Phil Collins, This Unfortunate Thing Between Us, 2011, still from a live TV broadcast, 60 minutes.

Phil Collins, This Unfortunate Thing Between Us, 2011, still from a live TV broadcast, 60 minutes.

Phil Collins

Hebbel am Ufer

Phil Collins, This Unfortunate Thing Between Us, 2011, still from a live TV broadcast, 60 minutes.

What if the humdrum schlock of home-shopping programs were replaced with offers to participate in actual experiences? What if, for the “special introductory offer” price of 9.99, you could buy a role in a fantasy sequence on live television? Leaving the isolated comfort of your living room, you would travel to Berlin (transportation and accommodation included) to star in one of three scenes: Stasi-style interrogation, queer Victorian-era porno play, or lying in your own hospital deathbed surrounded by family members, whom you tell once and for all how much you really hate them. So went the premise of Phil Collins’s latest project, This Unfortunate Thing Between Us, 2011, produced for Testing Stage, a mini-festival organized as a Berlin prelude to last year’s Performa Biennial in New York. On two consecutive nights, the sixty-minute camp-filled spectacle was performed before a live audience at Hebbel am Ufer, and simultaneously broadcast on German public television.

Given Collins’s past investigations of the liminal space where reality and representation meet in the production of reality television, it wasn’t immediately clear whether the show was indeed playing out in real time. Were home viewers really responding to this offer—did they believe it was real? And if so, what did they make of the earnest monologues between vignettes that reflected on the debilitating effects of television—particularly its promotion of isolation and passivity? But call in they did and on the second night, three lucky buyers, selected by Collins based on their expressions of enthusiasm for one of the three scenarios, appeared live onstage. Mr. Radeke, sixty-one, was grilled about his first loves by a stern and hostile interrogator; Mr. Wiesner, twenty-two, donned a billowy frock and long wig as he joined a sex scene with two women (he also had the option of joining two men); and Mr. Funke, who looked to be in his midsixties, was so inspired that he persuaded the organizers to let him bring his own family members to play themselves at his bedside rather than the actors provided.

The reality-TV symbiosis of exhibitionism and voyeurism, authenticity and fiction has served Collins well in his continuing inquiries into the mechanisms of television (“this unfortunate thing between us”) and what they reveal about our culture, yet it is hard not to wonder whether his art might not be as exploitative as the system that is his subject. Just as with the return of the real, 2006–2007, in which former participants described the downsides to their experiences of being on television, Collins’s volunteers brought a certain earnestness, which, in context, read as naïveté. And as before, it is never entirely clear where Collins stands; the operating dynamics between artist and subject go unacknowledged. Although he intimates sympathy toward his subjects, providing them with both voice and stage, it is all within apparatuses that operate at their expense.

As fascinating as all this was to watch, the final message was rather dismal. Beneath visuals that included magenta-streaked eyes, blue lipstick, and a shoulder wrap exploding with some two dozen mannequin hands was the message of television culture’s metastasizing condition. For even as the forum was staged as a critique, and as the script described the mind-numbing tendencies of the medium, an abundance of seemingly unsavvy viewers were keen to join in, responding to the claim that this—enacting a farcical scene live on TV—was the chance to really feel something, to break out of the monotonous drudgery of ordinary life. As the slogan of the program put it (punchier auf Deutsch), “More experience is not possible.”

Margaret Ewing