In August of this year I was fortunate enough to receive Arts NSW funding to attend a residency in Hungary. Ah, writers’ residencies, that mythical, shady grove where you and your words get to frolic together in a glut of concentrated writing time and no one has to wear any pants. Without having been on a proper writers residency before, I still assumed this fact was a massive part of their appeal.
Except that this residency was a little different. D’CLiNIC Studio, my Hungarian host institution, run a program they call MiXER, where artists of different disciplines are paired to work on a project, together. It’s a collaborative residency.
There’s something that I’ve always found intriguing about collaboration. The slick term, it’s outside worn smooth from being the ‘it’ word—rolled around on the tongues of corporations, artists and academia alike—belied a chewier, more complicated core. Wasn’t collaboration just another word for group work? Or the dreaded committee meeting? What happened if we didn’t get on? Was I going to be paired with someone whose artistic practice centred on covering themselves with Ribena and slamming themselves against a white wall while the camera rolled? (I mean, I was game, I was just trying to figure out what other refreshments I could bring to that party).
With these questions in mind, I made my way to Zalaegerszeg, a sleepy town about three hours from Budapest and prepared to meet my collaborator. I waited, heart in throat, on the tiny bed in my room in our soon-to-be shared apartment, for this mysterious person (Katja, who runs D’CLiNIC insists on not revealing any details before the residency begins) to arrive.
Cue Niels Poiz, a Belgian conceptual artist who sashayed into my life (and heart) for a month where we made beautiful music (read: collaborative art) together.
As it turns out, Niels and I both work with text. While I plod along with my fiction, he does these amazing installations where he takes found text, imagined conversations and popular culture and turns them into something new and thought-provoking. I am very proud of the book we made during the residency. It’s called Words with Friends. The title came to me as we sat drinking hot chocolate in a café in Vienna, and I wouldn’t let Niels change it (I did keep accidentally calling it Friends with Words, which actually works too, when I think about it).
The biggest realisation I had that month (other than I really, really like wine) is that to be a good collaborator you first have to know yourself. It’s no use being agreeable to everything. It’s much more useful to know what you want, say it, and then be prepared to talk it out, and fight for it if necessary (or, you know, at least be convincing).
In the book, our works are intermingled, (long) short stories by me, (fabulous) bizarre snippets from him. We illustrated it together and treated each page more as an image than a page of text. In the early stages, when we were still deciding what we would do, I read Niels’ ‘The Kitchen of Pam’, which is the first piece in our book, and I knew we were going to be just fine.
Niels is a wealth of Saturday Night Live sketches, Beyoncé knowledge, and is great at opening corked wine (I always stuff it up and find bits of sad moist cork in my teeth). It is now my firm belief that everyone needs a collaborator to be good at those things you never quite got the hang of. I found a partner to frolic in the grove with, and it was lovely. I did have to wear pants in the end. But it was worth it.
This residency would not have been possible without the funding support I received from Arts NSW. I wish to thank them for their contribution and backing. I would also sincerely like to thank Katja Pál, Norbert Tóth, Gábor Mészarós, Aki Neumann and, of course Niels Poiz.
This is clearly a rosy story of collaboration. In 2017 I will be presenting a workshop on the pleasures AND pitfalls of collaboration as part of Wollongong Writers Festival.