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Brum Sputnik Hub Review: Learning to Collaborate Well

At our Brum Sputnik Hub gathering before Christmas, we set a project for us all to sink our teeth into. Sitting around talking about our work is worthwhile, but it’s also good to actually make some new work together sometimes. Therefore we initiated ‘The Future Project’.

This is the brief: create a piece of work that meets two criteria: it has to be based around the theme ‘the future’. And it has to be collaborative.

So, at our Brum Sputnik Hub meet-up on Saturday, we showcased some of the work-in-progress and discussed the whole topic of collaboration. As always, it was a fantastic way to wile away a Saturday afternoon. I’m afraid I can’t capture in a blog post the ambience of Churchcentral’s new office (oooh), the taste of aged Mexican cheddar on a bed of rosemary dry biscuit (mmmm) or the buzz of meeting new people (aaah). But I can jot down some thoughts about collaboration that we stumbled upon.

The basic challenge of the project was (and still is) how to encourage collaboration between people who don’t necessarily know each other very well or who aren’t really used to collaborating. We expect to see some excellent work produced through the project, but we know that if the bar is set too high, some people will struggle to take risks in teaming up with others. To one artist collaboration is second nature, to another artist it’s unknown, and somewhat scary, territory.

Well, here are some reflections on how people have navigated these difficulties so far in this project:

Collaborating at the ideas level

This seemed to be where most people started: Luke Sewell and Benjamin Harris’ conspiratorial meet up to discuss a future in which the empires of old are overturned. The three vocalists from the rap group Michaelis Constant (for those who are of a certain age!) getting their heads back together to create visions of 2088. Graphic designer Sanju Karmacharya and painter Jay Mcleister were well on their way to creating a positive and thought-provoking piece involving layers of beautifully cut card and then scrapped the idea as they became convinced that they should collaborate on a project about death, since when they think  of the future, that’s the word that looms largest.

I think that the idea of collaboration can seem very daunting because people think solely in terms of combining their skills together in the production of a piece. Actually, often the best way to start is to hang out, drink some tea and shoot the breeze. Even if one of the collaborators is more prominent in the creative execution of the idea, if the idea is honed together, that certainly meets the criteria.

Collaborating in execution

For Josh and Stephen Whitehouse’s impressive Humanization project, Stephen conceived the basic idea for this series of comics and wrote the story and then brought his son Josh in on the project. Josh is more than simply the illustrator though. His involvement is honing the project more and more as each issue emerges, for example by making it less dialogue-heavy and by populating Stephen’s world with characters from Josh’s broad range of inspirations from the world of animated and science fiction geekdom. This kind of collaboration, where one artist basically responds to another’s work and then transforms it into a new thing seems like a brilliant way to do things.

TJ Francis and Naomi Haworth simply brought their individual ideas into the group setting to get feedback and see if they could spark others off. Naomi laid out her thought process up to this point and where she feels the theme is taking her, and offered her service as singer and multi-instrumentalist to anyone who’d like to team up. TJ presented an excellent and very personal poetic response to the theme and an emotive field recording of a choir that had inspired him and sounded us out on who’d like to add another dimension to the work (video, music, whatever).

Some Brum Sputnik hub affiliates couldn’t be there this week including the band Midsummer and the artist Paul Chipperfield, and although not related to ‘The Future’ project, their present collaboration is also worth reflecting on. Not only did Paul design the album cover for Midsummer’s forthcoming debut album but he’s also come up with a comic strip to accompany the band’s anthemic ‘Made in Birmingham’. Again, great to see an artist sparking off another artist’s work to make something new.

Finally, Chris Donald spoke of his collaborative role as a musical facilitator. As Joel Wilson, Mike Gilbert and myself seek to create a rap narrative of a future world featuring our own grandchildren, he has stepped in to provide the soundscape to match our desire to avoid both strictly dystopian or utopian visions of the future (so avoiding the extremes of dour mechanical beats on one side or lush arrangements on the other). Another great collaboration, which I am presently absolutely loving.

Collaborating by inspiring

Let’s face it; almost all artwork involves collaboration somewhere. Yes, I’m sure there are a few of you hermits out there who just lock yourselves away and paint or write and thrive off that solitude. However, for many of us, we need others every step of the way, and if we do try to go it alone, our work will suffer for it.

Hopefully, just meeting together and discussing the challenges and opportunities we’ve found in collaborating, as well as showing some of our collaborative works-in-progress will itself inspire others into action. That’s the plan anyway.

Perhaps, you too feel inspired to get involved, even by this post. Well, the Future Project is by no means finished. A few of us have made a start, but we have an actual deadline now: 1st July. If the idea of responding to ‘The Future’ and working together with another artist floats your boat, get collaborating and submit your work to me by then. Here’s the full brief (ignore the somewhat premature deadline).

There may be an exhibition. There may be some sort of publication. There may simply be a whole load of visionary pieces of work floating about and a group of artists who are more effective collaborators.

All these goals seem like success to me.

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