ApproximationDocumentary, History and Staging Reality

Battles and Spaces

Following in the footsteps of British artist Jeremy Deller, who in 2001 returned to the site of Orgreave colliery to stage a full re-enactment of the ‘battle’ of Orgreave, as the violent clashes between miners and police on 18 June 1984 became known, I travelled to Orgreave to see what had become of it and how it had changed.

In 2001, Jeremy Deller returned to Orgreave, on the outskirts of Sheffield, South Yorkshire, the site of the most important and pivotal confrontation between picketing miners and police of the 1984-5 miners’ strike. On the 17th anniversary of the ‘Battle of Orgreave’, Deller - with the help of veteran miners who had been at Orgreave on 18 June 1984 and members of several re-enactment societies (The Sealed Knot, for example) performed a unique piece of ‘living history’. Deller’s Orgreave work exists in various forms: as the live re-enactment, as the publication and oral history project The English Civil War Part II: Personal Accounts of the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike (2002), an archive installation at the Tate, An Injury to One is an Injury to All (2004) and a documentary directed by Mike Figgis, which was screened on Channel Four in 2001 and which can be viewed above. As re-enactment Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave had two distinct aims: as a live, site-specific re-staging coordinated by historical re-enactment specialist Howard Giles, it was a full, accurate and, where possible, neutral performance of the 1984 clash between picketers and police; as the subsequent documentary, in which excerpts from the re-enactment were edited, alongside archive footage and interviews, Deller’s restaging becomes part of a much more explicit critique of Margaret Thatcher, her government’s closure of the pits and the BBC’s pro-government coverage of the violence at Orgreave.

The Battle of Orgreave as participatory, social art functions as both flashback for the majority of the adults present and/or participating on the day in 2001 and still-evolving living history. Although historical re-enactment societies label their costumed recreations living history, The Sealed Knot’s performances of pivotal battles of the English Civil War, for example, are undertaken from the perspective that the events portrayed are finished and finite; that while possible to recreate them, they are closed. Conversely, an equally crucial component of Deller’s re-enactment and of the Battle of Orgreave’s status as both flashback and living history, is an explicit acknowledgement that the official histories of what occurred that day have not reached closure, that controversies continued to rage and that, in its news bulletins in the immediate aftermath, the BBC misrepresented what happened. Whereas the majority of discussions of The Battle of Orgreave concentrate on the dialectical engagement between 1984 and 2001, underpinning this examination of Deller’s work as not only a re-enactment but also an approximation is the extension of the dialectical relationship into a trialectical one, in which the constant fluctuations between past (1984), present (2001) and its ever-shifting future are in perpetual and dynamic interaction.

In Thirdspace, Edward Soja adapts and applies Michel Foucault’s ideas of heterotopia and the trialectics of space, knowledge and power; as Soja identifies it, Foucault is attempting to get away from

a persistent over-privileging of the powers of the historical imagination and the traditions of critical historiography, and the degree to which this privileging of historicality has silenced or subsumed the potentially equivalent powers of critical spatial thought (Soja 1996: 15).

Just as Soja, after Michel Foucault, seeks to ‘open up the spatial imagination’, the trialectical relationship between event, enactment and multiple re-enactments of ‘the battle of Orgreave’ enable the opening up and the destabilisation of Orgreave and the events of 1984.

One of the most significant things to inform the 2001 re-enactment’s re-opening of 18 June 1984 had been the revelation 10 years before that the BBC news had transposed the sequence of events at Orgreave so as to make it appear as if the mounted police charge at the miners was a defensive action in response to violence by the picketers as opposed to an offensive strategy that was subsequently greeted with retaliatory violence by the picketers. In 1991 the BBC issued a statement (which Deller quotes on screen) claiming that, in ‘the haste of putting the news together … an editor inadvertently reversed the occurrence of the actions of the police and the pickets’.

Since Deller’s re-enactment, other factors have come to light that again have altered perceptions of Orgreave, 1984, such as the well-substantiated allegations that South Yorkshire Police systematically altered evidence they gave in the aftermath of Orgreave, as was revealed in 2012 they had also done after the tragedy of Hillsborough.


Orgreave now

This is what, until recently, Orgreave’s satellite image on Google Maps looked like: a vast, empty, largely forgotten space in the middle of several small mining villages: Catcliffe, Treeton, Handsworth, Woodhouse and Orgreave. When this week I visited the site, there was no road sign to Orgreave the village, and certainly no sign to the site of the British Steel coking works over which the ‘battle’ raged.

A factor that binds conventional historical re-enactment and The Battle of Orgreave as alternative forms of ‘living history’ is their shared physicality, as Deller and his re-enactors traipsing across a field function as literal metonyms for the intellectual, figurative re-examination of the events on the picket line in 1984. Freud’s idea of the uncanny is, quite legitimately, bandied about with abandon in critical writing about re-enactment (in Nichols’ essay, for instance), but the physical side of the uncanny experience is not always emphasised. Freud envisage, for example, that an ‘uncanny effect’ can be produced ‘when the distinction between imagination and reality is effaced, as when something that we have hitherto regarded as imaginary appears before us in reality, or when a symbol takes over the full functions of the thing it symbolizes, and so on’ (Freud 1919: 367). Earlier in his essay, Freud provides four short but pertinent illustrations of the mutual influence of the physical and intellectual to providing the feeling ‘of helplessness and uncanniness’: walking through ‘the streets of a provincial town in Italy’ and unwittingly returning to the same piazza, losing ‘one’s way in a mountain forest’ and being brought back to ‘the same spot’, wandering about ‘in a dark, strange room, looking for the door or the electric switch’ (359) and coming across something such as the same number ‘several times in a single day’ (360). All these examples are characterised by the transference of physical sensation onto the cerebral act of remembering and vice versa, or alternatively the homogenisation between the two as the complex foundations of the uncanny as both emotion and fantasy.

The actual terrain covered, the site specificity of the whole Battle of Orgreave project is a determining element, from congregating in the field next to the open cast mine, to Figgis’s rough, following-the-action, handheld camera style, to walking round the assembled archive in the Tate Gallery exhibition. Fascination with the uncanny aspects of documentary, with – as Leacock termed it, mobilising the moving image to replicate the feeling of ‘being there’ – remains an ideal, but one which is impossible to realise, except via the uncanny – the repetition of something from the past that prompts an uncanny feeling of what is popularly known as déjà vu. In effect, the re-enactment of the Battle of Orgreave is the meeting point between two different uncanny experiences: the conventional Freudian uncanny of finding oneself ‘led back to what is known of old and long familiar’ (340) and a more contemporary recall of a ‘reverse uncanny’, whereby the return to an iconic or memorable site recalls specifically familiar archival images of what happened at that location as opposed to the location itself, accumulated in our historical or collective memory banks.

In the ‘reverse uncanny’ (more fully explored in relation to Dealey Plaza and the assassination of JFK) it is images rather than events that are the sources of narratives, histories or memories, meaning that visiting the actual physical place immortalised in archival footage, for instance, becomes engulfed in the uneasy emotions of the uncanny. A crucial element of the fantasy that, through re-enactment, the outcome of a historical event might be reversed is its physicality; Orgreave is not just an intellectual or figurative site, but an actual one, and thereby not perpetually condemned to being associated uncannily with the historical, political events of 1984. I visited Orgreave in order to experience both the reverse uncanny return to the buried site of Orgreave’s mediarised and political history and to witness the regeneration such a burial has prompted, in the form of the total transformation of the Orgreave wasteland by Rotherham Borough Council. Having previously been occupied by the British Steel coking plant and two underground collieries (Orgreave Colliery having closed in 1981 and the coking ovens in 1990), the site, until recently, looked like the aerial shot above. The top 100-acre portion of this plot has, since 2004, been used to accommodate Waverley Advanced Manufacturing Park. More recently, and still under construction, are around 2,000 new homes.


By April 2014, however, the regeneration of the lower portions of the site was already well underway, with the construction of new housing under the development names ‘The Banks’ and The Edge’ by Taylor Wimpey and Barratt Homes at an advanced stage. Making use of the Conservative government’s ‘Help to Buy’ scheme, these are modern 3, 4 and 5-bedroom houses at relatively affordable prices. The site will also contain areas of public open spaces incorporating the existing Lake Waverley.

When I spent the day around Orgreave on 10 April 2014, several new roads had been added to the map(s) between Highfield Spring to the west and Poplar Way to the north, lined with inhabited houses. The site’s novelty and incongruity is, despite the small gate enters Waverley from the B6066 (Highfield Spring) on the western side, still emphasised by the muddy wasteland that encircles it, as well as by the significant construction underway to the south. Superimposed onto the fraught, blighted memory site, the new development makes no mention of mining, steel work or any of the industry that, in still recent history, used to bind together the communities from the more established villages around Waverley.

Roads carry innocuous-sounding names such Wensley Road or Tideswell Walk and their smart boxy brick houses have been given additional features such as neat side and back lawns and traditional iron railings. Evocatively symptomatic of the fact that this is an area in transition, is the development’s incompleteness (the absent hedges and sapling trees; the cones standing on unfinished pavements; the diggers in the background). The Edge is an especially apposite name for the Barratt development, for there are edges or boundaries everywhere: between the developed site’s tarmacked roads and pavements and the rudimentary gravel paths and wasteland around it; between the industrial park and the housing development; between the roads and railways that encircle it; and between the style of this complex and that of the earlier, less pristine architecture of the former mining villages the other sides of the arterial roads. The ‘edge’ that is missing is the one between current and past occupancy of kidney-shaped expanse of land.


It is still possible to chart the route of the battle of Orgreave, from coking plant site to Highfield Lane, over the railway line, past the ‘City of Sheffield’ sign at the junction with Orgreave Lane, although there is nothing along the route that officially marks its history – bar the images of that conflict committed to memory. What I experienced was both living and dead history, both heimlich and unheimlich memories, as some sites remained familiar whilst others had disappeared. It was undoubtedly moving that day to orientate myself using my Google Satellite image in the knowledge that, the next time that image is updated, the empty, scarred landscape that symbolises the erasure of the coke plant will itself be erased and replaced by satellite images of new houses and construction work. In fact, the visceral impact of being engaged in the act of climbing into the skin (as Atticus Finch would have it) of a participant of the original event was perpetually tempered by an awareness of displacement: the railway bank down which several frightened miners ran is recognisable, whereas the entrance to the coke plant itself – opposite the humped road over the railway – is now a mini roundabout and the old ASDA (to whose car park some picketers retreated in 1984 and which features in The Full Monty) has disappeared from its old location between Rotherham Road and Orgreave Place and moved to Retford Road, Handsworth. The site is very much an emblematic and iconic one, even if it has hardly been preserved intact, so just as Jeremy Deller had to re-enact the first stage of the ‘battle’ on a field nearby the one in which the battle actually took place, the forthcoming 30th anniversary commemorations of will take place at nearby Catcliffe Recreational Ground.


In terms of the uncanny and its potential reversal, I found myself trying to re-enter a space of archival memory, trying to fit the contemporary Orgreave and Handsworth into a place that exists overwhelmingly in the imaginary as iconic mediated memory sites. Unlike a visit on any day of the year to Dealey Plaza in Dallas, however, it did not feel as if I was one of many pilgrims; I am pretty sure I was the only person attempting to establish where the Rock on Tommy ice-cream van was parked in relation to the City of Sheffield road sign along Highfield Lane and to imaginatively re-enact ‘Orgreave’ (and even calling it that is a bit dodgy for ‘Orgreave’ the village merges with Handsworth, and there certainly was no visible plaque to the battle acting as a sort of shrine). Whereas in Dallas time has stood still since JFK’s assassination (as our guide for the trolley tour that took us to the sites Lee Harvey Oswald visited after allegedly shooting President Kennedy began: ‘In Dealey Plaza every day is 22 November 1963’) in Orgreave it has soldiered on. ‘Orgreave’ is a complex, mutable trialectic space inhabiting the ‘permanent now’ we inhabit as a result of social and new media.

A dirty by-product of the ‘permanent now’, though, is the dislodging and confusion of fixed events and hard memories, hence arguing for The Battle of Orgreave as an approximation that draws together concrete events, transient and unreliable memories and an ever-fluid present buried under but also symbolised by the layers of regenerative landscaping and housing.


Freud, Sigmund (1919) ‘The Uncanny’, in Penguin Freud Library Volume 14: Art and Literature (ed. Albert Dickson), London: Penguin (1990). Soja, Edward W. (1996) Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places, Oxford: Blackwell


Stella Bruzzi FBA

Stella Bruzzi

Stella Bruzzi is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Warwick and was made a Fellow of the British Academy in 2013. She was Head of Department 2006–2008 and Chair of the Faculty of Arts at Warwick 2008–2011. She lives in Oxford with her husband and two children.


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