Part B Interpret Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave and reflect on the importance of time and place in this piece
On June 18th 1984 approximately 5,000 miners and a similar number of police officers lined up on a field outside the village of Orgreave and fought one of the decisive battles of the Great Miners’ Strike of 1984-1985. 17 years later the battle lines were drawn again at the behest of Jeremy Deller to create The Battle of Orgreave.
The Great Miners’ Strike was staged by the National Union of Mineworkers [NUM] in opposition to the National Coal Board’s proposals to close 20 collieries and axe 20,000 mining jobs. The government feared energy shortages akin to those during the 1972 strike and when Scargill called for mass picketing at Orgreave, thousands of police were sent to crush Thatcher’s “enemy within”. (Thatcher, 1984) The miners were defeated and between 1980 and 1993 the mining industry concluded its decline.
Watching news of the blockade being crushed as a child influenced Deller and, knowing that 17 years later Orgreave had not recovered from the coking factory closure with mass unemployment (Deller, 2001), he staged a reconstruction in collaboration with Artangel. The battle was shifted to a field on the other side of the village as the geography around Orgreave had changed after the removal of the plant but the reconstruction was as faithful to the events of 1984 as possible. Deller brought in battle re-enactment societies but encouraged ex-miners and police officers to participate. Those who fought in 1984 weren’t reconstructing events; they were reliving them.
Whilst the original event had a dramatic effect on the local community, there were increasing numbers of people who did not have a memory of it. One of Deller’s aims with this piece was to keep the event within living memory and, as such, the attention to detail was meticulous with participants wearing vintage 1980s clothing and not using 21st century language. (Wainwright, 2001) The re-enactment took on a life of its own, much like the real event as, in Deller’s own words, it was ‘a recreation of something that was essentially chaos’. (Deller, 2002)
The footage of the performance is reminiscent of modern news reporting. In 2001, when the reconstruction was staged, smartphones were not as prevalent as they are today. Deller unwittingly foretold the future of news footage; the Indian earthquake of 2004 was the first event primarily recorded using mobile devices. The first person perspective recreates the fear and chaos experienced by the participants. By convincing ex-miners and policemen to switch sides for the re-enactment Deller was able to demonstrate how tensions escalated rapidly and seems particularly relevant in recent years with increasing railway strike action.
The accompanying documentary by Mike Figgis discusses the manipulation of footage, in particular how a BBC editor transposed the order of recorded footage before airing it to the public. Filming both viewpoints during the conflict encourages the viewer to question to what extent the media influences public opinion. The documentary and testimonies accompanying the exhibition are sympathetic towards the pickets’ cause. Noticeably, Douglass (2001) references the 1972 strike and states how pickets “allowed some lorries…to supply hospitals, schools and places like that” but make no mention of the effects on those who were elderly, vulnerable or ill in their homes. His comments “During the strike in 1972 we pretty well closed down most of Britain with our picketing” beg the question should any group of people have that power over a nation or does successfully achieving that aim cost the cause the moral high ground?
Arthur Scargill and the NUM refused to give a national ballot and meant that many miners rejected the call to strike. In response flying pickets were formed to stop miners from working to disrupt the coal industry but seems like dictating to all rather than fighting for the rights of all. There are no comments or interviews with the workers of the Orgreave plant who weren’t striking to portray the opposing view and those who did work in 1984 were often referred to as “scabs”. The situation must have been complex and caused tensions within the community itself whereas the testimonies frame this as a war between the police and miners.
In some respects, The Battle of Ogreave is reminiscent of works commemorating battles such as Francisco Goya’s The Second of May, 1808 (1814) and Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830). Jones argues that Deller’s MA in History of Art is the source of this apparent influence. (Jones, 2001) It is possible to question whether the re-enactment is an art form however people have been using contemporary methods to represent battles throughout history. Deller continues the visual storytelling tradition of the Alexander Mosaic [Battle of Issus] (c.200BCE) and Bayeux Tapestry (c.1066-82) by blending it with modern video methods. The subsequent footage was shown on Channel 4 and has been exhibited around the country as an installation. These dissemination methods have allowed a large proportion of the population to access the work, arguably a key aim of art.
Easy accessibility seems to be a recurrent theme in Deller’s work and many of his projects actively encourage public participation. Removing work from the gallery and siting it in the community as with Do Touch – IHME Project (2015) and It Is What It Is (2009) engages people in shared cultural history. Deller likes to be controversial about a sense of place in his work. What Would Neil Young Do? (2006) subverts the idea of an art fair as “… the fair is where you’re meant to be selling high-value art objects to people, not giving art away…” (Deller, 2006) Similarly Sacrilege (2012) seems like an attempt to reclaim British history and culture for the masses whilst celebrating the things that give people joy without any pretence or snobbishness over what form those things should take.
Deller’s work exists at the intersection of art, documentary and social commentary. He makes the viewer question not only what is art but the ways that events are mediated to challenge preconceptions of the immutability of history and place.
Word count: 999
Douglass, D. (2001) https://www.artangel.org.uk/the-battle-of-orgreave/david-douglass/ (Accessed 30.06.17)
Deller, J. (2001) The Battle of Orgreave http://jeremydeller.org/TheBattleOfOrgreave/TheBattleOfOrgreave_Video.php (Accessed 30.06.17)
(Deller, 2002) The Battle of Orgreave https://www.artangel.org.uk/project/the-battle-of-orgreave/?sb=jeremy-deller-in-middlesbrough#jeremy-deller-in-middlesbrough (Accessed 30.06.17)
Deller, J. (2006) What Would Neil Young Do? http://jeremydeller.org/WhatWouldNeilYoung/WhatWouldNeilYoungDo.php (Accessed 30.06.17)
Jones, J. (2001) Missiles fly, truncheons swing, police chase miners as cars burn. It’s all very exciting. But why is it art? In: The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2001/jun/19/artsfeatures (Accessed 30.06.17)
Thatcher, M. (1984) Speech to 1922 Committee http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/105563 (Accessed 30.06.17)
Wainwright, M. (2001) Strikers relive battle of Orgreave. In: The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2001/jun/18/martinwainwright (Accessed 30.06.17)