“Uselessness” is a pretty good way to identify something as art. Hennessy Youngman said that as a joke – “I can’t possibly sit on all these chairs! ART. “– but it’s true; when in doubt, use value is the division between art and design, video and documentary. Bringing that division into question can create some incredible artworks.
Jeremy Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave is a good example. It is, at root, a relational aesthetics piece – in fact, it’s the one I use when people ask me why they should care about relational aesthetics. Mike Figgis’s documentary recording of the event, though, makes a phenomenal piece of video art on its own. Artangel, who commissioned the work, have a good description on their website:
In 1984 the National Union of Mineworkers went on strike. The dispute lasted for over a year and was the most bitterly fought since the general strike of 1926, marking a turning point in the struggle between the government and the trade union movement.
On 18 June of that year, the Orgreave coking plant was the site of one of the strike's most violent confrontations. It began in a field near the plant and culminated in a cavalry charge through the village of Orgreave.
Jeremy Deller's The Battle of Orgreave, staged seventeen years later, was a spectacular re-enactment of what happened on that day. It was orchestrated by Howard Giles, a historical re-enactment expert and the former director of English Heritage's event programme. More than 800 people participated in the re-enactment, many of them former miners, and a few former policemen, reliving the events from 1984 that they themselves took part in. Other participants were drawn from battle re-enactment societies across England.
It’s the participation of actual miners and policemen from 1984 that makes the piece so poignant; in his excellent writeup for Frieze, Alex Farquharson noted that “for many – participants and spectators alike – this Battle of Orgreave was more flashback than re-enactment.” At first, Farquharson tells us, “rumour had it that a small number of the real miners were applying too much gusto to their roles at rehearsals the previous day”. After the re-enactment, the tone softens: “'miners' hugged 'police' and both sides joined … for a few pints of Stones down the local Treeton Miners' Welfare.” We see, in Figgis’s video, the repair of a societal break take place in record time. It’s beautiful. And art made it possible.
A month ago, it might have been difficult to explain to an American the importance of these events. After the clearing of Zuccotti Park and the events at UC Davis, however, there’s a flash of recognition: when the miners of 1984 – or the actors playing them in 2001 – chant “We're miners united, we'll never be defeated”, it sounds no different from the Occupy chants of today. In Orgreave as at UC Davis, there was a sudden, painful breakdown of the trust between citizen and policeman: one YouTube commenter on the clip below shouts, “shithouse cunts who acted like the waffen ss ! as a young 14 year old at the time of the strike I lost ALL respect for them .. And I have’nt had it back scince!”
Right now, in America, it’s difficult to forsee this break resolving. We’re still too angry, and the threat of further police misconduct yet looms. We need time, of course, but the passage of time is too close to forgetting; something else is necessary, some gesture of goodwill, some humanization that might bring about the tougher process of forgiving. We need, at some point, a Jeremy Deller. We need, at some point, art. Because art is not useless.
Today’s YouTube is no fun at all.
Business/Pleasure is Will Brand's new daily column of the best of Video Art and YouTube crap. Most days have one business video and one pleasure video. Got a tip? E-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org.