This week, Aid & Abet (AKA Sarah Evans and David Kefford) facilitated an experimental drawing session in the Art & Design Gallery. Inspired by Surrealist and Dadaist games, Evans and Kefford invited participants from across the School of Creative Arts to collaborate, led by the research question, “what happens when you combine, collide and layer multiple artworks?”
Participants were presented with an array of mark-making materials, boxes of everyday objects, overhead projectors, and reams of paper on which they were invited to project “3-4 small scale objects”, and “trace around the silhouettes”. They were then invited to cut sections from printed images, produced in advanced by the artists, and to combine these with the traced silhouettes. Although beginning with these very precise instructions, participants were free to subvert the guidelines and make unexpected decisions about the treatment of the available objects and materials. They invited audiences to engage in a dialogue, not with words, but with actions and images. Kefford describes this as “call and response” – a process in which one participant (or Kefford himself) creates a mark or image, and then invites others to respond by altering or building upon what he has created.
In this process, work is never finished. When one participant ends his or her creation, another may continue to develop or transform it. An image may be fragmented or disassembled, then overlapped, combined, and reassembled in new ways. It is “transient; never really fixed”. This constant evolution inevitably results from a desire to a focus on the process rather than the outcome. “The final work is in the moment”, says Kefford, and in “the experience. We do not produce tangible objects, but are more interested in the moment of making and being.”
As in many collaborations with audiences, questions of ownership arise. Sarah and David do see themselves as authoring the project, but are creators of the conditions for the production of work, rather than producers of the work itself. They provide the materials and set the stage for the collaboration, as well as providing guidelines for participants. To that extent, they define the nature of participation. Kefford describes finding a balance between the desire to invite participants to contribute “on their own terms”, and the need to constrain their contributions. The artists see the collaboration as “democratic”, and “non-hierarchical”, but also recognise that “if anything goes… it could become chaotic”.
There are, therefore, “conditions” of participation. They share images of their own previous work, in the hope of guiding participants to work in similar ways. They have also posted a specific list of instructions on the gallery walls, telling participants how many objects they should use, providing an order in which the various stages of creation should take place, and even imposing overall aims on participants’ activities, guiding them to “create new abstract patterns through association”. These conditions lead to “expectations about the process, but not the outcomes”. Evans and Kefford “steer and “shape” the process to suit their own sensibilities, but also celebrate unexpected responses.
One way in which they maintain control over the outcome is by limiting the availability of materials. Mark-making materials are only available in black and white. This, says Evans, is how they ensure that “everything feels like part of a single, cohesive artwork”. The artists’ participation at the start of the session guides others to use materials in similar ways. As a result, participants from a range of backgrounds find themselves instinctively turning to the same methods and gestures. The work of one participant becomes indistinguishable from that of another, and the artefacts spread across the gallery feel as though they are products of the same mind.
For Kefford, one benefit of collaboration of this kind is the opportunity for learning that arises from watching how participants respond to the task. He invites them to interfere, and embraces unexpected responses, desiring to learn alternative approaches to the materials and tasks laid out in the gallery. On this occasion, the artists were thrilled to see how participants made unexpected use of the discarded remnants of printouts of their previous work, turning them into three-dimensional forms. After the artists had cut out objects from these printouts, participants retrieved the negative shapes that were left behind and twisted them into sculptural forms, arranging them in ways that cast interesting shadows on the walls. These unexpected, sculptural responses, says Evans, were made possible by the quality of the light in the gallery and the thick paper of the printouts, both of which were serendipitously discovered by participants, and unplanned by the artists.
Evans notes that audiences gain by observing as well as watching. During their time in the gallery, a number of observers chose to watch but not participate. Kefford identifies the value in watching, both for the artist and the observer. The presence of an audience transforms the project into a work of performance art, giving value to the methods of production as well as the outcomes.
Though Evans and Kefford have invited participants and observers into their Cambridge studio in the past, Evans notes that the experience in the UH gallery was very different. This was an “opportunity to upscale”, and Evans found working at this scale particularly informative. She noted that, in such a public setting, the artist cannot hide. She and her process are exposed to the scrutiny of passers-by, making her hyper-aware of how her work looks at every stage.