Thoughts on "Authorship"

Amy O’Neal and I had just met and had barely started discussing our collaboration for the City Arts Festival’s “Genre-Bender” program, when Amy suggested that we participate in The Project Room’sAuthorship Experiment together.  It was a nice coincidence since we had just begun our process, and it heightened our awareness of how it all works. Authorship is a vast concept, and it made me think of several overlapping ideas.

The issue of authorship within collaborative work is not something I’ve given much thought in the past even though it’s been a huge part of what I do as a filmmaker. I remember telling Amy during one of our discussions that to me good collaboration is like great sex  - you lose a sense of where you end and the other person begins. You start finishing each other’s sentences. For several years now I’ve been collaborating with Marc Kenison (Waxie Moon). Together we’ve made several films. We know each other so well that I often catch Marc nodding as I’m about to utter something – he knows what I know, he’s thinking what I’m thinking and vice versa. The idea of working with a new person always brings a sense of excitement, but also a little bit of anxiety. I’m a very non-confrontational person, so what if the other collaborator just doesn’t get me (I have a very particular sense of humor and aesthetic preferences), or won’t come out with any ideas that I find acceptable? I really don’t know what I’d do then: walk away from the project? Try to change their mind in the most passive-aggressive way possible, like a true Seattleite? Just suffer through it and swear to myself that I won’t work with that person again? Fortunately, this time I didn’t have to ponder this for very long.  It quickly became very clear that Amy and I were made to work together.

In artistic collaboration, just like in any relationship, trust is a required condition. Two people can never be the same and agree on every single thing. But for a collaborative artist there is a threshold that you sometimes reach where you trust your partner so much that you’re willing to follow them to places you wouldn’t normally go on your own. This trust cannot be forced or rationalized. And there is always that unspoken moment of recognition – you’re on the same page, the trust is there and it’s mutual.

There are other more subtle forms of collaboration that we don’t normally think about. I personally feel that every artist is collaborating with the world around them, other artists he or she has been exposed to, their teachers, mentors, peers.  This is especially true today when the internet is connecting people around the world into one shared experience.

Although I identify as a filmmaker, my background and education was in drama and fine arts. Once during (band camp) a drawing class I got into an argument with my professor. The assignment he gave us was to create a composition out of simple abstract shapes. He didn’t specify whether the composition itself had to be abstract. When everybody in the class finished their work, the professor took a walk around the room. Most of the pieces were random patterns, complete abstractions. I used circles to create a shape that suggested a human figure trapped in a cage of the rectangular sheet of paper. My professor started to tell us how images that are fully abstract are more pure, distilled and in that way more original, even personal. I disagreed, insisting that in today’s world where every form of visual abstraction has been accepted into common vernacular, where all sorts of abstract art are ubiquitous in bank lobbies, corporate offices, a pretty much all the other public spaces, a shape is no longer just a shape. An abstract shape suggests abstract shapes from artworks we have seen before. Therefore, in my opinion, all visual art today is figurative and representational. My point was not to disparage abstract art, but to point out that authorship today rarely carries the same level of originality and radical innovation as it would have a century ago.

What does that mean to the idea of authorship?  During our work on what ended up being a short art film for Genre-Bender, Amy and I spoke often about the concept of innovation and originality and how, as artists, we are under a lot of pressure to display both. But it’s my belief that to an artist in this post-modern world, innovation is largely an illusion. Most of what we see, even on the very fringes of avante garde, is a hybrid of things already in existence.   This is largely because for over a century now artists in many disciplines, from dance to sculpture to film, have had complete freedom to re-define their forms.  All the rules have been broken, and from the debris that remained infinite number of new combinations of forms and rules were born.  So why do we still create?  I create because I feel inspired to tell stories “my way.” I’m under no illusion that “my way” was invented by me and is “mine” only. “My way” to me means creating work that excites me, creating the kind of work I want to see. As far as “my” style, I realize that, although on the surface it’s different from what’s common in film today, it’s most definitely not unique or groundbreaking. There is simply no more ground to break.  Maybe, it’s time to put to rest the idea that this should even be a goal for artists. Maybe, art is about to come full circle.  It’s worth noting that even modernist art, that prized originality above everything else, wasn’t always honest about its origins. One great example is Picasso, who is best known for being an ultimate innovator, even while his most definitive paintings are largely influenced by African folk art.

This brings me to the question of appropriation. I suppose, like many things in art, appropriation may be subjective. We all appropriate things from artists who came before us.  The editing technique invented by Sergei Eisenstein can be seen in almost every film made today. Every element of technique, every genre, every vocabulary in any art form has been invented by someone decades, centuries or millennia ago. In that way all of us are appropriating. We are appropriating from the girl who first picked up a brush and paints. We are appropriating from the guy who recognized that movement for movement’s sake is a fun way to express oneself.  We are appropriating from the first person who recognized that film can be used to tell a story.  In fact, some of my favorite filmmakers are great “appropriators”.  Fassbinder drew from Douglas Sirk’s melodramas. Tim Burton’s grotesque beauty can be traced to German Expressionism.  Tarantino borrows his aesthetic from 70’s exploitation. Woody Allen is basically American Chekhov. Why do I still love them? Because, whatever they take they make their own.

Wes Hurley is a Seattle-based filmmaker. He and Amy O’Neal presented their work-in-progress in The Project Room on October 13, 2011.

Watch the completed result of their collaboration here: