Notes on Collaboration includes personal responses to an invitation to think about the notion of togetherness and collaboration in an expanded sense. Each of the authors come from a different artistic discipline, yet all work with collaborative practices which allowed them to engage with the subject differently, sharing propositional or reflexive stances on past choices, faults, and doubts, to engage you with their thought process.

Notes on Collaboration includes a personal essay, a manifesto, a conversation, an open letter and a two-player board game.

An exercise in letting go

Engy Mohsen

11:06 AM
6 April 2021

Mai and I started a call we had scheduled to think about this text: we were to discuss what it was that we wanted you to come across first, dear reader. I remember we were both coincidentally seated on our balconies. At this point, we realized that we had not met in person throughout the 12-month duration of the project.

“Are we collaborators…?” Mai asked.

I was not surprised by her question. I had been thinking about it in the days leading up to our call. It did not haunt me from the start, but gradually developed as we began to lay out workflow, divide tasks, and hold regular brainstorming meetings. Personally, I find the term “collaborator” too flexible and often misleading. It links people to specific work. Yet it does not reflect how each of them is involved or the scope and effect of their contributions.

How can we define “collaboration” while avoiding the term's trickiness? I would say that our work process was porous. The lines defining our roles became unintentionally blurred as we got acquainted with each other's approaches. I reached out to potential writers, then Mai joined to engage them in discussions about their contributions. She developed the editorial vision for this publication, while in parallel I worked on the project's curatorial vision: to create space for readers to engage with the texts through discussions, much like how they were written.

Our meetings often involved three parties: Mai, myself, and a writer or co-writer. Our paths crossed and merged, creating the kind of collaborative entity that Dina Jereidini discusses in her essay Remembering Flags: a third entity that is separate from but related to each of us, merging our thinking in the face of obstacles that emerged to confront the writers. I occasionally found myself in the peculiar position of double agent, however, playing on both teams. Besides initiating this project, I am also the co-writer of Co-working on Co-working with Omar Kassab and Nine People You've Probably Worked With Before with Dina Jereidini. These meetings thus became regular exercises in how we practice forms of control, and how we can try to let go. A power dynamic was created that allowed us to constantly question our positions and review how we perform with the other(s).

None of the writers crossed paths at any point during the project, although they were aware of who else was involved and their general direction. We noticed a pattern by which the texts reflected a certain feeling of loneliness, especially among authors writing without a co-author. Some struggled with the idea of writing about past collaborations, while others found difficulty in writing at all. It was interesting to see how an invitation to think about the notion of togetherness can bounce back and invoke opposite feelings: alienation, detachment, and eventually loneliness. The reasons often varied from failure to escape echo chambers to coming face to face with our internal inhibitions.

This feeling of loneliness might have contributed to the vulnerability of the texts. As authors we needed time to look back, reflect, revisit, formulate, discuss, and finally commit to paper in order to voice our ideas and put you, dear reader, in a speculative mode. To engage you with our thought processes and poke at yours, to invite you to consider how we see collaborations and our relationships with partners, until you embody the third eye that might push these texts further.

Decluttering a mind

Mai Elwakil

“I want to get out of my mind,” wrote Rana Ashraf on a postcard she had illustrated for a prospective collaborator.

So did I…

Or maybe what I needed was to excavate my mind. To carefully sort through the jumble of joyful baby coos, bedtime ninja-focused chats, and the laundry list of diaper changes and lunchbox preparations. To find a clear, sharp spot.

Engy Mohsen invited me to work on Notes on Collaboration at the most unlikely of times. Twelve weeks before my due date, I was under a long self-imposed quarantine with my husband and four-year-old son, homeschooling him in a language I barely understand. Engy and I had probably exchanged face-to-face greetings only twice before. This was our first real conversation. Her offer was alluring, however, even for a procrastinator of world-class quality.

A publication about collaboration, what it is, and what it can be. Simple, deep, and sincere. Confessional, vulnerable, and relatable… Such aims can certainly be elusive. But the two essays by Mohsen and Sarah Maher from her last publication, Chatrooms, were all that. Mohsen used those essays to introduce me and all six writers (two fell out along the way) to her vision for Notes on Collaboration. It was certain to be a home-run.

Do I have your sympathy? Well, fortunately I have been shielded behind my computer screen and editorial role. The writers on the other hand were tasked with revisiting and reflecting on past choices, faults, and doubts, facing them and then exposing them to me and future readers. Did they feel like they were looking at such experiences thoughtfully, or were they actually resurrecting demons? One potential writer was firm and clear: “I will not go there. It's too much of a personal investment”—especially for what seemed, at the time, like a 10-week project of 1000 words. She knew how high the stakes can be when we deliberately flesh out stories about ourselves and work. Other contributors might only have realized that after they were already too involved. Overwhelmed, some sought ways out, endlessly awaiting responses from ex-collaborators, evading specifics and clear positions. We came to a standstill.

One way forward was to mellow our desire for control, allowing more spontaneous flows of ideas to take the lead—to guide us through contradictory memories and emotions, and to overcome our fear of exposure, self-indulgence, and preaching. Each writer found a language and place to unravel their thoughts without worry, knowing they could continue to shape them further, with others, through the events or beyond the scope of the project. For Engy Mohsen and Omar Kassab, it was imagining a truly communal co-working space. For members of the Qaaf Laam Collective, it was analyzing how to form a transparent and flexible organizational structure that embodies their ethos. For Dina Jereidini, it was practicing dealing with faulty memories. For Rana Ashraf, it was encapsulating moments from her thought streams on postcards for others to build on. And for me, it was engaging with Notes on Collaboration as a project that helped me escape my loneliness and relocate that clear, sharp spot which I seemed to have temporarily lost.

For that I am grateful.