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Cooperation and collaboration are buzzwords in the globalized art world. It’s no wonder, then, that artist collectives seem to be everywhere at the moment: from Documenta to the Turner Prize to the protest movements at museums, one is hard-pressed to find a major art event that isn’t characterized by collaborative practices and the invocation of solidarity. In this context, however, contemporary collectives compete against the normative individualism of neoliberal society: personal responsibility and deregulated social policy have largely replaced the welfare state, and community-based solidarity promises to actively work against this development.

Nevertheless, the affirmative recourse to collectivity threatens to obscure the fact that the concept of community sometimes becomes the central resource in network capitalism: collective self-organization, thought of in this way, compensates for the erosion of public welfare services by reinvesting in individual participation. At the same time, the idealization of collectivity also runs the risk of not acknowledging real hierarchies, dependencies, envy, competition, and conflicts of interest, thereby legitimizing the privilege of individuals under the guise of collectivity. Pop-cultural forms of community-making in particular (for instance, Kanye West’s church-like Sunday Services) know this shift from community to cult all too well – enlightened leader included.

Against this background, the December issue of Texte zur Kunst investigates the relationship between art and activism, as well as the self-understanding of artists who work in and with collectives. In order to fulfill the ideal of emancipatory forms of working and living, communality should not be misinterpreted as a strategy for establishing equality but should instead be understood as a social question – as a means for the redistribution of wealth, participation, and recognition. In art, collectivity has a rich tradition that lives on in contemporary iterations. For instance, the ongoing strikes and protests for fair pay and better working conditions at art institutions such as New York’s New Museum consciously draw on artist-activist collaborations from the 1960s and ’70s, including the Art Workers’ Coalition and Women Artists in Revolution. The artistic interventions concerning the decolonial discourse around Berlin’s Humboldt Forum similarly rely on alliances between networks of artists, cultural producers, and political activists; these alliances are comparable to those that coalesced in founding the political literary magazine Souffles in Morocco in 1966. And collectivity’s art historical precedents encompass a wide range of interests and formations: the group of artists that comprised Art & Language explored aesthetic differentiation in theoretical discussions and their political application, while the core of the decidedly queer community in Warhol’s Factory was ostensibly an experience of “Misfitting Together” (Douglas Crimp) – a kind of productive antagonism from which an aesthetic of the abject and irreconcilable could be derived.

Some collectives, however, have determined their identity through patriarchal systems of power and, consequently, reproduce gender discrimination and capitalist exploitation rather than take them up as subjects to interrogate. Art historian T’ai Smith reexamines the Bauhaus’s collective identity accordingly, illustrating that the community founded by Walter Gropius not only relied on a market-based model of diversification and specialization but was also deeply divided by a conscious separation of the sexes. Similarly, Helmut Draxler considers the serious downsides of collectives in his critique of the form, albeit through a different lens. Analyzing the psychoanalytic theorization of the processes of group dynamics, Draxler argues that a concrete empirical we can never unproblematically speak for a generic we but is instead necessarily limited and finite – and this is precisely where its political essence lies: in enduring the real conflicts that arise when subjects with different experiences, desires, and intentions come together.

Through the example of the Chilean artist collective Colectivo Acciones de Arte (CADA), art historian and curator Julia Bryan-Wilson examines what it means to produce art under dictatorship and to programmatically blur the divisions between art and life. As if out of a Roberto Bolaño novel, CADA, known for its dissident texts during Pinochet’s regime, mimicked military theatrics in its projects – flying squadrons of planes and dropping leaflets onto populations – as a necessary counter-spectacle to refute the State’s fascist powers. Meanwhile, art critic and theorist E. C. Feiss elucidates art’s proximity to and complicity in police control in the context of the United States in the 1960s. In her text, Feiss describes the increasing deindustrialization and automatization that predominantly affected workers of color and how artists Allan Kaprow and Phyllis Yampolsky responded to these developments through their participatory performances before the commodification of dematerialized art.

In art and culture of the present, new configurations of historical concepts of collectivity have an extensive breadth. Journalist Luciana Moherdaui illustrates one example in her narration of the movement that took form at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in Brazil. Projecting political slogans and illustrations onto building facades and walls, this transnationally organized community focused their actions on challenging the Covid misinformation perpetrated by President Jair Bolsonaro and fighting his many attempts to sabotage measures to stop the virus’s spread. Yet another prominent example of the hegemonic capacity of community and public spirit in contemporary artistic practice is the collective ruangrupa from Jakarta, which is in charge of the artistic direction of Documenta 15 taking place next year in Kassel. In a conversation with the art educator and curator Nora Sternfeld, the group explains how they intend to curatorially translate their goal of collective resource building and to what extent education plays a determining role.

As all the contributions to this issue demonstrate, processes of collectivization always carry within them a very particular sense of society. Even when the experimental and collaborative character of a collective seems to prohibit ascribing its work to specific group members, the collective invariably expresses a subjectivity that is grounded in social models. We contend that, in successful moments, the attempt to form alternative ways of togetherness opens up possibilities to understand ourselves socially anew, and it enables us in turn to redefine the relationship between art and democracy.

Katharina Hausladen and Genevieve Lipinsky de Orlov