Joy in People (Watching)

By Kelsey Halliday Johnson

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Valerie’s Snack Bar, 2009. Installation view.

"Goth@ica.upenn.edu." I remember having had to do a double take, but I read the contents of my e-mail correctly: “Please contact us at goth@ica.upenn.edu.” The Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia posted an opportunity in August: “Volunteers needed to relax on a couch. Read, study, lounge, doze… Dark attire appreciated.” 

Two months later, I found myself walking around the exterior of Valerie’s Snack Bar (2009), a life-size recreation of a Bury Market café in Lancashire, England, by British artist Jeremy Deller. This piece was part of the mid-career retrospective exhibition at the ICA (the artist’s first in the States) looking back at the Turner Prize-winning artist’s socially engaged and unexpected career. While one would ordinarily approach the mundane typology of the ICA’s architecture in a social and functional capacity, the building had been transformed into the realm of the sculptural as the installation sat awkwardly isolated in the expansive white space. 

A female voice from within Snack Bar asked if I would like some tea. The young woman behind the counter poured me a cup of hot water; the clink of the real metal spoon against the white teacup was satisfying and rich. This act was not merely a disposable simulacrum but a generous re-staging of an encounter within a place, complete with the right props. I sipped my tea and watched museum-goers wander in and out of the work on the first floor. Some of them watched me. I was, after all, sitting inside a work of art on display. It became increasingly clear to me that the primary medium of Deller’s artistic practice is, in fact, people-watching.

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Battle at Orgreave, 2001. Installation view.

Across the room, a “goth” was sleeping on a black leather couch next to her Spanish textbook and an unfinished knitting project. Above her, glossy black text on a massive, matte, black wall read the bumper sticker-esque slogan “I<3Melancholy.” She was a figurative subtext to a piece of text art, a demonstrative charade. At first, the bombastic black background seemed to be there to celebrate her indulgent slothfulness. However, her sleeping body mocked the grandiose melodrama of the wall, while the wall poked fun at the humbleness of her nap in return.

Jeremy Deller is not afraid to let art be uncomfortable and funny. 

The woman behind the counter within Valerie’s Snack Bar was a university student, and her work-study position at the ICA had turned into a weekend gig dawdling on her laptop and pouring tea at Valerie’s. “Some people don’t know that they can even sit down, so I offer it to them. Sometimes the DVD player brings them in,” she remarked. This act of invitation is crucial to all of Deller’s work in its latest translation of living within a formal institution. For this show, the roll of the museum guard has been entirely inverted throughout the ICA: they now tell art-goers how they should interact with the work instead of how far they should stay away. In the recreation of Deller’s first solo show “Open Bedroom” (1993/2012), an “open studio” originally staged within his own bedroom at his parents’ house, the museum guard came right up to us as we entered. “Ladies and gentlemen, you are welcome to go through all of the drawers and look through, the um…the, er…. Viewmasters over here,” she nervously announced (later confessing to us: “I almost couldn’t get it out”).

My roll as a museum-goer had also suddenly switched. Now I was a voyeuristic stranger, rooting through drawers in what could be a British teenager’s bedroom. Handmade posters and photographs papered the wall, centered around a large Union Jack adorned with sewn white letters that self-reflexively proclaimed “SUBURBIA”. A lone, angst-y t-shirt hanging within a dresser read: “They fuck you up / your mom and dad.” Further inspection of the drawers uncovered not clothes, but immensely personal fragments of gossip (Deller’s “Dead Sea Scrolls”), lenticular photographs, and private correspondence. One drawer stored formal invitations to various family homes, complete with addresses. Each cryptic card simply read, “At home any time.”

The small video screen on the counter in Valerie’s Snack Bar plays documentation of Procession (2009), Deller’s contribution to that year’s Manchester International Festival. This large community-based performance took the form of a humorously curated parade. Procession involved people from all over the Manchester area uncovering alternative local histories and reinterpreting folk arts and traditions. It included formal community groups, but also those types of social activities that Deller describes as “lazily referred to as antisocial when in reality they are the exact opposite.” Even when people opt out of the mainstream, Deller celebrates and scrutinizes them for opting in to a different kind of establishment, culture, and social structure.  

In the video, a group of people saunter through the parade behind a beautiful handmade banner that reads “Unrepentant Smokers.” At the sight of this, someone next to me in Valerie’s laughed. The banner was designed in collaboration with artist and smoking enthusiast David Hockney, and fabricated by a traditional British banner maker (and longtime Deller collaborator) Ed Hall. A group of banners from Procession, including this one, regally hang from the ceiling of the ICA above Valerie’s. With the love and care of their presentation, one would expect the banners to be for the local Rotary Club, not a loose self-identified group of cigarette enthusiasts. Deller does not smoke, but is interested in the changing laws that crack down on public smoking, ironically making smoking more public than ever by sending smokers to the curb. I’m suddenly reminded of the small habits we all have that become ritualistic performances to onlookers: the theater of the everyday. Before I left my seat at Valerie’s, a small group of us had the uncanny experience of watching on the tiny monitor as the very snack bar in which we were seated rode down a Manchester street as a parade float. 

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Acid Brass, 2005. Installation view.

“That lady woke up,” someone observed. We looked across the room at I<3Melancholy. The girl was now quietly knitting, her feet curled underneath her body.  I had been busy admiring a small red and yellow banner that simply read “Carnival Queens.” Suddenly, a song by Devo started blasting from another corner of the room near a table covered with music zines.  I didn’t know where my attention should lie, which was both a weakness and strength of the exhibit. But between all of these disparate experiences, I encountered an art where the performative, relational, and participatory all collided. 

Jeremy Deller asks us to examine the inherent performance in all human behavior. In his most radical pieces, he magnifies how we can choose to perform on behalf of a social structure or political system. At their most intimidating, those structures enforce and uphold conformity. On the other hand, some people choose more independent behaviors: performing through dance, music, counterculture (emo, goth, punk), or protest. But even in a quest to be original, there is a propensity for forming likeminded groups. And each niche subculture carries its own inherited and shared behaviors, spectacles, and dramas. 

This phenomenon is made most evident in the contrasting behaviors presented in one of Deller’s most successful pieces, a video titled Jerusalem (1993). In it, ceremonies from the extreme poles of society are mashed together: a military display, a rave, a formal British parade (visibly segregated into different social/racial/gendered groups), Morris dancers at a county fair, and an environmental protest. From the synchronized feet of the parade march to the spastic gyrations of an intoxicated rave-goer, each movement has its own beautiful rhythm. But in their conglomeration, each action seems equally absurd, hyper-performative, and self-important. It is this tension—between Deller’s intimate celebration of each action and his critical distance in observing the strangeness of the larger cultural picture—that makes his work so compelling. The video eventually falls into chaos when the environmental protest is broken up by the police. The two extremes of behavior become radically and violently at odds with one another within the one scene, rupturing the neat taxonomy of the film.

Directly behind Jerusalem, a Deller-narrated slideshow, Beyond the White Walls, asks us to consider works that he deems “often performative, ephemeral, or very slight, and can’t be bound in the gallery.” Throughout other rooms, Deller’s work has been bound to objects, but the slideshow successfully recontextualizes his practice as interventions in the real world that are more open, spontaneous, and democratic. Many of these smaller works maintain an energetic and playful quality that some of the installed pieces lack in their institutional permanence. For example, Deller highlights a 2008 project called Risk Assessment, in which random members of a beach community were asked perform classic slapstick comedy routines (tripping in public, setting up a deck-chair on a windy day, etc.). 

Deller notes that the times and locations of these small-scale performances were spontaneous and unscheduled; he hoped that each intervention wasn’t “acknowledged as even being art art, it was just something that would happen to them…. and think it was something funny or memorable, or maybe not think of it at all.” Here we are allowed to step into the complicated the relationship between Deller (who originally studied art history) and the kinds of social art and entertainment that came before him. He concludes: “A lot of performance art looks like slapstick, probably, anyway. Especially from the seventies. These performance art photographs, they always struck me as being like stills from Buster Keaton or Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy films.” The iconic image of Marina Abramovic’s Rest with Ulay (1980) interrupts the slide presentation, made suddenly strange when presented next to a still of Chaplin. 

The exhibition resolves its diverse themes, methodologies, and genres with the installation of Deller’s most political piece, The Battle Of Orgreave (2001). A timeline wraps around a small room documenting the violently crushed 1984 National Union of Mineworkers’ strike in the UK. Deller has left visitors a small reference library in one corner, noting the books are “from varying political standpoints. Feel free to browse.” A small video screen loops footage of police officers in riot training opposite another looped recording of historical war re-enactors. All of this culminates in video documentation of Deller’s largest orchestrated performance—a re-enactment of the clash between police and strikers in “a battle that occurred within living memory, alongside veterans from the campaign.” For it, Deller utilized 800 professional re-enactors and 200 of the original miners. Yet the exhibit does not feel like a foreign history lesson; instead, our polarized Occupy-era climate activates the piece in a new way. The modern role of labor has been debated throughout the Presidential election, and repercussions are still being felt from Scott Walker’s union debacle in Wisconsin. Much like the post-Industrial Northern England that Deller grew up with, America is now coming to terms with similar economic and social shifts. It is timely and crucial that this piece is finally being exhibited in America, when the themes are so resonant and the inherent conflicts so close to home. In the end, the work does not didactically spell out how we should judge this history, but like the rest of the exhibit, cues us to observe, learn, and participate. 

Thinking back on “Joy in People,” I am left with a quote Deller cites from Karl Marx: “History does nothing, it ‘possesses no immense wealth’, it ‘wages no battles’. It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; ‘history’ is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.”

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Exhibition view. 


"Jeremy Deller: Joy in People" will be on display at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania through December 30. 

Kelsey Halliday Johnson is an artist and writer based in Philadelphia. She is the Performance Coordinator at Vox Populi gallery.


All photos courtesy of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia. Photos by Aaron Igler/Greenhouse Media.

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    Feel free to check out my article about Jeremy Deller @ the ICA in Philadelphia over at
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