The Cool Couple & Francesco Spampinato

The Cool Couple & Francesco Spampinato

Come Together: The Rise of Cooperative Art and Design. An interview with Francesco Spampinato.

Come Together: The Rise of Cooperative Art and Design (Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2015) is a collection of interviews with forty of the most important art collectives of the last twenty years. Their strategies and purposes, albeit different, show a common tendency to develop practices that appropriate the aesthetics of mass media and power devices, turning users into an active part of their public actions of re-appropriation. Each chapter is devoted to a group, with the same questions asked, ranging from the nature of collaboration to how to establish an active exchange with the public.

SS: I bought your book a couple of years ago, it attracted me because, working in a collective, I have always been fascinated by the collective dynamics of cultural production in relation to authoriality and relationship with the public. I liked Come Together in the first place because of its structure, based on a set of questions that were replicated to all the people you interviewed. Moreover, the book raises some central issues in the research that we are doing within POIUYT: the role of the collective in this historical period, the way art is transmitted outside its habitat, the development of practices with which to stimulate a reflection on the processes of formation of the collective imaginary. These are the reasons I contacted you and I thank you very much for having agreed to share some reflections on your research with us. We start from the origin of the book: your sources, the duration of the research, the selection criteria at the base of the geography of Come Together, which also includes areas that we tend to overlook.

FS: Come Together was born from a much wider, nearly encyclopaedic, research that expands from the avant-garde of the early 20th century. In the book I tried to focus on a more recent time span, going from the late 1990s up to today. I set this limit as I wanted to understand what distinguishes these groups and what makes them unique in our time: not just their ways of operating, but the very reasons of their existence.

Most of their production, in fact, corresponds to the period of expansion of the Internet and digital technologies. In addition, I wanted to understand how these practices are symptomatic of new lifestyles where technology plays a key role in pushing us to work collectively. The Internet has shown us new collaborative practices even though the much-praised utopian and democratic side of the Internet of the beginnings has been completely downplayed in the following years.

I have selected the groups according to their origin. The majority is inevitably American or European, but I tried to avoid a research exclusively focused on the West. That’s why I looked around and I also included several duos and groups of South Americans, Australians and Asians. It is interesting to note that in countries where the economic situation makes it difficult to set up an art system, the collective and independent spaces often play a fundamental role.

Ruangrupa, Singapore Fiction, Installation, 10th Singapore Biennale, National
Museum, Singapore 2011
Courtesy of the artist

For example, Ruangrupa is a collective from Jakarta and has a crucial role in Indonesia as an incubator of cross cultural activities, involving very different audiences through events such as an experimental cinema festival, exhibitions, happenings and markets for young artisans and designers. By doing so, more than opposing the nearly non-existent artistic context, Ruangrupa invented its own system for the production and enjoyment of art and related practices. From collectives like this I learned a lot — as a European I was completely in tune with other groups’ strategies and political backgrounds — but with Ruangripa or South American collectives I faced a completely unknown territory.

Paper Rad, Mirror Phazer, Video still, 2006
Courtesy of the artist

SS: The discourse around the geography of art, the relationship with institutions and dynamics of a networked society, brings me to ask you if and how much the political agendas are relevant for the collectives you analysed.

FS: Not all groups are openly political: for example, Paper Rad, claims disengagement as one of their main characteristics, taking refuge in the pre-digital memories of their childhood in the ’80s and’ 90s and giving cartoon icons and videogame an uncanny look, which is familiar and monstrous at the same time.
Even when political commitment is more evident, it frees itself from an ideology known to build a dystopian simulation. The Israeli collective Public Movement, for example, organises public performances theatralising the choreography of the state apparatus, inscribing symbols of power in parades and celebratory dysfunctional events, based on abstract elements. There is no clear purpose but to illustrate the very idea of ​​celebration and show how a government produces consensus among citizens through an event that is part of their everyday life.

Public Movement, Performing Politics for Germany, Public performance, Berlin 2009
Photography: David Schmidt

SS: I believe that this kind of action is extremely useful as it articulates a question regarding the effectiveness and pervasiveness of power structures at a time when power has been dematerialised to such an extent that it no longer has a face. Similarly, the stimulation of critical thinking about power apparatuses is already a political act. I think that Come Together can also be seen as a collection of collective-based political strategies to return people some form of power, the power to understand something in a world in which it is increasingly difficult to distinguish reality from fiction.

FS: Exactly. Much of the artistic production of the twentieth century has gone in the same direction: think about the transformation from the Historical Avant-gardes to those forms of “mass avant-garde“ that have emerged since the 1960s as rock music, for instance. In the production of the collectives I interviewed in the book, performance plays a central role as it extends the group’s dynamics to people involved in its activities, sometimes accidentally, if we consider that many of these actions take place directly in the public space. Actually, one of the questions I asked is: “Does your engagement with one another translate into an engagement with the public? How so?”.

Metahaven, Transparent Camouflage, WikiLeaks scarf, 2011
Photo: Meinke Klein
Courtesy of the artist

SS: In addition to performance, what is emerging in collective practice is also the appropriation of strategies, devices and aesthetics typical of the systems they aim to deconstruct, as in the case of Metahaven.

FS: This was one of my interests since the beginning of the research and a characteristic common to all, including those older groups such as Center for Tactical Magic or The Yes Men: the simulation of languages and mechanisms typical to the economy and the entertainment industry in order to render them dysfunctional.

In addition to Metahaven, I remember DIS, whose language is borrowed from stock photography, social media and various forms of digital entertainment. The simulation, in this case, has translated into a real site of stock photography, DISimages, where images are produced and commissioned by them.
The site works just like any other database of this type, allowing the purchase of images and their usage rights for commercial purposes even if it is not clear what the object of promotion is.

DIS, New in Stock, Photograph, 2010
Courtesy of the artist

SS: What is the relationship between these practices and the taxonomy of the art world?
Since their effectiveness is based on the likelihood of device and experience, these groups stand at its borders.

FS: Yes, and they do it mostly through immaterial production, refusing labels, and contaminating various forms of cultural production, for example by tearing down the boundaries between art and visual communication as Metahaven does. Their production is divided between commissions (which can go from the cover for a Sternberg Press book to the visual identity for an exhibition event) and independent projects for other types of users, but packaged with the same style. Artistic projects in which they produce a dysfunctional commercial product. When they created the visual identity of WikiLeaks, with a merchandising line that includes a set of silk scarves (perfectly communicating the concepts of transparency and opacity), these were not really genuine products, but objects that proposed an idea, a suggestion to live in a different way.

SS: One of the terms you use to describe the practices of some of the collectives in the book is “artivism”, can you explain why that is?

FS: Artivism combines the idea of art and activism. It seemed to me a strong term to sum up the foundational concepts of the book. Certainly you can’t apply it to all the collectives, but some of them welcome this definition.

SS: Talking about activism through art tools raises the issue of relations with the public. Many of these groups work in order to turn users into an active part of the process, into real cultural producers.

FS: After all, this is also the result of digital culture and the massive use of its technologies, the so-called prosumer technologies, which transform the consumer into a producer and distributor of content.
The collectives I have chosen for Come Together treat their audience in the same way, not looking down at it with arrogance, as was often the case in the 20th century, but establishing a horizontal relationship with the users of their work.

SS: I was going through the introduction to your book, which collects groups that employ a wide range of languages to generate strong, often dystopian imagery. It seems to me that their activity and their existence can be intended as the symptoms of a deficiency in the traditional exhibition system.
Introducing Come Together, you quote Umberto Eco and Opera Aperta, arguing that the experience of a work is a real performance. What I see in these collectives is the development of strategies to cope with the deficiencies of a system, which is struggling to adapt to the changes that have transformed cultural fruition over the last twenty years. Perhaps operating at the limits of the art system is one of the few genuine ways to thoroughly question the meaning of “exhibiting” a project.

FS: True. The traditional model of art is now obsolete from my point of view. If we consider the absurdity of some market dynamics and observe with which criteria the value of a work is dictated and how quickly this same value increases or fades completely, we can say that much of this world is subject to speculative dynamics. But art, in itself, is born as an intellectual phenomenon and is not reducible to a label or a system of rules for its marketing or enjoyment. Art is where you least expect to find it. And it doesn’t suit everyone. Many of these collectives, just because of the fact of working in groups, propose alternative ways of producing and distributing art.

Etcétera…, Urban Errorist Cartography: Palestine and Estado de Israel Streets,
Street action, Buenos Aires 2009
Photo: Subcoop
Courtesy of the artist

SS: Another theme emerging from the book is that of public space. It is a subject that periodically returns upfront with vehemence, in a time when it is subtracted from us by a series of dynamics, ranging from terrorist attacks to gentrification processes. Instead, private spaces simulate public ones, from the architecture of a shopping mall to social media. How do the practices of these groups fit into a similar context? Is there still a chance for public space?

FS: Public space is crucial: almost all social movements and protests are born in this dimension and have made it not only the place in which to intervene, but also the content of their activity: they release space and return it to those who have been denied. There are also phenomena such as the Carnival, a time of liberation and subversion of the established order, in which an anonymous figure can rise on the podium and mock the system.

The occupation of public space is of fundamental importance to remember how much the reality we live in does not belong to us and that we can’t do what we want in our streets, as shown by Occupy!, whose name alone describes the very reason for its existence: the revolutionary gesture of occupation. Many of the groups presented in Come Together tried to do the same thing. Etcétera…, from Buenos Aires, often performs public carnivals where they propose the slogan “errorism” as a way to understand the present context, where public space is not only governed by a greater plan but also by uncontrollable dynamics such as terrorism. The idea of ​​”errorism” invites us to stop in order to understand the mistake underlying the way we live and the criteria governing public space, both the material and the virtual one.

Francesco Spampinato is a writer and historian of contemporary art and visual culture. After two bachelor’s degrees at the University of Bologna, he received a Master in Modern Art from Columbia University and currently holds a PhD at Arts et Média at the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris. From 2011 to 2015 he was an adjunct professor at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence, where he taught history and theory of contemporary art and history of performance art in relation to the mass media.
He also taught at NABA in Milan and the Parsons School of Design in New York. His articles have appeared on academic journals such as NECSUS, PAJ, Senses of Cinema and Stedelijk Studies, and widely distributed publications such as Apartamento, DAMn °, DIS, Flash Art, Kaleidoscope, Mould, L’Uomo Voglie and Waxpoetics. Spampinato is the author of the books Come Together: The Rise of Cooperative Art and Design, Princeton Architectural Press, New York (2015), Can You Hear Me? Music Labels by Visual Artists, Onomatopee, Eindhoven (2015), and Art Record Covers, TASCHEN, Cologne (2017).

Francesco Spampinato, Come Together. The Rise of Cooperative Art and Design, Princeton Architectural Press, 2014. 20,3×25,4 cm, paperback, 256 pages, 400 colour images, is available on Amazon.