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INTRODUCTION: Toolbox of Working Methods

by (2005)

This is part of the Toolbox of Working Methods.
Welcome to the Toolbox of Working Methods. The introductory essay (below) by T. Allan Comp provides an overview of some of the many ways that artists, educators, resource managers and civic groups can collaborate on environmental art projects. How do we make existing projects more effective? What types of collaborations are possible? Please explore the examples and essays below as well as the other Toolbox sections for ideas and inspiration. Good luck!


Collaborative Practices in Environmental Art, by Grant Kester

Observations, Reflections and Proposals for Creative Ecological Interventions, David Haley

Alliances in a Shrinking World, by Jeffrey Higley

Create Beauty, by Jacob Devaney

The Message of the Medium, by Linda Weintraub, with Skip Schuckman

- CASE STUDIES featuring selected projects of interest.

- RESOURCES additional links and organizations.

- STEPPING STONES a useful guide for planning successful community-based projects.

- Plus, there's a Wiki section for Working Methods, for suggesting other resources and sharing your thoughts on this resource.

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Collaboration, Public Environments, Artists and Others: A Few Thoughts from Outside the Art World
By T. Allan Comp

I was trained as an historian and worked most of my career in historic preservation and environmental reclamation. Being called an artist came later, after a couple NEA fellowships and art residencies, and in thinking about this introduction I realized I address the whole topic of collaboration from what is essentially an outsider's perspective. More than art, I'm interested in place-making and collaboration -- and the role of the Arts and Humanities in that environmental endeavor. By way of contrast, in the thoughtful piece by Grant Kester that follows, he carefully elucidates the issues that face collaborative work from within the art world - the traditions of thought that shape thinking about collaboration, the reactions of those who write about art, and the biases against collaboration that affect artists. But for non-artists that want to work with artists, there are other, external issues and challenges and that's what I want to address as best I can. I 'm best known, at least in the world, as the originator and director of AMD&ART, a long-running collaboration among artists, scientists, historians and the community on 35 acres of mine-scarred land in western Pennsylvania, I'll start there.

The Toolbox was made possible with the financial assistance of the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology, and the Columbia Foundation.
The Toolbox was made possible with the financial assistance of the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science, and Technology, and the Columbia Foundation.
Ten years ago I started thinking about a project in the coal country of western Pennsylvania that would publicly address the biggest water quality problem, acid mine drainage or AMD (it's what turns many creeks in Appalachia orange), and do so in a way that succeeded in bringing in new supporters for environmental improvement. I knew the old coal company-town culture was not inclined to civic engagement and I knew the financial resources in this impoverished region were not plentiful. Somehow this project - I called it "the Art Thing" for months while I tried to figure out what it would become - had to engage community for the long term, attract new funding sources at many levels, address a real and ubiquitous environmental problem with effective treatment, and it had to be done with minimal overhead costs if the project was to be a model that others could reasonably follow. Fortunately, when I started, that all seemed so necessary it just had to be possible - and eventually it was.

I worked full-time for a National Heritage Area in western Pennsylvania, which gave me some time and some reason to begin to explore these issues. As a Westerner inclined to a vigilante approach, I gathered a group of old friends and new colleagues and started poking at the idea and looking for the right mix, the right team to really get the job done. That team included a scientist experienced in the new passive approaches to AMD treatment, an historian (me) familiar with local culture and interested in place and place-making, an array of artists - sculptors and landscape designers mostly -- and lots of local support. I started AMD&ART; we defined our continuing task "artfully transforming environmental liabilities into community assets" and challenged ourselves to do what we claimed to do. I also took advantage of the then-new AmeriCorps program, bringing wonderful talent and very low cost to the team, and used that talent to reach deeply into the community for support and for our own understanding.

Ten years later, we've raised nearly a million dollars, transformed an abandoned colliery site into a lush park that includes an AMD treatment system, seven acres of new wetlands and a large active recreation area. We've won multiple awards and enriched the town and all of us that worked on the project as well. Looking back over those years of trial and occasional success, there are several things about collaboration - the absolute core of AMD&ART -- that I think worth repeating. I'm not sure I'd recommend to anyone else that they attempt an equally ambitious project -- indeed I'm not sure I would myself, if I'd been able to know just how big and complex it could become. But what I can recommend is the critical role of multi-disciplinary collaboration - with artists, with scientists, with the community, with everyone - in this process. At least from this outsider's perspective, environmental projects, absent collaboration, can be closed and stuffy efforts of little appeal to the very people we claim to serve - and whose taxes often support our work.

Historical image of gears.
Three Levels of Collaboration

At least for me, there seem to be three levels of collaboration, a much-used and ill-defined term. The most traditional sense of collaboration with artists isn't really much of a collaboration at all, but it does engage artists, usually in a project developed by someone else who was able to get the funding necessary to bring in an artist and engage them in some specific work. There may not be much give and take with the artist about the actual work; indeed most of these first-level collaborations simply hire an artist to do their thing, often a quite wonderful thing. There are great advantages here - the relationship is clear, the art or the product is essentially known or at least the work of the artist is known, and the place/setting for the work is usually predetermined.

A second level of collaboration, including many of the wonderful examples cited by Grant Kester, is one in which artists or teams of artists also take on the role or perspective of other disciplines, often quite seriously investigating the science of the site or the dynamics of the community. This may well be the most popular current form of collaboration with artists. It stretches definitions and creates wider opportunity, it can engage the community more broadly, yet it remains artist-driven and, therefore, certifiable "art", often a comfort to the agency that is paying for the project. There is no guarantee the science or other disciplinary content will be reliable, but in many cases that does not matter as much as other artistic or process-driven considerations.

There is a third, perhaps less well developed, form of collaboration which brings multiple disciplines together to address a specific problem or project, defining each of those disciplines as necessary, but none as sufficient. These projects often have measurable outcomes that must be met -like clean water - and they must take regulatory, community, academic, art-world and other standards with equal seriousness. Rather than a pre-defined project, these collaborations often see part of their task as giving form to community aspirations, defining their project with significant and long-term community input, even community dictates.

These third-level collaborations are not for everyone. It is not easy for any discipline to agree to accommodate others and to do so in the heat of an open community process is challenging at best. But these same multi-disciplinary collaborative projects can bring real engagement from a larger array of interests -- from funding sources, from the public, and from other disciplines as well. If the AMD&ART project proved nothing else, it clearly established the utility of broad and continuing collaboration in the pursuit of an engaged community and a healthier environment, enriched by the Arts, the Humanities and the Sciences in collaboration.

Problems? Of Course!

Put simply, as you move up this scale of collaboration, the more complex the collaboration, the more difficult it will be (and the more successful its outcome, eventually). Teams are not easy to hold together and good ones are harder to pull apart. Often the real test is who gets the credit - if team members can share credit for the accomplishments without fear for their resumes or professional status, it works and you will have a solid team effort. If they can't share, you won't have collaboration - don't try.

There's a plan for this land
Don't expect community members to readily address collaborations either. Given the planning teams that descended on communities and neighborhoods across the nation in the last quarter-century, we all have a healthy distrust of assembled experts, especially those claiming to know what is best for us. Real community-driven collaborative projects will/must spend the necessary "face time", the time with members of the community in the community, to learn about community fears as well as aspirations. Understand this is a slow and listening-rich process. It's their town, their sense of place that your collaboration is threatening. If you are in a hurry, it probably won't work.

Finally, somebody has to be the "keeper of the vision" even if they don't act like it. Without a central force to assure the inclusion of all interests, even ones we may not like, the collaboration will unravel and the herd of cats will suddenly disperse. Communities and public interests and environmental needs can be interpreted by many, but if they are to truly be included in the collaboration, each must be represented honestly and forcefully. At the same time, not all members of a team may be equally forceful and someone has to be there to lock the door and keep every discipline in the room until accommodation is accomplished, eventually with some joy in the result.

Advantages? It works better, longer and it's more fun!

With one long environmental collaboration almost behind me and two more now underway, I can say with some confidence that multi-disciplinary collaborations in environmental projects bring better vision, clearer definitions and understanding and far better perspectives to the work. If you really want a project that is truly sustainable - one that is supported by the community with their tax dollars for maintenance, with parental and peer guidance against vandalism at the site, with multiple experts in multiple agencies in supportive roles, with champions for the project spread across the region and residents who call the place "our park," collaboration, with all its challenges, is the way to go.

AMD&ART is nearly done, its final completion Celebration scheduled for mid-July, 2005, and there are many sites across coal country adapting parts of AMD&ART to use for them, a satisfying result. Two similar projects, one the Wise Legacy Wetlands AMD project on the campus of the University of Virginia at Wise, the second the Crowley Creek Collaboration at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology in Oregon, are underway and bring me new experiences and new challenges to the choreography critical to success of collaborative projects. As long as we can assure that each discipline is never asked to compromise and that every discipline must accommodate, we will continue to create the kind of sustainable, supportable and interesting new places so badly needed in a world too often neglectful of its environment and too often compartmentalized into niches of little real meaning.

T. Allan Comp, Ph.D. Historian, artist, planner is the Founder and volunteer Director of AMD&ART.

© 2010