Phil Collins

The word repeated most often in questions following artist filmmaker Phil Collins' talk at Goldsmiths' College this week was exploitation. Collins explained that he aims to put issues of exploitation at the forefront of his work, building on the historical association between film and the gaze. As a Briton, filming in locations such as Kosovo and Palestine, the political weight of observation, participation and spectatorship becomes even more apparent. Early on in the talk, Collins showed an extract of a film he made in Kosovo shadowing a group of British photojournalists. The footage is shocking because it reveals the extent of the photographers' ignorance and manipulation of events. A fifteen-year-old boy sits hunched on a couch, avoiding as best he can the gaze of the cameras. We hear the photojournalist and his assistant discuss the object of their gaze, and request the removal of the boy's shirt – so that a scar on his chest be revealed for the shot. They ask his name, and repeatedly mispronounce it, 'how do you spell that?' Collins' camera follows, complicit yet ashamed, zooming in to study the boy in an uncomfortably close close-up. This proximity draws the audience into the film: the footage is fascinating, but makes us shuffle and blush – as viewers, we are part of the exploitation. 
Photojournalism is one of the many cultures Collins follows, others include Karaoke, disco dancing, soap opera and tele-shopping. Visiting places we usually only associate with BBC news reportage of humanitarian crises and political conflict, Collins questions our assumptions and images of places, asking why we know nothing of Palestine's disco culture or Aspen's Mexican immigrant workers' love of telenovelas. Not only does this approach dismantle our stereotypes of a place, it also uncovers the radical potential of popular culture. What can a soap opera or Karaoke event do? Though extremely invested in political and ethical considerations, Collins' work is also very funny. The auditorium is smiling for the majority of his talk, and the films are by and large positive, giving enjoyment to the participants (with the exception of the Kosovan boy). 

Collins projects his films in real time, avoiding editing and condensing footage, instead preferring to let the audience approach the piece at any point and experience the situation at the same pace as the filmed subjects. In this sense, the films encourage the audience's empathy with the subject. They Shoot Horses is an 8-hour projection that records a disco dancing marathon organised by Collins in Palestine. Paying competitors an hourly rate, Collins set up his camera to film a planar shot comprising a candy coloured wall and strip of floor on which a group of five young Palestinians danced for as long as they could. For the purposes of this week's talk, Collins showed excerpts of the piece, and so we saw the group dance to Joy Division, Donna Summer and Olivia Newton John, and deteriorate into a depleted and exhausted pair of dancers, 8 hours later, slumped against each other on the floor, occasionally tapping a foot or finger. In the final minutes of the day and song, however, a sense of euphoric camaraderie takes over and the pair rises again to dance – and enrich the typical set of images of check-points and battered dwellings that we associate with The West Bank. 

Likewise, although Karaoke is not British, it has come to be associated with British pub culture, and so Collins' project working with Karaoke, The Smiths' album The World Won't Listen, and young people in Indonesia is a similarly unexpected cultural mix. The album was released in 1987, its music and lyrics capturing the era's political and social unrest. Today, at a time of Neo-Liberalism, increasing privatisation, class division and recession, the album resonates loudly. Collins suggests that Karaoke singers sing towards something beyond the audience and camera, the political or associative in the song converting into an emotional response. Such a vernacular, misty-eyed delivery of songs (any song, though particularly The Smiths' brooding ones) cannot be but confessional on camera. Collins worked with local musicians to record the album and convert it into a Karaoke machine, which he then installed at a venue to which young people were invited to sing and be filmed. Again, the close-up shot emphasises the personal engagement the singers have with each song; a lone teenage boy sings 'sixteen, clumsy and shy, that's the story of my life'. 

Class division and feelings of disparity also prompted Collins' project in which he filmed a pilot episode of a Mexican soap opera, using professional actors and a conventional studio set-up and running time. Visiting Aspen, Colorado, one of the richest places he has been, Collins realised that its cleaners and labourers were all Mexican immigrants who lived more than two hours outside the city, and would travel home everyday, exhausted, and escape into the fantasy world of the soap opera (or telenovela). Thinking about the division between Aspen millionaire and Aspen worker, Collins went to Mexico to recruit actors and film a soap based upon Jean Genet's play The Maids, which dramatises this upstairs/ downstairs power divide. The pilot episode features the expected mise-en-scène of the telenovela: a glamorous mistress and mansion, a gun, blood, a betrayal, and several kisses and tears. As with the way the Kosovan film captured the audience in the complex of relations between viewer and viewed, it is difficult to watch the soap opera without getting caught-up in its melodrama and aesthetic. Escapism vital for Aspen's workers becomes escapism for us.

Escapism and fantasy also play large parts in Collins' recent project of creating a tele-shopping programme for broadcast on German television. Like continuous advertisements, tele-shopping programmes manufacture desire. Rather than selling products, however, Collins' programme offered its viewers experiences: the chance to be interrogated by a professional interrogator; to be in a Victorian-inspired sex show; to pretend to be in hospital on your death-bed (€9.99). At a time when bands have to make their profits by offering fans increasingly theatrical performances and 'experiences' because material CDs no longer sell, and people buy their avatars virtual homes and holidays, notions of manufacture, selling and purchasing are shifting. Collins' experiment in selling experience not product is an interesting extrapolation of this. 

Shopping, soap operas, Karaokes and discos concern performance, desire and fantasy. Collins takes them outside their expected context, and there they perform and expand our consideration of identity and spectatorship. Perhaps we were too quick to suggest exploitation: these films require a more complex form of looking and thinking.