Shannon McMullen and Fabian Winkler: A Conversation About Collaboration

Fall 2010: v.06 n.02: Dynamic Coupling

Shared vision, opportunities and responsibilities – these lie at the heart of our collaborative practice, which extends from art practice and research to pedagogy and family. Collaboration has become a way of life for us.

We have been collaborating on artworks and research since 2005.  Since 2008, we have been fortunate enough to teach at Purdue University in the same department (Art & Design) and program (ETB – Electronic and Time-Based Art).  We even share an office and studio space.  Our son Quinn has been in the mix now since 2006.  He too has a table and chairs and a shelf in our office/studio.  In the five years since then, we have taken for granted the process and goals of our collaborative efforts.  Now, we are about to embark on a project generously funded through the National Science Foundation’s CreativeIT program that will add interdisciplinary collaboration as a topic of research to our own artistic endeavors of collaboration as practice. Thus, we find ourselves in a situation that demands a critical reflection about our own collaborative process, its strategies, goals, and sources of inspiration. To put it simply, in the following conversation we are exploring possible answers to the question: Why do we collaborate?

Fabian: I remember some early instances of working together on projects – maybe not what we would call collaboration, but works in which we worked together in order to help each other out.  I put together a performance for the All Night Event Marathon at CRCA (Center for Research in Computing and the Arts) at UCSD on April 20, 2002 titled 1.89 (this was the price of super+ gas on this day). The performance involved circling the CRCA building on the UCSD campus in La Jolla with cars. The cars’ headlights were covered with blue theatre gels and their radios were tuned into the same news broadcast. It turned the area around the CRCA building into a very surreal environment that reflected rising gas prices, the impending conflict in the Middle East and the strong presence of the military in San Diego. We determined the location of the cars the night before and during the performance we both directed drivers to where to park their cars and which radio frequency to choose. I then worked with you just a couple of months later on a tour across the Ruhr River region in Germany gathering photo and video materials for your dissertation Post-Industrial Nature and Culture in the Ruhr District, Germany, 1989-1999. Over time it has become clear that probably neither one of us was satisfied with the concept of “helping out” and we tried to find other ways that allowed us to work together. A first project that comes to my mind which was quite different in terms of creating a work together from scratch was Waves.

Shannon: I agree, Waves was a defining moment in the evolution from helping each other out or assisting to collaborating.  Waves began with the common desire to submit a project for the Wade Festival in Toronto, Canada, organized and curated by Christie Pearson and Sandra Rechico presented by the YYZ Artists’ Outlet, which turned the city’s network of wading pools into art venues for one weekend in 2004 and again in 2006.

 Figure 1: Waves – Installation view of B buoy at ZKM, Germany as part of the exhibition Kunst Computer Werke, 2006.

Figure 1: Waves – Installation view of B buoy at ZKM, Germany as part of the exhibition Kunst Computer Werke, 2006.

The project that we submitted and eventually exhibited in the summer of 2006 began with multiple conversations, imaginings of bits and pieces, questions to each other, verbal sketches and critiques – a back and forth of ideas about concepts and media.  How could we engage children who love to splash in the water?  How could we combine this with an interactive light design?  As I recall, the conversation took place both in our home and in Kiva Han cafe close to Carnegie Mellon University.  In the absence of any local Biergarten, home and café remain two important sites of discussion for us.

At some point the conversation turned to sound and the possibilities began to unfold quickly—connections were made between sound waves and water waves.  I love this moment when we find the thing that we can both latch onto. With a common idea in mind, we turned to design, aesthetics and electronics. We sat (again) in a café and I sketched a buoy on a piece of paper and you began working out how to integrate a Speakjet IC and the Arduino board into a buoy that would of course be floating (hopefully) in water.  A collaborative art project was underway…and so was a baby.  By the time we were ready to saw open three buoys, remove their foam cores and integrate the electronic components—which also had to be designed, soldered together and programmed—we had a four-month-old Quinn who was not content to play in one of those bouncer-saucer things, observing the activities, while Fabian/Papa and Shannon/Mama worked.  And, in some cases, sideline discontent aside, it was not a healthy or comfortable environment to expose a child to with the level of noise, plastic dust and sometimes chemicals permeating the air.  The point being that from the beginning, in our case, collaboration also has meant finding a balance in sharing both the love and labor of artistic production and in the love and labor of parenting.  This continues to challenge us both, or perhaps, more accurately all three of us.  We are constantly negotiating on a project-by-project basis ways to integrate family life and creative work.  I think this was particularly difficult in the beginning, since each of us was used to being able to work on a single thing for five or six hours at a time. Because we are dedicated to being full-time parents and full time academic artist-researchers, juggling priorities means sometimes it is just as important to build something out of Legos for two hours as to continue to work out kinks in a Processing sketch.

Fabian: Yes, we were in Pittsburgh when we started to work on Waves in 2006. I would take Quinn out on night walks across the CMU campus in his stroller while you were working in the studio and vice versa. Moving ahead to 2010, you were also reflecting on a very recent example of how this aspect of collaboration within our family is different now compared to 4 years ago and how it probably will change continuously as Quinn gets older.

Shannon: The example I was thinking of was at the 2010 CHI Conference in April.  We traveled to Atlanta to exhibit our collaborative work The Elocuter:  I must remind you that we live in Dada times at the CHI 2010 Media Showcase exhibition.  Quinn was already four-years-old.  At the conference you and I set up the work, trying to transform a booth in a demo hall into a mini-exhibition space while Quinn bounced between munching on conference snacks, watching movies and helping.  During the conference, you and I alternated between watching Quinn, explaining our artwork and presenting on a panel about interdisciplinary art practice.  This time I presented while Quinn colored with you in the book he and I bought at our aquarium visit  (the whale sharks were a big hit). We were at the aquarium while you were explaining the artwork in a demo session with conference attendees.

 Figure 2: The Elocuter:  I must remind you that we live in Dada times. 2009.

Figure 2: The Elocuter: I must remind you that we live in Dada times. 2009.

Fabian: It takes a lot of coordination to pull this off and stay focused during the conference because you need to switch modes – in your case from the aquarium visit with a four-year-old to a panel discussion with experts in the field in less than five minutes. It is also very rewarding though, because I remember that Quinn was not only interested in activities outside of the conference (playgrounds, aquarium visits, etc.) but also in our exhibit and other works as well. We realized this when he explained The Elocuter to his classmates in pre-school after returning from Atlanta.

Academia is certainly one environment that fortunately allows us to develop this more unconventional model of collaboration – especially with the integration of the whole family. Despite the benefits, I also see issues with collaboration specifically in academia – one of them being the traditional model of authorship. In new media art, specifically, a definition of authorship following the standard model of single authorship, primary author, secondary author, etc., is not adequate. The College Art Association published a very helpful paper in their standards and guidelines section titled “Guidelines for Faculty Teaching in New-Media Arts.” (1) The section “Assessing Authorship” specifically addresses these issues, for example. It reads: “In cases of shared authorship, the artist must take the responsibility to clarify the nature and relative importance of each individual’s contribution.” While in theory this statement defines clear procedures for listing collaborative work in a tenure dossier, in practice it becomes difficult to follow the guidelines–for example, when listing Waves and its interwoven links between contributions from your side and my side that cannot be quantified. I have started to setup a three-tier classification in my tenure document which, following the CAA guideline mentioned above, suggests the following three categories of collaborative work that I have been involved in: Principal author: in a project initiated and conceived alone and then realized in a team with the help of others. Co-author: in a project initialized, conceived and realized in a team with equal share among all participants. Participant: a contributor/collaborator in a project initialized by another person. I am not very happy with it but it speaks a language that – even though we criticize it – works in academia. It is also very basic in terms of what it says about different types of collaborations and reduces the whole gamut to only three possibilities. Furthermore, the type of collaboration we are interested in exploring further – in all its different forms and flavors – is only the co-author model in which hierarchical accounting doesn’t really work. Another example that shows the rather complex nature of collaboration, as something that cannot easily be described following any quantifiable structures is from a book you just put on my desk. I was specifically drawn to a quote from Simon de Beauvoir who writes about “thinking together” with her lifelong collaborator Jean-Paul Sartre: “The stimulus of a word, a sensation, a shadow, sends us traveling along the same inner path, and we arrive simultaneously at a conclusion, a memory, an association completely inexplicable to a third person.” (2) A radical step to bypass this dilemma could be to work as a collective or group under a unifying name and attribute work to this group rather than a list of collaborative authors. Maybe this is something to eventually consider for our collaborative practice as well?

Shannon: I am consistently reminded that for tenure I should somehow account for my contribution versus your contribution in both art works and publications.  As far as the university is concerned, a collective name wouldn’t help with classifying individual contributions.  Additionally, so far we haven’t been interested in trying to deny or challenge our separate identities.  How would we write this article, for example, if we had a collective name? I suppose, we could use the format of a manifesto, but then that wouldn’t reflect the conversational nature of the way we collaborate.  At the same time, attributing a single name to each section is more straightforward than the reality, which is far messier, imbricated and layered than it appears.  Authorship is very much collective here.

We will have a chance to elaborate on this idea in the David Hutton Interdisciplinary Lecture Series in Purdue’s Graduate Program in Rhetoric and Composition in October.  For the first time, the organizers have invited a team – us – to give a lecture foregrounding aspects of collective project work. We will talk our shared body of work and to reflect on our collaborative art and research practice.

Additionally, team teaching is another form of collaboration that can enhance the learning experience for students and for the instructors, though it remains the exception as a pedagogical approach. Team teaching can be a method for implementing interdisciplinary thinking, learning and creating in the classroom.  I thoroughly enjoy being able to teach in the same way that I work.  When there are two instructors in the room, comparative and complementary knowledge can thrive.  Students see modeled before them a way to make use of individual strengths for collective gain.  Not every course needs to be team taught, but in the cases where there is a desire from the instructors, and a benefit for the students can be demonstrated, it would be nice to see this kind of exchange encouraged.  Right now, I am team-teaching a course on critical theory in art and design with Lisa Banu, a colleague whose PhD is in philosophy and whose current focus is the history of design in the US.  My PhD is in Sociology. I currently focus on electronic and time-based art, and changing relations between nature and technology.  By bringing together our individual strengths and teaching together, our diverse group of students who come from the arts—printmaking, photography, video, sound art, photography and painting—and industrial design are discovering common and contrasting theoretical issues in their respective fields and ways to discuss them productively.

Fabian: And still there are obstacles to overcome – especially the corporate model of the university and individual models of the ”expert” often seem to conspire against team-teaching. It has been my philosophy as an educator in new media art that my own art practice, my enthusiasm about certain topics and my research informs what I would like my students to learn. In this regard, team teaching is an important aspect as you have already mentioned above. If, for example, a class stresses the importance of teamwork among students how better could it be demonstrated than through a well-coordinated team of instructors? What I would like to say is that I strongly believe that students learn best to collaborate by seeing different models of collaboration in the classroom right in front of them – this could be in a team-teaching situation, or for example through participation in an experimental event, such as AUDO 2010 where we brought an interdisciplinary team of artists and theoreticians to Purdue to work together on issues of sound-based art and experimental music.

Shannon: Mentioning AUDO makes me also think about the importance we place on creating social spaces.  Spatially, there is a lot that can be done to provide physical and ideological spaces for collaboration among both students and faculty.  I recall visiting the College of Design with you in Karlsruhe, Germany, and being so thrilled by the openness and rawness of the interior architecture.(3) The core of the building is a soaring three-story open atrium that provides a central social and artistic space that functions like a courtyard of creativity, exchange and observation.  Similar to the third spaces described by sociologist Ray Oldenberg, the atrium allows for both planned and spontaneous interactions.  In essence, it is a site for communication and experimentation – two qualities I see as conducive to creative collaboration.

 Figure 3: Fabian Winkler turned one of the atriums in the College of Design into a functional badminton court in December 2000.

Figure 3: Fabian Winkler turned one of the atriums in the College of Design into a functional badminton court in December 2000.

Currently, we do not have such a permanent space at Purdue.  However, I think what has also become central to collaboration between you and me is a strategy of temporary transformations of existing spaces into collaborative social spaces, where communication and experimentation can flourish.

Fabian: This is right. The absence of such a dedicated third space in our immediate working environment – and space constraints are obvious issues at many American universities – has not discouraged us from exploring alternatives. On the contrary, over the past couple of years it has allowed us to work innovatively with this situation by creating the temporary spaces which you are referring to for events such as AUDO – alternative artistic practices in sound which took over the Patti and Rusty Rueff Galleries for Visual and Performing Arts at Purdue for one weekend. The gallery became a workshop space (for workshops by Daniel Sauter and Leslie Sharpe), a performance/concert space (for Andrew Bucksbarg and Irena Knezevic), an extension of a studio space (for Alejandro Tamayo and Petronio Bendito) and a kitchen in which you, together with the Marx Café team, prepared food for all the participants and visitors. Other examples come to my mind, too, such as Marx Café, a temporary social space we opened unannounced in the Yue Kong Pao Hall of Visual and Performing Arts at Purdue, which provided free coffee and furniture designed by us and two teams of MFA students from November 10 – 15, 2008; (4) the graduate student open studio night that you have been organizing every year since 2008 which brings graduate students, faculty, an invited speaker and a guest critic (Andrew Bucksbarg in 2009 and Osman Khan in 2010) together to show work, discuss ideas and look for possible overlaps of common interests.(5)

 Figure 4: Marx Café logo designed by ETB graduate student Juan Obando, 2008.

Figure 4: Marx Café logo designed by ETB graduate student Juan Obando, 2008.

I would like to come back, however, to the idea of participants and audience and specifically the idea that at best there is no distinction between the two. This is what happened during AUDO, very much in the sense of Joseph Kosuth’s statement: “…an audience separate from the participants doesn’t exist.” (6) What is interesting to me is that new media works allow audience members to become participants and that eventually audience members through their interest can become collaborators in future projects. To a certain extent this is what is happening in our upcoming project “Images of Nature – Technological Explorations of the Natural Environment Combining Art, Science and Engineering Strategies in an Educational Model for Collaborative Creation” (7) where we extend our initial collaboration between you and me to include a network of other experts and like-minded colleagues. There will certainly be a change in our collaborative environment from micro to macro.

Shannon: The NSF grant is an exciting opportunity to experiment with and try to understand in a more sociological way processes of interdisciplinary collaboration around the topic of contemporary understandings of nature and ways to visualize this knowledge for a broad audience by combining engineering, artistic and scientific tools and ways of thinking.  Hopefully, it will be a small step in creating a larger collaborative network at Purdue University and beyond that allows interdisciplinary collaborative teams to form around common interests and find creative responses to current issues in society, nature, art and technology.

1. Juliet Davis, et. al. Guidelines for Faculty teaching in New-Media Arts. Retrieved September 2010 from
2. John-Steiner, Vera. Creative Collaboration. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
3. See photos of the State College of Design and Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe on the website of Schweger Associated Architects who turned the former ammunition factory into an art and design school as well as a new media museum:
4. A video documentation of Marx Café can be found here:
5. Graduate students included:  Micah Bowers (ETB), Calvin Chen (Industrial Design, MFA 2010) and Sara Rockwell (Industrial Design, MFA 2010)
6. Kosuth, Joseph: Art After Philosophy and After – Collected Writings 1966-1990. Cambridge, Massachusetts/London, England: The MIT Press, 1991.
7. McMullen, Shannon and Fabian Winkler. Award Abstract: Images of Nature – Technological Explorations of the Natural Environment Combining Art, Science and Engineering Strategies in an Educational Model for Collaborative Creation. Retrieved September 2010 from: