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


I have been living in Grand Rapids for 26 years. In that time I have collaborated extensively with other artists in the area, why? Because I wanted to create an artistic community. Since I arrived in Grand Rapids people have asked me why I don't move to Chicago or New York? Why would an artist of your talent stay here where there is no so called "art scene"? And my asnwer was always
I had moved from Guadalajara the second largest city in Mexico with the idea that I would be 20 years in the future if I moved to the United States. Unfortunately I ended up in Caledonia, a small farming town owtside of Grand Rapids. My welcome to America was the shooting of John Lennon. It was not until I visited the Reptile House on Division Avenue that I felt that I had found hope, I met artists, musicians, poets, and
the tattoo-pierced crowd and saw many top notch
underground acts including Yo la Tengo, The Voluptuos Horror of Karen Black, Crash Worship
and others. At that time I opened a studio (glorified garage) and began collaborating with local musicians, poets and dancers. My goal was to
be criss-cross disciplines and put artists next to
people they would not normally brush shoulders with and wait and see what happens. This workspace served as my painting studio but also a practice place for musical groups including my own and several seminal groups that went on to do other marvelous things (Mommy Wont' Wake Up, C3
Little Miss Waintikaitis, Knunk, Bill Horist, etc)
This space was later to be called the Jesus Free Zone a reference to the strong conservative dominance in the area.
While most underground projects here in Grand Rapids are not financially rewarding I can say that I have been amazed by the amount of folks that despite all odds maintain their artist projects by working day jobs in restaurants and the like. I was also amazed by the quality and depth of some of the work being produced.
Four years ago I went to Baja for an extended sabbatical and worked with Mexican printmaker Angel Flores he introduced me to a very hard selling method he employed to sell his work which was basically carrying his portfolio under his arm at all times and stopping people on the street and saying "hey would you like to see my work"?
Angel always had money.
Upon returning from Mexico I ran into dancer-choreographer Rachel Finan and proposed to her the
idea of creating a gesamkustwerk, that is an all encompassing work of art using, art, poetry, music and dance in one show. We took Federico
Garcia Lorca's Blood Wedding and put an add for bilingual actors. The night before auditions I talked to Rachel and told her if more than three people show I'm in otherwise Im going home to read my new Artforum. 30 people showed up for the first audition and 20 more for the second.
Blood Wedding was presented at Urban Institute of Contemporary Art and played four nights straight with a bigger crowd each time. I was amazed. The first bilingual play to appear in
Grand Rapids.
This collaborating partnership went on to do many other projects including shows that incorporate butoh with free jazz, plays, and even a rather successful burlesque show.
Hugo Claudin
Grand Rapids MI

Posted by: hugo on October 13, 2006 9:52 AM

Part 2

It was around 1989 that I picked up a job by the Gerald R Ford airport. I was studying at Kendall College and working in a factory, between the two I would stop at a bookstore on 28th St called Schuler Books. A slight man occupied the counter, his names was Jeff Boughner. I remember how exciting it was to me to find this little gem only blocks from the megamall, there was this little sanctuary where one could browse through the books and magazines without being shoo'ed away. A couple of years later I began working at Schuler's as a sales clerk, I wanted to do the Art section but a bearded man had that post already and he held it another ten years. So I happily took the poetry section as long as I did the pop psych section as well. I became friends with Jeff Boughner and slowly discovered that this shy man who was the floor manager but had tons of music running through his veins. There was hardly a topic about music or art that Jeff was not hip to. After a few years of working together the Schulerites decided there was enough talent in the store to put a show together with music, poetry and we got permission to do a night of bohemia. That was how Haje Nebula was born, this group later was renamed Blue Nebula. Jeff was an amazing guitar player and had the chops and ear to improvise beutifully. Jeff Boughner, Al Thayer and myself got a loft in a warehouse on Front street that became the Jesus Free Zone, my first studio in Grand Rapids. Several seminal bands rehearsed here including Mommy Wont Wake Up
C3, Little Miss Wintakaitis, Knunk, Better Disease and others I cant remember. Jeff was open to the idea of mixing jazz, noise, art. Anything. The Haje Nebula added John Corrigan on drumkit and I did hand percussion, we also added another conga player named Luis Merced. This ensemble played locally at venues like Arco Iris where on several occassions local poets jumped right in and read their poetry over the sounds of the band. I dont know many musicians in town who would put up with this but Jeff just smiled and enjoyed the moment. Jeff Boughner passed away a couple of weeks ago but left an amazing body of work with many musicians in the area.
He will be sorely missed.
His latest cd won a Jammies Award for Best Jazz
Album of 2006 , three days before he left.

Posted by: Hugo Claudin on March 5, 2007 5:15 PM

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