The Avant Late Show

Christine Hill Tapes Her Own TV Pilot, for Art's Sake

Christine Hill's new project straddles a line so fine that skeptical viewers seem about equally divided between those who can't believe it's art and those who can't believe it's life.

In the past, Hill has worked as a masseuse, waitress, shopkeeper, tour guide, and lead singer in a rock band—activities she designated as art, while at the same time they provided her income. Life in the low-tech service professions requires little or no training, and Hill is now about to claim one of the more glamorous professions available in that category: Talk Show Host.

In Pilot, she's inventing and taping the pilot episode of her own late-night television talk show. Not an homage, not a parody, not a deconstruction (like Larry Sanders), it will be as close as she can get to the real thing. While she hopes to tour Pilot in art spaces around the country, creating a new show in every port, she would not be averse to a late-night network slot.

Hill on the "set" of Pilot: "I always think that if you want to do something avant-garde, it doesn’t mean a departure from the norm."
photo: Robin Holland
Hill on the "set" of Pilot: "I always think that if you want to do something avant-garde, it doesn’t mean a departure from the norm."

Just inside the door at Ronald Feldman Gallery, 10 posters explain the piece. But, of course, no one reads anymore. Hill finds that confused people wander into the front room, where a crew hammers away on the set, and where she's helpfully tacked up signs around the mostly empty space labeled "band pit," "lighting grid," and so on. Some ask why the work isn't done yet. (Because she wants them to see it progress.) Some turn and walk right out. It doesn't look like art. It's a mess.

But if they wander into the second room, they'll probably find the host at work at her desk and the sidekick at his, next to an extremely green greenroom, and a conference table for the show's writers. Here, too, confusion can reign. One Saturday during the Downtown Arts Festival, dozens of people crammed into the back room while Hill met with her writers. She could hear a woman in the back saying, "Who are these actors? They're not really the writers for the show. They're just pretending."

I notice a Polaroid labeled "couch consideration" on Hill's worktable. "We're having some issues with the couch," she explains. "Stiffness issues. The guest cannot sink."

She's analyzed all the banal tropes of these shows, watched for hundreds of hours, and even found their pilots, if possible, at the Museum of Television and Radio. The host's desk is always bare, but it has pencils. "You're never supposed to see the host's legs," she says. "It's an interesting dynamic, because the guest is on full display." As in most television shows, the dominant color will be somewhere in the blue range. And behind her, they'll put up the usual phony cityscape. "Most backdrops try to give you the impression that you're in the thick of it. It was hard to decide if we were supposed to be groundbreaking there." She decided no.

"I always think that if you want to do something avant-garde or subversive, it doesn't mean a departure from the norm, from the mainstream," says Hill. "It means taking what you recognize from the norm and fixing it, personalizing it. There's no sense in bastardizing it so much that it's unrecognizable, because then you're not doing it. You're doing something else."

She will not mess with the form, ever. For Hill, the art comes in tailoring a persona to the job, creating a workspace for herself, and then interacting with fans or customers. She began her career in Germany, moving there in 1991 right out of art school. Performing with her band Bindemittel for three years, she says, she adapted her look so that when she got off the tour bus, people would think "rock band." But once the group cut a record, Hill lost interest and quit. She has a horror of getting trapped into one kind of artmaking.

The piece that brought her the most attention in Europe was Volksboutique, a secondhand clothing store she ran out of her Berlin studio from 1996 to '97. For that, she took on a "Heidi shopkeeper look," wearing braids curled into a bun, trying to look approachable and traditional. Last summer, relatively new to New York, she ran walking tours out of a tiny office at Deitch Projects, and sought to present herself as "accessible, friendly, comfortable-shoe wearing."

The job of talk show host has intrigued Hill ever since she first saw the Late Night With Conan O'Brien show in 1997. She lived in Germany without a television but happened to see the show one night in a Frankfurt hotel room. As she described it last year: "I really felt like he was either calling, 'Come on back. This is a job for you,' or somehow mocking me: 'I have this great job. You can't do it.' So I just kind of started this obsession, this desire to be informed about what he's doing, how he's managing to redefine the genre of television while pretty much sticking within the parameters. I very much like the manner in which his persona carries along, and he seems to roll with the punches exceptionally well." She much prefers him to both Leno ("insipid") and Letterman ("a genius but he's gotten very fat and happy").

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