Collaboration Artist: Learning about co-creation on the streets of London

Artist Marc Craig and Gary Hirsch (Botjoy)

I met Marc Craig inside the bustling hive of Waterloo Station in downtown London. Marc is a street artist who works primarily on large scale murals, both on his own, and in collaboration with other artists. I was there to co-create with Marc for the weekend. I was also there to learn more from him about how he collaborates with other artists and how he works in one of the most free flowing creative spaces in the world.

Video by Jordan Laith Rawi

Marc is almost my British clone. He is bald (check), Loves to paint (check), and is deeply interested in creating work that actively involves his viewers and audience (also check). Our work is different, but feels like it comes from some of the same creative sources. Indeed Marc talks about his work as if it was coming from some place outside of himself:

“I paint symbols signs and doodles. These are a powerful and unconscious expression of a language that is not mine. It doesn’t belong to me. The symbols may be incoherent and random but I am acting as a conduit to something bigger than myself. I don’t need to know what it is. I just need an awareness of it.”

After leaving Waterloo, Marc took me on a fascinating tour of London street art. As we saw some amazing pieces, I left my own version of tiny street art in our wake: 50 hand-painted Joybots left as a gift for strangers to find.

During a break, we talked about the project that we were going start (and finish) the next day. Marc works on a giant scale and his work is often very temporary, painting in a place (The Leake Street Tunnel) where it is not uncommon to have the mural that has taken you all day to complete be painted over by another artist the very next day (or next hour).

As we prepped, I shared some of the collaborative improv behaviors that I use in my work with businesses: behaviors like Noticing More, Letting Go, and Accepting Offers. To illustrate (literally and figuratively) we played an exercise called Quick Draw where we passed a pen back-and-forth instantly adding one element (eye, ear, nose, etc.) at-a-time to a portrait and then naming our creation one-letter-at-a-time. Meet Radigmyet!

This small scale collaboration works because each of us is willing to shift off of our own agenda and allow ourselves to be changed by the actions of the other person. We laughed the entire time we were playing and it created delightful results that wouldn’t have been possible if we were just working alone.

The next day we met inside the Leake Street Tunnel, a container that is spilling over with creative explosions. This cavernous tunnel is an amazing example of large scale co-creation in action. In 2008 Banksy and few other street artists did a show in the Leake Street Tunnel. It got a ton of attention and put the space on the map. When the show was over other artists moved in and started painting. It hasn’t stopped. Every surface is covered with graffiti, street art, paste ups and stickers. It feels like the tunnel has a life and energy of it’s own. Mark tells me that the only rule is that you should only paint over another piece of art when that piece is ready to be painted over. You decide. This can be a week after the artist finishes, but it can also be as soon as five minutes after the artist walks away. Marc says that if you are tuning in, you can almost feel that the tunnel is a living breathing entity that is compelling people to create.

I was blown away by Leake Street. I could immediately feel what Marc was describing. It was full of ideas, potential and possibility. It was exhilarating and scary to think about painting all day and then having your creation be used as a canvas for another artist immediately after. How would it be to work in such a public space? What would my ego do with this? I am use to making art that is permanent (but what is permanent, nothing really). I am use to improvising on stage, where the audience becomes part of your process and witnesses you making things in the moment, but what would it be like to do this with a paint brush?

Marc had arrived earlier and miraculously painted a giant 80 foot section of wall white (painting over his own creation from the previous day). We briefly gave our improvisation some structure so we could maximize our freedom, with us agreeing to do what we did with the Quick Draw exercise on a giant scale: Letting go of our preconceived agendas, giving the wall what it needed, tamping down our individual egos in service to the entire piece, connect with people along the way, and to have an ridiculously fun time!

Marc’s work is all about connecting. He will offer his spray paint can to anyone who pauses to chat while he is painting. Marc says that he welcomes interruptions because it draws him out of his own noise and thoughts. He never stops painting even in the midst of chatting with passersby.

After taking in our giant blank canvas Marc and I started working.

“Collaboration is the ability to share resources freely with someone else without compromise. It is a constant dance of mixing it up and letting it go, and then mixing it up again….”- Marc Craig

As we started to work Marc introduced me to the spray paint can (I hand-paint) and I gave it a brief shot, and quickly learned something new about myself: I deeply enjoy the tactile feedback I get from having a brush in direct contact with the surface that I am working on. The can is incredibly fast and Marc is a master of it, but I learned right from the start that it was not fun for me and so I gave myself permission to not use it. I let go of taking responsibility for getting the entire wall done and instead focused on the things that felt fun, all while keeping the big picture of the piece in my periphery.

Marc tells me that our collaboration helped him realize that boundaries are one of the most important aspects of a creative process. We had the boundary of the wall, the materials, each other, and the time that Leake Street was giving us (not much it turned out).

This awesome experience was a great lesson for me in how fun, unexpected, and meaningful collaboration can be. Marc and I not only collaborated together, but we in turn co-created with the invisible rules of the space and as soon as we were done the co-creation continued with the artists that came after us. See the video at the top of this article for the final result of day 1:

The next day when we returned, and the wall was already morphing in something new.

On day 2 we painted on areas across from each other taking inspirational cues from the work that the other was creating. We both reflected that this second day created some of our most satisfying work to date because we could draw on all of the lessons that we absorbed working together the previous day and use them immediately in this shared space.

Days later after I returned home to Portland I saw this image on my Instagram feed:

I was surprised by how pleased I was by this. My work now becomes the background for someone else. I get to stare my own ego straight in the face and shrug because Now I know that collaboration with the world around you demands that you learn to let go.

Gary Hirsch is the co-founder of On Your Feet a consultancy that uses improv to help organizations create, communicate, and collaborate. He is also the founder of Botjoy, a visual experiment in co-creation. Gary paints thousands of small & sometimes large hand painted robots that roam the world looking for joy, bravery, love, & coffee! You can reach him at gary@oyf.com

Marc Craig is a visual artist who lives, thrives and works in London. You can see more of his amazing work here marccraig.co.uk