In Focus

Phil Collins: the world won't listen

The following is an essay by __Liz Kotz, entitled "Live Through This," included in the 2007 publication, _Phil Collins: the world won't listen._

Over the past several years, Phil Collins’s work in video has investigated the complex, unpredictable, and often fraught relationships among those who watch, shoot, and appear on video and TV. Although positioned within the art world, Collins’s project has emerged from the margins of recent visual art practice. Since the 1990s, countless artists have pushed the medium toward spectacular and pictorial uses that divorce it from its roots in amateur video and TV—often adopting video technology to contrive quasi-cinematic narratives or create giant luminous tableaux that decorate buildings. In the artfully constructed world of high-end gallery-based video, irruptions of the real are rare; almost no one talks.

Collins’s work insistently pushes back, into the psychic entrapment, confessional moments, and the troubling power relations occasioned by vernacular uses of video. In it, people do sing and also talk and tell stories. Part of the reason video so often fails as a device for self-mirroring is that many of us don’t feel comfortable with what we see on the monitor—the selves that appear from without are not always ones we recognize, much less identify with. Collins’s videos explore the danger and awkwardness of such exposure. Yet from within the violence of representation, he nonetheless extracts moments of extraordinary beauty, even ecstatic bliss. And even if a number of his tapes are shot in adamantly low-fi, improvised conditions, his gallery presentations are often seamless and highly crafted, self-consciously aware of the validation and drama that media presentation accords everyday life.

These qualities all come together in the trio of The Smiths karaoke videos. In el mundo no escuchará (2004), filmed in Bogotá, Colombia, an array of youngish Smiths’ fans perform in front of incongruously sunny backdrops of lakeside and tropical leisure. Each backdrop is close enough to the camera that light bounces off it and the performers’ shadows fall on it, heightening the artificiality of the scene and making it harder to sink into the nightclub ambiance conjured by the singers’ clothes and manners. They try on various rock star poses and gestures, with varying degrees of credibility. The mood changes from song to song and from singer to singer. Many of the performances are not conventionally good, but they are all captivating and even moving. As the singers deliver their songs, they open up private worlds they invite us to enter with them, their courage and exposure making them beautiful.

As Collins describes it: “Other people sometimes find karaoke embarrassing, or laughable, or delusional—the idea that someone gets up and thinks they can sing. But I find it moving and incredibly courageous. As a format, karaoke offers a promise of completion—this act will somehow make me whole—but at the same time it’s predicated on the idea of vulnerability and failure, with its countless false starts, its blind terror. The way the pub falls away, and you can clearly see the spot where someone stands. The way they find themselves lost in the middle of a song but unable to escape until it finishes. It's like a mild form of heroism.”

In dünya dinlemiyor (2005), shot in Istanbul, Turkey, the backdrops change more frequently, a parade of sun-kissed mountain vistas and cheery lakeside scenes. Instead of producing any kind of visual recreation of the world of the songs, the video dislocates us, make us feel the enormous gap between the stage set and the performance—a parable of the alienation the lyrics recount. In Collins’s serial works, one or two performers appear to be crucial, seeming to stand for the whole in some indirect way. Toward the end of dünya dinlemiyor, a young man wearing a Kafka T-shirt dances throughout the instrumental “Oscillate Wildly.” At the very end, a pretty young woman in glittery lipstick and eye shadow works herself into a frenzy during “Rubber Ring,” a fervor that outlasts the song, so that the video closes on her face contorted in agony or bliss.

Because of the song’s evocative lyrics and the singer’s heightened performance, we imagine that we share her feelings: “The passing of time / And all of its crimes / Is making me sad again. / But don’t forget the songs / That made you cry / And the songs that saved your life.” Collins stages this unabashed belief in the redemptive power of popular culture, in the perverse idea that the music of The Smiths might unearth secret communities of believers in the most far-flung locales. What video allows him to do is to concretize these human subjects into a form of social sculpture; we observe not only gestures and bodies and faces, but also comprehend at least something of the complex social dynamics that underpin them—and us. What Collins has done is to find forms that engage and lay bare the social and psychological relations among subjects and viewers that integrally comprise the medium of video. The very minimalist devices he appropriates have all been understood as strategies to foreground the perceptual and bodily experiences of viewers encountering an object in time and in a specific place. Unlike the strictly phenomenological concerns of minimal art, Collins understands that these encounters are never just in the here and now, but are also located in the very different temporalities of fantasy and projection.

Adapted from

Liz Kotz, "Live Through This," in Phil Collins: the world won't listen, eds. Suzanne Weaver and Siniša Mitrović (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007), 57-65.