HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA — Usually, when artists are collaborating on a project, they tend to engage in some sort of direct discourse with each other during the period of its execution. (Helps to avoid such embarrassing misunderstandings as three painters all choosing to create the center panel of a triptych.) Conventions, however, can sometimes be just as profitably ignored as followed (just ask Frank Lloyd Wright), and, on occasion, a team will deliberately choose to collaborate without consultation - just to find out what the result will be.
A recent example of this practice, Book, is the product of 36 weeks of four artists not talking to each other - and yet the result is an interesting chronicle of communication.
Created during a trans-Atlantic project that took place between June 2003 and February 2004, Book records the weekly contributions made by each of the artists (two in New York, two in Belfast) as a single sketchbook bounced from one project member to the next on a weekly basis. The only contact which took place between the artists during this time was through the book itself - with each new custodian taking the previous addition as a starting off point for their own creations. (An image of a river generates a memory of a boathouse overrun by cats, which leads to a declaration of a preference for dogs, etc.) A 'sliver' of direct linkage also exists between pieces - as a portion of each work encroaches slightly onto the next recipient's blank page.
Book -the website- opens with a splash page that recommends a minimum 1024 x 768 screen resolution (though it will resize for smaller screens if you have one), and introduces the project with a bit of text and exterior images of the book itself. (A well-worn volume which shows every inch of the 60,000 miles it travelled in the course of the enterprise.) After this 'About' page, the next stop on the navigational bar is View Book, which divides the experiment into six, six-week segments.
Upon loading each section, visitors are presented with six large thumbnails - one for each of the two-page spreads created during that phase of the project. Click on a specific spread, and the site loads a full-page feature on that week's work along with the artists' remarks, available in both text and audio formats.
These commentaries are a vital part of the exhibition. Recorded a week after the last exchange was completed, and with all four partners sitting in the same room, these slices of conversation add life and context to the pieces as each creator explains the thinking behind successive works.
While there may be truth to the position that, if an artist has to 'explain' his or her work, it has on some level failed, I also know from friendships with a few artists and the 'inside information' they've shared about their creations, that sometimes even successful art can further involve the viewer with that extra bit of background information.
These discussions may also reveal something surprising about a piece that may not have attracted you at first glance, or as happened to the artists themselves, revealing an intent that you didn't even suspect. And while the text transcripts may be useful if you're having trouble with an accent or voices talking over each other, the audio files have the advantage of a more direct sense of connection to the conversation. (The -occasionally PG-13- observations are very brief, so little time is wasted in downloading audio files.)
The exhibition as a whole can be navigated through the thumbnails (if you're simply looking for images that catch your eye) or sequentially through each six-week set via Previous and Next links on each spread's page. The latter is naturally the better option for understanding the work as a whole, as you can follow each participant's artistic reaction to the previous contribution. (Reactions which sometimes include a decision to ignore the intended suggestions of the preceding work.) And of course, with the Previous button, you can immediately step back and have a second look at what the current spread is reacting to.
After presenting the Book page by page, the site offers a tour of the physical exhibition that opened in Belfast in May of 2004, and a timeline of events leading up to that exhibition. Artists' bios follow, as well as contact information and a chance to buy either a reproduction of the entire Book or individual spreads from the project.
Surfers familiar with such ventures as Coudal Partners' Photoshop Tennis will know that the concept of serial collaboration isn't unique. But this is an interesting variation on the theme, and the commentaries reveal a glimpse at the process as well as the product.
Nice touches would have included an option for audio commentaries to start playing automatically as soon as a new page had loaded, and the ability to 'Next step' without interruption throughout the entire 36 weeks. Additionally, the "Listen" link occasionally took a few clicks to launch the audio. But none of these factors prevented me from following the project to its conclusion, and in at least one sense of the term, that can only be called a 'success.'
Book can be found at http://www.lookatbook.com/.