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The Art of Good Collaboration – Q&A with Joe Citizen

Posted by Holly Russell on 01 May 2018

The Art of Good Collaboration
Working together to make something happen is a way of making big things happen. Collaboration is not just a working practice; it is also an immensely powerful strategy to make goals a reality.
When practitioners from different disciplines and areas of focus come together, new ideas are sparked and innovative works of art are created. Joe Citizen is a Media Arts tutor at Wintec and a local Hamilton artist with an interest in connecting technology with Mātauranga Māori and the environment. His current venture, The Matariki Interactive Waka Project, is a collaborative work that has been developed through an interdisciplinary approach working with many different learning and research areas within Wintec and the wider Waikato community. Read on as Joe shares advice and recommends specific strategies when involved in project based collaborative practice.

Can you tell us about your latest collaborative project?
I’m working to make a 6.15m corten plate steel interactive waka that will use an environmental sensor network to trigger sound and lighting changes. As the artist, I’m one of many partners working with Wintec’s Māori Achievement office to make it a permanent public art work at Hamilton’s Ferrybank park, beside the Waikato river. The project combines students from across Engineering, Trades, Early Childhood Education and Media Arts, with external stakeholders like Longveld, ACLX, Hamilton City Council, and mana whenua.

Have you found collaborating with others helps your creativity? Have you enjoyed the process, why?
This idea that creativity is a solitary pursuit is not at all helpful – working together to make something happen is a way of making big things happen. Being part of something bigger than myself is immensely rewarding, as it means I have to constantly challenge myself to come up with what works for the whole project – so yeah, it’s a really creative process. Enjoyment is probably harder to define as there are times when being challenged and challenging myself is less than ‘enjoyable’ – but in the end it’s the best, because it means I’ve really given something my all, and there’s nothing better than sitting back and going ‘wow’, I was a part of that.

Working together to make something happen is a way of making big things happen.

Do you have any practical/technical tips when working on a collaborative project?
Good communication skills are probably the number one thing that will make or break a project, and I don’t mean the ability to be understood so much – although that’s important as well – but constantly being on to it, establishing those lines of communication right at the start, being organised, finding ways to ensure that you’re all on the same page by checking in with each other. I’d say the most important thing is face to face communication skills – people like people who are confident, smile, seem genuinely interested and do what they say they are going to do. Actually that last one is the most important – do what you said you were going to, but don’t be afraid of rolling with changes so that it becomes its own thing in the world, which is not the same as ‘your’ thing.

Joe's current collaborative venture The Matariki Interactive Waka Project
Joe’s current collaborative venture: The Matariki Interactive Waka Project.

Can you identify any specific methods of communication that make collaboration easier?
Face to face is important but we also exist in a digital world, and it’s crucial to recognise that different people have their preferred mediums. There is no point posting something on Facebook if the people you’re working with only do that for their personal lives, or have opted out. Despite people talking about the ‘death of email’ it’s still the means by which most businesses operates, so knowing how to write a good email – the right tone, the right subject description, the right ending etc – these are things no-one teaches but are essential in making a collaborative project happen. In addition, something that took me a long time to learn – never, ever, write an email or post when you’re angry. Whatever you’re feeling is one thing, but sleep on it and come back to it later – for once you send it out there it exists forever..

Collaboration is not just a working practice; it is also an immensely powerful strategy to make goals a reality.

The other essential thing is getting your kaupapa right – not just what your goals are, but having working agreements about how you will do something. It’s all very well having a great set of goals if you haven’t taken into account that we all work differently, are motivated by different things, have different philosophies, or understand different things even when we say the same words. Being open to ways that are different to how you would ‘normally’ do things is key – it’s not really a method then, it’s more of an attitude.

Collaborating can be tricky as there may be more restrictions and compromises when working with someone on a project, what strategies do you use to overcome issues like these?
Great question! Every project has times when things go off the rails or you feel like it’s not working out. Having your own sense of integrity and being honest with others becomes critical – both for your own sense of wellbeing but also so people know where you are coming from. This said, timing is also important! Be patient, and try to see things from other people’s perspectives. An underestimated skill is learning how to listen to others – not just what they say and how they say it, but what they don’t say, or what’s missing in a conversation with them. Sometimes we can become blind to what others have to contribute because they feel they didn’t have an opportunity to be heard. Finding ways to make this happen, even if it means employing quite artificial structures like a ‘talking stick’ approach means we can concentrate on what’s actually important – finding solutions to overcome the current problem.

Also – and this is absolutely critical – remember that there is always another way of doing things. Sometimes we let the restrictions overwhelm us, but if all else fails, make that obstacle or restriction a feature. Turn those negatives into positives.

How have you found people to collaborate with? Do you have any advice for people who want to get more involved in this way of working?
People are attracted to ideas, so get those ideas out there! I often make drawings and a small one to two descriptive paragraphs of a project idea, then send them out to people who I think might be interested – who I’ve met through all sorts of connections. For me, the basic skill is face-to-face communication, but I’ve worked with a number of people whose primary skill is writing, and this too is very effective. The other important thing is time – which most people have a limited supply of, so find ways in which your collaborative partners can time-shift, or work together to find mutually helpful solutions.

In the arts and elsewhere, it’s people who come first, and if you work together then anything is possible.

Do you have any other thoughts and comments about collaboration in the Arts?
Leave your ego at the door, the project comes first. Once you get that, everything else falls into place.

I also want to say something about money. It seems to me that a lot of people think things can’t be done without money, or conversely, they will happen if you have it. In my experience, neither of these things are true by themselves. Giving people the opportunity to contribute is actually a more powerful thing to do, and this only happens if you respect people and their ways of doing things. You can be at the top end or the bottom end, but if you don’t have respect, or give it, then there’s only a limited amount of things that will be achieved. Don’t ever let money, or lack of it, be a reason why you didn’t try something different.

Collaboration isn’t just a working practice, it’s also an immensely powerful strategy to make goals a reality. In the arts and elsewhere, it’s people who come first, and if you work together then anything is possible. The opposite is true too  -you’re only as good as your reputation. If you stuff up then take responsibility, and try and to make it right as soon as you can.

Finally I’d say this – take more risks! Nobody ever did anything interesting in the arts by playing it safe.

About the Author

Holly Russell

Holly connects with individuals and groups to tell their story. With a background in visual art and secondary school teaching, she shares a passion for creativity, innovation and the arts with her colleagues at the School of Media Arts.

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