On Phil Collins’s you’ll never work in this town again (2004-ongoing)
Striking the perfect balance between social consciousness and cosmopolitan glamour can take an artist to the next professional level. In 1985, former Genesis drummer Phil Collins cemented his pop superstardom after hopping the Concorde to perform in both London and Philadelphia during the simultaneous dual-venue Live Aid benefit concert. Never mind the contradiction of such conspicuous consumption during an event devoted to raising awareness about Third World hunger (it was the ‘80s, after all).
Berlin-based, British-born contemporary artist Phil Collins—no relation—strives to hit the same note between righteous criticality and swagger in his project you’ll never work in this town again (2004-ongoing). The work, in which Collins slaps willing protagonists of the art world across the face and then photographs them against a blank white background, keeps with his subtly evocative brand of socially engaged practice. Whereas artists such as Santiago Sierra employ aggressive actions that instrumentalize the underclass in order to explore social inequities, Collins merely flirts with the dynamics of exploitation. Often he trains his camera’s gaze on the machinations of the media itself: his videos have captured marathon pop-music dance sessions for Palestinian teenagers; karaoke sessions to the music of The Smiths in Latin America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia; and tearful confessions from people whose lives have been affected by talk shows and reality TV. As in these projects, You’ll never work in this town again ostensibly offers catharsis to the participants. These subjects, however, are not the postcolonial oppressed, but rather the curators, critics, and writers (and, occasionally, dealers and collectors) who form the cadres of contemporary art production.
As a contribution to the canon of second-generation institutional critique, Collins’s project is airtight. It joins the ranks of works such as Andrea Fraser’s Untitled (2003), a video in which the artist has sex with a paying collector. Collins’s project, however, omits the sticky bodily fluids viscerally present in Fraser’s work, and avoids the messy positioning of the artist herself as a figure on the screen to be objectified. Like Untitled, You’ll never work… highlights how the art world’s relationship to institutional critique has evolved nearly a half century after its first manifestations—namely, that institutional players are now thrilled to collaborate. Rather than cringe at the thought of being derided by an artist, the art-world subjects oblige the artist by literally turning the other cheek, sometimes with a bemused smile. For this pain carries the promise of a reward. Not only does inclusion in the project attest to a certain professional rank in the global art world (one must be invited to participate by Collins himself via an invitation letter), but also it symbolizes a sophisticated understanding of the avant-garde legacy. Everyone leaves with more cultural capital accrued. In Collins’s world, the be-slapped seem, in a sense, be-knighted.
But the project is not without its darker connotations. Collins has been reported to offer the abuser’s platitude, “This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you” with a smirk before delivering his blows, and has likened the “performance” for the camera as a Don Juan seduction scenario. He’s also said that although the performances are fully staged on a count of three, he always strikes on two to catch his victim / subject off guard. Moreover, one cannot dismiss the gendered aspects of this slightly sadomasochistic act. Collins has photographed male and female art professionals in more or less equal numbers, reflecting the swelling ranks of women in key institutional roles, particularly in the curatorial field. (In my graduating class alone at Bard CCS, women outnumbered men 12 to 3.) If more art professionals are women, and the legacy of feminism and queer studies has shifted institutional paradigms of authorship and connoisseurship toward more inclusive and collaborative modes of production, what does it say when we are lining up to have our faces slapped?
While I would argue that the participants in this project are not acting out a simplistic scenario of sexual dynamics, the work nonetheless points to a troubling lack of transparency—and even empathy—on the part of the artist. In an era in which institutional funding is quickly evaporating and the ranks of the precariat are expanding, Collins would have us believe that the old antagonisms between the powerless artist and the powerful custodians of culture should be symbolically redrawn, in the form of a scarlet mark across the latter’s cheek.
Finally, the question remains of how the index of this action will become distributed and articulated. In the case of Fraser’s video, a limited number of DVD editions were produced, one of which was acquired by her sexual collaborator. Collins’s archive, on the other hand, continues to expand, to the benefit of various parties. For example, he created prints from the portfolio for the ICA group exhibition Double Agent in 2008 and had a limited-edition photograph for sale in the museum’s shop. That edition pictured the co-curators of the show, critic Claire Bishop (a longtime champion of Collins’s work) and ICA director of exhibitions Mark Sladen. Thus, the curators benefited the institution where they worked in direct financial ways and had their faces become key talking points in the privileged dialogue of the art press.
At the end of the day, the curators’ images and pain in this project become little more than tokens elevating the exchange value of the artist’s work—chic souvenirs of the artist’s “domination” of his art-world subjects that will be sold back to the “dominated.” It’s a brilliant and cynical move that plays to the (not-so)-secret vanities of art-world personnel while it reinscribes the myth of the artist as cheeky prankster. Whether this formula has lost its edge can only be determined by the ability of artists and spectators to think beyond the binaries of exploiter and exploited—to develop a new erotics of participation.
Wendy Vogel works as a critic, editor and occasional independent curator. She has contributed to Artforum.com, ART LIES, Brooklyn Rail and Flash Art International, among other publications.