Jeremy Deller at the New Museum


You don't usually think of art as sitting down and having a conversation, but global issues being what they are, some people are beginning to push things in that direction, and for good reason. Our expert blogger Maya Brym spoke a couple of weeks ago with Jeremy Deller about his new project, It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq, which is now on view at the New Museum and will travel to cities such as Washington, D.C., Cincinatti and New Orleans in a road trip organized by Creative Time.

The New Museum is preparing to open your new exhibition. It's called It Is What It Is. According to the museum's press materials it's intended to get people to talk about the current situation in Iraq. How's the show going to look?
The show's got three elements to it. The central element is a banner and a carpeted area with seating where these people will be every day. So it's meant to be a more inviting place where you can sit and look at things as well, and talk. If you look to the left of that, there's this car that we've got from Iraq that was destroyed in a suicide bomb attack. You have the object, and a photo story around it, which has to do with cultural destruction and the destruction of culture historically in Iraq, and in contemporary terms. And then, on the other wall there'll be two maps drawn onto the wall: a map of the U.S. and a map of Iraq, and it's about the idea of maybe twinning towns in the U.S. with towns in Iraq. In Britain twin towns or sister cities started after the First World War, when countries that had either been at war together or been at war against each other, started twinning smallish towns with each other to start these very kind of grassroots links, cultural links and social links, with each other.... In the U.K. it's definitely about postwar trauma and trying to start some sort of relationship between countries that have either been at war or suffered similarly at the hand of a common enemy.

So not between the enemy and the—
Yeah. They did both. Well, in this case, it's like you're the ally and the enemy at the same time...friend and foe simultaneously. But it's within that tradition of twinning towns, as we call it.

And from what I understand, you've assembled a cast of experts.
I've got 32 people, and they range from people who've just arrived in the U.S. a few weeks ago as refugees from Iraq to people who work for the U.N. We have former soldiers, a lot of academics, archeologists, so it's a real mixture...

How did you find them?
It's easy to find academics, because you know where they are. Soldiers were really difficult to find. The websites of the army are very insular; even the veterans associations don't really want to communicate with outside bodies, especially museums. But then word got around, and people came to us.... By the end we were getting lots of requests...

And the refugees? How did you--
We went on a website and then there are all the organizations of the refugees. There aren't that many Iraqi refugees in the U.S. Very few are allowed to come here, but they're quite a tight-knit group.... People are being paid to do it, as well. People are being paid for their time.... And obviously, if you're newly arrived in the U.S. you don't have a job. It's an incentive at least. But most people of the people we met, they'd have done it for free, because they were so keen to tell everyone what had happened to them.

The show runs for a month, and I'm wondering how it's going to work. Every day, are there going to be people in the galleries? All 32?
There'll only be one person speaking at one time. It'd be great if there were all 32. I don't think our budget could stretch to that. It's not going to be like the same piece; it's going to be different people. Each day there's going to be one person between 12 and 3 and one person between 12 and 6....

Has there been a kind of rehearsal process?
Not really. We interviewed people for the road-trip element.... After it ends here, we're literally going to take the car on the back of an RV and tour it through the Southern states with one of the refugees and a former soldier.... So we had to interview people for that, just to make sure we could work with someone for a month.

And it's not scripted?
No. What it is—it's not people giving talks. It's people talking. It's like conversations, dialogue, we hope. You can sit down with a soldier and just ask him what it's like, or with an academic and ask them about political history in Iraq.... It's really about just sitting down and talking to someone sensibly about something.—Maya Brym