Shumon Basar reveals the dark side of working together

Text by Shumon Basar

Illustrations by Olivia Meier

There’s something DisneyPixar about the word “collaboration”. An underlying CGI sentimentality. Collaboration celebrates the spirit of togetherness: fraternal man (or sometimes fraternal ants) putting their differences aside for the sake of something bigger. At the same time, collaboration challenges the received model of the lone genius, that burrowing, furrowing recluse in the garden shed or concrete bunker or deserted Overlook Hotel. Collaboration is no me, myself and Id. Yet, as with Disneyland, anything that seems too good to be human is usually hiding the dark stuff in some underground cellar. Like so many fantasies realised, collaborations often turn out to be living nightmares, ending in litigation or, worse still, a Twitter feud to feed the whole world’s gawping, giggling schadenfreude.

If you think that by collaborating, you are cleverly killing the author, critiquing the cult of the individual, what you’re really doing is entering another cult. The Cult of Temporary Togetherness. What is it that brings most collaborations into being? DNA? Serendipity? Love? Convenience? Is it possible the forces of attraction may be the same atavistic ones that ensure an implosion soon enough? Collaborations are steeped in our most beloved myth: free will. We strive to believe our creative partnerships are freely chosen. Here are a few of the most basic ways in which people come together – only to fall apart, time after time.

Somewhere between biology and tradition lies the destiny of siblings: battle. Most of us survive one another – rare is the homicide record that states: “He killed his sister with a knock-off Bratz doll” – but, for some, what lasts into adulthood is a Machiavellian impulse to keep those who know you best, or know the worst of you, as close as you can. Is that what makes siblings fun to watch?

Such is the enigmatic draw of siblingfests that many are tempted to enforce or fake them. The blueprint for these family puppet shows was of course the Jackson 5, whose dad did so well selling us brotherly love. Right up till the 1990s, we believed it. It made us feel better; it made the music sound truer. Revamping the model for the early 21st century, along came that faux-sapphic confection, the Cheeky Girls. Transylvanian twins made up like emaciated sex dolls, managed by an invisible mother, they were perfect fodder for a pop-drunk Dracula. The freaky lure of the sibling group is in its requirement that we suspend our disbelief almost (but not quite) all the way. When Karen Carpenter died in 1983, so did the sibling promise the fans had embraced. For the public, The Carpenters was Karen. No one had wanted to know her brother Richard was dominating it all (and would keep doing so, withholding many of Karen’s songs until a decade after her death).

The Goya-defacing Chapman Brothers love to take advantage of the conspiratorial, delinquent intensity of the double brother set-up. Not unlike the Krays, the Chapmans share a brooding bond of quiet that is the inverse of their public acts. David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers explores this deeply private sibling logic through twin gynaecologists (both played by Jeremy Irons) who share… everything. Even the White Stripes first made their name on a sibling enigma: incestuous lovers? Not related at all? Why the ambiguity?

Brothers and sisters working together harness the energy of an intimacy that’s impossible to invent – or to sustain, ex nihilo. “They long to be,” sang Karen Carpenter, “close to you.”

Lovers & Marrieds
Whether they share beds or not, couples who make their love their work remain as compelling for us as they are for each other. A pervasive romantic optimism drives, in particular, those in their late teens or early twenties. Passion! Immortality! The heady conviction that the one you love is the one you must work with. Coupledom becomes the ultimate public/private Gesamtkunstwerk, a total Jungian theatre of reciprocities and supposed syntheses.

Again, though, these rarely stay unions of equals. In the 1920s and ’30s, the design world saw female pioneers such as Charlotte Perriand and Lilly Reich remain in the shadow of their male counterparts, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe. The not-so-subtle subtext was that the women could manage the interiors – prettiness! Soft furnishings! – but building the buildings should be left to the men. Still, as the century wore on, many marrieds kept transcending the old established male artist/female muse dynamic. Charles and Ray Eames’ buildings, chairs and films were assiduously credited to both husband and wife.

If anyone fully encapsulated the plus/minus, yin/yang fantasy, it was the double-couple assemblage of Abba. Their videos performed a glorious symmetry: split-screen shots; facing each other; facing away. Beauty and brains. Blonde, brunette. Singing wives forward, songwriting husbands back. Once the divorces began, it signalled a symbolic world’s end for that musical microcosm. What band could survive the end of love, the demise of a super-couple? Certainly not Abba. Not even Sonic Youth.

Disentangling the major and the minor in a couple-unit is like trying to measure the colour of love itself. But men, for the most part, still win the messy custody battles of legacy and myth. Patriarchy 1; Lateral Collaboration 0.

Todd Haynes’ kaleidoscopic film I’m Not There splits Bob Dylan into six different Dylans (each played by a different actor). It ends at the singer’s evangelical epiphany in the early ’80s, thus missing out on 1988, the year the real Dylan joined four famous non-Dylans to form a supergroup, The Travelling Wilburys. The video for “I Won’t Back Down” showed them singing aboard a freight train, world-weary savants cursed by too much truth and not enough love. Dylan, Roy Orbison, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Tom Petty: this was a recipe you would never have found in any pop science book.

The origin of the term “supergroup” is thought to be Al Kooper, Mike Bloomfield and Stephen Stills’ 1968 album Super Session, which aimed to spin musical gold out of an improbable line-up of solo stars. Only a year later, Neil Young created one of the most memorable supergroups by teaming up with Crosby, Stills and Nash – the surnames alone were enough.

Supergroups, of course, are not an exclusively musical phenomenon. The Paris headquarters of UNESCO at the Place de Fontenoy, inaugurated in 1958, was the brainchild of an architectural supergroup: Marcel Breuer, Pier Luigi Nervi and Bernhard Zehrfuss. This American/Italian/French super-collaboration gave a new meaning to “international style” – UNESCO’s inclusive vision of the post-war 20th century had found a fitting home in the crystallisation of European and American modernisms. Even the project’s competition jury was a modernist supergroup: Walter Gropius, Lucio Costa and Le Corbusier.

A decade later, in 1969, the Italian radicals Superstudio began work on a seminal dystopian project called The Continuous Monument. The members were not well known prior to the group’s inception – Superstudio are a supergroup only in retrospect, which you might say is the safest kind to be.

Supergroups are short-lived because the very energy of stars colliding is one that tends to cause spontaneous combustion. When they succeed, they are fantastical phenomena: our favourite individuals, in unexpected harmony. Compared with siblings and couples, the supergroup seems a dream solution to the unequal power dynamics that are collaboration’s dirty little secret. Everyone a winner, no one a bully. Yet by the same token, the supergroup contains generals but no foot soldiers; lead soloists but no session players. More often than not, the supergroup suffers the law of diminishing returns: by adding more to more, what you get is less and less. § 

  • Collaborhaters
  • Collaborhaters