Anyone who has lovingly thumbed through a copy of the US comic book the Justice League of America will know that there’s strength in numbers. Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash and others would team to combine their particular skills to battle the forces of evil. More recently, the Internet has become the medium for real collaboration and interaction between individuals via their computers. Skills and knowledge can be shared, talents combined to produce something greater than their parts. Knowing that there are similar mortals out there who share your interests and obsessions is at the very least reassuring, occasionally inspiring. Recently, aided by the Internet, groups of creative folk have began pooling their resources and forming collectives. Two such collectives are Peepshow and Black Convoy. Both have acquired high-profile admirers including blue chip clients and an army of fans and imitators. Both could swell their ranks tenfold with those wishing to join them.
Peepshow’s founders had the bright idea of not only staying in touch after a stint as Brighton students, but also forming a collective. After a few faltering starts and false names – ‘Big In Germany’and ‘Steve’ – the gang settled on Peepshow in 2000. ‘Created by illustrators for illustrators to promote illustration’ ran the Peepshow mission statement. Picking up new members on the way, the plan was to promote themselves without the need for agents, although popularity has meant many members now have agents. The splash page that introduces the 12 talented individuals that are Peepshow is one of the best on the Internet. Based on a 1983 ‘A-Team’ sticker album from Panini, a desktop complete with coffee mug, coloured pencils, and assorted debris artfully showcases the visual delights within. The team has combined to display their talents in a virtual sticker album that acts as a one-stop shop for all that is good and great about contemporary illustration. Combined, the team covers many bases including illustration, animation, Web design, stenciling, collage, printing, fashion art direction and exhibitions.
Black Convoy shares a couple of members with Peepshow, in the shape of Andrew Rae and Miles Donovan. Formed in January 2004, initially to showcase their work on an international level via exhibitions, Black Convoy combines the talents of 13 London based leading images makers, including Richard May, John McFaul, and Neasden Control Centre. A well-received show ‘Under Construction’ ran at The Apartment in Chelsea, New York last May. Further exhibitions, film, publications and performances are planned with what McFaul describes as a “decidedly British edge”. Black Convoy rank amongst its members some of the best talent working in Britain today, attracting support from the Arts Council England and the national development agency for the arts in England.
Both collectives can see the benefits of working together, in an industry that is predominately freelance based. Black Convoy’s John McFaul says: “Working in a collective is good for many reasons – The creative/business benefits of a free exchange of ideas, working methods, contacts and commercial opportunities. The inspiration that can come from knocking a number of heads together, rather than your own against a wall, is exciting and good for your ‘creative growth’. Getting out of the studio and meeting like-minded people, generally, is good for mental health. Illustration is a solitary experience so it's good to actually be able to meet up, see other people and talk about the profession and ‘other’ stuff.”
Peepshow and Black Convoy collectives prefer using Macs. Founding member Spencer Wilson writes in the Peepshow student FAQ: “I believe the introduction of Apple’s affordable desktop computers and the ability to get professional software on the sly has greatly increased the ease of which illustration can be produced. When I graduated in 1998, our college had one room with about 20 Macs in it, which were for use mainly by the graphics department. Illustration was still considered an art created with gouache, pencil and pastel. With the iMac, a generation of illustrators and image makers were like “hey, this is easy” – changes could be made at a drop of a hat, and Apple allowed risks to be taken knowing that it could be undone. Art directors loved it, no more need to scan, just layout and go. As illustrators mastered the Mac, more illustration was commissioned, designers felt comfortable with it and started to produce their own illustration, culminating in the explosion of computer generated images in the late nineties and early noughties”.
Black Convoy’s John McFaul tells Macworld: “We all use Macs – G5s, iMacs, PowerBooks and Mac OS X – and previous incarnations. We all love Apple products in general. We can all bitch about Apple while simultaneously dribbling over its latest products”. Richard May adds: “I've never used a PC for anything other than typing up a CV about nine years ago, but as much as I love my shiny new G5, Mac OS X and Apple products in general, I'm not one of those Mac users who looks down on PC users; whatever it takes to get the job done”.
Aided by their Macs, both Peepshow and Black Convoy have major plans for 2005, into 2006. Black Convoy’s Richard May tells Macworld: “All 13 of us have to get together very soon and hammer out exactly what we'll be doing this year. The only things set in stone at this point are that we'll be staging events in the UK and the US over the course of the year and possibly into 2006 – and that we won't be doing the same old stuff as everybody else.” May adds: “Austin from NEW has just joined the team, but that's the limit for the current lineup – I say that so people might stop emailing asking to join BC! The original idea behind BC is that we take on – and say goodbye to – different people for different projects, so 2006 may see a whole new crew depending on what people want to do.”
Macworld caught up with Andrew Rae (www.andrewrae.org.uk), Art Director on BBC’s cult Monkey Dust animated show and a member of both collectives.
As a member of both, how do you think Peepshow and Black Convoy differ?
Peepshow has existed for longer and is wider in its scope. It exists as a home and support network for a group of artists with differing skills. Under it's umbrella we can organize exhibitions, printed matter, animations and whatever else we want to work on. It gives us strength in numbers and as we share a studio, it makes it fairly easy to manage. Black Convoy was set up purely to organize two exhibitions in New York and London, it has potential for more in the future but we'll be taking it one step at a time.
Can a collective ever be truly democratic?
Yes. We all work as freelance individuals as well as a group. We have all known each other for a long time so we know how to deal with each other – you can't be a prima donna with your old friends there telling you to shut up. There’s no one in charge and you get out of it what you put in. When a project comes, we tend to choose someone to manage it, they take on an organizational role and the other members can then decide whether on not they want to be involved. This seems to work pretty well. We've had to work out systems for distributing money, which is probably the most difficult bit.
Are the majority of collective members Mac users?
Yes. We all use Macs as tools to help us put our work together. We all have different skills and applications that we specialize in so we’re able to help each other out a lot. We have boring conversations about our favourite shortcuts and such like from time to time but we've put a ban on this when we're in the pub.
Do you think using Macs can help the collaborative process?
I think using computers helps, as email is a great way of relaying information about projects without needing to have meetings all the time. We've experimented with iChat and Skype but it remains a bit of a gimmicky thing that we all stopped using pretty quickly. We have an AirPort extreme wireless network, which is handy for transferring files around and sharing music collections. We all use Macs mostly because that's what we started out on and they were the industry standards for designers. Most animators seem to use PCs. I think maybe the 3D software is better on PCs, although this doesn't affect me. They each have advantages and disadvantages, but I'll always come back to Macs as that's what I'm used to, you can't help but love the way they look and their ease of use and I'm less worried about getting a virus on my Mac. However, when I have to pay £70 for a new plug for my laptop I start getting pretty annoyed with Apple – I also got irritated with the way they handled the original iPod battery problems.
What are the practical benefits of working on the same computer platform?
The benefits are that it makes life easier – the main problem with using different platforms I've found has been that you can't attach the same external hard drive to a Mac and a PC, there are also little irritations like thumbnails not working right.
It doesn't make a huge amount of difference, though to be honest I’ve worked on PCs in the past and it takes a little getting used to, like driving two cars and continually turning on the windscreen wipers instead of the indicators. Most files that I need to use transfer across platforms pretty well these days. Now that I have an Apple PowerBook I tend to just use it if I'm working off site, which makes life easier.
What advice would you give students and other individuals wishing to start collectives?
Make sure you all get along as you could end up stuck with these people for a long time!
What future plans do you have for Peepshow?
Peepshow has a lot of plans for this year. A new Web site, the first Peepshow book, and an exhibition. All of this will be happening in Late May/June 2005. We will also have a stall at the V&A Village Fete in July, a range of prints and t-shirts, and hopefully a range of customized furniture and dartboards. We’ve also just finished a car ad for Toyota, which should be out soon. In the long term, we’ve discussed making it into a real company and agency but we feel it would lose its cooperative nature – so there are no plans afoot in this direction at present.