Deller and Norris’ work, which has seen soldiers congregating without ceremony in public places up and down the country, was a commemoration of the 19,240 men who died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 100 years ago today.
Images and videos of the modern day participants – some walking, some sitting and waiting, all silent apart from the occasional burst of song – emerged online as the public first encountered the soldiers earlier on this morning.
Commissioned by 14-18 Now, the organisation dedicated to developing art projects during the centenary of the First World War – and created in collaboration with the National Theatre – the impact of Deller‘s project has been evident throughout the day, with people tagging their images and comments across social media with #wearehere.
The work, We’re Here Because We’re Here, has involved some 1,400 volunteers organised by 27 different theatre groups and surely ranks as one of the most ambitious public art works and commemorative events ever staged in the UK.
As sightings of the performances broke earlier today, many people described how they had tried to approach the ‘soldiers’ to ask them what they were doing. In each case, the men remained silent and simply handed out a white card which displayed the name, rank, battalion and regiment of a real soldier who had died at the Somme on July 1 2016.
All the volunteers carried the details of a different soldier – the text on the cards also revealing the soldier’s age, where known, followed by #wearehere.
Images from all over the country flooded social media – from Shetland, Belfast and Sheffield, to Birmingham, Leicester, Plymouth and Bristol – and have been collected together on becausewearehere.co.uk (which now also provides more details on the project alongside an even wider selection of imagery).
“The impact of seeing so many men dressed in their uniforms was overwhelming that it bought an eeriness to a usually bustling station,” wrote @kirarocksu on Instagram, who took pictures of a group at King’s Cross in London (below).
“I asked one of the guys if a flash mob was going to happen (brain clearly in work mode) he didn’t reply and just reached into his pocket and gave me a card stating who he was and when he died, I almost burst in to tears in front of him.”
Alongside a striking black-and-white image, user Andrew Dobson (below, via @dtnl) wrote: “Genuinely one of the most moving pieces of public art I have ever encountered.”
While the soldiers remained silent throughout the day’s events, it was also reported that some had begun to sing while gathering in small groups. At Euston station, for example, the assembled battalion struck up with ‘We’re here because we’re here’, a poignant First World War song that loops the phrase around to the tune of ‘Auld Lang Syne’.
The sight of these young soldiers dropped into the streets and shopping centres of contemporary Britain gave many pause for thought – and the thousands of resulting photographs and films are, by their very nature, candid, unromanticised snapshots.
In this sense – and perhaps a vital part of the project – the final work is made by the public, too. It is their imagery which has captured the performances and been shared across the web; images that have been taken from office windows, coffee shops and station concourses.
Others even captured the public’s own reaction to the campaign, as in this moving photograph taken on a tram in Blackpool earlier this afternoon. As journalist Simon Ricketts tweeted, the project is an example of “the power of art, of human tribute, of sombre significance. #Wearehere is a deeply uplifting action that was much needed.”
From the 13 soldiers photographed on St Ninian’s Isle beach on Shetland, to the group walking through Whitworth Park in Manchester and the 100 or so assembling at London Waterloo at 6pm, the breadth and inclusivity of the initiative has been startling.
As 14-18 Now’s Jenny Waldman remarked on the BBC this evening, the project is essentially “a modern memorial – one that comes to people”. Indeed, Deller and Norris’s participatory work has proven to be a truly national piece of remembrance.
See becausewearehere.co.uk and 1418now.org.uk. All images from the #WeAreHere website unless otherwise stated. The event was produced by Birmingham Repertory Theatre and the National Theatre, working in close collaboration with partners including: Lyric Theatre Belfast, Manchester Royal Exchange, National Theatre of Scotland, National Theatre Wales, Northern Stage, Playhouse Derry-Londonderry, Salisbury Playhouse, Sheffield Theatres and Theatre Royal Plymouth.