Ideas Series: Jeremy Deller interviewed by David Alan Mellor

In 1984, the National Union of Mineworkers went on strike. The ensuing dispute marked 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, which began in a field near the plant and culminated in a cavalry charge through the village of Orgreave. In his acclaimed 2001 project, The Battle of Orgreave, artist Jeremy Deller worked with more than 800 people, including former miners and police forces, to stage a reenactment of what happened that day. Here, he talks to David Allan Mellor about the process of researching the project and his response to the events of Orgreave.

David Mellor In your introduction to The English Civil War Part II, you describe a piece of news footage of a mass picket that you saw in 1984, which stuck in your mind and later prompted a desire to ‘find out exactly what happened that day with a view to reenacting it’. Could you say a bit more about that footage, and the desire it prompted?

Jeremy Deller It was a famous, or notorious, piece of footage of the pickets being pursued up a hill, by police, dogs and most memorably horses. It is still used as an archetypal clip when violence and the strike are discussed. There was a particularly nasty shot of a policeman repeatedly striking a picket on the ground with a truncheon. There was no desire at that point as such, just an uneasy feeling about what was going on in the country.

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DM I ask, particularly, as it seems that from the very outset the project was informed by an appreciation of the importance of media imagery in shaping understandings and memories of events, but also of its limitations, of what isn’t shown, and the reasons behind these omissions.

JD It was an iconic scene and seemed to speak of civil conflict and war through the ages. The coverage was mostly from the police’s point of view. Film crews were not welcome on certain picket lines and in this particular clash the BBC really excelled themselves by reversing the order of footage to make it look like the miners had provoked a police horse charge by stoning them.

DM How did you then go on to research the strike? What types of material did you draw on?

JD Most of the research took place through meeting people involved in the strike. Before that, I read a few accounts of the strike, or Orgrave specifically, at the TUC library on the Holloway Road. These ranged from accounts in the memoirs of Tony Benn and Thatcher to self-published memoirs made by villages and individuals caught up in the strike. It was good to meet those involved with some idea of what happened that day and in the strike as a whole. I had done my homework, basically.

DM What about the photographs you found?

JD I found a treasure trove when I met a lawyer who had been involved in the trial. He not only gave us trial transcripts, witness statements, and police statements, he also gave us surveillance photos that the police had made and a transcript of the police film made on the day with time codes, which was fascinating. In addition we got hold of the official report into the policing of the strike by the Yorkshire Police. The police probably commissioned it because they were worried about the legacy of the strike in terms of community relations. In addition, there were photographs taken by miners on picket lines, which we used as much as we could in the strike. Needless to say, they are incredibly atmospheric.

DM How do you feel the ways in which people engage with this material, and the events they depict, has changed over time?

JD I actually have no idea. There is a tendency to sentimentalise the strike, which is something I was hoping to avoid with my film and book though, visually, it is from another era.

DM The project involves two, or even three outcomes—the reenactment, the film of the reenactment, and the publication including a lot of your research—each of which suggests a different solution to engaging and presenting a version, or versions, of past events. What do you feel are the strengths and weaknesses of these approaches?

JD They all have their uses. The performance was the artwork and the film was a piece of documentation. The book was an attempt to gather a lot of the research together and make a decent history book out of an art project. There were a number of books published and self-published after the strike, but since then there has been relatively little published, so I was hoping to produce a book that did justice to the strike and could add something to the books already out there. I would change a few things about the film, but I have always felt this. As to changing the performance, I would alter a few things, but it was a miracle it happened at all so I am not going to complain or detail specifics.

DM Could you say a bit about the experience of actually reenacting the events, as opposed to reading about or researching them?

JD For me, it was a first and possibly last re-enactment I will ever do. It took a lot of work and research and an engagement with the re-enactment world, which is quite conservative and certainly not a natural ally of 1980’s trade unions. I worked closely with a re-enactment expert who recruited re-enactors and wrote the script, physical and commentary, which to some extent fell to pieces when the re-enactment began, which was a good thing. At a late stage, Howard, the re-enactment expert, realised that the police had in fact provoked a riot through their actions and this made it into the script. He realized this as a result of studying police surveillance footage and following the transcript of police manouvres and orders. It was like a second trial, and it was what it took to convince him of the miners’ case. Even though it may have gone against his instincts, both natural and political, he changed the script accordingly, which was a relief for me as it had to come from the evidence rather than my persuasions. All this happened a week or so before the re-enactment itself, so right up to the wire.

DM What does you feel your project contributes to the historical record? Where would you position it in relation to the other accounts available?

JD It is an awareness raising exercise. It adds a little to the record in that we have first hand accounts in the book and film, and in the book there is a CD of people talking about the strike, that if anything is what I am happiest with.

DM This touches upon a wider set of issues relating to the role of artists in responding to, interpreting and reinterpreting the past, the spaces in which art works circulate, and the audiences that view them.

JD I saw the project as a kind trojan horse – an opportunity to get a political film and performance and book made under the guise of contemporary art. I was using art as a means to an end. It was funded by Channel Four out of their performing arts budget and from that was made a film that is basically political.

DM What were the effects of the project? What types of response did it generate, particularly within the media?

When the film was shown on television it was very well received from all parts of the media, I suspect because it was such an unusual idea. After the event itself, it received a little coverage – The Guardian inevitably gave it a page, but The Times, who had originally been involved in its commission, turned down any exclusive. Pre-publicity was kept to a minimum as we did not want to create any fuss before hand that might threaten the project itself, but the local council and police were not very happy with what we were doing. The council refused to meet us on any level, they didn’t want to be reminded of this piece of recent history. [/ms-protect-content]

Published in Photoworks, Issue 17, 2011
Commissioned by Photoworks.

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