Dialog in Common

Jane Trowell: On Collaboration.

Core member of PLATFORM in London.
pressTranscript from interview between Jane Trowell [JT] and Markuz Wernli Saitô on April 28, 2006.

How did you get involved with PLATFORM?
JT: I met the founders Dan Gretton and James Marriott in 1983. At that time I was 22 and didn't want to participate in the kind of street and political theatre that PLATFORM was involved in. But in 1991 Dan showed me an 18th century painting of a London river — the Fleet — which is under steel and concrete today. That brought me into the project Still Waters, re-imagining London's rivers. This was at the height of Thatcherism and London was socially in bad shape. The river's state seemed symbolic of this.


Re-imagining London's rivers: Using interviewing, performance, and the inscription of clay tablets, a writer and a teacher worked with passers-by and others to investigate whether there was the desire for the return of the river Fleet.

What makes for meaningful collaborations?
JT: Artists are central to political and social issues of today. The artist (even working in isolation) is an integral part of society. It's become much more accepted in the UK that artists can usefully and uniquely contribute to social and environmental issues. It is common nowadays to find artists working with environmentalists and engineers. It is quite common to commission art + science collaborations. What's less common is to find an organization that comprises people of the varied backgrounds that you can find in PLATFORM where we have two environmental campaigners, an artist activist, an educator, a sculptor, a writer, and former members of the oil industry. This cross-fertilization is essential to PLATFORM's practice. This unique blend of backgrounds enables us to create multidisciplinary forms, that have the power and rigour of well-researched campaign, with the power and imagination of art. The unified diversity of PLATFORM is an experiment in microcosm in what an integrated society could look like, that is, a society where disciplinary areas are not kept separate.

What internal dynamics make your multidisciplinary work possible?
JT: PLATFORM has a culture of consensus and we work hard to maintain this, despite the difficulties. Of course there are differences in expertise, and there are differences in how much time people have been involved with PLATFORM, but basically we strive to be as flat an organization as we can be, despite these differences. There are conventions in place that encourages and expects everyone to be open and honest and contribute their views and skills, including dissent. The loyalty in the team comes from our strong relationships in which we constantly invest. We ensure that there is space for people to be supported in difficult times. It's also important to stick to the principles and criteria of a project, which we try hard not to compromise for a deadline.

What does the financial and organizational side of PLATFORM look like?
JT: We don't accept commissioned work, it somehow never worked for us. We work best when we obtain independent funding and come up with our own agenda. Since 1997 PLATFORM has raised enough money to have paid staff and carry the costs of an organization. This reincarnation from volunteer-based, to a more conventional organizational structure has its benefits and deficits, but overall it worked for us. We are a charity and a company limited by guarantee. We have talked about being a coop — if you look at a co-op's structure, it is absolutely flat and everything has to be decided by everybody... We are not a coop at present but it is a powerful model. If you work in the political field and collaborate with activist groups the organizational form that you choose is absolutely central to your practice. It is the practice!

How are you able to build bridges among such different dialog partners?
JT: Our communication confidence is the ability to talk to different audiences. As a core member I represent PLATFORM across all practices and in various contexts. On a human level we follow our guideline that we are working with "individuals not representatives". We are looking for the right person, as opposed to a job title. When collaborating with businesses we work with individuals working in businesses, rather than come one who the business sends to us. Motivation is key. For a renewable energy project called Delta, we needed a hydro-engineer to work with us in the inner city. In the end we engaged an engineer with rather untried track record but who wanted to engage with all aspects — the art, the social side, the politics — the wider context of the work. He wasn't as experienced as some of the other engineers we met with, but he owned the project in the fullest sense, and this meant for a very deep connection being built up with him. It is really about people owning the project.

What are the implications of the term 'art' in your work?
JT: Nowadays in Britain it's almost expected that art is present in social and environmental initiatives. Sometimes the keyword 'art' opens doors and sometimes it doesn't. The hydro project got a long way because 'art' made it different, brought something symbolic, something tangible to the subject matter. What's important is that you are clever and informed about your audiences. I know of artists/activists with changing letterheads to be able to alternate between teacher, artist, facilitator, designer etc. The word "art" can turn people off. Especially in international context we ought to be cautious, as you don't necessarily know what associations the word brings.


Remember Saro-Wiwa is a coalition co-ordinated by PLATFORM to remember the past and shape the future in creative ways

What makes for transforming collaborations?
JT: In the project Remember Saro-Wiwa we tackle issues of exploitation. The team is extremely successful. We have a writer-campaigner, a human rights campaigner (who never worked in an art context), a black curator-activist, and me concerned with public learning. Two persons with art background and two campaigners discussing what public art is about. What interested them is the cause and whatever is needed to get it out there. Finding people at the right time and engaging specialists who understand the holistic aim is crucial.

What is your understanding of public learning?
JT: It is the attempt to foster a host of techniques for communicating difficult subjects. For example the subject of the oil business initially appears boring. It is our task to make these seemingly boring subjects gripping and of huge importance and to enable people to become involved in the process. To accomplish this we use whatever means from research, publications, artwork and performance all the way to educational strategies. Basically it's about making a subject dynamic, which before was made accessible to a very specific audience through restricted language.

For over 20 years, PLATFORM has been bringing together environmentalists, artists, human rights campaigners, educationalists and community activists to create innovative projects driven by the need for social and environmental justice.

This interdisciplinary approach combines the transformatory power of art with the tangible goals of campaigning, the rigour of in-depth research with the vision to promote alternative futures.