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CLEVELAND, OH — Artist Phil Collins (not to be confused with musician and former Genesis member Phil Collins) began his collaborative 2013 project, my heart’s in my hand, and my hand is pierced, and my hand’s in the bag, and the bag is shut, and my heart is caught, which debuted at MoCA Cleveland on October 7 as part of their fall program, by installing a phone booth with a free line at a homeless shelter in Cologne, Germany. Unlimited local and international calling was made available to guests of the shelter, with the agreement that the conversations would be recorded and made anonymous. Selections from these recordings were shared with a group of musicians from Collins’s network, including David Sylvian, Scritti Politti, Lætitia Sadier, Maria Minerva and Damon & Naomi, and Planningtorock, who used the collected audio to create new musical works. The installation at MoCA is comprised of six solo listening booths, within which visitors to the museum can play these 7” vinyl records on personal record players, according to their whims.
It is sometimes difficult, with art that takes on loaded subject matter, to discern between work that is powerful and source material that is powerful. The exhibition statement highlights the “universal transformative potential of music,” but I would not characterize the experience of listening in on personal conversations, usually between semi- to fully-indigent individuals and their estranged family members as “transformative” of that material, soothing tunes notwithstanding.
Perhaps more successful are the works that create entirely unique compositions that take inspiration from the phone calls, but a number of the works directly relay the recordings whole (which raises additional questions, in my mind, about the nature of anonymity), going so far as to provide complete transcripts and translations of some of the calls.
What is inarguably successful about the works is that they leverage the power of music in the creation of intimate spaces and connections. The listening booths sit in the space like an island chain, isolated but connected, simultaneously public and private. Since these calls originated from a booth and are being aired in another kind of booth, it is easy enough to imagine that the calls could be coming from any one of the booths within eyeshot — or emanating from our own. There is something wholly relatable about the conversations between children and estranged parents, friends, and siblings — fraught with concern but also resentment, disappointment, and frustration, not to mention love and loneliness. The weight of emotional subtext fills the listening station, changing the air with its intensity.
Hello? Hello?” A woman answers the phone, she sounds confused and far away.
“Shalom,” says the caller from Cologne. “This is Maya.”
“Maya? Maya?” Maya’s mother sounds astonished, hopeful, anxious. “… You’re still alive? … Oh my doll, my sweetheart! Do come home! Come to mama, please, please!”
“Erm. You’ve said all this in your email already,” Maya responds. “And I just wanted to tell you that I’m still alive. Everything’s fine.” The conversation continues, neither party finding happy resolution. Meanwhile, two months later, I can still hear Maya’s mother say her name, drawn out over three syllables, heartbreaking in its complexity. The profundity of human emotion in response to this unexpected call from a foreign land achieves greater emotional resonance, for me, than any of the original music that buttresses the conversation — but then, I am a writer, and drawn to character and narrative more than melody and beat.
In his artist statement, Collins says that “art has an imperative to address important issues … and … in places and times of increasing division, it’s crucial that it becomes a prism for reflection in order to create, or ballast, the bridges between us.” The booth-to-booth connections forged by these recordings are tremendously powerful, in their ability to bring a museum-goer into contact with the type of person they might have passed in the street without a second glance. The strain of familial love intermingled with familial angst is not so hyperbolic as to be alien to those with the luck and resources to maintain a permanent residence. It seems impossible to think that any listener might engage with these recordings without experiencing some kind of movement of the heart — perhaps to hand, to throat, or in the direction of someone long lost to it.
Phil Collins: my heart’s in my hand, and my hand is pierced, and my hand’s in the bag, and the bag is shut, and my heart is caught continues at MoCA Cleveland through January 28, 2018.