Anja Groten, workshop ‘Figuring Things Out Together’ at Page Not Found in The Hague (2022), photo: Steven Maybury
Researching collectivity as an individual: how is that going to work? – in conversation with Anja Groten
Through five years of research at PhDArts (Academy of Creative and Performing Arts Leiden), Anja Groten tried to deepen her understanding of collective design, while reflecting on her personal experience as part of the Amsterdam-based collective Hackers & Designers. Ruby van Vugt visits Groten to talk about her dissertation and the corresponding book she self-published together with the H&D collective.
What sparked your interest in the topic of collectivity?
‘As a PhDArts candidate you conduct research from your position as an artist or, in my case, as a designer. I worked very closely with a group of people called “Hackers & Designers” and we often talk in terms of the collective. Since the start of my studies in design I was drawn to collective work because I always had an attraction to working with people outside my confined disciplinary frameworks or outside of the boundaries of educational institutions. When I started with this PhD, my proposal was to work on collectivity but I didn’t exactly know how to approach it. If you start research on collectivity as an individual you immediately start wondering how that’s going to work. One of my concerns was that I would speak on behalf of others. That is, claiming a position that is not mine, that I can only partially understand and run the risk of misrepresenting. That was quite a struggle and became the centre of my research, fittingly titled “Figuring Things Out Together: On the Relationship Between Design and Collective Practice”.’
How did you start to research collectivity?
‘It started with writing down anecdotes of everyday situations of collective practice. Hackers & Designers organise a lot of workshops, most of which have to do with technology and hacking tools and are very hands-on. I started to describe in great detail what happens in these moments of collective learning and making. Focussing especially on moments when things got a bit difficult, for instance moments of frustration, friction and unclarity, I intuitively started to problematise collectivity and reflect on it self-critically. I came to the understanding that it’s not necessarily an emancipatory practice as we know it from the sixties and seventies, but that it’s very much intertwined with the precariousness and unstable working conditions of the cultural sector today. All of the dynamics I observed have to do with that. That’s why I started to problematise and work against a fetishisation of collectivity – something I had been doing up to that point. I had been looking to collective practice to fill a gap or solve something I couldn’t find within my disciplinary context of design.’
‘”Collectivity” is not necessarily an emancipatory practice as we know it from the sixties and seventies. It is very much intertwined with the precariousness and unstable working conditions of the cultural sector today’
What would you now say that collectivity means to you?
‘There are lot of different definitions of collectivity but, in the way I experience and understand it, it’s not something that can be instrumentalised. It’s rather a constant flux intertwined with constantly changing social and technical conditions, which also includes things like digital tools and technical infrastructures for instance. It’s actually quite hard to say that collective practice is inherently interesting, valuable, productive or critical. So with this dissertation I’ve been trying to look for the tension and the double bind of collective practice.’
How did the written research find form in something practice-based?
‘Although the field of artistic research wants to work against the dichotomy of practice and theory, they do make a distinction at PhDArts between the discursive part, which is the written dissertation, and the practical part. The book “Figuring Things Out Together” is the discursive part. The practice part is a series of workshops I’m organising here at Page Not Found right now and the book launch of the publication I made with H&D.’
Did you work on the two publications simultaneously?
‘There was some overlap in working on the two publications. Certainly “First, Then… Repeat.” benefited from the theoretical and conceptual groundwork of my dissertation and is informed by it. Once I submitted the written part in June, I dived fully into my practice-based research and developed the conceptual framework for First, Then… Repeat. The publication is based on the idea that the workshop – a format many initiatives such as H&D are familiar with – is on the one hand a format that can accommodate self-determined, egalitarian learning environments. On the other hand it is also implied in the so called learning economy as well as the economisation of art and design education. It is a self-published book that is both online and offline, in which I was able to integrate more voices than just my own. It contains 35 contributions from different practitioners, who all have a very different understanding of collective practice and more specifically workshop-based practice. The book reflects on what we call a “workshop script”, which is like a manual or an outlay. In it, we give a lot of space for contextualising, to embed the workshop and its script in its own context. For instance, there is a part about open-source parenting. The text is written by a group of feminist hackers based in Pittsburgh and they talk about the status of Black women in the tech industries. Importantly they take a kind of “first things first”-approach, meaning that before doing any kind of critical talk, they made sure that there is space for everyone to actually participate. So they wrote for instance about the importance of the role of “the aunty” who is an alley that helps with childcare. I was surprised how many people wanted to contribute to the publication. Many of them are people that I have already worked with in the past. What I enjoy about the contributions is that they’re all very pragmatic but also very inventive and creative and coming really from a necessity.’
‘With this dissertation I’ve been trying to look for the tension and the double bind of collective practice’
Why is the publication both online and offline?
‘We designed it all with open source tools. We didn’t use any conventional programmes such as Adobe. The whole thing was actually designed in a browser. It started out as a website and then we rendered it into a book layout. Each contribution departs from a kind of script. On the website, each script comes with a slide show to show the scripts in their full extent. The book just offers a peak into the scripts and focuses more on the contextualisation. There is also a lot of cross-referencing throughout the scripts it was important for us to show that in the design of the book as well as on the website. A lot of these practices don’t occur in isolation but inform each other and continue within different contexts.
It sounds as though workshops are a very crucial part of what you do. Was it a given that as part of your research you would also host a workshop series?
‘It’s funny because I didn’t really realise until I started the PhD that workshops have been with me and my practise for a very long time. When I started deepening the understanding of my practice I found out that it was something I just became so used to doing. It became unquestionable that we organise workshops as a collective because it’s also a way of organising ourselves. I did wonder why that was. A “workshop” can mean different things to different people. It’s an ambiguous term that changes meaning according to its context, which makes it a very interesting format because you don’t have to agree on what a workshop is in order to join or facilitate one. However, that fact also makes it a bit frustrating. I have left many workshops feeling dissatisfied. I understood that the workshop worked for us as a collective because we are all very flexible workers – freelancers who have joined multiple collectives, organisations and educational institutions. So within the context of Hackers & Designers there is so much going on that the workshop works as a temporary format.
It’s important to acknowledge how the workshop is intertwined with the economisation of education. There is a neoliberal trend of workshop production in the cultural sector, which comes with the notion that something can be achieved in a very short amount of time. I started becoming more and more aware of that when I started paying critical attention to formats that are very ambiguous. Not only the workshop but also notions such as “tool” or “platform” are concepts that come up a lot in the collectives I work with. I started interrogating their possibilities and their pitfalls. Eventually, I came to the provisional conclusion that I don’t want to turn away from workshops because of the way we explore them in the context of Hackers & Designers. It’s a format and a medium that can be challenged and changed with every new context.’
What are ways in which you have challenged the workshop-format?
‘Something we started doing was organising workshops about workshops. We host a Summer Academy each year where we always start off by asking questions like: What do we want from the space? What do we find important? What is the baggage we come with in these types of temporary learning environments? I am trying to do that here at Page Not Found as well. I use a modular system for this exhibition, which is also an iteration on what a workshop space can look like and how it can be changed and challenged. The modular system was initially developed by another befriended collective fanfare, who joined me in rethinking this workshop space as an interior.
I think there are also many positive things about workshops. For instance, there is a conversation in the book with art historian Heike Roms. She did research on the emergence of the workshop in the context of performance art and life art in the sixties and seventies. At the time, the workshop played quite an important role in experiments in education. It challenged the canon and disciplinary knowledge; the idea that one needed a master or explicator in order to learn. I see this also within Hackers & Designers. We are learning and figuring things out together and not so much following an individual’s thought and instructions. We really explore through making and connecting to each other’s practices. We get to know each other’s way of working by explaining how you go about your practice and why it is that you do the things you do. I call this a “critical temporary public”. When you expose your skills, you are more likely to be challenged on your habits – this I find very interesting.’
‘What is maybe particular to Hackers & Designers is that we don’t expect any pre-knowledge from people who join us. What we do can be quite technical at times, but we want people who never programmed before to also be able to join the workshop and get something out of it’
It’s like looking at your work through someone else’s eyes. It sounds like the workshops you organise are quite non-hierarchal.
‘That is something we try to achieve but it’s not always possible. For instance, being in a collective since the beginning you already have a different status to someone who joined only recently. Of course there are a lot of unspoken hierarchies and authorities that we tend to deny but are in fact there. This is something we try to formulate and articulate explicitly. We can’t assume we are all on equal planes. With Hackers & Designers, we started writing a Code of Conduct, a living document that we bring into every workshop to see what is at play here. In it, we articulate what we appreciate about workshop situations and also what we expect from others. What is maybe particular to Hackers & Designers is that we don’t expect any pre-knowledge from people who join us. What we do can be quite technical at times, but we want people who never programmed before to also be able to join the workshop and get something out of it. This is something we also touch upon in the Code of Conduct. We don’t blame people for not knowing something. Likely, we also don’t apologise for not knowing something ourselves because that might incline people to feel like they need to know everything themselves as well. I think it’s important that the Code of Conduct is understood as a continuous effort and it’s not something that you solve once and then you are satisfied but that it is something that needs constant work. Our collective has been going since 2013 and I think it still works because we are not too attached to it. We all have a lot of other things going on but Hackers & Designers gives us this tiny space to do something differently than we would usually do.’
Because you work so much within groups, was it a hard process to have to write your dissertation mostly by yourself?
‘I am not a very experienced writer so the whole thing was quite new to me. The research trajectory took me five years and I’ve really learned a lot. The text really was written step by step. The workshop chapter of my dissertation, for instance, was based on an essay I wrote earlier and got published in Online Open. Everything I write about really emerged from actual situations. So the first years of the research didn’t feel like something I was doing alone so much. It wasn’t until the last year that I really had this solitary experience where the writing became quite lonely. There was a huge discrepancy between the noise you have when working in a collective and the need for focus to get the text done, get it sharp and really deepen it. Of course, I also refer a lot to specific theoretical frameworks and all of that is not really any of Hackers & Designers concern, so they haven’t all followed it really. There are definitely some people who disagree with some parts as well. I didn’t want the text to be a zoomed out comparative study of collective practice but rather something I formulate from within. I came to realise that, as a result of that, I had to be very clear that these findings are my individual experiences so the text became quite personal. I don’t think you do a collective PhD. I don’t think it’s really possible.’
 H&D organises educational activities at the intersection of technology, design, art, and education with a focus on hands-on learning and collaboration between practitioners from the different fields. Along with organising workshops people involved with H&D produce on and offline publications and build open source tools and platforms.
 This hybrid publication was designed and developed by H&D, more specifically Heerko van der Kooij, Maisa Imamović, and Anja Groten
Ruby van Vugt
is graphic designer and writer