For They Shoot Horses, Collins began by approaching Jack Persekian, the director of Al Ma’mal Foundation, and pitching to him the idea of staging a disco dance marathon in Ramallah, later to be exhibited as a real-time, double-screen projection.
As Collins later elaborated, “When we think about Palestine it never seems to be in reference to modernity, or culture; in fact it’s relentlessly positioned as uncivilized. The disco dance marathon would instead be a way of looking at beauty under duress, entertainment in a place of routine indignities.” Within ten days, in February 2004, Collins was in Ramallah holding auditions for the marathon. After choosing nine participants and dividing them into two groups, he proceeded to videotape them on successive days, starting at 10 a.m. and finishing at 6 p.m., dancing to the same soundtrack, without breaks.
“The end of each day had me in tears. The dancers showed such fortitude, resilience, grace, and most importantly, had better, sharper moves than any I’d ever seen. I wanted everyone who saw it to fall in love with them, to admire their perseverance and to wonder why it would seem odd to us if they knew the words to Althea and Donna’s “Uptown Top Ranking.” The last track they dance to is quite rightly Olivia Newton John’s “Xanadu.” For me there really is a heroism to live in a place it’s impossible to leave, to be split from families, imprisoned by a Berlin wall, and, maybe worst of all, to be forgotten by a world which refuses to understand you.”
Alluding to They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, a Depression-era novel and 1969 film about an impoverished couple reduced to participating in a grueling dance marathon to survive, Collins’s They Shoot Horses challenges viewers to experience its dance marathon in its entirety, given its overall accumulation of fourteen hours of imagery. (Two hours from the sixteen Collins shot are missing due to tapes being confiscated at the Israeli border, thus eliminating any record of the marathon’s third hour.) Duration aside, the directness and frontality with which Collins regards the young Palestinians is echoed in the level gaze characterizing his still photographs.
(Excerpts taken from Bill Horrigan, “Phil Collins They Shoot Horses”, Wexner Center Galleries, http://www.wexarts.org/ex/2005/Phil_Collins/phil_collins.pdf).
Phil Collins was born in Runcorn, England in 1970. He studied Drama and English at the University of Manchester before moving to Belfast to pursue his MFA at the College of Arts and Design, part of the University of Ulster, in 1998. His best known works are video art, and he has produced pieces featuring subjects from Serbia, Iraq, Palestine, Turkey, Colombia, and Indonesia.