I keep thinking about this thing the artist Jeremy Deller said to me: “People like to have transcendent experiences. Everyone wants things to be different.” All I’ve ever wanted was for things to be different. All I’ve ever wanted was to transcend! I think Jeremy’s work gets me closer.
As a musician, performer, and dance club frequenter whose socially-oriented art is guided by the presence and participation of crowds in public, I am propelled into a kind of ecstasy when I look at Jeremy Deller’s work. His signature crisscrossing of conceptual art and popular culture— an AP high school course about the 90s rave scene, a deep dive into Depeche Mode fandom, a movie about a genderbending pro wrestler— transfers the gloss of pop idolatry and fanaticism onto the typically more formal, and less peopled, context of the art world. It can be as exciting and alive as an underground nightclub (sometimes it’s even in an underground nightclub), and that’s because Jeremy Deller knows the essential ingredient for making the kind of work you can see yourself in: he looks to what people care about.
His work is about life— its absurdities, amusements, pitfalls, and pleasures, its personal triumphs and monumental tragedies. Through collaborative large scale public events, documentary films, interactive sculptures, posters, banners, a contemporary folk archive, concerts and musical collaborations, Jeremy Deller gives a platform to sub/cultural phenomenons and attitudes of devotion. In doing so, he spotlights the innate artfulness of collective activity and the shared passions of everyday people.
Becca Kauffman: I want to talk about the ins and outs of your large scale projects, how you generate ideas, the behind the scenes process, exhibition strategies, and your relationship to your collaborators and participants. I keep your book, Joy in People, on my nightside table and I look at it all the time. I’m a big fan of your projects Open Bedroom, Acid Brass, So Many Ways to Hurt You, What is the City But the People, all of that, and the way that you tune into the offbeat quirks of people’s passions and shine a light into the corners people don’t tend to look into very often. It has a really comforting and validating and thrilling effect on me. It makes me just giddy to be alive, through learning what other people have reason to care about and what they get obsessed by, what they’re devoted to. What draws you to people’s obsessions?
Jeremy Deller: Well, I think if you’re going to work as an artist, it’s good to work with people who have a strong interest in something, because they’re enthusiastic. But also, obsession in itself is interesting. Maybe I have a mildly obsessive personality, but not really at all— a little bit, in as much as we all do— so I probably identify with people who are into things. I find it quite endearing and interesting in its own right. And so, you know that if you’re working with people who are very into something, they probably are going to be quite into making an artwork about that thing, or working with you to make a film about something. So fans of a band, like Depeche Mode, they’re really into the band, so if you ask them, would you like to be in a film about the band? they’re going to say, and they did say, yes, of course, we would love to be in a film about the band, that would be an honor for us. And so in a way, it’s quite easy or straightforward working with people who have strong interests, if you’re going to make work around those interests.
Becca: I’m really curious about the behind the scenes process for Procession. How did you convince people to participate in something that was so offbeat and quirky?
Jeremy: It doesn’t take that much. People are up for doing things. I mean, this is the thing about working with the public: on the whole, the public are really interested in doing unusual things, or displaying their interests, or talents. With Procession, I just went around and explained what I was doing: a procession about the city that these people lived in. I was saying, I’d like to feature you in this procession in some way, because of this. It’s always good to explain why and give motivations. I think that it’s really good for people to know the motivation for doing something, because it gives them something to look at and think about. And so I connected with people. So that was really straightforward. You can’t make someone do something, even if you’re paying them. If they don’t want to do it, they won’t do it. So it’s a self-selecting group of people, often, that you work with, which is great. So I was very happy to work in Manchester. And processions happen all the time, don’t they? People understand the format. They understand what it is. Everyone likes processions on the whole, they like displays like that, and parades. They’re attracted to them. They’re showing things that are unusual. And so it’s like alternate realities. So it’s not that difficult. That’s not the problem, the people on the whole are not the problem.
Becca: What’s the problem?
Jeremy: Well, sometimes the problem is when you try and make it work in a gallery that involves people or a museum. Museums, often, are less… actually they’ve improved massively in the UK, I don’t know what it’s like in America. From my experience in America, it’s more difficult. But people in Britain now, in museum culture, in gallery culture, they’re much less afraid of the public now, but they were when I was starting out. They really didn’t know what to do with the public. When the public were in there making work or part of the work, that’s where problems happened. Because there are rules and regulations in museums that are not really in the street or in life. There are less rules and regulations about things. Galleries and museums are very controlled spaces, for a reason, because there’s the value of the objects within them. So when you bring chaos into that environment, or potential chaos, in the form of human beings, galleries and museums get slightly concerned.
Becca: So then, how do you see the street and open air public space as an important site for spectacle and for the work that you make?
Jeremy: You’re working with the public, for the public. You’re not working for an institution where, again, it’s a self-selecting group of people who go into museums. It’s small, it’s a percentage of the population. It’s not the whole population. In the public realm, it’s there for everybody who’s out in the public realm. So it’s a much wider group of people. And that’s more exciting, when you work with big groups of people like that. I like working in public, because you don’t really know what to expect. There’s a randomness to it. There’s an unexpected element, a loss of control, which is interesting, when artists lose control of a project.
Becca: When your work happens outside of an institution, and it’s not as readily identifiable as a work of art, is it important for you for your project to be perceived as a work of art by the people who are there?
Jeremy: A little bit. Not really. They might know an artist made it. And they might see it as an artwork. But it doesn’t bother me that much. I’m just glad I could do it. I know some artists and friends and colleagues get slightly bothered when things aren’t seen as artworks. On the whole, if people know you’re an artist, and you’re making something happen, the participants, at least, sort of understand that they’re part of an artwork, or at least part of something that an artist has initiated. So there’s an art component to it.
Becca: There was one group in Procession called the Unrepentant Smokers. Is that the way they described themselves, or a phrase that you came up with together, or?
Jeremy: I came up with it. I came up with the whole content of that procession. I kind of mapped it out, I curated it, if you want to use that term. That’s the narrative. But I knew what I wanted from traveling around Manchester over a period of six months to a year, and knew exactly what could be made and what would work. The smokers, it was to do with recent laws being changed in the UK where smokers were being sort of edged out, they were being banned from smoking [in] buildings. And so they’ll be seen on the streets a lot. And it was weird that smokers have never been so visible, because they had to be outside all the time, in all weathers, smoking. So you’d see them everywhere.
Becca: They got smoked out.
Jeremy: Yeah. In Manchester, a lot of people smoke. It’s a former industrial town, and people tend to smoke and drink maybe a little bit more than other parts in the south, maybe. It’s this kind of cultural thing, almost. I just thought, I’m not a smoker and I don’t really particularly like it, but I just thought it was an interesting change in the visibility. Manchester has very varied weather and can be very wet, and so you see people out in bad weather and rain and wind and cold, still smoking, a sort of heroic act. And so I just thought, well, they are unrepentant, let’s celebrate them. Which made it a problem, because we were effectively promoting smoking. So we had to have a sign behind them, a banner saying, “Smoking kills,” behind us as a warning about that work. I was very happy.
Becca: That the disclaimer had to be applied?
Jeremy: Yeah, legally, we had to do it.
Becca: You’ve talked about your work as being both social and antisocial, which I thought was really interesting considering how much it deals with people. I know you have an art history background and I see a perspective that views large groups, mobs, crowds from a sociological distance, rather than a more intimate one.
Jeremy: Yeah, there is a distance, but that’s what I’m like anyway. I’m not a big joiner-inner, I’m someone who’s more often on the fringes watching something happen in front of me, like a demonstration or an event or something. I don’t like being in the middle of crowds, I like to be on the fringes looking at things, looking at people. Often you go to a concert, and the people are more interesting than what’s on stage. I’m more interested in the people that attend events than the main attraction. So I’ve always been a bit of an outsider in that way, and it’s just how it is. That’s actually quite helpful when it comes to looking at things. I didn’t take part in certain things at the time, but I was observing it and looking at it and thinking about it. So maybe that helped me because I wasn’t within it, I could actually have a different kind of opinion looking onto it, and trying to analyze it, rather than be inside it.
Becca: I very much relate to that. I’ve never been a joiner. Do you think that being analytical and observant at a distance is mending for you, in some way, are you trying to correct that distance?
Jeremy: It’s not mending, it’s just research. It’s just finding out things, and trying to work things out. So the miners’ strike, The Battle of Orgreave, that was definitely a personal work, but it was just a huge public event. But it was really about me and about my trying to work out what was going on when I saw the event on TV as a teenager. It extrapolated out to be this huge public event with thousands of people involved. I think emotionally, overall, when I saw it, I was sort of cold to it, and I think you have to be, because if you aren’t, you’ll just have a heart attack. Because it’s so overwhelming. And it’s nerve racking. So that actually makes you weirdly calm, not excitable. If I get nervous, I get quiet and sort of retreat into myself. I can’t be running around or happy, or be like the ringmaster of these events, because it’s just not in my nature. I don’t really want to be like that, either, it takes the attention away from it, in some way. It’s not really my thing.
Becca: So during the execution of these large scale events, what role do you play on the ground when they actually take off? You’ve called yourself a director.
Jeremy: It depends on the work, but usually by then my work is done, there’s nothing I can do. Once something starts, there’s very little you can do to stop it, literally, or change it, it’s too late. So in a way the work is done and you could walk away from that event or whatever it is, and it will be exactly the same whether you are present or not. And I quite like that. My dream is to start some huge thing and not be present almost, or to walk away and not have to get involved.
Becca: Right, you’ve done your job up until that point, and the show can go on without you.
Jeremy: Yeah, exactly.
Becca: How much do you delegate inside of these projects?
Jeremy: Tons. You have to. It’s like being a film director– you have to work with people who have proper skills, who can help you and do work with whatever their skill is. So you find a team, or a team is put together on your behalf, and you work closely with them. And you motivate them, and they know what you want, you tell them why you’re doing something. That’s a lot of work for other people. But I delegate a lot. The vision or the idea, let’s use the word “idea,” should be unmolested, in a way, or untouched. And that’s my role. It’s other people’s roles to make sure that it’s fulfilled.
Becca: How do you arrive at that kind of agreement? I mean, you’re so far along in your career that that expectation is probably laid out pretty clearly at this point. But often when one gets collaborators involved, they want to have creative license.
Jeremy: I think people are looking to you as an artist to do something. If you’re the boss, effectively, or you’re seen as “the person,” then people will ask you, and they will, on the whole, do more or less what they’re told. Especially certain things, like We’re Here Because We’re Here, which worked with thousands of people around Britain, the rules and regulations were very strict, and that was for good reason. Whereas with other events, you want the public who are taking part to maybe improvise on the idea, and you can tell them that, you can let them know that. So some things are quite rigid, and other things are more free flowing and open.
Becca: Is “film director” the analogy that you use to think of yourself in these projects the most?
Jeremy: Maybe, because often the film director gets all the credit. The artist gets all the credit. You don’t really know who did the cinematography, even though it’s great. On the whole, you are the person that either gets the blame or the credit. And that’s just how it works. It’s like architects. So and so built this building, but of course, he or she didn’t really build it. Other people built it. The architect designed it, but with a huge team. But it’s usually one person that gets credit. Having said that, a lot of the work I do, other people get credit because they’re involved, and they’re recognizable groups of people or individuals with certain skills. It’s the way things are, isn’t it? A lot of artists have assistants, you never hear who they are, the people who actually physically make the work, cast it or paint it, even. Virtually anonymous. At least with what I do, it’s clearly a group effort. And people are credited. We’re Here Because We’re Here, we credited all the theatre groups and the head of the National Theatre. That was clearly a collaborative process. Much more so than traditional art, I think. But people are often shocked, they can’t believe that sculptors actually don’t even make the work, physically touch it, even. They just get it made.
Becca: Considering how much that behind the scenes process is obscured, it makes sense that it’s so shocking. Something that comes up a lot with social practice work is crediting. It distinguishes itself from other forms of art, in one regard, through the act of crediting everyone that contributes to a project and kind of pulling the veil off of that mythology that one person made it.
Jeremy: Yes, and often it’s clear that other people made it, because they’re in it, they’re present, you know, their faces, their skills are there. It’s clearly not made by one person, because you literally see other people do things. So in a way, it’s much more open, this sort of work. It’s clearer. I mean, that’s the kind of cliche, that you’re exploiting people because you’re working with them. I think we’re sort of beyond that discussion. Maybe not in America. But it’s possible. I think the public understands much better than a lot of people in institutions do, almost, instinctively. They’re not afraid of it. They’re intrigued by it. That’s what I find.
Becca: A topic that comes up in work that involves people is the risk of instrumentalizing human beings. But we can also operate in good faith that we generally have best interests at heart.
Jeremy: Yeah and you can tell if you’re being exploited, and you can tell if an artwork is exploitative as well, I think. You can instinctively see there’s something not right happening.
Becca: I read an interview where you talked about how sometimes in socially engaged work, there can be an agenda of “do-gooding,” where it has to have a positive outcome for the people involved and be about the quality of experience rather than an aestheticized outcome. You don’t like that prescription. Do you have your own agenda in your work when you’re making it?
Jeremy: Not really. The work is quite different. Maybe certain works have different agendas, really. But overall, I tend not to think about it too much. I tend not to self-analyze too much. And I don’t read about my work when someone writes about it. Because I don’t really want to know what it is. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. I try to just not get too involved in what people think, or in discussions about it. But yes, there was for a time this idea that art was a way of healing wounds and bringing people together, which of course it does, sometimes, but it doesn’t have to do that all the time. It shouldn’t do that all the time, because that’s sort of boring in a way. It has many uses and many things it can do, many facets to it. With the Battle of Orgreave, I wanted the opposite. I wanted to make people more angry, not happier, actually more upset about something, if that was possible, or provoke them, rather than placate them. So some works are that: they are confrontational.
Becca: Your collection of quotes for London train conductors, What is the city but the people?, was a lighter project that inserted delight into the routine of the daily commute. What was your intention there?
Jeremy: It was for staff on the Underground to have and maybe use the quotations in their everyday interactions with the public, either putting them over the announcement, or putting them on display boards and writing them on information boards. It was just a way for the staff to have some communication with the public by using wisdom and interesting quotations through history. Very straightforward. That little book was never seen by the public. It was just for every staff member on the Piccadilly line. It was a very lovely little book as well. It was their little book in their pocket, and if there was a delay or something they could whip it out and quote from history to comfort people.
Becca: A lot of your work uses communicative mediums like graphic posters and bumper stickers, T-shirts and street signs. I was wondering, who did you at the time, or now, consider yourself or those pieces in conversation with, since they’re kind of dialogic?
Jeremy: Well you know, anything you put in the public realm is for anybody and everybody. Whoever’s going past. There’s absolutely no distinction in that. It’s a very wide spectrum of people. For me it’s just very, very broad.
Becca: I relate to that, too. I like to puncture that seal of normalcy that we’re used to abiding by in pedestrian space. I’m always drawn to these acts of mischief that stand out from the mundane, but use a familiar vernacular.
Jeremy: There’s no substitute for seeing something in public. And it changes the reality of a place or situation, if only very quickly. And so, for me, I love showing work in public. It’s really the best thing, that you can affect public space like that. If only for a fraction of a second.
Becca: What do you think is the service or use in making reality feel surreal?
Jeremy: I think people like to have transcendent experiences. You have that with religion, with drugs, with art. It’s just changing the nature of reality. Everyone wants that, in a way, they want things to be different. They want to be surprised and delighted and maybe even challenged, and art does that in the public realm. It just shows a different version of reality. And I think that’s something everyone is looking for. That’s why they go to sports matches, concerts, anything, join a choir, it’s to just change their environment, with culture or with an experience, and art provides that as well.
Becca: What is the power of the crowd, do you think, and immersion in a crowd experience?
Jeremy: Well, it’s just being around human beings, isn’t it? I mean, I find it quite scary, but it can be thrilling as well. But if you can work with that as an artist, that’s a great thing to have, if you can harness that power, that energy. But personally, I don’t really like crowds. So I would prefer to be away from that. I don’t really like confrontation either, but you know, I make work about those things sometimes. I’m interested in masses and bodies, which is why I was interested in rave. It’s a huge, phenomenal amount of people, these gatherings. It’s exciting.
Becca: I share that draw, from afar, of mobs, and rave and sports culture. I love looking at a crowd of people in a stadium, but from that distance. And maybe it’s about control too, I don’t know. I also make work that takes place on the street. The idea of the pedestrian, as an identity, and the anonymity of that, that all it takes to be a pedestrian is moving through public space on foot or wheels at any given time, and you can opt in or opt out of it. It’s kind of slippery.
Jeremy: We’re all sort of equal on the street, as well. Even if you’re rich, you’re just on the street with other people. There’s a kind of democratic nature to it. It’s not like if you’re in a car, you have a really fancy car. But on the street, and you’re walking, regardless of what clothing you have, whatever, you’re just like everyone else. I think that’s really interesting.
Becca: Have you read this book, Crowds and Power, by Elias Canetti?
Becca: A friend recommended it to me. It’s really interesting. It starts with a chapter called “The Fear of Being Touched,” and then, “The Discharge,” “The Eruption,” “The Crowd is a Ring,” “Attributes of the Crowd.” It covers all the different natures of critical mass and different environments that groups congregate in, and the kind of transcendent shift that happens to human behavior once there’s a certain amount of people united around a certain thing. He talks about the dissolving of differences and identities in that moment.
Jeremy: That’s when it gets scary. It can get out of hand, when you stop seeing yourself as a person but you’re a part of a group. Things get violent. Or it’s all good, but often not. That psychology, I’m interested in that. But, you know, I’m kind of repelled by it as well.
Becca: Right. It’s hard not to feel on the defense as an individual thinking about this insatiable hunger of a crowd, that it just wants to grow and envelop us into it. That’s where the destruction can sometimes set in. Canetti talks about crowds literally breaking down doors and pulling people out of their shelters. It’s almost druglike, in a way— the more that you get this taste of groupness, the more you want everyone to become a part of that group too.
Jeremy: To join you. I understand that. Definitely.
Becca: Do you want to share what you’re thinking about and working on now? Are groups and large crowds figuring into it at all, that large-scaleness?
Jeremy: There’s something happening, a public event in London, but it’s difficult to talk about because I have no idea what it’s going to be. But it’s good because it’s sort of a challenge. I like a challenge. It’s high profile and it’ll be for the National Gallerie in London. It has a working title of “The Triumph of Art.” At the moment, it’s just not clear what it’s going to be. But that’s fine. It’s two years away.
Becca: I’m so curious about your process of generating an idea. At this point in your life, it seems like you get opportunities or commissions and then maybe reverse engineer and work backwards from the venue and the budget and the scale, and figure out how you’re going to fill in the gaps from here to there. So what is your thought and research process like? How will you begin to start thinking about this idea?
Jeremy: Well, I just have to sit down and think about what I would like to see and what’s possible. I have to sort of work out what kind of things are on offer. You have to work out what’s possible within the budget. You just have to get two or three decent ideas for an event, and then it kind of works from there. I’m working quite closely with curators, so every project is very different. And they’re creative people, so they’ll be helpful. I’m quite confident, but it’s so early. There’ll be research about the collection of the National Gallery and the building and the environment that it’s in, and where it is in London, where it’s placed. So all those things are starting. That’s basically where I am. It’s really early days, but it will take two years til it happens, more than two years, two and a half years, almost. Thank god.
Becca: It seems like something of that scale would require years of preparation.
Jeremy: Yeah. Two years minimum, for a big thing. That’s how it works.
Becca: Are there things that you’re googling or reading about or listening to that are inspiring you and influencing your lines of thinking right now?
Jeremy: I consume the daily news. That’s really the thing I pay attention to. I’m obsessed with it. There’s some voter suppression going on in the UK at the moment, which is quite unusual, really. The government is now requiring everyone to show photo ID, and there are 2 million people who don’t have photo ID. They’re usually poor people and young people and people of color, who are just the kind of people our government does not want to vote. It’s so blatant and so obvious and so corrupt. That’s annoying me massively. That’s the thing that is obsessing me.
Becca: Since you’re hooked on that right now, does your mind go to, what’s a project that I could make about voter suppression that might influence or comment on that?
Jeremy: I’m thinking about it. I’m probably gonna make some posters and stuff like that. Seems like the most direct way of doing. Yeah. So that’s one of the things I’m thinking about at the moment. We’ll see. We’ll watch the space. If you follow me on Instagram, you might see some of it at some point.
Becca: I have a question about exhibitions. How do you decide what form or medium your ideas will take? Do you have certain strategies that you use to convert your public, experiential projects into gallery and museum contexts?
Jeremy: The word strategy is not one I would use at all. But usually film is good. On the whole, film is a very understandable medium, and it’s a medium that’s very controllable, because you edit, you make the cuts. So film is always good. If there’s objects produced, then maybe objects, and research, maybe. But in a way, research isn’t so interesting to look at in a museum. I mean we all do it, we all show it, but I just don’t know if it has limited value since it’s more archival. But film, installation, something that’s exciting to look at. If the project is exciting, then convey that in your installation.
Becca: Do you think of it as a kind of fictionalizing of real things that took place, by transposing it from one place to another, into the museum?
Jeremy: It’s not fictionalizing, it’s just rearranging really. And trying to order it. Maybe that’s fictionalizing, but not really, because the thing itself is fiction in a sense, because it’s an artwork. It’s fictive. I think it’s just trying to make sense of it again, and to try and make it look good, and attractive. So when people look at it, they’re not gonna look at 600 pieces of A4 paper, which might be a notebook, but they are going to look at film, something that’s colorful and engaging.
Becca: So for example, if you were interested in the topic of—this is my interest—dancing crossing guards, which is kind of a phenomenon across the world, there’s a lot of YouTube footage of them, just biding their time by dancing in the middle of the street. If you were going to somehow convert that into an aesthetic presentation, an exhibition, what would you do?
Jeremy: I think, show the films. People watch films forever. People’s attention span for the moving image is insane. Often in Britain in exhibitions, I’ll have a film about the artists outside the exhibition itself; people will spend more time looking at the film about the artists than they do looking at the work. So I just think a compilation of interviews with them and stuff like that, that would work. But more than what you’d see online. But that’s up to you to work out what that might be.
Jeremy Deller is a British conceptual, video and installation artist who makes projects that grow out of an interest in vox pop, giving vent to the views of ordinary people and focusing on ordinary people’s lives. He seeks the involvement of common people in the making of his work as well as focusing on events that have had a major impact on people’s lives. Deller won the esteemed Turner Prize in 2004 and has continued to make works which investigate the interface between art and popular culture, normally with a strong political and social aspect, although often the works are funny and witty.
Becca Kauffman (they/them) is a social practice artist with a background in multidisciplinary performance, long stationed in New York City and now living Portland, Oregon. Practicing art as a flamboyant public utility, they collide fantasy with everyday life by choreographing new forms of social infrastructure through poetical actions. Their work uses communicative mediums like radio and video broadcasts, signs and fliers, telephone hotlines, group spectacles, interactive sculpture, music compilations, and renegade traffic direction to transform spectatorship into participation, and can look like an unsanctioned artist residency in Times Square, a neighborhood variety show in the middle of a NYC dive bar aired on public access television, or a seven year pop persona project called Jennifer Vanilla. They are an unofficial Mall Artist at Lloyd Center Mall, where they invite you to join the Public Acts of Dance Company on Saturdays at 3pm, sponsored by their fabricated city agency, Department of Public Dance.
The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.
Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.
Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.
Sponsored by the Portland State University Art and Social Practice MFA Program