In a time period a few months longer than the Allies took to plan D-Day, Jeremy Deller planned his invasion of the United Kingdom. July 1, 2016, was the deployment date when he, the National Theatre, and 1600 volunteers based in 27 locations converged on 17 transport hubs and marched through 30 communities across the UK.32 The campaign, called We’re Here Because We’re Here, was aimed at creating a living memorial to those who lost their lives at the Somme, 100 years before.33
One of the tactics that Deller felt made this successful was his ‘no prior press release’ approach.34 Stating that, “like any battle that has to be kept a secret, this project had to be kept a secret as well,”35 Deller made a very conscious decision in the early stages of the project to employ shock, visual jolts and uncertainty in what the audience was witnessing. Does shock at that instant invoke a moment of doubt and uncertainty in a viewer? One of the artist’s initial goals was to make something which would ‘make children cry.’36
Were the soldiers at the Battle of the Somme prepared? Were they shocked? The volunteer army selected for We’re Here Because We’re Here had agreed to take on a task bigger and more protracted than they were aware of in the beginning, but stuck with the project to the end. In an interesting parallel, it wasn’t until they were fully committed that the scope of the full plan was revealed.
Deller wanted to disrupt, dislodge, and, one could say, unhinge the rituals he saw in society for honoring or commemorating its dead warriors. His goals were to create something that didn’t conform to the established acts of mourning and the paying of respects. He sees annual Armistice Day visits to the Cenotaph in Whitehall as creating both a sense of peace within the public and a ‘sentimentality’ that makes the deaths of the hundreds of thousands appear heroic.37
Deller wanted to make a human memorial that wasn’t comforting, had a random quality, and was decentralized; one that confronts or disrupts the audience. To avoid sentimentality Deller’s army was to avoid religious buildings, memorials and cemeteries. Instead they were ordered to deploy to shopping centers, bus stations, parks and Ikeas, places where they would be incongruent, a visual disruption. Places that didn’t exist in 1916. Ikea was specifically highlighted as a target because of the sense of ‘purposelessness’ and ‘soullessness’ the space has to Deller.38 The planned marches were in public partially because it was a public work, but more than that he wanted to confront the public. Deller said: “if people didn’t want to see it they would have to see it.”39
What keeps it from being street theater instead of an artwork? If you come across something that you aren’t prepared for is it more unexpected than anything else that happens within daily life? It seems these are the questions we could be asking. But our mission here is to examine the tactics used by contemporary artists to create doubt and uncertainty. The title of Deller’s memorial work was taken from a battle song sung during the Great War. We’re Here Because We’re Here were the repetitive lyrics sung to the tune of Auld Lang Syne, which spoke to Deller. He heard: “we don’t know why we are here, we don’t know what’s going on. No one is telling us anything. What is the point of this?”40 Is this the secret message Deller is transmitting to the public? The campaign ended in a purposeless ‘vortex’ of human beings as the soldiers congregated in the transport hubs where they were originally deployed and ceased linear marching, and instead synchronizing in concentric circles, each group in step but headed in opposite rotations.41 With one final rendition of the battle song, then the work stopped with a cry. The planned push ended Deller’s tactics and left the troops exhausted. Two pre-planed tactics were later awarded for leading to the success of that day: surprise and the wish to unhinge.42 Both of these were covert.
Much of the major work Deller has done is based around conflict. It is as if Deller has to push the limits of acceptability and the way he does that is by serving up conflict. Now, however, he is also a veteran at working with open systems and creating a platform for engagement. Losing control, he says, was something he used to be concerned about, but with We’re Here Because We’re Here he expected such a loss, certainly in terms of social media, that this battle plan wouldn’t survive the first bullet, or first tweet, in a digitally networked world. In the end, it would be a battle, he would lose, and the public would finally take control of the project. It was for the public; it would be documented by them, talked about by them.
Knowing or recognizing this beforehand, Deller included game plans around the public having no forewarning of the work, and while the work was shared on social media there would be no reference to it as an artwork; any such reference would be deleted or removed, and the soldiers would be on unexpected fronts.43 Those fronts, meanwhile, were temporarily incongruent to the period costumes of the volunteers. There is a rhyming of sentiment between this and Eco’s ‘unhinging’. The mute soldiers walking through Ikea looks like an excerpt of a book, with the soldiers being only part of a story visibly dislodged from the contained and restrained ritual of the cenotaph. On that day, the limited reconnaissance available to the public through the internet and subsequent social media denied an association to classify the experience and understanding where it fitted within cultural production. Deller left the public with only the experience itself and, if they had an ‘encounter’, they received a card with a particular soldier’s name, regiment and – if known – his age the day he died at the Somme.44 This mute exchange was as close to an explanation as possible at the time. Does the card function as two things at once – both an explanation and a tombstone? Could that card be the duckrabbit of that excursion?
Does unhinging a work from context, or creating visual ambiguities, or contradictions do more than work to dislodge our expectation? These are tactics that have worked and continue to satisfy when looking to create something that results in doubt and uncertainty. They are easier to accomplish within works that have some temporality. Works that function in a more static time, or a narrower existence for the public’s examination, seem to be more limited to suspending the time by ambiguity. On that can we be sure? Only in the continued march of time, that inevitable journey we must all thole, will we tell.
Let’s allow time to continue its endless march and rest ourselves while we rejoin Ilsa Lund in her romantic, soft-focus, upper-story flat in Paris and return to her question: ‘“Was that artillery fire, or is it my heart pounding?” Now, with our refreshed eyes, we ask a similar question we could apply to works that we are in doubt about, or uncertain of: Is our expectation of reality, or our everyday existence, at risk of being challenged by an outside force, or are we excited by the prospect of the sublime?
Back in the Harris gale, I’m struggling to focus on finding an outline for my dissertation. And I’m beating myself up about it. David Greig described having writer’s block as not getting the feeling of losing himself in the work, like he feels he used to or should. You could see this as an extension of the romanticization of the artist, or even the individual, that leads to the multi-billion dollar self-help industry.45 James Garner’s view, meanwhile, is more of a Will to Power argument, like Jasper Johns’ ‘Do something, do something to that, and then do something to that.’46
Could it be that both ways are a door for stepping outside to look into what you have done to see if it’s working? Like hoping a sculpture falls in the middle of the night so you can rebuild it.47 I’m tempted to agree, but can the strategy of this be distilled to establishing gridwork, platitudes, metaphors, and imaginary inventions? Can this remove uncertainty and doubt within the creator and even be used to induce doubt or at least a healthy skepticism as a personal Anxiety of Influence? In Harold Bloom’s mid-seventies book The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry he sees creatives as struggling against their knowledge of the historic cannon. Bloom then outlines ways in which that struggle can be reduced by reinterpretation of the past. A creative could misquote/misread to find room for themselves, by sharpening the point of their predecessor. As preposterous as it might seem, the creative could also invite the predecessor to read his work. In doing so no matter how distant in the past the predecessor existed in, he could rationalize that the predecessor was the successor operating in a non-linear time. Or, the creative could see that history has taken a certain route and choose an antithetical path. Does Bloom’s book even work as he asserts, or is it just a version of the self-help book? What other creative lanes exist? There is an accepted mythology in the music industry that all the best studios have Brian Eno’s and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies within them.48 One of those cards comes to mind: ‘Honor thy mistake as a hidden intention.’49 Is that a line from Hamlet? Did I misremember that?
42 There were two social media teams in the We’re Here Because We’re here project: one dedicated to getting the word out, the other to stopping anyone from believing it was an artwork by removing references to Jeremy Deller, the National Theatre, Birmingham Rep, anything that might suggest that, by requesting they remove posts that ‘would give the game away.’ (Meet the creatives behind ‘we’re here because we’re here’, 2016)
46 Jasper Johns’ now famous 1964 sketchbook quote and The Will to Power refers to a selection of Friedrich Nietzsche notebook writings that is translated as “To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities – I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that they can prove today whether one is worth anything or not – that one endures.”
47 Phyllida Barlow talks about pushing sculptures over and being disappointed if they didn’t fall over in the night in Unidentified Foreign Objects: Phyllida Barlow in conversation with Elizabeth Fisher in the transcript of the On not Knowing conference within On Not Knowing (pg 108)