The UK television industry has taken rather a pummelling lately, from the discovery that phone line and competition fixing was widespread practice, even on shows as homely as Richard & Judy and Blue Peter, to the seemingly daily emergence of a catalogue of other “viewer betrayals”, including the discovery that even the Queen is not above being manipulated by the editor’s hand.
Into this climate comes artist Phil Collins’ solo show at the Victoria Miro gallery, where he presents the outcome of a project that began as part of his contribution to last year’s Turner Prize exhibition. Collins has been exploring ideas around popular factual programming on television, most typically reality television shows, for four years now, and he used the high profile that comes with being nominated for the Turner Prize to engage with the media about some of the issues that arise from appearing on these shows. As part of his Turner Prize exhibit, he set up a fully-functioning production office at Tate Britain, the rather sweetly titled Shady Lane Productions, and appealed for people who felt their lives had been negatively affected by appearing in reality TV shows to come forward and tell their stories, with the promise that their contributions to his films would remain uncensored and unedited.
The Victoria Miro show presents the outcome of Shady Lane Productions’ quest and includes a film of an initial press conference where nine reality television veterans presented their grievances to newspaper journalists and television reporters, alongside more in-depth interviews with the participants where they tell their gruelling stories to media lawyer Mark Stephens. The exhibition also includes a number of anonymous testimonies from television industry insiders, who explain the techniques they deliberately employ to provoke reactions for the shows, all of which are presented by Collins, not without some wit, on rolling autocue machines.
The television shows discussed are high profile, and include Trisha, Wife Swap, Changing Rooms, Trinny & Susannah Get Undressed, and plastic surgery show Brand New Me. “They are shows that cross the gamut of really mainstream, popular shows to Living TV shows,” says Collins. “I deliberately avoided shows that set people off on careers, such as X Factor, Big Brother, or Pop World.”
“Reality TV hinges on documentary, it hinges on the real but seeks to structure it for entertainment. It operates on some form of bad faith in a way. Some of the participants were portrayed as the World’s Worst Mother, as dirty and as bad parents. There was an autistic child who was painted as a badly behaved child and his condition wasn’t mentioned. I asked Mark Stephens, who works on cases associated with freedom of expression and also media work, to conduct the interviews – he moves the territory into a space that is notionally governed by the legal, which changes the atmosphere of the piece.”
Collins’ show raises some interesting questions about our relationship with television, and about to what degree we still, despite growing cynicism towards the media in general, want to blithely believe whatever is presented before us on screen. Interestingly, when the journalists who took part in the press conference were presented with release forms that would allow Collins to use footage of them in the piece, this standard practice within television was met with dismay and discomfort. “Some were incredibly upset,” says Collins. “One ended up in tears, but all signed them.” The show inevitably also raises the question of why on earth anyone would appear on one of these shows. “Some people who came to the Turner Prize were very negative and presumptious about those who do,” he continues. “There is a promise on TV, of television as a solution to social problems. If there was adequate social help I’m sure they would turn to that instead of television.”
Despite Collins’ obvious desire to offer a form of support to the participants to his exhibition, and to turn the tables on the television shows discussed, The Return of the Real also treads an uncomfortable line at times. While taking on the cloak of a documentary, it is an extremely biased view, and the television industry itself – in the same way as the reality participants before it – is given no opportunity for redress. Even darker is the nagging sense that Collins may in turn be exploiting his contributors, however alturistic his motivations may seem. In the interviews he occasionally can be seen in the background, quietly overseeing the events unfolding, which forces again the question of whether it is safe to believe what is being presented on screen, even here. These concerns only add to the richness of the work, however. “I wouldn’t shy away from an accusation of that [exploitation],” he comments. “None of the projects are ever outside these questions of misrepresentation and exploitation, they’re absolutely about them.”
Phil Collins: The Return of the Real is at the Victoria Miro gallery until November 10.