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  • Writer's pictureMadeleina Kay

"Welcome to the Shitshow" - Art is Magic by Jeremy Deller



I first read this book about a year ago, after attending an author talk / book signing / karaoke (it was an eclectic affair) event in Manchester. I first met Jeremy in the Summer of 2019, when I attended an event he collaborated on with Jarvis Cocker in Edale, the village where I used to live with my Dad. I saw the event promoted on the ‘Edale mailing list’ and suggested to Dad that we go – I didn’t at the time recognise Jeremy Deller’s name, despite realising in hindsight that I had previously listened to him interviewed on Desert Island Discs (I am terrible at remembering names). It was odd event, which occurred in a Gazebo and involved Jarvis DJ-ing a yoga session amongst other things. Jeremy came up to me and gave me a pink rosette with the words “BE KINDER” in gold lettering (the event happened in the shadow of Kinder Scout).

 


He said he recognised me from the Brexit protests outside Westminster where he had been filming a film. We had a lengthy chat about the protests and he invited me to a film screening of ‘Everybody in the Place’ (A film about the Acid House counter-culture in relation to the Thatcherite politics of the time) at Sheffield Doc Fest the following day. When I got home I googled him and realised that he was the artists responsible for the ‘Strong and stable my arse’ posters which were plastered all over London after Theresa May’s ‘Strong and Stable’ speech. So, of course, I had to go to watch the documentary the following day and chat with him some more.


When I published my ‘Brexiles’ book (I thought he might be interested in reading it since he had been filming at the Brexit protests) – I posted him a copy. So, when I saw him promoting this new book, ‘Art is Magic’, on his social media, I was eager to attend one of the stops on the book talk tour. I was very happy to get a signed copy of the book – he told me that his target audience was teenagers / young adults (influence them whilst they’re young) and I get that impression from the book – it’s not “high brow” like the Sharon Hayes book I read recently. It’s easy to read, but it’s very engaging and full of humour and silliness.



Jeremy’s eclectic mish-mash of projects and media has also reassured me somewhat about my own jack-of-all-trades creative practice. Not all of the subject matter was relevant to my work but there were three projects in particular I wanted to explore in relation to my own creative practice in this blog post:

 

Putin’s Happy

 

The documentary Jeremy was filming at the pro and anti Brexit protests at Westminster which I attended, was titled ‘Putin’s Happy’. The film is ‘a study of English radicalisation and paranoia and is not for the fainthearted. Many of those interviewed would never think of themselves as extremists, but that is precisely what they had gradually become over the years.’ (page 55) Having made my own documentary in 2019, filming in exactly the same location, also interviewing far-right protestors, I was interested to watch Jeremy’s take on the toxic situation. And I relate to the title, having been relentlessly trolled by accounts which were often clearly bots and almost undoubtedly sponsored by the Putin regime to stoke division in the West – he succeeded.  



Jeremy describes how he ‘had gone to Parliament Square in early 2019 during a Brexit debate and was quite unprepared for the visual and aural cacophony of the opposing sides mixing and arguing together. It was all very un-English in its passion; and arguably more American than anything else in its performative chaos, both fascinating and depressing.’ (page 55) I was amused by the irony of this comment and the idea that the ardent Union-Jack waving activists are inherently ‘un-English’ because it is contrary to our repressed stiff-upper-lip culture.

 

Jeremy commented, ‘everybody was filming and live-broadcasting themselves and people around them, so I realised that another camera was not going to attract too much attention.’ (pages 55-57) This is absolutely true and I was guilty of doing the same myself. I guess it’s symptomatic of smart-phone culture, that everyone feels a compulsion to document and broadcast their acts of protest on their social media accounts.

 

Jeremy describes the camera man he worked alongside, Jared Schiller, as shorter than himself (Jeremy is quite short himself), ‘we comprised a non-threatening presence, which was important as the pro-Brexit supporters were very suspicious of anyone who looked vaguely official.’ (page 57) This observation also rings true and I think the non-threatening nature of my protesting was one of the reasons why the far-right yellow-vest protestors were relatively friendly to me and also allowed me to interview them. There is something disarming about a young woman in a super hero costume, with colourful hair, smiling and singing songs – in contrast to the other Remain protestors who could often be aggressive, hostile and shouting. I remember one of the UKIP protestors saying to me, ‘We hate all of your lot – but you’re alright. We like you.’ I’m not afraid to come across as silly, over-the-top and to make a joke out of myself, and I think that gave me access to conversations with individuals who would otherwise have been hostile to me.

 

Jeremy describes the process of reviewing the footage, ‘there was a lot of real-time in-person trolling which I filmed but it was so soul-destroying to watch back.’ (page 57) As one of the victims of the real-time in-person trolling, I’m not sure what to say on this matter… Other than, you can’t let it destroy your soul – that’s when they’ve won.



 ‘Some people were quite happy to be filmed being overtly antisemitic.’ (page 57) Yep this was absolutely true. There was one guy (pictured above), who interviewed for my documentary 'The Future is Europe' who would show up to nearly every protest with chaotic, poorly made placards full of antisemitic conspiracy theories ('EU = Soros + Rothschild') and scream 'DRAIN THE SWAMP!' until he was hoarse (part of David Icke's 'Lizard People' conspiracy Theory).



Seeing this far-right protestor's photograph in the book immediately filled me with horror. I recalled an incident where I was (somewhat stupidly) wandering alone through a far-right protest and he clocked me (I was wearing my EU wonder woman costume). He started aggressively walking towards me and backed me up against an iron railing - seeing this photo filled me with the same terror I felt in that moment. Fortunately, a young American woman saw this happening and came over and stood next to me, with her arms folded. Another young man came and stood on my other side and the trump-masked protester backed off and left me alone. That moment of solidarity from strangers was incredibly touching.

 


Jeremy writes under a screen grab from his film, ‘The subtitled words are by Nigel Farage from a speech he gave in Parliament Square on 29 March 2019. I’m using them against him.’ (page 57) I love this repurposing of words to hold political figures to account.



I was amused by this comment on one of the screengrabs from the footage, ‘An almost sacrilegious moment from the film as ‘Get Up, Stand Up’ by Bob Marley is played by pro-Brexit supporters who genuinely felt that that song spoke to them and their struggle to get the Brexit they desired.’ (page 58) It’s something I have reflected on previously in the context of George Orwell’s essay ‘All Art is Propaganda’ – I contended that this statement would be true if slightly altered to ‘All art can be used as propaganda’. I guess the problem with publishing your artwork (visual, music, writing, etc.) is that when it is publicly available, it can be taken out of context and weaponised by actors who have an agenda entirely contrary to the author’s original intention.

 

Folk Archive

 


This project was of particular interest to me because of my recent research into the ‘Women for Peace’ banners from Greenham Common. Jeremy describes Ed Hall as ‘a, if not the banner maker in the UK’, which although affectionate, somewhat overlooks all of the fabulous female banner makers. ‘He has produced thousands for unions, charities, myself and any organisation he feels in sympathy with. His banners are works of beauty in an often ugly world, so truly inhabiting the spirit of William Morris.’ (page 126) Some of the detail of the imagery in Hall’s banners are remarkable to be fair – something which I will reflect upon when I get round to making more of my own.



Jonny Banger in conversation

 

The last project I want to mention is a project, not by Deller himself, but mentioned in an interview with Jonny Banger. I thought it was interesting how, in his book Jeremy included these artworks / projects by others – in line with his philosophy of taking the ego out or art-making.


JD: ‘The Covid Letters, a call-out to under-16s to draw, paint or adapt the letter that every household received from Boris Johnson at the start of the pandemic, which nearly gave me a nervous breakdown: I thought – you bugger! That’s what I want to do!’ (page 197)

Daniel Scott: ‘Had that been a Deller project, what would your version have been like?’

JD: I don’t think it would have been that different. The best ideas are often the simplest ones.’ (page 199)

JB: ‘We got nearly 300 replies… Because we reached a lot of people, it meant something, and it kept me busy. It’s best when I am doing something for the public, or for other people.’ (page 199)

 


There is something incredibly beautiful about the innocence of children that can reflect the truth back to a society which is often swept up by rhetoric and cultural norms.



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