On Collaboration

An account of my artistic collaboration with Robert Besanko regarding the digital re-mastering of his images for the project ‘Contemplations’ as exhibited at the Australian Centre for Photography, Sydney, December 2012 to December 2013

Perhaps my collaboration with Robert began when we first met over thirty years ago and I became an admirer of his beautiful, sensuous work whose liminal forms, loving embraces and estranged spaces quietly won me over; gentle flowing engagements of fleeting appear-ances. Our work together, only recently formalised for this monograph and its accompanying exhibitions, and perhaps like all aesthetic engagements, comes from and returns to a collaborative priority. That is, a shared belief possessed by neither but a ‘language’ nonetheless composed in the joining of hands, eyes and minds. Collaborative works in this sense are an exercise in creative research, in the production of meaning, rather than the often perceived demand of the technological complexity that fashions or inhibits much contemporary work. Collaborative endeavours offer evidence and faith in the idea that making a work of art, beyond its sheer personal necessity, is an act worthy of sharing.

Often the richest associations, innovations or even clues evolve from the mere interaction between ourselves and those art works that defy our reasoning. We certainly don’t have to bludgeon a work into submission for it to divulge its secrets. Nor should we credit our collaborations beyond their merit. But collaboration transforms, through the struggles and triumphs of other minds, where visual forces and shared conundrums echo across centuries. It is no different to my formative and ongoing conversations with those ‘dead people’ whose best endeavours still adorn the walls and vaults of our galleries, museums and libraries. Keen conversations that transfigure words into actions, thoughts into gestures, and dreams into deeds. The very act of creation presumes collaboration, acknowledged or not, of times past, present and future. Works of art if they are not merely ego, become conversations that blur the distinction between doer and thinker, the burden of words over actions, and the propriety of self over other. Conversations that begin with our cohabitation of this earth and our collective understanding.

But how does this actually work? Can we formulate outcomes of creative endeavour be-yond collaborative acknowledgements and constructed objects? There is the process itself, its materiality and productivity, the sharing and shaping of ideas and directives, and the tussle and bustle around the problem of identifying the aesthetic as a property of objects or things. But it is simply not possible to understand art through observation alone. For one thing, not all artistic intentions result in objects, nor can all works of art be seen. Significant form is one thing, identity is another, but both remain cultural properties not properties of the work itself. We are the ones who breathe life into rocks and stones. So it is with the coming together of hands, eyes and minds that collaborative works survive. But despite our best intentions they are rarely faithful or perfect, so magic occurs and interpretations divide, and before long evolve into something else. Our deliberations can oppose this if we like, but in the end the work wins, for it will always be grander than the sum of us. Collaboration is not a combative act anymore than the art world is some frontier town that ‘isn’t big enough for the two of us’. Diversity is the biology of survival; the reason we are here at all. Through collaboration we are simply collecting the richness of shared human significance in the best ways we know how.

The visual arts have long partnered with narrative and description, of both form and content. Images and words have long collaborated in partnership to prevent pictures and objects from vanishing into the abyss of indifference or commercial oblivion. Photography has always been a collaborative process, between manufacturer and inventor, artist and artisan, art and craft, the photographer and their means of production.  So why is the collaborative often avoided or not mentioned, or worse, portrayed as a bogeyman attempting to drain the work of its life, where any incursion, acknowledgement or analysis plunders its treasures or despoils its ‘purity’?  Why is collaboration the outsider in photography but the norm in music, theatre and film? Photographs might not want to be merely a packhorse of culture, carrying or fetching messages and meanings, arguments and morals, signs and symbols, but despite photography’s ubiquity photographs inevitably impress themselves upon us, affecting us, and so become woven into our deeds, dreams and memories. They become us and once shared, like lives lived, beg interpretation, compassion and understanding.  Such is the narrative force of photography and its collaborative nature.

But a duality also burdens photography more so than any other media. Those conflicted conversations on either side of the camera’s lens, between reportage and vision, reality and illusion, between things that can be seen, and the thoughts, feelings, and memories that can’t. That eternal struggle between factual honesty and imaginative dishonesty where the lens that so democratically draws the world for us, also divides us. This contradiction though often misunderstood and invisible, which is strange for a medium predicated on the ‘reproduction of the real’, begins as a collaborative act between the opposing ‘sides of the lens’. The singularity of the lens also turns the world of depth, volume and perspective into the flatness of a ‘papered wall’.  The most significant act of photography after its initial miraculous appearance, is the printed return of its image back to the world from which it came, as an object more sculptural than pictorial. Resurrecting the missing (third) dimension therefore is the first artistic priority in photographic print making, where the melding of hands, eyes and minds renders something essentially materialist but equally imaginative and fleeting but no less real.

It was this priority of the ‘print as an object’ that brought Robert and I together. His fragile but wondrous ‘lith prints’ from another time and place are no less beguiling today than when he first created them. The original darkroom process involved the heavily restrained infectious development of over exposed images on Kodalith paper. Its unique toning and gradation effects were achieved by extending (restraining) the transition from partial to full development over minutes rather than seconds which allowed the partially developed image to be arrested at a precise moment just short of being overdeveloped and disappearing forever. The more restrained and exhausted the developer the more time consuming, unpredictable and unforgiving the process became. Though each lith print was also incomplete and unfinished, and in that sense a ‘failure’, its original and impossible to reproduce appearance was also a soliloquy at odds with photography’s dominant myth of self replicating objectivity.

But today is today and yesterday has long past, and Robert’s images beckoned the opportunity to re-image and hence re-imagine them in ways like never before. But ‘how to re-image’ was the question. Merely digitising originals results in an archive, not a work of art, though archives interestingly investigated yield like other works of art all manner of views, knowledge and understanding. But this was not what we wanted to do. Nor was it a re-photography project, a nostalgic return, or the resurrection of an alchemical process. This is why the digital remastering of Robert’s images was so technically and intellectually challenging.  Their unique incompleteness also implied any digital reconstruction had to adhere to principles of randomness and ‘the unfinished’.  In other words, the digital print could not be an act of simulation or verisimilitude. It could not merely be its reproduction. The digital print had to possess the same impossible balance of Robert’s original lith prints that forged accidental discoveries with uncertain emanations from a chemical darkness; and an uncertainty at odds with digital’s numerical precision. This therefore became as much a moral problem as a aesthetic solution.

Slowly over many months, print by print we discovered what could survive translation to a new medium while carrying the stain of an original but not much else. For digital imaging remains the antithesis of analogue photography which accumulates advantages slowly and faithfully at the ‘speed of a dripping tap’ while archiving even our accidents and foolhardiness. Digital processes and their enumeration of the world at the spectacularly efficient speed of electrons behave at odds with the mnemonic qualities of analogue photography. In order to gain digitally you have to lose; where subtracting and adding, dividing and multiplying is how digital processes accumulate their wealth; where numbers do not signify what they mean, where numbers must be transformed between devices to render colour consistently; where the same number ‘means’ a different colour depending on its gamut; where the same number means a different thing. This is not the continuous reality of a dark room, but the chaotic division of particles in a storm.

But alien territory also offers the chance to be a pioneer. Pioneers go through lands they hardly know.  Who could say no to such an opportunity; the possibility to get lost in your own backyard. Only by interestingly applying what we already know does art have a chance of restructuring our perception of the world. In this collaborative spirit, Robert’s sensitivity to the print as an object and a thing, not just a memory or an occasion, completely under-stood when something was forthcoming or when it refused, when it was ‘alive’ or when it was ‘dead’. Though not a digital artist, Robert nevertheless understood unwaveringly when the digitised picture was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, when it began to ‘work’ and resonate between us, and when it simply referred too much or deferred too much and that inexplicable and unaccountable mystery was absent. Endless days of teasing and ruffling around inside Robert’s images, scanning, manipulating and test printing them, slowly began to yield moments of revelation. Dozens of luminosity masks formed multiple unique pictures that were re-combined and reinvented. Surfaces and reflectivity, illusions of presence and absence, and something beyond their material history were considered, discounted and reconsidered. Countless layers of drawing and gestures blended and tensioned across the surface of the paper slowly gave way to entirely new feelings, conceptions and revelations, and the tingling sensation that we were in the presence of something special began to take over our days and nights, and one by one Robert’s images were reborn.

Once we had found a way of working together, between Robert, his pictures and myself, all that remained was to prioritise the time that the images demanded. The Australian Centre for Photography and particularly Claire Monneraye understood enough of this to support what we were doing without question, pressure or demand, yet also equally offered the most consistent support and encouragement imaginable. Without their collaboration these works simply would not exist. The point is, if you live this way, by coincidence or by chance, a number of things are brought together in their prime condition and that always promises a fine occasion.

Les Walkling 2013
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