“Soy mi madre: Conversation between Phil Collins and Michèle Faguet,” El Tiempo Celeste, Mexico, Spring 2009

MF: Let’s start with the most obvious question. This past Spring you were invited by the Aspen Art Museum to initiate its Jane and Marc Nathanson Distinguished Artist in Residence program, the mandate of which is to “further the museum’s goal of engaging the larger community with contemporary art.” How is it, then, that you ended up in Mexico City producing a film, soy mi madre, shot entirely in Spanish and based on the format of the telenovela?

PC: Hmm, yes, from Aspen to El DF in seventeen crazy steps…Where shall I begin?

It’s not the first time I’ve approached a place, or better still the idea of a place, by producing my work elsewhere, examining the links which bind us together. For example, for a show in Scandinavia in 2006 I went to the Sudanese border in Northern Kenya to find a fish factory built by the Norwegians and abandoned, after a litany of disasters, in 1992. How were they to know the nomadic tribe they were trying to help didn’t want to settle down, and hated fish? Or that the lake would dry up and there wouldn’t be enough clean water to re–frigerate the catch? These kinds of complications, I think, are more interesting than the often naïve and bafflingly limited idea of site–specificity formulated within an institutional framework where “site–specific” routinely functions as a byword for public relations or audience building exercise. Let’s just say I prefer outofsite–specific.

In terms of this particular commission, a preconceived idea of Aspen seemed to me very present, even in the day–to–day dealings of Aspen people. It already seemed to me like a soap opera of the rich and famous. At the same time, I was interested to look at the machinery that keeps this glittering front in place on the most basic, practical level. For many in the States, Mexicans are thought of solely in relation to low–qualified, manual or domestic labour, and in Roaring Fork Valley rural Mexican and Latino immigrant communities would travel sometimes two hours in each direction to a job, mostly in the hospitality, building and property maintenance industries. Around the time I started researching the project, I saw a hideously unsympathetic report on NBC by Tom Brokaw about the issues facing undocumented workers in Colorado, and so the focus of the piece sharpened. I wanted to make something which would talk directly to this non–resident and, in Aspen itself, largely invisible community. So I decided to go to Mexico and make a telenovela. 

In her essay “Live Through This,” Liz Kotz refers to what she describes as an “unabashed belief in the redemptive power of popular culture” in your work.[i] In other words, it’s not as simple as reducing Smiths fans in Bogotá, Istanbul, and Jakarta in the world won’t listen (2004–07), or, for that matter, Palestinian teenagers in they shoot horses (2004), to victims of a homogenizing globalization. And yet other works, most notably the return of the real (2006), explicitly address your deep mistrust in the corporate interests that determine the content of so much of the popular culture we consume today. Can you elaborate on this? I’m particularly interested in how your most recent work, soy mi madre, plays into this discussion given your use of the genre of the telenovela, which we know has been so culturally significant in places like Mexico and Brazil.

And in many more places besides. Soap opera, as the Anglo–American equivalent of telenovela, is often derided as a low cultural form that manipulates, in a shrewd and emotional fashion, the basest and most irrational passions of its viewers. I’d always quite liked soap for this. And its associated pleasures: the preposterousness of its narrative conventions, how the show must go on, and the potential to address, within such a highly predicated framework, some of the pains and dilemmas of the private sphere. I’m not saying that it necessarily does, nor that it’s a revolutionary form in itself, but it’s undeniably attractive and one which offers manifold possibilities for personal identification and projection. In soy mi madre I tried to retain the attendant delights but to create a hybrid form – something realer than real, I suppose – by overvaluing the visual register and calibrating the narrative arc by reflecting on class, race, power relations and the tensions of domestic labour. I adamantly didn’t want to make a satire or a pastiche of soap – with wobbly sets and bad camera work. In fact, I wanted to make something exquisite, purposefully cinematic, shot on 16mm, with beautifully dressed sets and leading telenovela actors.

Naturally the idea mutated in several ways before I decided on the format of a 28 minutes long, self–contained episode, which would recognisably have many of the key elements of the genre, and which could, more importantly play on television itself. As I said, I wanted to work with something that the Latino community of Colorado could relate to directly, but whilst I was aware of the popularity and cultural significance of telenovela in Central and South America, I didn’t quite understand its global reach. I’d gone to Mexico right off the back of shooting a film in Kosovo, which was about the construction of political identities through language, but even there, within the most bitterly ethnically-divided communities, telenovelas such as Esmeralda were still universally beloved. And only ten years out of date! Equally, Russia, China, Japan, Indonesia, France, and, of course, the States, are huge global markets for telenovelas. I heard, although never confirmed, that in the 1990s the telenovela was Mexico’s biggest export, bigger than oil, car parts or silver.

At the same time, making a telenovela was a chance for me to revisit one of my favourite childhood memories. Growing up as I did near Manchester in the 1970s, the broadcast schedule was dominated by soaps, such as Coronation Street (still running today after more than forty years – and still every bit as good!) and, later, Brookside. If you’ve never seen them, they are wonderful examples of the topics and the kind of dialogue we were aiming for in soy mi madre — rich in inflection, combative, camp, gritty. These shows, like all good soaps, focus on the interior lives and domestic intrigues of a predominantly matriarchal structure. But in Britain, as opposed to the States for example, the working classes are the focus of the writing. In that sense, I wanted to try and marry traditions of outrageous excess, characteristic of the Americas’ soaps, and social realism, characteristic of the British, and to look from an oblique angle, from another country even, at the United States where the immigration debate remains one of the acute political concerns, especially in the light of such recent benchmark developments like the 2006 immigration reform demonstrations.

A significant constant throughout your work has been the privileging of the production process, typically based on the convocation of individuals to perform a specific event determined by you, so that the resulting pictures and videos—although they are self-sufficient and do not necessarily require any additional information for them to have a significant (initially quite visceral) impact on the viewer—function as what Claire Bishop and Francesco Manacorda have called “residual traces of a larger aesthetic and conceptual scheme.[ii]” soy mi madre is the first time, I believe, that you’ve worked with actors and a formal script. Do you see this as a major departure from your previous working method in that the work no longer alludes to “a larger aesthetic and conceptual scheme,” but rather to a broader socio-political issue (to which these schemes, of course, are always intimately tied)?

It did feel like a departure for me. It was the first time that I worked specifically with actors and a script, but on the other hand, conceptually, I don’t think it constitutes such a major shift. After all, as with my previous work, soy mi madre is an attempt to talk about issues, which I find important, and others often label “political”, and how they tie in with private desires and fears. Whether you do it with professional actors or a group of passionate amateurs is not completely irrelevant, nor paramount either, but if you’re making a telenovela why not start at the top?

In this sense, the biggest departure in soy mi madre, for me personally, is in aesthetic terms. This film certainly looks least like anything I’ve done before. Which is interesting because many aspects of the production remained the same: a relatively small team, an insanely condensed production period, and a similar organisation of the shoot, albeit on a much larger scale.

Can you tell me a bit about your experience in Mexico and how you managed to make a telenovela with such high production quality in a short period of time, and in a country you’d never even visited before?

Quite typically, I arrived in Mexico City eight weeks before the show was going up, with one bag and one e–mail as a contact. I began working on the script with P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes, two wonderful American screenwriters who’d made a number of telenovelas. Again it was all very much a labour of love for all concerned, but I had the good fortune to fall in quickly with a group of people whose amazing passion for and dedication to the idea meant that we could proceed with style in spite of our budget: from Javier Clavé and Tania Pérez Cordova who infallibly overlooked all aspects of the production, to Pablo García of Tigre Productions and Juan García who generously allowed us to shoot at 5 de Mayo studios, to Damian García, an exquisite director of photography, and his team who lit and shot the film in two days. I was also incredibly lucky to work with Salvador Parra on sets, who had been the production designer on Almodovar’s Volver and Schnabel’s Before Night Falls, and Malena de la Riva on costume design, both of which essentially contributed to the look of the film which was central for conveying its meanings. And of course, more than anything else, I still can’t believe how completely jammy I was to work with such wonderful actresses like Patricia Reyes Spíndola, Gina Morett, Verónica Langer and Zaide Silvia Gutiérrez who are all major stars in Mexico and thus have an international reach.

In the research stages, I started where all good students should, with melodrama. I re–read Bleak House by Charles Dickens and The Maids by Jean Genet, both of which sat below the script. I wanted the film to be about class conflict but also to have many of the classic tropes of soap opera: mistaken identity, babies swapped at birth, bitter sibling rivalry, social mobility, and a mother as the source of a revelation. Films such as Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant were really important in terms of the look and feel of soy mi madre, as were the films of Almodovar. But I also went back to things like Bunuel’s Diary of a Chambermaid or La Cérémonie by Chabrol. I wanted to make something which looked out of time – a reflection on a luxury home in the States, as imagined in Mexico in 1985. Once in Mexico, we went back and looked at Cadenas de Amargura, Rosa Salvaje and, of course, Cuna de Lobos to capture the precise look we wanted.

Stylistically, I wanted to focus on the artificiality of the genre, how actors replace each other but play the same character; on the heightened emotional pull of melodrama, which goes back to Victorian Theatre and beyond, and the sense of playing out to the audience. It’s a very particular style and difficult to carry off. So we tried to build the work around tracking shots which would occasionally reveal the sets and production conditions and then pan around to find us on a new set, with a new cast of actors playing the same characters. For a while I was toying with the idea of working with nonactors, and a testament to this is the guest appearance of Almadella and Montse, two friends and members of the local transsexual–prostitute community.

I’m going to indulge myself in a personal anecdote related to my own involvement in el mundo no escuchará- the first of the Smiths Karaoke trilogy the world won’t listen—filmed in Bogotá in 2004. After a frenetic two-month production period concluded on the eve of your scheduled exhibition in La Rebeca, we agreed upon a live karaoke session in lieu of a final product (which all of the hundreds of people who turned up for the opening were desperate to see of course). But then the lights went out in a massive black out that left the majority of Bogotá in complete darkness. I remember you expressing relief at my calmness, saying something about how in this kind of situation there’s usually a “curator off in some corner weeping.” But in assuming my role in that piece’s production (rather than that of the curator who would ultimately exhibit it) I fully understood that the significance that this work had for me, my little exhibition space, and all of those people who sang, had already occurred.

How do you (emotionally and conceptually) negotiate the potentially irreconcilable schism between the production and exhibition processes? You have often spoken about how lens-based media offer the potential for both exploitation and seduction. Is it uncomfortable for you to go back to these sites of production (as you have just done in Colombia for example) and show the completed work to those who participated in its production?

People sometimes say that my practice puts equal importance on the conditions of production, the relationship between myself and the “performers”, and the final exhibition that you encounter in the gallery. No matter how complimentary such remarks are, they seem to imply a distinction between these elements, which I don’t really see exists. For me, they’re all part of the same, of a general idea which we are working towards from the beginning, and of which the gallery presentation is just one manifestation. In it, the viewer should hopefully be able to perceive the intricacies and the energy of the production, or the details of its relations, if that’s of any interest to them..    

Of course, for me it’s always exciting to show the work in its original context, as the work oftentimes elicits the most relevant responses in the place it was created. My love affair with Mexico City began instantaneously, from the very first day. It was overwhelming. This project without a doubt could not have been made anywhere else. I can’t wait to come back and show it.

You’ve traveled all over the world to make work, from, amongst others, Belfast, Belgrade and Baghdad, to Ramallah, Bogotá, and Jakarta. Part of what motivates you is to challenge the conventional journalistic approach that suppresses the representation of individuals in favor of a generalized, simplified political collective. In your work we see, for example, teenager hipster in Jakarta who know all The Smiths’ lyrics by heart (dunia tak akan mendengar, 2007) or young Serbian men and women lying in the grass in an unbearable close-up (young serbs 2001). One aspect of your work, then, addresses the uneven distribution of cultural knowledge in which Western Europeans and Americans know little about those who live in the rest of the world, whereas presumably they know a lot about us through the exportation of our pop culture (but your work, it seems to me, also hints at how complicated this other assumption can be). When did you first become interested in this issue and how did your work develop into a nomadic practice?

I suppose it comes very much from the experience of studying in Belfast in the late 1990s. I’d often found it difficult to reflect directly on a situation there, and whilst I was still at art-school, in 1999, I travelled to the Kosovan border to make a video called how to make a refugee in which I followed Western–media photographers and filmed them working. In many ways, this film was as much about the questions I was trying to articulate about Belfast and Northern Ireland at that time as it was about the conflict in Former Yugoslavia. In this sense, the methodology or motivation hasn’t changed much since. I go to places because I want to see for myself.

[i] From Phil Collins: the world won’t listen, edited by Suzanne Weaver and Siniša Mitrović, Dallas Museum of Art, 2007.
[ii] Claire Bishop and Francesco Manacorda, “The Producer as Artist,” Phil Collins: yeah…you, baby you, edited by Siniša Mitrović, Milton Keynes Gallery/Shady Lane Publications, 2005.