I met up with Jeremy Deller at the New Museum for a conversation about It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq, the artist’s tripartite project commissioned by the New Museum and Creative Time for the Three M project (a collaborative effort between the New Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles). Deller’s project transforms the gallery into a public forum of sorts: Flanked by photographic documentation, maps of the United States and Iraq, and a car destroyed by in a suicide bombing attack, a lounge area allows visitors to sit and engage in an open-ended exchange with a varied cast of characters — including former Marines, civilians, academics, and doctors – all of whom possess a deep knowledge of Iraq gleaned from their respective experiences. The exhibition closes on March 22nd; shortly thereafter, Deller will take his repertoire on the road for a three week, cross-country adventure through American cities and towns. A subsequent exhibition at the UCLA Hammer Museum will travel to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.
SH: You have worked United States quite a bit — I think it’s fair to say that you’re enamored with the US. Given the global political reaction to the Iraq war – not to mention Britain’s own particular position in the Iraq war — why not execute this project at home?
JD: Well, for two reasons – well, more than two. Firstly, I was asked to do a project here, and I had the opportunity to do it here. Secondly – and this might not reflect well on the U.S. – I think there’s a massive gap in information and sensible discussion about Iraq. Still. It’s patronizing thing to say, I know, but it might be needed slightly more here. It’s not that Britain is better — It’s not great, but I think Britain isn’t so oppositional in terms of discussion. It made more sense for it to be here. It is your war, after all. It isn’t a British war. We just tagged along.
SH: This isn’t the first time the United States has served as the locus of your work – in fact, you have been likened to [French political thinker and author of Democracy in America] Alexis d’Tocqueville. Your Turner Prize-winning work, “Memory Bucket,” was filmed in San Antonio, Texas while in residency at ArtPace, as was your project for San Francisco’s The CCA Wattis Institute, “After the Gold Rush.” What draws you to the road – or more specifically, the American road?
JD: I think it’s something to do when you’re in the US — you just want to get in the car. Here, we’re in a controlled environment, a liberal haven within a liberal town. This a very safe place, I would say. It’s true, isn’t it?
SH: Yes. Definitely.
JD: When we’re in Mississippi or Alabama, people’s reactions are going to be different. Discussions are going to be different, and I think that’s what interests me. As soon as we leave the gallery, we’re in the unknown. It’s an intervention.
SH: You’re making a few assumptions about different parts of the United States here, you know. Do you have specific expectations for the project?
JD: I am making assumptions. There’s nowhere more liberal than here – Berkeley or Oakland, perhaps. I’m making assumptions from traveling in any country, not just America. As soon as you leave the major cities, you’re also leaving behind a set of values – things change. People are different, I think. For good or worse that’s what we’re going to come up against. So that’s why I wanted to do it — I wanted to meet the people who wouldn’t necessarily want to go to the New Museum or go to an art museum, ever.
SH: Tell me a bit about your road crew. You’re taking an Iraqi civilian and American soldier, along with [Creative Time curator] Nato Thompson.
JD: We’re taking a former American soldier and an Iraqi artist who worked for the United States — worked for the Marines I think — as a translator; he’s not a soldier, just someone who worked with soldiers. I don’t think you’d find many Iraqis who recently arrived in the U.S. who haven’t worked with the American government. That’s how they get to come here – their lives are in danger if they stay. They get asylum.
SH: How did you locate each of those respective parties?
JD: The soldiers were quite difficult to find initially – the military is still a very closed world, strangely, considering how many of them there are. It’s quite difficult to get a hold of them — we didn’t get much response from official organizations, so we went through different ones.
SH: Iraqi Veterans Against the War?
JD: No. We didn’t want to make it a partisan project. We’re going to be accused of being biased, anyway. Weirdly enough, we’re going to be accused of being anti-war for a variety of reasons. A) We’re showing the effects of war, and B) We’re doing [the cross -country trip]. Why would you do it if you were pro-war? What would the point be, really? We’re open to criticism.
SH: It’s my turn to make a few assumptions: Elsewhere in the country, in smaller places, you’re going to meet people who have actually served in the war. Do you have any presuppositions about the way in which former soldiers might react to meeting an Iraqi off of the battlefield? I think it’s safe to say that everyone [in the United States] has an opinion about the war by now. Very few of us, however, have met Iraqi nationals who have worked with the US government in Iraq, let alone on US soil.
JD: One reason I did it for New York is because however much you read about it and watch TV – short of actually going to Iraq, which few of us are ever going to do – the next best thing is to meet a soldier or a civilian who has lived there, and who has left there recently. It’s very difficult to even hold or see something that’s actually come from Iraq. It’s very rare that you get that opportunity so here we have this huge car – it’s a massive, ugly, mangled wreck from Iraq. It’s almost like a piece of evidence has been dropped down in the museum.
SH: I’ve always admired your ability to engage with just about anyone; you’re a natural born cultural anthropologist. Given those proclivities, are you staging any encounters along the way? Can you disclose a few of the stops on your itinerary? Or is classified information?
JD: Philadelphia, Memphis, Houston – there’s a list. New Orleans. We have friendly people that are going to help us in the towns we visit. Then we’re going to places that are maybe slightly strange, or off the beaten track, like an Indian reservation, or a commune. We’ll be in a car park or in Wal-Mart — interesting places in the U.S.
SH: This particular project seems like it was conceived during the Bush era, which it was. Yet you are realizing it during Obama’s presidency. The temperature in the United States – and in the perception of the US abroad, for that matter — has changed rapidly in the past few months.
JD: That is fine — it will bring new things to the project, I think. The fact that the economy now has just – even just in the last two months, amazingly has just …
SH: Two months? In the last two weeks!
JD: Every day it seems to get worse.
SH: It does.
JD: Maybe this will start being about Iraq and end up being about the economy, though the economy and Iraq are probably more closely related than we think.
SH: Inextricably so.
JD: Because of what’s been going on in the past six years. But even just the whole question of Iraq – it’s more or less out of the public eye now. It’s still there, but the effects of it are going to last for generations, which is what that piece in the museum is about – the two maps are probably suggesting a future, a post-war situation that America will have to get itself into somehow to rebuild our country and in a sense it’s a suggestion of what could happen — of what maybe could happen in these cities, with the Iraqi twin cities.
SH: And the United States as well – we are only now beginning to see the aftermath of the war in the mental and physical health of people returning home. We saw that after Vietnam, too.
JD: Yes, exactly. Thousands of people have been badly affected. If you’re fourteen or fifteen now, half of your life has been lived with the war in the background – on the TV screens, and in arguments and so on. So it’s had a massive effect on individuals as well as the country – and that’s something I’m quite interested in.
SH: So, last question: What are we going to see in California and Chicago?
JD: When we’re in LA [at the Hammer Museum] you’ll see the car. It will be outside in the courtyard, and there will be someone sitting with it — an Iraqi refugee or an expert on Iraq. They’ll be invigilating there, just to talk to people. I’m just trying to change the mood of the gallery here. How things are done …
SH: will there be ephemera? Video? Anything?
JD: We don’t know yet.
SH: I think it would be dangerous for it to be clear at this point, given that you haven’t even left New York yet!
JD: It could be a disaster. But at least it’s a disaster and we’ve done it anyway. Some projects are clearly not successful, but I don’t see how this could not be successful in some way. We’ve done what we said we were going to do if we drive through the country – it’s been well planned but e have no idea what the reaction will be. I’ll be glad when it’s over, so that it’s something I can say that I’ve done. It’s like going through some sort of hardship — like going across the Antarctic. I can tell people “well, I did that.”
Jeremy Deller, “New Commissions: It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq,” 2008. Installation view, New Museum, New York. All images courtesy The New Museum.