Jeremy Deller

13 October 2006 - 25 November 2006
Opening Reception 13 October 2006 8pm

Jeremy Deller is an anthropologist of the ordinary, a field recorder of the overlooked, and a folklorist of the popular. This first retrospective of the Turner Prize winning British artist in North America that draws together all the dimensions of Deller’s varied work. Split between two sites, the exhibition runs from October 4 — December 3 at the Art Gallery of York University and October 13 — November 25 at Mercer Union.

Mercer Union will exhibit a suite of three recent works made by Deller during residencies in the USA – This is Us, After the Goldrush and the Turner Prize winning film Memory Bucket.

The AGYU will show Deller’s early music- and DIY-oriented works, including Acid Brass, and the complete archive of The Battle of Orgreave (An Injury to One is an Injury to All), a re-enactment of the 1984 clash between British miners and police (also filmed by Mike Figgis) now in the collection of the Tate. Deller has also created a free take-away poster for AGYU audiences. For more information (including maps, directions and information on the free bus trip on the night of the opening) please visit

The Mercer Union opening is also an Artist Multiple launch, GOD LESS AMERICA, a Jeremy Deller bumper sticker published by Mercer Union will be available at a 50% discount for one night only.

“I wanted to collect some kind of data, there was so much around” – Harry Smith1

Harry Everett Smith (1923–1991) and Alan Lomax (1915–2002) are two of the twentieth century’s foremost folk musicologists, and their life’s work is a testament to the things a collection can achieve. More so than most of his contemporaries in the art world, their work provides a fitting lens through which to view the career of British artist Jeremy Deller. His interest in personal, event-specific and localized histories is comparable in spirit to those of Smith and Lomax, coupled with their shared approach to archivism.

Harry Smith, an eccentric shaggy bohemian, is best known for compiling the enormously influential Anthology of American Folk Music, a collection of recordings of American folk and country music from the late 1920s to the early thirties2. Released in 1952 on Folkways Records, the collection, featuring such legendary acts as The Carter Family, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Clarence Ashley, is generally considered to be the bible of folk music. It is impossible to overstate its impact on the American folk-music community.

Smith’s collections were not limited to the scratchy 78’s that made up the bulk of the Anthology, he also collected books, Native American artifacts, Seminole textiles, Ukrainian Easter eggs and spoons shaped like ducks. Biographies delight in listing that his notorious paper airplane collection, reportedly the largest in the world, is now housed at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. Strangely, there is no mention of it on their fairly comprehensive website and no one I could reach there knew anything about it. It is likely that Smith donated the collection; they accepted it and then discreetly discarded it.

Alan Lomax was born in Austin, Texas to noted folklorist John A. Lomax (the nation’s preeminent collector of cowboy songs) and began his career assisting his father recording songs sung by prisoners. In the forties the pair criss-crossed the nation in a beat-up pick-up truck collecting songs that they would later develop into the Library of Congress’ Archive of American Folk Song as a major national resource. The pair recorded thousands of songs, stories and oral histories in their original domestic settings. These field recordings are held in equal regard to Smith’s Anthology, a treasure trove of American and international culture.

Lomax was instrumental to the careers of Woody Guthrie, Muddy Waters, Lead Belly (who he helped obtain release from prison), Josh White, Burl Ives and Pete Seeger, among others. He was among the first to recognize the vital factor of social protest in folk songs, and brought this into the arena of contemporary politics, including many civil rights campaigns. Lomax was guided by a principle he called “cultural equity,” the need for equal representation of all cultures in the nation’s media and classrooms, and in the importance of returning traditions to their home sources and artists, a strategy he called “cultural feedback.” He worked tirelessly to illustrate that the fibers of American art and culture wove the far-flung arms of society into some sort of unified pattern.

Deller shares many traits and tendencies with these legendary figures as celebrated instigators, impresarios, anthropologists, folk art collector/curators, educators, nomads, filmmakers*, producers, etc. He shares with them a concern for recording the intangible cultural heritage that exists in the smallest cracks of society. He shares their love of music and belief that it both reflects its surroundings and can alter them.

When accepting an award towards the end of his life Harry Smith said “I’m glad to say my dreams came true. I saw America changed by music.” Deller, too draws parallels between social issues and music, most overtly in History of the World and Acid Brass (both on currently on display at the Art Gallery of York University), but the idea that music and culture are inseparable can be traced back to his earliest works and continues throughout his practice.

When invited in 2003 to take up residency at Bard College and the Centre for Curatorial Studies Deller proposed a collection of Lomax-like field recordings of music indigenous to Red Hook, New York – church choirs, cheerleaders, a garage rock band, a family Celtic pipe band, church bells, birds of prey and a bluegrass group.

Unlike a studio recording, which is designed to harness and polish a song, field recordings allow the performer to feel at home and relaxed, unthreatened. The approach often coaxes a more natural or honest performance from the players. Tom Waits has remarked that songs don’t want to be recorded, and attempting to do so is like “trying to trap birds.”2 To do it correctly one must take the utmost of care. He notes that studios are frequently cold, sterile places where he wouldn’t want to take his friends, so why his songs?3 A field recording removes the problematic foreign environment, but also requires an inherent mutual trust and respect between the recorded and the recorder.

Deller’s upstate New York field recordings took place in basements and basketball courts, churches and nursing homes. The resulting compilation CD, This is Us, is an audio portrait of the town, containing compositions that might have otherwise died with their authors. The liner notes give voice to the participants…The disk was made available in local convenience stores, gas stations, restaurants and churches. A fully catered CD launch party was held at a local pub and made open to the public, providing an opportunity for some of the contributors to collaborate on a new performance.

A field recording is also at the centre of Deller’s first work created in the United States. After the Goldrush, its title taken from the classic 1970 Neil Young album, began as a comparison between the then-recent dot-com-bust and the 1849 Gold Rush, but quickly evolved into a larger portrait of an area, made in collaboration with local residents.

Upon accepting a residency at CCAC Wattis Institute in San Francisco Deller promptly spent his honorarium on a vehicle – a twenty-year-old jeep with a bullet hole on the driver’s side – to travel the Golden State. He then bought five acres of desert property near Death Valley where he made a live recording of William Elliot Whitmore in the 95° Fahrenheit heat. The $2000 land purchase opens the CD that accompanies the book; the auctioneers yodel effortlessly segueing into Whitmore’s banjo compositions.

The book itself is a 96-page collection of photographs, maps, drawings, interviews and history. It is part travel guide, part treasure-hunt, delving into more than a hundred years of Californian history. It is a guidebook that emphasizes people over places in the most populated state of the USA. It is a record of the American dream and the people who wake from it.

It also contains documentation of a quintessential Deller intervention, perhaps my favorite. It is a small public plaque commemorating a neighbourhood stop sign that owes its existence to lobbying on the part of the Black Panther Party. These types of simple community services get lost in the larger history of the movement; especially the mainstream view of the Panthers as simply armed radicals, or in J. Edgar Hoover words “the greatest threat to the internal security of the country”. The group was responsible for operating medical clinics, providing meals for school children and offering assistance to the homeless. In addition to being pointed political gesture, Deller’s intervention reminds us that every corner has some story to tell. 5

Memory Bucket was produced during a two-month long residency at ArtPace in San Antonio, and focuses on two nearby politically loaded locations – Waco and Crawford, Texas. Prior to the nineties the city of Waco was best known as the birthplace of Big Red cream soda and as home to one of the deadliest tornados in US history. In April of 1993, responding to allegations of child abuse, polygamy and the stockpiling of weapons, the FBI forced a standoff at the Branch Davidians compound that would last almost two months and kill 76 people, including 4 agents, 21 children and religious leader David Koresh. The Clinton administration has been criticized for the excessive and reckless use of force, procedural irregularities and the unsubstantiated information that led to the charges, but no one responsible has ever been held accountable. Twenty-five miles west of Waco is Crawford, a fiercely patriotic town with less than a thousand residents, one of them being the President of the United States.6

The film includes testimonies from survivors of the siege, an interview with the manager of the President’s local coffee shop, scenes from anti-war demonstrations, Willie Nelson, archival footage and concludes with a lingering shot of three million bats emerging from a cave and flying off into the sunset.

Since Memory Bucket, Deller has focused on an ongoing collaborative project with Alan Kane – the Folk-Art Archive. The result of nearly ten years of collecting, the work is the most forthright example of his approach but his entire practice could be considered a collection of folk art: the artworks and poetry of the Manic Street Preachers fans in The Uses of Literacy; Acid Brass as the conflation of two forms of instrumental protest song, the music of the retired locals in We Are The Mods, and the list goes on. Even the early poster projects (announcing non-existent exhibitions by musicians at prestigious galleries: Keith Moon: A Retrospective or Stephen Patrick Morrissey, A Life in Words) can be viewed in this context as the works challenge accepted notions of a compartmentalized culture.

Like that of Lomax and Smith, Deller’s work presents us with the overlooked and the undervalued activities that lay outside of recognized culture and politics. His emphasis on the small helps paint a more detailed larger, broader picture of the culture and history of a place, the living traditions told by those who are living them. While far from humourless, these actions are not ironic and he collects as a curator, not plunderer. He also offers a public platform to those who might otherwise not have one. Not as social service, but because, as Lomax noted in the introduction to the 1941 book Our Singing Country, “…these people have a lot to say and remember.”

Dave Dyment, 2006

1. Sing Out!, Volume 19, Number 1, 1969.

2. Harry Smith is now revered as an pioneering experimental filmmaker. He produced extravagant abstract animations, often painting directly onto the celluloid. IA comprehensive understanding his output as a filmmaker is difficult, as he would often re-cut his films and add different soundtracks (once the entire Meet The Beatles LP). Recently his films have been screened to live musical accompaniment by musicians and artists as varied as Philip Glass, Christian Marclay, DJ Spooky, and Calfione .

3. GQ Magazine, June 2002.

4. For this reason, many of his more recent releases have been recorded in shacks.

4. Deller has installed several other commemorative plaques for dead miners, Beatle manager Brian Epstein, a tribute to a cyclist knocked down near his home on Holloway Road, etc.

5. Critics note that Bush moved in just prior to his 2000 campaign and that the “ranch” is mostly a campaign tool that provides the President with some much-needed down-home appeal and the media with scenes of Bush riding his bicycle, playing with his dog and clearing Brush.

Download the exhibition brochure