Fall 2010: v.06 n.02: Dynamic Coupling
For their contribution to Scott Kildall and Nathaniel Stern’s Wikipedia Art Remix, Sean Fletcher and Isabel Reichert re-wrote the bitter shouting match between the characters George and Martha from the second Act of Edward Albee’s iconic play Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf. The rewritten dialogue incorporates highlights from the Articles for Deletion page of Wikipedia Art (please see also www.wikipediaart.org). See video documentation: http://www.life-art.org/wiki.php
How much time do you spend together? Do you live together or share a studio, or do you just get together to work on projects as they come up?
SF: We live together, share a studio together, raise a child together; you could say we spend a great deal of time together. Life, by which I mean the more mundane requirement of meeting certain sociological standards in a community, has an unruly way of pulling us in the wrong directions. The opportunity to spend time together is omnipresent, but in truth we don’t spend enough time together. I’m continually floored by the accuracy of the timing of these planning foibles. If, for example, I’m free to spend time on a project – a questionnaire like this – she’s often meeting some other professional deadline – like submitting a syllabus to teach a class. When that’s completed and she’s made herself available to work with me, I have become uncannily preoccupied with some other household chore that began mere moments before she announced her liberation. This is the dance, the tango of coordinating our busy lives to make artistic collaboration possible. Alternatively, the art would fail without it because it is this constant tension that inspires our creativity.
IR: Sometimes it doesn’t inspire our creativity, though.
When you are working on something do you schedule structured time together in a physical space, or meet online, or is it more organic than that?
IR: It depends on the project. We schedule structured time when we have a deadline — structured because we have to plan it around the needs of our daughter. Since our lives are an integral part of most of our work, moments of collaboration occur more organically when there isn’t a deadline. Death and Taxes, Inc. (a performance in which a 14-member board of directors assumed fiduciary responsibility over our lives for a year) is a pretty good example of how our lives as a couple, as parents, as wage earners and artists are interwoven into the work of art. It’s more intense than saying, “We’re going to be collaborating on this project from 6 p.m. until 8 p.m. tonight.”
Do you keep your personal/professional lives separate, or have they become seamless and indistinct? Is this okay?
SF: I would say that there exists a recurrent theme in our projects of blurring the personal and the professional, or rather the personal and the artistic, or better still the artistic and the professional — to avoid presupposing that either art/studio activity is somehow separate from our personal lives or that “professional” is a defining characteristic of either the life or the art. A collaboration starts when an argument we are having strikes us as something we could use to convey a larger metaphor for something else. An argument we have about money, for example, might strike us both as something we feel we could use to tell another story. While this is indeed one of the more compelling facets of how we succeed in the proverbial studio of our conceptual art endeavors, I am hard-pressed to admit it is “okay.”
I’ve always felt that referring to something as “okay” or “not okay,” in the culturally rooted sense of the expression, corresponds with the published work of psychologist Thomas Harris in his self-help definition of finding the area of interpersonal exchange with the least amount of conflict (I’m OK You’re OK, Thomas A. Harris, MD, 1969 published by HarperCollins Publishers Inc. ISBN 0-06-072427-7).
A Fletcher/Reichert collaboration, in this sense, is “OK” largely because it is “not OK.”
IR: There is no clear delineation anymore on what’s “personal” or “professional,” what we do behind closed doors or when we are out to make a living. The other day I complained about our finances to a friend/gallerist and he replied, “Everybody knows that. It’s in your Death & Taxes, Inc. quarterly report!”
For example, Will Harper wrote a detailed article about Death & Taxes, Inc. in the East Bay Express and mentioned that the Board had to approve every item in the projected budget, including the purchase of condoms. When I dropped off my daughter at school the day after the article appeared, I could tell that other parents felt really uncomfortable around me.
But the flipside to laying bare something as personal as finances allows other people to disclose their situation. Many people have shared with us their own situation and their fiscal struggles.
Can you, or do you, turn off your research/studio practice(s)?
SF: Absolutely not.
When and how did you meet each other and under what circumstances?
SF: I can’t think of anything less interesting to talk about than when and how we met. Can you? We were surviving graduate school.
IR: It was at the San Francisco Art Institute. Back then, everybody was smoking. Sean offered me a cigarette, but he said it in German.
SF: That almost makes it sound more glamorous than it was. I think you had just gotten trashed in a critique where your work was dubbed “overly aesthetic” or something like that.
IR: No. It was too European. I think Tony Labat called it “High Art.” As I recall, your work got trashed the week after.
At what point did you start making work together?
IR: We started collaborating in 1997. Our very first performance consisted of stealing a package of cheese from a grocery store and delivering it to the Mayor’s office.
SF: Wait! It must have been 1994 or 1995! Frank Jordan was still the Mayor of San Francisco. They didn’t have as tight security then. You could still enter City Hall with a video camera.
Was there a growing period, when you had to get a feel for each other’s process/priorities, learn how to communicate – or did you click right away?
SF: There is now a growing period, as opposed to having had a growing period – which is now over – and the two of us have grown. We did try to collaborate right away, which was perhaps a mistake. It strikes me that our earliest arguments had to do with whether or not the aesthetic or the conceptual elements should be foremost in the finished piece. In hindsight, having the benefit of whatever growth may have occurred since our first meeting in 1994, these arguments seem technical rather than metaphoric. Had we allowed the relationship to evolve into collaborating we may have stumbled on the general thesis of “argumentation as a work of art” much sooner and spent more of the formative “early years” discussing process.
But backing into the process like we did lends itself to a less efficient way of working. Our chief struggle in creating art is resolving how the subject of debate will lend itself to a finished project. I think we had to calcify the process of turning what seems like an argument into a more enveloping story – and I think we’re still learning how to do that more effectively with every collaboration.
When I compare our process to, say, Helen Meyer-Harrison and Newton Harrison, or N.E. Thing, Co., the piece that’s discussed always feels like the product of something so natural. This is where I think our efforts to collaborate suffered early on from not really knowing in which direction we were heading.
IR: I think that our commitment to each other has grown. We now exclusively collaborate.
Do you gravitate towards roles in your practice – based on strengths, or personality, or skills? Or is every project a different kind of adventure?
IR: Every project is a new exploration that involves a completely different set of skills. This has led to substantial “discussions” between Sean and me as to where our work is headed. I would like to see more consistency where Sean wants more variety.
SF: I think she’s referring to the fact that some of our strongest projects were the result of climbing a steep learning curve.
As Isabel knows, it’s the conceptual thrust behind the work that dictates the medium.
Theater, for example, was something completely foreign to us as a medium before we wrote “Performance Art in Front of an Audience…” but it was necessary to effectively resolve that particular conflict.
Isabel prefers to approach a project with a greater comfort level over her technical proficiency. This, no doubt, has more to do with control than with choosing the medium best suited to the project.
IR: As Sean knows, even a great concept doesn’t succeed if the medium fails to communicate it.
How do you generate the concepts you work with? Do you draw, write, photograph, or do any sort of regular background practice? Is this a shared thing?
SF: We both studied Fluxus art and what’s typically referred to Conceptual art. Because that’s a broadly used term, I would narrow the field of conceptual art to the anti-object work that took place in the late 1960s through the mid 1980s. Having this common interest, the thrust behind the work we do is conceptual in nature so the outcome – the aesthetic resolution of the conflict – changes with each endeavor.
Arguing is a commonality all over the planet. When countries do it with each other, we call it a cold-war. When politicians do it on behalf of their electorate we call it legislating. When businesses do it with each other, we call it anti-trust. But when people do it with each other, particularly when they’re lovers, for some reason it’s uncomfortable, almost taboo.
We try to draw from popular culture so the commonality of the argument is more apparent. Sometimes this popular culture is specific to the community of contemporary art – as in the play we wrote about the last argument between Carl Andre and Ana Mendieta. But mostly we’re interested in the energy of personal conflict that’s everywhere.
IR: To answer the question once we find common ground we do draw, photograph, research, write, film, perform whatever seems the best medium to convey the metaphor.
SF: Okay. I suppose that’s concise, but totally unnecessary given what I’ve already included to that point.
How do you make choices and negotiate decisions about what direction to take with projects?
IR: Coming to an agreement can take weeks or even months. It involves arguing but it also includes periods of silence when we don’t talk about it, when we take time to process or conceptualize without sharing our ideas with each other. For me it’s the process of emotional detachment.
SF: I think, for you, it also has to do with who’s driving the decision-making. The more heated elements from our debates are focused on who is ultimately granted the “decision-making authority” more than the results of the decision.
IR: Okay. You’re not being fair. It’s less about control and more about having a vision. I want the work to be flawless, and sometimes that means not reaching a compromise with you.
Does your collaboration ever involve more people? If no, why not? If yes, then when and how does that work?
SF: We often involve professionals from other fields. Economists, for example, or sales professionals, or actors. I’m still not certain where the line is that someone needs to cross before they are considered a willing collaborator in the artwork, however.
For Selling Yourself and Not Your Art, we hired a Dale Carnegie instructor to teach artists how to market their work. We viewed this as a situation that we were trying to manipulate by introducing certain elements. We had a stage and an audience that we knew would be largely comprised of artists themselves. We introduced this business coach to try and derail the emotional energy in the room. We didn’t consider the coach a participant in the collaboration; however, we considered her an instrument or a part of the environment.
For Death & Taxes, Inc., we had a whole corporate board of directors who weren’t initially meant to be collaborators.…They were meant to be tools to develop the piece. But they managed to cross that line, and before we finished the year, they certainly qualified as collaborators in the piece.
For “Performance Art in Front of an Audience Ought to be Entertaining”, we hired actors. The same phenomenon occurred. For the first few runs, the actors were tools we were using to realize the piece. During the most recent run, however, the actors managed to turn tables and become collaborators in the production.
IR: I guess I don’t see the difference. Everybody who participated or somehow involved themselves in our work collaborated.
SF: Curious you would bring that up here. It’s not as though we haven’t discussed defining collaboration before. In fact, I think it was you who suggested that where work holds a higher conceptual standard, the collaboration happens through a contribution to the idea and not the delivery.
Will you describe a project that didn’t work out or you didn’t follow through on? Can you describe something that you couldn’t agree on or you didn’t feel like you were both “into?”
IR: Everything we have done so far was, at one point or another, a source of quarrel.
SF: Is that going to be our answer?!?
IR: Can I finish???
The year of Death & Taxes had the most memorable disputes. I think we were pretty much at divorce level towards the end. I remember the last board meeting when we discussed whether or not to continue this experiment. I don’t think that we would still be together if we had created a subsidiary and continued the project as suggested by the board.
What kinds of singular processes or practices, studio or research, do you maintain as individuals that you may or may not bring into the collaboration?
SF: There’s so little delineation between the individuals and the collaboration that this question seems difficult to answer. In the Kaprow sense of life and art intersecting, you might say that our primary goal is to create an air of seamlessness between the two.
Isabel is an amazing video editor who has managed to salvage some extremely shaky video and turn it into usable footage. This is perhaps a clearer delineation between the two of us contributing separate talents to a practice.
If you open the box – the black box with the mechanics behind the work – you might witness a conversation about the emotional impact or about certain elements that should, when put together, produce an atmosphere which is altogether uncomfortable. And we might laugh about that and agree that this is where the best works of art reside. And that’s the practice we maintain as individuals, where we’re orchestrating something and not really arguing with one another.
But, it feels very vulnerable, somehow, to explain that “back-stage” part of the work.
IR: Yes. It does feel vulnerable.
I do other stuff, too, besides video editing, though.
SF: That’s not what I said.
Do you make your own work in addition to the collaborative work, and what sort of need does this fill?
What are the strengths in working collaboratively and what are the challenges in working collaboratively?
IR: Strength: we are more productive by bringing together different expertise once we have agreed to move in a specific direction.
SF: We also manage time more effectively when we collaborate. (I really don’t know if our strengths are as compatible as they sound here. In fact, I might parry with the notion that the overlap in our strengths becomes the challenge.)
IR: Challenges: To come to an agreement. I often feel that I have to protect my idea.
SF: Protect your idea or control our idea???
What sort of theory, cultural circumstances, or life scenarios influence or inform your decision to work collaboratively? Would you say that your collaboration is philosophically driven, or more pragmatic?
SF: In a sense, there’s nothing more pragmatic than collaborating this way. As an artist, you’re dropped into the art-world, whether by choice or by circumstance – though I believe few who have been making art for any serious length of time would concede that it’s by choice – and you’re immediately faced with the challenge of time management. The artist has to find the time to make art when all the other areas of their life are pulling them away.
In our collaboration, we’ve claimed something we would probably be doing anyway, namely arguing, as a means for making art.
IR: And raising a child and making a living and so on. It becomes something more significant than the argument or the daily chore.
If you teach, how does collaborative practice inform the way you facilitate student projects and teach studio courses?
IR: I teach my students that conflict is absolutely necessary in the creative process. I also talk about transactional analyses and the dynamics of an argument in my classes.
If you teach, do you co-teach? If you do co-teach, how has that been received by the students, and how has this been received in the academic institutions you have worked with?
Please point to us at a project or projects you would like to describe. Include links or attach files. If relevant, share with us a sense of the collaborative back-and-forth that may have gone into planning and making the work.
Sean Fletcher and Isabel Reichert have been collaborating together since 1994 on conceptually based performance works, interventions, writings, installations, videos, photography and prints. Their work is about power and vulnerability; how it relates to relationship dynamics, society, and politics. Fletcher and Reichert use collaboration as a tool to integrate the negotiation for power into works of art.
Projects by Fletcher and Reichert include Paparazzi Photographs, in which the artists hired a paparazzo to follow them for a day; Proceedings, a short video work that tracks the artists’ obsession with the murder trial of Scott Peterson; Selling Yourself and Not Your Art, which involved hiring a Dale Carnegie instructor to coach artists on the business etiquette of marketing their wares; and Death & Taxes, Inc., a corporation run by an independent board that assumed fiduciary responsibility over the artists’ lives for an entire year.
They exhibit their work internationally, and have appeared on both Bay Area NPR member stations KQED and KALW, on Studio 360 (a PRI nationally syndicated program), and the European online magazine der Spiegel. Their art has appeared in various international publications including Flash Art International, Art Week, East Bay Express, Der Spiegel magazine, the Associated Press, The Contra Costa Times, The Oakland Tribune, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Washington Post.