When the British artist Jeremy Deller arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport a few days ago, he came with his assistant and not a little apprehension.
"I was really worried," Deller said, "because the last time [the assistant] came in, he was arrested. They went through his checked luggage and they found some papers - notes on this project, actually - and they didn't like that."
Airport security officials initially were suspicious of the notes, which related to Deller's work-in-progress, It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq, but released the assistant after detention and interrogation.
This time, said a relieved Deller, "I was expecting something, but it was really easy compared to that."
Deller and his project will arrive in Philadelphia today in an RV towing a car blown up in Baghdad two years ago, and will set themselves down in front of the National Constitution Center, Fifth and Arch Streets, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The car, a crumpled and burned orange-ish wreck, was destroyed in a particularly horrific suicide attack that took 38 lives and left the great al-Mutanabbi Street book market a smoking ruin on March 5, 2007.
It serves, said Deller, as "a conversation-starter."
Talk and the exchange of information is what this piece is about. On hand to speak with passersby who care to talk will be Esam Pasha, an artist and formerly a translator for the chief adviser in the British Embassy in Baghdad and for U.S. forces around Iraq, and Jonathan Harvey, a veteran of the Iraq war and recently demobilized psychological operations specialist.
It Is What It Is began its public life during six weeks at the New Museum in New York that ended Sunday. It is being presented in this country by the museum and Creative Time, a New York presenter.
During the New Museum run, Deller invited journalists, Iraqi refugees, soldiers and scholars to share their memories of the last decade inside and outside Iraq in conversation with museum visitors.
Now the project is going national, wending its way across the country, making numerous stops, and eventually arriving in Los Angeles. An expanded version of the piece will be mounted at that ciy's Hammer Museum in April and May, and at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in October and November.
Nato Thompson, Creative Time curator, will document the journey. A daily video diary and written journal entry will be posted on the project's Web site, www.conversationsaboutiraq.org.
And what exactly is this piece?
"In some respects it's to get beyond the traditional media take on the conflict in Iraq - and by media, I mean TV media - and also to get beyond protest art," said Deller. "It is political, but it is not protest political. It is not telling you what to think."
The conversations are, in fact, the art - unmediated dialogue between Deller's Iraq veteran and translator, and anyone whose curiosity inspires talk.
Deller, 42, is well-known in Britain for his intense video and performance pieces, and won that nation's 2004 Turner Prize, awarded annually by the Tate Gallery in London to a British artist under 50.
It Is What It Is amounts to Deller's effort to penetrate media silence and to fill a perceived information void, but because of the unrehearsed nature of the piece and the multiple points of view expressed by various participating experts, "you don't know where it's going to go."