How Reality TV Was Turned into Art; First, Artist Phil Collins, Who Is Shortlisted for the Turner Prize, Set Up a Working Office in the Gallery at Tate Britain. Now He's Making a Film about People Whose Lives Are Damaged by Reality TV

Article excerpt

Byline: ALISON ROBERTS

ACCORDING to Turner Prize shortlisted artist Phil Collins, it's exactly the kind of film TV companies would like to make but, for the sake of their reputations and futures, can't possibly allow - a programme with a title like Reality TV Ruined My Life.

Yesterday, Collins hosted a press conference at the Cafe Royal and presented to assembled journalists nine former participants in reality TV shows, all of whom claim to have been damaged or hurt in some way at the hands of "unscrupulous" TV producers.

Here, most bizarrely, was the woman whose tummy tuck got infected and teeth fell out after botched plastic surgery on the show Brand New You, sitting alongside the woman from Wife Swap who claimed she'd been portrayed as slovenly and whose children were now bullied at school.

A traumatised young man from There's Something About Miriam - the show where hunks competed for the hand of a "glamorous model", only to be told at the last moment that "she" was actually a preoperative transsexual - was beside the woman whose family life fell apart after a lie-detector test on Trisha.

Collins now intends to use news footage from the press conference to make his own film, called The Return of the Real - part of his entry into this year's Turner Prize. He has already, you'll remember, created one of the most famous offices in London, an authentically nondescript box inside Tate Britain, where the strip lighting flickers irritably and the pot plant in the corner wilts under the artificial heat - and which several hundred visitors to the Tate observe each day through a large plate-glass window built, goldfish bowl-like, into one wall. (Collins, a 36-year-old video and photographic artist usually based in Glasgow, actually loves working here.

"It's an amazing privilege, having an office here, like this.

There's no way I could afford an office in central London under any other circumstance. Actually, there's no way I could afford to live in London.") None of this is a spoof, he insists. From this stage-like box inside the gallery, Collins and three colleagues really are running their film production company, called Shady Lane Productions. You could characterise the office in the Tate, indeed, as "reality art". And the press conference, too - that was art, he says. "I'm interested in communication and performance. Of course, the journalists are the art, too."

Not since Bill Drummond's K Foundation burned [pounds sterling]1 million in front of a phalanx of goggle-eyed arts hacks, in 1993, have

journalists been thus employed "within" an artwork.

But is it art? Really? This year, Collins has single-handedly resurrected the old Turner Prize debate (The Sun newspaper even rivived its old arts correspondent Toulouse Le Plot to report on his work): what is art, and what just isn't? Is there any reason why the film of a press conference seeking to redress the apparent exploitation of reality TV participants should be viewed as art? Of course, if the main aim of art is to comment on, influence or simply reflect the state of contemporary culture, then The Return of the Real qualifies in spades.

I'm fascinated by what happens to people who've revealed some big secret about themselves on TV or who've let people see inside their houses and how they live, say, in a very intimate way," says Collins. "How do they cope in their real lives afterwards? Some people have a great time on these shows, but lots don't. The people we're talking about have been unjustly portrayed on them, and are then left damaged. The autistic boy portrayed as a "naughty teen". People whose relationships have broken up because of excessive pressure from demanding TV production companies. People who are routinely bullied in their lives as a result of being on shows where they were called lazy or dirty." There is very little of the oft-quoted "follow-up" by TV execs or counsellors, he claims. …