Ideas of Collaboration and Group Work in Music: Dirty Projectors and Bunkbed Nights
By Ben Schaafsma
Ideas and examples of collaboration are scarce among art historical surveys from the Renaissance to the Modern, or even among contemporary question about what art is. During the 17th and 18th centuries and the emergence of nationhood, countries in Western Europe began to cultivate their own Da Vinci. The idea of the genius of the individual seems to have been forever perpetuated by academic institutions and the art market, even today there are art students holed up in their studios hoping to be the next Mark Rothko or Jackson Pollock.
Throughout history we have examples of collaboration in the workshop, specifically the print shop and the architect’s studio. I don’t find it a coincidence that both of these examples were originally involved in producing something completely utilitarian (though not necessarily true today). The 20th century has seen breaking away from the traditional print studio, experimenting with new methods and technologies, but still within a very traditional collaborative context. And the 21st century architect’s studio is nothing like that of the nameless craftsman of the 17th century. These mediums are not to be discounted, but their utilitarian nature gives them a different history when compared to painting. For this reason, I will consider music in terms of collaborative group work.
I was able attend a concert by the east coast based band called the Dirty Projectors. The Dirty Projectors are an ever changing, growing musical group that revolves around a smaller core. The apparent leader of the group and front man, Dave Longstreth, the entire time during the performance attempted to communicate with other members of his group with bobbing his head (sometimes counting out a rhythm), persistent eye contact with group members and other bodily gestures as instruction. This group’s dynamic lends itself to the improvisational type music they perform. While on stage they formed a semi-circle around the drummer so that everyone had a clear view of each other member of the group.
Though, there is a frontman, their performance is transparent enough to realize that all the members are equally involved in the song making process. Within Western culture, there has been a continuing narrative associated with ‘artists’ and ‘authorship,’ more common in the visual arts and literature - the myth that one author is responsible for producing a work. When seeing a musical group perform, it is obvious that a “song” or their “work” could not be produced in the same way if it were just one person. Though this transparency of collaborative work is more obvious among bands and musical groups, there still seems to be the myth that the “frontman” is responsible for the majority of the song writing and content. In an essay by Mieke Bal and Norman Bryson called Semiotics and Art History: A Discussion of Context and Senders, they critique the ‘author’ in art history. Bal points out Foucault’s “assessment of the relation between an individual and his or her proper name [being] quite different from the relation that obtains between a proper name and the function of authorship.” (Preziosi, Donald, ed. The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology. 252-253. New York City, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1998.) In this case, the work that is produced by the Dirty Projectors is not work produced by Dave Longstreth or Nat Baldwin, or by Dave Longstreth and Nat Baldwin, but by the Dirty Projectors. As Foucault would say, Dave Longstreth is in the world, but Dirty Projectors are in the ‘work’. Again, it seems that Dirty Projectors are aware of this and are working to deconstruct this narrative of ‘author’.
Beyond the stage presence of the four deep Dirty Projectors that evening, there was obviously a group presence in the crowd and away from the stage. The group tours often and, I assume, cannot afford to accommodate a large touring group, but this concert was performed in their “hometown.” There were sometimes members of the group within the audience that would join them on stage for a song, or would perform from the crowd, singing or clapping, etc. Other audience members would also temporarily join the group by singing out a lyric or making noise with what they had that added to the performance. This made everything much more exciting, no matter how good or bad the music was, there was a sense of being involved in the moment--a liminal space somewhere between process and performance. The conflation between performers and audience also made the experience and space seem constantly fluxing. A better example of this, the conflation of audience and performer, is the former Grand Rapids, MI group Bunkbed Nights. Many of their performance relied on the participation of the audience whether it was singing, making noises with everyday objects like plastic bags or creating a visual presence with flashlights. Bunkbed Nights would also, in most instances, avoid the use of the stage and sometimes performed from the middle of the room with the audience intermingling and surrounding them.
Both of these groups have something in common with each other, as well as many other artist groups. The members of both the Dirty Projectors and Bunkbed Nights, as well as the audience, were all very similar. The majority of the being white males between the ages of 21 and 30. In terms of the Dirty Projectors performance, there were some women, but very few and only one group [out of the four total that played that evening] had a female member in their band. This type of crowd is very prominent at any type of independent music show. Does this genre of music that only appeal to this demographic? Is it the means of promotion and typifying of this sort of music that mostly attracts young white males? I generally tend to hear about these types of happenings from friends. Is it this type of “word-of-mouth” promotion that keeps this genre very insular. I don’t necessarily believe that this style of promotion causes such a niche audience, but it is merely a symptom of working outside the established paths of distributing information that is common among punk and other musical genres that uphold a D.I.Y. aesthetic and style of living. How can collaborative work to further extend audience and participation, or is it innately clique-forming?
Currently studying Arts Administration and Policy at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Ben has co-founded such institutions as the Division Ave Arts Cooperative, G-RAD, and even LAMB! Currently interested in the history and execution of relational work. He also likes ping-pong.
Posted on October 12, 2006 8:13 AM