Across two floors of Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in New York, British artist Phil Collins offers two rather different film installations: downstairs, an anime short screens, in alternating English and Japanese versions, amid sand dunes, bubbling puddles and the detritus of middle-class suburbia, while upstairs an ambitious feature-length musical documentary is nestled in a swooping, red-carpeted theatre that recalls both a biomorphic womb-space and a skater’s half-pipe.
The first film, Delete Beach (2016), spins a sci-fi yarn about a future in which carbon-based energy has been outlawed. A disaffected teen joins the ‘Burners’, a renegade group whose rebellion involves mainlining petroleum and scrawling graffiti in raw crude before casting themselves into the sea. The piece remixes familiar analogies of oil and drug dependency with staple themes from apocalypse fiction – techno-cults, climate anxiety and adorable pets, to name a few. But apart from insisting that capitalism and green energy are not mutually exclusive, the film lacks the real-world urgency its politics would solicit, and as such those politics remain as theatrical – and cosmetic – as the stagey pools of ‘oil’ scattered throughout the installation’s sand dunes.
On the second floor, Collins presents Tomorrow Is Always Too Long (2014), a film of devastating and often joyful criticality. Like many of Collins’s previous works, Tomorrow is a collaborative film: at once an amateur musical, a time capsule of pre-digital media and an encomium to the city of Glasgow. In vignettes of life from birth to death, everyday Glaswegians break rapturously into songs by the Welsh singer Cate Le Bon, set to a lush accompaniment by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the not-unpleasant grisaille of the city itself. The performers, though nonprofessional, sing with remarkable skill. Originating in the pedestrian dramas of childbirth, school, prison, work and old age, their sheer virtuosity suggests buried talents and quiet desperation. Between the vignettes, the film skips around in the manner of early-1990s channel surfing, from community-access talk shows to ads for ‘live talk’ hotlines, as silhouetted urbanites by animator Matthew Robins palliate themselves with drugs and sex against a soundtrack by Mogwai’s Barry Burns.
As with television itself, of course, the real message can be found in the commercials. First commercial: a young man on a phone-dating ad makes a futile plea for romantic connection. ‘If you like to be looked at, and I like looking at you, we may achieve an enjoyable interpersonal relationship,’ he says. Absurd and even heart-breaking in its rationality, the man’s entreaty enacts the double-bind of technologized alienation: empty and alone, he is forced to seek social solace through the very apparatus that makes it impossible. Second commercial: an insecure mystic named Mindy touts her psychic hotline. Gaining confidence, she becomes transfigured – literally tearing off her veil – as her voice rises in a fiery denunciation of digital dystopia (her jeremiad occupies the heart of the film). Third commercial: an exuberant spokeswoman hawks ‘Search Me’, a wearable magnetic strip for people so desperate for human contact that they intentionally set off TSA scanners to receive the personal pat down – a hilarious take on crushing loneliness and violent surveillance.
Collins’s sprawling Glasgow piece exhumes the junk of the final analogue era (how naive television looks in retrospect!) to reveal the brutishness of our contemporary moment. The damaged subjects emerging from the ruins may lack originality, but that doesn’t mean they’ve lost personhood. Like humanist documentary photographers of old, Collins clearly empathizes with his subjects, and consequently they retain a dignity as improbable as it is moving.
Main image: Phil Collins, Delete Beach (detail), 2016, film still. Courtesy: the artist, Shady Lane Productions, Berlin and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York