The harsh truth – and lies – of the camera eye: A talk with Turner Prize nominee Phil Collins

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Today in London, Turner Prize nominee Phil Collins held a press conference in which people who’ve appeared on TV discussed their experiences -- specifically, how their lives were damaged or altered by their participation in “reality” shows. British newspapers and television are already reporting on the conference, part of the second installment in Collins’s country-hopping series The Return of the Real, and one aspect of his entry in the Tate Britain exhibition.

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Phil Collins

Last week, I talked on the phone with Collins, allegedly one of the ten most important artists in the world, according to Flash Art. I know I count him as a current personal favorite, partly due to his Baghdad Screentests (2002), a rare example of Andy Warhol-influenced, attracted but not embedded contemporary reportage. It sets silent video portraits of young men and women to some of Collins's favorite pop songs, with the pensive men sometimes inspiring swoons ranging from “Well I Wonder” to “I Feel Love.” The relationship between image and sound is a basic and yet rich one: the songs can resonate as personal expression by Collins, as commentary on the oncoming Bush-sanctioned bombing and occupation, and (only perhaps, and if so, only occasionally) as an imagined first-person voicing of the the subjects' unspoken thoughts. This type of meta-commentary on mediated image dates back to at least 1999 in Collins's art. That year's How to Make a Refugee steps into and back from a photo shoot depicting a family from Kosovo.

Replacing the profound stillness of Baghdad Screentests with hired (and increasingly tired) movement, Collins’s answer video to a relevant '60s film, They Shoot Horses (2004), stages a dance marathon in Ramallah, Palestine; his video triptych from the same year, The Louder You Scream, the Faster We Go, tweaks the music video form by taking artistic license with songs by unsigned acts, turning them into soundtracks for visions of elderly ladies’ dance classes and a hand job update of Warhol’s Blow Job.

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Still from dunya dunlemiyor, a video installation by Phil Collins

One could say the pop erotics, humor, and political incisiveness of all these endeavors comes to fruition in dunya dunlemiyor, a current installation at SFMOMA that’s an oft-revelatory karaoke portrait of Smiths fans in Istanbul, Turkey singing tracks from the 1986 compilation The World Won’t Listen. When I reached Collins, he was finishing up a day spent within his Tate Britain exhibition. As part of the Turner Prize show, he’s set up a research office for his production company, Shady Lane Productions, within the museum.

Guardian: How are you today?
Phil Collins: Good. We're at the point in the day where it’s checkout time, so most of the people have gone. The office is six meters by seven meters, with dreamy peach walls, bright red carpet, and taped-up junk furniture from downstairs. You can really feel the Turner Prize here, because you have thousands of people walking past a day, waving and talking to you through the hatch.

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Still from Baghdad Screentests by Phil Collins

G: When did the idea of placing an office within the show at the Tate come to you?
PC: It was actually after smoking a joint one night. Instead of putting up a formed finished finalized piece and walking away, I wanted to see the prize as a possibility. Otherwise, I could never afford an office in central London, I could never be able to realize this piece. I knew I wanted to produce something during [the exhibition], and the best reflection of what I do was to begin an open-ended process, kind of an unpredictable situation – to throw all the balls up in the air, instead of doing something conservative.
I wasn’t interested in competing, I was interested in using the prize in the best possible way, and in a way that would be site-specific, that would address the nature of the thing itself. My interest is always in examining the context and attempting to address it in some way.
We’ve done really well [assembling the British incarnation of The Return of the Real]. We’ve got ten really, really strong cases of people from different talk shows and makeover shows and reality shows. I’ve employed researchers -- people who’ve worked on documentaries, and journalists. There are four of us who work in the office. We’re a dedicated team and we work every day. I also do a lot of home visits [to potential subjects]. We’ve now gone from thirty cases down to ten, and we’re holding a press conference where people will talk directly to broadcast and print media about their experiences.

G: You’ve done this once before, right?
PC: Yes, in Turkey. Next year I do it in Spain as well.

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Still from Phil Collins's video The Louder You Scream, the Faster We Go

G: Could you tell me a bit about the ten cases you’ve selected?
PC: Two cases thought they were going on one show but it turned out to be another. They thought they were in a documentary, a serious endeavor, and it turned out to be something called Florida Fatbusters and they were made fun of; British television is increasingly shooting shows in the States so they can sell to the American and Canadian markets as well.
One case is a story about a woman who had plastic surgery. She’s really intelligent and articulate. When she came home, her teeth fell out and she was left with fangs. That is the endpoint of the story. The previous narrative building up to that is all about the failings of the [television show’s] production company and how they isolate people, and how quite often the participants are divided and made to be feel a bit paranoid and lost – they can’t phone home.

G: The people who make reality shows are often just racing forward producing content. Once on a flight I sat next to a woman who was about to be featured in an early Jerry Springer episode. She was going to be on a show about how her sister had a child after being molested by her father. It was a different member of the family, neither her or her sister, who had first contacted the show. He’d dragged them into it. They weren’t getting paid; they were only getting a trip to the city.
PC: The big triangle for these shows in the States is largely in the Midwest. The triangle is from Ohio down to Florida and then to Kentucky. If you meet people there and ask if they’ve been to New York, they’ll say no. The promise of going to New York and being picked up by a taxi and taken to a hotel is like a dream.
The shows trade on that, but the more interesting thing is that there’s a production machine that goes into overdrive. When someone in your family calls them, the pressure on you just becomes relentless until you appear. The phone rings and you talk for an hour each time, and it doesn’t stop until you give in.

G: I also wanted to ask you about your interest in this subject from a viewer’s perspective.
PC: I watch an inordinate amount of television. When I was in the States I watched all the Judge shows – Judge Hatchett, Judge Joe Brown

G: Judge shows are what I watch every morning.
PC: What drew me in was, how can America, which has the most pure form of legalese – “the State of Florida issues this edict” – translate that into making jokes about a crack whore? Especially Judge Mablean [formerly of Divorce Court] – she’s the most “uh uh uh!” finger-wagging, sister-talking of them. The parity they often claim with the people on their show is completely unbelievable. But it’s undeniably watchable – to watch an apparent Judge [laughs] in a small claims court talk about crack. [Assuming a "naughty naughty" tone of voice] “You lay off that crack pipe!” And of course I’d watch The Golden Girls right afterward.

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Still from El Mundo no Escuchara, the Bogota, Columbia installment of Phil Collins's Smiths karaoke trilogy

G: I’ve been watching Judge Mathis, another Judge show. You should check out that one sometime.
PC: Yes please!
One of the lynchpins of this [Return of the Real] project was the Scott Amedure and Jonathan Schmitz case. Do you know the story?

G: Yes, I’m from Michigan.
PC: He’s [Schmitz is] still in a Michigan jail. Scott Amedure’s parents took the production company, the Jenny Jones show, and Time Warner to court for negligence. Schmitz had made suicide attempts, he’d had lots of mental health issues, and he thought he was meeting his ex-wife or ex-girlfriend. He and Amedure were friends before the show, they’d been drinking before it was taped -- it wasn’t a hostile relationship.
Again, there was this idea of shaming people on a grand scale. In this situation, they were using someone’s quite tender relationship. It was like a Valentine’s message --

G: -- turned into this voyeuristic experience.
PC: And also exploited in such an ugly way. You can imagine the show’s production company just thinking it was an incredible hoot – until they had a murder on their hands.

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Still from They Shoot Horses, a video installation by Phil Collins

G: That’s another thing: in the US, sexual harassment suits are commonplace within the production companies of these shows.
Moving to your Smiths karaoke projects, some writing about it has commented on the simplicity of the camerawork. But there are noteworthy changes in terms of how you choose to shoot different subjects. Sometimes you have extreme close-up while at other times there is more detachment.

PC: In the case of dünya dunlemiyor, we set up a studio in a nightclub, and we were beset by lots of trouble. Some close-ups simply came about because the backdrop would be really wrinkly. But with some people you also knew they were really magnetic, that they were incredibly overpowering. Also, we couldn’t change the shot once we’d set up the frame. We didn’t pan or zoom. It’s almost like early film or video -- a single shot that lasts the length of the song, and that draws you or repels you.
My interest is in the symbolic nature of the camera, the way as a tool it can elicit such magnificent behavior just by its presence. Even if there was nothing in the camera it might not matter.
And yet, at the same time, the camera can also inhibit people. It would me. If someone was pointing a camera at me, I would freeze and whisper. It can be the most hideously brutal instrument, and of course one of it’s first applications was in medicine as a diagnostic tool. In the late 19th century, the hysteric, the homosexual, and the criminal -- all of those types, according to Victorian logic -- were laid out in front of the camera for phrenology.

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Still from dunya dunlemiyor, a video installation by Phil Collins

G: In assembling dünya dunlemiyor, did you match people to certain songs?
PC: No, they could choose. But after four days we did have to advise, “If you’re going to do “There is a Light That Never Goes Out,” you may, but if you’d like to be in the video, you might want to choose a different song.” It was overwhelmingly popular. “Panic” was as well, for a different reason. If English is your second language and your English is rudimentary, you imagine “Panic” is easy, but in fact, it’s quite difficult.

G: It has very specific vernacular.
PC: Yes. Of course, there’s also “Rubber Ring." Somehow, the people who pick that song are always the absolute winners.

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