Last Saturday I sat down to work with some friends and colleagues on an upcoming public art competition proposal. The budget for the work is ample enough to warrant an ambitious idea, and normally I’d have been too daunted: We weren’t sure we’d be able to arrive at a large-scale, coherent submission while working so quickly, charrette-style. Nobody wants to slave over something that feels half-baked and derivative.
But we decided that, if we were going to be collaborators—and we *wanted* to be collaborators, by affinities personal and intellectual—we had to put together something. Something, in the space of a few hours, before and after which everyone had other deadlines and responsibilities. We had to join the . It was a no-excuses kind of test, to see what could happen if we drew lines around a set of hours to sculpt some kind of vague idea into a gesture that has teeth, humor, gravitas. And something we could make legible to hosts who have outside pressures to be more cautious and more general, probably, than we’d like.
We’d agreed previously over beers that it’s easy to talk big: about collaborative work, about the sharp critical ideas that you want to animate a set of loosely connected practices. But collectives and web sites can come later. For now, it was just a matter of realizing something, or some set of things. Even if they’re rejected, we reminded ourselves, we’d have them on file for some later opportunity. (See Cult of Done Manifesto item 13: .)
We agreed to meet on a Saturday at 9 am. But—it’s messy, gathering 8 people on a weekend for a side project, and at such an early hour. So there were three to begin. And I was the fourth, arriving about an hour late. Someone caught me up on the progress: the basic design brief, some interesting ideas based on general interests in the room, the constraints of the site (there were many).
We considered the host institution and its resources and opportunities, and we considered exemplary projects. We looked around online. And we started to get somewhere—a basic broad architectural installation, under which a number of events could take place. We tied it to the host institution’s history and future; we identified possible partners. We talked some more.
And then something interesting happened: The fifth person came in, so we had to catch him up. Even though I’d just arrived not an hour before. So one of us recapitulated our conversation, and suddenly, in the telling, it started to sound coherent. And then it happened again: A sixth person arrived. We retold the idea. This time the constellation of ideas had even more connection; we emphasized an aspect or two that had been more minor before. And it happened once more: the final two of our group arrived. Someone repeated it again–and we were a little surprised to have what seemed like a properly bounded but generative idea. It had topical and methodological spokes in several directions. It had the look and feel of a project.
We didn’t belabor other options, and we didn’t obsess over every detail. We started assigning each other tasks and planning the execution and submission gatherings. But the key, perhaps, was accidentally staggering our arrival times.
Collaboration is good in theory, but it sure can get marshy and overwrought. Somehow tardiness went from being a disorganized accident to being an accelerator for the ideas. Revisiting and reciting our work to one another at regular intervals spoke it into being.
I have a feeling this process of recapitulation has a name in organizational psychology, and I’m told it’s used in a therapeutic form of storytelling: You tell me what happens, and I tell you what you told me, and we all hear it differently. The meaning is made in the repetition—which we’re told is never just repeating, but also .
[Image: poster for Bre Pettis's Done Manifesto, which I see is available .]