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On collaboration
Robin Rimbaud & Stephen Vitiello
In Conversation September 2006

RR We have both extensively collaborated with artists from all manner of fields. Was there ever a conscious decision for you to follow this direction?

SV To begin with I don't think that collaboration was something that I planned on but I definitely valued the opportunities once people started inviting me to work with them. My own history of collaborations is really in two stages. In 1989 I started to meet a lot of video artists. Up until that time, I had played in bands and made my own soundtracks for imagined films but never had any outlet for the personal work. In 1989 Peter Callas, the Australian artist asked me to do a soundtrack for a short animation. At about that time Tony Oursler invited me to work on an installation with him as well, and for the next nine years or so I really specialised in creating sound for visual artists. Along the way, I picked up a lot of ideas for my own working methods. By 1998 or so, I was getting a bit tired of just being known as the guy who works with this person and that person and always being in the 'support' position. It was just then that Anthony Moore (director of KHM, the Academy of Media Arts, Cologne) invited me to participate in the four-night festival, per-SON, with you, Pauline Oliveros and Frances-Marie Uitti (1).

RR Yes, that was a formative experience for me too. The association with the liberal and inspiring KHM was exciting too, so it wasn't only a collaboration with key creative figures but also with an institution of such status.

SV That's true. Anthony had heard soundtracks I had done for the Brazilian video artist Eder Santos and thought I'd make a good edition to the lineup. For that, I owe Anthony a lifetime of thanks as all three of you have ended up being friends as well as frequent collaborators. Another amazing collaborative aspect of that event was the role of Andres Bosshard. Andres had set up a 64-channel sound system. Andres then became involved in the spatialisation of each of our performances. Beyond his electronic setup, we were also in a church with a unique set of acoustic properties. It may have been the first time I was really aware of playing to and with a space.

RR And at the moment...

SV Well, at this present time I don't see collaboration as central as I did in the 90s but it is still very important to me both artistically but also socially! You and Andrew Deutsch are probably my most consistent musicians to work with. I look forward to working with you for new ideas as well as just for the opportunity to stay connected.

RR Yes, it seems that once you have established a strong connection with a collaborator then this can continue in the future in a very positive manner. I think it's this element of trust and understanding. Yet new possibilities continually open up, don't they? I suppose in many ways even this conversation itself is about collaboration.

SV Absolutely, in fact in the visual arts I just did a collaboration with the painter Julie Mehretu for the Sydney Biennale (2), and last year I worked with Joan Jonas on a performance piece of hers. Julie and I will work together again this fall in Vienna and then next summer in Los Angeles. A useful lesson for the two of us came from Christian Haye, the director of The Project, the gallery that we both work with in NY. Christian arrived in Sydney about six days in to the install. Julie was working on the wall drawing, listening to my sound; I was mixing the sound to her drawing. Christian's immediate comment was: 'great, now stop collaborating'. In other words, we were working so carefully to each other that we had created a very good bridge but now needed to go off and finish on our own and get back to our own solo process.   It's easy to become so diplomatic that you may not push something forward as aggressively as if you were working on it as a solo project.

RR I've often wondered about the idea of losing of yourself in collaboration, even a concern diluting your work and sometimes even secretly hoping towards this. Do you know what I mean?

SV I've found that the most important thing that I can do is to speak with the person at the beginning of the project and determine what the relationship is. Very often working with visual artists it is called a collaboration but there is some pre-determined rule that the visual is dominant, and therefore it is their work with my creative participation. The project with Julie was ideal as we agreed from the outset that it was a work by both of us. I created sounds that she listened to while creating a wall drawing. I then mixed in the gallery space a bit differently each day to respond to her drawing. We then worked together on a sculptural element that hung around the wall drawing. I have done projects with Pauline Oliveros as well as with you, in which I came in knowing it was your concert or CD but the roles have also been flipped at times when either of you might be supporting me. And then there is the perfect middle again where it is a work by Scanner/Vitiello. In any case, each situation is different. I try to do my best to keep ego in a creative place. Occasionally I've thought I might have done a project better by myself than as a duo or trio but the benefits of collaboration have far outweighed the more negative side of the coin.

RR This sounds almost idealistic but presumably, you've experience failure?

SV I have for sure. At least what comes to mind at the moment is my own failures more than other people failing me. I remember I had an opportunity to make a CD for a label that I was excited about. I invited two musicians who I admire greatly (Pauline Oliveros and Joe McPhee) to work with me. I had them for one afternoon and realised that I was in no way prepared for the session. I then spent months trying to make something of it and ended up scrapping it. Equally there have been a couple of instances where I was working with a video maker who wanted something very specific from me. The problems either arose because I couldn't understand the language they were using ('make the sound here more blue!'), or I wasn't able to work in a style that they were after.  

RR That's interesting. I've had more problems collaborating with film more than any other medium, where not only the production pressures you into an intimidating position, but also there's no clear understanding of my role. Rather than a collaboration with a film director it feels more frequently as if you are simply forced to reproduce a piece of music that they like but don't want to license for the film, or can't afford to! Failure is clearly a way of learning about possibilities and intentions, that's for sure.

SV Yes, just as establishing the roles in a working partnership are critical so is finding an understood vocabulary. When I work with the videomaker, Eder Santos for example, he will say, 'make it nervous' and I know instantly what that means to him (from the way he feels with an upset stomach to driving too fast in Brazil). I've also worked in situations where the tension, discomfort, even dislike has produced something positive! I often think of the way that Merce Cunningham and John Cage worked for so many years. At least as I understand it, Cunningham would suggest a piece and present Cage with the title and length. They would then work independently up until the dress rehearsal. Their trust, knowledge of the other's work and maybe even psychic connection allowed them to produce remarkably cohesive pieces without in any way having to be overly aware of the other or work one's style to the other.  

RR I remember when I worked with Cunningham last year on his E:vent series of performances I understood this psychic connection, where I was collaborating with both classical musicians, Stephen Montague for example, and Phil Selway of Radiohead (3). Our creative worlds collided in impossibly complex ways, beyond an idea of language and direction. Most significantly we were told not to watch or respond to the dance or each other!

SV As much as you and I have worked together and I'm aware of many other people you've worked with, I think of you as a very singular artist. Do you agree? Do you find you think differently when working on a project with someone else? Is it different if their medium is visual rather than auditory?

RR Well, I've often become attracted to the idea of collaboration on different levels, some more personal than others. Though I also like to think of myself as offering a unique voice and approach to works (be they visual, audio, or written), collaboration has offered a chance to dissolve the ego in many ways, to play around with altering the focus. I've had a concern from early on in my career regarding the omnipresent role and position of the artist as a kind of minor dictator manipulating like in that the Gursky photograph of the DJ spinning records in front of an arena style crowd (1). Collaboration has offered a method of reducing the focus, or removing the glare of ego and suggesting another reading or balance in some ways.

I've collaborated with pop singers, visual artists, writers, philosophers, graphic designers, hospitals, etc.. The variety is quite absurd yet hopefully this singular voice remains and presumably that's why one gets invited to create works in this situations and locations. I suppose I conceive of my practice as largely ideas based and therefore these can easily be transmitted and translated over different mediums. For example when I work with a choreographer like Shobana Jeyasingh or Wayne McGregor, we collaborate beyond taking our individual roles as choreographer and sound designer. It's more the development of an idea around which our roles are then determined. We can speak of intention, outcome and all other aspects but in the end we adopt our recognised positions.

I like taking risks though. I like challenging myself. When I worked recently on Time_Place_Space in Australia, an exploratory laboratory and strategy to enable emerging and established Australian artists to explore new methodologies and practices in hybrid/interdisciplinary arts, I was quite intimidated. The collaborative aspect was massive: I had over 25 people with me each day with which to develop various research and development opportunities towards a networks and structure to enable a sustainable arts practice. Once you could accept that we were all engaging in a process where you could erase boundaries between dancer, performer, writer, musician, painter, designer and so on, then the process of engagement really opened up. It was also about resisting the urge to judge work, both your own and others. 

A new critical voice can be opened up in these collaborative moments so the medium is not important, it's more about an ability to let go and submit to the situation.

(1) per-SON ( 1998), KHM, Germany, Scanner, Pauline Oliveros, Frances-Marie Uitti and Stephen Vitiello

(2) Julie Mehretu and Stephen Vitiello, Untitled (2006), The Biennale of Sydney, Sydney.

(3) Joan Jonas and Stephen Vitiello, Lines in the Sand (2005), Tate Modern, London.

(4) Merce Cunningham, E:vent (2005), Barbican Theatre, London.

(5) Andreas Gursky, Tote Hosen (2000), MOMA, New York.

(6) Time_Place_Space_5, (2006) Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane.