PRINT January 2008


PHIL COLLINS AND KARAOKE were both born in the 1970s, the decade during which, according to the novelist Michael Cunningham, dreams of revolution faded and people began to dance. And dancing is at the center of the project that is probably Collins’s best known to date, the seven-hour double-screen video projection of a dance marathon, called they shoot horses, 2004. This work lays out all the basic parameters of Collins’s practice: The British, Glasgow-based artist goes somewhere (in this case, Ramallah) that is not his home and that is politically volatile and vaguely suggestive of the biennial circuit in its “global” character. Once there, he issues an open call for some kind of activity or event, conducts auditions, and, after securing the agreement of the participants, starts rolling the camera. While the activities may differ, the formal dependence on real-time duration, a relatively static camera, and a minimal use of editing is fairly consistent. In they shoot horses, we see a bunch of Palestinian teens dance—for one another, for the camera, for themselves—until they literally drop with fatigue, too exhausted to continue. The sound track is a steady stream of Western pop and disco, easy and infectious. The kids seem to know every word to every song, and their moves are as intermittently naive, sexy, and geeky as you might remember your own being back in the day.

One effect of they shoot horses, in which the Palestinian teenagers may remind any viewer of his or her own adolescence, is that the old-fashioned idea of the universal is somehow mapped over the newer and more contemporaneously celebrated idea of the global. The potential conflation of these concepts is a hallmark of Collins’s work. He often focuses on very particular social groups that seem, when refracted through his lens, to open themselves up both geographically and temporally, appearing at once placeless and local, timeless and very much of the moment. This past November, at the Dallas Museum of Art, Collins unveiled his recently completed trilogy, the world won’t listen, 2004–2007, shot in Bogotá, Istanbul, and Jakarta. Here the call for participants solicited people who wanted to karaoke to the cult-classic Smiths album of the same name. (The three installments—el mundo no escuchará, 2004; dünya dinlemiyor, 2005; and dunia tak akan mendengar, 2007—are discrete works whose titles translate the phrase “the world won’t listen” into the languages of the respective locales.) It turns out that there are disaffected goth girls; stringy, faggy boys; and nerdy lovers of sentimental lyrics all across the globe. And who among us is surprised that Morrissey’s words and lyrics feel just as stylish and classic and right now to us as Sinatra’s Songs for Swingin’ Lovers do to our parents?

The one-two punch of they shoot horses and the world won’t listen comes from an awareness that singing and dancing are deep mixtures of social conformity and libidinal excess; as age-old practices found in every culture in the world, they lend a veritably humanist dimension to Collins’s oeuvre. While it might be stretching the point, one could say that historically, art, too, has been conceived as a universal practice in which the impulse to conform and the impulse toward libidinous self-expression are channeled even as they are held in tension. Indeed, watching the performers in the world won’t listen use Morrissey as a way to traverse the boundaries of time and space, it occurred to me that here Collins had perhaps fashioned a rather sly allegorical portrait of the art world. Consider that karaoke, which rose to fame in Japan but was fashionable worldwide by the mid-’90s, oddly mimics many of the characteristics of the contemporary art scene: Both karaoke and contemporary art are symptoms of globalization; both are nomadic; both are fueled by our new experience economy; and both perfectly encapsulate the DIY ethos that has become so pervasive in the last couple of decades. Karaoke is also an analogue of sorts to relational aesthetics, inasmuch as it is a cultural practice predicated upon participation rather than contemplation. And just as the rhetoric of democracy hangs around art’s participatory modes, so too is karaoke “democratic”—although the great equalizer here is that everyone is equally “talentless,” which helps to generate the communal we’re-all-in-this-together-and-anything-is-possible effect of karaoke bars.

You could say that the biggest difference between karaoke and relational aesthetics is that while both are highly contagious, karaoke is funny—funny because, as Henri Bergson theorized at the beginning of the last century, laughter is a response to the human body’s failure to be properly mechanical. In effect, karaoke renders failure pleasurable. When people do karaoke, they make themselves vulnerable; in these provisional gatherings they are willing to fail in front of one another. And fail they do. The participants in the world won’t listen bungle the lyrics, slur their broken English, and are confused about whether to look at the camera or the monitor. Even their globally recognizable hipster clothes fail to beat out the awesome banality of the stock landscape backdrops they are filmed against. Their amateurism is hilarious and moving and, in some deeply Brechtian form of fractured viewership, we cringe and root for them simultaneously.

Although failure as a trope is ever popular, not much has been said about it in relation to Collins’s practice. But I have become increasingly interested in the “little failures” that punctuate his work. At the very end of they shoot horses, his camera moves for the first time in seven hours and, in one quick turn of the zoom lens, practically caresses the intensely beautiful, flushed, and exhausted face of a young man. It is an astonishing moment. Its acknowledgment of desire (of the artist for his subject, of the man for the boy) is heartstopping. But however ravishing, the shot also feels like a (violent?) rupture, as the artist is clearly unable to maintain his emphatically static (stoic?) camera—a cinematic style indebted to such high-minded structuralist filmmakers as Chantal Akerman and James Benning. This close-up is a punctum, and through it we are made acutely aware of Collins’s yearning presence. In this one gesture, a work of art that seemed all along to be about others (the ultimate other for a Western audience, even) comes to seem, in the final instance, to be also about Collins.

This “disturbance” happens again in gerçeğin geri dönüşü (the return of the real), 2005, a project for which the call for entrants, again in Istanbul, was directed to people who felt their lives had been ruined by reality television. The work, which debuted at the 2005 Istanbul Biennial and was also on view in the 2006 Turner Prize exhibition at Tate Britain—Collins was one of four nominees for the prize, though painter Tomma Abts won—treats viewers to a parade of individuals confessing their misery and exploitation at the hands of reality TV. The stories range from the Kafkaesque (a man was arrested after his son accidentally killed another child) to the borderline farcical (a woman was libeled as a porn star). Each participant in gerçeğin geri dönüşü is shown in multiple ways: in a photographic portrait; in a video of a press conference arranged by Collins; and, most centrally, in a double-screen projection in which the subjects appear individually on one screen, while on the other an interviewer, hired by Collins, listens with a plastic smile and asks benign questions that simply elicit further embarrassing revelations. The doubling of the subject’s exposure is as excruciating as it is compelling, and anyone versed in the work of Michel Foucault cannot help but think that the demand to speak in a putatively therapeutic situation is the most efficient form of domination. The viewer is caught in a tennis match, looking back and forth from interviewer to subject, encouraged, in essence, to do the work of shot-reverse-shot editing designed to suture one into classic suspension of disbelief. Engrossing and maudlin, the stories are as hard to believe as they are easy to anticipate (we know things will turn out badly). Behind the interviewer, however, another minor melodrama unfolds. We see the camera trained on the subject, and every once in a while we see Collins emerge from behind it. Arms crossed, lips pursed, his shock of red hair slightly damp from sweat, he is the image of nervousness. His concerns silently pour out of him. One imagines his worries: “Is the shot right? Is the story OK? Is it going well? Will everyone be OK? Is this too much? Is it enough? It’s horrible, what’s happened to them and that I might be making it happen to them again.”

I found Collins’s random and seemingly accidental “behind-the-scenes” appearance a moment of fissure akin to the close-up in they shoot horses. It jolted me out of the lull of viewership; it made me, once again, as much aware of the emotional sensibility and situation of the maker as of the person in front of the camera, the person with the story to tell. The combined effect of these works provoked, for me, a pedestrian question: What exactly is it that we are supposed to do with a camera these days? The technology is so ubiquitous that it seems as if one needn’t even ask the question, so habitual and unexamined, typically, is our response to the apparatus. Like innumerable contemporary artists, Collins has made the camera his ally. This was true in the still photos that predominate in his early work. In the ethereal erotic blue light of siniša (blue), 2003, an image depicting the sinuous body of a young Serbian man, we are aware that a camera has entered this rather extraordinary space and time. Even more so in you’re not the man you never were #2, 2000, an image in which a chunk of the male torso is solidly pressed up against the picture plane. It is the artist, holding his half-hard cock; above it, a huge wound, a still-raw gash held together with surgical tape. Confronted with the one hand, it’s difficult not to think of the equivalence—one hand on his dick, the other on the camera release. So, too, in the more recent video projections, the camera, or an awareness of it, is always there. Where it is, he is. But unlike artists for whom the use of the camera appears to be completely mannered (Anna Gaskell or Gregory Crewdson) or naturalized (Jessica Craig-Martin or Roe Ethridge), for Collins the camera’s omnipresence is anthropomorphized; through the intensity of his identification with it, it becomes a palpable actor in the mise-en-scène. In this new version of Kino-eye, instead of the camera making the man mechanical, the camera itself seems to acquire a kind of subjectivity. (Even his early pictures of the wildly abused image of Britney Spears have a kind of pathos, as if the camera, the original agent of her spectacular degradation, might now be able to rehumanize her.) The camera is Collins’s other, and, as such, artist and camera exist in and for each other, through each other, because of each other. (Anri Sala and Zoe Leonard perhaps share this relation to the camera, although in Collins’s case the relationship seems to have a particular intensity.)

To speak of feelings and failure and otherness is to cross-pollinate the discursive regimes of psychology and philosophy and to arrive on the doorstep of conversations about ethics. I’ve noted two moments of “little failures” (which I suppose I mean to rhyme with the “petite mort” of orgasmic pleasure), when the artist seems unable to stick to his own plan. These moments are small tears in an otherwise seamless presentation of “other people” doing the best they can under the specificity of their political conditions. I don’t impute a very high degree of artistic intention to either of these incidents; indeed, it is their almost accidental quality—as if they were aesthetic Freudian slips—that I find so disarming.

The companion piece to gerçeğin geri dönüşü in the Turner Prize exhibition was an office Collins established in the galleries under the moniker shady lane productions, 2006. Although it looked like the set of a sitcom (not dissimilar to The Office, either the BBC or NBC version), it was in actuality a fully functioning work zone. In a brilliantly parasitic use of the museum, which provided free rent, phone, supplies, etc., Collins used the space, complete with assistants and a production crew, to conduct interviews for the British version of the Turkish reality-TV project. (Both the British component—which went on view at Victoria Miro Gallery in London, where teleprompters functioned as readymade sculptures —and the entire project travel under the plain English title the return of the real.) The office was entirely glassed in; the only aperture was a sliding window on one side, just large enough for a face to stick through. The door to the studio was reached from a nonpublic site in the museum, so people simply appeared and vanished stage right, never actually materializing in the gallery space. While the setup recalled some aspects of relational aesthetics, particularly Rirkrit Tiravanija’s re-creations of his apartment in various venues over the years, perhaps more pertinent was its channeling of earlier Conceptual and performance-art strategies that foregrounded the labor of the artist: shades of Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s 1969 proposal for living in the galleries of a museum with her husband and child, so that viewers could see her as both an artist and a working mother.

Like a good analysand, Collins took the Freudian slips of they shoot horses and gerçeğin geri dönüşü and mined them. What does it mean for an artist to put himself on display like this? He was quite dutiful, showing up every day, Monday through Friday, sitting around, like so many of us do at the office, even when there was nothing to do. As if in pointed rejoinder to the UK press’s readiness to turn any artist under the age of fifty into a scatological pervert, Collins’s gesture was that of a stand-up working-class boy, clocking in at an office rather than at a factory, no less. “Um, I’m here working. What are you doing?” Shady lane productions was a strategic inversion of the return of the real: Why wait for the press to fulfill our prurient desire for artists to be scandalous stars when we could just go watch them ourselves? Mirroring the realtime exposure of the interviewees in the next room, Collins sought to make his own artistic life and process just as transparent. Yet in stark contrast to the talky quality of the return of the real, or the highly emotive singing of the world won’t listen, or the sheer ebullience of the they shoot horses sound track, the goings-on at shady lane productions were inaudible to the viewer. Leaning against the wall, watching Collins and crew working, I wondered, What does it mean to watch and not be able to listen in? What is transparency without audibility? And I immediately thought of the great Joni Mitchell lyric “constant as the northern star? That’s constant in the darkness, if you want me, I’ll be in the bar.”

In shady lane productions, Collins took up his own challenge: By making himself the subject of the situation, he engaged in a kind of perverse karaoke marathon in which he performed the role of the nomadic global artist in the poststudio environment. And like his fellow karaoke aficionados in the world won’t listen and the damaged souls in the return of the real, he made himself seem incredibly vulnerable with this act of exposure. But unlike the provisional community of the karaoke bar, ready for the performer’s failure, the audience at the Tate was largely unprepared for this dynamic. Both times I went to see the piece, I ended up feeling extremely agitated as I watched the steady stream of visitors walk by. I couldn’t figure out what was worse—when they simply ignored him or when they ridiculed him. But what exactly would constitute a successful viewer in this situation? Why was I watching the crowd and not the artist? I think part of my discomfort was generated by the extremity of the silence; it meant that I had become the camera. The real-time duration was up to me now. I was made into the other of the artist, the other to the situation at hand, a situation I could only partially grasp. No matter how much I watched this inaudible event, most of it would remain unknown to me. This realization recalled for me the profound insights of philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. For Levinas, the primary attribute of the other is his or her radical alterity, or consummate unknowableness, and any notion of ethics or feelings of love must begin from this realization. According to Levinas, I love and care for someone not because I know her but because in fact I do not know her and can never know her. Levinas exhorts his readers to see that ethics means that I am responsible for the other, regardless of whether this sense of responsibility is reciprocated.

To some extent the pleasure of Collins’s work lies in a kind of identification with the other through a recognition of the self—a concept that took some serious hits during the heyday of poststructuralist theory. But, considered in light of Levinas, shady lane productions mitigates this sense of the “self-as-other”—which might mean that one of the things going on in Collins’s evolving oeuvre is an attempt to elicit the multiple vectors of identification offered by art (once considered to be “universal”) in its newly globalized milieu (in which there is a creeping fear that audience and artist are becoming increasingly interchangeable). With this in mind, I think part of what was at stake in shady lane productions was a critique of the logic of relational aesthetics that demands the presence and activity of the viewer—or, in Levinas’s formulation, the other—when in fact the artist is often absent, off to the next biennial. Collins has apparently decided instead that what was mandatory was the presence of the artist—the category of person, it is worth noting, on which museums are dependent. Collins did not ask viewers to participate in ludic experiential play but rather confined them to an outside and relegated them to silence, throwing them back onto their own desires, their own otherness. The glass wall acknowledged that the viewer and the artist were unknowable to each other, which provoked the ethical and psychological dilemma: not, What do I want from this experience, but, What do I want from this other, unknowable, person? And while the piece may have been “successful” in its exploitation of previous small failures, the question it ultimately asked was not the kind that wins people prizes.

Helen Molesworth is Maisie K. and James R. Houghton curator of contemporary art at the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University.