“If it’s not love…”
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
San Francisco, CA
To hear the distinct sound of karaoke in the distance while walking through the hushed corridors of a museum is uncanny, being both an unwanted interloper and a pleasant surprise. This was the scene at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art with its most recent exhibition in the museum’s ongoing New Work series. The benevolent Pied Piper in this case was featured British photographer and video artist Phil Collins. SFMOMA presented his 2005 video installation dünya dinlemiyor (the world won’t listen), the second part in a karaoke trilogy that began in Bogotá the previous year (as el mundo no escuchara) and then found its way to Istanbul. First presented at the Ninth International Istanbul Biennial, the continuously looped, 58-minute video features young Turkish men and women performing karaoke versions of songs from the 1987 album The World Won’t Listen by The Smiths, the British band known for its melancholic lyrics devotedly memorized by a generation of Western adolescents. The performers, who range in talent and level of fluency in English, were solicited through an open call advertised on the radio, in dance clubs, and in street posters. Samples of these stark, text-only posters adorn the walls leading to the viewing room at SFMOMA and call out to “the shy, the dissatisfied, narcissists, and anyone who’s ever wished they could be someone else for a night,” foregrounding the idea of popular masquerade and melodrama.1
Depending on where one comes in during the video—and depending on one’s temperament—the unsuspecting viewer might be stricken with empathetic embarrassment verging on humiliation, auditory irritation, mirth (perhaps of a Schadenfreude-like nature), or awe. And if one lingers to watch, one probably experiences all of these responses in addition to finding the performances touching, sometimes deeply so.2 There is a palpable intimacy captured here by the camera that is in part a function of the alternating identities of audience and performer in karaoke. Without the camera, karaoke is like performance art without documentation—a closed circuit in which audience members are most likely also performers—but the addition of the artist and his video camera makes widely accessible public portraiture. In occasional off-key glory, the individuality of each performer is captured. For instance, a man wearing a red shirt hides his face behind floppy, curly hair but smiles slyly and bashfully after taking a swig of beer. A man wearing a black Ramones t-shirt swings the microphone and moves around the entire space, while a man wearing an unbuttoned shirt strikes elegant, back-swayed, hand-on- hip poses during his performance of “Ask.”
Of his subject matter, Collins recently made the following statement: “…I approach the construction of every work from a position of envy. So, whether it’s dancing in a disco dance marathon or singing at karaoke or telling your life story to a camera, that this is the thing I wish I could do.”3 Given that he has also said, “If someone was pointing a camera at me, I would freeze and whisper,”4 it would seem that Collins vicariously overcomes his own shyness through his subjects, both belying and validating the Smiths’ lyrics to “Ask”: “Shyness is nice/ And shyness can stop you/ From doing all the things in life/ You’d like to.” As an artist, he gambles on the validity of his project just as he sees the participation of his subjects as a risk that might result in legitimacy and credibility for all parties involved and for the work produced.5 Some of Collins’s other projects have dealt with this bestowal of credibility through the means of television broadcast media, specifically talk shows. Although the notion of spectacle is of general fascination for the artist, there is also a more specific, more humane interest in how “[media] influences the behaviour that it seeks to record” and its lasting effects on the subject or “participant.”6 Collins has said that “[Reality television] comes from the idea of testimony”7 and, relatedly, dünya dinlemiyor’s karaoke seems to be a form of public declaration as well.
The initial popularity of The Smiths pre-dates the widespread popularity of karaoke, but their songs and fans prove well suited to the entertainment form. One might have thought that the band’s influence, however intense, was limited in geography and generation, but Collins demonstrates that this is not so. Similarly, William E. Jones’ film Is It Really So Strange? (2004) depicts fans at a club in Los Angeles called London is Dead, which exclusively played The Smiths and Morrissey songs. Jones was surprised to find that the “atmosphere was quite joyous and belied the popular perception of Morrissey as a poet of doom and gloom.” Another surprise that Jones encountered was that “most of the crowd was Latino.”8 Like Jones, Collins finds relevance in pop music to global dialogue and even ethnic identity. Turkey, after all, has had to deal with the consequences of its stereotype of being anti-modern (or anti-Western), particularly in regards to the debate of its admission to the European Union. Besides the performers’ identification with the original angst of the songs, they also appropriate the content for both personal and geopolitical purposes rooted in the present.
Collins’s projects often involve contested and/or conflicted geography.9 For instance, the 2002 project baghdad screentests consisted of an unlikely restaging of Andy Warhol’s famous Screen Tests of the 1960s in a country on the cusp of war. These video portraits of Iraqis, set to love songs, had a neutral white backdrop. In they shoot horses, the 2004 disco marathon held in Ramallah, Palestine, dancers performed before a pink background. The alpine and forest scenes of dünya dinlemiyor do not deny the location of the singers—the geography is certainly a latent force—but Collins chooses not to make it a distraction in terms of imagery. Nor did he choose to depict the nightclub where the karaoke was filmed. The woodland backdrops employed by Collins are like those of inexpensive portrait studios but they are also, in their dreaminess and “otherness,” akin to the bucolic backgrounds painted in Renaissance portraits such as da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
Collins did not change a shot once it was set up, so dünya dinlemiyor contains none of the frenetic panning or zooming that has become the current norm of much filmed entertainment.10 The static framing of his camera-work reveals both its low-fi reality and the dignity the artist seeks to capture in his subjects. With single shots that last the length of a song and minimal editing, the potential for storytelling and theatrics lies only with the performer and his or her “interaction” with the music. In what is arguably the standout performance in dünya dinlemiyor, Collins illustrates his belief that “the camera…can elicit such magnificent behavior just by its presence.”11 A man intones “You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet, Baby” with his eyes closed, both demonstrating that he knows the lyrics “by heart” and characterizing his “portrait” as a prayerful, serene one. Indeed, a still featured on the cover of the exhibition pamphlet captures him with mouth open and eyes closed; despite beard stubble and earring, he resembles a singing angel from an Italian Renaissance painting. His confidence and calm are remarkable.
Collins’s video was thoughtfully installed in conjunction with a part of SFMOMA’s Between Art and Life: The Contemporary Painting and Sculpture Collection in a small, adjacent gallery. The stateliness of August Sander’s portraits (e.g., Dorfschullehrer, Westerwald [Village Schoolteacher, Westerwald], 1921), the fleeting intimacy of Nan Goldin’s photographs of couples, the masquerade of Cindy Sherman’s Marilyn Monroe self-portraits, the revisionist portraiture of Martha Rosler’s The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems (1974-1975) and the complicated identity embedded in Mona Hatoum’s Pin Rug (1998-1999), comprised a useful discourse with Collins’s conceptual karaoke that located the potential positives of globalization and humiliation/ celebrity culture. Collins manages to retain the performances’ poignancy without relinquishing their farcical nature. The giddy duets sung by pairs of smiling women in dünya dinlemiyor make you bashful, but you appreciate the simple fun of their act. Do you want to be in on their fun or Collins’s? Do you want to be in front of the camera or behind it? A spectator or voyeur? The wretched facial expression of the woman with silver lipstick makes you yearn for the song’s end. Do you even want to know if she is really crying? You’ll look away, but then you’ll look back. It turns out that you don’t have to choose between laughing and crying.
Jennifer Wulffson is a senior editor of the Bibliography of the History of Art at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.
- Phil Collins, fly-poster advertisement for dünya dinlemiyor, 2005.↵
- The effect of viewing Collins’s the world won’t listen is akin to that of watching Rineke Dijkstra’s 1996-97 film The Buzzclub, Liverpool, England / Mysteryworld, Zaandam, Netherlands, in which isolated teenagers dance to music in a small studio that the artist set up behind a nightclub’s dance floor.↵
- Turner Prize 2006, Audio Guide Transcript, Tate Online, http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/turnerprize/2006/ philcollins.htm.↵
- Johnny Ray Huston, “The Harsh Truth—and Lies—of the Camera Eye: A Talk with Turner Prize Nominee Phil Collins,” The San Francisco Bay Guardian, 22 November 2006, http://www.sfbg.com/blogs/pixel_vision/2006/11/ the_harsh_truth_and_lies_of_th.html.↵
- Turner Prize 2006, Audio Guide Transcript.↵
- Bruce Hainley, “This Charming Man,” Artforum, XLV, no. 5, January 2007, p. 68.↵
- William Hanley, “The AI Interview: Phil Collins,” Artinfo, London, 13 December 2006, http://www.artinfo.com/ News/Article.aspx?a=25355.↵
- Collins has said that many of the places he has been drawn to “have a history of suffering American and British involvement.” “24 Frames of Lies: Phil Collins and Todd Haynes in Conversation,” in Yea, you, baby you (Milton Keynes: Milton Keynes Gallery, and Hove: Shady Lane Publications, 2005).↵
- Huston. Furthermore, minimal edits were made after filming.↵