Anthony McCall and Lawrence Weiner

In this dialogue, Chris and Jeremy discuss the impetus for making collaborative work. Jeremy traveled across the United States this past spring, for his project with Creative Time entitled It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq. On the trip, he engaged in unscripted dialogues with local audiences using conversation as the medium for his collaboration. In January of 2009, Chris worked with artist Simon Grennan to produce a work for Creative Time Comics: A Graphic Record of the Here and Now. Here, they explore the margin between mass and museum culture.

Christopher Sperandio: My partner lives in Wales and most of the work we're doing these days is for regional museums and funded by lottery money. In the past we mostly made comic books where we tell other people's stories. We're also doing some smaller collaborations just for fun. For instance, we're working with some Wizards to make some magical paintings that glow in UV light.

I'm not sure what Creative Time is looking for. I think they think we have some similarities in our working methods. My collaborative practice springs out of the critical thinking of the late eighties—in particular reading works like Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction, and coming out of school during a slump in the economy. It never occurred to us to make something that someone else could buy. Our motivations are much more personally driven, not strictly political—here “political” means practical action with a specific goal in mind. We are interested in the difference between our working lives as academics, and our personal lives as working class lads living in the margins of a big city—for example, reconciling the experience of riding a city bus to an exclusive art opening.

What got you started doing what you do? Was there one piece of writing or one artwork that was the tipping point into this sort of practice?

Jeremy Deller: I left college in eighty-eight and was pretty aimless for five years. I had a few jobs here and there but I lived with my parents and was on the dole on and off. I think this was pretty typical. But what is strange is that this is the fourth time I have recounted this in an interview this week. I feel that there is a major looking back now to the last time no one had any money or sense of what the future holds. I didn’t go to an art college, in fact I didn’t even study art in high school. My art teacher made me do pottery, which I really enjoyed, but was not very good at it.

I always liked art and being around it, my parents took me to museums and galleries which are free and very popular in the U.K. I liked modern art it was almost as exciting as watching David Bowie on Top of the Pops, a U.K. music-television institution. I liked this opposed to sports, which has something to do with school, as the people who were good at sports seemed to be bad at being human beings. Anyway, this is a digression.

The epiphany is in two parts. In nineteen eighty-six I met Andy Warhol in London and he invited me to come to New York to work at the Factory, which I did for a few weeks during my holiday from college. When I walked into the building on Thirty-third street, I understood that being an artist could be anything. He had created his own world and the rest of the world was catching up with him.

In 1996 I was struggling and completely broke. I called a manager of a U.K. brass band to ask if his band would play acid house songs. He said, “yes” without hesitation and that liberated me from having to make traditional object-based artworks. It also taught me that the general public is very open to working with artists. The work I did with the brass band led to so many other adventures; I'm still very fond of them.

CS: It's funny that you mention your experience with the brass band. In nineteen ninety, when Grennan and I started our first collaborative project with the general public, one of our teachers in graduate school warned us about getting “mixed up” with non-artists. She said, “It would lead to nothing but trouble.” Our experience was exactly the opposite. For instance, when we collaborated with the unionized workforce of a chocolate plant in nineteen ninety-three, it was because of the union president’s interest that the work was ever realized. I'm constantly amazed at the willingness of people from all walks of life to get involved in art as long as you take the time to explain your interests. Critics at the time were another story—some called the design of the chocolate bar garish, while others complained about the quality of the chocolate. I guess it took them some time, along with the addition of practitioners to the field like yourself, Rikrit, and others.

Nowadays, I find that the people who are most concerned by our brand of collaborative public practice are object makers. This practice is more than twenty-years old and we're still defending our approach. My current girlfriend is a dyed-in-the-wool painter who was trained in Moscow in the late nineties, and she curls her nose at a lot of what I’m involved in. “Where's the skill?” she asks. “Where's the training?” In a way, it's a shame we can’t just cut the luxury-consumer-goods business adrift.

Even more harmful to the sort of practice we evolved is the internet. I'd say that the kind of communication and interaction we began fostering in the late eighties has been supplanted by the internet. Fluid mass communication and conversations on an international scale can be accomplished for free now. Has the internet changed your thinking, or how has it impacted what you like to do? I ask because I haven’t been able to get the internet out of my head lately.

JD: Getting into trouble is actually a good thing, I do think that the U.S. is a bit behind Europe with this kind of art for a variety of reasons; the strength of the art market being one of them. Euro cultures are also less individualistic in the American sense and as a result, collaborative work is more socially acceptable.

As for the internet, what it can't do is replicate a human being doing and saying things in space; that is still a long way off. The internet makes first-hand contact more precious as it happens less and less.

CS: Not to be nationalistic, but I think our kind of interactive practice was spawned in the U.S., but died on the vine because it is resistant to the market. It's difficult to sell an ephemeral public collaboration—my hat's off to the few who have pulled it off. A lot of critics who talk about resistant art forms also make their bank writing about, or promoting, elements of the high-end market. Hence there was a real effort to smother—or at least ignore—this kind of practice in the late nineties to early two thousands. There's been a resurgence in recent years, but most of this work is repetitive. It's the responsibility of younger artists to build on the past—not simply replicate the existing forms.

Maybe the economic crisis will turn out to have a silver lining. Don't get me wrong, economic collapse is a bad thing, but I do relish the idea that criticism may grow its teeth back during these dark days. Perhaps the internet is the key. Curators and critics used to operate as the cultural filter, but now anyone with a web browser can see what's new in São Paulo or Taipei. E-mail is a crude form of communication, but the web does make a nice window on the world. I know access to communication is class-based, but that's where projects like One Laptop per Child beats the ass of most Johnny-come-lately collaborative, interactive ephemeral art works. This feeds into my complaints about younger artists making a kind of toothless community-arts practice—we've seen it before—the ideas are established. They need to go out and do something even more dramatic. Case-in-point: one of my recent graduate students spent his time making digital tools for other artists to use. I thought it was brilliant. It's the same spirit as MAKE, HACK and the DORKBOTS of the world.