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Interview: Phil Collins

In his complex, engaging and very often funny works, the Berlin-based 2006 Turner Prize nominee Phil Collins (not to be confused with the former member of the band Genesis) balances heightened social engagement with playfulness.

Phil Collins, Berlin based English video artist in his apartment in Berlin, 2009
Photo courtesy of Petr Antonov

In his complex, engaging and very often funny works, the Berlin-based 2006 Turner Prize nominee Phil Collins (not to be confused with the former member of the band Genesis) balances heightened social engagement with playfulness.

On the eve of the opening, at the Temporäre Kunsthalle, of his new show Auto-Kino, the English artist talked to us about the different communities that engage his work, his abiding love for pop culture – and whether or not Palestinians listen to Beyoncé.

Tell us about Auto-Kino.

When I was asked to put together a show, my first thoughts were about the cold, dark weather. It seemed that the best way to watch a programme of experimental films and videos was at a drive-in cinema – it’s a contained and intimate place, but also a place with a social dynamic where one can have a conversation with a friend or a stranger. So I came up with a drive-in cinema of around 15 secondhand cars, which means about 30 front-row seats. [laughs]

Does it work just like a regular cinema?

Yeah, except it’s free. There will be a full programme to help people identify what they would like to see. Each film lasts more or less one hour and all the films will be scheduled, just like at a regular cinema. The seating is limited though, so people really need to book in advance.

How did you select the movies?

I spent the last two months doing pretty much nothing else but watching movies. I worked a lot with the archive at the Arsenal, [in an effort] to put together a programme I’m passionate about. There are unknown artists and more established artists, some are Germans – since there is a really great experimental tradition in Germany – and some not, but the main focus is on artists who work and live in Berlin.

You lived in Belfast before Glasgow [which is where he came from last year on an invitation from the DAAD]. Did Belfast influence your work?

It was a great time. It was around 1998 or 2000 – I worked in performance and live art for a number of years, with a group called the Max Factory. Many of the questions I’m still trying to answer come from that time. Belfast is a city with a terrible history of division and fracture, so my work became all about the political aspects of art and how to engage the public.

Your art often originates in areas of conflict, but it is also about the unexpected aspects of life.

My works are mostly about pop culture, but they are also about places like the Balkans, Belfast, Baghdad and Ramallah. It seemed to me that the connections between, let’s say, the west and these places of political unrest were largely eroded in favour of the burden of documentary – documentary was the only way of explaining what was going on in those parts of the world.

For example, before going to Ramallah I didn’t know if young Palestinians listened to Beyoncé or not. This question became the focus of my 2004 “they shoot horses” project, which is a video installation that depicts a staged, seven–hour disco-marathon with a group of young people in Ramallah.

So not something one would necessarily expect to come out of Ramallah.

“they shoot horses” is a video about exhaustion, about containment, but ultimately it is also about seduction, about pop music and about momentary transcendence. It is interesting to me to see how pop culture offers apparent moments of liberty which unfortunately don’t last.

Does Berlin inspire you in any way?

Yeah. Actually, I’m working on a project about former Marxist teachers, people who taught Marxism or socialist philosophy in schools in East Germany and Russia. I would like to bring them to Manchester to teach Marxism in schools there.

Do you have any specific idea about the outcome?

In this case, I’m interested about what happens to people with such a level of expertise; in how their social conditions changed in the last 20 years. They used to teach on a daily basis and today they are not required to do so anymore. I’m interested in what happened to those people. Are they employed or unemployed, have they retrained, have they become something entirely different? It is all about life history in the simplest way.

When you’re working, how much of what you do is about control, and how much of it is about the unexpected?

What I tend to do is work towards a defined platform. I’m pretty thorough in the way I put things together, but there is a time when you need to cut the strings and allow the event to happen and take over. What’s really exciting about Auto-Kino is that hopefully we’ll have people from all over Berlin and outside Berlin coming to be entertained and moved, but also to look for the unexpected, the unpredictable.

Speaking of “unpredictable”, for your project “you’ll never work in this town again” you slapped 28 prominent Glaswegian art world figures in one evening. Who were they and did they know they were about to be slapped?

They were collectors, curators, art critics and art historians and they all knew, but still… I always told the person that I would count to three before I slap, but I always did it on two to catch them out. The experience was nerve-racking. All the time I just [kept thinking] that at some point someone would slap back.

Did it happen?

Yeah, one person slapped back.

Do you have any desire to slap other art world denizens?

I’ve already done it. I got calls from Belgrade, Philadelphia and London. They asked me to go and slap them too.

How about Berlin?

I’m still waiting for the call.