they shoot horses 2004 is a two channel colour video shown on two adjacent screens in a darkened room, featuring young people from Ramallah in Palestine dancing to a succession of pop songs. Each video was shot with a static camera in a single take lasting seven hours, and shows a small group of participants (three men and one woman in one video, and three women and two men in the other) dancing in a community centre, often with great energy and enthusiasm, against a deep pink wall with two orange horizontal stripes running across it. The music is synchronised so that the same songs – consisting of Western pop music of different styles from the 1960s to the 2000s – play at the same time in each video. Although there are no standard breaks in the music for the protagonists to rest, some dancers do occasionally sit or slump on the floor, and the performances are also intermittently interrupted by power cuts and calls to prayer. This work is the third in an edition of three plus one artist’s proof.
In March 2004 the British artist Phil Collins advertised in Ramallah for people willing to be involved in this project, and subsequently held auditions for performers. He then filmed two separate groups of young people, each of whom were paid to dance constantly over the course of one day. Both groups danced for eight hours in total, but after one hour-long videotape was seized by Israeli authorities, Collins created two seven hour videos.
The title of the work refers to the American author Horace McCoy’s 1935 novel They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, which was adapted into a film in 1969 directed by Sydney Pollack, and features a dance marathon held during the Great Depression in the United States. The phrase evokes pity for the contestants who have to endure the competition in order to earn money, suggesting that they are treated worse than animals. Collins’s choice of title seems to offer a humorous and perhaps sympathetic comment on his performers, who continue to dance to upbeat songs despite their evident exhaustion.
they shoot horses may be viewed as a form of portraiture, capturing the changing emotions of the dancers over the course of one arduous day. As the critic Liz Kolz pointed out in 2007, ‘We have never met these young people, but after a while we feel as if we know them intimately: the cheerleadery girl with long earrings and athletic clothes, the tired girl, the handsome aloof guy. As fatigue takes its toll, their efforts appear alternatively tragic and comic, heroic and heartbreaking’ (Kolz 2007, p.61).
This work may also be assessed in relation to its political and geographical context and to the global reach of Western culture. In emphasising the participants’ enjoyment of pop music, the videos might be seen to challenge stereotypical characterisations that define young Palestinians purely in terms of the Israel-Palestine conflict. As the art historian Claire Bishop has explained:
By voiding the work of direct political narrative, Collins demonstrates how swiftly this space is filled by fantasies generated by the media’s selective production and dissemination of images from the Middle East (since the typical Western viewer seems condemned to view young Arabs either as victims or as medieval fundamentalists). By using pop music as familiar to Palestinian as to Western teens, Collins also provides a commentary on globalization that is considerably more nuanced than most activist-oriented political art.
(Bishop 2006, p.182.)
Over the course of his career, Collins – who has travelled extensively, especially to areas often associated with conflict (such as Belfast, Baghdad and Belgrade) – has created videos, taken photographs and orchestrated performances exploring how cultural identities are formed. Following the completion of they shoot horses he began work on a trilogy of videos called the world won’t listen 2004–7, which features people in Colombia, Turkey and Indonesia performing karaoke versions of songs by the British band The Smiths.
While Liz Kolz has argued that Collins’s videos exploring repetitive tasks and feats of bodily endurance may be associated with the filmed performances of the American artist Bruce Nauman (Kolz 2007, p.61), Claire Bishop has identified they shoot horses as an example of what she calls ‘delegated performance’ or ‘the act of hiring nonprofessionals or specialists in other fields to undertake the job of being present and performing at a particular time and a particular place on behalf of the artist, and following his or her instructions’ (Bishop 2012, p.91). Bishop claims that a significant number of artists, including Maurizio Cattelan, Tino Sehgal and Dora García, have taken this approach since the 1990s as a way of engaging critically with the politics of identity and labour.
Claire Bishop, ‘The Social Turn: Collaboration and its Discontents’, Artforum, vol.44, no.6, February 2006, pp.178–83, reproduced p.178.
Liz Kolz, ‘Live Through This’, in Suzanne Weaver and Siniša Mitrovic (eds.), Phil Collins: the world won’t listen, exhibition catalogue, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas 2007, pp.56–65, reproduced pp.56, 60.
Claire Bishop, ‘Delegated Performance: Outsourcing Authenticity’, October, no.140, spring 2012, pp.91–112, reproduced p.99.
Supported by Christie’s.