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The art of being church

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.

References and further reading

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Re: The art of being church

hi andrew,

karen ward here from apostles, seattle (an art collective church) we have been using this analogy for awhile, alongside our ‘monastic’ term, as we ‘dance in this overlap’ of ‘being and expression.’

our church also started a true type art collective that is a parallel ‘expression’ and identity called ‘artwerks’ which has djs, poets, painters… as part of this 501c3 non-profit art collective for four years now.

so it is VERY intersting having the church and artwerks both be ‘collectives,’ the only difference is the church expression ‘preachers’ / uses the name of christ, overtly, and the non-profit is a mixed group of church and non church artists dedicated to a common, local artistic cause, but the structure, ethos and methods are the same… for example, the church views each worship service as an ‘art pieces,’ or public ‘worship installation event’ and we call our leaders ‘curates’ and our three different services ‘expressions’ (rather than styles of worship (mass gathering, sanctorum and taize). we do ‘openings’ with atendant media/postcards… for various services (like our upcoming ‘stations of the resurrection’ (which many alt worship groups in the u.k also do).

also the term ‘christ collective’ is one we picked up from dr. dwight friesen who teaches at mars hill graduate school. dwight has talked about his own community as a ‘christ collective’ for years, but now they are using a more public term, a ‘christ commons’ see his church website

also a must read is his essay on dwight’s article church as a ‘scale free network’ as here he has much to say about ‘collectives’ and commons in christ.

also at apostles we use the phrase that we are ‘artisans of a new humanity’ — the tag line for an amazing book called ‘doing local theology’


Re: The art of being church

Karen, thanks for filling in the background - and for deflating my sense of being, for a moment at least, at the dizzying leading-edge of contemporary ecclesiology!

The funny thing is, when I googled ‘christ collectives’ I came up with next to nothing - I rather expected the term to have been played with a bit more.

I’m not particularly advocating the use of the term. Indeed, ‘Christ collective’ rather obscures the metaphor - we could be thinking of state-owned farms or some such - ‘Christ commons’ sounds less totalitarian. But I was struck i) by the potential for viewing any Christian community (not just the arty ones) as an ‘art collective’; and ii) by the way the analogy might stretch the imaginations of churches attempting to communicate Christ locally.

I thought it interesting that these ‘art collectives’ are doing a lot more than just art - the analogy suggests a much wider spectrum of creative and provocative activites than might be encompassed within a worship service. It spills out of a controlled environment (worship service, art gallery) into public life.

If anyone else has got examples of where this is happening, it would be good to hear about it.

Re: The art of being church

at the Bridge in Portland, OR, we have always been creatively-minded.  But I think the art collective idea is definitely different than what we’re doing.  Personally, it wouldn’t seem a stretch for us to follow a model of curation rather than a structured service that looks the same every time. 

We are undergoing a sort of musical revival currently, new songs written every week by different songwriters, 4-hours banjo-led jam sessions at nearby houses after services, improv songwriting times every other weekend.. it’s pretty fun to be in Portland right now..

I think the idea of sermons working in a collective would be the biggest hurdle.. because Ken, Deborah and Geoff are terrific at it.. 

I wonder, is the importance of this new model based solely on the "sugar-coating" purpose for the population at large?  I get really jittery around the whole concept of one person’s idea of "what’s palatable", ya know?  I understand "seeker-sensitivity", but you’re not going to draw in anyone who doesn’t already want to be there. 

If it’s just for the betterment of the community, then, hell!  Let’s all try it for a month.. How hard could that be?  Make a list of curators and make it happen.  It doesn’t seem like a huge stretch for most of us.  And share the gory details.  No one will leave over it.  At least no one you want, anyways.. :)



Re: The art of being church

Todd, I may be misunderstanding you, but I would venture to say that you are missing the point - or at least, missing my point.

First, the ‘art collective’ model is one of a Christ-centred community fundamentally geared towards getting a message across in public - these are extravert communities. It’s not simply another way of doing corporate worship.

Secondly, I don’t see where the ‘sugar-coating’ objection comes from. The work of these art collectives is mostly provocative and often highly controversial, bordering on illegality. I’m not suggesting that ‘Christ collectives’ should be so blatantly antisocial, but this is certainly not about being seeker-sensitive - or even having fun, for that matter. It would be a way of giving creative community a prophetic edge, both to challenge and to offer newness of life.

Re: The art of being church

I *did* miss your point, you’re right.


Um.. so, correct me if I’m wrong, but are you saying this community would be more like working toward a collaborative public artistic expression,  and when the community met that’s what they’d work on, among other things?  Is that what it would look like?  What do you envision?


Re: The art of being church

It seems to me that we can use the analogy in two ways.

First, we could use it to redescribe, view differently, reimagine what the church already is and does. If we were to say to ourselves, ‘The church is like or could be like an art collective’, what would that teach us? How is what the church does as an active Christ-oriented community like what an art collective does in relation to society as a whole? After all, just being a community that worships is already a public statement - albeit a rather mute and unimaginative one. Can we then begin to exploit the creative potential of the metaphor?

Secondly, we could take a more intentional approach and ask whether we could deliberately model Christian communities after art collectives. What if a group of believers of whatever size got together and began to act somewhat like an art collective.

This could be a fairly pure form of artistic collaboration - for example, they get permission to paint a mural on a derelict wall. The artistic output is at the centre, but it becomes a focus for worship, fellowship, engagement with the community, and so on. When they finish, they disband or move on to something else.

Or it could be a more complex project, such as the ‘serve the city’ events in Brussels that I mentioned in the article (I mention this example because I know the team that is doing it). This is not a matter of pure art, but the community together creates a whole range of events that do more than serve people - they cohere to form something like a complex drama, a mystery play in the centre of the city. To some extent this is not just a programme that the church has - it was the place where the church started, it defines the church, they are a Christ collective that communicates through public action.

Re: The art of being church

i think the public/private thing re: collective driven action and art thing is a more modern dichotomy that does not happen as much in alt church groups whose members are often working artists or in non-church collectives who are focused on their creativity and how it affects those who create with art changing the particpants first and if others come upon it, great. most collectives i know operate in a ‘collective to collective network and local scene more than a ‘collective to general public’ realm.

we do installations in galleries, on the street and in the church, as they are just different
‘venues’ and most collectives i know do guerilla art and ops in any venue the can get access to, from illegal warehouses to public spaces to old churches. the point is to ‘make art make a difference.’ our latest ‘installation’ (not at all appreciated by our neighbors)
was to allow two local homeless man to live on our porch in public view. some neighbors cheered and others jeered this ‘real life installation’ we have still to set up a meeting so the neighbors can talk to the homeless men they are afraid to come near. it was performance art in some ways of the serious kind. we were very aware we were being ‘watched.’

our sister abbey ‘monkfish’ in seattle participates with a float in our giant local pagan happy solstice parade, and their float is a giant ‘garbage dragon’ that recycle bottles and cans for the crazy parade goers, art/church/life are a flow, the gospel point is made by us doing what we do, for God to evangelize us more thsn us to evangelize us and perhaps some in our local zipcodes whether in a local pub or the church building or in a street fair, as it is internally motivated, the venue does not so much matter. if it is real art we can invite folk into our church space as well as doing it outside on the corner of fremont avenue.

also in seattle now we are joining in with the local burning man community to raise a public home made temple’ as a memorial for six murdered kids in seattle. it may be illegal as the city of seattle may not give the permits, especially as the whole thing will later be burned!
once again, art/life/soul are uniting at least on the alt church fringe.

Re: The art of being church

so, let me make a hypothetical community.. or maybe there *are* many people doing this..

- people from all walks of life come together and share their artistic gifts and democratically decide on a method of curation.

- They decide on place/forms/approach/media together, hoping to integrate everyone’s art in the final expression. 

- This is then taken to a more public arena.

- The message is the message of Christ, and the approaches are varied and inclusive..

..is this what it would (or does) look like?



The Utopia of Hugging

Here’s another example of collective public art with a message: a mass hug tomorrow in Nottingham, UK, organized by ‘renowned Chinese artists the Gao brothers’.

Re: The Utopia of Hugging

Thanks for the link Andrew.  That was beautiful.

losing the metaphor

Thank you for both your insight and humility. How can the current exploration of Christianity and Art Collectives not fall prey to the glorification of ideas and concepts at the same time it looks at and seeks to live out something very vital and alive?

transgressive spectacle

This post appeared on 22 April. 10 comments appeared within the first week, and only 1 more in the subsequent 3.5 months. Blogspace is a collective and emergent manifestation of our culture’s obsession with novelty. So I suppose you could say that this entire blog is an ironic work of collective art.

There used to be a distinction between the work of art and its public display. For a lot of the transgressive collective art installations the spectacle is the art. The Situationists started the art-as-spectacle movement; Guy Debord in the Society of the Spectacle laid out the rationale in a dadaist-marxist context:

In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation… Considered in its own terms, the spectacle is an affirmation of appearances and an identification of all human social life with appearances. But a critique that grasps the spectacle’s essential character reveals it to be a visible negation of life – a negation that has taken on a visible form.”

Here is Debord’s text: http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Society_of_the_Spectacle

The medieval cathedrals were collective works of art-as-spectacle, but they were generated by the mainstream social order. Blockbuster films are collective art-spectacles generated in our mainstream culture. What’s disturbing is the self-ironization built into these spectacles. Pirates of the Caribbean is a movie purportedly about a transgressive subculture (pirates), but it’s inspiration derives from a ride at a theme park. The movie probably made more money in one day than all the pirates ever did throughout history. As Baudrillard observes, these simulacra are the reality of our times. Does transgressive ironic spectacle still mean anything when the mainstream culture has already coopted the concept? Perhaps the appropriate work of artistic disruption would have been for some group of outlaws to rob the movie theater’s ticket window during the opening of the Pirates film.

Debord prefaced his book with a quote from Feuerbach: “But for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, appearance to essence … truth is considered profane, and only illusion is sacred. Sacredness is in fact held to be enhanced in proportion as truth decreases and illusion increases, so that the highest degree of illusion comes to be the highest degree of sacredness.”

The church was the realm of spectacle; per Marx, capitalism coopted religion by fetishizing consumer goods, imbuing them with an intangible plenitude that generates consumer desire. Does the church now create spectacles of itself in an ironic reversal of the original sacred illusion?


Re: transgressive spectacle

I made my last comment on this post after my family and I watched the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Yesterday we saw the third installment, At World's End, or AWE, as our daughter pointed out. It's an amusement park ride to life after death, complete with a sea nymph, the ferrying of dead souls to the other side, the uncanny doubling of Johnny Depp, and a sunset that becomes a sunrise. If you were looking for a more compelling and captivating image of a resurrection, which would you choose: a Sunday service at the local church, or a Sunday matinee showing of Pirates At World's End?

This movie exemplifies what Guy Debord (see prior comment) called "the society of the spectacle":

Considered in its own terms, the spectacle is an affirmation of appearances and an identification of all human social life with appearances. But a critique that grasps the spectacle’s essential character reveals it to be a visible negation of life — a negation that has taken on a visible form

The first stage of the economy’s domination of social life brought about an evident degradation of being into having — human fulfillment was no longer equated with what one was, but with what one possessed. The present stage, in which social life has become completely dominated by the accumulated productions of the economy, is bringing about a general shift from having to appearing — all “having” must now derive its immediate prestige and its ultimate purpose from appearances… When the real world is transformed into mere images, mere images become real beings — dynamic figments that provide the direct motivations for a hypnotic behavior…

The spectacle’s estrangement from the acting subject is expressed by the fact that the individual’s gestures are no longer his own; they are the gestures of someone else who represents them to him. The spectator does not feel at home anywhere, because the spectacle is everywhere… The spectacle’s social function is the concrete manufacture of alienation…

The domination of society by “intangible as well as tangible things” attains its ultimate fulfillment in the spectacle, where the real world is replaced by a selection of images which are projected above it, yet which at the same time succeed in making themselves regarded as the epitome of reality.

Debord was critiquing Western culture not as a Christian but as a Marxist. In my prior post about Debord I mischaracterized his revolutionary art installations as a kind of alternative spectacle. But Debord knew there was no way to compete with the spectacles generated by corporate capital, so he developed a countercultural strategy based on the "situation." The Situationists inserted collective parodies, disruptions, and other theatrical performances within the context of everyday life, intending to revitalize people who had been rendered passive and alienated by spectacle:

Revolution is not “showing” life to people, but bringing them to life. A revolutionary organization must always remember that its aim is not getting its adherents to listen to convincing talks by expert leaders, but getting them to speak for themselves, in order to achieve, or at least strive toward, an equal degree of participation.

The May '68 student uprising in France was the most visible intervention catalyzed by the Situationists. In his presidential campaign Sarkozy said: "In this election, it is a question of whether the heritage of May '68 should be perpetuated or if it should be liquidated once and for all." Guess which side Sarkozy was on?

In the Middle Ages the Church was a spectacle, with its hierarchical organization and its alliance with wealth and power. Church art was spectacular too: cathedrals that dwarfed the towns they were built in, magnificent paintings and statuary, elaborate liturgical pageantry. Now the spectacle serves capital. Mel Gibson's movie about the Crucifixion was a spectacle for this age, competitive in visual impact and box office with the Pirates movies. Spectacles are entertaining, sometimes even moving, the collective product of many highly-skilled and hard-working people. I personally don't share Debord's absolute disdain for spectacle, and I can't help but wonder whether he forced himself not to enjoy some of the excellent spectacles of his time. Nonetheless, the escalation in the sheer scope of the spectacle almost exactly displaces the intellectual and emotional effort once demanded of spectators. These are big, flashy, enormously expensive entertainments; they make it hard for anything cheaper or smarter or more participatory to compete.

The Situationist movement lives on in the kinds of art collectives Andrew cited in his original post. If Christians share with Marxists a critique of mass consumer culture and the society of the spectacle, is there any reason not to adopt the countercultural strategies initiated by the Situationists? On the other hand, is there reason to expect an emerging Situationist church to have any more impact on society than the original Situationists did, having disbanded in 1972, four short years after their biggest "triumph," leaving behind a sporadic legacy of street theater and flashmobs? Still, if Christian "situations" get more of us thinking about our everyday lives in a different way, and if they get us participating in life instead of being spectators hypnotized by the shiny images, and if the intent really is revolution and not mere advertising…

Re: The art of being church

Really appreciate this pair of posts John, but want to chew them over a while before contributing.

I was wondering where I had seen a reference to the Wooster Collective, then found it in Andrew’s earlier post, well worth taking a look through their archives.


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