Phil Collins talks to Rosemary Heather

That political conflict can be located in the mother tongue you speak is familiar to anyone living in Canada, with
its Two Solitudes, so called, of French and English. When visiting Kosovo, Collins stumbled across a much more complex situation of a particular language being suppressed in the aftermath of war. The sensitivity of the situation called for use of the film apparatus in its documentary mode, something of a departure for the artist.

Shot in black and white, Collins makes film a medium of self-expression for those caught up in history’s wider machinations. He gives voice to a little known consequence of the war in Kosovo, creating in the process a valuable historical document.

Can you tell me the title of your new film?

It’s called zasto ne govorim srpski (na srpskom) (2008). The title is in Serbian, and it means “Why I don’t speak Serbian (in Serbian)”. I have been working in the Balkans for the last 10 years, quite regularly, and have spent a reasonable amount of time in Kosovo. I’m really interested in historical and social contradictions that the conflict has thrown up.

One time I visited, in 2003 maybe, I was with a friend from Croatia. We were at a video conference, and it was really cold.

In order to warm up, we said, “Well, let’s go and get a beer.” So we went to the local shop. My friend said to the guy in the shop, “Have you got any beer? Bierra? Beer?” – we were trying to speak Albanian. Then we started miming, the international language of mimes! You know, just to buy a beer. And the guy didn’t understand, he pulled a blank, and my friend asked again “Imate li pivo, molim?” – in Serbo-Croat, a language which isn’t in use popularly or publicly. And this very strange moment occurred. The guy replied in Serbian, “But I’ve not spoken this language for such a long time.” Not in a hostile way, but in this moment of almost tenderness and wonder, which was then disturbed. The shop door opened, somebody else came in, and the moment was gone. So we left , but I never stopped thinking about it. I thought everybody of my age or older would have been able to speak or withhold the language, but it’s a language which had been abandoned by the Albanian majority – for obvious reasons. It was used as the official language, and so it became a language purely of the police and the military, of jurisdiction and repression; or so it was felt. But I wondered if it had been, previously, also a language of poetry or academia, or how else had it functioned? These are powerful impulses, to speak in a language which had become taboo. And I wondered what forms of memory are accessible only through speech? If language describes experience, what happens when we
repress this impulse?

And so I went back in 2008 to begin this project in which I asked people to explain, in Serbian, the reasons of why they no longer speak the language. It happened around the time of Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia, so there was a certain charge to such a proposition. I went around explaining the project and trying to get the contributors, which was very difficult, because even to perform the language becomes a fraught and troubled experience for most people. But it also took me to different places, so I interviewed people like, Azem Vllasi,
who was the former head of the Communist Party in Kosovo; Bujar Bukoshi, who was an ex-Prime Minister; journalists, public figures; and then in the second part, I interviewed a Serbian language teacher, which took the film in an entirely different direction.

I thought it was interesting that at last night’s screening in the Q&A people pointed out; “Oh, this film’s not like your other work…it’s more of a straight ahead documentary” and you said, “Yes, but when it’s screened in Kosovo, that’s its intended audience – it has a meaning there. Outside of Kosovo it’s read as something simpler, possibly.” And I like this answer, because it was in disregard for these other audiences – the mainstream art audience – which is, supposedly, white and English-speaking. It’s as though you’re really Globalist. You’ve travelled so much, so you don’t think the audience of ‘the centre’ – wherever that is – is the most important one.

I think that’s true. One of my first videos, how to make a refugee (1999), was shot in Kosovo. And my other works are more rock ‘n roll – about popular culture, its genres and how we used them. But this piece is about something very specific. It is different, and still it’s part of my continuing investigation into troubled invitations and troubled platforms for certain forms of expression. I don’t think any of the projects are easy in their execution, you know. The Smiths project, for example, always comes under, or invites, certain kind of criticism as well.

Can you elaborate on that?

Well, with a lot of the projects, they revolve around the idea of exploitation, and also around an imposition. On one level, they appear generous, and on another, they seem to be exploiting the subject. And I think they have to – in a way, they must manage these two opposing axes. So, for instance, with The Smiths karaoke trilogy, people will say: “But why aren’t we seeing a Turkish singer or a Colombian singer, why is it the imposition of English language and an English language group?”

But who’s making that objection – Western people?

No, no – people in the countries themselves. They see it as a neo-colonial exercise, which, of course, is what I am interested in as well. How does an alternative group from Manchester, singing about a very local experience, about Whalley Range, Dublin and Dundee and Humberside – how does that translate to a very far away context?
I wrote down that line from that Smiths song about being “ crashed by a bus” – and in the film, they’re singing it in a cheerful, joyful sort of way. It’s a very joyful sequence, that sequence of the film. So yes, I think zasto ne govorim srpski (na srpskom) also follows these avenues of investigation, but its strongest dialogue is between Serbia and Kosovo. And if we, as an audience, are placed as outsiders, and if this also throws up our own lack of understanding, then that’s what the film is about as well. It’s not a particularly inviting film. It doesn’t give us all the signage that we need in order to understand what happened there. And it returns again and again to the fraught nature of language itself. People are
speaking a language which they generally refuse to speak, and explaining how that feels, some of them fluently, some with great hesitance and faltering recall. In the beginning, there is a moment when a contributor can’t remember Serbian word for ‘memory’. I was particularly interested in these slippages – the way in which we try to find or recall language, or a position. I mean, in the boldest terms – and it’s something which I don’t like to use – this is “the language of the enemy”. What does it feel like to adopt this position for a short period, and to investigate its
tenor, its palate?

Speaking about the coherence of your project as a whole, I would say that, in contrast to the idea that you’re investigating the exploitative nature of our relationship to forms of representation, there’s the flipside as well,
that’s also in your work, in The Smiths film, and even in the Kosovo film… For instance, the most heartbreaking moment  in ‘zasto ne govorim…’ is when the woman shows the photo of her son who was killed in the ethnic
violence. This shows how the photo works as a memento. It has very important role to play, a photograph; and maybe now video works this way as well…

So you have a nice coherence in your art, because it contains both sides of the implications of representation. It’s almost as if you’ve discovered this universal theme in the Globalist expanse of your practice, which is this quest for validation through mediation…

I think it’s not universal in that it’s not necessarily similar in different locations. These sites of self-expression – karaoke, the talk show, reality TV, photography – also have very local registers. But I am interested in seeking out moments of
becoming, of temporary transcendence. So within very basic familiar structures, like ‘testimony’, like ‘photography’, especially ‘domestic’ or ‘amateur’ photography, there is an inescapable, ineluctable beauty which appears democratic in certain ways.

Okay, not everybody does have a camera, but with a point and shoot, almost anybody can pick it up and use it. And what’s interesting to me is what information we’re generally not given about a place. People would be surprised that there was reality TV in Turkey in that it’s perceived as an underdeveloped economy, or that the cultural factor of Islam might mitigate against this kind of entertainment.

For me that’s hilarious. Turkey has an enormous range of reality TV, some of it very interesting in the sense that it also has to manage cultural restrictions or specificities. So you have dating shows where a mother-in-law picks for the son. Or Big Brother can be structured very differently in the Middle East to the way it’s structured in the West, because of gender relations and all of the problematic things this can pose.

I’m interested in the specifics of location, and what that might introduce. Because in a city of 20 million such as Istanbul, you’re going to find everything, you know. It might not be enormously popular – if we’d done Metallica or the Stones instead of The Smiths, it would have been much easier because metal and classic rock fans are easier to find. But it really isn’t about easiness. It was about finding this very slim, unrepresentative demographic in order to try and think through place.

And also, of course, my works are very much about performance, about what it means to speak. Sometimes the question for me is, you know, it feels inhumane to keep recording when we’re faced with distress, but it also feels inhumane to turn the camera off in those moments. Because, whilst we might encounter a surfeit or an excess when we face trauma, this moment can also be very instructive and powerful for the subject. This is where that basic idea of ‘the witness’ comes into play.

That moment when Desanka holds up the image of her son, is something very recognisable, especially from tales of ‘the missing’ and how photography functions in this traumatic scenario. And her language is very beautiful. She says, “This is a photo of my son. Perhaps it will be moving for someone.” It’s very powerful, but reductive as well, this moment of representation for the lost person, a lost family member.

I wanted to ask you about the origins of this project. Your work, “How to make a refugee” – that was shot when?

In May/June 1999, which was during the Kosovan war. At that point NATO had bombed Belgrade for 78 days.

To stop the conflict?

Well, that’s the interesting question. Because really it was a controversial intervention. It was the first time, I think, that NATO had intervened within a sovereign dispute. So it wasn’t like Iraq invading Kuwait – this was within a national territory. There was a humanitarian catastrophe going on, but that bombing was an intervention the reverberations of which we’re still living with today.

I was going to say, it initiated a new era of international relations.

Yes, and at that time I was at college in Belfast, and I just got a ticket and went to Skopje in Macedonia, and started visiting the refugee camps. I was also looking at how the West was thinking about this conflict – how they began structuring imagery of Kosovan Albanians, which was already very defined. It was largely rural, so you saw a lot of tractors and headscarves. It was about the spectacular, in a way, and the exotic also. And then I made a piece in Belgrade soon after called, young serbs (2001) which was a set of intimate portraits. So I’ve consistently made work over there…

So at the beginning, your motivation was an interest in areas with conflict zones…to bring another side of the story, through representation – that was your motivation?

The thing is, specifically if you are a British subject – because of course the British aren’t citizens, they’re subjects of the Crown and still live under the tyranny of the Royal Family – there are certain obligations in relation to the politics of the British Government, on the most basic level, to go and see for yourself. So when I visited Baghdad, or the West Bank, or Kosovo and Serbia, it was also on an impulse simply ‘to see’, to understand a little of what was happening in my name, without the meditation of the BBC or CNN, or the other news agencies, that largely support the ideological parameters of the government. So, in the Iraq War, you hardly ever saw civilians on telly, or comprehended what was their position in the conflict which was being enforced on their behalf. Similarly, the understanding of Kosovan Albanians
and Serbs was very much pre-defined in its iconography, and suited, it seemed to me, the ways in which the British government wanted to proceed at that time. I think, even when someone’s portrayed as a victim, this is also something which becomes a burden, a burden of representation. It’s something which shackles and has a heavy imprint on the psychology of the place…

On that person, on the people…

On a nation, as a whole – and largely in order to mobilise support or interest. There’s very little interest in the Balkans now, in that the news media and the world have moved on to other conflicts. But that becomes a specific harness, a specific shackle, because it embeds a very unitary form of self-understanding and self-representation.
Against, for instance, the global image of America, who looked very progressive when they elected Barack Obama as President…Globalisation means the so-called Western democracies become nations of outsourcers – to Indonesia, to Turkey, to Taiwan – and are reliant on slave labour, which becomes endemic and indentured in the Far East. So my projects hope to perform not the sanctimonious idea of the generous Utopian artist, but to show the
prickly aspects of the nature of production. Pick up a piece of clothing, take a sip of coffee – at each moment we’re complicit in the web of globalisation which isn’t always something particularly happy and fluffy, but can be incredibly unfortunate and distasteful and sour.

Hopefully, my work reflects back on this, or loops back on to such modes of production. I am not an artist who offers redemption through these processes, but one who hopes to negotiate in some way these sticky networks.

This interview originally published on (now defunct), September 2010.

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