An Introduction to Co-Authorship

An Introduction to Co-Authorship

Reconstructie (1969), a morality, composed together with Louis Andriessen, Reinbert de Leeuw, Misha Mengelberg, and Jan van Vlijmen. Libretto: Hugo Claus, Harry Mulisch. Duration: 130 minutes. Photo by Maria Austria.

What is an author? Notice the wording: what, not who. At first, the question appears flawed, confused. But this tension between the what and the who is central to the expansive understanding of co-authorship that we hope to address in this section.

Let’s start with who. As of July 2014, Wikipedia defines an “author” as “the person who originated or gave existence to anything, and whose authorship determines responsibility for what was created.” Think about that. “Wikipedia defines” is a commonly used phrase, and yet we all know that Wikipedia is not an author or a person but rather a corporation that provides a digital platform for collaborative authoring. So already, a simple-sounding question—namely, who is an author?—has us in an ontological tangle. We haven’t even slipped down the rabbit hole of appropriation, nor have we considered the issue of the reader/spectator/audience as the primary creator of meaning, and thus always the true author. But let’s not get hung up on people.

“What is an author?” may be the more appropriate question in our era. It is a question the composer George Lewis asks, via Michel Foucault, in his keynote essay for this section. “What is an author?” allows for the consideration of living, non-human beings as authors, such as plants and animals, or inanimate authors, such as robots or algorithms. Or what can also be invisible, nonmaterial, evoking a matrix of laws that embeds the who in the sociopolitical terrain of creators’ rights. Back in 1969, Foucault asked the question “what is an author?” to explore what he called “the author function,” which he saw as closing-down rather than opening-up of the possibilities of idea generation.

In 2012, in an effort to explore these issues, we commissioned a handful of short texts and interviews that we first published online under the banner of Push Me, Pull You: Questions of Co-authorship. These include conversations with Bharatanatyam dancer Krithika Rajagopalan on the relationship between artistic agency and the maintenance of time-honed traditions; Kenneth Goldsmith, the Museum of Modern Art’s first poet laureate, discussing his appropriation of other people’s texts; heritage expert Cassie Chinn on crowd-sourced community curation; and jazz trumpeter Nate Wooley on interpreting musical scores, among others. When this core project was complete, we decided to continue our investigation, which we realized was far from exhausted. We commissioned short video interviews and additional texts. All of this material is gathered here for our collective review.

Why has The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage concerned itself with this issue of authorship? The answer is that an increasing number of Philadelphia-area organizations and artists are seeking funding for projects that are challenging our assumptions on the subject. Most are collaborations with multiple authors. Some have been conceived within the context of “social practice,” others are responding to how technologically sophisticated and networked our culture has become. An example of the former is Funeral for a Home, a recent Center-funded project. Realized in the summer of 2014, Funeral was stewarded by a consortium that included Temple Contemporary, artists, historians, a Baptist church, a local civic association, neighborhood housing advocates, and a demolition team, each group making its own contributions and exercising agency over the project’s outcomes. Separately, New Paradise Laboratories’ Fatebook (funded in 2007) fused the virtual with the real by allowing audience members to interact with the play’s characters long before visiting the theater, thereby deeply influencing how their experience of the work unfolded.

Foucault imagined a future wherein the emphasis was not always on “who is the author?” of a given discourse, but rather: “In what modes does this discourse exist? How does it circulate, and who can appropriate it for him or herself?” This vision of future authorial prerogatives and slippages hasn’t yet fully been assimilated, but if it is a direction in which creative practice may be increasingly moving, then this series helps us consider what to expect and what might be left behind.

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