In Focus

The Video Art of Phil Collins

The following is a 2007 essay by __Liz Kotz, titled "Live Through This," in Phil Collins: the world won't listen.

As his oddly awkward photographs suggest, Collins isn’t interested in making pretty pictures. Instead, his turn to video seems to have begun with pain. The artist has discussed how he came to make his first video, how to make a refugee (1999), while recording photo shoots by journalists working in a Kosovar refugee camp across the border in Macedonia. In_ how to make a refugee_, we look on as a crew of British photojournalists pose and photograph a Kosovar family, focusing on a petulant, bored-looking fifteen-year-old boy. In one charged moment, he is asked to raise his undershirt to reveal a long scar across his stomach; in another, the extended family is arranged on the couch as in an ersatz portrait session. As crew members chatter mindlessly in the background and issue terse commands, the scene takes on a casual brutality. Commenting on the experience, Collins recalls that there was “something very ugly and brutal about the total disregard for the subject, and a complete lack of understanding of the reasons why he won’t expose his wounds. . . . ” [1]

For us, in watching how to make a refugee, this discomfort is replicated. The tape is a document of a chance encounter between Collins and routine practices of photojournalism in war-torn locales. It’s like a shard, a found object. The tape starts abruptly and cuts off abruptly; its eleven minutes contain enough garbled dialogue, blocked views, and off-kilter shots to strain the patience of a Warhol fan. Yet it contains seeds of Collins’s subsequent work in video—from the intense fascination with the interior performances that distressed subjects provide for the camera to the artificial backdrops and incongruous props that emphasize the sense of placelessness. Although his videos are often shot in intense, conflict-ridden places—Baghdad, Bogotá, Ramallah, among others—Collins’s shooting style deliberately dislocates us, in ways that obliterate any direct reference to their immediate circumstances.

Clad in a dark blue T-shirt and baseball cap, the boy who is the main subject of how to make a refugee is pretty average looking—at first glance, he could be a skinny kid from anywhere. In watching the tape, our attention lingers on odd props and details— the thin gold chain around the boy’s neck, his Western teen attire, and the large bouquet of fake flowers that sits on an end table, partly blocking our view. Against the world-historical register of ethnic conflict and catastrophe, Collins is clearly drawn to these sorts of details and the glimpses they give us of private fantasies and desires. As Claire Bishop and Francesco Manacorda note, Collins’s work evidences what may seem to be “a politically-incorrect or frivolous attitude toward his subject-matter.” His works avoid direct references to the political situations they nonetheless record, preferring “generic globalized teenagers” to the overtly located subjects of most documentary work. As Bishop and Manacorda suggest, by “voiding the work of direct political narrative,” [2] Collins’s videos open spaces to be filled by our own fantasies and projections.

Elements that seem to have occurred accidentally in how to make a refugee are then explored as strategies in Collins’s subsequent works. In baghdad screentests (2002), Collins adopts the format and serial structure that Warhol used in his Screen Tests (1963–66). In Warhol’s films of the mid-1960s, visitors to the Factory were seated in front of a camera mounted on a tripod and were told not to move or blink for the duration of the approximately three-minute-long camera rolls. In Collins’s work, the effect is arguably different: shot in video, against a white background, the sequences mostly sidestep the confrontational, testlike quality of Warhol’s starkly lit portrait films. Is it the softer focus of the video camera or a different relation between viewer and viewed? Some of the subjects perform for the camera; others just sit there, quite formal, quietly staring. One man restlessly smokes onscreen and appears to talk to the camera or to an imaginary camera operator (Collins would leave his subjects alone in the room). He looks irritated and bored, gives the camera the finger, then starts reading a magazine. If Warhol’s would-be stars mostly were held transfixed by the camera, Collins’s subjects are far more difficult to read. In the absence of contextual information, we look all the harder for the small signs and details that might allow us to read these faces, to bring them closer to us.

The serial form, presenting one thing after another, is not only a debt to Warhol but also a classic strategy of 1960s minimal art and structural film. Collins’s videos tend to employ one of a handful of minimalist devices—task structures, extended durations, serial presentations. Unlike the classic minimal and conceptual projects of the 1960s and 1970s, however, the activities and materials are loosely drawn from popular culture. In some of the videos, pop music is firmly integrated into the fabric of the work. Thus the karaoke project compiles an album of performances based on The Smiths’ 1987 compilation album, The World Won’t Listen _and _they shoot horses (2004), which lines two groups of young people against a wall to perform a seven-hour dance marathon to a selection of music from the past three decades. [3]

they shoot horses is Collins’s most sculptural work. In it, his involvement with early video and performance art becomes most visible. In his projects of the past several years, Collins has adopted sculptural and performance-based approaches to video, using process, duration, and repetition to create a complex relationship with the viewer, one in which positions of subject and object are usually far from stable. Taking its cue from the use of scale and “theatricality” in minimalist art, early work in video (and structural film, as well) created performative situations that forced viewers not only to respond to the work but also, in a sense to “complete” it. Drawing from these models, Collins’s videos set up rule-based structures and then see how they play out.

The opening moments of they shoot horses are a beautiful transition from stillness to movement, as the two groups of dancers start to move to the rhythm of the song. In each projection, several young people are lined up against a bright pink wall that has two horizontal stripes painted at about head height. The strict spatial arrangement allows permutations and variations to reveal themselves vividly. The dancers are confined to a shallow stage-like set, so their bodies bounce around all the corners of their narrow box much like pictorial elements trapped in a frame. When they are projected nearly life-sized on adjacent walls of the gallery, we encounter these figures in an almost one-to-one bodily relation. As the two groups of dancers keep trying to dance, song after song, hour after hour, their energy flags and then rallies and then flags again. One or two individuals sit out for a while, and then someone gets them going again. We have never met these young people, but after a while we feel as if we know them intimately: the cheerleadery girl with the long earrings and athletic clothes, the tired girl, the handsome aloof guy. As fatigue takes its toll, their efforts appear alternately tragic and comic, heroic and heartbreaking.

This type of task-based performance, recorded on video, inevitably recalls the studio films and videos that Bruce Nauman made in the late 1960s, in which he would perform a simple action for an extended period—for instance, Bouncing Two Balls between the Floor and Ceiling with Changing Rhythms or Walking in an Exaggerated Manner around the Perimeter of a Square (both 1967–68). Nauman’s actions were not random but highly structured and rehearsed, but over time the execution of these actions became disrupted by the operations of chance and human fatigue. We watch him get tired, get angry, lose focus, and lose control. In Nauman’s work the permeable line between everyday movement and choreographed task, between practice and performance, was inspired by Merce Cunningham’s transformations of everyday activities into dance and by the Judson Dance Theater’s experiments with task structures and repetition. [4] The discipline with which he carries out these seemingly pointless tasks gives the tapes a black humor and pathos.

Unlike the early artists who made performance videos, such as Vito Acconci and Nauman, Collins does not perform in his own works (except for a brief appearance at the end of baghdad screentests, where he is seen smoking). Instead, his videos operate through a kind of delegated performance as he finds subjects to perform for him—to be his surrogates and ours. His own desire for our attention is triangulated off another subject, who presumably wants his attention—and who is, therefore, willing to do intense things on camera. “I approach the construction of every work from a position of envy,” he comments, “ . ..this is the thing I wish I could do.” [5] A durational work such as they shoot horses makes particular demands on the spectator. As viewers we have to make a commitment to the piece and although watching it is far less demanding than performing in it must be, we don’t just observe the dancers’ joy and elation, endurance and fatigue, we experience them too.

Watching another, we are constantly pulled into and back out of ourselves. One might try to describe this as an aesthetics of transference or projection: we become Phil become the performers become us. Yet for all their intimacy, the works preserve a distance. Collins speaks of working with an almost romantic ideal: “to offer nothing more, nor less, than the imagined presence of another.”[6] The videos almost require us to fall in love with the subjects, to respect and admire their fractured moments of triumph and distress and extreme vulnerability.

[1] “Who Said an Artwork Shouldn’t Be an Imposition? A Conversation between Phil Collins and Jeremy Millar,” in Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2006, ed. Stefanie Braun (London: Photographers’ Gallery, 2006), 77.

[2] Claire Bishop and Francesco Manacorda, “The Producer as Artist,” in yeah . . . . . you,baby you, ed. Siniša Mitrović (Milton Keynes and Hove, England: Milton Keynes Gallery and Shady Lane Publications, 2005), 24.

[3] Both groups danced for eight hours, but the work contains only seven hours as one of the hour-long tapes was inexplicably lost in transit at the Israeli border.

[4] For the Judson dancers’ use of task structures and repetition, see Yvonne Rainer, Works, 1961–73 (Halifax: Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1974); and Sally Banes, Terpsichore in Sneakers: PostmodernDance (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1987).

[5] The Turner Prize 2006 audio guide, Phil Collins, Audio Guide Transcript, Tate Britain, 2006; http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/turnerprize/2006/philcollins_transcript.htm.

[6] Phil Collins, “Why Can’t I Be You?” in Now What? Artists Write!, ed. Annie Fletcher, Marija Havlajova, and Mark Kremer (Utrecht: BAK basis voor actuele kunst; Frankfurt: Revolver Archiv für aktuelle Kunst, 2004), 23–26.

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.