After UC Davis, We Need Art: Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave

by Will Brand on December 2, 2011 · 4 comments Business/Pleasure

Photograph from Jeremy Deller's "The Battle of Orgreave" (2001)

“Uselessness” is a pretty good way to identify something as art. Hennessy Youngman said that as a joke – I can’t possibly sit on all these chairs! ART. - but it’s true; when in doubt, use value is the division between art and design, video and documentary. Bringing that division into question can create some incredible artworks.

Jeremy Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave is a good example. It is, at root, a relational aesthetics piece – in fact, it’s the one I use when people ask me why they should care about relational aesthetics. Mike Figgis’s documentary recording of the event, though, makes a phenomenal piece of video art on its own. Artangel, who commissioned the work, have a good description on their website:

In 1984 the National Union of Mineworkers went on strike. The dispute lasted for over a year and was the most bitterly fought since the general strike of 1926, marking a turning point in the struggle between the government and the trade union movement.

On 18 June of that year, the Orgreave coking plant was the site of one of the strike's most violent confrontations. It began in a field near the plant and culminated in a cavalry charge through the village of Orgreave.

Jeremy Deller's The Battle of Orgreave, staged seventeen years later, was a spectacular re-enactment of what happened on that day. It was orchestrated by Howard Giles, a historical re-enactment expert and the former director of English Heritage's event programme. More than 800 people participated in the re-enactment, many of them former miners, and a few former policemen, reliving the events from 1984 that they themselves took part in. Other participants were drawn from battle re-enactment societies across England.

It’s the participation of actual miners and policemen from 1984 that makes the piece so poignant; in his excellent writeup for Frieze, Alex Farquharson noted that “for many – participants and spectators alike – this Battle of Orgreave was more flashback than re-enactment.” At first, Farquharson tells us, “rumour had it that a small number of the real miners were applying too much gusto to their roles at rehearsals the previous day”.  After the re-enactment, the tone softens: “'miners' hugged 'police' and both sides joined … for a few pints of Stones down the local Treeton Miners' Welfare.” We see, in Figgis’s video, the repair of a societal break take place in record time. It’s beautiful. And art made it possible.

A month ago, it might have been difficult to explain to an American the importance of these events. After the clearing of Zuccotti Park and the events at UC Davis, however, there’s a flash of recognition: when the miners of 1984 – or the actors playing them in 2001 – chant “We're miners united, we'll never be defeated”, it sounds no different from the Occupy chants of today. In Orgreave as at UC Davis, there was a sudden, painful breakdown of the trust between citizen and policeman: one YouTube commenter on the clip below shouts, “shithouse cunts who acted like the waffen ss ! as a young 14 year old at the time of the strike I lost ALL respect for them .. And I have’nt had it back scince!”

Right now, in America, it’s difficult to forsee this break resolving. We’re still too angry, and the threat of further police misconduct yet looms. We need time, of course, but the passage of time is too close to forgetting; something else is necessary, some gesture of goodwill, some humanization that might bring about the tougher process of forgiving. We need, at some point, a Jeremy Deller. We need, at some point, art. Because art is not useless.

Today’s YouTube is no fun at all.

Business/Pleasure is Will Brand's new daily column of the best of Video Art and YouTube crap. Most days have one business video and one pleasure video. Got a tip? E-mail it to will.brand@gmail.com.

  • Joseph Thomas

    I don’t think getting occupy protesters and riot police to embrace would be anything more than “nice” ~ Pinpointing that as the keystone moment in Deller’s piece undermines all of the less visible and more important aspects of economic & cultural conditions that allowed for workers to be exploited in the first place.

    • Will Brand

      Deller could have allowed the proceedings to take a different tone, and he didn’t. I don’t think he made a mistake there. I think that was the intention. If, and I’m trying to paraphrase you here, this work was supposed to create more contention, it clearly failed.

      You’re arguing for something that is, at best, “less visible”. I’m saying maybe we consider the fact that an artist using a social encounter as a medium very clearly directed that social encounter towards friendliness and rapprochement.

      In any case, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with “nice”. Healthy societal bonds are what make us pay taxes and hold doors open and obey traffic laws and generally function as civilized human beings. Healing those bonds when they rupture is a commendable action. I know everybody wants to be punk rock, and I don’t think I myself can be accused of any excess politeness, but at some point we’ve gotta put up with each other. Being nice helps that.

      • Joseph Thomas

        I’m not anti-”nice”, at all. I only think that it is dangerous to laud a nice interaction as an important component of an artwork. I’d rather it were a side-effect ~ because if we make the art about being nice, it becomes artificial.

        I think Deller’s work is important and was glad to see you posted it. The importance of his work, for me, lies in the event itself as a spectacle, wrapped up in what war reenactment means, the history of the original event, and finally, what that strike means years later. What amazes me about that video is how difficult it can be to watch even though I know it is a reenactment ~ and this is where I think its power lies.

        I think it’s great that people from both sides went to the pub afterwards, but thinking of that as part of the artwork does not make it more meaningful. And if we focus on it, we can lose sight of how very real and strong these political forces still are today~ something that the reenactment itself brings to the foreground.

        Instead of seeing the work as a success, with the bonding of individuals as a qualifier, I think it is more important to see all of the struggle and failure in the work, how it calls up the dark history – and present – of exploited people and state power.

        • Will Brand

          I don’t think it’s possible to talk about any of this without keeping the “very real and strong … political forces” in mind; they are, you’re right, the central and most obvious part of the work. I wouldn’t be impressed by people going to the pub in general, and I wouldn’t be impressed by people going to the pub after dressing up as characters they have no connection to; it’s exactly the force of the emotions they’re overcoming that makes it interesting.

          That said, I agree that the bonding shouldn’t be held as a quantifier for the work being successful. It is one of many possible but unnecessary outcomes that might give the work value, and I believe it’s the outcome Deller wanted to create; it would have been too easy to leave some real rocks around for the crowd to throw, for instance, and start a real riot, and I don’t know if that would have necessarily made a great artwork but it would be pretty interesting in its own right. As it is, we got some bonding, and I think it worked out, so I’m going to talk about that.

          I like these comments, though.

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