on creative collaboration


Conway’s Law: A group’s communications structure replicates itself in the structure of the works they create together.

Chapter by Kaiser in Managing as Designing, edited by Boland and Collopy, Stanford University Press, 2004.

This loose paraphrase (and possible misreading) of Conway’s Law, which I came upon ten years ago in the classic Mythical Man-month handbook, struck me with the force of a revelation at the time and has been borne out ever since (triumphantly or disastrously) in the course of my many artistic collaborations.

Again and again I’ve seen that when communication breaks down between people creating something together, what they end up with is as distorted and misshapen as the pattern of their interchanges. This pattern is itself a kind of involuntary design, and in it you can make out the disproportioning effects of distance, incomprehension, and ego.

cage cunningham

A paradoxical and extreme solution to Conway’s Law clarifies the communications structure by annulling it. In the approach devised by avant-garde performance artists John Cage and Merce Cunningham in the early 50s and still used by Cunningham to this day, the choreographer, composer, and visual artist all create their parts of a dance in complete independence right up to the very last minute, uniting their work only at its premiere on the stage.

Ostensibly their reason for adopting such an off-center approach was to escape the limiting preconceptions of the conscious mind. Just as important, I believe, was a second unstated motive: to avoid any clashes of ego. When you consider that Cage and Cunningham often worked with visual artists of such renown as Rauschenberg, Johns, and Warhol – none of whom were known to be shrinking violets accustomed to taking direction from others – you see that this Zen-like approach of collaborating through non-collaboration has additional merits!

All this was confirmed in my own collaboration with Cunningham, when Shelley Eshkar and I designed the visual décor in the form of digital projections for a dance entitled BIPED (1999). The random juxtapositions of projections, dance, and music made for the most wonderful counterpoint, which has since been much acclaimed; and the only personal and artistic antagonisms we encountered were with the lighting designer, whose role was not properly defined in this scheme and who therefore tried unsuccessfully to augment our projections with his lighting.

The Cage/Cunningham model may be too extreme for many cases, but rather than reject it out of hand it’s often possible to modify it to your needs. In creating the groundbreaking opera Einstein on the Beach, theater artist Robert Wilson and composer Philip Glass devised an over-all structure of acts, durations, and themes together, but then proceeded to work out their parts independently. Thus while neither music nor staging had to subordinate itself to illustrating the other, they both addressed and embodied the same over-arching ideas.

mind reading

At the other extreme comes a form of collaboration bordering on mind reading. This demands close proximity, intense communication, and patient tolerance for anarchy, and it functions best after years of working together.

I have enjoyed two or three such collaborations, and find they’ve always provided an odd spectacle to anyone witnessing them from outside. Our comments and suggestions to each other can be oblique and even downright rude – why make the effort of forming a complete explanatory sentence or paragraph, when the first few words will do, or even a grunt or upraised eyebrow? If in the event of disagreement it ever comes down to a question of who’s in charge, the answer is a little unnerving: it’s the piece itself that gives us our orders, telling us how to bring it into being. We don’t always understand these orders, it would seem, so no matter how elaborately we may have worked out our plans and designs, we cast them aside in a flash if we sense they have derailed.

conceptual blindness

People cling to their own ideas. When they create something new, they’d like their own ideas to prevail. But while some of this may be put down to ego, there may be something else at work here, a kind of conceptual blindness. Possessed by their own vision of the world, they simply can’t see any other way of looking at it.

I mean this literally. And to make this literal truth plain to see, I created a piece for San Francisco’s Exploratorium Museum called [Inkblot Projections][2]. A Rorschach-like inkblot comes easily enough if you splatter ink on a piece of paper, and then blot it by folding it in half to form a bisymmetrical abstraction. When you hold up the resulting image, you and everyone around you will always start seeing things in it. The trick is, you won’t be seeing the same things. Where you see a mother’s face, someone else sees a lunar landscape, while another sees a merry-go-round, and a third a Petri dish – the variations are amazing. But more so is the fact that once you’ve interpreted the image your way, it’s really hard to make it out the way someone else has, even if he or she explains it to you. You are conceptually blind to this new composition, because you’ve already composed it yourself; before you can start to see it anew, you have to decompose it back down to its abstract elements.

In Inkblot Projections, animation aids you in this de- and re-composition. For each of five inkblots, five different voices guide you through distinct ways of interpreting that image, with the corresponding blots highlighting in the simplest possible way as they’re mentioned. What results is a fantastic symphony of contrasting voices, stories, and visions.

All of which illustrates another aspect of collaboration, the only point of which is to create what you could not conceivably envision yourself.


Typically one thinks of collaboration as being between human beings. But I believe that in a slightly different sense you also collaborate with your materials, onto which you do not simply impose your vision, but rather discover it there. To take a stock example, Michelangelo felt he found his forms in his stone, then set them free in his sculptures.

Setting forms free brings to mind a striking recent experience of mine. For an installation piece called Loops (2001), a collaboration that started out between people — Shelley Eshkar, Marc Downie, and myself — eventually turned into a collaboration with the software simulation we had created together.

Here’s how it worked. Having motion-captured the intricate dance of Merce Cunningham’s hands, we had a data set of 48 points (24 for each forearm) that tracked their position in time and space. Building on Downie’s artificial intelligence and real-time graphics research at MIT’s Media Lab, we gave each of these points a limited sort of autonomy and intention. For example, each point could decide from moment to moment what kind of hierarchy it should join – should it connect to other points according to the anatomy of the hand, or should it instead link to corresponding points on the other hand, forming a sort of cat’s cradle?

These and a myriad other decisions gave rise to an emergent structure that was never the same from one run to the next. For our part, we could keep refining that structure as we elaborated our artwork, but this refinement was more in the nature of tuning than of sculpting.

The responsive and even intelligent quality of our “material” (ie, the program itself) deepened my sense of tools and materials as active collaborating agents. Who can doubt that this sort of man/machine collaboration will only intensify in the future?


Talking something into existence is my phrase for how projects come about. This talking may simply be talking to myself, or rather to my selves, since there seems to be a lively process of mental interlocution as questions are put and answers provided by different parts of my mind. Or it may start as a conversation between collaborators, who act in a similar way. In either case, the project gains solidity and momentum just through this magic of description. Before long, we start treating the project as a real thing, even if we have taken no practical steps towards its realization.

Its first material existence is likely to be only a little less insubstantial, for it usually emerges as visual conjecture in the form of sketches and notes on paper or whiteboard. These tend to spark still more ideas creatively, but they also serve another function: that of persuasion. For a project needs to become real not only to its creators, but also to others outside that close circle, such as its potential supporters or audience. The proverbial napkin sketch sometimes does the trick, but more often these notes and sketches must be elaborated into a pitch or a proposal or even into publicity. Whichcan turn us over to the flipside of this process, which is:

Talking something to death. While this phrase usually means to prolong the discussion of something past any point of possible action (certainly a danger even in creative work) here I mean it in a somewhat different sense. Such a thing as a grant proposal usually demands a greater certainty and exactitude than is really present yet, and so, despite the best of intentions, it helps bring about a pompous insincerity that can kill the underlying creative impulse.

Worse, it can even bypass that creative impulse altogether, as one sees all too often in works created only to look good on paper. The caption and illustration in the catalog, website, or newspaper play a far greater role in the project’s perceived success than the actual experience it engenders. As Shelley Eshkar has pointed out to me, the very method employed in art and design schools – the “crit,” or critique – provides inadvertent training for this kind of sham, for here it’s the student’s performance in explaining and presenting his or her work that often speaks louder than the work itself. “Speaks” is the right verb here, for by this point it’s all a matter of words, even though many of the best works are practically mute.