The collaborative economy is becoming a familiar term, but collaborative art? How does that work? And perhaps more importantly, what does the term mean?

To some extent, all art is collaborative, in several different ways. The artist will interact and collaborate with the subject matter, whether that’s a person or an experience. Without that collaboration, there will be no art created at all. And once created, different people will see different things in a picture, sculpture, or piece of conceptual art, and so place alternative values on it.

It’s a bit of a philosophical point, but is art in the eye of the artist, or the beholder? In other words, is something ‘art’ if it is conceived as such by the artist, or does it have to be seen as art to gain that accolade? The pendulum has swung both ways over the course of history, but there’s no question that if it’s the latter, then art is only art with the collaboration of those who view it and, indeed, buy it.

Moving from passive to active collaboration

But all these are very passive collaborations. They don’t really fit with the concept of the collaborative economy, with its focus on peer-to-peer interactions. However, a recent art installation in Birmingham probably does fit more closely with the collaborative concept.

The installation, called Minimum Monument, is a series of 20cm ice sculptures of figures, both men and women. It was the work of Néle Azevedo, a Brazilian artist. She has previously shown similar installations elsewhere, including in Belfast in 2012, to mark the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic. The work in Birmingham was much larger than any previous installation, and involved over 5,000 figures, to represent all the lives lost in the First World War. It was part of the commemorations to mark the centenary of the start of the War, and took place in August.

The figures took a team of volunteers about a month to prepare. Each one was frozen in a mould made from an old plastic bottle, and then, once frozen, chipped away by a volunteer, to shape it. The volunteers had to wear special thermally-insulated gloves so as not to melt the sculptures during shaping.

On 2nd August, the figures were transported to Chamberlain Square in Birmingham, in a series of large freezers. Members of the public queued up to place each one on the steps in Chamberlain Square. What was very moving was the way in which individuals chose to see the figures as representing members of their families who had died. Some even added ribbons or decorations to ‘their’ figure to make it more personal. And it wasn’t only those who had lost members of their family. Others lined up to pay their respects and just to remember.

One person commented that the little figures sitting there melting looked like ghosts. Another remarked on how moving the whole experience had been. Others said that the changing, ephemeral nature of the exhibition brought home the fragility of life, and the sacrifices of those who had fought and died in World War One.

Collaboration as an experience

The collaborative economy rests on authentic experiences. We have commented before that those committed to collaborative consumption would rather stay at a stranger’s house than a hotel, and ride in someone’s car than a taxi. It is all about the uniqueness of experience, and sharing someone else’s life in some way. For those ‘selling’ the experience, it is very often about making money. If you doubt this, think of the poster children of the collaborative consumption movement: eBay, Airbnb, Uber and Lyft. They are all about monetising something that you have, and are not using. But for those buying, the incentive is to have a unique experience, and to a lesser extent, to interact on a peer-to-peer basis with someone that you might otherwise never meet.

In a strange sort of way, this uniqueness of experience set apart Néle Azevedo’s Minimum Monument, too.

All those strangers, gathered together for the same purpose, and sharing an experience that was, nonetheless, unique and personal for each one. It is very nearly the definition of the collaborative economy, except that none of those participating paid for the experience. But whether they paid or not, it is fair to say that all those there experienced something unique and very special. Let’s hope for more collaborative art of this nature.

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