Thursday, March 23, 2017

Jeremy Deller | The Battle of Orgreave

Jeremy Deller
The Battle of Orgreave (photo album)
London, UK: Artangel, 2001
4.75 x 7.125 x 0.25”
Edition of 150 signed and numbered copies

The last of the deep coal mining pits in the UK closed a little over a year ago, in December of 2015, with layoffs to 450 workers. In the first half of the 20th century there were over a thousand collieries in the country. By 1983, only 174 working pits remained.

In 1984, the Thatcher government announced plans to close an additional 20 collieries, with a loss of over 20,000 jobs. Many communities in Northern England, Scotland and Wales stood to lose their primary source of employment. This led to the largest strike in the country since the 1926 General Strike. At its peak, 142,000 mineworkers were involved.

On June 18th, police in riot gear clashed with picketing miners outside of a coking plant in the South Yorkshire village of Orgreave. Writing last year in the Guardian newspaper, historian Tristram Hunt described the confrontation as "almost medieval in its choreography... at various stages a siege, a battle, a chase, a rout and, finally, a brutal example of legalized state violence."

Accounts vary, but between six and nine thousand officers were deployed to respond to eight thousand picketers. Between forty and sixty of the officers were on horseback, and several thousand were in full riot gear. They were assisted by dozens of attack dogs. The mounted police charged against the picketing miners, striking them with batons and seriously injuring over a hundred participants.

Harry Paterson writes in Look Back in Anger; the Miners’ Strike in Nottingham (Five Leaves, 2014) that the picketers were "mercilessly battered by police officers in full riot-gear, flailing away indiscriminately with truncheons, while mounted officers charged fleeing bands of men, desperate to escape. On the miners’ side, barricades were erected and bricks and stones were hurled into the mêlée. A car from a nearby scrap-yard was dragged into the middle of the road and set alight and police pursued the miners into the nearby village, through gardens and houses, hammering down all they caught."

Television footage was edited to make it appear that the miners had instigated the police by throwing rocks, causing them to retaliate in self-defense. Not until 1991 did the British Broadcasting Corporation offer an apology for misleading the public about the event, by claiming that the footage had been “inadvertently reversed” and that the stone-throwing was actually a result of police aggression.

Paterson argues that that there is little doubt that the police action was "pre-planned, deliberate and sanctioned at the highest level of the South Yorkshire force." Barrister Michael Mansfield agrees: "They wanted to teach the miners a lesson – a big lesson, such that they wouldn't come out in force again."

Right-wing political activist and Margaret Thatcher’s favourite fixer David Hart confirmed as much in 1993: “It was a set-up by us on a battle ground of our choosing.  The fact is that it was a set-up and it worked brilliantly.”

Calls for public inquiries into the handling of the police action have been routinely rejected, as recently as last year. Former editor of the conservative magazine the Spectator, Charles Moore celebrated the recent rejection as a victory, suggesting that any inquiry would be a "travesty", and a sure indication that we "would have entered the world according to [left-wing filmmaker] Ken Loach."

On June 17th, 2001, the battle that has been called "one of the most violent clashes in British industrial history" became the subject of a work by artist Jeremy Deller. Working with the events company EventPlan Ltd and a cast of almost a thousand, he staged a re-enactment of the action. Whereas most historical re-enactments favour deep history, such as the Civil War, or Medieval battles for cosplay enthusiasts, The Battle of Orgreave re-enacts something from living memory, only seventeen years prior.

Alongside over five hundred seasoned re-enactors, approximately 280 local residents took part in the performance, including many picketers and police officers who were involved in the original encounter. Deller reportedly arranged to have the officers portraying the miners and vice-versa.

The event became the subject of a Channel 4 documentary by Hollywood filmmaker Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas, Timecode, etc). It is available on DVD from Cornerhouse publications here, and can be viewed on Youtube, here.

The above edition, valued at approximately £2500, consists of 19 chromogenic prints on Fujicolour Professional paper, housed in a plastic photo album and cardboard box with a rubber-stamped title. It periodically appears at Paddle8 charitable auctions.

"In 1998 I saw an advert for an open commission for Artangel. For years I had had this idea to re-enact this confrontation that I had witnessed as a young person on TV, of striking miners being chased up a hill and pursued through a village. It has since become an iconic image of the 1984 strike – having the quality of a war scene rather than a labour dispute. I received the commission, which I couldn't believe, because I actually didn't think it was possible to do this. After two years' research, the re-enactment finally happened, with about eight-hundred historical re-enactors and two-hundred former miners who had been part of the original conflict. Basically, I was asking the re-enactors to participate in the staging of a battle that occurred within living memory, alongside veterans of the campaign. I've always described it as digging up a corpse and giving it a proper post-mortem, or as a thousand-person crime re-enactment.”

- Jeremy Deller

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