Interview with Jeremy Deller

Conversation between Henry Ward and Jeremy Deller on Monday 29th October, 2012 over tea and Marmite on toast at the Trevi Ristorante on Highbury Corner, London.

HW – I understand that when you were 13 your own art teacher moved you out of art and into a pottery class and then you went on to study a degree in art history, so I wondered if you could say a little bit about your own art education, how would you describe it?

JD – There wasn’t any. It didn’t happen.

HW – Didn’t happen at all?

JD – Maybe I was 12. It was second or first year, as we called it. Maybe first year. It was very quickly. I was moved out of traditional art making into pottery.

HW – What were the reasons?

JD – Because I didn’t get on with the teacher, he was incredibly anally retentive. Super anally retentive. The first thing he wanted us to do was to draw the dried out roots of a cactus, the first term was more or less spent doing that. The second term was spent drawing a maize, which was the equivalent of what we’d done in the first term. So that was his idea of teaching. Teaching an eleven-year old art. It just killed it really.

HW – So how did you feel about it. It was the teacher’s choice to move you out and into pottery?

JD – It was really good. Pottery was fun. The teacher was really nice.

HW – Did you stop pottery when you started O Levels then?

JD – I can’t remember. I probably did it for a year then that was it.

HW – So what led you to go on and study art history, because there was obviously an interest there?

JD – I liked art. I liked museums. I spent a lot of my spare time, well not a lot, but I liked museums and art galleries. My dad used to take me. I liked history and I liked art. So for me art history seemed like the right thing to do. It was an extra A Level, it wasn’t on the curriculum, you had to do it in addition to other things. But I wanted to do it. Weirdly enough the art master, who didn’t like me at all, tried to prevent me doing art history because he didn’t think I was clever enough to do it. So he still had it in for me even four years afterwards.

HW – Ok, so have you been involved in any teaching yourself and if so what context?

JD – I do the odd talk at art colleges, I don’t do tutorials anymore, or whatever they’re called. I spent a year in California where I was teaching at an art college but it wasn’t really teaching it was just talking and hanging around really. My experience of teaching is very narrow.

HW – That’s an interesting thing that you’ve said there about it not really being teaching it was just talking and hanging around. I watched a documentary about John Baldessari recently where some of his ex-students were talking about a Baldessari class being people hanging around and talking about stuff….

JD – And going on visits. We used to go on visits and look at stuff that I was interested in, so I’d involve the students in my own research, trying to kill two birds with one stone.

HW – That touches on quite a lot of the areas I am interested in. This idea that potentially good teaching is also a kind of practice in that way…

JD – It’s showing isn’t it?

HW – Yes….and involving.

JD – Showing and, exactly, involving. So I did that. I showed and involved but I didn’t really teach. I didn’t know enough to teach.

HW – What do you think teaching is then?

JD – It depends how old the person is that you have in front of you. How many of them there are. Because it can be the old fashioned….you know if you are doing maths then you probably do have to teach. Maybe if you’re doing art, or art history, perhaps it’s different. But I can’t define it. Just helping people learn and be interested in things.

HW – So much of your practice has a socially engaged element. How important is the audience when you’re developing projects? Are you aware of a specific audience or do you develop things and then an audience comes along?

JD – I’m aware of it. I want there to be an audience. There’s different works. Some works there are just people looking at stuff with other work it is people being part of the work or being involved more actively in it. I don’t do that all the time, I do that some of the time. I mean some artists, that is all they do. I do loads of different things; I make a film – the audience there is someone just sitting down watching the film. It’s very passive. For me there’s a whole range of audiences, and what I require of them, so there’s no single audience as such. I’m probably known better for works where I am involving people but it’s not all I’ve done. I wouldn’t be able to do that all the time.

HW – So there’s a broad range to your practice? You might be doing things that need no audience at all or may possibly have no audience and then other things that have a specific…..

JD – Where the audience and the art work are the same thing or where people are taking part, are a part of the work. There’s many different shades.

HW – I’ve read somewhere that “Acid Brass” was the first time you realised the importance of working with a group of people to make something collaboratively, and I like the quote of yours that says you “went from an artist who makes things to an artist who makes things happen”, which I really like, what is it, do you think, that makes what you do ‘art’?

JD – Because no one else would do it if they weren’t an artist. A lot of those things would never have happened. Like “The Battle of Orgreave”. It might have happened by now but it would never have happened then. The fact it was me doing it meant it was allowed to happen, so that’s probably why. Why is it art?

HW – Yes, why is it art?

JD – Because it wouldn’t have happened otherwise if an artist hadn’t suggested it. It wouldn’t have happened in that way.

HW – Do you think that there’s an argument that, like you were saying it’s difficult to define what teaching was and then you can pick out things that are ostensibly recognised as teaching but perhaps it is a lot of other things too, there’s a similarity there in that if someone makes a painting and puts it on the wall people say, yes that’s art, but there is also a sense that there is a lot of stuff that isn’t very definable that because it doesn’t fit anywhere else ends up being the remit of the artist?

JD – Exactly. So that’s a very good comparison. Also just because it is a painting doesn’t make it art but people assume it is because it’s ‘a painting’. Art is an in-definable quality that a painting may, or may not, have. Like the business around the fourth plinth when I was applying for that. You look at all the sculptures on the other plinths around Trafalgar Square, or anywhere around London, and there not necessarily art but they are sculptures. To be art you have to have an extra edge to it, a quality to it.

HW – This is something I have thought quite a lot about recently. The idea that there might be a period in history where the reason for making things shifts. People have always made things, but like you say about the sculptures around Trafalgar Square they are constructed in a way that you might associate with an artist but at the same time they’re not art. Do you think there is a point where the reason for making things shifted? Maybe there were people making things for other reasons but not recognised as artists at that point and then the definition of art shifts or blurs and now we are in a period where other things are recognised as art. It was 2004 that you won the Turner Prize?

JD – Yes.

HW – Around the time there was a lot of press about whether you were even an artist.

JD – There was a bit of that but you get that all the time.

HW – But now people don’t question it as much. What you’re doing is much more acceptable.

JD – They were more excited by the fact that I hadn’t done art at school. I wouldn’t do an interview the next day on Radio 4 because I couldn’t be bothered to get up early in the morning as I realised it was going to be a very late night, and it would have ruined my evening knowing I had to get up and be live on the radio with John Humphries. So because they couldn’t get me the only thing they could dig up was talking to the head master of my school. He wasn’t head master while I was there. So he went on the radio and talked about my academic career at school and the fact I hadn’t done art. That was the best they could do. It was pathetic. I couldn’t believe someone from school would do that. It was twenty years ago and he was talking about me as though he knew me. I wasn’t awake at the time but apparently that was what was going on. He was talking about my O level results and my A level results. It’s probably confidential to do that, to discuss a student’s academic record. I think the media are much more at ease now with art and artists. I think if it is interesting it doesn’t really matter if it’s art or not it’s just something that is interesting. Something they can talk about. It’s when shit is called art. That’s the problem, and they think it is crap.

HW – Ok. I understand that you first started working collaboratively in 1993, initially with Alan Kane and Simon Perriton…..

JD – Yes

HW – And then more recently with people like Ed Hall, who made our NUT banner that I’ve marched behind a few times…..

JD – Did he? Oh that’s good. Have you met him?

HW – I’ve never met him, no, but I’ve marched behind that banner a few times.

JD – Well Ed makes about 40% of all the trade union banners in Britain, if not more. That march last week, hundreds of his banners. Literally hundreds.

HW – It’s amazing. I wondered if you could explain a little bit about why you think collaborating is important and also say something about how it is that you end up working with certain people?

JD – Well I mean it’s important because on a very basic selfish level I can’t make things, I can’t make banners or do these amazing things that people do, so I need those people. I need a banner, or I need those skills. So it’s a very practical thing. Also I like working with people, I like being with people who have talents like that, being around them, talking to them, getting to know them. It’s a social thing. It’s a practical and a social thing. And usually you’re attracted to certain people because of what they do and you hope that you’ll like them as people as well. So Ed is probably the biggest example of that. He’s an amazing great person. Did you see the documentary, BBC, The Culture Show?

HW – Yes, that involved you being chased by little bats at your old primary school?

JD – Yes, Ed’s on that film…..

HW – In his shed….

JD – It’s a garage actually. You get the impression of him there I think, he’s a lovely lovely person. So he is someone I work with. He’s incredibly efficient and reliable. If I rang him today and said I need a banner by Wednesday that has this on it, these words, he’d just say ‘ok’ and he’d have it. ‘I’ll deliver it, I’ll bring it up on my motorbike.’

HW – So does it work like that in that you have an idea and you think I need a brass band for that idea, or I need somebody who makes trade union banners and then you go and find out who this person is…..

JD – You find them….

HW – Would it ever work the other way around? Would you meet someone, or have you met someone, and thought; they do that…..

JD – Yes, a bit of both. A bit of both. You meet someone and they’re doing something really great and it sparks something off or you’ve been thinking about something similar to something they’re doing, their talents, their music or whatever, you just take it from there. On the whole it’s quite an organic process. Ed’s a great guy. It’s been great working with him. I’ve been working with him for years now. 1999 I think I first really got to know him….

HW – Which is a long time.

JD – Yes.

HW – I see teaching as having the potential to operate as a collaborative artistic practice. There seem to be a lot of parallels between education and much of the things you do in your own work….

JD – Yes.

HW – Do you see what you do as having an educative aspect to it?

JD – A little bit. As much as……a lot of art. I mean some of the work I do is very educational with a small ‘e’ or even a big ‘E’. For example the show at the Hayward had the film about the miners’ strike and it had the research room and that was basically making people aware of the background to the film they were going to see, and also the performance that I did, but really about the strike itself. Especially for people of a certain age who really don’t know much about it. So it was a way of preparing. Also putting a lot of material up on the walls, priming people. So yes.

HW – So what about things like the car that you took…..

JD – Again that’s another one. But that was open ended because we were really unsure what we were going to say to people or what they were going to get out of it, who we were going to meet, their reactions. So we weren’t being very didactic. I mean the act itself was but in terms of what we were doing on the road it was pretty low key. But yes obviously; showing something. You talk about education being showing people things. That was definitely showing something., an object, to the public; the American public.

HW – It’s one of the things, I do quite a lot of work with education departments in museums and galleries , and I always find it interesting that the education department is like a little room on the edge of the gallery and quite often there’s a lot of politics between what goes on in the curatorial team and the education team and yet, actually, it is all the same thing. I mean this is about people places things in spaces, or doing things in certain contexts, yet there seems to be this conflict between the two areas. But, particularly with a practice like yours, there is so much overlap…..

JD – Yes.

HW – The very best of teaching is doing a similar sort of thing. I’m interested in whether you see it like that? Socially engaged practice is quite educational.

JD – Potentially. There are different ways of doing it though. I mean, a lot of that work I don’t really like. It’s so obviously trying to ‘do something’. Trying to achieve something at the end of it that will make everyone feel happy. It’s like all those TV programmes that you get. I mean now TV has become socially engaged, every other show seems to be about going into a workplace and transforming people’s lives by cooking or music or……

HW – Yes.

JD – Like there’s that thing, “The Choir”, going into workplaces. It’s all these stories. I’m just not interested. Telly has basically taken over where artists started doing stuff. But it does it in a really sentimental way. Without any edge really, I don’t think. I’ve stopped doing things that, maybe, have that element to it. So often you’d be approached by someone, like a museum or a council, we’d love you to work with a group of these people, make an artwork with them, usually asylum seekers or people with behavioural problems, it was very set…

HW – It’s going to tick a box?

JD – Yes. You do this and in the end you do this. Then that’s it, you get £5000 or whatever. I never did them. I was asked to but there are artists who do. They just go from one project to another. But I’m not interested in it.

HW – So what’s interesting there is that you said with the car touring piece that it was open ended? It sounds like you’re more interested in projects where you don’t really know where it’s going to go. In how it might manifest itself?

JD – Well it’s like a journey. I mean the journey itself was a metaphor for that. You are on a journey and you’re not totally sure of your route but you know you’re going to end up at this place, you hope, in one piece. But you’re not sure. So yes the car, the whole process, was a bit like that. It’s slightly random. When you pitch something out in the public arena in America, or anywhere, it’s totally random. You have no control over who’s going to come up to you or say something and I really like that. It gave it an edge. I’m not sure whether a lot of socially engaged art has an edge or not. I think, in a way, it tries to tie things up in a neat package at the end. Mine was more; I’m doing something and see what happens…

HW – Yes, well I think the problem with a lot of what you’re criticising there is where it does have an agenda at the beginning. Like you were saying, you have to work with this group of people and we need this outcome by this date….

JD – And then we want a report at the end of it. I don’t know if that stuff goes on but I’m sure it does. Maybe the money isn’t around for it anymore?

HW – Well it’s certainly being stripped back.

JD – Because that’s like the education departments of a lot of museums. Always asking you to, well not always, but keen for me to do stuff like that with groups from various deprived areas.

HW – Do you think art does have a social role to play?

JD – It always has. It’s not a new thing. It’s always had a social role. So yes, from cave paintings onwards.

HW – Ok.

JD – And it has an anti-social role as well.

HW – That’s interesting. Could you expand on that a little bit?

JD – Well it’s meant to be annoying. And to wind people up, to get people angry. It’s not just for making people happy. To make them angry about things.

HW – What are you more drawn to? Or are you drawn to both?

JD – Maybe together. Trying to make social and anti-social work at the same time. So the miners’ strike thing is social and anti-social the car is social and anti-social, even folk archive had an anti-social element to it. My procession I did in Manchester was a bit anti-social because of the people I got involved in it. So yes, that’s good.

HW – I’m interested in the way that a lot of your work blurs definitions of art, in the sense that it embraces things like curatorship as much as traditional art practice. You said at the beginning about your interest in art came out of an interest in history and museums and that side of it. You’ve touched on this a bit, but could you try and define what it is that you do?

JD – No.

HW – Fair enough.

JD – I don’t really want to think about it. Because as soon as I start thinking about it, it might stop happening.

HW – Yes, ok. That’s good.

JD – It’s like riding a bike, you don’t think about how it’s working, swimming….

HW – Running upstairs?

JD – It’s just working.

HW – Given the prevailing political climate and the fact that we seem to be, well we are, under a government at the moment who have a very anti-arts view, do you think that art should continue to be taught in schools, and, if so, why?

JD – Well of course it should. Kids like it. And it’s good for you. You should talk to Bob & Roberta Smith. You should talk to Patrick, he has this whole thing about Michael Gove, he’s obsessed with him, with the changes he’s making to the syllabus, that art will be taken off being a core subject. He’s totally against this, obviously, as he should be. As we all should be. But he knows more about it than me.

HW – But given your own, what sounds like an, unpleasant experience of art at school…

JD – Well it wasn’t even unpleasant. It was non-existent.

HW – Yes.

JD – Well I was lucky because I went to museums and all that stuff so I got an education through that.

HW – Ok. Much of your practice seems to reflect your varied interests from the Miners’ Strike to bats via wrestling and The Manic Street Preachers, do you make work about things that already interest you or do you end up finding an interest in the things you are making work about?

JD – The first. I wouldn’t have made it, or started it, if I wasn’t interested in it. But your interests change and develop. But I’m not going to go out and make something about cooking for example….

HW – You’re not interested in cooking?

JD – No. Or, I don’t know, rugby. It’s just not going to happen.

HW – So it’s, you’ve got an interest in something, you have a passion….

JD – Well I’m lucky. I can do what I like, more or less, as an artist. I suppose. I can ring up someone, talk to a director from a gallery, a curator and say “look , I want to do this thing”. And they’ll say alright then let’s try and do it. So I don’t have to choose or pick things because I need the work or whatever or apply for things, on the whole. I apply for some things. So I can do what I like, and there are not many artists in that position, or not many artists doing the kind of thing I do. So I’m pretty lucky.

HW – Thank you. Well that’s all my questions.

JD – Is that it? Right.

HW – Thank you very much. Much appreciated.

JD – That’s ok.