Artist Phil Collins explores Aspen realities

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
British artist Phil Collins, distinguished artist in residence at the Aspen Art Museum, is creating a soap opera set in Aspen. The program will be shown at the museum beginning in mid-August. (Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times)

ASPEN ” When Phil Collins arrived in Aspen last fall, to prepare for his current residency at the Aspen Art Museum, among the first places on his itinerary was GrassRoots TV. Television, and TV studios, act like magnets to Collins, and the Aspen TV station had the added attractions of being a community-access channel, which is basically unheard of in the U.K., and of being the oldest community-access station in the U.S., dating back to 1971.

“I’ve long been fascinated by TV and community TV, which they don’t have in Britain,” said Collins (who you’ve probably guessed by now is not the 57-year-old rock singer, but the 38-year-old visual artist). “The idea is really strong, that you have a channel which people can use, which people can make programs for. I like that it’s open, at a time when most media seems to be getting slicker and hamstrung by its own kind of corporate boards. Community television still has the possibility of what TV can be.”

Collins distinguishes watching TV from the variety of activities that can be engaged in via the computer. It is a matter of public versus private use: TV is a shared experience; even if you are home, watching alone, you’re seeing the same program as potentially millions of others, at the same time, in basically the same way. “The Internet is a different phenomenon,” said Collins, whose hair and dress seem to be in a regular state of dishevelment, as his mind is occupied with the more pressing task of finding a cigarette in Aspen. “It’s largely intimate, a one-to-one relationship. TV is a shared space.”

Collins’ project in Aspen is to create a TV show. But it is the very public, and very powerful secondary effects that TV can have on people that seems to fascinate him most, above making programming that is to be broadcast. His work uses television, in a variety of ways, to comment on the medium.

Among Collins’ recent projects was “the return of the real,” which involved the latest worldwide rage of broadcast TV: the reality show. But his approach was a reflection on the genre. For the project, commissioned by the Istanbul Biennial, Collins used a press conference setting to create videos of people whose lives had been affected, much for the worse, by their appearances on reality programs.

“Not shows in which people were going to be stars. In which they thought they were going to be helped,” he pointed out. “Ordinary people, who thought they their going on ‘Jenny Jones’ or ‘Super Nanny’ might help. But all the people I talked to were people with profoundly bad experiences ” their families fell apart; autistic children who now wouldn’t leave the house, people who were bullied.”

Much of Collins’ work has involved making videos of cultural mash-ups. He went to Iraq, prior to the 2003 invasion, and made screen tests of old women dancing ballet. In the Middle East, he filmed a disco dance marathon for young Palestinians. What appears to be a favorite project, one he pursued for four years in spots around the world, was “the world won’t listen,” with Collins filming people singing songs by the Smiths, the masters of British mope-rock.

“It’s these counterintuitive ideas about place, pop culture,” said Collins, who was raised in Runcorn, a small town in between Liverpool and Manchester in the north of England, attended art school in Belfast, and now lives in Glasgow. “Is someone singing a Smiths song in London any more authentic than someone singing it in Indonesia?”

In 2006, Collins was a finalist for the Turner Prize, one of the most prestigious awards in the British art world. (Collins did not win; the honor went to Tomma Abts, a woman who makes abstract pattern paintings.) For the competition, Collins used an aspect of the television medium to reflect on TV, and on the Turner Prize. He set up a functioning video production studio, “Shady Lane Productions,” inside London’s Tate Britain, the national gallery of British art. Visitors to the museum could peek inside the windows, Mondays through Fridays, from 10 a.m.-6 p.m., as Collins and his crew created a British version of his “return of the real” reality-show project. According to the Tate Britain’s website, the purpose was to explore “the influence that the camera exerts on the behavior it seeks to record.”

Collins spent several weeks recently in Aspen as the Aspen Art Museum’s distinguished artist in residence. He is out of the country at the moment, but is scheduled to return to Aspen over the next few months, and will keep a studio at the museum.

The public is welcome not only to visit Collins in the studio, but to engage with him and contribute to his project. Collins has in mind another staple of broadcast television ” a soap opera, based loosely on life in Aspen. He has been meeting with local actors and writers interested in collaborating on the program, which will be screened at the museum beginning Aug. 15. But he also welcomes valley residents from all walks of life, to share their stories, and give the artist a feel for the texture of Aspen realities.

Collins cautions that the project, still very much in its formative stage, will be “set in Aspen, not about Aspen.” He seems more concerned with the soap opera form than with stock Aspen characters. “I’m interested in the idea of a soap opera: What are the pleasures associated with soap opera? How do you produce a soap opera?”

It is a continuation of his interest in cultural collisions. Collins notes that the British soap differs drastically from the American version. “I come from the British soap opera tradition, which is social realism,” he said. “The fantasy in British soap opera is about a wet Monday morning, suicide on a Christmas day, where in the U.S., soap operas are about aspirations, business, wealth, greed. In American soap opera history, people are largely unsympathetic. It’s about, how do you overtake your neighbor?”

Collins’ version of the Aspen soap, then, is unlikely to be populated by ski bunnies in fur and Red Mountain billionaires who call themselves Aspenites for two weeks of the year. But even though he’s not exactly aiming to tell the Aspen story, locals can expect to see a bit of themselves on the screen.

“All my projects are almost exclusively about people, about situation, about place,” said Collins. “And they all create a platform for encounters. They’re always about imperfections, that kind of beauty. They’re not about polish.”