Making an Exhibition of Myself ; the Artist Phil Collins Has Controversially Set Up a Real Office in the Tate for This Year's Turner Prize. So What's It like to Work There? Lena Corner (above) Reports on Her Fortnight in the Eye of an Art-World Storm. Photographs by Tim Gutt
Corner, Lena, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
It's one of those mornings when you just know it's going to be a slow day in the office. Everyone is finding it hard to concentrate. It's not for want of trying either - each one of us is rooted to our workstation. The problem is that more than 200 people are pressed up against our office window staring in at us. Video cameras are rolling and flashes are going off all over the place. I'm not sure whether I feel like a celebrity or a goldfish.
It's press day at the opening of the 2006 Turner Prize exhibition - or, as one paper puts it, "modern art's annual punch-up". One of the four exhibits, by 36-year-old artist Phil Collins, is a working office plonked in the middle of Tate Britain. It's here that I'm sat, trying to work for the newly formed production company, Shady Lane.
It's not often you get a chance to be part of a living artwork, so when a job came up at Collins' company, I decided to apply. Phil was looking for a team of researchers to work for three months, finding people who feel their lives have been ruined by appearing in reality television shows to feature in his next artwork - for the Turner Prize, it's the office itself that he will be judged on. I had an interview, got the job and was duly summoned to the Tate for training. My desk sits facing the sickly salmon back wall (Dulux's Dreamy Peach), to my right is the fax machine and to my left a wilted pot plant and the filing cabinet. All the mundane paraphernalia of the dreariest desk job. I might be a work of art, but I'm certainly not surrounded by it.
It's the first time in the Turner history that real people have been such an integral part of the work, and for the Tate curator Katharine Stout, we're something of a logistical nightmare - how are we going to interact with the public? There's a hatch on the side- wall of the office so potential subjects for the study or visitors can come up and talk to us, and Katharine has patiently trained us all up in dealing with even the most challenging enquiries. We now have an answer to every conceivable question. "Phil Collins? Is that a joke?" she boomed through the hatch in one of our many practice runs. "Call this art?" she shrieked again and again, until all the answers tripped effortlessly off our tongues.
The office is certainly a bold idea. Phil is using the Tate to get on with his own work, at the same time as harnessing the enormous publicity the Turner Prize generates to aid his research. I listened the gallery audio guide so I know exactly what the visitors are hearing when they're staring in at us.
"He is working almost as a parasite within the Tate," says the voice on the guide. "Making them host his office to produce a new work is asking very interesting and critical questions about the idea of a finished piece. He's directly challenging the very prize that he's in the running for."
Parasite or not, me and two other researchers, Jane and Max, have reported to Phil bright and early on this, our first day there (we're paid to work from 10am-6pm, Monday to Friday). Max and I have made an effort to look nondescript, knowing that an enormous press pack was on its way to scrutinise our every move. Phil, normally a photographer and video artist, seems to have morphed effortlessly into office manager. His only instructions to us are to avoid bending over (cue "Art? My Arse" headlines) and not to fish anything out of the bin ("What A Load Of Rubbish!"). Predictably, later on I bend over to pick some paper out of the bin to put it in recycling.
Apart from momentarily forgetting how to switch on my computer, things run fairly smoothly. At this stage we are just setting up email accounts and giving people our contact details, but it is almost impossible to do even this under such intense scrutiny. Some people arrive and just leave their cameras rolling on us, which is particularly disconcerting, and Jane is convinced she has spotted someone else listening in on us, hiding in a blindspot. …