The Age of Collaboration

The paradox created by the emergence of the digital age has been well-documented – that we are at once living in both the most connected time in history, and also somehow the loneliest. How could it be that in the days of Facebook, video calling, and affordable global transportation we feel more isolated than ever? I’ll let smarter people than myself figure that out (though I’m looking at you ‘FOMO’), but perhaps there is an antidote to isolation that we have seen grow in the last several years.

In a widely-read 2014 article in The Guardian, George Monbiot suggests that this “age of loneliness” is the result of our increasingly competitive ‘every man and woman for themselves’ mentality that has pervaded our culture. “The war of every main against every man… is the religion of our time, justified by a mythology of lone rangers, sole traders, self-starters, self-made men and women, going it alone.’ Indeed, we seem to idolise those individuals who make an impact on the world now more than ever, cementing their story of success into legend before even the Hollywood biopic has been released. Even in music the solo pop star has come to be revered far more than the band – looking at Official Charts Top Artists of 2015 by sales and streaming data, the first band only appears at number 9.

Maybe it’s because the mythology of the sole hero is so appealing that we’ve forgotten the value of group efforts – that every Steve Jobs has his Steve Wozniak, and as wonderful as Adele’s music is, it’s unlikely that she’ll ever reach the historical heights of The Beatles or The Rolling Stones.

The truth is, creative collaboration has been around for a long time. From Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel (the Elder, in case there was any confusion) working together on numerous paintings in the 17th century, to Gilbert Proesch and George Passmore who operate today, collaboration has always been present in fine art. Often, one of the artists involved would take primary credit, or would be afforded primary credit by a critical system that focused on the singular vision of the individual artist. Other times the partnership was derided, as in the collaboration of artists Andy Warhol and Jean-Michael Basquiat, where many felt each was best left to their own devices. But there have been successful collaborations in the art world – creations that were undoubtedly the better for the involvement of both artists, and would not have been possible as singular efforts. Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali’s landmark 1929 film Un Chien Andalou remains today one of the greatest pieces of surrealist art in history (and as completely bizarre today as it was upon release).

Of all art forms, film most obviously relies on collaboration. Unless you are an extremely capable animator, it is nigh impossible to make an effective film on your own (though I do contend that my early LEGO home movies will one day be fully appreciated in the annals of cinema history). At the very least, as a solo filmmaker one needs another human being – an ‘actor’ or ‘unwitting sibling’ – to put in front of the camera. And there have been many great actor-director partnerships in film history. Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. Martin Scorsese and Leo DiCaprio. Tim Burton and Johnny Depp. And so on. The reason these partnerships work is because of a familiarity and openness – a trust that has been fostered between actor and director that elevates both of their work to new heights.

When it comes to music, collaboration takes on a different form. True, collaboration is far less necessary to the process. Great solo acts pervade music history, but even those star performers had help. Elvis had a great many songwriters providing him with material over the years, and even someone like recent Grammy winner Beck, who writes and arranges all of his own music, definitely has help from a team of recording artists, label executives and friends. Beyond that, one must consider the myriad influences any artist has in the musicians that have come before them. All this is to say that no music is created in a vacuum, and the idea of a completely individual star artist is really a myth.

But then there are true musical collaborations, not only in the obvious case of bands, but also in a multitude of episodes where separate artists and performers come together to collaborate on a specific work. Sometimes this might be a single track, such as David Bowie and Queen’s iconic ‘Under Pressure’, or an entire album a la Watch The Throne. In fact, there are an incredible number of examples of great musicians collaborating with their contemporaries, and often with people you would not expect. Tom Petty and Stevie Nicks. Aerosmith and Run-DMC. Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson. Mastodon and Feist. Skrillex and The Doors. And recently Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett. While some of these collaborations work better than others, they all bring something new to the table – a fusion of two distinct styles, a marriage of complementary visions, or sometimes a completely new and unique sound that could never have been realised otherwise. It seems many of the greatest musicians recognise that collaboration can only unlock creative potential and benefit everyone involved.

And let’s not forget music videos – the meeting of music and film and a favourite of ours here at the Jameson INDIE Channel. Music videos may be the most collaborative art form out there, as their creation necessarily involves the meeting of minds of a musician and a visual artist. Just looking at our recent INDIE Channel Music Video competition: the efforts of both the proposed band and the proposed filmmaker were equally crucial in consideration of the grant, and will be equally important in the actual production of the video.

While there are music videos where a singular vision may drive the project, the best videos come about when musician and filmmaker push each other to conceive something truly extraordinary. We can think of numerous examples of great filmmakers partnering with great musicians to produce legendary music videos: David Fincher and Madonna. Michel Gondry and The White Stripes. Chris Cunningham and Aphex Twin. Hype Williams and Busta Rhymes. Spike Jonze and Bjork (or Fatboy Slim). Mark Romanek and seemingly everyone ever.

These artists collaborated with each other not once, but numerous times, presumably because they found in their shared experience something that inspired everyone. The beauty of this work is that everyone needs each other – the filmmakers need the musicians or they have no music, and the musicians need the filmmakers or they have to way to produce their vision – and it is out of this mutual reliance that truly extraordinary art is born.

But something else is happening. Something that may not involve big name artists. Collaborations that exist entirely online, shared by people across the world who are not famous, but have the shared desire to create something extraordinary.

Yes the Internet, for all its ills, has made global collaboration possible. Art projects that involve thousands of contributors and no apparent leader. A communal effort in the purest sense of the word. It’s collaboration at a scale of participation and shared authorship that would have been considered impossible only a few decades ago.

There are countless examples of this new world of collaboration. From One Day On Earth, where hundreds of people the world over contribute video footage from their lives to a feature length documentary, to a music video for the Japanese band Sour featuring webcam clips of fans stitched together into an incredible collage, people are finding new and mind-blowing ways to collaborate online. One of the most successful examples of this might be HitRECord, founded by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Though HitRECord does benefit from JGL’s star power, and is now a TV series in the US, it emerged from humble beginnings where creative people of all varieties could contribute individual elements to develop a collective product – from short films to music and even books.

What is incredible about these collaborations is that they run contrary to the image George Monbiot has of the world. People here contribute not out of a desire for fame or fortune (there is none to be had), but out of a pure love for the work, and a simple need to see a beautiful creative project realised. So too does this form of collaboration run contrary to Monbiot’s image of a world devoid of community. Sure, we may not know our next door neighbour as well as we used to, but we can find a kindred spirit in someone who speaks a different language in a country we will never visit.

It’s true – sometimes it does feel like we are living in an age of loneliness and isolation, but the opportunity exists for us to come together and share in ways never before possible. So if you feel alone or lonely, perhaps what you need is to look for someone who wants what you want. Who shares your goals and creative impulses. Who can understand your vision because they have that vision too. Then, you work together to realise that shared desire, and perhaps inspire others to join you.

Because we aren’t living in an age of isolation. We are living in an ‘age of collaboration’. So reach out – there is someone else out there, and together who knows what you can accomplish.

Sam Besser enjoys writing about arts and entertainment because he likes pretending people care about his opinions. He is a great lover of film and a casual lover of 15th-century stained glass windows. These interests rarely intersect.