The Disconcerting Eye
Phil Collins embraces mass media and popular culture, only to unsettle the stereotypes they produce
Phil Collins embraces mass media and popular culture, only to unsettle the stereotypes they produce
It’s September 2005, an evening during the opening week of the 9th Istanbul Biennial. I’m part of a crowd that has gathered in the nightclub Balans for a unique event: local teenagers doing karaoke to songs from The Smiths’ album The World Won’t Listen (1987). The young performers emerge from the crowd, which eventually starts singing along to the lyrics scrolling on a screen. An occasional mistake in intonation or a poorly pronounced phrase simply could not tarnish the teenagers’ enthusiasm or the audience’s admiration. A rather osmotic exchange, a communal sense of liberation, was taking place. That evening, the world was truly listening.
The Istanbul event was a one-off public event for a video work that the British artist Phil Collins realized in the cities of Bogotá (2004) and Istanbul (2005) as well as Jakarta and Bandung (2007). In these off-stage versions, the artist filmed young men and women singing The Smiths’ songs against backgrounds covered with slightly kitschy wallpaper featuring natural landscapes or remote touristic destinations. the world won’t listen (2004–07) offers a clear example of Collins’s interests and methodology: documenting ordinary people as they participate in artificial scenarios; referencing popular media forms such as karaoke, soap opera, reality TV or music videos; and capturing the creative ways in which people represent themselves and relate to one another.
Most of his works begin with displacement, if not a Pop cultural transplantation. They capture how ideologies, styles and cultural habits are translated, transformed or even lost once they migrate to different cultural and historical settings. For shady lane productions (2006), Collins moved his production company Shady Lane Productions and its operations to Tate Britain as part of his contribution to the 2006 Turner Prize exhibition. Auto-Kino! (Drive-In Cinema, 2010) revived an outdoor cinematic experience typical of suburban America, although Collins screened films inside the large space of the Temporäre Kunsthalle Berlin during the city’s cold winter days. The video marxism today (prologue) (2010) explores how three former teachers of Marxist-Leninist theory in the GDR reacted when their skills and knowledge became obsolete after the fall of the Berlin Wall, while use! value! exchange! (2010) captures one of the GDR teachers giving a lesson about Marx’s Das Kapital (1867–94) to young students in today’s reunited Germany. In the meaning of style (2011) – perhaps a nod to the subtitle of the British theorist Dick Hebdige’s classic book Subculture (1979) – Collins plays with the music video-clip format to document the reality of a curious Malay underground group: young anti-fascist skinheads he encountered in Penang.
These displacements not only influence the behaviour, sentiments and expectations of Collins’s subjects but also manifest the circulation of signs in a globalized world and the way these signs construct subjectivity. As the artist declared last year in the Guardian, 1 his practice focuses on the ‘othered’, on ‘people reduced to something they are not’. These words may be read as a desperate demand
for authenticity and truth, but I believe Collins is interested in the friction between a supposedly real element from a specific context and the modification that occurs when this element is shifted to another context. During moments of contrast and inauthenticity – the film production company moved to the museum, the GDR Marxist lesson given once again in reunited Germany, the British skinhead reimagined in Malaysia – a subject might reveal his or her hidden personality, unavowed fantasies and desires.
Reflecting upon ‘the documentary turn in lens-based practices’ over the last two decades, Collins cites the ‘important intellectual tradition’ created by Alexander Kluge, Harun Farocki and Peter Watkins. 2 Yet Collins seems to share some key aspects of his practice with the Italian filmmaker, novelist, poet and intellectual Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922–1975), who criticized modernization and consumerism in post-World War II Italy, which were not only destroying the values of the archaic, rural culture but also standardizing the complex cultural stratification of local differences and customs that had once characterized the country. Pasolini blamed this standardization on the subtle, pervasive power of the then-new medium of television; he studied third-world countries and specific groups from Italian society (especially teenagers) as examples of places and people uncorrupted by the consequences of economic development. Like Pasolini, Collins adopts a sociological-anthropological method of investigation and, in some cases, studies similar themes, from economics to subcultures. For example, Pasolini travelled through Italy and interviewed people of different ages and from different socio-economic classes about their sexual habits for his feature-length documentary Comizi d’amore (Love meetings, 1964). For his part, Collins travelled to Donostia–San Sebastián and made an open call for Basque citizens who were willing to be photographed as models for a ‘real society’ – regardless of their age and looks but as long as they were willing to remove some or all of their clothes. The resulting photographic series and slide projection_ real society_ (2002) captures intimate moments – people having sex, bathing or jerking off – from the marathon 18-hour shoot, which took place in the Hotel El Maria Cristina suite where Bette Davis happened to give her last interview before her death in 1989.
While Pasolini considered how post-World War II society was affected by what might be described as ‘proto-globalization’, Collins acts as a sociologist-anthropologist of the truly globalized world. marxism today (prologue) and use! value! exchange! examine not only Marx but also neoliberal capitalism in a post-Socialist society. Collins travels to remote locations – places undergoing significant disruption or transformation, including conflict zones – to do a kind of ethnographic fieldwork, if not his own brand of participant observation. In contrast to the anthropologist who studies a community in its own environment, the artist tends to create this community himself, namely by recruiting people through open calls or auditions, like the teenage karaoke singers in the world won’t listen. While encouraging a new set of social and human relationships through these staged moments of participation, he seems to empathize with the people on the other side of his camera; they are pushed into emotionally charged situations or caught in them. For you’ll never work in this town again (2004–ongoing), he photographed art world colleagues seconds after slapping them in the face as if they were naughty children instead of esteemed professionals; in they shoot horses (2004), Palestinian teenagers living in Ramallah dance an eight-hour marathon to Western Pop music to the point of exhaustion. In such extreme situations, painful memories, untold frustrations and libidinal instincts can finally appear beyond the stereotypes, created either by social roles or by the mass media.
Our relationship to the visual language of mass media provides the main focus for many works. In Collins, the sociologist-anthropologist meets the television anchorman; the photojournalist, the television producer. Classic forms of mass media, like television and photography, are more prominent than new digital media. In earlier works like how to make a refugee (1999) – a video that mimics a press report about a refugee boy in order to reveal the degree of manipulation involved in media coverage of the Kosovan War – Collins analyzes how the media influences the construction and representation of subjectivity. they shoot horses replaces the omnipresent news image of a masked Palestinian youth throwing rocks with footage of teenagers dancing. baghdad screen tests (2002) – a take on Andy Warhol’s Screentests (1963–66) – searches for potential actors in Iraq instead of weapons of mass destruction. Collins’s relationship to the media seems to waver between attraction and repulsion while lacking the objectivity of the anthropologist or even the moralistic attitude of intellectuals like Pasolini. He exploits the confessional character of popular television programmes, only to criticize them on their own terms, to question the subjects they produce. the return of the real (2006) – the second part of his contribution to the 2006 Turner Prize exhibition – invited former contestants from reality TV shows in England and Turkey to be real once again, but this time describing how their lives were adversely affected by appearing on television. While the reality show, teleshopping or the talk show reappear in his work, the quality of the exchanges – the sympathetic flux of energy between the observer and the observed – is drastically different from the mass media counterparts. A continuous, emotional and even sensual exchange occurs between the artist behind the camera and the subjects in front of it. In his hands, the mechanical eye becomes a sensitive organ, capturing each subject’s vulnerability and generosity. Through this complicity, Collins suggests how the migration of signs, styles and habits in a globalized world can create shared islands of freedom and self-affirmation, which suddenly crystalize in they shoot horses and the world won’t listen. This migration alters a subculture; in the meaning of style, Malaysian youths revive the stereotypical British skinhead, but as a non-violent, anti-fascist movement. Collins’s camera – guided by the dreamy music by Gruff Rhys and Y Niwl – follows their peaceful behaviour: listening to music, playing cards, reading British magazines, freeing butterflies into the sky. Not a word is spoken, and probably none is needed for the viewer to sense the artist’s sympathy towards his subjects.
Despite such sympathy, Collins’s works are driven by contradiction. To question distorted images in the mass media, he uses the same media formats that led to the distortions; to give his subjects an authentic voice, he gives them the lyrics of foreign pop songs; to extract a sympathetic portrait, he provokes a confessional exhibitionism that confounds sentimentality with truth. Yet these contradictions suggest that the moral-critical high ground taken by Pasolini is no longer possible in our advanced society of the spectacle, where social and economic relations are not only mediated but also produced by images. What the architect Markus Miessen defines as The Nightmare of Participation (2010) in contemporary art, Collins seems to portray as a total dictatorship of participation in the mass media, with social and economic implications for everyone. For free fotolab (2004–10), the artist offers to develop and print people’s old photographic films, if they agree to give him the copyright to their images – an exchange that emphasizes the economic values generated by free participation and open exhibitionism. By moving his production company into Tate Britain as the art work shady lane productions – and then producing the return of the real as a work about former reality TV contestants – Collins reveals not only how such television shows are made but also their emotional-economic aftermath. Reality – made transparent once again, this time for a museum exhibition – multiplies, splinters and can no longer be neatly divided into polarized positions: actor/spectator, producer/consumer or even artist/art work/art viewer.
Since this work, Collins seems to have moved away from direct documentation and towards formally richer and even twisted takes on the genre. marxism today (prologue) features not only his interviews with the former Marxist-Leninist teachers but also archival footage from the GDR and a commissioned musical score. His short film soy mi madre (I am my mother, 2008) is inspired by Latin-American telenovelas, the violent rituals in Jean Genet’s play Les bonnes (The Maids, 1947) and the Latino immigrant domestic labourers who end up cleaning the homes of the wealthy in Aspen, Colorado (where the artist had a residency). Written in cooperation with Hollywood screenwriters and shot on 16 mm film in Mexico City with popular Mexican television actors, soy mi madre keeps on adding twists to the classic master-servant relationship, weaving a complex net of intimate and socio-economic relations among the characters. The film is marked by drastic oppositions between the slave, the good master and the bad master – until a surprising finale reverses all the class divisions that appeared to be fixed for good.
This Unfortunate Thing Between Us (2011) offers an even richer kaleidoscope of representations, a cacophony of voices and formats. The piece – a theatrical work broadcast live on television and a television programme enacted simultaneously in a theatre – was part of the Testing Stage events held at Berlin’s Hebbel theatre last fall and was broadcast on the German ZDFKultur channel. While teleshopping channels feature banal commodities, Collins offers fantasies which are staged by German actors and can be bought for only €9.99 (buyers are then flown to Berlin to act out their purchases on stage). The product Verhör. Zeig der Welt dein wahres Ich (Interrogation. Show world the real you) draws a parallel between the Stasi secret police interrogation in the GDR and the invasiveness of confessional television; while Sterbebett. Beleidige deine Freunde und Familie bevor du stirbst (Deathbed. Insult your friends and family before you die) plays with the desire for perfect endings. However extreme and graphic, the piece suggests the future of television and its audiences, always searching for a more intense experience of the real, even if it belongs to someone else. Collins questions the consequences of ‘this unfortunate thing between us’: a reality fragmented by the mass media and its audiences, the observer and the observed. The show must go on – and on.
1 Stuart Jeffries, _Fastest! Tallest! Marxist! The visual art of Phil Collins_ in the _Guardian_, Sunday 6 February 2011
2 Phil Collins, _A Place for Reflection_, in the _New Statesman_, 12 May 2011. http://www.newstatesman.com/film/2011/05/art-british-gallery-germany, visited
on 20 July 2012