In this essay I will offer a personal interpretation of Jeremy Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave. (Artangel 2001) It will be important to address time and place within this piece as well as reflecting on Deller’s choice of format. I will also consider the subsequent exhibition of associated items that are part of the piece. Citing this piece within the context of Jeremy Deller’s other work will potentially help with the overall interpretation.
My initial impressions when watching The Battle of Orgreave were amazement at the
scale of the event and the way that I felt completely engaged with the activity, shocked by the realism of the aggression and transported to 1985. Although rationally I knew it was a piece of performance art, the police presence felt terrifying particularly the vast numbers, the uniforms and the military tactics. The miners in contrast looked vulnerable and although angry, they seemed powerless. I wondered how the people of Orgreave had received this re-enactment of a deeply troubled part of their recent history and what impression it might have made on those who remembered the events. It was therefore not surprising to discover that Deller had been affected by seeing news coverage of the 1985 event as a young man. (Artangel. The English Civil War: Part II)
We see how extremely effective it is to create a re-enactment of a battle within living memory in the exact spot where the event first took place. Using the word Battle in the title indicates that Deller saw this as some sort of war. The use of film for this site-specific piece gives a sense of involvement and immediacy, particularly around the violence. Views of police on horseback, clearly at an advantage, contribute to the menace while the sound of angry voices, the loud drumming of police truncheons on the shields, and then the addition of music makes the piece a particularly sensory experience. The glimpses of actual photographic stills from 1984, which intercut the re-enactment film are like flashbacks, give a sense of falling back in time. It is perhaps intended as a reminder that despite the distance in time, the effects of an event such as this, impacts on the future not only on those involved, but on society.
With a static medium I feel the emotion would be more reflective as experienced by the subsequent exhibition of artefacts with the film. This installation, now at The Tate in London, is entitled The Battle of Orgreave Archive : An Injury to One is an Injury to All . The title, a slogan used by many industrial unions, reflects Deller’s interest in groups and communities and this particular installation draws attention to the emotional and physical injuries sustained by the mining community.
Viewing historical artefacts in the Orgreave archive would draw me to the event and complements the film. Displaying items of miner’s clothing, a riot shield, newspaper reports of the 1985 event, short videos setting the scene etc, gives context to the video showing in an adjacent room. Part of that context reflects the divisions between groups in society. The archive includes books such as the memoirs of Margaret Thatcher, a staunch supporter of the police force, sitting beside an account of the event by Ian MacGregor highlighting the rift between classes.
This is further emphasised in a recording of union representative David Douglass describing the divisions within the miner’s union itself. (Artangel. Spoken Testimonies) That these divisions were not only between strikers and non strikers but also between the left and right and different internal groups is reflected in the polarity in the newspaper reportage.
Interestingly, in order to create the re-enactment of the battle, Deller and his team had to build bridges. Michael Morris co-director of Artangel says, “We gave ourselves a year in which to build bridges of trust with the community of former miners in South Yorkshire and resolved to abandon the project at the first sign of hostility.” ( Artangel. Making the Battle of Orgreave 2002) The fact that several former miners and some former policeman took part in the re-enactment contributes to the credibility of the film whilst possibly giving a new and different perspective to those individuals.
That the day was meticulously planned and yet the film captures the violent and chaotic nature of such an event is extraordinary. It is a reminder of the spoken and unspoken agreements between people. The actual Orgreave clash was also planned albeit as a picket line (Artangel Soundcloud) the opposing sides knew where to meet and that it would be a violent clash of ideologies, although it is doubtful that the level of violence would have been predicted. In the film, as in reality, the vulnerability of the miners, some bare chested, compared to the police covered from head to toe in riot gear is a stark reminder of the power of the State.
The Battle of Orgreave is a political statement of power and class. More importantly it reflects Deller’s passion for people and specific communities. We see this interest again in Deller’s piece that followed called After the Goldrush, 2002 in California, and again in Folk Archive, 2005. More recently Deller’s performance art piece entitled Iggy Pop Life Class, 2016 features a selected community of New York artists at a life drawing class. This community of artists would belong to a specific socio-economic class. Deller’s skill lies in gaining the trust of these communities as Jonathan Jones writes in his review in The Guardian.
In conclusion, Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave is a political piece representing a specific time in the history of the coal mining industry and the cultural changes generally in the 1980s. It remains relevant in terms of the social aspects of the class system in Britain, and the divisions between government at Westminster and the workers literally and figuratively “at the coal face”.
At https://www.artangel.org.uk/project/the-battle-of-orgreave/ (accessed 9 June 2016)
https://soundcloud.com/artangel-2/sets/the-battle-of-orgreave (accessed 10 June 2016)
At http://jeremydeller.org/IggyPop/IggyPop.php (accessed 10 June 2016)
Jones, J. The Guardian. 19 June 2001
At https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2001/jun/19/artsfeatures (accessed 10 June 2016)
At http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/deller-the-battle-of-orgreave-archive-an-injury-to-one-is-an-injury-to-all-t12185 (accessed 9 June 2016)
I found this assignment quite challenging on many levels. I have not written academic essays and I am not sure if I am doing it correctly. Is this actually an interpretation or have I fallen more into reviewing? Do I present my interpretations in this way or do they need to be more cautious? The feedback will be very useful.