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Film: Marking The Centenary of the First World War With Art

On 1 July 2016, thousands of volunteers took part in a modern memorial to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. ‘we’re here because we’re here’ was a UK-wide event commissioned by 14-18 NOW, conceived and created by Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller in collaboration with Rufus Norris, Director of the National Theatre. Produced by Birmingham Repertory Theatre and the National Theatre, in collaboration with 26 organisations.

Brand and Communications Director Claire Eva shared the story of the project at MuseumNext Europe 2017.

Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I am Clare Eva, I am Brand and Communications Director for 14–18 NOW.

14-18 NOW, is the UK’s arts programme for the First World War Centenary. We’re an unusual institution, in the fact that we were set up, it was an idea from the Culture Minister in the Government, in 2012, when they were looking at the official centenary plans to mark the First World War, in the UK.

The plans tended to be military, and quite traditional and, obviously, there’s a place for that. But then, also, the idea was, how to engage new audiences, or wider audiences, with a war that happened 100 years ago.   So, the idea was developed to commission new art, or create a commissioning body, which is 14-18 NOW, to commission new art, inspired by the First World War.

So, by art, we work across all art forms. We work across visual arts, dance, theatre, opera, performance, digital, mass participation. And, we encourage artists, to make new work inspired by that period. So, that could be heroism, but it also could be mutiny, desertion, mental health, the role of women within the war, science and technology, so it’s very broad.

And, basically, we approach artists, and try and encourage them to make work by the First World War. We also get approached by artists, and we work across the arts and heritage sector as well, trying to encourage partners to put on work, inspired by the First World War. So, we’ve worked with people, such as, Tate, Barbican, Welsh National Opera, National Theatre of Scotland, right across England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales.

The programme exists from 2014 to 2018, coinciding with the centenary of the war. And, we don’t use this word festival, but if you think of a sort of a festival model, it creates an umbrella over that period, with new artist’s work in it. I should point out that, we don’t celebrate war, and it’s for the artists to come up with their own position on how they want to translate that period.

Since the start of the centenary in 2014, we’ve had over 30 million people engaging with the programme, and we’ve commissioned about 140 art works, so far. The first, sort of, series of art works we commissioned, were in 2014, to mark the start of the First World War.

We worked with [Unintelligible 00:02:43], who Honour was talking about earlier, and a number of other artists, on a project called, Lights Out, where we asked people, across the UK, to turn their lights out to mark the start of the First World War. We had about 16 million people being involved in this project, and then a range of different art works, all to do with light, at the time, to mark the lights going out all over Europe, was the phrase from the time.

We also work with Historic Royal Palaces, did an incredible installation with the artist, Paul Cummings, and designer Tom Piper in 2014, where the Tower of London, the moat was completely filled with 880,000 poppies, which, in itself, was seen by about five million people, and became an incredible emblem to start the commemorations for the First World War.

14-18 NOW are taking two of the elements from that installation, Wave and Weeping Window, we’re taking those on tour, right across the UK, so taking them out of London, to places like the Orkney Isles, and the top of Scotland. Here they are in Yorkshire Sculpture Park, they’re going over to Belfast, Plymouth, they’ve been in Hull City of Culture as well. So, really having a second life for an art work, and taking it to regions, to people, who might not have been able to travel to London to see it in the first place.

We’ve commissioned four Dazzle Ships. Dazzle was a camouflage technique, from the First World War.   Here, we’re working with Sir Peter Blake, who is the artist who did the famous Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. This was a collaboration with Liverpool Biennial, and Tate Liverpool, as well. And, this is the Mersey Ferry, so people can go across the river there, on this boat, and find out more about the First World War, and how artists were employed as camouflage artists, during the 1914 to 1918 as well.

And, this is an example from a dance company we work with, called Ballet Boys. So, they created a new dance piece, an hour long dance piece, for stage, inspired by the First World War. Which then went on to be, probably, one of the first dance films made for television, which was shown on the BBC last year.

So, that’s just to give you a bit of context about 14-18 NOW. What I’m here to talk to you about today, is a project we did called, We’re Here Because We’re Here, with the artist Jeremy Deller, and Rufus Norris, who was the Director of the National Theatre.

So, on 1st July 2016, thousands of men, dressed in First World War uniforms, started to appear, completely unannounced, across the length and the breadth of the UK. They appeared in shopping centres, train stations, beaches, and they didn’t speak. Periodically, throughout the day, they came together in groups, and they sang a song, called, We’re Here Because We’re Here, which was a song sung in the trenches in the First World War, about the futility of war. They used to ask, why are we here, well, we’re here because we’re here, and it goes on in infinity.

The soldiers themselves did not speak, but if they were approached by members of the public they handed out a card to the public, which had the name of the soldier they represented, the regiment that they were from … exactly 100 years ago, on 1st July 1016. And, when we knew it as well, the age of the soldier, so a lot of them were 18, 19, 21, very young men. The Battle of the Somme, lost 19,240 people on the first day of battle, so it’s probably one of the bloodiest moments in British military history.

The soldiers appeared right across the UK, from throughout Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, which was interesting for the political context itself, and across the UK as well. And, there was no advance publicity at all, there was no indication of what it was, there was no interpretation. People had no indication of what it was, they just came across these people organically.

The idea was, to take a memorial for the Somme, to contemporary Britain. So, rather than encouraging people to come to a gallery, or a museum, this art work really went out to where people were, across the country. And, it was essential that the artists appeared without any advance information, that was really key to the artist’s vision for the whole project. So, it meant, for me, working on the communication strategy, we really had to turn the traditional idea of a marketing campaign on its head, and come up with a campaign which, I think, was really quite unique and new.

Also, so in working for 14-18 NOW, we have a lot of KPIs in place, that we had to create national awareness as well. So, it was working with the artist’s intention, that he quite liked the idea that the art work would come and go, without anyone really knowing what it was. And then, 14-18 NOW, and our funder’s intention, wanting people to know that it was 14-18 NOW who did it, and our funder’s getting recognition as well of the artists, and all the participation and the theatres that we work with as well.

So, here’s some of our soldiers travelling on the Tube. At the end of the day, the project was revealed by Turner Prize winning artist, Jeremy Deller. So, Jeremy Deller is a conceptual British artist, he usually works with people within his art works. He’s worked on a project called, The Battle of Orgreave. He’s a very democratic artist, he really works with … he likes looking at people’s everyday life, and he’s interested in human society, and how people interact. So, he was very interested in how people would react to the soldiers, and also the role of the participants. They were all volunteers, who represented the 1,500 soldiers on the day, as well.

Jeremy, originally came up with the idea in 2013, when my Director approached him. And, when Jenny, my Director, started working with him, it became apparent that his idea was quite theatrical, in the way that it needed to be delivered. So, Jenny then paired him with Rufus Norris, who is the Director of the National Theatre. So, it’s quite innovative putting, essentially, a visual artist, together with a National Theatre Director, to see what they could come up with.

As they started developing the project, they realised that, just working with the National Theatre probably wasn’t enough, we were also working with Birmingham Rep. So, this is all the theatres that we worked within the end, we collaborated with 26 theatres, across England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. And, each of these theatres were responsible for recruiting their own participants, who would dress up as soldiers.

In terms of developing the communications strategy, I mentioned before that Jeremy was keen that it happened completely unannounced. In our early conversations, we talked about things like the Arab Spring, and the rise of live video on social media, and we came up with the idea of a reportage strategy.   So, Jeremy was adamant, he didn’t want any traditional advertising. We didn’t want any print, we wanted it to be very ephemeral.

So, it meant that the whole campaign was done digitally, and I think this really is an art work that could only exist in the age of social media, with the way that we ran the campaign, and the way that people reacted to it as well.

So, the communication strategy, was to plan everything, across 26 theatres and, in total, 2,000 volunteers, in complete secrecy. So, no one was allowed to reveal anything in advance. Then, on the day, the 1st of July, we had to create nationwide awareness, out of nowhere. And then, at the end of the day, at 7pm, or I should say, actually, during the day, we didn’t reveal the artist’s name, or the theatres, or our involvement, or even that it was an art work, it had to be a complete mystery. So, we had to keep all of those details secret, and then, at 7pm, that evening, break the embargo … well, from 6.30, and get people to know all those, kind of, full details.

In terms of the secrecy, we had a code name for the project, Project Octagon. We had to recruit the participants in complete secrecy, so we put out emails from the participating theatres, and on social media, saying, would you like to be part of an education project linked to a national event. And, yes, it was quite incredible how many people actually did respond to those ads. So, people came along and gave their time, not knowing what it was. The participants didn’t know the nationwide spread of it, they didn’t know who the artists were, and they didn’t know a lot of the details, because we couldn’t list people leaking the key information.

We had to organise hub meetings, across all the theatres, so all that was done in secrecy. So, secrecy was the key word, as you can tell. I remember going to the National Theatre for a meeting, and there were all these signs up saying, Project Octagon meeting this way, and it was, like, no, we’re not supposed to be telling anyone that this is happening.   So, removing all print material, and every bit of information we shared had to have confidential written on it.

Everyone involved in the project had to sign a non-disclosure agreement, and we had three different levels of describing the project. The basic one, which we shared with participants, just gave very basic information, not including the artist. Even with our funders, there was very limited number of people within the Arts Council, who actually knew full details because, again, the fear of risk would probably ruin the entire project.

I think, key to the success of this project, was working with the BBC, as the media partner. I mentioned earlier, the idea of a reportage strategy, it was really important to us that it looked like it was just being naturally reported on, and being naturally picked up on social media. But, if we’d left the campaign to be completely organic, there was a significant risk that the project would come and go in a day, and no one would notice.

So, we originally started working with the First World War team at the BBC, and the arts team as well, who then introduced us to their news teams, across nations and regions, again, in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. The BBC has very strict rules of who they can report on projects as well, so we had to work within their news guidelines.

And also, bringing them on as a media partner, they made it blatantly clear to us, that if there was any more significant news that happened on that day, there was a risk that we could lose all the coverage. So, we were hoping for a quiet news week.   Some of you might know what happened.

So, this project happened on 1st July, on the 23rd June 2016, some of you might know that, the UK went into the European Union Referendum. Most of us, myself included, assumed this project would, kind of, come and go, and we would vote to stay in the EU, and it would all blow over. However, that did not happen.

So, we all woke up to the news that we’d voted to leave the EU, it was just everywhere. Then, our Prime Minister resigned, then there was a leadership challenge. All the different, kind of, politicians were then vying to become the next leader. Our economy was plummeting, and I was looking at all of this, devastated, of course, to be leaving the EU, and then thinking, what are the implications for my project.   So, what are the chances of the news media going to be covering, We’re Here Because We’re Here, with all of this going on.

Also, to counteract that risk of getting no publicity whatsoever, we worked with the Guardian newspaper, with a very trusted journalist there, called Charlotte Higgins, who we gave an exclusive double paged spread to. And, each one of the theatres was allowed to contact one journalist, the day in advance, they weren’t allowed to contact the journalist further, in case of risk. So, we had our media partners in place, a bit relationship with the BBC, the Guardian, and then the local journalists as well.

And then, really, at the heart of the campaign, was an influencer strategy. So, we recruited about 25 influencers, who were people who were known to individuals within the organisation. For example, this is Dawn French, from the comedy duo, French and Saunders, you might know the films, Absolutely Fabulous. She had performed at the Plymouth Theatre recently, so Plymouth asked her if they wouldn’t mind tweeting about it.

We recruited news readers, such as John Snow, bloggers, such as [Marl Dixon]. And, again, with a lot of the influencers, we told them just very basic information. We asked them to go to Sheffield Station at 8.30 in the morning, and just report on what they knew. So, even in terms of working with the influence, it still fitted with that reportage strategy. We did pay some bloggers as well, and they went and reported on the day, exactly what they saw.

As well as the 25 influencers, we worked with a range of partners, who were already associated with the project, such as National Rail, Transport for London, our friends at the Tate agreed to retweet for us. It was imperative that theatres in 14-18 NOW, didn’t tweet themselves because, as soon as we started tweeting, it would give the game away. And, there was a risk that people would contact us directly, and the press office. So, this was all a bit of a smoke screen, working with other partners, really to, kind of, confuse people as to what the project actually was.

One of the key things for the digital campaign was, including the hash tag actually on the card, which is part of the art work. I’ve worked in gallery marketing myself for many years, and it’s very rare we get the, sort of, digital tools, I suppose, within the exhibition itself. And, many an exhibition, I’ve marketed, and I’ve turned up and thought, I’m going to tweet about this, and it’s, like, but what’s the hash tag, I really should have put it somewhere prominent.

So, we worked, over a period of weeks, with the artist, to encourage him to have the hash tag on there. He’s not an artist that was particularly using social media much himself, so he really had to trust us, but he was also intrigued by the concept. So, having the hash tag, We Are Here, bearing in mind there was no title, no artist, no organisers, no venue, it gave a central point for conversation, for digital conversation to, kind of, revolve around that.

There was also a vast amount of planning behind this, making it look effortless. So, we produced two different websites. The first one was an unbranded website, that appeared at 8 o’clock in the morning, and the project went live, where we manually scooped posts on social media onto the website, into a continuous scroll. So, if people came to the site, they could start seeing how the posts were happening all over the world.

So, these were ones that included the hash tag, We Are Here, and also ones that didn’t as well. So, we were, literally, using Crimson Hexagon, a social media listening tool, to look at who was talking about soldiers or Somme. We were identifying the particular geographical areas, where the soldiers were at the time, and looking at social media activity there, and identifying anything that linked to our project, and then bringing it through to this website.

We created another website, for the point of reveal at the end of the day, which also included more information about the Somme, the artist, the participants, our intentions behind it, etc. In terms of digital assets, we also recruited a team of photographers and filmmakers, who followed the soldiers throughout the day, so that we had a vast amount of collateral, which the theatres could then use to release at the reveal moment, later on in the day. And, we were live editing films as well, very, very quickly, ten different versions of them, so they’d all be revealed at 10 o’clock that evening.

Everything was coordinated from a control room at the National Theatre. With a project on this scale, one of the key things is decision making, and who is actually saying, yes, or, no, particularly in a crisis moment, if something goes wrong. So, we had the artist and director, popping into the control room. There was my communications team there, and our agencies, the director, so if anything happened, it meant we had the key people, who could make the decisions, in the same room as each other, at the same time.

And, we had WhatsApp groups as well, for all the communication staff, WhatsApp group for all the producers, WhatsApp group for location managers, etc. So, we had different ways of communicating with people, should the project need to be pulled, or changed, at any point.

So, onto the actual, kind of, impact of the project. This is a post from the day. As the day started we started seeing the tweets coming in. We started the tweets from our influencers, and seeing the kind of traction that they were getting, and organic tweets coming through. So, this is one my favourites, Chris [Skitch], bless him, he’d joined Facebook the week before, and he hadn’t sorted out his privacy settings at that point.

So, as you can see, this post has received 56,000 likes, and it got 25,000 shares.   So, I’m just going to read this for you now.

‘Speechless. I just happened to stumble across this on my way to work today. Dozens of World War One soldiers, standing motionless, while commuters rush past on their way to work. I had to stop and stand in front of one of them. When I did, he simply handed me his card. I have to be honest, I choked up and struggled to hold back tears when I read it. Such a moving piece of sight specific theatre. Christ! A million of these young blokes died in a single battle, that started this day 100 years ago. #WeAreHere.’

And, I think that’s kind of … Well, here’s some others, which it’s just moved onto for me.

So, ‘Three soldiers gave me cards today. I looked down and read they died at my age, and I cried as they walked away. #WeAreHere.’

We did so much training with the soldiers about what to do if they were attacked, if people came up and verbally abused them, what to do in case of a terrorist attack. What we didn’t train the soldiers for, was the massive outpouring of emotion from the public. So, people were hugging them, people were crying on them, people sat down and were telling them about their sons, who’d died, telling them about, you know, their illnesses, just going up to the soldiers.

And, we’d worked with the soldiers as well about, when they were engaging with the public, how to be as human as possible. So, they weren’t speaking, but really looking at individuals, really, kind of, engaging in the most human people. But, they were representing ghosts, in many ways.

The whole project was inspired by Jeremy Deller reading about the rise in the occult, around the First World War, and people trying to get in touch with their dead loved ones. And, people thought that they’d seen their dead brothers, dead husbands, dead fathers, on the streets. And, this is the whole idea about seeing the ghosts of people that you’ve loved around you.

So, I’m just going to talk quickly about managing the embargo as well. I said that we were using Crimson Hexagon, which is a fantastic tool, you know, it is not cheap. And, I think, all of my worries in advance, was about gaining traction, and gaining exposure for this project. Within about half an hour of it starting, we could see that we were trending on Twitter. We trended for about 14 hours, during the day.

And then, immediately, the project became holding the embargo. So, the people we’d given the exclusives to, were coming to us saying, this story is going to break, we still want the exclusive, we’re going to run with it now. So, our press team were absolutely incredible at dealing with some very senior editors in the newspapers and the BBC, and asking team to hold the story, and not run with it.

The other thing was, leaks online. We’d done as much as we could not to let people know what it was, but it was often people not working on the project, but close to the project, who, as the propjet started unfolding, they assumed that the embargo had been lifted. So, people were saying, ah, that’s my mate Clare Eva doing this, or, that’s Jeremy Deller, and well done. And, we just, literally, had to contact them and go, take it down now.

So, Crimson Hexagon was fantastic in spotting where things like, Jeremy Deller 14-18 NOW, were being used on social media. And then, we literally sat in the control room and either tweeted people, or we found people’s emails, or we phoned them, and said, can you take it down. And, people were absolutely incredible, in terms of removing their posts, knowing that it was important to the artistic integrity on the day.

So, moving on to the reveal in the evening. The soldiers came together in these big groups, and sang the songs, and by then it had been a phenomenon on social media, throughout the day. So, hordes of people were trying to identify where the soldiers were going to be culminating, and we had big groups of people there. We had TV crews, turning up to, kind of, film the whole thing.

So, at 6.30, it was supposed to go live on the BBC Arts website, it didn’t. So, I ate the rest of my fingernails off at that moment. And, it went live about 6.35. And then, from that moment, it went live across all the BBC networks. So, all the BBC News, partly because it had become such a phenomena on social media, and people had been so affected by it. And, people were using the social media to express their feelings about Brexit as well.

So, people were saying, as that tweet said earlier that, you know, this project puts Brexit into context. Or, people were thinking what did we fight for in the First World War, were we fighting for United Europe, were we fighting for sovereignty of the UK? And, this art work became an incredible reflection piece, for people to think about the Battle of the Somme, but also to think about contemporary Europe, and what sort of nationalism means, or a United Nation means, within these modern times.

So, it went live across the BBC, and then, at 7 o’clock, all the digital assets I was talking about earlier, were released across all of those theatres. So, everyone sent out their email bulletins, updated their Facebook, did their Instagram, using all of the assets that we’d taken throughout the day, and all the, kind of, branded films that we’d made too.

If you go onto the website, you can see a lot of the collated posts there, but it is the outpouring of emotion of people, which is the most astonishing thing of this project. But, it’s such a simple thing, just interacting with a human who gives you a card, which, kind of, has tapped into, I don’t know, something about the public mood at that time.

So, the press coverage was phenomenal, and, also, interestingly, united the media. So, obviously, we were having some newspapers that were very anti-Brexit, and some that were very pro. Across the right-wing press, left wing press, youth press, older person’s press, whatever, everyone was covering it, so it was a moment for people to come together.

We were number one on Twitter Moments, for about five hours during the day. We had 340 million impressions on social media. The coverage went around the world from, sort of, Hong Kong and Shanghai, to New Zealand, and the States as well. The BBC Facebook page was seen 1.9 million times in about 24 hours.   And, the estimated press coverage, in the UK alone, reached about 31 million people.

So, the event won a number of awards for its innovative use of social media. But, I think it’s also really innovative, in terms of bringing together arts and heritage, in a really new way, working with a contemporary artist, on a war that happened 100 years ago. I think it’s innovate in terms of bringing together the visual arts world, a conceptual artist with a theatre as well.

The National Theatres of England, Scotland, and Wales, have never worked together. Working together with 26 theatres, all in unison, on one single project, was pretty incredible as well. And, for me, managing a campaign that, sort of, turned the idea of advance publicity on its head, was innovative too.

And, for the participants, as well, and we had 1,500 guys in uniform, they went through a lot of training to be part of the project. And, so many of them have gone on and found out about their family who fought in the First World War, or found out more about the history of the Battle of the Somme. And also, they’ve created really fantastic friendship groups within them, as well, and they’ve got a lot of social media groups, where they’re still keeping in touch with each other. A number of them have also gone on to work with the theatres, be part of other, kind of, volunteer projects going on, have decided they want to apply for jobs within the theatres as well. So, it’s created a whole set of new relationships, across the piece, really.

We did a YouGov poll, a nationwide poll, about two days after the project happened, that said that 63% of the UK population were aware of this project, which was fantastic in terms of our reach and impact. But, I think, the stat which I’m most proud of, is that, out of those people, two thirds of those aware thought that it made the Battle of the Somme more relevant to their lives. And, I think, if we’d just put on an exhibition of photographs in a museum, it wouldn’t nearly have had the impact or the reach of something like this.

So, I’m going to risk showing a very short video.

[Video 00:27:56]

And, there were many days when, actually, I don’t remember them, I don’t remember what happened, because I was so damned tired. And, you reached a point where there was no beyond, you just could not go any further.

All I could see was men lying dead, men screaming, men on the barbed wire, with their [unintelligible 00:28:24] hanging down, shrieking. And, I thought, what can I do?

There were sheets and sheets in the paper of dead and wounded. Photographs, where they could get them, of the men. And, I, personally, was brought out of class, to be told that my cousin had been killed.

People didn’t seem to realise, you know, what a terrible thing war was. You couldn’t convey, you know, the awful state of things, they just didn’t understand it.

[Video end 00:29:04]

Thank you, Clare.


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