You can be ashamed / That’s the way things are / After all, after all . . . .” So begins a new song by Scritti Politti. “Are you in Cologne / By the Rhine sometime / Getting by, getting by . . . ,” we hear later on. The lyrics are based not on the experiences of Green Gartside, the lead singer of the famed British pop group, but rather on the transcript of an anonymous telephone conversation that took place in a free-to-use phone booth set up in a Cologne homeless center, or “survival station,” as it’s called in the city. The recorded conversation was one of several drawn upon in compositions by 13 international musicians and groups, among them the English singer-songwriter David Sylvian, the American folk-rock duo Damon & Naomi, and Laetitia Sadier of the London band Stereolab. All were commissioned by the British-born artist Phil Collins, who was responsible for installing the phone booth in the first place. The recordings—of both the original German conversations and the songs—became the basis for his installation my heart’s in my hand, and my hand is pierced, and my hand’s in the bag, and the bag is shut, and my heart is caught (2013), a project that raises uncomfortable questions about the limits of privacy, the ethics of using desperate situations as source material and the nature of artistic appropriation in general.
Collins has never shied away from taking the real lives of others—messy and awkward though they may be—as the material for his art, in which he interrogates the nature of collaboration and the contract between subject and maker. Such was the case in my heart’s in my hand . . . , co-commissioned by Collin’s own Shady Lane Productions and Cologne’s Museum Ludwig in conjunction with “In every dream home a heartache,” his solo exhibition at the museum. At the survival station, the phone booth could be used by anyone to call anywhere free, on the condition that the calls (always kept anonymous) would be recorded for potential use by the artist in his work. While providing a useful service for a neglected social group, the piece heightened awareness about the vulnerability of our intimate, often quite banal moments of communication (a matter that came under the spotlight while Collins’s exhibition was on view in May, when the U.S. National Security Agency’s widespread surveillance program was revealed). What happens to our private moments when they enter the public sphere? Is there a distinction to be made any more between private and public, now that our telephone data can be traced and stored on government orders, search engines routinely target us with advertising based on our Internet habits, and mass-entertainment reality TV shows feed on the most unpleasant aspects of family life?
Collins grew up in the North of England in the 1970s and ’80s, and studied English and drama at the University of Manchester in the early ’90s. During these formative years, he absorbed the pervasive influence of independent music in a city that was home not only to such seminal bands as the Smiths and New Order, but also the legendary Haçienda nightclub, cradle of acid house and rave culture. (Collins worked behind the bar there during his student years.) Moving to London, he acted in and produced works as part of the performance art group Max Factory. During this time he was also the secretary for The Big Issue, a magazine sold by the homeless as a source of employment and income. In 1998, he moved to Belfast to study art.
These experiences clearly influenced the works—most often films—that Collins began to make after he graduated. In these, music may be a catalyst for a cultural investigation, as in the world won’t listen (2004-07), in which Collins videotaped Smiths fans in Turkey, Colombia and Indonesia performing karaoke versions of the band’s songs; or it may add an unexpected melancholy tone to more serious subject matter, as does the soundtrack by Sadier for marxism today (prologue), 2010. The nature of performance is highlighted in Collins’s pseudo telenovela melodrama soy mi madre (2008) or, more desperately, in an hours-long disco dance marathon he staged and filmed in Ramallah (They Shoot Horses, 2004). Given his background and experiences, the conflation of homelessness and pop music in my heart’s in my hand . . . is not as arbitrary as it might first appear. Collins’s connection to Cologne is likewise based on an ongoing engagement, as he has been professor of video art at the city’s Kunsthochschule für Medien (Academy of Media Arts) since 2011. The rootedness of Collins’s own vested interests is a distinctive characteristic of his collaborative approach, in which real life and art-making come to overlap.
On offer at the Museum Ludwig was a selection of the conversations recorded in the phone booth, along with the songs “inspired” by them, on 7-inch vinyl records displayed in custom-designed listening booths on the museum’s second floor. Here, in their own private cabins, visitors could choose a record and play it on a turntable. The old-fashioned aesthetic of the carpeted, wood-paneled cubicles, with their record players and Peg-Board displays, chimed with the near-obsolete status of vinyl singles, as well as that of landline pay phones, which have all but disappeared from the urban landscape. The ubiquity of the mobile phone, along with the assumption that nowadays we are potentially all connected at all times, is consciously countered by the intimate situation set up by the listening booths. (Collins, by the way, is one of only a handful of people I have met in recent years who does not own a mobile phone.)
Most affecting, however, was the fact that the booths were adjacent to large plate-glass windows looking down onto train tracks and a railway bridge over the Rhine, below which, though not visible, was the survival station itself. While the catchy indie pop ballads and intriguing one-on-one conversations complement each other in unexpected ways, they also provide an emotionally moving soundtrack to the view out of the window onto the city and passersby below—very often, as it turns out, attending more to their mobile phones than to the environment around them. Collins’s careful handling and staging of the phone-booth material counterbalanced concerns about the ethics of the project as a whole and delivered a certain unanticipated pathos. From behind the safety of the glass windows, it seemed suddenly important to be thinking about people’s difficult lives—in our midst, partially overheard, but barely visible.
A similar strategy was employed in Collins’s free fotolab (2009), in which the artist offered to develop other people’s unexposed rolls of 35mm film at no charge, on condition that he could choose any pictures that he liked and display them as his own work. It was a bargain that potentially benefited both parties but raised a dilemma concerning the terms by which the two sides operate. Can such a simple transaction of “services rendered” be truly balanced? How do we weigh artistic worth, the mechanics of appropriation and the complex value system of art objects? Is this “bargain” not something like that agreed to by reality TV participants offered a sum of money to display the ugly details of their lives? (It’s a subject Collins himself addressed explicitly in three different versions of a work called the return of the real, 2005-07, in which he interviewed ex-reality TV participants about their experiences.) Significantly, Collins does not usually pay the subjects of his projects, but rather recruits willing participants, who are looking to air their grievances, have their photographs printed or make a free phone call or two. That these exchanges are potentially full of pain, compromise and regret is exactly the point of Collins’s delicately poised works, which, by exposing such misalignments, open up unexpected views into aspects of our immediate surroundings that are too often ignored or willfully misrepresented.
In his book Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation (Penguin Books, 2012), sociologist Richard Sennett analyzes the importance of cooperation and everyday bonds that “oil the social engine,” as he puts it. He discusses situations of cooperation in the workplace or neighborhood that do not necessarily take place between like-minded people, distinguishing between sympathy and empathy, between “‘I feel your pain,'” and “‘I am attending intently to you’ rather than ‘I know just what you feel'” (pp. 20-21). Empathy, according to Sennett, is increasingly essential, given the ever more complex mix of religious, national and cultural backgrounds in our fluctuating communities.
Collins’s approach is guided by empathy. In my heart’s in my hand . . . , he engages with and ostensibly gives a voice to the homeless—a social group usually disregarded despite its ubiquity—but he does not identify with the homeless, or attempt to “feel their pain.” His approach in fact echoes that employed in the survival station itself, which, significantly, is not considered a “shelter” for the homeless but a place that provides vital facilities—lockers, showers, mobile phone charging stations, Internet access, quiet rooms, a café—in exchange for which the clients take part in the maintenance of the facility. The center, named Gulliver, offers its participants a kind of self-sustainability that enables them to maintain contact with society. While Collins’s project publicized Gulliver, helping the station to attract the private sponsorship it relies on for its continuation, it also proposed a subtle alignment between Gulliver’s role and the social mission of the Museum Ludwig within the city.
The conversations I listened to in the quiet confines of the listening booth were surprisingly undramatic. Rather, they were full of dead ends, pauses and expressions of disappointment (“Shit . . . I don’t know what I should do . . . shit”); dogged determination (“You just have to live like this, fight through it”); or merely the rock-bottom basics of communication (“Tell mother that I am still alive, I just want to be by myself”). The specifics of the elliptical conversations and the relationships between the speakers are often hard to pin down, but the exchanges usually revolve around worries about money, work or lack of it, life on the street and being stuck on the outside of a system with no way in. Shame and disappointment alternate with resignation or a bleak matter-of-factness about how life has turned out. In Collins’s project, the landline telephone is not only a practical tool for communication but also an emotional lifeline that connects one human voice to another, and that allows some semblance of human relationships to persist, despite difficult circumstances. The expectations, miscommunications and barely revealed love we hear expressed are familiar, and could constitute any conversation between son and mother, husband and wife, or close friends, not just the down-and-out. The task of maintaining relationships is a challenge for us all.
Communication is the common denominator that runs throughout Collins’s work, conveyed not only through telephone conversations and music, but television, pedagogical strategies and language itself. Even clothing may be seen as a means of communication, as in the meaning of style (2011), a short, wordless film shown at the Museum Ludwig. The film follows a group of attractive young Malaysian youths who have the shaved heads, big boots, drainpipe jeans and bomber jackets usually associated with skinhead culture. Though the skinhead identity had its origins in Britain in the 1960s and was closely tied to Jamaican ska and reggae music, it later acquired a white nationalist element, and skinheads came to be associated with neo-Nazism, an image perpetuated by the mainstream media that stuck. The adoption of the skinhead look by a specifically antifascist subculture (as the press materials inform us) on the other side of the world brings the skinhead subculture back to its roots, despite the distance in time and place between Southeast Asia and the UK (not to mention Jamaica). Collins’s film, in which these youths mill around to the sound of gorgeous strumming guitar music by Welsh musician Gruff Rhys and the band Y Niwl, has the escapist atmosphere of a music video, especially when a flock of butterflies is released, perching on the young men’s shoulders and ears. What may appear exotic to Western eyes (tropical butterflies, Malaysian ethnicity) is yoked with the fashionably familiar (bovver boots and suspenders), and a consistency of aims and means of expression emerges that de-emphasizes cultural differences. The meaning of style, Collins shows us, is not as fixed as we might have it.
Collins’s wanderlust (over the past 15 years, he has made films in Macedonia, Serbia and Baghdad, in addition to the countries already mentioned) reveals something of the artist’s tenacity and curiosity, as well as his disinclination to believe the version of events served up by the mainstream media. He aims to get as close as possible to the issues at hand, enmeshing himself in the local social fabric, as if attempting to swap his perspective with that of his subjects. His films have a direct, first-person character, which says much about the artist’s persuasiveness as an interviewer and the level of trust he is able to establish between himself and his subjects. The artist is never audible or visible, however, and his presence is hard to grasp at all; he is not only off-screen but in effect erased. He describes himself as a “proxy” or “witness,” and is adamant about not recruiting people against their will, but rather making an offer to which they may respond freely, as with free fotolab or the phone booth in my heart’s in my hand . . . . This distinguishes his endeavor from that of artists such as Santiago Sierra, whose works lay bare the mechanics of financial transactions through monetary exchange with their subjects, or Artur Å»mijewski, who sets up confrontational situations with his subjects so that issues of emotional coercion hover uncomfortably around the edges. Collins proposes to act as a catalyst—an “active agent,” as he calls it—in order to articulate cultural phenomena or moments of social upheaval through first-person narratives. These reveal a much more nuanced version of events than the ideologically biased versions from either side could possibly achieve.
Displaying the same tenacity, Collins inhabits the conventions of film and television genres in order to discover their unexpected angles. His latest target was shopping channels. In November 2011, he staged a tour-de-force live performance in Berlin’s Hebbel am Ufer theater over two consecutive nights, and screened it simultaneously on German public television. His self-devised TUTBU TV did not sell products, as a conventional shopping channel would, but purveyed live experiences for the viewers to call in and bid on (for the “introductory price of €9.99”). The German public was offered three options: the chance to be interrogated, to play a role in a historical porn scene, or to stage their own death bed scene, surrounded by relatives. These three rather dystopian alternatives presented a camp satire on the moral bankruptcy of television in our late capitalist culture.
At the Ludwig Museum, the video versions of the two nights’ televised events (the first with actors playing out the experiences, the second with real-life participants chosen from those who called in) formed the basis of the installation This Unfortunate Thing Between Us (2011). Each version played on a small portable television in a little English trailer home, the kind used for rainy countryside holidays circa 1979. Hunched inside this outdated trailer on a revolving stage in a museum in Cologne, watching this at times explicit and certainly late-night entertainment along with a random assortment of other unwitting museum visitors, I realized that the television has indeed become an “unfortunate thing between us.” While alienating us from actual human contact, it nevertheless draws us together and provides a general vocabulary we may share. “Teleshopping ist kommunikation pur,” announces the show’s presenter, and by the end of this manic, full-throttle performance, you may well begin to believe him.
Currently on view: “Phil Collins” at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York, through Oct. 19.
Kirsty Bell is a writer living in Berlin.