A Collaborative Frontier: How Working Together Has Transformed These Artists And Musicians

Photo by Tyler Koslow.
Photo by Tyler Koslow.

Collaboration is one of the oldest traditions humans share–and lately, musicians have revived this tradition in a new (and exciting) way. The intersection of visual arts, filmmaking, poetry, and storytelling with music has led to some of the most interesting shows we’ve seen to date. Take the collaboration between Minneapolis-based music producer SCRNS and digital artist Lawnmall: Lawnmall has created numerous digital sculpture for the release of SCRNS’ music, most recently for the single, “Lavender.” Together, they said in a statement, they “created synesthetic counterparts to their music and objects … to reintroduce emotion into a commonly cynical netscape.” Or, in a recent show for the HYPNOCRAFT company, Brooklyn-based group Cuddle Magic joined together with Anna Roberts-Gevalt, a visual artist and puppeteer based in Baltimore, to create a set that interwove her line of storytelling with the band’s electro-acoustic folk pop.

To find out more about why these musicians chose to add a new element of artistic direction to their sound, we talked to Lawnmall, SCRNS, Alec Spiegelman of Cuddle Magic, and Roberts-Gevalt to discuss their latest collaborations.

What do you look for in an artistic collaboration and what makes a partnership fulfilling to you?

Lawn Mall and SCRNS: Initially, our collaboration was superficial; mostly informed by if we thought the elements worked aesthetically and [if there was] potential for the partnership to be mutually beneficial, concerning visibility. Thankfully, that blossomed into what we both prefer, which is a partnership predicated on a deeper conceptual resonance. Ideally a partnership is almost more focused on dialog than on the fruit it bears.

Alec Spiegeleman (of Cuddle Magic): I need to love a collaborator’s work. I need to trust their taste almost absolutely. I need to be excited about their imagination.

Anna Roberts-Gevalt: On a certain level, a collaboration starts with a shared aesthetic, or a shared set of values or commitments. When I first heard Cuddle Magic, I was really blown away by their commitment to what they do. When you hear the music, it’s kind of clear to me their work is the result of a very long and intense process. I was inspired by that because I like to work kind of intensely. I throw myself at what i do. I think a collaboration … has to have a shared commitment, … like, how far you are willing to go to make something happen? Friendship is also a big part of it. You don’t always have to be friends with the people you work with, but in art, there has to be some kind of sense [of] compatibility. You spend so much time together, you should like each other.

Artists are finding new ways to co-create and present their work to audiences/fans. What drew you to your current project and collaborator?

AS: Lazar Davis and I both had many opportunities to meet Anna over the past few years – at folk festivals and fiddle conventions and other places when and where devotees of Appalachian music gather. Anna had always impressed us with her sense of rhythm and pacing, and the way she balanced respect for the folk tradition with a willingness to break it’s rules . We admired and trusted her as a musician before we were aware of her visual art.

ARG: I’m always looking to find projects where I can learn something really new. Kind of like graduate school, where you are forced into a situation out of the desire to tell a certain story, you end up working with a medium you haven’t worked with. This time, it ended up being using puppets and computers at the same time. It felt like the natural thing to do with this band. The band has this kind of connection to the tactile world, like using this light clarinet, but then they have a modern and digital component to their music as well. Their music was this great blend of both worlds, and I knew I wanted this art to reflect the duality of both. I had never done anything like this before, like projecting–that is sort of why I said yes. I had never done anything like this and I was motivated by learning these skills.

Lawn Mall and SCRNS: Both of our work was, and has become, increasingly about exploring the idea of injecting genuine emotional expression into a contemporary internet landscape in which a lot of work in our respective fields is focused more heavily on irony and inhuman aesthetics. The Internet begat both of us and from it; in turn, we flew away to a better vantage point–a sentimental hill–from which to view the fireworks as opposed to merely shooting them at each other.

What’s been the most surprising thing you have found while working on this project? Do challenges arise from presenting your own artistic approach within the context of another creator’s audience?

Lawn Mall and SCRNS: As opposed to working by yourself or fielding responses from other people, there comes with a more intimate mode of working greater potential for self-reflection and new insight.

ARG: Well, I don’t know if it’s a surprise–maybe it’s totally predictable–but by the end of that show, I really felt like wow, this is a good start. (Laughs) We had created this thing together, but it felt like the beginning, a draft version. … You plan to do something, you do it, but once you finish it, you already start dreaming of how you want to make it better or how you want to go deeper. That is kind of exciting. I think it’s a good sign that we didn’t just do it and pat ourselves on the back, that there is something there we want to explore and learn about.

I would say our New York City show was a mix of both [audiences], some of the audience for Cuddle Magic had come to my shows. I think you have to just trust that your audience is going to follow where you take them. … I think that when you go to see a new collaboration, it’s kind of like you are going to see a science experiment. As an audience member, you go to stuff like that with a different mindset than when you see a band that plays together all the time. When you see a collaboration, you are like ‘Oh, these brains got together, I’m curious to see what they came up with.’ .. It opens the minds of audience to think of performance in a curious way. When you try something new, you can totally fail, and that is all part of the process. But the audience is part of that process, in observing the failure and the things that are bizarre.

Photo by Tyler Koslow.
Photo by Tyler Koslow.

Why choose to create art with an external party, rather than working within your own vision?

LM: They can say no.

SCRNS: There is so much more to learn from collaboration, even about your own vision… conversations are so much more enlightening than mirrors!

AS: My practice has always been to deemphasize any “artistic vision,”and, rather, to trust in the process and to follow where it leads. Always, one wants [the] process to have limits and boundaries: I prefer those confines. Working with another artist–using some of their methods, and catering to their tastes, in addition to one’s own–tightens up the process a lot. Anyway, being in a band with five other (opinionated, self-confident) musicians is already an elaborate, complicated, collaboration.

ARB: Collaboration is part of my vision. I think that other people teach you, they bring out new ideas in yourself–new narratives, new stories, new images. And that is really exciting. … There is such a delight in creating something with someone else. you kind of look at that person and you both realize that you couldn’t have come up with that idea by yourself. That is a feeling I really enjoy, letting another artist bring things out in you. When you do work as a solo artist again, you have a new part of your creative brain developed that your collaboration has shown you. So much energy is placed on doing things by yourself and in your own medium; when I am thinking about what we can make together, that is beautiful and meaningful, and I think people respond to that energy.

To see more from the HYPNOCRAFT series, check out “August at the Inn” (8/24 & 8/31)

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