. We used a range of tools in putting together this issue, including email, Google Wave and Skype. So although we were never physically in the same space we were able to communicate in various ways to suit our needs. I wouldn’t wager to guess that online collaboration will replace face time entirely in the near future; whether the face time is ‘real’ or ’virtual’ I think that real-time communication is always going to be an important aspect of collaborative creative work.

Likewise in this issue I think we have an interesting cross section of work that reflects this spectrum of possibility. Kate Carr’s project Listening to the Weather uses the web as a collaborative medium and space of interaction between visitors and artists. Max Tanguay’s kollab project also uses the network as a means of sharing source materials and diffusing the results of the creative process. The Artivistic collective explains the collaborative processes they put in place to organize the 4th edition of their international transdisciplinary three-day gathering, TURN*ON and some of the difficulties they encountered in translating online collaboration into physical space.

Neil, how do you think online collaboration will evolve alongside face-to-face work – do you think that the technology is moving in a direction to eventually allow us to emulate our physical practices or do you think that the technology itself might change our ideas of what collaboration is?

NW: I think digital space has really only created at this point and time, what I like to refer to as secondary spaces for collaborations to take place in. I believe that face to face or the actual presence of two artists together in a space still needs to happen on some level. The virtual space allows for the practice of work between two artists in different physical locations to occur in a collaborative manner but it does not replace the physical space, rather it acts as a mediator between the two physical spaces that the work is occuring in. For the most part, collaboration in the virtual sense to this point and time appears to be a common means for artists to exchange material or ideas and the concept of true real time virtual space seems to be a future possibility as Software as a service (SaaS) technology becomes more of a reality. Sure, there are tools being used for real time collaborations between artists and often these tools were not intended for these kinds of uses – for instance musicians in different cities might use Skype to work on music together. However, a purely digital space that allows— example—photographers to share a tool and edit a photo together in real time is still a thought and not a reality. It is there that I come to see digital collaborative space as a space that mediates between two artists, a place to exchange a material or ideas to then go back into the non virtual world to work on that collaboration.

This is most evident in the work of Morgan Packard and Josh Ott: they created their generative A/V iPhone app thicket using a chat client to talk through the programming process and to exchange the files as they worked on them. Herman Kolgen and Kenneth Kirschner are also working in different cities and exchange files of sample sources and ideas but then both return to their perspective studios to work on these audio collaborations based on their mutual love of sounds from toy instruments. Dehashis Sinha and Robert Lippok whom live on two different continents exchange ideas via email but when it comes to creating their body of work Sinha travels to Berlin, Germany to record these musical ideas in person with Lippok. Hemiptera a laptop music duo who live together within the close quarters of a mobile home. Unlike Lippok and Sinha they use the same computer to work on their music, so here we are moving towards a concept of a united digital space where the creative process is connected on a single hard drive using one software space, but the process of that collaboration is face to face and in person. All of my examples of artists (save this final exception) use digital collaborative spaces as a tool through which to conceive and mediate the work but not to execute it. I/O Media has been able to do both: as a media collective they not only work face to face, where they create multilayered live A/V performances but they have also worked in a real time virtual space to produce: Soundreach, A live improvised audiovisual performance between China and Canada, featuring Chinese sound artist Zen Lu.

Using live feeds between the two performance spaces in Canada and China I/O Media and Zen Lu were able to create a collaborative space that is uniquely digital in nature. The A/V results of both artists existed only in the virtual space, where they performed together in real time interaction.
What I am trying to say with all this is that yes, it is possible for a digital space to become a space for the creation of an artistic work but is natural for us to work in that manner? Is it intuitive enough at this point that we are willing to completely abandon our physical spaces to create an undefined space which we will use for creating art, or is our way of processing information grounded in using digital space as a place to mediate our practices? I think and feel like that is what we are hoping to understand a little bit better with exploring the concept of collaborative spaces for digital artists – do they even exist at this point or is it a manufactured idea and are "collaborative virtual tools" just a more advanced form of meditation than a landline telephone or a hand written letter?

Corina, you have mentioned some of the artists you worked with for this issue, but what about the other participants – how do you feel they relate to what I am stating above? How do they use their digital spaces to collaborate?

CM: It is interesting that you bring up the idea of software itself as a digital space. While somehow this seems an obvious metaphor we are not used to thinking about our use of software in this way. It is generally considered simply another tool alongside physical instruments, but I would argue that these kinds of digital spaces have a significant influence on our artistic practices at a broader level, even in our physical practices. As an example we can consider how the use of audio editing software has changed our work with sound from a primarily aural experience to an aural/visual one.

Looking beyond software to digital networks, these have had a huge influence in flattening our access to ideas, images and sounds from around the world, thereby again changing our physical and real time creative practices. Matt Shadetek, who works both solo and within a family of collaborators through his blog/label/production crew Dutty Artz, has some interesting thoughts on local and the global sources of inspiration and the role of the network in musical exploration across multiple contexts. The duo of Freida Abtan and Shane Turner (f.a.s.t.) work together both remotely and in proximity bridging physical and virtual spaces. Anne-Francoise Jacques and Nicolas Dion of Minibloc are more representative of the face to face end of the collaboration spectrum, experimenting with the sounds created by physical objects and devices that they create or find or manipulate. Their work deals with the physical properties of sound and in their live performances they work side by side to explore parallel or convergent sonic directions.

NW: It really feels like the idea of cloud computing (SaaS) has still not enveloped the world of creative practices yet, that the present day space for collaboration for artists still relies on electronic networking, communication and mediation tools, creating the means for mutual feedback to occur but not a collaboration in real time on a single piece of software. However that is not to say that the practice of collaboration is not accelerated and enhanced by digital technology, but the ways in which these networking and mediation/communication tools are used have not evolved beyond a rudimentary level. There is still much room for further exploration of these tools, and we can look forward to the emergence of new modes of working that truly embody the possibilities of digital collaborative space.