Turner Prize: Inside one of the installations

The artist Phil Collins has controversially set up a real office in the Tate for this year's Turner Prize. So what's it like to work there? Lena Corner reports on her fortnight in the eye of an art-world storm
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The Independent Online

It's one of those mornings when you just know it's going to be a slow day in the office. Everyone is finding it hard to concentrate. It's not for want of trying either - each one of us is rooted to our workstation. The problem is that more than 200 people are pressed up against our office window staring in at us. Video cameras are rolling and flashes are going off all over the place. I'm not sure whether I feel like a celebrity or a goldfish.

It's press day at the opening of the 2006 Turner Prize exhibition - or, as one paper puts it, "modern art's annual punch-up". One of the four exhibits, by 36-year-old artist Phil Collins, is a working office plonked in the middle of Tate Britain. It's here that I'm sat, trying to work for the newly formed production company, Shady Lane.

It's not often you get a chance to be part of a living artwork, so when a job came up at Collins' company, I decided to apply. Phil was looking for a team of researchers to work for three months, finding people who feel their lives have been ruined by appearing in reality television shows to feature in his next artwork - for the Turner Prize, it's the office itself that he will be judged on. I had an interview, got the job and was duly summoned to the Tate for training. My desk sits facing the sickly salmon back wall (Dulux's Dreamy Peach), to my right is the fax machine and to my left a wilted pot plant and the filing cabinet. All the mundane paraphernalia of the dreariest desk job. I might be a work of art, but I'm certainly not surrounded by it.

It's the first time in the Turner history that real people have been such an integral part of the work, and for the Tate curator Katharine Stout, we're something of a logistical nightmare - how are we going to interact with the public? There's a hatch on the side-wall of the office so potential subjects for the study or visitors can come up and talk to us, and Katharine has patiently trained us all up in dealing with even the most challenging enquiries. We now have an answer to every conceivable question. "Phil Collins? Is that a joke?" she boomed through the hatch in one of our many practice runs. "Call this art?" she shrieked again and again, until all the answers tripped effortlessly off our tongues.

The office is certainly a bold idea. Phil is using the Tate to get on with his own work, at the same time as harnessing the enormous publicity the Turner Prize generates to aid his research. I listened the gallery audio guide so I know exactly what the visitors are hearing when they're staring in at us.

"He is working almost as a parasite within the Tate," says the voice on the guide. "Making them host his office to produce a new work is asking very interesting and critical questions about the idea of a finished piece. He's directly challenging the very prize that he's in the running for."

Parasite or not, me and two other researchers, Jane and Max, have reported to Phil bright and early on this, our first day there (we're paid to work from 10am-6pm, Monday to Friday). Max and I have made an effort to look nondescript, knowing that an enormous press pack was on its way to scrutinise our every move. Phil, normally a photographer and video artist, seems to have morphed effortlessly into office manager. His only instructions to us are to avoid bending over (cue "Art? My Arse" headlines) and not to fish anything out of the bin ("What A Load Of Rubbish!"). Predictably, later on I bend over to pick some paper out of the bin to put it in recycling.

Apart from momentarily forgetting how to switch on my computer, things run fairly smoothly. At this stage we are just setting up email accounts and giving people our contact details, but it is almost impossible to do even this under such intense scrutiny. Some people arrive and just leave their cameras rolling on us, which is particularly disconcerting, and Jane is convinced she has spotted someone else listening in on us, hiding in a blindspot. Thoughtfully, though, Phil has installed a privacy screen in one corner of the office so if anyone does lose it, they can do so away from the glare of the crowds. I spend more time there than anyone else. On the plus side, there's no eating or drinking in the office so, with afternoon grazing off the menu, it's going to be great for our diets.

BBC News 24 gets its first report out quickly and by lunchtime calls are starting to come in from former reality-show contestants. That evening, Shady Lane Productions features on most of the other TV networks and the following morning, on a local London station, there's a long, unfortunate shot of Max and myself sniggering behind our computer screens.

By the time we get into the office on our second day, Max's ego is enormous. His picture seems to feature in virtually every newspaper. Sat at his desk, side on, he thinks he looks a little like Rodin's The Thinker. Others might say he resembles a small, baffled ape. I'm a little bitter that I feature virtually nowhere, aside from a piece by the Sun's esteemed arts critic, Toulouse le Plot. Jane, who is six months pregnant, isn't happy either: "If I'd known we were going to be all over the press," she says, "I would never have worn a bright pink curtain." (I do crop up on Newsnight later in the week though, and am so vain that I tape it and rewind it over and over again until I capture a perfect shot of myself and Phil on my phone.)

But despite the blanket press coverage - far more than the other three exhibits - Phil is unhappy that most people in the art world seem to assume the office is a spoof. "These people are so lazy it is just easier for them to believe it's a fake," he says. "They're so unbelievably entitled, the biggest surprise for the people I spoke to yesterday is that I actually go to my office every day and that none of us are actors. I mean, really!"

It's also annoying: we have work to do. Our brief is to find roughly 15 people whose lives have been ruined by appearing on TV - on makeover shows, talk shows and reality programmes. If people don't think we're real, they're not going to call.

We start a cuttings file on reality-related stores and it only takes one set of Sunday tabloids to realise that the fallout from ordinary people appearing on TV is everywhere. Whether it's stories of drunken sex parties on X-Factor, or boob jobs on From Lad to Ladette. By now more people are coming forward and we're hearing stories about loss of confidence, homelessness, drug addiction and families being torn apart. "I've always wondered what happens after these shows are transmitted," Phil explains to someone whose come to the hatch to ask the "Why reality TV?" question yet again. "You have to wonder what happens when, for instance, a transsexual hooker, who has effectively come out on national TV, pops down to the local bakery and bumps into friends and neighbours. How well equipped are people for these situations? And for how long, if at all, does the oft-spouted promise of counselling continue for?"

In our induction we were all given a crash course in Phil's work (including a similar experiment conducted in Turkey in 2005). A recurring theme is an examination of our obsessive love of cameras and their ability to both seduce and manipulate. "We are fundamentally interested in is people's stories," Phil said. "Frighteningly, on Trisha's website she says something similar. Trisha though, as far as I can see, has exhibited no apparent interest in the socio-economic realities underlying her contributor's stories."

On Tuesday night, there's an opening party, and we clear up early and head to the bar. The response from guests seems to be positive, but it's annoying the number of people who express indignation that we're not still at our desks. "Are you usually at your desk at 9pm in the evening?" I feel like asking. The two highlights of my evening are meeting dancer Michael Clarke and helping Phil to smuggle a carrier bag full of falafels past the bouncers into his after-party at Madam Jojo's nightclub in Soho to feed his drunken entourage.

Back at our desks the morning after, we're feeling jaded and hungover. "I spent the whole night being literally clawed," says Phil. "It was like being both bride and wedding organiser at my own marriage." He's not sure if it's overtiredness, or reality TV overkill, but today he is convinced he's seen Aggie from How Clean is Your House? having a cream tea in the Tate café.

Gillian, the cleaning supervisor, pops in. Apparently the cleaners have been too scared to empty our bin in case it's an artwork. In 2004 German-born artist Gustav Metzger created a piece of "auto-destructive art" for the Tate. One element was a bag containing rubbish that he had collected from within the gallery, but a cleaner mistook it for a bag of rubbish and threw it out. Metzger declared the piece to be ruined. No wonder the cleaners are a little nervous.

Requests come flooding in from journalists wanting to come and work in the office but Phil turns everyone down. If I'm totally honest, it's not entirely luck that won me my coveted position in Shady Lane Productions. I first met Phil when we were students in Manchester in 1990. He turned up on my doorstep one day after being thrown out of a house in Longsight for not paying his rent. We ended up becoming flatmates for so long that we'd joke that I was his common-law wife with rights to half his measly pile of worldly goods.

We moved frequently, avoiding the city's student enclaves and living instead in Salford, Old Trafford, Lower Broughton and a two-week stint in Whalley Range before a brick through our bathroom window moved us on again. It was the era of acid house and Madchester. For years Phil worked in the Hacienda at a time when Shaun Ryder and Barney from New Order could regularly be found propping up the bar - just before the whole scene imploded into a mess of gang warfare and shootings. Phil says he really can't remember anything from that whole time, "because I spent it off my face at service stations at four in the morning".

A few peripatetic years followed. He dumped all his belongings in Kwik Save carrier bags, shoved them under my bed, and went off to try his hand at bingo calling, teaching and barwork, before ending up in Belfast to do an MA in fine art. Despite his current art-world success he's still the only person I know who doesn't own a debit or credit card or a mobile phone. He's never driven, can hardly ride a bike and only this year got a washing machine for the first time. As an artist whose work regularly takes him to troublespots such as Baghdad, Ramallah and Bogota, he's certainly not looking for an easy way out. No wonder, he says, he feels at odds with the art world. "I don't like a lot of the way the art world is organised," he says. "I don't feel I fit into things. I think it's really removed and unnecessarily alienates a large proportion of the population. It is, of course, the only area of modern life where people give away free drinks and still nobody comes."

As the week rolls on at Shady Lane Productions, we're quietly beginning to embrace a few office stereotypes, The office bully (me) is first to emerge, then there's the office swot (Jane) and finally the office idiot (Max) who arrives every day off the Tate boat feeling slightly seasick. "We've become completely institutionalised within a week," says Jane. But this still doesn't feel like a normal job. Maybe it's because it's Phil, or maybe it's the need to show off to visitors, but there's a sense of dedication from each of us that none of us have shown in any previous jobs. And, completely unheard of, when it comes to invoicing we even find ourselves knocking off the odd hour if we don't feel we've come up with the goods.

In the next few days, Newsnight's Kirsty Wark pops her head in to make a few pertinent suggestions about the daytime chat-show hosts Trisha and Jeremy Kyle. The Tate Britain director Stephen Deuchar passes by to check Phil is treating his staff right, and a journalist from the Communist Morning Star stops in to interrogate him on how it's all being paid for. "It's been paid for by me," says Phil patiently. "With money from work that I've sold. Everyone gets exactly the same, which is at the rate of the highest earner in the office. Except for me. I get nothing."

BBC Radio Scotland invites Phil on for a head-to-head with Cameron, the winner of Big Brother 4. It backfires slightly when both sides are in total agreement. Cameron's mum is an artist, so of course, he says, an office could be considered to be an artwork. Shortly after the interview, Cameron phones back to say that he could put us in touch with some former Big Brother contestants who have since had plastic surgery. Apparently things got so bad some no longer want to be recognised.

Week two in Shady Lane coincides with Frieze Art Fair and the global art community has descended on London en masse. From my humble work station I catch a glimpse of David Hockney, Maurizio Cattelan and Jeremy Deller passing by. It's also a rare chance to see the international art set at its schmooziest. Every evening there's more openings and free wine than anyone could possibly stomach. Phil tells me that he turned up at a Royal Academy party in a brown cardigan and puddle-splashed jeans. The invite stipulated lounge suits. "Well, it has been a long day at the office," he told security.

Despite our training, the public are, on the whole, polite to the point of timidity. Few are bold enough to strike up a conversation with us through the hatchway - with the exception artists and schoolchildren. On some occasions, though, I do slam the hatch door shut when people get too noisy outside. My ignorance of the gallery scene is shown up when I do this to a group of visitors, who, it is later revealed, are art-world dignitaries. Phil is sympathetic: "Well, they were being bit noisy," he says.

As our research progresses we begin to uncover a whole murky world of television that we never knew existed. Programme titles such as My Teen's a Nightmare, We're Moving Out, I Know What You Ate Last Summer and our favourite, Bye Bye Thunder Thighs, make us cry with laughter. By the end of the second week, we've forgotten that we're being watched, and, as you would in any office, start sharing loud, inappropriate gossip. With up to 3,000 people passing through the Turner Prize exhibition in a day, that's a lot of eavesdroppers. So if you're passing, drop in and tell us your story. We're all good listeners, and I promise I won't slam the hatch in your face.

Has your life has been ruined by an appearance on TV? If so, contact Shady Lane Productions tel: 020 7887 4924 or go to www.shadylaneproductions.co.uk.

The Turner Prize is announced on 4 Dec; the show runs until 14 Jan at Tate Britain, tel: 020 7887 8000