For the past seven years I have been obsessed with events in the Middle East, principally Iraq. It has been on my mind constantly, either at the forefront, or as a nagging buzz at the back of it. No doubt it has had an effect on many decisions I have made and actions I have taken. In that respect for better or worse it has changed me. I suspect I can’t be the only person to have felt this.
In the U.K., military and civilian life is segregated. It is not common to meet soldiers in everyday life and there are few Iraqi refugees given asylum in the country, so firsthand accounts are few and far between. I have read a ton of books and articles about the war, but short of going to Iraq itself, there is no substitute for meeting someone who has actually lived there, or been there, hence the core part of this project. In a sense I am selfishly doing this for my own benefit simply to plug the many gaps that exist in my knowledge and to satisfy the arguments that have been going on in my head for the best part of this century.
Over a six-week period at the New Museum in New York, (February 11–March 22, 2009) British artist Jeremy Deller has invited journalists, Iraqi refugees, soldiers, and scholars to share their memories of the last decade in and out of Iraq. In one-on-one conversations with New Museum visitors, their stories will elucidate the present circumstances in Iraq from many points of view. At the end of March, “It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq” will travel across the country from New York to California, with conversations conducted at more than ten public sites along the way. Sergeant Jonathan Harvey, an American veteran of the Iraq War, Esam Pasha, an Iraqi citizen, and Deller will be aboard a specially outfitted RV, along with Nato Thompson, Creative Time Curator, who will document the journey. Expanded versions of “It Is What It Is” will take place at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, in April and May of 2009, and at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, in October and November of 2009.
Perhaps the most ambitious project that Jeremy Deller has undertaken to date, with more than ten institutions involved as sponsors and/or hosts, and participants projected in the thousands over a nine month period, the goal of “It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq” is modest: to encourage conversation about our world. Conversations about the war and the country of Iraq are few and far between in the United States. Outside of the hyperbole of the media and the rising death counts in the papers, Americans find it difficult to intellectually connect with a country to which we are paradoxically and inextricably tied. As we enter the seventh year of our conflict in Iraq, many Americans outside of the Army have never met an Iraqi citizen or had contact with a soldier who has served time in Iraq. “It Is What It Is” is a project that attempts to redress this information gap, albeit in a small way, and in an unconventional context. It is a project that strives to present a broad, informational, nonpartisan perspective of Iraq through firsthand encounters between the general public and those who have significant scholarly research to impart, military experiences to describe, and heritage to share.
Bringing together the multifaceted perspectives of a diverse group of people from places that are geographically, economically, and politically distanced is a task that is well suited to the environment of an art gallery. One of the most basic challenges of contemporary art practice is to forge a connection between art and what is going on around us every day, but while few people would deny that art comes out of life, there is still great skepticism surrounding the relevance of art to how we actually live. “It Is What It Is” is one in a long line of projects on precisely this subject that Jeremy Deller has dreamed up over the past decade. The goal of Deller’s work has been to both examine and celebrate elements of the everyday—from our musical obsessions to our local customs, to the struggles that we might encounter in our workplace for fair compensation, or in the street for our political beliefs. His method is to look at these aspects of life as art—and not to take these aspects and make art out of them. This is a crucial distinction. “It Is What It Is” highlights straightforward conversation—as is— supporting, appreciating, and respecting it in a manner that indicates to us that in its richness, it can achieve the level of art.
“It Is What It Is” puts a premium on discussion that is open-ended. Skipping easy categories of “for” or “against,” the invited conversationalists bring to the table their wide experiences in order to broadly describe political and social issues that affect those in Iraq as well as those outside. These conversations might be a bit messy, which is good, as black-and-white readings of this situation have been of little use up to now. “It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq” does not promise to solve the problems between the U.S. and Iraq, but it posits that there is beauty that approaches art in human contact and intellectual exchange—that is, in simply talking amongst ourselves.