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how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Christ collectives

An article by Holland Cotter in The New York Times (‘Collectives blurring the lines of who makes modern art’) got me thinking about what the phenomenon of ‘art collectives’ might teach us about the nature and purpose of the church. An art collective represents the sort of fusion of community, creativity and mission that I think the emerging church is struggling to understand and embody. The analogy needs to be handled with some care, but I have been intrigued by the possibilities that lie in thinking of the work of church as a distinctly postmodern artistic collaboration.

It is characteristic of postmodern art that the relationship between the artist and the work of art produced is not as straightforward as we are accustomed to expect. Conventionally an art object such as a painting or sculpture is understood to be the work of an individual artist, and its public value depends, to a degree at least, on the identity and status of that artist - a convention that is readily exploited for commercial purposes. Increasingly, however, the relationship between artist and art object is becoming blurred, notably through the emergence of ‘art collectives’.

Art collectives are communities that produce art and take collective responsibility for their output. Dimensions, boundaries and identities are fluid. The community can be anything from two people to an unlimited and amorphous online community, such as the Wooster Collective, which exists in the form of a website ‘dedicated to showcasing and celebrating ephemeral art placed on streets in cities around the world’. Even a global network of ‘artists, activists, writers, pranksters, students, educators and entrepreneurs’ such as Adbusters may not be too far off the scale.

Generally the work of the collective is ideologically or idealistically motivated. This motivation may range from the playful and ‘insouciant’ romanticism of the German hobbypopMUSEUM collective to the complex, multidisciplinary anticapitalism of Critical Art Ensemble. It is the idea – in the form of a philosophical outlook, a deconstructive cultural stance, a political agenda, and so on – that drives and informs these groups. A bunch of local artists banding together merely to help promote each other’s work (Artspace in Loughborough, for example) would fall outside this definition.

The collective production of message-driven art has elicited innovative, eccentric and often controversial forms of communication and engagement. The collective 0100101110101101.ORG consists of ‘a couple of restless European con-artists’, Eva and Franco Mattes. Their work has included such ‘media actions’ as promoting a non-existent artist called Darko Maver, running a fake publicity campaign for Nike which claimed that the company was planning to buy and rename famous city sites around the world, replicating and corrupting the official Vatican website, and spreading a computer virus as a work of art. Most recently they produced an elaborate hoax marketing campaign, centred around a Hollywood style poster, for a fictitious film starring Penelope Cruz and Ewan McGregor entitled ‘United We Stand’, in which an elite team of European agents must save the world from disaster as the U.S. and China rush towards war over the Korean peninsula.

Collaborative projects of this nature are likely to involve a much wider range of activities than would normally be classified as ‘art’. The product is not merely a picture, a sculpture, a film: it is a programme, an agenda, a campaign; it is communal behaviour, often over a long period of time. The Blackout Arts Collective, for example, describes itself as ‘a grassroots coalition of artists, activists and educators working to empower communities of color through the arts. We use the tools of culture and education to raise awareness and catalyze action around the critical issues that impact our communities.’ Critical Art Ensemble is a ‘collective of five artists of various specializations dedicated to exploring the intersections between art, technology, radical politics, and critical theory’. According to Holland Cotter, writing in The New York Times, it operates as:

a combination of scientific investigative unit, anticapitalist guerrilla cell, public service agency and multimedia art studio. It has conducted research into government and corporate control of biotechnology and biogenetics, and then presented its findings in publications, exhibitions and public performances that sometimes take the form of laboratory demonstrations. For a German performance with the artist Beatriz da Costa, the collective tested food brought by visitors for genetically modified organisms, whose import European Union officials claimed had been banned.

Art collectives are highly motivated, energetic communities that have formed for the purpose of communicating through art a public and political message. They offer, I think, even at a general level, an illuminating and rather challenging analogy for understanding the nature and function of Christian communities. But they may also provide us with a model (and only a model) for the emerging church as it attempts to understand and give account of its distinctive calling.

So I want to ask: Can we reconceptualize this model around an announcement of ‘good news’ that is more than fashionable socio-political critique, more than cheeky, transgressive deconstruction, more than community empowerment? What if a church were to think of itself as an art collective, called into being in order to explore ways of creatively communicating a message about the presence of God and the renewal of created life? Could a group of like-minded believers come together and shape itself as a ‘Christ collective’ with that purpose in mind? There are a number of respects in which the analogy is suggestive.

One and many

The collective approach to artistic production counters the individualism and self-obsession characteristic of modernity. The group finds its identity in the corporate persona. The self-importance of the individual artist is brought into question; personal ambitions are subsumed under the overarching mission of the group.

One of the ways in which this manifests itself is in a dynamic and fluctuating relationship between the one and the many. A group of artists may take on the identity of a single person; or one artist may masquerade as a group. Four African-American artists in Houston, for example, identify themselves as Otabenga Jones and Associates. Ota Benga was a pygmy exhibited at the Bronx Zoo in 1904 to illustrate Darwin’s theory of evolution, but for the group he has evolved into a collective alter ego - a conceptual artist and historian interested in ‘critically reconstituting the connective tissue between African and African-American cultures’ (Cotter). But the confusion of the one and the many can also work the other way. The Lebanese artist Walid Raad founded the imaginary Atlas Group in 1999 to ‘research and document the contemporary history of Lebanon’. In this case it is the collective that is the fiction, not the individual.

There is a natural correlation here with the biblical idea, expressed in various forms, that Christ represents the many, that he comprises in himself the calling and destiny of the many. We find it in Isaiah’s poetic description of a servant who is both Israel and the prophet and some future ideal figure; in the vision of an individual ‘Son of man’ who is the community of the saints of the Most High; in Jesus’ image of the vine and the branches; in Paul’s metaphor of the Spirit-filled community as the body of Christ, in which the diverse parts find coherence and common purpose.

If the modern church has become little more than a routine aggregation of individuals, then the post-modern rehabilitation of the church must include the recovery of the sense of being one people in Christ. ‘We, though many, are one body….’ The art collective analogy offers a way of recapturing the elusive relationship between the members of the group and a ‘transcendent’ or ‘virtual’ figure that is difficult to find in other contemporary models of community. It is also a model that can be easily scaled up from small groups, to churches, to networks and global movements: at all levels the church has the potential to be a highly expressive new creation in Christ.

Community and mission

The ‘art collective’ paradigm would help the church to reconnect community and mission. Collectives are outgoing, extravert, activist, militant: they communicate through actions, events, performances; they make an impact, they make trouble. They engage socially, culturally and intellectually, but always out of a coherent vocation. They are potentially transformative: ‘We believe in the power of the creative process to transform lives, mobilize communities, and build a more just society’ (Blackout Arts Collective). They model, therefore, an integrity of community and mission in the public realm that has not always been evident in modern churches. Christ collectives would have a shared passion to explore, communicate and enact a message that is new creational or re-creational in its scope. In this sense they would be incarnational: they would help to make sense of God-in-Christ-among-us for others.

Riddles of renewed humanity

The objective of most modern churches is to establish themselves as a solid, enduring, structured, visible presence in the community – to be located prominently in the social landscape. Christ collectives would establish their presence, make themselves felt, not through location primarily but through communication. They are the medium by which a message has existence. They are the dreamers of dreams, the seers of visions. They are the machinery of propaganda for God’s reign. They are the script-writers, directors, set designers, make-up artists, and actors of a play performed on the stage of a local community.

Seen in this way, a church-run project to serve the city, for example, is not a covert evangelistic programme; nor is it simply an exercise in humanitarian assistance. It is a work of art, a sign, a collaborative expression of what the community has discovered about the living God. This is not to trivialize either the evangelistic or the social aspects of the community action – it is rather to exploit its potential to capture the imagination and point beyond itself.

The organizational identity of Christ collectives would be more ephemeral and enigmatic: communication is a much more volatile structural principle than the regularity of attendance at a place of worship. But this elusiveness would itself become part of the meaning. Christ collectives become riddles of renewed humanity, parables of new creation, participating actively and enthusiastically in it, but all the time conscious of what they are not. They camp on the shifting boundary between success and failure, speech and silence, being and non-being, familiarity and anonymity, order and chaos. They share the indirectness and uncertainty of metaphor.

The imaginational power of the Spirit

Christ collectives would seek to embody the fecund imaginational activity of the Spirit of God. They are creative, prophetic, propagandist, subversive. They explore the cultural, social, and intellectual implications of the thesis of God. They struggle to see differently, to conceive of new things. They are a place for reflection, analysis and restatement, through conversation, Bible reading, art, prayer, writing. They draw inspiration from the dramatic actions, publicity stunts, by which the prophets – including the prophet from Nazareth – confronted Israel with the prospect of judgment and restoration, failure and forgiveness, death and life. The emerging church is a place for re-imagining what it means to be a distinct, peculiar people telling its story among the nations and tribes and cultures of the world.

The ‘art collective’ analogy makes us stop and think seriously about what we want to say to the world and how we want to say it. We are attempting to articulate in public something far more dense, complex, narrative, engaging, penetrative, subversive than can be expressed through the conventional forms of Christian culture. The 0100101110101101.ORG collective has developed a policy of using ‘non-conventional communication tactics to obtain the largest visibility with the minimal effort’. That is surely what Jesus was doing when he commandeered a colt and rode into Jerusalem, or overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple.

I would suggest that the Spirit of prophecy is stirring us to a creative, exuberant, multidisciplinary exploration of the calling to be a renewed humanity in Christ – awakening our collective imagination, prodding us to develop non-conventional means of communication that will achieve the largest visibility for the creator God…. With minimal effort? Perhaps not – Ezekiel spent 430 days lying next to a brick to get across the message that God would punish the house of Israel. But we recognize the limitations of our resources and trust the creative God to make up the artistic deficit.