Artists organise themselves collectively, cross-fertilising their practices, sharing ideas, knowledge and approaches. Why and how do they do it? This question was the starting point of a project-interview involving a London-based artist group, Magma, and Iberia Pérez, whose PhD research focuses on artists’ self-organisation.
Magma has its own specific way of working and creating collectively, balancing the group’s aims with each artist’s individuality. Projects and issues are shared, discussed and processed to reach agreed common points. This interview, too, was intended as a similar kind of process, with a series of steps set to deepen our reciprocal understanding of group self-organisation and artistic practice.
Initially, some of the artists from Magma (Jaime Valtierra, Ines Von Bonhorst, Yuri Pirondi, Bill Howard and Pascal Ancel Bartholdi) met with Iberia and I in Peckham last December for an introductory conversation (we recorded that conversation, and some bits are shared below). After our first meeting, Iberia formulated questions to address the main points raised during that session, and what follows is this interview – which took time to be discussed, processed and realised. Take your time to enjoy it.
Iberia Pérez: Could you briefly explain how Magma originated? What brought you together and why did you choose Magma as the name of the collective?
Magma: Magma Collective started approximately two and a half years ago, following on from a series of events we’d worked on together from 2008, centred on performance nights and art shows.
It was initially a gathering where all the artists had a theme or an image, or something they wanted to share, before adding it into a common vault, as people do when sitting around a fire. Everyone puts in a different object and comes back with the same object – different, yet absolutely part of the whole. It shows the power of individuality in context.
In a way, the collective is based on a kind of chaos. Somehow, however, we managed to reach the point where the individual ego is seduced by the artistry of common purpose. We make time for dialogue, in which we naturally oppose mainstream collectivism and corporate ethics. We do not have a political stance, but know that to ask a question is critical and this is what we continue to do. There is a history and an etymology to how Magma evolved. Many of us have had relationships in terms of sharing living or working spaces over the years, and have worked with other practices as well as our own. Ours is a history of culmination and collaboration, hence the idea of the campfire. Another useful analogy is a body with many arms and many heads. It is interchangeable; if you remove one part, a new arm or head will pop up.
We chose our name, Magma, because it is always alive. Magma is different from lava; it never sets, it is always fluid and is a process that never dies; burning channels of liquid fire powered by the origin of the form. From another angle, there is a central point of union under the earth, which brings everything together. This is representative of Magma as a creative group, as a central point of multi-personal ideas that act as a catalyst for a unique process.
IP: What is the aim of your collective endeavour? What do you aim to achieve through your collective projects and exhibitions? What value does working collectively / collaboratively have for you?
M: Magma, for us, represents being open, flowing without boundaries, and includes an unknown and unpredictable number of places encountered at once lucidly and candidly. In Heidegger’s words,
“That open, cleared, yet bounded region in which we find ourselves gathered together with other persons and things, in which we are opened up to the world and the world to us… [With] a dynamic character of its own … a unifying, gathered rejoining place is, in this sense, always a “taking place,” a “happening” of place… something that contains space in potentia.”
We aim at opening new doors, to exploit new territories of creative interaction, to bring in new people through collaboration – people who might just come for one show, located in the space of the gallery, to play for a while. There is no contract or permanence attached to collaboration; it does not require membership status.
In terms of our development and how this initially happened, we began to bring ideas together at meetings and created a text based on our cohesive values, aiming to generate some kind of identity through this process. Functioning in this way, we did one or two shows that led to the idea of Mnemonic City. We started to introduce other ideas, such as what happened in the 60s and 70s with the Situationists, whose organisation founded itself on the critique of the dehumanised spectacle and emphasising the idea of individual direct experience as opposed to state-based entertainment by proxy – giving form to the concept of psychogeography, which has much to do with transformation.
In collaboration, a kind of magical process takes place in the throwing of ideas onto the fire. No one is afraid that the fire will consume it, because our individual idea somehow becomes part of a whole. New ideas surge from the flames. Using many or few, we benefit from becoming greater than the sum of our individual parts.
The question we, as a collective, often ask ourselves does not concern our effect on the world of art or the art market – we do not base our objectives on these premises – but, instead, who is our public? Will this public share the experience we create? Will the feelings we share within Magma be perceived meaningful by the audience? It is about attempting to pass a sensation where the audience will (re)live a memory. The journey of the artist is intertwined with the journey of the audience. We also aim to recover a spiritual space, for the recreation of the spirit of the person. This has been taken away from people at different times in history by different forces – the force today being capitalism.
IP: How is Magma structured? How does the division of labour work within the group? And what impact or influence does this have in your collective artistic production?
M: Labour is attributed according to the skills available and how the project and we are developing. Our collective does not use a hierarchical structure, relying instead on a horizontal basis. Whoever has the most clarity in a particular domain will take charge, but this situation changes from project to project. An example is the piece we created for ‘Something Human at The Terminal’, a three-day durational live art project created by Something Human and curated by Alessandra Cianetti and Annie Jael Kwan, which was assembled from several meetings and a multi-level debate.
We do not have a fixed answer as a manifesto. There is no banner: simply a joint imagination, leading to an immersive inter-creative experience. After all, there is nothing in the middle other than a space for possibility and anyone has the ability to feed it. The whole group benefits from the warmth. Magma was created as a channel through which we could work together and find a joint structure, using individual strengths at different times, rather than empower one dictator to lead us all into the eternal sunset. In practical terms, it is efficient; each person contributes their skills and enthusiasm and self-allocates the workload appropriately. The group meeting is essentially responsible for the allocation of the tasks. Again, the total at which we arrive is always greater than the sum of its parts.
IP: Could you give an example of how the principles or values of self-organisation and the way you are organised materialise in your works/projects?
M: In our projects, we allow a high-level of uncertainty. We all fundamentally agree on this. There is a physical embodiment of methodology, yet we are aware of it and so protect our individuality. We maintain coherence and relevance through continuous meetings in addition to open, positive critique and communication.
The concept of Mnemonic City became pivotal in the way our collective is evolving, because for each project we attach the research process to the notion of place and space, time and memory as an anti-thesis to objectivity. In the Ridley Road Market project, we observed, tasted and travelled through the area for three months, culminating in an electrifying show. What became prominent was the reality of a constant circulation of thoughts between us. It is an emotional way of constructing that environment, rather than an architectural one. This has implications on our curatorial practice, alike the networks of international art-based groups active in the 60s. The outcome is a new way of seeing and experiencing the world both locally and universally for both the artists and the public interacting with our work.
Ultimately, the physical exhibition of drawings, paintings, installations, performances and videos, reveals the meaning of the process through the orchestrated order in which it is built. We strive towards the evocation of an atmosphere – such as the aura of a place or the feeling of a moment – and in this, our collective practice follows from an ancient byzantine tradition, although unintentionally. Our research and our practice guide us into uncharted and distant places in time and space.
IP: You have before mentioned that the artists participating in the collective also have their own artistic practices. How do the artists negotiate their own individual practices within the collective? How does this particular form of social organisation – collective self-organisation – inform the individual practices of the members of the collective?
M: The structure we created is flexible, in which people are committed at different times, keeping momentum by having meetings where each is aware of both the individual and the group. We work together aware of the concerns that can be derived from the complex relationship between self and group, which also reflects societal dilemmas – i.e. communal versus individual. Each person brings their skills and concerns to the group, which in turn feeds ideas and practices. Our solution is meta-personal, meaning the possibility of accessing a state beyond oneself within a greater whole, thereby resulting in a galvanised environment.
IP: Many artists’ collectives tend to call for the radical elimination of individual authorship in their practice; how does the issue of authorship play out in Magma?
Magma: How does an artist inform another’s practice? It could be clarifying or it could inspire a new set of solutions. Latent information is released by incestuous mixing. On the other hand, art practice tends to be very solitary and the contemporary art scene has developed the cult of the individual. Our communal type of practice directly critiques this by working differently, ironically proving that individual artists can grow and perform excellently in this context.
We agree, we disagree, we converse, we debate, we plan, we diverge, we converge and this creative flux nourishes the collective because each member is fulfilled in the process. There is no blurring of edges. We all have an undisputable signature. Authorship is as paramount as the idea of a common pursuit. We each have a private space where the piece will be resolved with no external interference during the moment of creation, but equally important is the mutual space and the meeting point where we bring those personal moments to the table and operate a free exchange of ideas within our creative domain.
IP: You have also mentioned that working in a self-organised collective allows you to preserve a ‘space of freedom’ in your practice. Can you please elaborate a bit more on what you mean by this and how this is achieved through your projects?
M: Magma is not branded or run by a concept; it is not necessary because what is enjoyed is something more casual – in the sense of ‘lightness’ and in the sense that we collaborate when the space for collaboration comes to us as a moment in time. It is not a commitment in terms of official and permanent status. It is the opposite of a job and the opposite of stasis. We gather and share all kinds of arts and feelings. We are our own melting pot, but without our individual practices, the soup would become a tasteless consommé.
Collaboration affords an open nest that is not present in a solo show. Most often, there is a barrier between the artist and the public, but the spirit of collaboration opens doors, so we can come though and join all lose ends. It is a creative space open to everybody – anyone who cares and who dares. The time of creation is explored collectively and individually; there are different layers that become unravelled. It is also self-reflective, stimulating a desire and an understanding of where you are within the realm you have chosen to identify yourself. Moreover, as artists, we share our struggle. It happens mentally; we feel more human knowing people around us have the same problems.
We are planning to take the project Mnemonic City to Florence, Lisbon, and London. In each place, we will collaborate with local artists generating a new exchange of ideas that will constitute our vision of the city. Through this exchange of memories and feelings, our emotions and those of the local artists will be explored. However, this process implies pressure to get extra resources, therefore the question of representation arises and it can lead to potential internal conflicts. Yet up to now, we succeeded in overcoming this hurdle, because for us material resources are not the essence of our work, but tools that we see more as a commodity than art. Magma is founded on a DIY attitude and each member takes a task to its conclusion. We are multi-skilled and happy to work together, therefore the chances of internal wars are greatly reduced. We leave this absurdity to megalomaniac politicians.
IP: It seems to me that the concept of an ‘artists’ collective’ can often be romanticised, but collectives can also be sites of tension and contradiction. In your experience, what are some of the difficulties, tensions or issues that arise in collective self-organised artistic practices?
Magma: We are resisting defining Magma in a fixed way and we leave questions unanswered to allow room for change. Obviously in growing as a collective, we will face more pressure to categorise and to define. We need to engineer ourselves with astute cultural reserve and the fact that we keep having experiences to express what we are doing is good. It is an important evolution that allows us to understand what we value and want to keep alive.
The problem is not always to make a categorisation of who we are, but giving up our values in order to be categorised in a certain way to fit a certain structure. We do come across conflicting situations, but our disagreements are well managed, and this actually helps lead to better, more informed and thoroughly examined practice. We often disagree about curation, hanging and publicity, but we allow the group consensus to prevail, yet never at the cost of our personal feelings. We will, through analytical discussion and an exchange of self-interrogation, discover the root of the disagreement and disable it. It is a meaningful process for us, but it is also fun.
We build more as we work alongside each other, aware that there is space for potential disagreement. Magma chose a different route in that we have a live dynamic platform to work through disagreements; we discuss, we create a dialogue, we are flexible and bureaucratic. We can redefine ourselves through the way we work, refusing to fall into a box, or we can kick around and change the shape of the box, or we may stop it being a box altogether.
IP: Final thoughts?
Magma: It takes unknown ingredients to make art work, but art is made, and through it you get a chance to pass on the magic as you go. If you try to do the right thing, then hopefully it will affect other people; they see your model and are inspired. We are a powerful organisation, a powerful force and quite revolutionary – not because we are providing a banner to cry out and run around with, but because we are doing what we really want to do with a lot of love and good humour, and with a real belief in what we are doing. There is a transformational effect on the people who view our shows. It is tangible, though there is not really the language to adequately explain it, but people are often deeply moved, forgetting themselves and everything else while experiencing the show.
Sound excerpts edited by Alessandra Cianetti: (21 min 21 sec): Listen here.
Iberia Pérez is a PhD Candidate in Art History and Theory at the University of Essex. Her dissertation focuses on the practice of self-organisation in the context of contemporary art in Latin America. She previously worked as independent researcher and consultant for a non-profit organisation engaged with artists’ initiatives in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Currently, she is co-editor of the online journal ARARA, Art and Architecture of the Americas.
Magma website: http://magmacollective.com
Photos by Magma
Project-interview by Alessandra Cianetti