Jeremy Deller’s Turner Prize win in 2004 took nearly everyone by surprise, especially him. He is the sort of artist that can restore one’s faith in the art world, less for the goodness of his politics than for the near guilelessness of his interests and enthusiasms. But his enthusiasms often take him into political contexts, whether he is making art out of a pivotal episode from what his interlocutor here calls “the radical Eighties” — the brutal suppression of striking mineworkers by Margaret Thatcher’s conservative government, beamed nightly into British homes on television, which became the basis of Deller’s video work The Battle of Orgreave — or the “sculpture” 05 March 2007, the remains of an exploded vehicle from Baghdad — residual byproducts of Operation Iraqi Freedom and the subsequent British-American occupation. The bombed-out automobile has been exhibited at the Imperial War Museum in London, but also packed onto a flatbed truck and driven around the United States.
Deller will be pitching for Britain this year at the Venice Biennial.
Sukhdev Sandhu is a critic and proprietor of the Colloquium for Unpopular Culture at New York University. They are both in their ways extremely English, as is this conversation. Deller and Sandhu spoke at Soho House in New York last November, the morning after the opening night of Deller’s second solo show at Gavin Brown’s enterprise.
Sukhdev Sandhu: I remember you talking about coming here for the first time, which got me to wondering — was New York ever important to you?
Jeremy Deller: Not really. Maybe America in general, but not New York. I lived in California for six months when I was eighteen and that was really an amazing experience, so if anything I prefer that side of the country.
SS: What was that? I mean, Herzog talks about California as prehistoric — the land of dinosaurs — but also plastic and new, away from the shackles of old Europe.
JD: That was it, really. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before, and the weather was like nothing I’d experienced. It was so… un-European. Going anywhere when you’re eighteen is exciting, but going to California — everything was different.
SS: When you were growing up, what was the world? People often talk about the 1970s in terms of… cheaper travel, people moving around.
JD: My first time on a plane I was sixteen. I didn’t really travel until I was eighteen. The first time I had a shower, as opposed to a bath, I was fifteen or sixteen? [Both laugh] I didn’t exactly come from a jet-set background. So the world was really only television — that’s how I found out about everything. Like, Whicker’s World. Actually there was an amazing series in the late Seventies about the US that was really interesting. About Hollywood — excessive California, plastic surgery…
SS: Did you have a relationship to American music as well?
JD: No, not really. I was much more interested in what was going on in the charts in Britain. Which was mainly English music, British music. So that’s what excited me. But I was very happy go to the US when I was eighteen.
SS: Yeah? What took you there? That seems quite —
JD: My gap year. I stayed with family friends, hung around in Pasadena. It’s like a suburb of LA. It was fantastic. Very pleasant. So I was very happy to do that. I mean, afterward, I came back to the UK and lived with my parents for another twelve years, so that was like the only moment of freedom I knew.
JD: Yeah, to the age of thirty-one.
SS: That is the opposite of the romantic teenage idea of, you know, running away from home or even going off to college.
JD: Going back home! I went to university in London, so I just stayed at home. And then stayed…
SS: What was that like? A lot of friends I know talk wistfully about “dole culture.“ I don’t know if culture is the right word, but — being on the dole and having just enough money and income support and housing benefit, so basically you had your education over again, learning about all the stuff you didn’t get to at college.
JD: That’s exactly what it was like with me. My “art school years” I was unemployed, just hanging around, looking at things and trying to work things out. It just bought me time. But yes, I think a lot of people did that — you could call it a culture. This will enrage the Daily Mail, obviously, but it was something that was done. But it should be said that it’s actually quite unpleasant to be unemployed. You realize very quickly that you’ve got to be so motivated to be good at being unemployed. It was actually quite depressing. It’s something you never want to be again. I did genuinely try and get work. I just never got interviews and things. I wasn’t employable even then.
SS: What did you want out of university? I guess I’m thinking of Richard Hoggart’s book The Uses of Literacy and… just loads more people going through higher education in the last twenty years, and that whole tradition of working class or semi-autodidact scholarship boys for whom university was a kind of existential escape… And the university often can’t live up to that, can’t give you what you want.
JD: Especially if you do art history like I did. It’s a quite rarified, small world, so there’s no guarantee you’ll get a job. But I didn’t know what I wanted out of it. Being in university is a way of buying time, really. I did an MA after university, and that was a way of buying another year and trying to work out what was happening. I wasn’t really cut out for being an art historian. Not at that age. I didn’t have the right temperament.
SS: Yeah, time is really important these days. Whether you’re a young academic or an artist, your onus is to be pre-professionalized, know every angle — to treat yourself as a kind of commodity. And you know, just making mistakes and bumbling about can be over-romanticized, but there’s something to be said for it.
JD: Being unemployed did give you some spare time to make mistakes. But I just left university and had no idea what would happen. Sort of assumed I could get a job, but it actually wasn’t the case. Just wasn’t even remotely the case. Which pushed me to do other things.
SS: Sometimes if I think back to, say, 1985 or ’86, now, with the benefit of hindsight I can say, Oh, I was into this thing or that thing, and it was quite interesting. But it was just a safety valve. I was listening to Johnny Hates Jazz and watching Bergerac—
SS: Because all I ever did as a kid was watch TV; that was my world, too. And I’m just now tying in all the different sectors — there’s an interest in trying to get the radical Eighties back. You know, everybody’s into bands like Test Dept these days—
JD: But they weren’t at the time.
SS: I certainly wasn’t. But do you have an account of how you came to think about yourself as an artist?
JD: I was quite interested in — I mean, I was basically in suburbia. I wasn’t really an urban person; this is an alien place for me, essentially. But when I started at the Courtauld I’d been in LA for a year and I’d been to a lot of concerts, saw a lot of live music. I’d caught the tail end of LA punk and stuff like that, which I loved. So that was what was interesting to me — more so than art, at that point. And then at the Courtauld there were lots of people who were going to nightclubs — going to Taboo, all those classic clubs. So I went to a few of those. But I was always an outsider. I never really felt like a participant. Where did you grow up?
SS: Gloucester, for the most part. Fred West territory.
JD: Yeah! Bloody hell. Is that —
SS: Yeah, that is. I mean I went through that road every day, and his brother — who was also killing children — lived two streets away.
JD: That’s right. I forgot about his brother. I read that book by whatshisname, Happy Like Murderers.
SS: Gordon Burn. That’s one of the scariest books…
JD: What’s amazing is, he doesn’t even describe how the girls are killed. There’s none of that. It’s all about what it’s like to be Fred and Rosemary West. What their house was like. There’s very little graphic description of the torture.
SS: Yeah. And the thing for me is, people would talk about Gloucester like: This is the city of evil, I can smell the stench of dead. But this is like every small town.
JD: Every small town has a Fred West character.
SS: Yeah. And he lives quite near the bus station. Bus stations are places of, well — you know Martin Amis’s cousin was one of the killed.
JD: That’s right!
SS: She was going to meet somebody in Exeter, got lost, missed her bus home or something, was wandering around looking for a cheap hostel and… But these slightly down-at-heel neighborhoods, they’re itinerant places.
JD: It’s not too far from Jimmy Savile, is it? From all this Jimmy Savile business.
SS: Whoa. Yeah.
JD: I mean, really. It wouldn’t surprise me — I’m sure he had it in him to kill people. By the sound of it. To hurt or kill the young women if they said they were going to go to the police…
SS: You do hear about him sort of threatening people. It does put a new spin — it makes Britain [laughs] a bit like a David Peace novel.
JD: That is totally David Peace, isn’t it! It’s totally David Peace. Because you read David Peace and you think, “Aw, that’s not, there would never be — there’s not that kind of conspiracy with the police.“ David Peace could have done something about a TV star who was a child molester and people would have not believed it. They would have said, “Oh, you’ve gone a bit too far this time.” But actually people haven’t gone far enough yet. It does put a bit of a pall over childhood.
SS: I mean, I was always grossed out by him. [Laughs]
JD: It’s funny, it’s the adults who were taken in by him. On the whole. Children — well myself, I never really felt any warmth toward him. There’s a terrible coldness about him, which I think children picked up on. I mean obviously he managed to molest loads of them, but I think children have a pretty good sense about these things.
SS: Yeah. It’s odd, part of me always wanted to be more into him, because I’d heard these rumors that he was part of a sort of secret wiring of popular culture, and I wanted to know more about his links with Northern Soul music and all of this — but [sighs] I could never get into him.
JD: You just know he’s one of those DJs in the Seventies who didn’t even like music. They had no interest in music. There’s an amazing Top of the Pops with Tony Blackburn and he gets the name T Rex wrong and he gets the name of the song wrong. And you just think, He doesn’t even give a shit he’s got the name wrong. He’s not interested in these bands, they’re just getting in the way of him talking to the camera.
SS: I remember one of my first experiences of listening to a Top 40 rundown on a Sunday — I think it was Tony Blackburn in 1981 — and “Planet Earth" by Duran Duran had gone in at #38, and he says, “In at #38 is Duran Duran!“ and I thought, The media is wrong! The BBC is fallible! How could you not know that?
JD: Both of those guys were using music, really, as a means to an end — and now we know what the end was, unfortunately.
SS: There was a really interesting article in the London Review of Books by Andrew O’Hagan about all of this, and he said, more or less — how can you retrospectively get back to the assumptions of an age? In terms of entertainment, titillation, women’s roles in culture… And there is, now, this maniacal posthistorical scapegoating, which—
JD: You just have to look at British television of that era, now, after all this, and you just think, God, it was all a bit… nasty, wasn’t it? I mean, my whole theory is the entire music industry is based on exploitation. It’s based on exploitation of child artists and young people as musicians, you know, making them sign terrible contracts. As well as exploiting the fans to get as much money as possible out of them. Sexual exploitation isn’t too much of a jump from those commercial exploitations, career exploitations. It’s all part of the same package, almost. Obviously it’s a much more serious thing, but… Yeah, I know what you mean. Looking at the symptoms through that prism.
SS: Are you interested in pop music now? Does it do the same things for you?
JD: I don’t listen to it. I hear it occasionally, but to be into it now at my age, I think there’d be something slightly wrong about that. I mean, I know when I like a song, and I know when I think a song’s really good. I think I have an ear, but I suppose we all do — we all have brilliant taste and we’re amazing. But I think the problem is that you get to a certain age and you see things coming back to you, literally, it’s just like something you saw twenty years ago. The cyclical nature of it means that you’re recognizing too many other things in it, which makes it actually quite difficult to take it at its face value. You have to be young, because you don’t know about this band or that band who are being blatantly ripped off or covered. That’s why it’s good for ten-year-olds, who don’t know about the Seventies or Eighties…
SS: I know so much about 1981 these days. Or 1969. Globally, let alone locally. All the tape labels, all the flexi discs, all the demos. I would never have known any of that stuff at the time.
JD: Really? Retrospectively—
SS: Yeah! [Smiles] And I don’t feel completed. Actually, I wish I didn’t know.
JD: Is that all research for writing?
SS: No, no, you know — people just put up… stuff. Reissues, lost… You know, just some little kid in Dakota who’s ludicrously obsessed with unreleased Scottish art pop, ’78–’79, brings out a three-CD set. [Laughs] And almost nobody in Glasgow in that period would ever have known.
JD: You must be on some networks that I’m not aware of, then.
SS: I can put you on them! [Laughs] It’s a bit of a hole…
JD: I’m a bit scared to get involved in that kind of a thing. Like I’ve been scared to get involved in too many blogs. Or football. Because I just might enjoy it too much.
SS: Well, you need the yearning. What I really like about “the old days” is boredom. [Laughs]
JD: Well, boredom is the most important thing, isn’t it. It’s difficult to be bored now, I think. That is terrible. Because there’s always something you can do, always some kind of stimulation.
SS: Well, it’s a different kind of boredom — you’re doing stuff —
JD: It’s ennui.
SS: — you’re interacting. But it’s almost more depression than boredom.
JD: Yeah. I think it’s worse. Staring at a screen and so on. But genuine boredom… bloody hell, I remember boredom. It’s amazing! Sunday afternoon, on a wet Sunday afternoon, that’s when you sort of took to your bedroom and got your books out or something.
SS: I remember the excitement of seeing CEEFAX appear. I would always pay attention to BBC 2 for hours on end, and CEEFAX just always seemed like Las Vegas, because of the colors.
JD: The pixelation of it, too!
SS: Yeah. And I remember, like, school holidays in the summers — six weeks! What are you going to do for six weeks?
JD: It’s fucking terrible, isn’t it. For me, it was just — you were home every day for six weeks. You might go to Bournemouth for a week to see your granny. But yeah, it’s different now. There’s more stimulation. Obviously, there’s much more happening.
SS: It’s hard to talk about some of this stuff without sounding like nostalgic old gits.
JD: Yeah. I’ve done a few interviews recently, and it’s just — I think the whole Jimmy Savile thing has made everyone just reexamine their childhoods and their youth. And you think it was all a big sham, the whole thing. Just not real. Or something. It’s kind of amazing; I think there’s a whole angst-ridden generation in Britain now because of all this. I mean I’m totally obsessed with these stories. I want to know what was really going on at Top of the Pops Studio.
SS: One of the things that’s depressing about it is that I never wanted to be one of those leftists who disapproved of popular culture. So, that tension that you get in Hoggart, all of those late Fifties guys, railing against milk bars [laughs].
JD: Yes, indubitably.
SS: I wanted to be George Melly. I wanted to engage with that stuff. I never wanted to be Peter Watkins, who just saw it all as a big conspiracy. And Privilege was all about that: “A pox on all this brainwash.”
JD: Yes. They go pretty far, don’t they? I mean, Peter Watkins is a genius. But you attack popular culture at your peril. You should take it seriously, but you shouldn’t see it as the end of the world in the way they did. Because it’s constantly changing. So what you think it is one day, the next week it’s something totally different.
SS: Well, one thing I was going to ask you — it’s a really crude question, but they wanted me to ask it [laughs] — does your work make money now?
JD: It can do, potentially… if people buy it. I mean, everything has a price. But it’s really whether someone is interested in paying that price, that’s basic economics, isn’t it. But, yes. For example, that show you saw last night, those are prints, those editions have prices. But I’m not loved by collectors. I’m not one of these people collectors are just fighting each other to get.
SS: Even now?
JD: No. It’s a strange thing. There’s no real logic to the art market. It’s really irrational. So, I haven’t been picked up by any collectors or anything like that. But that’s fine. Because that’s not what I’m looking for, really. If I was, I’d be doing a different kind of work. Going around and having dinner with collectors every night. Complimenting them on their collection. That’s one way to earn money. But I’m not really interested in that. So I — yeah, I do occasionally make a small… I did something recently for Frieze, a poster — they sold an edition, like a stack of a thousand posters. The text was about David Cameron going to South Africa. He went on a paid trip to South Africa, the apartheid government paid for him to go there in 1989—
SS: I didn’t know that!
JD: —on a jolly to look at some mines and go on safari and go to the beach. And he accepted this invitation. It was when they were trying to lift the sanctions, and they wanted sympathetic right-wing voices. Just to see how great things actually were, that it wasn’t like you’d think from the news. So he went. And it was a text about that.
SS: So he was like the Queen of his day —
SS: — [laughs] busting the sanctions —
JD: Yeah, he played Sun City. [Laughter]
SS: Oh God, yeah. That’s brilliant. I suppose the modern equivalent is actually the Middle East, where you get Beyoncé and all these people going over. And Russia.
JD: I don’t know. There are similarities with those countries, those regimes, but it’s not quite as clear-cut as South Africa seemed to be in the Eighties. Though yes, playing for Colonel Gaddafi’s son for two million dollars…
SS: Some evil Renaissance patron that you do your dance for.
JD: Someone in Uzbekistan, some oil magnate or the president and his son, or a Chechnyan warlord or something. [Laughs]
SS: That would be a great band! Chechnyan Warlords.
JD: Yeah, Chechnyan Warlords. That could be a really heavy band, couldn’t it?
SS: I imagine them looking a little bit like Laibach, with the outfits, going onstage.
JD: But just playing really heavy guitar music. A lot of shouting.
SS: Are there pieces of yours that changed the dynamic of your practices?
JD: Well, there are certain things I did which were definitely big risks — where I had no idea what was going to be the outcome. When we were carting that car from Baghdad around the US, we had no idea what we were going to face — literally, whether we were going to get punched for being offensive or disrespectful to the American military. That makes you feel great. Sometimes making work can actually make you feel brave. Brave isn’t the right word, but…
SS: You must have such vivid memories of that trip.
JD: You’d randomly turn up in St. Louis or New Orleans or Memphis and you park a car that’s been towed by this big vehicle, and you just get out, and — here we are, we’d give out flyers to the public and see what happened. You had no idea who these people were. So you were just cold-reading people, but you’d give them to everyone that went by. No one was out of bounds — tramps or policemen or whatever. So you became… fearless makes it sound like we were total heroes, we weren’t that. But it gives you confidence. We got a lot less fearful as time went on. The first few days we were just terrified. We really didn’t know what we were doing, or what the reactions were going to be. If we were going to be physically attacked. But we weren’t, so…
SS: Did you feel you got a better handle on, as it were, the “Inland Empire” of America than you do by reading the papers back home?
JD: Yeah. People were actually very polite. Even if they didn’t agree with you, if their politics were absolutely not yours — and you’d find that out very quickly — they were actually very polite and curious. No one was really mean to us. The people who were annoyed with us were the anti-war lobby, because we presented the work in a very bland way and they wanted us to go into it as an activist project rather than an art project. There’s a big difference between the two, and we weren’t being activists. I mean, it looked like an activist project, but it wasn’t. We got a bit of grief from those people, but you can’t blame them — they’d spent three to five years getting grief from everyone in America for being anti-patriotic, just being totally vilified for their views, which were actually right in the end, obviously. So we felt we’d let them down a bit [laughs], which we probably had. But that’s okay.
SS: That’s suggesting that if it’s not draped in slogans—
JD: Exactly. If you do that, you’re alienating at least half the population; people just cross the road rather than come and see you. We wanted them to come and see us. We weren’t doing it to wind people up, necessarily, though that was one part of it. We weren’t there to start having massive arguments with them — I didn’t want a huge row, getting thumped and chased out of town! [Laughs]
SS: So where did that project come from?
JD: Well, you know the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square? The empty plinth that is used for contemporary art sculptures from time to time. I was asked to suggest an idea for it, and I suggested a car that had been destroyed in Baghdad. It would be on the plinth, this wreck of a vehicle — just debris, basically. And I didn’t get that commission. But I wasn’t surprised, really. Then I was asked to do something in New York, at the New Museum, and I had a variety of ideas and one was to do a sort of museum of the war in Iraq. Basically a museum of an ongoing, unresolved war, rather than a war that’s long over, like the Imperial War Museum. Then I had the idea of taking that car and touring it around America, basically just turning up in places. So it was product of a long thought process and a long obsession, really, with the Iraq conflict.
SS: Have you done any projects in the Middle East?
JD: No, I’ve never been to — well, I have been to the Middle East, but I’ve never done projects there. I’ve been to Jordan. It was during the height of the war in Iraq, so that was quite weird. My brother-in-law was training the Iraqi police force in Jordan. It was too dangerous to train them in Iraq. So I went to a training college where they had very basic training for six weeks, and then they got on coaches and drove across the desert into Iraq. And so many of them would just get killed on the way back home. Their coaches would be ambushed or they’d get back and they’d be at home for two weeks and then they’d be blown up or shot. It was probably the most dangerous job in the world at that point, to be a policeman in Iraq. Terrifying job. But I went to see a training school there, and it was hundreds and hundreds of men. It was amazing, actually. I had quite long hair. [Laughs] My hair wasn’t quite this length — actually maybe about this length — and I was just standing there, and I’ve never been stared at so much by men. All at the same time. I don’t know if they could tell if I was a man — they couldn’t work it out. There’s no women around for like a fifty miles radius! [Laughs] Apart from the woman who ran the police college who was a Jewish American woman, which apparently went down incredibly badly. So that was strange. I tried to talk to some of the guys, but I couldn’t — I didn’t know the language and they didn’t really know English. Which is quite a pity, because I would have loved to talk with them about what they were thinking, what they thought was going to happen to them, what was going on in their country. It was 2004, so it was a really bad time. There was no tourism in Jordan. It was just empty, because of the threat of attacks.
SS: Have you thought about doing a project over there? Because I can imagine somebody trying to translate the structural idea of The Battle of Orgreave into a Middle Eastern context.
JD: I think that story is timeless, in a way. And that’s probably what’s given it longevity, because it’s such a classic, almost Shakespearian, mythical story about the masses against the establishment, being beaten by the establishment. And that can translate to any situation you want, almost, in history. So it’s a historical work, in a way. Which is why I was interested in that battle, because it looked like a historical battle when it happened for real, when I watched it on TV. It definitely strikes a chord, and people usually translate their own experiences of some dispute or revolution onto that film.
SS: There’s a great account by Ian Jack who used to edit Granta, of Wapping — the battle of Wapping — about how Nigella Lawson who was very young, just come out of Oxford, and working at the Times because of a family connection —
JD: Of course.
SS: And everybody is laying into each other, yelling, and she was just like, “Oh, I say! Is that a walnut, sort of, casket there? It smells lovely. I’ve got some olive oil, shall I rub it on there,“ and all of the men are temporarily disarmed by this incredibly posh but quite attractive woman journalist. I remember reading this years ago and thinking, Well, I don’t know who she is. And then, now. [Laughs]. Is there a standard process? Or a typical journey? For projects? That you’re —
JD: You want to know what the magic is, don’t you?
JD: Not really. You just become interested in something, and then you think about it a bit. You meet someone… Basically, the best research is meeting someone who knows a lot about something, or is that thing. That’s the research, through people rather than through books. So, for example, the bats thing. I never really read any books about bats, but I like them, and I like to be around people that know about them. So you accumulate things, but there isn’t a set way. I’m not methodical. I mean, some people would spend months reading everything about a subject, researching… I sort of did that with the miners’ strike, because I felt I had to know a lot about it if I was going to talk to miners. To show them that I was serious and that I had some knowledge — that I wasn’t a total idiot from a TV production company who would just turn up and be slightly offensive, not knowing anything. So I had to know things. But sometimes I just hope that my enthusiasm is more clear — my interest and enthusiasm is more what gets me through some things.
SS: This seems about as good a point as any to ask you — I apologize for this question — when you first came across the term relational aesthetics? What does it mean to you?
JD: [Laughs] I think probably a student told me. Maybe used it against me? Or with me? I probably just heard about it. I’m aware of it. I don’t necessarily understand the term. I don’t really read theory. I don’t read books about art and contemporary art. I mean, I really, really don’t.
JD: I read books about other things, I always have. I don’t want to be too conscious of other things going on around me, really, or be influenced by something that someone’s written about contemporary art. That doesn’t seem like a particularly good way of doing things to me. You become too self-conscious, trying to second-guess the writer or school of thought.
SS: When it was explained to you by that student, did you sort of nod your head furiously and go, “A-ha!”
JD: No, you just nod your head. Because I think students take this kind of thing very seriously. It doesn’t really mean anything to me, but it’s taught. It’s something that’s taught as an idea, but it’s not necessarily. I was never part of that group, which is really about fifteen people. Like any group. The Young British Artists is fifteen people, relational aesthetics is like twelve, fifteen people. The size of a group show, basically. And I was never part of that group, though I know everyone in it.
SS: What is it that keeps you constantly on the substitutes’ bench of all those groups?
JD: I’m too simpleminded, basically. It’s too obvious. I don’t really hide anywhere in my work, it’s all on the surface.
SS: [Laughs] Well, you’ve not done too terribly for yourself.
JD: I’m the establishment now, basically. That seemed to have happened very quickly. From being virtually an outsider to being part of the establishment. Which is mainly from winning the Turner Prize.
SS: What does it mean, these days, to be the establishment? How does that change things?
JD: In Britain, in London, it just means that you’re in the media more, your name gets used a lot, you’re seen as a person whose opinion is worth asking about. For example, at the moment, this Henry Moore sculpture is about to be sold by the Tower Hamlets Council. It was a gift to the borough in the early Fifties, from Henry Moore, and now the Council wants to sell it. So you’ll be asked about that. You’ll be asked about the government’s plans to teach art in school. You just become one of these characters who sounds like a sound bite. It can feel like it’s work, but it’s not work, really, when you get asked to do these things. You get asked to do a lot of talks, speeches, keynote addresses. After you win a prize, then you become a judge for the prize, and then the final step is to introduce the prize and give a speech. There must be a shortage of people in the art world who are willing to do it because I seem to get asked to quite a lot.
SS: Is it just getting older? I feel like what you’re describing is someone like Jarvis Cocker, actually. His music is toxic, poisonous — like brilliantly, sexily, smartly full of righteous anger — and then suddenly he just became quite cuddly.
JD: Definitely you become… I don’t know what the word is. You become absorbed into something. People aren’t reading the lyrics, you know; that’s the problem. Kids especially. Of his songs. So he’s just seen as this safe character. Have you met Jarvis?
SS: No, no. Never met him.
JD: He’s more or less as you’d expect. He really is.
SS: But he always seems to stay true to the person he was as a young man. He remembers the resentments. He remembers the yearning.
JD: Yeah, he’s the same age as me. He probably had a similar upbringing. He’s probably, like me, still angry at what happened in the mid-Eighties, can’t get over it. Doesn’t want to get over it.
SS: Is hate still important? Until the show last night, I hadn’t seen that “Come, friendly bombs" line used for ages.
JD: I mean, not everyone gets the reference. Especially in America. But even in Britain, people don’t get the reference. “Come, friendly bombs, and fall over Eton": it was actually a banner I wanted to make for the student protests but never got around to making. Or just a big placard. I thought that’d be really great. Strangely, it would have been banners or placards that could get you arrested now as an incitement. There is that element to it, which is weird, because the phrase is taken from John Betjeman, who is now seen as a cuddly poet, like Jarvis Cocker or whatever. But in 1938, on the brink of World War II, he writes this poem hoping the town of Slough in Britain would be bombed by… whomever.
SS: He could be arrested like Lord Haw-Haw, as a traitor.
JD: Yes, exactly! It’s an amazing conceit. If you think what I’ve said is terrible and outrageous, it’s fifty times less outrageous than what John Betjeman was saying in 1938. Because it was actually going to happen — war — within a year. So you can forget how radical that poem was.
SS: I feel like we’re all trapped these days in a world of “like.“ The Facebook world. You go past shops that say, “Like us, like us.” But hate! Hate can be really important.
JD: There should be a “hate" button, actually. You’re right, it’d be really great to have a “hate" button.
SS: Because I know you’re a fan of Earl Brutus —
SS: — I was thinking about how important grudges and resentment, and being funny and sexy and —
JD: Bearing very long-term grudges. I didn’t know you were an Earl Brutus fan.
SS: I never saw them live. That’s one of the big regrets in my life.
JD: They’re amazing. I didn’t see the Sex Pistols, but I did see that band, and it was probably as good as the Sex Pistols would have been. So, ah, amazing. Fights on stage between band members and the audience, just explosions — there were pyrotechnics that were far too powerful for the little bars they played. They would blind you; it was like thunderclaps. The music was this brilliant mix of glam rock and punk. They saw every reference very clearly, but somehow it was never pastiche. It was their own thing. It was just amazing.
SS: Do you see the hate — does that hate persist in your work, more generally?
JD: I wouldn’t call it hate, necessarily. “Come, friendly bombs" is meant to be funny, actually.
SS: Yeah, yeah. It’s nice to laugh. [Laughs]
JD: It was meant to be funny, and more about John Betjeman and about Eton and about his radicalism and the offensiveness of that poem that he wrote.
SS: Would you be offended or disappointed if people saw you as a kind of cuddly celebrator of English—
JD: Well, I think I am a celebrator. But they’re obviously looking at certain things and not others. The show at the Hayward might make people think that I was that. But there’re ways of getting your opinion across without getting angry. Being angry all the time is actually quite tiring, and not necessarily — and again, people might not listen to you if you’re shouting, so you’ve got to be clever about how you present your self, or ideas. That’s activism more than art.
SS: Derek Jarman used to manage to get venom and joy at the same time.
JD: Yes, you could see that in his work. He was an activist. But Derek Jarman was very clever and had a beauty, as well. And a sense of righteousness. He was quite a righteous person… Basically, people have different ways of doing it. There’s no set way. Sometimes you can be criticized for not being political enough, or being too political, and that’s just people reading what they would like to see, rather than what you’re going to do or what I’m going to do. Maybe they expect something that would never happen.
SS: The questions that Negar wanted me to ask were all to do with things like national pavilions…
JD: Oh yeah, of course!
SS: How is all of that? I feel a proper interviewer would ask.
JD: Where to start? It doesn’t bother me at all. I think it’s because I’ve been in so many biennales and so many other big exhibitions, but to represent a country — whatever that means — doesn’t make me nervous. It doesn’t make me anxious about representing Britain. Because you can’t represent Britain, there’s no way you could do it. And it’s not a problem for me personally to get worked up about. That’s a really grand answer, but I think it’s… fine. It’s just how it’s done, and I don’t feel that I’m responsible to anybody. I’ll put on a good show, but I don’t feel I have to represent Britain, or British culture, or the British way of life. It’s not like that. It’s not like I’m at the UN or something, presenting British interests. I’m representing my own interests.
SS: Does anybody talk to you about — the work has to be, at some level, about nation?
SS: So you really have carte blanche?
JD: Absolutely. If I went and put fifteen hundred tons of sand in there, they’d let me. Or I’m going to paint the whole ceiling or take off the roof — absolutely not a problem. I think some nations might be under pressure because of the government relationship to those pavilions, but I have no problems whatsoever. No one’s given me any hassle about anything. I think they know better than to do that, because who would want to take up that poisoned chalice and try to represent Britain in six rooms? You know I’m going to have to go in ten minutes. I don’t think we’ve got enough… You’re going to get in trouble with Negar for not sticking to the serious stuff.
SS: Yeah. It might be okay. Bidoun is kind of quite interesting, actually. The people who work there. I seem to find them in every country.
JD: Yes. Quite well educated, I imagine.
SS: Very well educated. Very smart, very interlinked, very tech-savvy—
SS: Very good-looking. Good people. I came across an issue — the front story was about heavy metal hair in Iran, and I just thought, Wow, that’s obviously a magazine that I would be drawn to.
JD: These people are the elites, really, aren’t they? The people who run these magazines. They went to the best schools, super cool, super good-looking. We are just like straggling behind them, but we still have something to offer.
SS: Well, they’ve got a kind of aristocratic largess.
SS: The lefty side of me sort of feels that — I mean, I have friends who hate them. They say, “You have to be much more embedded in society, you have to speak for the people, and dadada.“ And you think, Give me Bidoun over that.
JD: Yeah. I mean, there’s worthiness, isn’t it, as well.
SS: And it’s about magazines as aspirations. I’m a big magazine fan — really into zines as a kid. Bidoun creates a different nation of the imagination — the juxtapositions of strange things that are in there. And they become inspirational or speculative, which all good magazines should be, not just about catering to—
JD: They definitely have their own world they create.
SS: She said, “Ask him about his Iranian girlfriend!”
JD: There’s no way I’ll get to talk about my Iranian girlfriend.
JD: She’s not even Iranian. She’s Cypriot. She’s not Iranian in the way — Negar’s probably more Iranian. But that’s not the right way to put it…
SS: They’re good people. They’re terrible at promotion. They’re terrible at advertising their stuff.
SS: Everybody who comes across it usually thinks it’s pretty good, but the sales… Well, I don’t know. I don’t understand the economics of the art world.
JD: I don’t know how these things survive now, actually. Magazines. It’s not clear, is it?
SS: It’s a loss leader for something, but I’m not sure what.
JD: Some CIA… thing.
SS: Yeah, well there’s a good history of interesting things being supported by the CIA, actually (see Bidoun #26).
JD: Reader’s Digest was one, wasn’t it?
SS: No. Reader’s Digest?!
JD: I think that was partially funded by the CIA. Do you not know that?
SS: Nooo! That was about the only publication that for some reason my parents had in the home.
JD: You’ve been brainwashed!