Last year’s centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme was marked in a way that successfully caught the imagination of the British public. Conceived by artist Jeremy Deller, the National Theatre’s Rufus Norris and the innovative 14-18 NOW arts programme, ‘We’re here because we’re here’ was a project that saw 1,500 ‘soldiers’ dressed in First World War uniforms gathering silently in public places all over the UK.
At CR we have written extensively about the work, from covering the unfolding of the day itself, to awarding the social media strategy that agency The Cogency carried out in support of the project as one of our Best in Book places in this year’s Annual. We have also just recently made artist Jeremy Deller one of our CR Creative Leaders for 2017.
In a new book which charts the story of the day’s event and the extensive planning that led up to it, journalist Jon Snow talks to Deller about the project. The interview, subtitled ‘Avoid sentimentality!’ is featured in full, below. The book of ‘We’re here because we’re here’ will be available from Cultureshock Media/Thames & Hudson at the end of this month – it features over 100 colour images of the day and also sketches and notes from Deller’s notebook, alongside a map of all the locations used.
Jon Snow: What was the thinking behind We’re here because we’re here?
Jeremy Deller: I wanted to make a memorial that was alive, not an object or set of objects to make a pilgrimage to; a memorial that would come to you, that would appear in your city, town or shopping centre, intervening in your daily life. We consciously avoided churches, war memorials, castles, cathedrals; we just had to get out of heritage Britain. I was interested in having the soldiers moving through a contemporary UK for the maximum visual effect. It was as much about today as it was about 1916. So it had to be kinetic, unexpected – and human.
JS: It is interesting that you decided to wander through places that were rooted absolutely in people’s everyday lives. You were asking quite a lot of the authorities weren’t you?
JD: Well my rule is never ask permission for anything, because there’s a very good chance it won’t be given. We had to get permission for railway stations, but with shops, for example, you just walk in, you walk through and you walk out. So in a sense as soon as you arrive you’re leaving.
JS: The effect was far more potent as a result; I walked into Waterloo station with no real sense of what I was going to see. I was very quickly overwhelmed, first of all by the scale, and secondly the intensity of the silence amid all the rush. What were your instructions to participants if the public asked what they were doing?
JD: We told them to make eye contact with the public. It’s a simple technique to make your presence felt. At certain points in the day the participants sang a few rounds of a song that was sung by soldiers in the First World War. It goes to the tune of Auld Lang Syne and the words are: “We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here.”
When I read about this song, I realised I not only had an activity for the men but also a title for the piece. It explains nothing, it’s pointless and repetitive, a little like the fate of a foot soldier or even the nature of man’s addiction to conflict. We also equipped each man with a set of “calling cards” which bore the name, regiment and rank of a soldier who died on 1 July. He was representing that person, not pretending to be him. The card was effectively a gravestone, and if a member of the public paid attention to a soldier in any way he or she was given one.
JS: War takes us on a dicey journey. There are all sorts of things like patriotism and nationalism that are bound up in it. In some ways we’ve been running away from the reality of it because the only way we really remember the dead is by simply parading the living in a sort of ceremonial way. But there was nothing ceremonial about this.
JD: It’s the opposite of the Cenotaph ceremony, which is an unchanging, ordered ritual. Ours was much more random in its appearance and trajectory. Importantly there’s no one alive who fought in the First World War, it’s possible now that there’s no one left who can even remember living through it. So we’ve lost the human connection to it, and that is an interesting moment, and potentially a difficult moment, because that’s when there is a tendency to romanticise things.
I kept writing in my notebook “AVOID SENTIMENTALITY”. But if the public want to feel sentimental about something they will, and you can’t change this. However, I hope it was a slight jolt for the public. Maybe that’s the word I’m looking for – a jolt.
JS: When I saw these 20–30 young men lining the side of us, on a staircase, no one knew necessarily that that’s how it would look. I thought it was moving, and I actually thought the response from the crowd was surprising too.
JD: Yes. And the participants didn’t know how the public would respond. We’d done a lot of training for the eventuality of the men being physically or verbally abused, but none of that happened. What we should’ve said is: “If someone starts crying in front of you and wants to hug you, this is what you do,” because the reaction was actually the opposite.
I wasn’t expecting the public to respond so positively to it, but I have a theory. It happened a week after the EU referendum, during what I think was the worst time in British public life in my memory. It was like the miners’ strike condensed into eight weeks. It just brought out the worst of being British and the aftermath was terrible, with politicians denying promises and then stabbing each other in the back.
So it was sobering to be reminded of the men who had given up their lives for their country, unlike the political figures of today who have given up their country for their careers.
JS: Also the idea that peace and the absence of war, in our lifetimes – I mean in 70 years – was never really played to by the politicians in the campaigns either to stay or leave the European Union.
JD: Inevitably this piece of work was a reminder of that. How could it not be? Especially when you are working with groups of young men.
JS: So, how did it affect you?
JD: When it happened it was more of a relief, I wasn’t necessarily moved by it because I knew what was going to happen. It was kept a secret from the public because we thought it was more surprising and effective – their reaction was unfiltered.
JS: As a journalist I’m bound to ask what the mechanics of all this was, because there were a huge number of men, primarily, involved. Who were they?
JD: The participants were a broad range who we recruited through a network of theatres across the UK. Inevitably a lot of them were drama and theatre students, and then there were people who were just interested in theatre or who were just interested in doing something unusual. So there was a mix.
JS: The individual soldiers were extraordinarily impassive: they were on parade, they were behaving themselves, they were committed. These weren’t actors.
JD: No they were not acting, it’s true. It was quite interesting because we had to tell the participants that you’re not acting, you’re in public observing the world go by. We had performance rules, and they trained a lot at stripping away artifice. So for example they couldn’t speak, which was good. As soon as you start speaking it becomes confusing for the public because you are effectively telling a story, and then it becomes like re-enactment.
But what really impressed me observing the footage and the photography from around Britain was that everyone was, more or less, obeying the rules.
JS: At Waterloo station there was true scale and a lot of people were involved – there were hundreds.
JD: We chose big transport hubs at the beginning of the day because I knew that lots of people would be passing through stations. This meant that thousands – tens, maybe hundreds of thousands – of people would see this work if it’s at four major stations in London, and then further sites of this kind in Birmingham and Manchester.
That would be a good start to the day; we would get a lot of eyes on us and of course it would start the social media interest and proliferation, which was a very important part of the project for me. Its life online and its development throughout the day was something I was interested in tracking. In effect the public documented the work for us.
JS: My grandfather was at the Somme. He was a general, so he survived of course. And I tried to connect with him; I tried to think about what he would have been dealing with. I couldn’t get there at all – I was only able really to identify with who I was seeing that day and to think merely that they were bound for something terrible.
JD: Their death! During the First World War there was a phenomenon of people in the UK sighting their dead loved ones, so someone might see their son or husband out of the corner of their eye on the street or on the bus. You know what it’s like when you’re missing someone – you actually start seeing them, even though either they’re dead or they’re not around. But this happened en masse during and after the war.
It also helped lead to an increase in spiritualist churches and seances. In a sense these soldiers fulfilled a similar purpose but for the twenty-first century, where you’re walking through Waterloo station and out of the corner of your eye you think you saw a soldier, and then you might realise later that you did.
JS: How has it affected your artistic life?
JD: I think what it’s made me understand is that it’s important to try to trust the public.
JS: Well, you’ve had lots of intersection with the public. Towing that bombed-out taxi…
JD: Yes, around the US [in 2009 Deller towed a car that had been destroyed in a bomb attack around the USA with an Iraqi civilian and a US soldier, in order to facilitate conversations about the war in Iraq]. And the public were actually very supportive; we could have been verbally or physically abused but we weren’t.
JS: Oh, you could have easily stirred resentment.
JD: We went through very strong Republican areas in the south and we could have got into a lot of trouble, but almost to a person people were curious as to what we were doing.
JS: Is this a political event?
JD: Maybe with a small “p”. I think because the message is so unclear in a way, I don’t even know what it is myself!
JS: What about the depiction of war? I just can’t get enough Stanley Spencer. And of course he was a war artist in both wars, which was in itself reasonably rare. But he does a lot of what you did, except that you did it with people and he does it with paint. The way he connects you to normality, I mean there’s the man standing on a hot water bottle while somebody changes the sheets on the bed in the sanatorium.
JD: I hadn’t thought of that, but when you think of the Sandham Memorial Chapel it’s just bodies everywhere, strewn along, on the walls. I think it’s the humanity of his work that is really important and that I love.
JS: What were the main risks of making a work like this?
JD: Well, the project was unannounced, and we kept it a secret by impressing on the participants the importance of surprising the public and how that would make their experience more worthwhile. The budget was not insignificant and we couldn’t rehearse in public, so we really had no idea how it would look or be received.
Apart from that, it was a national event and I was keen for that to include Northern Ireland. For a time we weren’t sure if it was going to be possible, because the thought of men in British Army uniform walking through the streets or a shopping centre has a different memory and meaning attached to it in that part of the UK.
We had to discuss this with politicians and the police, because it’s the only place in Britain where the First World War is contentious. Everywhere else we kind of know what it is and are at ease with it, if that’s the right term.
JS: How do you feel about the fact that you pulled all of this together for one moment? It may of course be filmed, it may be photographed, some people might even draw it – but it happens and it’s gone.
JD: I like it.
JD: Because it was an experience, it wasn’t something that you can own.
JS: A shared experience.
JD: It’s something that only happened that day, which makes it special. All those uniforms are now back in Poland where they were made – there’s no trace of it all. Maybe the thing you and I share in our careers is that we’re both reacting to events, historical or contemporary. We are at the mercy of history, but in a way that’s still very exciting.
JS: You could argue that something like Brexit is on such a scale, with such unknown outcomes, that it is almost like a minor conflict.
JD: Yes, a civil war of sorts, in the same way that the miners’ strike was a type of civil war.
JS: Because it could leave a lot of people who were initially supportive of it strewn around the battlefield.
JD: Every part of our lives will be affected, which is probably what a war does – it changes your whole perspective and takes a nation on a totally different course. There’s a quote by Mao about the French Revolution, someone asked him what he thought about it and he said: “It’s too early to say.” So who knows what Brexit will mean.
JS: But therefore I think this justifies the whole thing, because it is a human insight into war and that is what prevents more wars than anything else. I mean I was a chorister at Winchester Cathedral, and the walls were festooned with stone replicas of people: of officers mainly, a few squaddies, very few women – there were almost no women affected by war as far as those sculptors were concerned – and it was a dead, stoney thing, it had no life.
This is the exact antithesis of that, I mean the memorial services for the military were enjoyable affairs: brass bands, lots and lots of spaghetti, fine uniforms, white caps, all sorts of stuff. They present something very different from a painting like Gassed by John Singer Sargent, which is absolutely wonderful with the human form.
JD: I saw that painting as a child in the Imperial War Museum and it had a huge effect on me; it’s just so big and as a kid you could disappear into it. Also, it’s a terrifying image at any age.
JS: And the other thing that Sargent does, certainly in Gassed, is to reveal way over on the horizon another life going on, football being played. Just one more thing on my mind, if I may, is that you’re talking about inserting the human body and humanity into artworks – how did you insert yourself into this piece? Were you a surveyor or did you feel active?
JD: I was totally in the background; on the day I was hopefully invisible, just another civilian. There was not much I could do at that point, it was almost too late.
JS: Would it have been better for you if you’d actually been one of the soldiers?
JD: No, because it was too exhausting, and I’d have had to cut my hair!
JS: Oh, you wouldn’t want that.
This interview is extracted from ‘We’re here because we’re here’ by Jeremy Deller with Rufus Norris, which is published by Cultureshock Media/Thames & Hudson on July 27; £12.95. It is available from amazon.co.uk