Working as a collective

  • Close Up by Cristina Vezzini (Ceramics and Glass, 2013)

Working collectively isn’t always easy, but it’s a great way to gain experience and pool resources, and if you work with friends it can even be fun. Beatrice Schulz spoke to Mathew Leung from architecture and design collective Assemble and James Early from Peckham-based art collective Lucky PDF to share their experiences

Collectives tend to develop from groups of friends working together, and to begin with can be quite ad hoc. If your collective gains momentum and is offered more projects, it makes sense to formalise certain things. Assemble chose to register as a CIC in April 2011. Mathew explains, “A CIC is less heavily regulated than a charity, but all the assets are still locked into the company. You can still spend money on paying people, but you can’t sell the company.”

Lucky PDF was initially started by two friends, John Hill and Ollie Hogan, as a platform for artists who had recently graduated, but came together in its current formation to produce a TV series alongside the artist-run space Autoitalia. It was during this project that James Early became part of the collective. He says, “Lucky PDF is an art collective of four, but our working relationships, which often make up the grouping, can expand or contract according to the size of the project. Lucky PDF projects predate the current configuration and at one time had a much more fluid membership than it does now, although ideally we’d like it to be a much more expansive group.”

Without a conventional hierarchy for decision-making, it’s really up to the members of any collective to decide how to organise and divide labour within the group. In a smaller group, more organic working relationships are possible. In a larger group with bigger or multiple projects, consensus decision-making can be a difficult process, as Mathew from Assemble found out: “Even when we were all working on the same project, we couldn’t possibly make all decisions collectively! It’s hard to know what is a design decision and at what point it’s something bigger than that, something that affects the whole direction of the project. Because it’s a group of friends as much as colleagues, things have been decided pretty informally up till now, but we’re trying to be a bit more formal about it. Just because you’re working with your friends, doesn’t mean you don’t have to write things down, or vote for things, or tell everyone else about it.”

There are many examples of collectives, but each one has its own way of working, and it may take some effort, not to mention creativity, to find ways of working that suit the group dynamics, the projects and the aims of the collective. Lucky PDF have worked almost entirely in response to commissions or invitations, and unlike Assemble they all work on every project, as James tells me: “Often one party takes a lead on a project, but I don’t think the process can work unless you trust multiple voices. If one party isn’t interested in a project, that’s a vote of no confidence.” 

Mathew compares the division of responsibility within Assemble to a collegial government. “In a conventional structure you’d have a director making decisions on resources, like when too much time or money has been spent on a project, and these decisions still have to be made,” he says. “So we’ve been thinking about, rather than having a ‘dictator’, we would elect a ‘cabinet’ with roles like building and maintenance, the workshop, and human resources. The answer for us seems to be always having more than one person doing everything, but it might end up being extremely bureaucratic!”

A collective workspace can be an amazing asset, if you can get it. Assemble have an office and workshop in Stratford. “I think it’s really important for us practically because of the way we work,” says Mathew. “We design and build all of our projects. It also makes it much easier to work together. We’re really lucky to have been given an old warehouse, and it’s one of the main things that ties us all together, whether we like it or not!” For Lucky PDF, however, the idea of a collective space gradually became redundant. “The aspiration at the beginning was to have a gallery space,” says James, “but the projects have developed in a very reactive way, so without a space or aspirations to become a commercial gallery, we’ve developed as an amalgam of different roles in the art world, but essentially as an artist.” Instead of working together in a particular place, they’ve worked with different institutions to develop projects. “When we work with existing institutions I like to think that the relationship is not one of aspiring to enter the establishment. We understand our relationship to them to be much more about what they can materially gift us: a great location for a film we want to make anyway, footfall, budget, or facilities. I think that’s a much healthier relationship to have with institutions because the power relationship is so much better and we can leverage greater power because we’re able to operate as a collective, and we’re aware of the potential offering that we give to an institution.’

As Mathew tells me, for Assemble, working collectively is “not really an ideal we’re working towards, it’s more that we just really enjoy it.” He continues, “We all get to design, build and construct, and the only way to do that is to work as a group. The projects we did wouldn’t have been possible without sharing resources. Especially at our age, and in the fields we’re working in, you have to have a lot of experience to do these kinds of projects and do them well, and having collected the joint skills and knowledge was the only way. The shared resource that we have is much greater than if it was just one or two people. And that’s practically as well, for instance we were able to pool our resources and buy machinery for the workshop, and boring stuff like a printer.” James relates how Lucky PDF were able to share networks and contacts, and build their own context. “One thing that we’ve found really valuable is not to be protective of those career links with the art world. But we’re also really aware of the potential, with the internet, to be able to create your own scene. And if you have a critical level of engagement, that scene can easily supersede an existing one.’

Finally, collectives can be a lot more flexible than a traditional job or practice, allowing members to have more or less involvement at different times and on different projects, and more adaptable to change. “Assemble originally had 20 directors registered at Companies House,” says Mathew. “That’s down to three now for practical reasons. Eight of us have been working full-time for about a year, but we’re getting to a stage where a lot more people have been coming into contention for projects, because a lot of people have been studying so the move is to try and spread the work, so we’ve all started applying for other interesting jobs as well.”

For LuckyPDF it’s the special dialogue they’ve developed through working together that sustains their working relationship. “We have shared interests, and we also have a language that we’ve developed internally, which is quite specific,” says James. “And actually, that’s where we maintain practice. And some of those interests may be related to a specific project, others may be completely tangential, but they later come to form our growing conversation. All of our projects are outcomes of conversations, and when we’re not working towards a specific project, we’re maintaining that conversation. And now that we have the freedom of not being attached to moving forwards with a specific project, that conversation can develop and become more outward-facing, and I think that’s a really fertile space to be in.”