Creative collectives find strength in numbers
IT IS DIFFICULT FOR the collectives not to lead with politics, even when their missions are not explicitly political. The word “collective”, after all, arrives prepoliticized, with the presumption of a leftist, even radical inclination. Apart from the arts, it is in the context of communism that we find the most commonly used “collective” as a noun: collectivist agriculture in the former Soviet Union and in China, for example, or in reference to the workers’ cooperatives and municipalities. In the United States during the 1960s, artistic collectives emerged as a natural outgrowth of the communal spirit of youth culture. For artists today, at least part of the collective’s attraction might come from an ambitious and nostalgic desire to regain a sense of community that they themselves were not able to enjoy. Perhaps it was also born out of a shared sense of longing, if not hopelessness, for responses to seemingly intractable social, political and environmental challenges that stifle the efforts of individuals acting alone.
Indeed, the collectivist impulse runs counter to the dominant American mode of individualism, which elevates singular achievements over community achievements, perpetuating the myth of self-taught success in politics, business, the arts and beyond. . Much of daily life in the United States becomes tailor-made and organized: multivitamins formulated for your body’s specific chemistry; details based on data about how you sleep and how often your heart beats; health treatments linked to your genetic code. The very wealth structures in the country do the same, skewing dramatically since the Great Recession, not just to a class, or even a percentage, but to a handful of individuals and families we now know by name.
In the arts, too, the individual is most often situated above the group. The term ‘multi-cut’ has popped up in recent years to celebrate a new generation of multi-genre creators – many of whom are people of color, such as Lin-Manuel Miranda, Janelle Monáe, Donald Glover, Rihanna and Zendaya – while masking the close collaboration with others that make most of their work possible. The rewarding nature of nominations and awards perpetuates the mythology of the singular genius who creates in a vacuum. Against the idolatry of the individual, there is the impulse for collectivization: for anointed individuals to bring their crews with them, also giving them credit, where it is due. We have seen this recently in the fashion industry. Designer Telfar Clemens’ clothes and handbags are often adorned with “Telfar”, or just his initials, but his unisex designs are born out of collaboration and community. (The brand’s motto is “It’s not for you, it’s for everyone.”) Likewise, Kids of Immigrants, the Los Angeles-based streetwear brand founded by Daniel Buezo and Weleh Dennis, is presents more as a movement than a fashion brand, with community initiatives and conscious collaborations (with partners like Vans) that amplify the core tenets of love and public service. The rise of collectives could also signal a change in the primacy of some arts over others. The individual genius of poets, novelists and visual artists has been supplanted by the more transparent collective work done in television, film and music. Who doesn’t want to form a group? Who doesn’t want to be on the set? Even the hitherto more lonely arts are now turning to the common. That they can do this testifies to the fact that they have always been more communal and collective than we have allowed ourselves to think. As a culture, we challenge the specious notion of individual genius in favor of the wisdom of the commons.
Although the concept of the collective may seem anachronistic – a throwback to the hippie loves and communes of the 1960s – it is often a call to belong, to protect and to find a place like home. Melissa Bunni Elian of Authority Collective, a 34-year-old multimedia journalist based in Yonkers, NY, belongs to several collectives for precisely this reason. “You just have your different groups of people for different things,” she explains. In addition to serving on AC’s board of directors, Elian is also a member of the Black Shutter Collective, a virtual community of invitation-only black photographers. “It’s really a group chat – there are some things I only want to talk about with black people, because I need that full understanding.”