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Black Dogs Case Study

by Cassandra Kill

This case study is part of my MA in Creative Enterprise at Leeds Met. I want to create an ongoing dialogue about the work of Black Dogs, so my original piece eventually becomes added to, amended, erased and rewritten.

If you wish to add your views on Black Dogs's work, please comment however you like.

INTRODUCTION

Black Dogs is an interesting organisation to write about in a module called Creative Organisations as part of a course in Creative Enterprise for two key reasons. Most members of Black Dogs would not identify it as an 'organisation' (rather a collective or group) and would be politically opposed to the idea of the creative process as 'enterprise', preferring an approach which validates the amateur and sees the drive of capital as fundamentally problematic. As a creative practitioner interested in collaborative ways of working and cultural politics, my key aims are to discover how the creative process functions in Black Dogs' non-hierarchical approach to collaboration and how this sits alongside theories about management of creative teams.

METHODOLOGY

The collaborative focus of Black Dogs drove me to look for methodologies that would encourage multiple voices to become involved in the piece. These were:

Whilst these methods provided opportunities for all members to get involved in the piece to some extent, their success in engaging a large number of members was limited.

I sent questions to the group in two formats (see Appendix 1). One set of questions was designed as a questionnaire to be completed by individual members and emailed back to me directly. Another set was designed to encourage a dialogue between members of the group. In combination, I hoped these methods would highlight areas of tension and consensus. Ultimately, no members entered into a dialogue in the way I'd foreseen and two responded to the questions in a direct way. One further member responded to the answers of another in an email to me.

It's difficult to ascertain the significance of the fairly low level of response to the questions and engagement with the dialogue. However, I believe that the main factor in this was the limited time available for members to respond.

I encouraged members to provide me with links to members of the public who have viewed/participated in Black Dogs' work so they could participate in my research, but this was ineffective. The short deadline on producing the final case study may well have had a impact on this. Arguably, it would not have been sufficient to use members of the group as gatekeepers to the audience as this could provide biased views on the work of the group. If I'd had more time, I would've used networks such as Leeds Visual Arts Forum to access more people who'd engaged with Black Dogs projects. Ideally, I would've liked to have to run an open access event to harness more diverse past audiences of Black Dogs projects and gain their views on how the group interacts with the public.

The limited data obtained from the questionnaires has meant that much of the information used to write this case study has been taken from my interview with Andy Abbott and the Black Dogs's website. Whilst I am aware that this may give a somewhat internal view of the organisation and is somewhat oppositional to the group's collective ethos, these were the most time effective ways of gathering the information necessary within the time available for research.

Wiki

I have published this case study as a wiki, which will allow open access to members of the public who may wish to delete, rewrite or add to the piece. This means that over time, the piece itself should become a collaborative work, reflecting diverse views on Black Dogs. How far this occurs will provide more opportunities for the group and its audiences to participate and act as a further reflection of how engaged people are with Black Dogs as a collaborative project.

The wiki is being hosted within the Access Space users wiki called 'Spacers'. Access Space is a community media lab, based on recycled hardware, open source software and a skill-sharing user group. Placing the wiki here may give more members of the public information about Black Dogs and allow people with an existing interest in collaborative projects the opportunity to comment on and engage with their work.

If you wish to add your views on certain aspects of Black Dogs's work,(or delete mine!) please contribute however you like.

WHAT IS BLACK DOGS?

'Black Dogs is an artist collective formed in 2003 in Leeds as a means to make art in the city at a self-organised level. Membership changes on a project to project basis and includes artists, academics, musicians, performers, makers and general do-ers'. (http://www.black-dogs.org/index.php?/projects/blog/)

Black Dogs started out with just six members but now includes 28 collaborators (http://www.black-dogs.org/index.php?/project/participants/). The group has produced over 15 projects in the past six years, utilising diverse techniques and media. James Hill (a member of the group) described their work as follows: “We do performance, audio, print, exhibitions, happenings, guided tours, film, photography, illustration… It tends to be that the idea comes before the choice of media & that several media then serve to support each idea. We might do a photography project, or simply use photography to document a project.” (James Hill, from his email response to my questionnaire)

The group's political focus is reflected by the positioning of concepts at the core of their practice, with diverse media used to articulate each particular idea. This works well alongside their collaborative framework as various techniques can be shared by individual members as best suits each project: 'We have organised exhibitions, events and public interventions, as well as producing occasional publications. Much of our activity has been driven by a DIY ethos and attitude; if the infrastructure and resources don’t exist we will find creative solutions to make it happen.' (http://www.black-dogs.org/index.php?/projects/blog/) Communicating the empowering nature of this DIY ethos is a fundamental part of the group's anti-capitalist ethos and much of their work has responded to these ideas.

HOW HAS BLACK DOGS DEVELOPED?

The original aim of the Black Dogs collective was for the six Leeds University fine art students involved to produce an exhibition to develop their skills for their final degree show, 'The first group show ran from 17th - 28th May 2004 and included work from Andy Abbott, Daniel Carey, Lawrence Molloy, Dave Ronalds, Jon Slight, and Davy Smith. Each work shared a common interest - the notion of craftmanship, time spent with objects, and the importance of the viewer.'(http://www.black-dogs.org/index.php?/projects/blog/)

From 2004's show Arte et Labore

(http://www.black-dogs.org/index.php?/projects/arte-et-labore/) Even at this early stage, the group had an interest in how people use their time (which links to anti-capitalist ideas) and how the audience engaged with the work.

The group ran several projects between 2004 and 2007, which had an increasing focus on facilitating audience participation and responding to anti-capitalist ideas. Working with a new collaborator (Eleanor Johnson), Black Dogs created 2005's exhibition Consequences which demonstrated their growing commitment to audience engagement: 'Black Dogs…will create a series of works that feed in to one another to create a holistic art experience that the viewer can not fail to engage with through to the end…”Our experiences with events and interventions have brought us to a point where we realise that the best way for an audience to understand (an art) process is to do it”.' (http://www.black-dogs.org/index.php?/projects/blog/)

In my interview with him, Abbott suggested that the group's movement away from producing pieces to be observed towards a more interactive approach was a reaction to the distancing effect the “well-made” objects they were producing had on the audience, and the way in which this reduced the work's ability to affect change in the audience. “The way we started to get interested in collaboration with the audience and participative processes…was quite an organic development” (Andy Abbott, from interview)

Throughout 2006 and 2007 the group's work continued to show a focus on collaboration and anti-capitalist politics, with shows such as Dazed and Confused – Gallery Giveaway also showing an irreverent and subversive attitude to mainstream art institutions and procedures: 'Potential exhibitors were urged to bring along their wonga to the opening night on 6th December as the canine-artist councils' budgets were raised through services rendered. For every service sampled, punters were given the opportunity to put forward their exhibition proposals. The more money they spent, the more chance they had and the bigger the final budget!' (http://www.black-dogs.org/index.php?/projects/dazed--confused---gallery-giveaway/)

From the 2007 show Dazed and Confused – Gallery Giveaway

(http://www.black-dogs.org/index.php?/projects/dazed--confused---gallery-giveaway/)

Recently, the group has opened their doors yet more widely, with their 2008 show Eggs Flour Milk Cheese: 25 ways of keeping occupied involving around 30 collaborators. They have shifted their view of members to see all collaborators as part of the group and hold regular open meetings so all members can have a say in the group's development: “Now Black Dogs is a shifting, rotating membership and there is certain identifiable people in Black Dogs and people who collaborate with us, but Black Dogs is the people that collaborate and it changes at different times”. (Andy Abbott, from interview)

From 2008's show Eggs Flour Milk Cheese: 25 ways of keeping occupied

(http://www.black-dogs.org/index.php?/projects/eggs-flour-milk-cheese/)

HOW DO CREATIVITY AND INNOVATION TAKE PLACE IN BLACK DOGS?

Berkun asserts that 'Ideas never stand alone' (Berkun, 2007. p7); using the model of a jigsaw puzzle to explain how many pre-existing ideas can be combined to create various creative outcomes. The collaborative, DIY approach that Black Dogs take towards art has a rich history in the independent music world. Abbott described how this subculture has informed Black Dogs: “If you have a look at the Cops and Robbers website there is…an underground music scene which exists for the fun of doing and playing music together…for the fun of exchange rather than individual pursuit and that ethos is something that Black Dogs has been born out of” (Andy Abbott, from interview)

I argue that the application of this approach to a new creative field has allowed Black Dogs to generate an original and successful approach to engaging a broad audience with concept-led art.

Innovation can be seen as the application of creative ideas in the real world. Cattani and Ferriani (2008) link this to social network theory. They argue that, 'Individuals who occupy an intermediate position between the core and the periphery of their social system are in a favourable position to achieve creative results…The benefits accrued through an individual's intermediate core/periphery position can also be observed at a team level, when the same individual works in a team whose members come from both ends of the core/periphery spectrum.' (Cattani and Ferriani, 2008. p284)

I suggest that it is possible to see Black Dogs's position in the social network of the Leeds art scene in this way. As I've outlined, their work has been creatively successful in articulating political ideas and subversions of mainstream art institutions and procedures in an irreverent and playful way. I argue that this has been possible as a result of the group's shift from being submerged in the centre of this social network - when the original cohort of six artists were fine art students at Leeds University - to a more peripheral position, as the group has become more open and collaborative. However, this analysis would suggest that as the creative successes of the group have earned them ever more widespread acclaim, there is a danger of them becoming subsumed within the centre of this network, thus reducing their ability to produce new and exciting projects. I argue that their ongoing critical reflection on their practice and use of increasingly collaborative methods have allowed Black Dogs to straddle the core/periphery spectrum, thus keeping their work fresh and innovative. How far this will continue to be possible over time requires further analysis, which I will undertake in my discussion of collaborative working in Black Dogs.

HOW DOES THE CREATIVE PROCESS FUNCTION IN BLACK DOGS' NON HIERARCHICAL APPROACH TO COLLABORATION?

Black Dogs' increasingly open collaboration has nourished the creative output of the group. Bilton's analysis of creative teams asserts that, 'Creative individuals have the ability to hold…different, often contradictory impulses in equilibrium. But the ability to combine different thinking styles and processes is…if anything more likely to be found in groups of people working together, in teams…bringing together complementary competences and personalities.' (Bilton, 2007, xiv)

I suggest that the centrality of collaboration in Black Dogs' practice has supported the influx of new ideas and approaches from new members leading to creative success. However, as they've grown new challenges have appeared.

Bilton (2007) outlines two key risks to the creativity of teams as they grow over time. I suggest that to overcome both of these challenges Black Dogs will be required to implement an explicit structure for equal collaboration. One risk is over-specialisation: 'Over-specialization describes an excess of individualism, starting with a retreat into the self and a falling back into core competencies.' (Bilton, 2007. p33)

This issue is something that Black Dogs' core ethos challenges, as their lack of formal roles and collaborative focus encourages members to take on various tasks at different times: “What you’d hope would happen is that over time everyone’s …had a certain input in different projects…At times it’s led by a couple of individuals…and other people might not be involved in it at all or they might just play a…smaller role…Maybe actually the idea of formalising it in some way, we've not attempted it yet but through conversations with the group maybe it's something we should think about” (Andy Abbott, from interview) I suggest that this formalisation of group interactions suggested by Abbott is needed to ensure that the tasks taken at different times are balanced, to allow fair collaboration and maximise individual and group development.

The other risk to the development of creative teams that Bilton (2007) identifies is over-familiarisation: 'Over-familiarisation refers to the an excess of like-mindedness and 'groupthink', smoothing out the internal diversity and creative tension on which innovative processes depend' (Bilton, 2007. p33).

Abbott's description of how members had been invited to join the group suggests that over-familiarisation may become a risk: “Its been through sort of various kind of working relationships with people and people that we imagine might feel a certain affinity with the project, Black Dogs as a project and whatever the ethos is, although again the ethos is something that could shift as well at times.” (Andy Abbott, from interview)

Whilst Black Dogs' approaches to collaboration have so far allowed them to produce innovative work, I suggest that in order to continue to straddle the core/periphery spectrum of the social network of the art scene and thus maximise their creative potential, the group should open their doors further. Abbott described their current recruitment methods as “degrees of separation”, and at points alluded to the lack of dynamism that this can cause: “We were hoping that we might have some people in the group that would disagree with this ethos that had been underlying what we were doing. It would be interesting if there were some people in Black Dogs who were careerist artists just to y'know make it more dynamic because what had happened prior to that was we were just, we'd just slipped into a certain mode…we weren't really reflecting too much on what we were doing” (Andy Abbott, from interview)

If the group is to maintain their internal dynamism and creative output, I argue that broad advertising of the opportunities within the group is necessary, reaching out to more diverse potential members than existing social networks can provide. When discussing the group's future work, Abbott identified that this may be valuable: “Again I suppose, if we were to publicise that it might be much more open thing that people might turn up to that we don't know, but at the moment it's through various friendships, which I suppose could create some kind of ghetto” (Andy Abbott, from interview)

I suggest that the open membership and changing, project-based roles and teams of Black Dogs have facilitated high levels of creativity and innovation in the group. However, the unstructured format in which members are recruited and contribute to the group's development may not be as neutral as it first seems.

In 'The Tyranny of Structurelessness' (1970), Freeman argues that there is no such thing as an unstructured group, merely one in which the structures are hidden: 'To strive for a ‘structureless’ group is as useful and as deceptive, as to aim at an ‘objective’ news story, ‘value-free’ social science or a ‘free’ economy.' (Freeman, 1970. p1)

Freeman outlines an approach which suggests groups experiment with and reflect on different approaches to managing equal collaboration: 'Once the movement no longer clings tenaciously to the ideology of ‘structurelessness’, it will be free to develop those forms of organisation best suited to its healthy functioning.' (Freeman, 1970. p4)

She outlines a broad framework which manages individual contributions to avoid hidden hierarchies and allow individuals and the group to develop. Of particular relevance is her discussion of rotation of tasks: 'Responsibilities which are held too long by one person, formally or informally, come to be seen as that person’s ‘property’ and are not easily relinquished or controlled by the group. Conversely, if tasks are rotated too frequently the individual does not have time to learn her job well and acquire a sense of satisfaction of doing a good job.' (Freeman, 1970. p4)

I suggest that Black Dogs are at a point in their development where they need to develop structures for equal participation in this way. Whilst this may initially seem opposed to their non-structured ethos, I agree with Freeman that unstructured collaboration is impossible and conceals hierarchies. Critical reflection on the usefulness of structures of collaboration that authors such as Freeman propose could allow Black Dogs to find an approach that facilitates work with ever greater numbers of people whilst avoiding hierarchy. As highlighted previously, this will ensure that the dynamism can continue that has made their work so successful to date.

CONCLUSION

Over the past six years, Black Dogs have produced creatively and politically engaging work. Over this time, they have worked with an ever larger number of collaborators and reflected critically on the changing needs of the group to form approaches which have allowed group working to occur in an informal fashion. This ongoing internal debate has allowed Black Dogs to straddle what Cattani and Ferriani (2008) would refer to as 'the core/periphery spectrum' of the Leeds art social network. This positioning has provided an ideal place from which to produce work that critically engages with mainstream ideas in a subversive and irreverent way.

My analysis of the group using Bilton's (2007) theories of creative management and Freeman's article 'The Tyranny of Structurelessness' (1970) have demonstrated three key challenges Black Dogs need to overcome to ensure equal collaboration and creative success can continue. These risks are hidden hierarchies (Freeman, 1970), over-familiarisation and over-specialisation (Bilton, 2007). I suggest that using open discussion to develop a framework for group interactions and explicitly articulating this procedure would ensure that all participants can have an equal say in the ongoing development of Black Dogs, thus maintaining their ability to engage with fresh perspectives and produce work that continues to be challenging, engaging and exciting.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Berkun, S. (2007). The Myths of Innovation (O'Reilly Media Inc: Sebastopol)

Bilton, C (2007). Management and Creativity: from creative industries to creative management (Blackwell: Oxford)

Cattani, G and Ferriani, (2008) S. A Core/Periphery Perspective on Individual Creative Performance: Social Networks and Cinematic Achievements in the Hollywood Film Industry in Organisation Science, Volume 19, Number 6, pp.824-844

Freeman, J. (1970) The Tyranny of Structurelessness taken from www.midiaindependente.org.media/2001/07/203242.pdf

www.black-dogs.org

Appendix 1 - Questions sent to the group

COMMENTS

from Andy Abbott Fri 12th Feb, 2010 9:43am

Hi Cassie,

I was going to get in touch to see how this was coming along. Cheers very much for doing it. Although a lot of the current members weren't able to respond to your questions in the short time frame we had we have subsequently used the questions you had sent us to draw up a new 'blurb' for the group which we are hoping to flesh out in a project taking place over the next three months..

“Black Dogs is an artist collective with a fluid and dynamic membership whose activity spans formal exhibitions, publications, events, interventions, workshops, social engagement and curatorial activity. The collective includes members living in various locations in the UK and the world but is based in Leeds.

Formed in Leeds in 2003 as a means to conduct artistic activity in the city at a self-organised level, Black Dogs subscribes to a DIY ethos of not-for-profit motivation and ideals of active participation. The group’s activity is guided by a commitment to context-responsive, conversation and debate-led working methods and, through it’s practice, experimenting with forms of life and work that contribute towards working alternatives to capitalist hegemony.

The free-sharing of information, knowledge, skills and experience underpins the actions of the collective as a method by which to encourage collaboration both within the group and with the audiences and public who experience Black Dogs’ output. It is the group’s aim, through its artistic activity, research and knowledge exchange, to understand and facilitate a transformation from a passive-consumer ‘society of extras’ through to a truer, more direct form of democracy.”

from Steven Allbutt Fri, 12 February, 2010 11:48:49

Hello Cassie

My name is Steven Allbutt, I'm sorry for returning your questionnaire, I'm not actually sure I even received one? Any way I found your piece very interesting and felt it raised a number of interesting questions as well as not being entirely accurate.

Firstly let me give you a potted history of my own involvement with BDs.

I was forced to work for them in preparation and fabrication of their individual works for both degree and situation Leeds shows in late may 2005. I filmed for Andy, photographed for Dave and did tech for Lawrence. I was then asked to be part of BDs and worked with them on a project for Moore fest that summer. After this I decided not to take part because i felt I had no ownership over BDs and the decision making process. We did however remain friends.

When I myself graduated in 2007 and submitted work for Situation Leeds I had also been working with Dave at Leeds college. I was once again invited to join BDs and once again we discussed my concerns over ownership and responsibility. Andy informed me this was something that was also being raised by other collaborators and that BDs were on the brink of changing it ethos about who were BDs to help engender a wider group participation and democratic ownership of projects, ideas and responsibilities bringing with it a new level of creativity.

I then took part in the Dazed and Confused show followed by Eggs Cheese Flour Milk. The Leeds up to that group show saw the start of informal group meetings and the push towards shared responsibilities and greater democracy. Over the past 18 months my own involvement has been minimal due to relocation to London but I know from the occasional appearances at group meetings and continued dialogue with lots of BDs ( but mostly Andy and Yvonne) that the newer members of BDs (none 6) have started taking a lead. James Hill and Bryony did so for the DIY survival Kit as well as Mick in its production. The Tower works project also seemed to be heavily driven by the likes of Micheal, James and others.

This all said however, there are (for me) still underlying problems with BDs structure and you are right to point out that everything has a structure. Instead of the old hierarchy of the original 6 there is now also a hierarchy based on geography, you could say a practical hierarchy. There are a number of BDs now in London, Newcastle, Coventry etc who all wish to remain part of BDs but are unable to be at meetings and therefor influence opinion or take responsibility. To be at the centre of Bds you must be at the centre of Leeds. BDs needs to ask itself, is it a Leeds group only or something more? Does it want to be something more? I am yet to hear a definitive answer.

Another question yet to be posed is what happened if part of the group wants to take on a commission, idea or proposal that others in the group do not wish to be involved in? So far all work undertaken by BDs has been driven by one or more of its original members. What will happen if work is done that none of the original 6 want ownership of, my gut reaction is that they will not want it to be classified as BDs and so we find ourselves no further forward. I do stand to be corrected however. As I have said being outside of Leeds leaves you a little outside of the loop.

Finally, BDs are fully aware of the pitfalls of group-think and the challenges laid out in your conclusion have been topics of discussion for the last 2.5 years one to one and across the group, however that does not say they have been answered satisfactorily.

Sorry for this long email but I have been involved to different degrees over the last 6 years and believe I have an interesting viewpoint from which to judge the BDs process of change.

All the best with the MA

Steve

from Andy Abbott Fri, 12 February, 2010 14:28:29

Hi Cassie,

In addition to my last email I thought I’d let you know my immediate thoughts in response to the case study. Despite it’s methodological ‘validity’ in representing the group I actually think it’s really useful to have the kind of distanced input that someone who experiences the group mostly through the website and individual conversations as I think we have to appreciate that is how many other people find out about us or come to ‘know’ what we do. Also, I think some of your suggestions are good ones and certainly the questions you asked of the group have provided a good foundation for some recent internal discussion and have informed some of our recent activity.

I feel, though, that some of the advice is a little misdirected. This is only in the sense that I’m not sure that Black Dogs’ utmost goal is to perfect a non-hierarchical model, which it seems is the assumption that underlies the case study. For me, Black Dogs certainly uses and has experimented with decentred models, non-fixed roles, even consensus decision making; but it isn’t an end in itself. Rather, I think we try and keep things as fluid, responsive and contingent as possible, so that the input people can have is a genuine (rather than managed) one. This seems like a subtle difference perhaps, but it is fairly fundamental for me. A horizon of ‘fluid responsivity’ rather than ‘no-sign-of-hierarch y-at-all- cost’ means that at times Black Dogs is centralised, unbalanced, led even. These ‘hierarchical’ characteristics arise and (hopefully) dissipate ‘organically’ or responsively rather than by force. This is by no means perfect and at times leads to the exclusion and/or over-emphasis of certain individuals and ideas. Still, I think that this is preferable to an ultimately pacifying model of ‘absolutely-equal- input’ (achieved by rotation and management) which I can only imagine would mean a compromise-by- all rather than the potential-for- input-by- all that we aim for.

As I think I mentioned in the interview I find the Transmission (gallery in Glasgow) model fascinating; where they have a voluntary committee responsible for the curation and management of the gallery but where the maximum term for any committee member is 2 (or is it 3) years. This ensures that there is always a fluid, dynamic board and prevents personalities dominating. However, what happens in practical terms is the ‘dominant personality’ is deferred to the constitution that guides the behaviour of the committee members. Essentially everyone becomes answerable to a document or manifesto – and, in effect, to whoever it was that wrote that. So the question almost becomes about how everyone can have input into a constitution and how that document becomes responsive to any changes in the group – i.e how it represents them. I think we are grappling with this in Black dogs at the moment and that the conversation your questions (and hopefully this case study) have prompted within the group have been really useful in this. So thanks loads and hope to speak more soon.

 
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