Liquid Networks, or Why Artist Groups are Important

Posted on July 5, 2012

The trick is to explore the edges of possibility that surround you. This can be as simple as changing the physical environment you work in, or cultivating a specific kind of social network, or maintaining certain habits in the way you seek out and store information.
Steven Johnson

Currently I am reading Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson. I’m only two chapters in and so far it is a beautifully written and utterly fascinating read. In chapter two he discusses “liquid networks” – environments in which ideas can flow between individuals. He likens a person working alone in an office – or an artist alone in the studio – to a solid state, a state in which there are plenty of ideas but they are set in stone and are not flowing and seeking out new possibilities. A key to increasing the flow of ideas is one idea from the quote above, “cultivating a specific kind of social network”.

On a good day, the critique group I belong to, formed two years ago out of the ashes of a critique class, are such a “liquid network”. We look at each others’ work, critique it, and come up with ideas – sometimes for changes, sometimes for presentation, sometimes to say “do more, this is excellent”. We have also been to and discussed an exhibition together, worked on a group exhibition proposal, shared exhibition opportunities and come out in support at each others’ openings.

Of course there are not-so-good days. There are meetings where people have to leave early, disturbing the group dynamic. There are meetings where one voice dominates, particularly if we are meeting in their studio: it’s hard for us not to talk about everything around us, visually distracted as we are! Other times a person might not feel that they got any useful feedback on their work. (This happens to me and it is my own fault. I need to give the group more information as I present the work, and ask more specific questions after). But it’s rare that there is nothing to be taken away from a meeting at all!

An artist group can take many forms. Ours exists as a formal entity, in part because many of us have isolated home studios. Other groups might be informal – neighbors in a studio complex who drop by each others’ studios for instance. I have a second group too – the Conspiracy organized by Alyson Stanfield. More business related, it is a virtual environment in which I have picked up many great ideas and questioned many of my habits.

Talking about conference meetings in a research facility, Steven Johnson says:

The group environment helped recontextualize problems, as questions from colleagues forced researchers to think about their experiments on a different scale or level. Group interactions challenged researchers’ assumptions about their more surprising findings…

What group(s) do you have available to you, formally or informally?

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