This past Saturday, attendees to our second A.M. Brainstorm had the opportunity to hear the considered thoughts and reflections from members of “The Collective Eye”, a collection of individuals, thinkers, artists, and writers devoted to promoting and exploring the aesthetics and manifestations of contemporary artistic collectives. Hailing from South America, Europe, and Beijing, the speakers addressed many issues related both to the theory and practice of starting and maintaining collectives that are more often than not comprised of busy individuals already engaged in independent scholarly, critical, and artistic projects.
Before getting at the particular work and motivations of the “Collective Eye”, it was useful to attempt at a definition of the elusive animal, the “Collective”, an abstract creature fraught with historical, cultural, and philosophical significance. The history of science, with discoveries in cell biology, anatomy, particle and astrophysics, etc., discredits the “man as island” theme as an existential impossibility. Regardless of what you might believe, by virtue of simply being alive, you are literally and figuratively sharing breath, time, and space with the countless quintillions – quintillions to the gazillionth power? Mathematicians, throw me a bone, or give me a break, if you can – of other sentient creatures out there.
The Jacksonian Yeoman farmer was a heroic archetype of the 19th Century and in many ways precursor to the American “cowboy” figure. A rugged, tight-lipped character, in possession of a six shooter or two, dust-ridden cowhide chaps (one would assume the skin of which was stripped from a lame or old animal the cowboy had driven hard across various tree-strewn mountain valleys), a “10 gallon” hat, and a trusty steed, the cowboy of lore frequently visited windswept towns at the edge of civilization, in between presumed horse rides of several weeks or months. He entered bars with the unabashed gait of someone sprung from the Gods and drank his fill of the local vintage (usually some kind of whiskey - straight up, no chaser), although one would think that after having ridden across seemingly endless, scorching-hot stretches, he could have done with a glass or two of well water first.
In these bars, he broke the proverbial bread with fellow roamers by sitting at a rough, round table and playing cards and gambling for various belongings – titles to vast tracks of undeveloped land; prized guns; horses; expertly wrought belt buckles; nuggets of gold; and, if living post the Era of Lincoln, some of the first “Greenbacks” (paper currency) of America’s toddlerhood. Aside from moments of nodding, dealing, calling, or raising bets, our cowboy rarely interchanged with the others around him. In many cowboy tales, the closest two men ever got to one another was in the split second of eye locking before the drawing of pistols and determining of fates.
The cowboy, then, was basically a solitary comet in the sky, and unlike the actual, heavenly bodies, he created and followed his own brand of organizing principles. He was his own compass. If he wanted to ride, drink, sleep under the stars, or vanquish another, he would; for he was a discrete unit, beholden to nothing and nobody, the embodiment of a special idea of “free”.
Of course the above is a gross generalization; I’m sure there were a fair amount of cowboys with a certain spirit for collective undertakings. Some of them probably ran to be constables, mayors, and judges of the budding towns of the American west. And many of them fell in love quite strongly, or wanted to, and on the open road, to their horses and the stars above, they would sing lovesick ballads in muted tones…discrete units, perhaps, but only in theory and though self delusion; their skin wasn’t all too perfectly granite. The road could be challenging, and at the end of it, many cowboys secretly wanted someone to offer them water from a clean glass, even if they could easily have grabbed it for themselves nearby wells. In return for the water, they wanted to take the richly-thistled, somewhat unfamiliar brushes of the toilette into their hands and go over the careworn & often sun-damaged hair of the water givers…
Similarly, the Nietzschean Übermensch is a farce. Yes, speaking purely statistically, his/her neurons might be firing at a slightly greater rate than those of the average Joe. To the end that processing speed – let alone wisdom – is advantageous to any individual or society (we’ll leave that debate for another day), this is fine. But really, he/she can brood near the mountaintops for only so long. The “Übermensch” might care for a cup of coffee or two after a while…And what will he/she do, for this one, particular, and fleeting desire? Completely re-invent the wheel of coffee plant cultivation? Work the fields, tirelessly hoeing, digging, sowing, watering, reaping, roasting, pressing, etc.? How many lifetimes of sweat would go into the making of a single cup?
No, when this character descends from his/her lofty plane and enters the local café, he can’t merely declare, “I alone AM, have a reason for existence. Because of the light that is me, and the total absence of light and grandeur that is you, you will freely give unto me a generous serving of your finest artisanal single-serving French press…you dithering peon.”
Humans aren’t wired to abide that kind of complete, unreflective egoism. At some level, and to some degree, the individual aspiring to be the hyper-insanity that is the “Ubermensch” must show an element of respect for the other(s), even if that is a begrudging handing over of small bills for a dark, (to this writer’s taste buds, deeply satisfying) caffeinated liquid. This signifies, “Unfortunately, I cannot of my own volition simply will this into my hands. Because you possess what I want, I must acknowledge you as an entity that can fulfill at least one of my natural desires. Consequently, you are an agent who can, by your granting me a cup or not, in small way choose to alter the course of my existence.”
This is why the “he picked himself up from the sh*t and soot and dirt of his misbegotten, godforsaken, & desperately poor youth” tales never really hit me that hard. Yes, certain people, especially given dreary contexts, do seem to weave incredible biographies of strength over adversity and courage. But really, though, there are always innumerable workers and factors behind the scenes.
So there are no islands, cowboys, or Übergoobers. Not really.
And I even question those in fables, you know? Most people think of Zeus as the eternal father of the Olympians. And yet he apparently was the unwanted son of Cronus, who ate his other children for fear of their stealing his Universal - capital “U” here, people – hegemony. Zeus escaped infanticide through the intervention of his mother, Gaia, who spirited him away to a remote location and tricked Cronus by giving him a boulder cloaked with a baby blanket (the fact that Cronus was so easily fooled suggests the kind of mind perhaps not best equipped to lead all beings for all time). Even the Tosser of Lighting needed others and must have been aware of the blessing of the maternal hand.
We are all of some kind of collective, if not 100s/1000s of different and somewhat overlapping collectives simultaneously.
Heinz-Norbert Jocks, who often writes in solitude from the comfort of his apartment, illustrates this well. Even before his work with “The Collective Eye”, he understood himself as part of the collective of wordsmiths and knowledge builders past and present. The words that ultimately go onto his pages are informed by all the words of the writers he has absorbed throughout his lifetime. His writing identity is a result of that accumulated and filtered data and beauty. In turn, future writers who have read Norbert’s works will necessarily contain a bit of him in what they create.
"The Collective Eye” attempt to address the reality of life as a fabric and increase the thread count, as it were. Collectivity is a quality that exists on a continuum, and the strength of a given collective is the result of a healthy intuitive understanding of the human being. According to the speakers, the complete subjugation of the individual to the whole, a la Marxian thinking, will ultimately serve neither the sum nor the parts; rejecting the unique sparks, inklings, and eccentricities of people deadens the spirit. Some of the desire to work for the collective springs from the collective’s ability to allow the individual to express, or live by, his or her “personhood”. In moderating the talk, Zandie mentioned this Aristotelian conception of symbiotic relations. The collective cannot exist without the work individuals, and constituent units cannot practice their crafts without the healthy working of the whole.
This doesn’t mean that collective must be limited to a particular space, time, or ideology, or working methodology. The Collective Eye are comprised of individuals living in different countries. Artists, writers, critics, and theoreticians, they each have projects separate from their collective work. It’s not as if they are living together on some farm, weaving clothes and gathering fruits and nuts by day and passionately discussing the latest volumes of esoteric journals and monographs by night. They are not a particular school; they don’t have to pledge oaths. Oftentimes they may disagree about processes or ends, and, in the joking words of one of the speakers, “want to kill” each other. Members might not physically speak or communicate for several months at a time…Nevertheless, there is an unambiguously positive, natural force the constituents feel through their collective work. Their unifying motivation is to function as a kind of meta-collective, attempting to further the study and work of collectives across the world (mainly those related to the arts, but it seems they want to embrace collectives investigating a variety of other issues). In a world in which technology has quickly ushered out the real time interface, the collective practice seems to bring a feeling of real, living accord. Given problems and issues are examined with greater force, clarity, and, one would argue, success. Also importantly, as Sebastian Alonso pointed out, lessons, ideas, and principles generated through collective work can be profitably applied to personal projects.
Thankfully, if you have further interest in “The Collective Eye”, the individual work of its constituents, other collectives, and/or the aesthetics, practices, and undertakings of creative collectives in the 21st century, you can come to "The Collective Eye Symposium." Running from May 30 to June at CAFA, it features the work of dozens of thinkers and artists from China and across the Globe, with an emphasis on the question of "group subjectivity and its aesthetics in the light of cultural differences." All of this past Saturday’s participants will be there, having devoted much of the past year to putting it together; so if you can, come and show your (collective) spirit by helping to crowd the house.