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Favourite books: Sympathies and affinities with the creative process

Geoff Shearcroft

Geoff Shearcroft, co-founder of AOC, relates to and takes heart from artist Jeremy Deller's ethos of collaboration and the rejection of the artistic ego

Art is Magic by Jeremy Deller.
Art is Magic by Jeremy Deller.

I generally have five or six books on the go – at the moment this includes a biography of Keynes, a collection of papers on participation in democracy, the Power of Strangers, Rewilding, the latest Weird Walk journal and, a much appreciated present, the Definitive Desert Island Discs.  This literary snapshot perhaps captures the myriad interests of Jeremy Deller, the conceptual artist and author of my chosen book.

Art is Magic is an artist’s monograph, presenting artworks from the last 30 years with a thematic structure.  Part autobiography, part coffee table tome, part chats-with-friends, it is a delicious hybrid that clearly and enjoyably presents a unique collection of work with a coherent set of concerns and interests.  It’s a provocative book, consistent with both the aesthetic and approach of the work it contains.  It’s also a beautiful book, using full bleed images, colour, layering and typography to support the original work and tell a new story that makes sense of the journey.   

I really enjoy Deller’s work. I saw his ‘Joy in People’ show at the Hayward and bounced on ‘Sacrilege’, his inflatable replica of Stonehenge, when it opened in Glasgow in 2012. He collaborates a lot with Fraser Muggeridge, a graphic designer who we work with a lot, and I have their work at home, including a print of Tesco’s transfer pricing diagram as a face and lockdown poster ‘Thank God for Immigrants’.  

Beyond presenting the art itself the book provides insights on his approach and working methods.  Although artist and architects operate in very different contexts I feel there are a lot of sympathies between Deller’s creative process and the way we work at AOC. 

'Sacrilege' (inflatable Stonehenge), Glasgow 2012. Artwork and photo by Jeremy Deller
'Sacrilege' (inflatable Stonehenge), Glasgow 2012. Artwork and photo by Jeremy Deller

Jeremey Deller describes himself as being like a film director, without being a shouter.  It’s interesting to look at someone who actively seeks to take a step back when they work. Growing up I played in brass bands and so feel a strong affinity with Deller describing the happiness he feels hanging around steel bands – a collaborative endeavour where everyone’s contributing by playing their part. That can and should be true of architecture too; when we set up Agents of Change (AOC), we deliberatively established a practice free of individual’s names.

Openness to the ideas of others is key to this mindset. Deller does a lot of work with the public as part of his projects – 'I look to the public to improve the work by taking it in directions I was not expecting,' he says. The book captures this through its inhabited photos, showing the work in both gallery settings and public places.  AOC was set up on the premise that the participation of others produces better buildings.  In many of our projects we find cocreation with residents and visitors can introduce unexpected elements that improve the usefulness and value of our designs.  A lot of architecture is about control.  But if you can let go early in the process, have an intelligent conversation with the public and be open to surprises, then the outcomes can be unexpected and better.

At the Young V&A, our conversations with children, families and teachers led us to some fascinating places during the design. Our co-creators demanded context, and that changed how we designed and the decisions we made. That letting go – surfing the waves rather than being King Canute telling the waves what to do – feels a more generous form of practice. The act of people coming together also ensures that every project builds up social capital that extends beyond its immediate time and place.

Still from 'Everybody in the place' 2018.
Still from 'Everybody in the place' 2018. Credit: Jeremy Deller

Aesthetically I think Deller is very interesting. He describes using contrasting elements to create ‘a visual jolt’, a kind of vibrational tension, in his work. A Warhol Marilyn on a William Morris wallpaper.  A found photo of a champion glam wrestler and his coal-mining father.  A WWI soldier in a contemporary rush hour station. I enjoy the look and feel of these jolts and admire the depth of emotions and associations they produce.   

Deller is very interested in Englishness and pop culture. Just like the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, this book shows the full breadth of Englishness, with all its challenges, and embraces them. By actively engaging with people he finds a direct route to unpacking what Englishness is. He likes to identify a contemporary position and look at how that is informed by myths of the past. And he’s very good at unpacking things – in a number of works he explores how England uses Stonehenge as a mirror for the concerns of its society at the time. We’ve spent the last four years working on new buildings for visitors to Stonehenge and have enjoyed engaging with its complex web of archaeology, mythology and democracy that seem to continually evolve in response to the nation’s shifting psyche.

One of the things I really like about his work is that it has very high production values. These are quite different to those of what he describes as 'international, highly-production' art. His work is consistently well made, the result of collaborating with genuinely expert craftspeople who have very niche, often overlooked skills, that benefit from engaging in a new context.  He frequently explores work with a very broad range of aesthetics and appears non-judgemental about taste. In this sense he shares the approach, advocated by Venturi Scott Brown in Learning from Las Vegas, of withholding judgement as a tool, to learn from everything.

'Welcome to the Shitshow' 2019.
'Welcome to the Shitshow' 2019. Credit: Jeremy Deller

The book conveys the range of economic value in Deller’s work.  While some of his works are very expensive to produce, with epic operational challenges, much of the work is inexpensive and everyday.  I feel some empathy, as we work with a range of budgets, but often have to do a lot with a little. In contemporary architecture, there is a continuing fetish for the luxurious and crafted over experiential delight and usefulness, but I don’t believe that architecture has to have a big budget to become valued.

Deller describes Art is Magic as 'a children’s book for adults'.  I think there’s a childlike curiosity about the book, like the artist himself, without it ever being childish. Throughout there’s a lot of humour. The one-liners and aphorism on posters often hit the mark but it is the consistent playfulness in approach that feels so refreshing: a reminder that wit, humour and joy are an essential part of making serious things.

Today the notion of the architect as the controlling auteur still dominates both the teaching and practising of architecture. This book demonstrates an alternative approach to creative production, where openness, collaboration and participation enhance designs by taking them in new and unexpected directions.

As told to Pamela Buxton

Art Is Magic by Jeremy Deller, Profile Books Ltd 240 pages