THE ARTISTIC PROCESS AS MEETING GROUND
Over the course of her artistic practice, Marianna Dellekamp (Mexico, 1968) has covered varied ground. While most of her work has focused on the photographic image and the different ways in which it can be shown, tridimensional endeavors have gained growing importance in recent years. Her work is the result of thorough research and offers alternate ways of approaching the contemporary subject. She resorts frequently to forms which foster participative or collective reflection contexts and situations, developed over a significant period of time.
Her Earth Library deals with the process of creating and collecting books. Since its inception in 2008, it has been shown in different exhibition contexts: from the corner of her studio where it was born it has spread out to museums, galleries, fairs, bookstores, and other editorial events. It has maintained a distinctive vitality, adapting itself to different kinds of spaces and making a valid statement as an artistic object but also as an editorially significant anthology.
The work has come together thanks to the systematic compilation of earth samples from different parts of the planet, collected in response to open calls made through social networks. By proceeding thus, Dellekamp encouraged collective involvement in order to supply the earth which she then placed in acrylic boxes, shaped similarly to books. The spine reveals the sample’s origin. The earth in each volume becomes a text of sorts, allowing in light of its origin different inquiries and readings of the piece, and resonant on multiple political, religious, social, and sentimental levels.
One incentive for encouraging participation was that potential collaborators were invited to participate creatively and expand the project but, above all, to become co-authors of the piece by creating their own books. “The sense of collectivity and the idea that the work comes into being due to the involvement of different people are crucial for understanding the work,” explains Dellekamp (1). Her only request from the first open call on was that people send her earth; she granted total freedom of choice to each participant so long as the organic matter came from a personally relevant place.
The call reverberated. As the different samples arrived in her workshop, Dellekamp kept a record of the material, classifying and organizing it. Throughout this process, the different earths acquired identities within her project in addition to their physical properties, determined by how the collaborator had packed and sent the earth. The material was delivered by mail, in person or passed from hand to hand. The containers were also varied: plastic bags, envelopes, boxes, and jars, among others.
Potential collaborators were asked to supply, in addition to the earth submitted, an image of its place of origin. Functioning as technical data sheets, these images represented an important part of the earth classification process; they also spawned, however, a visual entity independent of the initial material. Assembled together, the photographs constitute a geographic atlas of sorts that can be viewed separately from the corresponding earths. In some cases the collaborators did not provide them; in order to avoid an incomplete record, Dellekamp attached real-time satellite views.
The process culminated in the creation of a library. Its volumes are compendiums of personal information and experiences, still part nonetheless of a collective corpus: “Each book is a cartographic treatise of sorts, a biographical trace and an object brimming with aesthetic elements and both formal and poetical interplay.” (2)
All libraries contain books by several authors—in this case, several authors-collaborators. Some volumes share the same topic or, more precisely, the same origin. This is relevant for the piece, since it entails the possibility of including different approaches to the same topic in one collection. The library acquired a life of its own as it developed; it originated however within certain strictures set for the collaborators, since the open calls put forth definite criteria in order to inaugurate and optimize the work’s production process. In this context of collaboration and expanded authorship, Dellekamp’s role was one of coordination: her original purpose was spread out among the collaborators’ aims. In the end, they decided what material to send. The artist’s individual action was to set into motion the enthusiasm that would spark collective participation.
While the library was coming together, collaborators’ replies reinforced the structure or social order established by the open call’s criteria and each book became a registry of personal stances, within the collectivity determined by the work’s process.
Earth that is not earth
Collective involvement set the project’s course. The first open call requested earth from a location with special significance for the potential co-author; it also stated that it could be taken from a place the person was visiting. The notion and image of “earth” soon evolved into organic matter or simply matter, since some of the replies included bits of seashells, seeds, flowers, leaves, and even personal or official documents. The content gave each volume its identity. The work actively determined its own process and, inevitably, branched out into areas not envisioned at the outset.
I will now touch upon some volumes, in particular those which approached the project from a different conceptual perspective, opened up the production process or, especially, generated a log for the piece composed of individual memory, history and findings. One example is an ancient postcard from Hawaii that belonged to the co-author’s deceased grandmother, intervened with local earth; or a book-atlas with different rocks collected by one person over 20 years of travels. Other tomes reveal the cohabitation of organic matter and waste, for instance a book which contains a piece of styrofoam eroded by the sea or another with a mixture of sand and trash, found while walking on the beach.
An outstanding volume includes not earth but a customs document, sent to the artist to notify the arrival of a package from Rosh Pina (one of the oldest Zionist settlements in Israel) and explain that the it would not be delivered, since earth is not eligible for importation. Does not this, of itself, represent an avenue of reflection into the work’s concept?
The Earth Library is an open-process work which engendered proximity with the collaborators from the start. The artist’s interest in undertaking such projects lies in the possibility of sparking interaction between individuals and permeating society in a different way, of creating community.
Collaborative art’s origins are to be found in great measure in the 1960s, when a new way of understanding the work of art’s situation resulted in the adoption of social forms which generated meeting points between the artistic product and everyday life. The distance between the creator-producer of the work and the audience was changed, opening a new dimension of collective experience. The existence of a collaborator in the creative process, as happens with the Library, leads me to consider a fundamental difference in roles: on one hand, the spectator faced with the concluded work, in whose process he has not taken part; and on the other a collaborator who, even though he may not witness the finished work, has a different understanding of it since he has participated in its creation. Collaborative art establishes a social dimension rooted in collective participation—it replaces individual activation achieved by merely witnessing the finished work. In the case of the Earth Library, the collaborator has helped shape it; the audience considers it.
Determining the lineage of collaborative art enables us to review certain ideas, put forth in recent decades, about the author’s relationship to his work and to the audience. Even today, certain schools of thought consider that the artist only produces and exhibits his work, while the audience looks and considers what is on display.(3) This supposes a traditional idea of authorship. As Claire Bishop wrote, artistic events which have questioned traditional authorship have aimed to provoke participants, involving them in a more active way.(4) Later movements in art history embraced a non-authoral principle and adopted the possibility of collective creativity. Collaborative processes opened up new spaces occupied by artistic production, in accordance with their context and temporality. A work positions itself within a context determined by different relationships; the individual is not only the work’s consumer but also its producer.
In light of all this and by virtue of the open calls, the Library activated the audience, fostered its involvement and created a “physical” relationship during the process. The participants appropriated the work, so to speak, establishing a network which built the work’s meaning and intelligibility. Collaboration opens the possibility of redirecting or rebuilding the meanings harbored by the author at the outset. Some participants never witnessed the process or the display of the work, but were nevertheless a part of this appropriation network (5).
One of the aims of collaborative participation is to configure active subjects inside symbolic experiences, who generate actions within a social and political milieu. A collaborative process relinquishes part of the author’s power in order to create a new social model. A collaborative and open process excludes the possibility of arriving at a formal, pre-conceived result. Part of the work’s value resides in the fact that it is impossible to determine where it will lead, as is exactly the case with the Earth Library.
Another premise of collaborative art is the inception of a meeting ground for the participant collectivity. In our day and age, the artist can encounter collaborators or his audience by interacting in virtual spaces. The sense of creating a social event that set the Library in motion began in social networks. The work has brought about the gathering of people who, notwithstanding their different locations, manifested their physical presence thanks to their participant earths or organic matter samples. Launching the open calls on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and by e-mail allowed for the creation of a network with the following features: 61% of participants are people known by the artist, she met 11% because of this project and had no physical contact with the remaining 28%. Traditional flyers were also used, small pieces of paper distributed in different spots in order to find co-authors through an alternate route.
Remaining open towards what may come about, to chance and to change, is still a valid standpoint. It will be difficult for the artist to determine when and why to close this Library—which, like all libraries, should remain alive, capable of further growth, be it for consultation or simple observation.
1. Interview with Marianna Dellekamp, Mexico City, 2013.
2. Curatorial text by Víctor Palacios for the exhibition “Biblioteca de la Tierra. Un proyecto de Marianna Dellekamp”, Modern Art Museum, Mexico City, 2010.
3. Groys, Boris, “A Genealogy of Participatory Art” in The Art of Participation 1950 to Now, San Francisco, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 2008, p. 20
4. Bishop, Claire, “Viewers as Producers” in Participation. Documents on Contemporary Art, London/Cambridge, Mass., Whitechapel/MIT Press, p. 206.
5. I expound on some of Jacques Rancière’s statements, quoted by Claire Bishop, regarding the spectator’s activity/passivity, which is not exclusive to the visual arts. Rancière states that distinguishing between active and passive is to ponder capability; that is, it places capability on one side and inability on the other, thus establishing a condition of inequality.