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Phil Collins' Marxism Today

The Turner Prize nominated artist and film maker's latest work focuses on the fall of the Berlin Wall and how it affected the world

2006 Turner Prize nominated artist and film maker, Phil Collins' works range from a day long disco dance marathon filmed in Ramallah to a series of Columbian nationals singing along, sometimes phonetically, to tracks by The Smiths. Often with a slightly humorous level of accompanying visual intrigue, Collins uses his subjects as vehicles with which to pose questions about society and its politics. In his latest exhibition, Marxism Today, he focuses on the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the affect it had on those living and working in the former GDR. The film will be the last exhibition to be held at London's British Film Institute gallery space. Dazed Digital caught up with the artist to discuss the show, his obsession with reality television and the state of Britain today.

Dazed Digital: A lot of the topics in your films are quite diverse. Where do your ideas come from?
Phil Collins: Usually from visiting somewhere. The Smiths film came out of time I spent in Bogotá, for example. I spent a lot of time in Columbia going to indie and rock and roll bars. I was interested in that culture being not about the language of salsa, paramilitaries and cocaine, the three big Columbian stereotypes. Those bands seemed so much about 80s Britain to me, they seemed so linked to Thatcher and living in the UK at that time. It made me question whether nationality was a performance.

DD: Is there a concurrent theme that runs through your films?
Phil Collins: Usually there is a provocation at the heart of them. On some levels I hope there is a social commentary, but much like Perceus attacking the head of the Gorgon, you look in a diagonal to find the politics of something.

DD: There seems to be an aesthetic in your films that references contemporary TV documentaries and the stylised aspect of them.
Phil Collins: I'm interested in how tightly documentaries are structured and what sits under the beating heart of those representations of the real. I love watching the news and evaluating which interests those media support. You begin to see structures in news media, how they don’t report Iraq for example and why entertainment becomes the news. Dancing on Ice, X-Factor, that kind of Orwellian drama  that we have come to know and hate intrigues me.

DD: How do you feel about the move towards the almost circus and freak show aspect of current TV documentaries?
Phil Collins: I watch a lot of reality TV so I know more about morning shows like Trisha and Jeremy Kyle. Programmes which look at the evacuation of the social field. The people that apply to be on these shows often believe the promises of society have failed them. It is amazing to see the psychology behind those shows, the discipline and punish role of the host.

DD: Can you tell me about the two films you are showing at the BFI?
Phil Collins: I was in Berlin during the 20th anniversary of the fall of the wall and I thought about what happened to the people that taught Marxism and Leninism. After '89 not only does that job evaporate but also their expertise and knowledge devalues at a very rapid pace. I tried to find out what happened to them, where did they go? We spoke to forty people, filmed ten and then in the final film, Marxism Today, used three. I was trying to find stories which would work in a biographical, not  analytical, reading. What the teachers thought of what happened and what became of them afterwards. We focus on three characters, one women whose husband killed himself just before the fall in '89. A doctor who taught political economy and then moved into the banking system and became very rich. The third set up an introduction and dating service and was the mother of an Olympic gymnast. They all have very different trajectories within the reunification.

How did the second film, Use, Value, Exchange, come about?
Phil Collins: After meeting these people I became interested in the idea of them giving a lesson at one of their schools, to students attending now. It was an elite economic school in the GDR time and is now a business and economics school. I was interested in how she would teach such a deep subject to such a broad spectrum of society.

DD: Do those films tie into what you see happening in contemporary society?
Phil Collins: After the failure of the Left in '89 people in Britain turned to continental philosophy and followed the rise of technology and the internet. The spaces for dissent seem to be evaporating as they are incorporated into capitalism. The mobile phone is revolutionary rather than a revolutionary action being revolutionary. Its an enormous change from the culture of the 70s and the 80s.

Phil Collins: Marxism Today is on at the British Film Institute gallery until 10 April