“I think that art and design practice today involves being flexible in one’s thinking: being not only a specialist, but also a generalist.”—Brooks Hagan

Brooks Hagan: Co-Founder + Textiles Faculty, RISD / Providence RI

“i think that art and design practice today involves being flexible in one’s thinking: being not only a specialist, but also a generalist.”—brooks hagan

What are the origins of Interdisciplinary Collaboration in Theory & Practice (ADColab)?
It was an experiment that emerged from co-founder, Julian Kreimer, and I attending grad school together at RISD. We became friends while TA’ing an art history class, and we ended up doing some collaborative work. We interpreted some of Julian’s drawings in Jacquard Woven Fabrics, which is my medium, for a painting class. Then, a couple of years later, while living in New York, we decided to formalize that experience and multi-perspective process. Julian is a fine artist and painter, who has an interest in design areas. I am a designer, but I very much have a fine art practice. We put this proposal together—and I think we got lucky, because the Whitechapel Press at MIT had just came out with an art and design book—and we came up with a good title, ADColab. We got a grant to run it for one year. It is very resource intensive. For RISD, it is like a double class of 22 or 24 students from different areas and two faculty members. We did four trips to New York in the first year, which was way too much. We had visiting critics, and a very ambitious reading list, and then four collaborative studio products. For the second year, we were able to tone down and make it three studio-based projects, three trips to New York, and make it all pertain more to topics that are relevant in both art and design, like permanence and mechanical reproduction. The discussions were on a weekly basis about a particular subject. We asked students to work in groups to prepare a response and guide the discussion of the readings. Now the class has taken a very organic quality and has gone into a new iteration. Originally, it was supposed to be an artist and a designer co-teaching it, with students from as many different disciplines as possible. Julian stepped away the second year, but others came in, and I taught it solo for two years. It was the most fun class to teach, because I met people from different departments who have different working processes, and I witnessed incredible results of working together in a shared space.

Do you prefer teaching solo or in a team?
Julian and I are really good friends, but teaching a class together for 13 weeks is different. I also had to transition in teaching that class with other faculty. Each person has a different style. I found that one of the hardest things was guiding the reading and anticipating the organic, amoeba-like flow of discussion in the room without derailing it. With two faculty members in the room, you can sometimes overpower the students. It’s best to supportively listen and shape discussion.

Do you teach collaboration?
We had nine different subjects with three or four connected essays. For the final assignment, the students pick one theme and develop a collaborative piece that addresses that subject and some of the issues that were raised in the text. Projects become team-based. The finished results aren’t as important as the process or experience for the students. They really learn to work with other students, and they form super deep bonds. Some of the students are still in touch and good friends.

Collaboration is never addressed head-on as a thing, except for the beginning of the class, when we do some introductory reading for the designers to think about the art way of seeing, and for the artists to see the design process. By the second week, we’re down in New York visiting artists and designers, design studios, workshops, shows, and installations that are relevant to both areas. The students had to get to New York and go on these field trips together three times during the semester, in addition to doing their collaborative projects. Everybody works with everybody else over the course of the semester. We just throw them into the collaborative experience, and we assume that they will work it out. And sometimes it doesn’t work out. There would be people who didn’t get along, but that was informative as well.

What makes an effective prompt?
It has to do with professionalism and amateurism. This broad subject of “the professional” is sort of hard to capture. But there was a great project about that where a group created a fake auction house based on Ingrid Bachmann’s essay, Hand Labour and Digital Capitalism. They did this incredible installation where they auctioned off the rights to future invented artworks. They did this whole scene. They invited all of their friends into this room and they made a live webcast for it. They did all of this signage. It was very convincing. And that really got at, “What is a professional organization?” They were also working with the ethics of making things and political issues.

Do you have to push students to work together?
We ended up having to assign groups, but we let them swap for the last project. We had to ensure that people were working with people who were different. We really wanted people to try other things. For the most part, the students don’t know each other. It’s easier to get them started by assigning groups for the first assignment.

Do all kinds of disciplines naturally work well together?
Yes, but it can be a challenge if somebody is too technical about their process, so we get them to look at the fun, or the play, inherent in what they do. People also discover that despite coming from a certain discipline, they have talent in other areas as well.

How do you solve for groups that don’t work?
The Failure is the Goal project is supposed to truly be a failure. The group may not be able to get along well and turn in something that is not concluded upon. That becomes the subject of the discussion. I would meet with people to help push their projects along. For the most part, they just had to deal with it, because that’s the way it is in the world. I think we were always pretty stern about that. They learn to figure it out.

Sensory Deprivation Suit by Mimi Cabell + Jamie Foster (Project: Failure is the goal!)

courtesy of brooks hagan

Does emphasizing failure allow the process and collaboration to be more experimental?
Yes, I hope so. People would often finish that project and be very confused and unhappy with what they had done. But that’s one of the projects, and they would usually approach the next thing with renewed intensity. The fine artists were always very comfortable with the failure thing, like, “Yeah, we can do that.”

How did you get the designers to embrace failure?
We talked through things, but sometimes they just wouldn’t accept it. It was too challenging of a process.

Why do you think collaboration should be taught in schools?
I think it is good preparation for the professional world. It is good to work with people with all different types of skills and levels of abilities. Graduate school at RISD is a really intense, two-year, “silo-ed” experience. You enter your department and work like crazy in that one department to become very good at a technique. But people are curious about a lot of things. I think that art and design practice today involves being flexible in one’s thinking: being not only a specialist, but also a generalist.

How did the NYC trips factor in?
They showed the students myriad outputs—different paths that they could follow—as artists and designers. Roberta Smith from The New York Times talked to us. Lisa Yuskavage had everybody to her studio. We went to Metropolis and heard from the editor-in-chief. We went to Pentagram a couple of times. We heard from curators about how they approached putting together shows. All of this is part of the cornucopia of information to consider as viable forms of creativity.