Pop Politics: An Interview with Phil Collins


British-born artist Phil Collins is fluent in the politics of pop. Using our common language of music and media, he connects his audiences to subcultures that might go otherwise unnoticed.

His current exhibition at New York’s Tanya Bonakdar Gallery (through Oct. 19) includes My heart’s in my hand, and my hand is pierced, and my hand’s in the bag, and the bag is shut, and my heart is caught, 2013. The installation comprises six custom listening cabins straight out of a Swinging London HMV. Stocked with seven-inch vinyl records, the cabins allow visitors to listen privately to intensely personal, anonymous phone calls recorded at a shelter for the homeless in Cologne (with the callers’ permission) on one side of each record and pop songs written by the artist’s musician friends to accompany each conversation on the other.

Also included in the exhibition are This Unfortunate Thing Between Us, a funny display of his 2011 “alternative shopping channel” on German television, displayed in two second-hand British trailers. Finally, there’s and the pensive short film The Meaning of Style (2011), which examines a community of anti-fascist skinheads in Malaysia.

The Cologne-based artist, 43, recently spoke to A.i.A. by phone about My heart’s in my hand.

KERRY GAERTNER GERBRACHT Why did you choose phone calls coming from a homeless shelter?

PHIL COLLINS In the ’90s, I was a secretary at a magazine for the homeless in London called The Big Issue. I came into contact with a lot of people who exhibit a very precise political subjectivity and got to know the conditions of their day-to-day existence, how they live. It’s a group that I find interesting, because in a recession, people quite often confuse homelessness with the presence of street drinkers or other types of homelessness which actually don’t cover the wider demographic.

GERBRACHT The phone calls took away the distraction of the visual.

COLLINS The visual image of homelessness is much stronger than hearing people in very intimate situations. And that’s where the intersection with the phone call came.  The phone calls for this project were run out of a very busy shelter in Cologne, right next to a train station, open from 6 in the morning to 10 at night.

GERBRACHT You don’t think of a shelter as a venue for the creation of contemporary art.

COLLINS The people who ran the shelter saw that art should play a role in the lives of their guests and that those people think about culture as much as everyone else does. The shelter is place where people can go in the extreme cold or when they’re tired or also to listen to music and for tea. It was also a very friendly, pleasant and social place. Those disjunctures exist anywhere, and I don’t know if art is the place to solve those things but it is one place to meditate on them.

GERBRACHT That disjuncture is certainly evident in the installation. The listening experience in the cabin provides a surprising intimacy with the subjects, especially in the white-box gallery space. And the configuration of the listening stations is such that you can watch others doing the same.

COLLINS You have an experience which is maybe solitary, maybe social. But you’re also aware of people having similar experiences which you don’t necessarily share. That feeling of distance or reflection, to me, becomes acute. The emotional tenor of the conversations is heightened in a way. I wanted the experience to be physical, and it was concrete when pressed onto vinyl.

GERBRACHT Did you give the musicians any sort of guidelines when you passed the recordings on to them?

COLLINS Largely not, actually. The thing that I tried to underline was that they just needed to do their job, that they didn’t need to approach this in an artistic manner. Because I was trying to find this kind of effective terrain, which could mean pop music and pop culture and the economy and politics, I suppose. In the ’80s, political pop, which spoke about everyday experience, was very present. This was another way of using source material which was already very loaded, but to find a way to make pop songs from it.

GERBRACHT You mention the economy, which is plainly a key dimension of a piece involving the homeless. Can you say more specifically what the broad concept of economy means to you in connection with this piece?

COLLINS Everyone’s connected in an economy. Money and luxury and space and certain advantages separate everybody continually in any economy, in any country. But when economies are as acutely distorted as they are in the times that we’re living through, it means that often those connections are severed. That it’s impossible for us to hear each other or make contact with each other. Well, not impossible. But difficult.