New York

Phil Collins, This Unfortunate Thing Between Us (detail), 2011, production still from a 60-minute color video component of a mixed-media installation.

Phil Collins, This Unfortunate Thing Between Us (detail), 2011, production still from a 60-minute color video component of a mixed-media installation.

Phil Collins

Tanya Bonakdar Gallery

Phil Collins, This Unfortunate Thing Between Us (detail), 2011, production still from a 60-minute color video component of a mixed-media installation.

In 1998, an influential article in the Harvard Business Review introduced the phrase “experience economy”; in the years since, billing a product or service as an “event” of “memorable” or “transformative” effect has become the pervasive rhetoric of marketing. In 2011, Phil Collins created the idiosyncratic home-shopping channel TUTBU.TV, offering television viewers an opportunity to purchase and then star in selected experiences as though they were exchangeable commodities. Yet these experiences, when mediated through the hyperbolic theater of TV sales, delivered not only “memories” but perverse forms of catharsis and mortification.

Hosted by a troupe of outlandish pitchmen and pitchwomen, sundry porn workers, and a few laconic musicians, the two-night affair was broadcast live from a Berlin theater on German national television. The first evening consisted of an hour of promotions inviting callers to buy advertised experiences that they then came to live out in the studio on the second night. The first night’s pitches offered the opportunity to be interrogated by secret police, to star in a bodice-ripping period porn fantasy, and, finally, to denounce family and friends from one’s deathbed. Each pitch was followed by actors staging an interpretation of the event being sold, and a teaser encouraging the television audience to “Call our Customer Centre right now! Our competent operators are at your disposal!”

Despite the proclamations of the ebullient-to-the-point-of-hysterical host, the experiences delivered on the second night contained little of the miraculous, and instead ranged from the mundane to the painfully awkward. One middle-aged gent named Gerd bought the police interrogation and was grilled about his prior run-ins with the authorities. He revealed . . . that he went to traffic school for two hours as a youth. Student Hans paid a mere 7.99 euros for a role in a period porno, yet he was dressed as a corseted lady-in-waiting. Though he gamely assumed character, his dialogue was overdubbed by an offstage female actor, only adding to the ridiculousness. (He was eventually ravished by two women, so he didn’t fare too badly.)

Middle-aged Klaus purchased the fantasy of waking up from a coma and cursing the relatives gathered at his bedside. Surrounded by his wife and two of his sisters, he excoriated actors standing in as his father, his son, and another sister for their selfishness and neglect. His three real family members were horror-struck; one wiped away tears as she witnessed Klaus’s petty tirade. “And you lost me at the funfair when I was a kid,” he sputters. “Go to hell, bastards!” Because it widened the net of humiliation to unsuspecting relatives subject to the charade, this final episode, in contrast to the previous two scenarios, was wrenching. Reifying family hostilities as though they are commodities, the piece recalls reality television’s stock-in-trade—the impossible promise of proceeding from degradation to renewal in a fifteen-minute segment—but communicates the real emotional stakes.

Videos of the broadcasts were shown in the gallery under the title This Unfortunate Thing Between Us, 2011, screened inside the kind of cramped hitch campers often used for family vacations. These little caravans, themselves providing a kind of commodified leisure experience, exposed viewers seated within to spectators peering in through the trailers’ windows. Two unrelated projects were also part of the exhibition: a short film about an unlikely community of skinheads in Malaysia and a series of listening booths featuring songs based on phone conversations Collins recorded at homeless shelters. Yet it was the frenzied teleshopping culture of This Unfortunate Thing Between Us that was most gripping, capturing as it did the manner in which publicized experiences of self-abnegation have come to stand in for personal growth or social transformation.

Eva Díaz