Photo on the right is courtesy of Shane Finan
We use different words to describe performing actions together in groups. Those words, such as "collaboration", come with their own histories, assumptions and etymologies. The word "collaboration" is a blend of "com" (together) and "labour" (work). A together-working may describe how a bridge gets built or how a community garden is planted, but may not describe the strange moments when we just learn from being present. Humans in groups are not always together for work, and are not always gathered together at all (particularly in this digitally connected world).
I feel now I might be labouring this introduction, but the words we use matter and I felt it important to start here. But for lack of a better word, I am using collaboration.
My practice is collaborative and research-based. I work with humans, and often with nonhuman others, including ants, trees, sheep, lichen and fungi in recent years. Over a fifteen-year artistic career, I have made or participated in projects with artists, academics, farmers, foresters, professors and pedants, and here I will go through some of those projects to consider collaborative practice from a variety of angles.
I began running artist-led projects in 2007, starting with a rural network of artists established when applications for art projects were mostly still made by posting letters to art spaces. The group ran exhibitions, music events, and eventually opened a gallery in 2009. But not everything is designed to last forever, and by 2011 the members had run out of steam. That same year, I was invited to travel to Tallaght, Dublin, for Where We're At, an art-technology collaboration in a building that was owned by a bank, which had become abandoned after the 2008 financial crash. Aside from making some good friends, I learned some basic computer programming. This was an early step in a long journey that led to me becoming a technology-based artist today. That osmosis of learning was one important benefit from working with others who have different skills and interests than my own.
By this stage, I had led many pop-up and short-term artist-led events and projects including staging events in Ireland, Iceland and the USA. In 2013, I was invited to be an artist at Granby Park, a fascinating large-scale collaborative event that took place over one month in Dublin. This "happening" featured music, community events, workshops, exhibitions, a library, and a park. It was adored by people locally, but one of the things that I found most fascinating about it was how it was intentionally time-limited. People pleaded with the organisers to find a way to keep it open, as it was so popular, but they refused. This, they insisted, was an event and had to be. Its transience was what made it important – people would remember and would seek to build their own spaces in future. I wrote an article for the Irish Journal for Arts Management and Cultural Policy about this in 2013-14, which can be read HERE.
Nonhuman and human, together (2019-2022)
Throughout my collaborative work, I found something missing from the equation. I understood space and people well enough to know how things work when projects come together, but there were gaps. My research led me down a rabbit-hole about posthuman philosophy, including technology, networks, togetherness, and the assumptions that underlie even our basic ideas of how the world works.
In 2019, I created my first intentional human-nonhuman collaboration, working with birds, sensor technologies, human researchers in zoology and human audiences to create an installation The Repeated Refrains of Nature at Trinity College Dublin. This artwork about the depopulation of birds started a new series that is still going. It connected collaboration to the more-than-human world and gave me ammunition for a lot of future work.
Wanting to develop this thinking, I attended an online course in 2020, called We Will Dance With Mountains, and led by prominent posthumanist philosopher and writer Bayo Akomolafe. This course helped refine my posthumanist thinking, but it was also the source of an unexpected coming-together. I met three others and we formed Kinship Group 26 – a group of four misfits in four countries with different backgrounds who now meet every Wednesday online to discuss projects, posthumanism, futures, art, life, ableism, and many other things. We have an ongoing, experimental, strange and wonderful collaboration without map, destiny or rudders. They are very much present with me now when I make work, and they are here in this writing with me too (hello Loes, Craig and Stefanie!). We discuss our work and also broader life matters, and this ritual has allowed us all to improve our way of engaging with the world by providing space for all of our voices together.
Following this experimental research to a deeper space, I was invited in April 2022 to be one of a team of sound and visual artists, architects and researchers on Swap Space, a collaboration led by the University of Performing Arts and Music, Graz, Austria. My travel there was supported by Wicklow Arts Office, something always worth acknowledging because this support is part of the collaborative act. At Swap Space, we were invited to respond individually and collectively to our simultaneous situatedness at an old castle grounds in Hotelpupik, Schattenburg, Austria. One of the most fascinating results was in how the team worked a little like atoms, coming together for energetic conversations before dispersing throughout the large countryside space. Drawing from the environment, we embedded the tunnels of ants, the droppings of mice, the tracks of deer and the monotony of fir tree farms into our respective works. The collective learning from other humans and nonhumans was then brought back to studios and workspaces in Graz, where new artworks were developed by the varied team.
Debugging the self
When two or more bodies interact, they influence one another, and both are changed because of this interaction. As the anthropologist Maria Puig de la Bellacasa reminds us, "When bodies/things touch, they are also touched" (Matters of Care, p99). I am lucky to have been involved in many interactions, and in June 2022, two projects that I am involved in (Swap Space and Kinship Group 26) co-presented at Art Meets Radical Openness (AMRO), Linz, Austria. The 2022 theme of AMRO was DEBUG, and our presentation was staged as an open conversation, titled Debugging through collaborative experimentation.
AMRO is a biannual event that uses concepts of open culture, challenging how we use technologies, considering how we work together, and presenting what art can bring to this space. Our conversation was centred on how collaboration happens in the spaces in between when we expect it to happen, where ideas are shared and reinvented, or as Craig Slee of Kinship Group 26 termed it, "tidal thinking". We collaborate when we are drinking coffee on a break from making art, or when we come together ritualistically each week. These moments of togetherness have a value that is impossible to quantify, but in my experience they are crucial to how we work both individually and collectively. The engagement of humans with one another, and with other-than-human colleagues, generates moments of exciting electricity that are as unpredictable as they are empowering. These are the moments when we introduce bugs to the human machine, or remove them, or just change their function. It might be osmosis or skill-sharing or just reinforcing or challenging opinions, but all of this sociality is a part of making, coming together, and breaking systems.
More than human?
After two years of pandemic lockdowns, it seems a good time to consider what is important about coming together. Humans are social creatures, designed to live together with one another and with our surrounding environment (contrary to a small number of our species' thinking). Like other critters, we thrive from these interactions.
A field like the arts can seem individualistic and competitive. In a career where we often spend days alone in studios or offices toiling over work, there is value in the moments where this can be broken. Equally, in a world with so many others to work with, through and from, it is always a benefit to spend time with others. As projects in Wicklow illustrate, such as the Wicklow Artist Connect Panel and the upcoming Creative Places Baltinglass there are opportunities to test collaboration in new and exciting ways.
All moments are transient, and all projects will come to an end. Choosing a legacy may be the best we can do (or, as with Granby Park, choosing not to have one). Art, too, is transient. But the moments that we come together can be the spark to ignite something entirely unexpected.
Shane Finan assembles art from interactive contemporary technologies, found objects and traditional artistic media. His work is based in rural environments and examines the role of contemporary technology on nonhuman and human behaviours.
He always collaborates, most recently working with ecologists, sheep, fungi, epidemiologists, artists, historians and bacteria. As part of his practice he organises, coordinates and manages short-term art projects, often inviting other artists as partners and collaborators.
Trained in fine art (IT Sligo, 2008) with a focus on painting, he completed an MSc in interactive digital media (Trinity College Dublin, 2013). He has won awards from Wicklow Arts Office, the Arts Council of Ireland, Mayo Arts Office Decade of Centenaries, Culture Ireland, and Creative Ireland. He has completed residencies with the University of Performing Arts and Music Graz (Austria), University of Lincoln (UK), VARC (UK), the Jackie Clarke Collection, Artlink and Leitrim Sculpture Centre (Ireland).