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
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.
Collins is not interested in celebrity reality TV, nor, contrary to most assumptions, in Big Brother, which itself creates modern-day celebrity. It is the less complex daytime talk-shows, like Trisha and the Jeremy Kyle Show - where paternity testing and even lie detectors are routinely used to "settle" familial disputes - that particularly offend. "Most of these shows are just about reinforcing stereotypes. I find it interesting that they very rarely feature people from London. The morning talk shows predominantly feature people from the North-West, the North and Scotland."
But why should that be? "They are reinforcing the metropolitan-provincial divide," he replies. The London-based companies which make these shows, he implies, find it easier to caricature the working-class northerner than the more media-savvy working-class Londoner.
Yet Collins expresses equal concern over primetime makeover shows like Supernanny, You Are What You Eat and How Clean is Your House? "You have people on How Clean is Your House? who plainly can't cope, who might have had some sort of breakdown to get to that stage where the TV cameras come in. I honestly think sometimes it's about mental illness.
You arrive at this point where people are smelling your toilet on national TV and you have to ask: how did this poor person get there? It has to be remembered that these shows are sold all over the world. People are making hundreds of thousands of pounds out of them."
On one level, Collins is telling us nothing new here. Of course reality TV unashamedly exploits people with sometimes desperate problems.
And, yes, we know that TV executives are pushing the genre further and further, sometimes into highly questionable territory.
Indeed, The Return of the Real might be seen, simply, as another strand in the cultural debate that includes the Hollywood movie The Truman Show and even George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. The name Shady Lane, incidentally, comes from the song with the same title by Californian cult band Pavement, which includes the line: "You've been chosen as an extra in the movie adaptation of the sequel to your life."
His project is far subtler, however, in its manipulation of the Turner Prize itself, and of the television news from which he will cull his footage.
Without the Turner nomination and its attendant hype, the job of finding 10 former participants willing to trash reality TV would have been all the harder. Ditto getting the media, of which he remains distinctly wary, to take any interest at all in their stories.
Collins, from Runcorn in Cheshire, has done this before, in Turkey of all the unlikely places - the Turkish film features in the Turner Prize exhibition at the Tate - and has plans to repeat the project next year in Spain. Hitherto, his bestknown works were set in Iraq - Baghdad Screen Tests, 2002, in which Iraqis are filmed sitting silently for screen tests for a non-existent Hollywood movie; and in Ramallah - They Shoot Horses, 2004, two videos each lasting seven hours, featuring nine Palestinian youths dancing, until exhaustion sets in, to a selection of Western disco music.
For now, he will begin the job of editing his film, still in his goldfish bowl at the Tate.
He is, it must be said, a distinctly odd kind of fish - he doesn't much like London, and doesn't enjoy the London art scene, though he does think Londoners have a good sense of humour ("and they'd need to, travelling to work by Tube at rush hour every morning"). He possesses neither debit nor credit card, and doesn't own a mobile phone. He is staying for the duration of the Turner Prize show at a flat in Finsbury Park where, for the first time, he has the use of his own washing machine.
Should he win the [pounds sterling]25,000 Turner Prize, this year presented by Yoko Ono on 4 December, he will use the money simply to make more work, he says. And above all, it seems, to solve a very modern, head-spinning, paradox: to display before us, via his own "reality office", the real reality of reality TV.
* The Turner Prize Show is at Tate Britain until 14 January.
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: 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. Contributors: Not available. Newspaper title: The Evening Standard (London, England). Publication date: November 23, 2006. Page number: 32. © Not available. COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group.
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