Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Book Review: Collective creativity: Collaborative work in the sciences, literature and the arts

Written by Graduate Student Beth Donohue Templeton

Creative expression manifests itself in almost every aspect of modern life. Curious minds, digging deeply into the practice of this expression seem to be divided into two camps: the staunch individualists, who believe that the creative impulse exists primarily in the individual mind, and those who believe that creativity is collective, an amalgam of personal experience and interaction with nature, society and certain images from the collective unconscious. When the call for papers went out on behalf of the Sydney German Studies Symposiumon Collective Creativity (2009), this dichotomy formed the very heart of the opening question. Recipients were asked to submit an essay answering the question: “Is there such a thing as collective creativity?” The eventual editors further elaborated in paragraphs detailing positions both for and against the idea. The works selected form the twenty-four chapters that comprise Collective Creativity: Collaborative work in the sciences, literature and the arts, edited by Gerhard Fisher and Florian Vassen. In the introduction, they tell the story of moving beyond “traditional binary opposites” and develop a conversation that might be more productive. They write about searching out the intersections and cross-pollination of artistic, scientific and cultural manifestations of creativity. In this grey area, this interfacing, we might find a new creative energy (in the synergy between individual and collective creative experiences), or we might uncover previously obscured truths about ourselves. The resulting book, at 367 pages was daunting, but the writing within proved to be more than worth the effort.

This fascinating collection of scientific study, philosophy and arts practice certainly promotes new thinking in the reader. The writing, while at times densely academic, provides some of the latest thinking on collective creative practice. The essays are divided into five sections, each focusing on their particular domain. Each area holds a treasure of inquiry for those already interested, and the book invites the reader to enter at any point they see fit. I chose to enter into the essays at the intersection of theater and collective creativity. A representative sample of the type of scholarship in this book can be seen in the editor, Florian Vassan’s own essay titled: From author to spectator: Collective creativity as a theatrical play of artists and spectators. The article is an absorbing journey through different observations and executions of collective creativity in theatrical form. He weaves in historical perspective with his eye on the larger question of the difference between individual and collective expression and delightfully dissects Brecht’s theatrical objectivism, or involving the audience as spectator and vocal judge of the action on stage. Vassen also delves into the work of experimental German playwright Heiner Mueller in exploring the synergy between actors and audience. As a veteran audience member of his 1985 production “Hamlet Machine,” where eight actresses played Ophelia, simultaneously with three Hamlets, while performing a two hour script comprised of eight pages of repeated text, I was delighted to see his name in a serious exploration of post-modern collective creativity. He embraced this synergy as a vital part of performance.

Emboldened, I dove into chapters I perceived to be more challenging. While the quality of the writing was universally high, some of the essays offered fascinating portrayals of individuals within a collective arts experience and, even, articles about successful artistic and scientific collaboration. Alison Lewis’schapter: The romancing of collectivecreativity: The ‘Bitterfelder Weg’ in Brigitte Reimann’s letters and diaries, can be found in the section on collective writing and offers a tantalizingly human tale of seduction and infidelity as an unintended (and largely unnoticed) by-product of a cultural experiment conducted by the German Democratic Republic from 1959-64. The juxtaposition of diary entries with political philosophy is compelling and makes for a thought-provoking read. Likewise, the chapter detailing the partnership between a visual artist and a group of scientists in Australia, which resulted in various x-ray and microscopic images of the artist’s insides forming a unique self-portrait in the atrium of the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute (Melbourne), provides interesting insights into collective creative process in an unusual context.

Collective creativity:Collaborative work in the sciences, literature and the arts is not for the faint of heart and lightens the wallet considerably at a hefty $105.00 on amazon. However, for the serious student of creative thinking in the arts and the arts practitioner interested in this creative combination, this book provides a valuable collection of research. It is a comprehensive inter and trans-disciplinary account of collective creativity and its many applications and offers a wealth of insight into the rare place where the individual and the collective come together.

Beth Donohue Templeton is an actor and arts learning specialist currently completing her Masters of Science at the InternationalCenter for Studies in Creativity. Beth has performed on many local and regional stages and is a founding member of Berkeley’s Shotgun Players, a theater company now celebrating their 20th season. Beth has worked as a Teaching Artist, Trainer and Curriculum designer for affiliates of the Lincoln Center Institute for Arts in Education in Northern California and Western New York and has created arts learning camps and classes for ages pre-K through adult, with an emphasis on student populations with special learning needs. Beth’s graduate work is focused on uncovering the unique relationship between creative thinking and the arts.

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