Working with collaborators

Published February 2022

Artists Winnie Herbstein, Stephen Sutcliffe and Rehana Zaman respond to five set questions on the subject of working with collaborators’. They share their experience, of working with others to realise new work, with you in writing below.

contributors

Winnie Herbstein’s work is focussed on gendered labour and materials, historical and contemporary forms of organising, and the architecture and formation of space. She is based between Glasgow and Amsterdam.

Greenock based artist Stephen Sutcliffe (1968, Harrogate) creates film collages from an extensive archive of British television, film sound, broadcast images and spoken word recordings which he has been collecting since childhood. Often reflecting on aspects of British culture and identity, the results are melancholic, poetic and satirical amalgams which subtly tease out and critique ideas of class-consciousness and cultural authority. Through an extensive editing process Sutcliffe’s works pitch sound against image to subvert predominant narratives, generating alternative readings through the juxtaposition and synchronisation of visual and aural material. Recently he has extended his practice to include working with collaborators with backgrounds in film and theatre.

Rehana Zaman is an artist from Heckmondwike based in London. Her work speaks to the entanglement of personal experience and social life, where moments of intimacy are framed against cultural orthodoxies and state coercion. Conversation and cooperative methods sit at the heart of her practice.

How do you manage working with others who bring technical skills to a project?

Winnie Herbstein: When I first started making videos, I felt self conscious working with people who had technical know-how. Like a lot of artists, I’m self taught and felt that not having the right language or understanding of the process would stop me from arriving at what I needed for the project. In the early stages, I would do everything myself, which is totally unsustainable in the long term. So out of necessity, I began working with others.

Through this, I’ve learnt that it’s important to be clear about your expectations of each other; your knowledge (or lack of) the technical skills; your financial situation and the timelines that you are working to. In recent projects, I’ve begun putting the timeline and budget into writing so that we have a joint reference point as the work progresses. It sounds a bit formal, especially with friends, but can often just ensure that everyone is on the same page.

Stephen Sutcliffe: The best way I have found to involve technicians is to describe what you are looking to do with the help of references from other works that have the same feel of what you are looking for. Sometimes they, in turn, will suggest something themselves which you can look at. Rarely is this one reference though so sometimes it’s good to collage together a few influences to get an idea across.

It’s important to respect the knowledge that the technicians’ have in their particular field but you should be careful not to let them lead you in directions you have not properly considered. It takes time to learn how to ask for something with confidence, especially if you don’t know the technicians you are working with well, but when it comes to filming you need to give clear instructions, especially when time restraints are involved (professional rates can be pretty expensive) and if not using professionals you might have a time limit on your location etc. If possible, timetable, using a shooting script to keep everyone informed as it helps to have some sort of structure.

Rehana Zaman: It’s a real pleasure to have insight into the technical expertise of another person and I often look forward to these moments in a project. The managing’ will depend on the nature of the working relationship – if it’s something production orientated, working with a cameraperson or sound engineer for instance, the challenge is trying to articulate what I want before I know exactly what it is (before I want to determine exactly what it is). It’s often easier to say what it isn’t. Although I plan filming carefully I also like to allow space for improvisation and a responsive approach.

In production I tend to work best with people who are comfortable with this and happy to dialogue through the making process, and have tended to work across projects with the same collaborators. I really appreciate how developing these ongoing relationships allows for a shorthand to develop, a shared working rhythm. In regards to the practical concerns around working with others I try to work with good working practices – meeting artist union rates of pay, planning working days in advance so work doesn’t creep into evenings or weekends (unless that’s desired of course) and not expecting collaborators to self-exploit and accept low fees or work extra hours just because I’ve decided to. And where the budget is limited but there is love and desire to collaborate I try and offset this in other projects – paying generously elsewhere or merging budgets, trying to be creative with how money circulates or just finding another means of exchange such as a skills share.

How has a particular work of yours been strengthened by the relationships formed with others involved in the project?

Winnie Herbstein: In 2018 I made a film called Studwork. This was the first time I’d had any kind of budget for a project and the first time I’d worked with more than one person on making it happen. As part of the project, I spent the day with young women apprentices in Glasgow, who were training to be plumbers and electricians. The plan was simple, to run a workshop with the group, followed by one-on-one interviews. I asked a friend, who had experience making documentaries, if she would be available to operate a camera whilst I focus on the group. She agreed and arranged to meet beforehand to talk through the project.

Before we met, she had done her research, sharing a series of essays to read and suggesting questions we could ask during the interview. She wanted to know what I was looking for from my footage, pushing me to think about it in the context of the final edit. It seems bizarre now, but these were things that I had not thought through in any formal way before. I was so used to working alone where winging it’ had always felt enough. This working relationship taught me to prepare and to open up your process, in order to respect both the people you are working with and the project you are working on.

Stephen Sutcliffe: You often find yourself using the same people again and again. This is not just for their technical abilities but for the atmosphere they engender when you are working with them. Some people just seem to inherently understand what you are after as they have similar sensibilities. The communication between you can be both encouraging and supportive.

You might like to work with someone who is the polar opposite just to see what happens though, maybe with just a few tenuous links between your areas of interest. I am currently involved in a show like this with the working title It’s Complicated.

Rehana Zaman: I’m currently working on a project with several women who’ve been affected by the carceral state and are Black or POC. Our conversations began in January 2018 supported by curators and organisers Amal Khalaf, Elizabeth Graham and Layla Gatens as part of a Serpentine Projects commission and took the form of multiple workshops towards the production of a film.

It’s been a really difficult project for a number of reasons and the work has developed really slowly over this time, in terms of resolved outcomes’ it appears as if nothing much has happened at all. I feel fundamentally transformed by the conversations and relationships that have formed over this time and am convinced that these relationships wouldn’t have felt as affecting if the process hadn’t been so difficult; the group so transient, and the experiences shared, difficult to process. I really appreciate how my group working methods were thrown into question by this project and the entire notion of an output’ or public facing artwork also turned on its head.

I’ve been really lucky to have had additional conversations with Amal, Lizzie and Layla alongside the sessions with the group and informed by our work elsewhere independent of one another – the curatorial positions, artist role, friendships feel quite fluid which has at times been disorientating but also deepened how the work is formed through the political and practical questions of abolition that lie at the centre of it – building relationships, imagining our relations differently moving away from practices of harm and rethinking what an artwork is and can do.

What advice would you give to other artists who would like to work with performers but have never done so?

Winnie Herbstein: Be clear about what it is that you want or that if you don’t know yet, communicate that too. Working together can be an exchange or it can be a transaction. In my experience, a focus on exchange has led to the most fruitful projects.

Finding the right people to work with can be a big hurdle. I usually ask friends to see if they know of anyone, to send out the feelers. Spend time getting to know the performer(s) you are working with and make sure to check-in with them throughout the process. Screening the work before it becomes public, with the opportunity to feed back, is also helpful.

Of course, things can become complicated by access to finances. If you have little to no budget, be honest about your financial situation and when applying for funding always quote industry standard rates for their work. If you can’t pay someone now, perhaps you can exchange skills and/​or time, but always be respectful of people’s capacity to be involved with your work.

Stephen Sutcliffe: Performers seem to hate not knowing what to do, even if this is just a loose instruction that you work out with them in advance. I once spent one day of a two-day shoot being very timid and wasted it completely. Actors can be very generous and will, on the whole, not be upset to take another approach if one is not working. Sometimes I see work where it seems the artist has only gone with the first take and unless this is the point of the project it can look very stilted. Getting rehearsal time with actors in advance is invaluable if it’s possible. Trying things out without the time pressures of the shoot is a lot less intense.

Rehana Zaman: Allow enough time; from finding the right person to work with to developing a relationship and shared understanding of the work. In my experience having clear ideas and parameters has allowed for richer improvisation. Be up- front about payment, how much you have and what you would like for that, including any rehearsal time, and be willing to amend.

What challenges have you encountered when involving family or friends in the production or development of a new work?

Winnie Herbstein: I tend to work with friends more often than not. It can be enriching but working with friends and family is certainly never a straightforward thing. I think it’s easy for both sides to take each other for granted. Whilst a close relationship allows for conversations to happen in more informal and generative ways, it can also mean that boundaries are not formed and deadlines become vague. I have experienced this in the past, struggling to assert myself over what is required for the project, in order not to unsettle a friendship. This has led to areas of the work being sacrificed, or highly stressful situations occurring unnecessarily.

As in our relationships, it’s important to try and be clear with one another and to recognise that this is a process of growth and learning. I’m always making mistakes and trying to learn how to do it better the next time around.

Stephen Sutcliffe: Working with friends can be difficult because of your on-going relationship with them. If you could switch completely between professional and personal with them, completely separating the two, it wouldn’t be a problem. You might see a different side to your friend when you start working with them and this takes time to understand. For example, directors need to be quite err.…direct.

If you are working in collaboration then you both have equal say. This is different if you are employing your friend or relative as a technician or an actor as they should understand that you are leading the process. I have worked with friends in both these ways and am thankfully still friends with them.

My family are quite shy so I have sometimes surreptitiously involved them in works (always letting them approve their involvement before exhibition). When I have worked with them directly we have both found the situation uncomfortable for the first 20 minutes. It then gets better as they start to understand what you are after.

Rehana Zaman: There’s obviously a strong personal dimension to working with family that feels really exposing. I worry quite a bit about the implications of this; how do I ensure family members understand that our work will be public, viewed, discussed, and interacted with as my family aren’t familiar with and don’t engage with art at all. There’s also a concern around how the sharing of a difficult experience might have repercussions beyond the work and impact that person’s life or have a bearing on the community they identify with. Although it’s not something that’s happened, it’s a concern that it might happen the more my work circulates. I guess this is as relevant to wider collaborations as it is to family and friends. A corollary of this is how do I honour agreements around participation and contribution to work, and remain attuned to the fact that people change and might feel differently about work they’ve contributed to, when relationships outlive the artwork. I’m still working out how to respond to these questions but hope by not shying away from them the possibilities become apparent.

I sometimes feel like the art world relies on friendships –mates love to work with their mates or become mates through working together- and these networks are intrinsic to how things happen. As much as I love to work with friends and I often do – I feel like those intimacies and connections are really fundamental to so many projects I’ve been part of – I’ve also sometimes found it difficult to maintain positive working relationships with clear boundaries and good communication. Do you ask more of your friends precisely because they are your friends, or do you avoid the difficult conversations? I’m trying hard to enact a different politics around this, to really protect these relationships – there’s so much more at stake and it’s really awful when things go wrong.

How has working with collaborators shaped your wider practice?

Winnie Herbstein: Being an artist for me is about the ability to communicate ideas. Whether collaborating with a friend, hiring a musician to write a soundtrack or interviewing a town planner about a housing development, working with people is all about communication. I hope that as I learn to be open and responsive to those that I am working with, the process of communication is present at the very core of the work.

Stephen Sutcliffe: Collaborating has let me see how other people work close up. It can be an incredibly steep learning curve, especially when they come from another discipline. It can help you achieve things that would have been daunting on your own. When you move on to your next project you take a bit of them with you and it can give you confidence. I used to do everything myself on my works (and sometimes still do) just because I hated asking or telling people to do something. But when you see that collaborators want that from you when you work with them, it makes you less shy to express yourself. Remember that they are probably going through the same thing too.

Rehana Zaman: Working with collaborators has enriched my understanding of what collaboration is, that it’s a live thing constantly shaped by those who are taking part and being a collaborator in no way guarantees a fair, easy, comfortable or ethical relationship. My takeaway is to hold, at the forefront of my mind, how working with others, being attuned to the dynamics that shape those relationships, and how working in mutually supportive ways – is embedded within a project, can extend beyond an artwork into all the relationships and support structures that scaffold art making, as well as the areas that might be considered my wider practice – such as teaching or work with organisations and groups.



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