Rachel Dobbs and Hannah Jones: on performance collaborations

Rachel Dobbs and Hannah Jones celebrated 10 years of successful collaboration as performance duo LOW PROFILE in 2013. In this article they try to pin down their winning formula.

It all started by accident.

We met at University when studying Fine Art at Exeter College of Art and soon found a mutual support system in each other and formed a strong and lasting friendship. Initially we used to help out with each other’s projects and during our studies we were introduced to performance/live art by our friend Rae and quickly became excited about the possibilities of live situations. Critiquing live artworks we experienced together and talking through ideas led to us making a one-off performance together at university. Later, after graduating and intending to establish our individual solo practices, we continued our conversations by email which led to working together again and then into a more formal conversation about just making work together as LOW PROFILE.

Friendship, developing shared interests, trust and mutual respect are probably the key things that have allowed us to continue to work together for so long. When one of us is flagging we push the other one along. We encourage each other to air our ‘potentially shit’ ideas. We work together to shape and mould those ideas into an artwork. With such little time to work together (we both have always had other demanding jobs outside LOW PROFILE) we have learnt to plan carefully and to be ambitious about setting shared goals. We are honest and open and we never fight. We let go of our individual egos, we don’t try to keep score or claim victories – it is far more interesting to see what develops from the things that we both decide to apply our attention to. We work through something together until it seems right or wrong and then we start again. We both still want to make this work, so we continuously work out new ways to make that possible. We do our best to not let the other one down. We tell each other that they are the best one out of LOW PROFILE. We take holidays.

We can work it out

People often tell us that they are jealous of those working in collaborations – there is always someone to bounce ideas off, to try things out on or to reassure you when you feel stuck.

In our case, we tend to egg each other on, working through ideas that might be easy to dismiss if you were working solo which has led us collectively to make work that wouldn’t happen individually – especially in terms of durational performances (like our 12-17 hour pieces from the DRY RUN series) or developing large-scale artist-led projects (like PL:ay or Come To Ours).

We also tend to act as an internal quality control by raising questions, doubts and critiquing throughout the development process, drawing on a wider frame of reference as we each have a range of interests outside LOW PROFILE. This allows us to be more confident in our decisions and we have (had to) become very good at making decisions quickly. This is partly due to time pressures and partly through learning to trust our shared judgment of situations, qualities important to our work and by developing a shared aesthetic and set of concerns. Without these things and these kinds of tacit agreements, we would find it very difficult to work together.

Sharing and long conversations

In a situation where artists are often encouraged to be very individualistic, it is easy to underestimate the benefit of sharing. We are strongly invested in networks of artists who pool resources (time, money, effort, skills, advice etc.) to achieve outcomes that would have been impossible on their own. Within the first few years of our practice, these networks developed when we met other artists, curators and programmers through selected open-call residencies, performance platforms and scratch events. Over the years we have managed to maintain these friendships, told each other about projects we’re working on, supported the development of each other’s practice (by feeding back on work shown, acting as advocates for grant applications etc), programmed each other’s work, been invited and commissioned to take part in each other’s events and shared experiences and lessons learned with each other. As people’s careers have developed, shifted and moved from city to city (or country to country), we stay in touch and make invitations to each other as regularly as possible. Other professional friendships, relationships and long conversations started through geographical proximity – by word of mouth, introductions or chance meetings, starting to see people regularly at performances/platforms or simply hanging out in the pub for a drink after openings or other events.

Artist-led activity (whether showing work, setting up studio groups, project-managing events or going to support the work of others) has been a large feature of our practice and has led to us taking creative risks, developing work and approaches to practice that we would never have considered otherwise.

As well as sharing experiences and resources, our collaboration as LOW PROFILE also allows us to share the highs and lows of being an artist – the long hours of install or administration, the stresses of traveling and meeting new people, the constant possibility of rejection, the frustration of projects not going to plan and of course the elation of a job well done. Making and showing work together means that we each very much relate to the exhaustion or excitement the other is feeling, in a way that it is difficult for friends, colleagues, peers or partners to fully understand.

Avoiding meltdown

Of course, it is not all plain sailing. Working collaboratively means having to take into account another person when making decisions. Sometimes it can mean having to say no to opportunities because one of you can’t make it, has to work or has other commitments. It also means that deciding to up-sticks and move to another part of the world needs careful consideration and discussion.

Over the years, we have tried to balance our work-life situations so that we are in similar circumstances (ie working similar hours in other jobs, having similar amounts of disposable income or free time, trying not to take on other commitments that prevent us having time and space to work on LOW PROFILE etc.) and we regularly talk openly and honestly with each other about these things. Our ways of working (how regularly we meet, where/when/how we discuss ideas and projects and the way that we work) continues to shift and change, adapting to the different situations we find ourselves in and the time and resources that we have. Just like in any relationship, we are really aware that we need to nurture our collaboration and take care of it.

Money, investment and splitting things

Although collaborative working has become a lot more common over the 10 years that we have been working together, we still find that many arts institutions, programmers and organizers expect us to split any fees offered so that we each get half of what would be offered to a solo artist in the same circumstance. This is the product of an administrative culture that is focused on outcomes/outputs rather than the realities of working with artists, which is something that we have always aimed to change through projects we organize or programme by calculating fees by person (rather than by artwork).

For this reason, we spend time developing relationships with programmers and curators, who quickly realize that two people collaborating will have two sets of bills to pay, two train tickets to buy and two mouths to feed. In turn, they develop projects that allow us to take the time we need, have access to slightly larger fees and facilitate the type of work we make (which doesn’t always fit comfortably into either live art or visual art genres).

Working collaboratively is really embedded into live art/performance practice. From the start, we saw as much work made by collectives as by solo artists and this really helped to shape our understanding of what it means to be more-than-one-person doing something in front of an audience. The work of groups like Lone Twin, Hunt & Darton, Action Hero, Search Party, Cuppola Bobber, Goat Island and many more have been important reference points. We feel fortunate that we spend as much time invested in the world of live art /performance as visual arts practice.

Working collaboratively is less prevalent in contemporary art practice. This may be to do with how Fine Art courses are taught and assessed in comparison to Theatre courses. On both of our practice led MAs (which we undertook 5 years apart and at different institutions), we wrote individual theses where the work of LOW PROFILE was the focus. These texts were very much our independent research works, however, when it came to our practice being assessed we each put LOW PROFILE’s work forward. We refused to make a list of who did what because, for us, this would be an impossible list to write and would completely undermine the notion of collaborative practice. We were lucky that our institutions understood and supported us in this position.

We very much share our workload equally. There are some things that we tend to be better at individually, but we still try to work with each other on everything we do. Sometimes, to save time, we will split up the tasks we have to do and then swap over. For example, for this text we each took a set of questions, wrote separately, swapping the texts back and forth, editing and then drawing the whole text together as one. We very quickly can’t work out/forget who wrote what and for us this really isn’t important anyway.

Sometimes we talk about what would happen if one of us couldn’t make it at the last minute, what we do if one of us wanted to call it a day or died. LOW PROFILE wouldn’t exist without both of us being part of it – we equally ‘own’ what we make and without the other, we couldn’t keep going. All we know is that we don’t want to stop yet, that we hope we will still be working together for at least another 10 years, that we have still got things to do and plans to make. We will no doubt eventually, for whatever reason, have to draw a line under our collaborative practice – but for now that is something that we feel we don’t need to address as it’s more important to stay focussed and to keep going. It would be scary to stop.

© LOW PROFILE, 2013

LOW PROFILE is a collaboration between artists Rachel Dobbs (IRL) and Hannah Jones (UK) working together to make live art since 2003. They are currently based in Plymouth, UK.

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