On the first Sunday in May, the New Room – John Wesley’s Chapel in Bristol – was repurposed for a different type of sermon, one that addressed the changing face of public art.
In this Sunday Service artist Jeremy Deller took the role of preacher at the pulpit, and the hymn books were replaced by a small photographic publication that neatly illustrated his oration. As the packed congregation leafed through this photographic guide, Deller offered an introduction to his work spanning two decades – bridging the gap between his parent’s home (Open Bedroom, 1993) and the British Pavilion, Venice Biennale (English Magic, 2013).
This Sunday Service was the first live event as part of Public Art (Now) – a national programme devised by Situations that explores what form public art might take today. I had initially encountered this programme through ‘The New Rules of Public Art’ – available online here or in pocketbook form if you prefer – that sets out twelve rules of engagement with public art (now). These rules and the wider programme are framed by the proposition that public art is changing, and that these changes have been particularly notable over the last ten years. Whilst the bracketing of a particular time period where this change has occurred is debateable – as the rules themselves will have been apparent in many artists’ work stretching back beyond the last decade – it may well be that this a useful device in terms of who it is that they are trying to convince, or who they wish to involve in the discussion. As Claire Doherty – Director of Situations – pointed out in her introduction to the live event, the ‘rules’ are not strictly rules as such, more a set of provocations about what public art can be.
With this wider context in mind, Situations felt that Deller was the perfect speaker to launch the programme. Many of these ‘new rules’ could readily apply to the projects that he has made over the last twenty years, but one particular section stuck in my mind when considering his work and what I might write in this blog.
Rule no. 04
DON’T MAKE IT FOR A COMMUNITY. CREATE A COMMUNITY.
In his presentation, Deller discussed several projects that developed work with specific communities – both those that in some sense already exist, and those that were created through a project. These would often involve convincing people to do things that they might not have thought they wanted to do. In Acid Brass (1997) he convinced a brass band to perform a repertoire of acid house music by groups such as 808 State and KLF, and at The Battle of Orgreave (2001) alongside historical re-enactors, he had convinced inhabitants of Orgreave – including those involved in the original confrontation during the UK Miners’ Strike – to restage the ‘battle’. In both works existing communities became involved in creating new temporary communities, and in doing so created alternative versions of themselves. The Williams Fairey Band actualised different capacities as they became involved in performing their acid house personality, and ex-miners/police actually play the role of the other as they re-enact the battle, with former miners becoming police, and ex-policemen becomes miners, stepping in and out of temporary and provisional roles.
In asking people to become involved in an artwork, there can be an uneasy relationship as to the motivations, claims or purposes behind the invitation to become involved. With Acid Brass the band were described as having a ‘see how it goes’ attitude that appears to have lead to a genuine bringing together of people, and a breaking down of barriers between different musical genres and cultural backgrounds. However Deller made clear that with The Battle of Orgreave it wasn’t about healing wounds, but instead making people feel angrier about what had happened. That said, there is of course an unpredictability involved in making art in public – simply intending conviviality or antagonism, does not necessitate that you always get the desired result – and therefore within these types of projects it requires flexibility to continually re-negotiate our relationship with those involved, or that we need to “work on our wits” to paraphrase Deller.
This unpredictability of working in the public carries through to Deller’s more recent projects. It Is What It Is (2009) was described as a process of collecting stories, in contrast to earlier projects that were more about telling stories and involved constructing or re-constructing narratives. In this work, a car (destroyed by a bomb in a Baghdad marketplace) was taken on the road across the USA accompanied by an Iraqi citizen and an American soldier. The work intended to be non-didactic, and instead provide an open public space for conversation. It is interesting to note that despite this work taking to the open road to facilitate conversation, it started and finished within the space of the museum – beginning at the New Museum in New York, and ending up at the Imperial War Museum in London. As with much of Deller’s work, although here used to think about public art, it exists as easily inside the gallery or museum as it does outside these confines.
This idea of choosing to move in and out, back and forth, between different spaces and publics is fitting given the venue for this live event – John Wesley having initially preached outdoors, built chapels pragmatically when his societies needed places to worship, the first of which was the New Room in Bristol. Yet even with these fixed locations, Wesley continued to take his stand wherever an assembly could be brought together – in the streets or in the fields. This notion of going wherever an assembly can be formed could equally apply to public art. There are of course publics inside every gallery or museum, but artists will continue to step outside of them and into different spaces to find other publics and to directly connect with people’s lives.
Words: Niki Russell