TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT November 2002

interviews

1000 WORDS: JEREMY DELLER

Jeremy Deller is an artist who gets down with the people, wherever he happens to be. Based in Britain, where he has created artworks with coal miners (The Battle of Orgreave, 2001), marching bands (Acid Brass, 1997), and Manic Street Preachers fans (The Uses of Literacy, 1997), Defier spent much of the past year in residency at the CCAC Watt’s Institute in San Francisco. The result of his stay is an unlikely art project: an unorthodox (though usable) guidebook to the once Golden State. After the Gold Rush is a ninety-six-page collection of maps, history (penned by Matthew Coolidge of the Center for Land Use Interpretation), interviews, photographs, drawings, and an audio CD (which includes, among other things, songs featuring Irish banjo player William Whitmore). Defier taps into more than a hundred years of California history, from nineteenth-century miner mania to post-dot-com doldrums, but it’s the things that never went away—rural California’s status as a haven for outsiders and its seemingly incongruous conservative political history—that animate his wry European perspective on dusty desert highways, roadside museums, even a prison gift shop.

Deller used his honorarium to buy a beat-up Jeep (in which he scoured the back roads) and five acres of land ($2,000 at auction) in the beleaguered nine-church, one-bar town of Trona, California, staking a presumably enduring claim on the West Coast. There’s no ocean view, however; Deller’s homestead is a barren slice of the Mojave Desert.

Inspired in part by the lucid muckraking spirit of Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, Deller’s guidebook points out revealing landmarks and minor tourist attractions—a minimuseum devoted to burlesque, for example—that have deep, sometimes insidious cultural meanings (like the seemingly ubiquitous correctional facilities along the highway) and, as it happens, house individuals who carry the torch of some vanishing belief system. On his trips, Deller got out of the car and met folks—former Black Panthers, aging strippers, political exiles. “I listened to these characters for hours, drinking it in,” he enthused in a conversation about the project. “You forget a landscape, but you don’t forget the people.”

Glen Helfand

JEREMY DELLER

I came to America on September 9, 2001, for a residency. I didn’t want to produce an exhibition but something more involved with California. I wanted to go out and discover things about the state and in some small way test the level of the culture.

I made a lot of trips to the desert. Because I’m European, it’s something I didn’t know anything about. Death Valley exceeds your expectations. Even if you’ve seen it in films, the experience is actually shocking—so I decided to do something about the land in California.

I bought a plot of land because I figured if I were going to spend a year in America, I might as well own a piece of the country. It’s the idea of coming to the West where everyone wants to own a piece of land. I bought mine at an auction, which was a very old-fashioned event—like a religious revival meeting revolving around money and land. The first bit of audio on the CD is me buying the property. The clip is only about forty-five seconds long, but it gives you a sense of the experience. It’s like an art installation, with a slide show of the acreage and all these quotations from people like Mark Twain about how land is the best thing ever.

The idea of creating a guidebook came to me after talking to a friend about treasure hunts, an element I’ve incorporated into the book in a low-key way, and it dovetails nicely with the idea of the gold rush. A guidebook is a convenient vehicle with which to tell a story and connect disparate elements, and there’s an interactive, even performative aspect to it, with readers acting out the journey in their own way. The book is more about the people than the places. It’s literally a tour of people: You can meet the folks I’ve met. They run museums and shops or whatever. If you do meet them, you will get a free gift—and if you take the whole tour, you can collect a complete set of gifts.

The stop-offs are very personal places. They’re homemade in the best sense of the word, with people giving their own opinion about the world and their relationship to it. One of the stops is to visit these two guys in the desert who make folk art. The museums on the tour are often folk museums; they’re not corporate in any sense of the word. Another stop is the Exotic World Burlesque Museum in Helendale, where I went to the Miss Exotic World Pageant. There’s a photo of Tempest Storm in the book, and though she’s in her seventies, she looks great.

The people who run these places usually end up talking to you for an hour, telling you their life story in a way that Americans are very happy to do. In Britain, people are more reticent talking about themselves. It interests me that the people I met opened up very quickly, and that so many of their stories are entwined with historical events.

There’s a section in the book on the Black Panthers, for example. Before I came to America all I knew about them was their negative media image. Of course there’s so much more to what they represented and what ultimately happened to them. The Panthers were a pivotal political movement. If you look at what they wanted it’s really straightforward: One of their main goals was, after all, decent health care. That’s not a really revolutionary idea in Britain, but in America it is. There are two ex-Panthers who run a gallery and museum in downtown Oakland, which is basically an African American history lesson they’ve constructed with paintings and sculptures. It’s the first point on the tour.

So these two ex-Panthers are still out there working in the community. One of them is also a prison minister. He visits inmates on death row and gives art classes. That opened up the idea of jails. The book has a section on prisons, as they seem to pop up along the California highways every twenty miles.

Another person on the tour was involved in the Bay of Pigs invasion. He’s a Cuban exile who worked for the CIA. All these people reflect a larger American history. In Britain we have this term “living history,” which is overused by those in the heritage business, but I think in the case of the interviewees in the book it’s the best way to describe them and their personal stories.

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