Sunday, 11 April 2010

"No digital effects have been used on this poster"

By Crystal Bennes

It used to be that if you wanted to deface an election poster you had to go and do it the old fashioned way: tote a makeshift tool kit of paint, brush and ladder, risk life and limb to crawl up the billboard and get to work redecorating. This however is the future and the future is new media. In the first general election since the rise of Twitter, Facebook and social networking, there's a whole new world of online guerrilla graffiting out there for the taking. Anyone with an internet connection and a little imagination can attract – especially if the graffiti goes viral – a far wider audience than a couple of kids tagging up posters with cans of spray paint on the side of the M25.

Not that the battle for campaign posters isn't also happening on solid ground. Indeed it is. All the hallmarks of street art - ripped posters, paint splodges, thick black marker, stencilled swear words - are present and accounted for in cities and towns around the UK. In Bolton a graffiti artist has gone to the trouble of climbing up to one of the Conservative posters only to do nothing but stencil 'CUNT' in chunky, black, serifed letters on Cameron’s forehead, an interesting juxtaposition.

(photo by andythepol)

Technically this approach is more polished than a simple swipe of spray paint, but it’s not exactly going to win an award for wit or subtlety (though I’m beginning to wonder whether there’s really any place for subtlety in guerrilla election aesthetics). Not that wit and the presumed spontaneity of the DIY approach can’t prove to be a happy marriage. Here’s a nice example from Exeter:

(photo by Tundi Turunda)

This poster is part of the third, “I’ve never voted Tory”, poster series in which first-time Tory voters explain the reasons for their ideological shift. Take ideological shift with a grain of salt as the original three posters list, “we’ve got to mend our broken society”, “we need to sort out the economy”, and “I like their plans to help families”, as their reasons for giving the Tories a go. It all sounds a bit like the rhetoric of a one-night stand: I never normally have sex on the first date, but hell, I like your tie. Your place or mine. Some enterprising individual has picked up on the rather insipid nature of the rhetoric on the original posters and has replaced, “but we’ve got to mend our broken society” with the inspired though hastily spray-painted scrawl, “but no one else knows the rules to polo.” That it's tagged in thick black spray paint brings a bit of menace to a poster with an otherwise faux-PC patina (the woman on the poster is black, of course, so double the minority points).

Unlike the unadulterated versions of the Cameron poster (replete with aforementioned vacuous rhetoric) where we might say the medium is the message, the message is the message in the case of the tagged up posters. This is not a sophisticated aesthetic attempting to rival the original design, but a raw, rough-around-the-edges sensibility that's clearly more interested in getting the message across but also in exposing what we can all see to be the stylistic vacuity of Cameron's smooth as a baby’s butt face.

But for every fifty visually naive alterations to the original poster, a more unique approach to electoral street art can be found in which the artist demonstrates a real flair for the artistic and political appropriation of, not only the message, but of the medium as well. Infamous East London graffiti artist, Dr. D has made quite a striking alteration to the now ubiquitous Cameron poster, white-washing the majority of the image, leaving only Cameron and his baby blues staring back at us. Instead of the expected, “I’ll save the NHS”, Dr. D has printed “suck my goldman sachs” in all lower-case, banker-blue lettering - the same sans-serif type (Franklin Gothic Demi, for the curious) as the original poster.

(photo by Motthehoople)

Dr. D has exhibited her street art in galleries so it's no surprise that form is as important to her as function. There is no doubt that this is a more intellectual and sophisticated approach than simply tagging up a poster, yet it feels somehow less immediate, less visceral, and less violent than the DIY feel of angry black spray paint.

The most fun to be had in this guerilla warfare, however, is online. This is the real battleground for the 2010 election, where digital “tagging” and manipulation can lead to the instantaneous mass distribution of subversive political ideas. What makes the proliferation of online manipulations so powerful is that while they share the same aesthetic as the original posters, the messages are dislocated from the political language we assume will appear. When the new M&C Saatchi ads for the Conservatives attacking Gordon Brown were revealed at the end of March, it wasn’t even a matter of a few hours before Labour supporters had spoof ads all over the web. While the slogans on these spoofs naturally tend toward personal mudslinging, the more interesting ones often take a different approach. One rather amusing spoof took issue with the fact that Cameron had sacked his previous ad agency only to run back to ever-dependable Saatchi for the current set of blame-Brown ads: its strap line reads, “I changed my ad agency. I can change the country.” It’s rather amusing that design should come to find itself in the political firing line of public consciousness, especially given that the attack is not for any aesthetic misdeed but because a particular design agency has come to be seen as intimately linked to the Conservative establishment.

(poster by Tom Freeman)

There's plenty more where that one came from, though those who are on better terms with Photoshop push the visual language of the poster to its extremes. Many spoofers have singled out Cameron’s airbrushing in particular as worthy of satire: on one poster a picture of a character from Avatar has been swapped with the picture of Cameron, coupled with the strap line, “No digital effects have been used on this poster.'”

(poster by Ian Yates)

Another spoof insists that the poster has not been airbrushed. Ask Maggie, here, it reads next to a photoshopped Thatcher face cut and pasted onto the body of a well-endowed and much younger woman.

(poster by Andy Toots)

Clearly, many Britons are more interested in the falsity of the visual language than of the political message being pandered. Indeed a whole garden industry has sprung up around the digital manipulation and spoofing of the Conservative election posters. You could waste hours amusing yourself at

What is perhaps most remarkable about these spoofed and graffitied posters is that the guerilla efforts mock not only the message but the medium as well. As a previous post claimed, the medium has become the message. As voters in this age of no-policy politics, it is the visual that we are meant to identify with. Surely this explains why so few guerilla taggers and photoshopers create original, never before seen, artwork for their mocktastic efforts. Unless the visual language is the same, the subversion is meaningless.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Register Now To Avoid Disappointment

Adrian Shaughnessy

Since voting in elections has become about as popular as holidays in North Korea, The Electoral Commission has decided that public money needs to be spent persuading us to re-acquire the habit of putting crosses on ballot papers.

A modest, unpretentious TV commercial is currently reminding us not to allow anything to get in the way of performing our democratic birthright to appoint the person of our choice to represent us in Parliament. Like forgetting to register to vote.

The story of a young, independent, dog-owning female called Liz is offered to us as a warning. A modern everywoman, Liz is dressed in Gap and lives on her own. We know this because why else would she take her dog to a polling booth? (Are dogs even allowed in polling booths?) We see her
emerging from a grim looking block of flats. A sub-Amelie mandolin and piano soundtrack accompanies her as she sashays through the local park. She could be taking part in a low-key yogurt commercial. Brimming with democratic intent she arrives at her nearest polling station

Yet before she can fulfil her electoral duty, she walks Marcel Marceau-style into an invisible glass wall and lands on her back. Poor Liz. She allowed something to get in her way; she neglected to register to vote.

On their website, The Electoral Commission announce themselves to be an independent body set up by the UK Parliament, “Our aim is,” they say, “integrity and public confidence in the democratic process.”

Integrity and public confidence, eh? Hardly words we currently associate with our governing class.
Of course, our reluctance to vote might be caused by any number of reasons: the fact that the insides of polling stations look like sets from an episode of Dad’s Army, for example. Or it might be because of those annoying people with rosettes who ask us for our voter’s roll number as we leave the polling station. A more likely reason, however, is the massive zeitgeist-weighted feeling that all politicians are greedy “cabs for hire” without a shred of integrity between them.

Will this ad persuade people to register? Perhaps. But I think it will take more than sassy Liz and her dog to shift the abscess of public disillusionment with politics from the national consciousness

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Purple Reign

As Labour and the Conservatives trade insults and policies in the grapple for the middle ground, Britain’s political hue is blending from red and blue into a suave shade of purple.
Traditional associations of red with socialism and blue with conservatism go back to the bonnets rouges of the French Revolution and True Blue English protestantism. The same spectrum of political allegiance now applies for most of Europe – the one big global anomaly being America where Democrats are associated with blue and Republicans with red.
Purple always held associations with imperial or holy power. The cost of the Tyrian dye made in Lebanon meant the colour was only available to the elite.

But purple entered the political mainstream in the 1980s when it became synonymous with the Dutch Purple (or ‘Paars’) Government, a coalition of the red social-democratic Labour Party and blue right-wing liberals the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy. The Purple Government was based on the innovative Polder Model of consensus policy, a ‘third way’ acclaimed and later borrowed by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

So when Tony Blair pitched New Labour at the middle ground during the 1997 election campaign the backgrounds used for speeches and party political broadcasts predictably faded to purple.

Over the last decade, Labour’s political palette has swung between rabble-rousing red and appeasing purple in response to the government’s fortunes.

In 1998 John Prescott balked at the background of his Party Conference speech saying "Purple? The imperial colour of Philip of Macedonia. I can't have that, can I? Change it!"
Since then the annual Labour Party Conferences have been conducted in front of a smouldering twilight gradient that shifts between lilac, violet and cabaret red depending on the speaker, illuminating Labour’s message with a powerpoint-like purple haze.

Brown re-branded Labour’s red rose in mauve when he took over from Blair in 2007 – then backtracked to a more traditional red following opposition from party faithfuls.

For Alistair Darling’s 2010 Budget Labour’s front bench turned out in uniform purple – perhaps a conscientious effort to avoid an ‘In the Red’ headline.

The Conservatives were slower to catch on to the game of stealthy graphical expansionism. In 2006 they claimed the eco-ground with a re-design of their logo as a scribbled green tree, keeping the blue but making it less banker more blue-sky-thinking.

Since then the Tories green streak has extended to David Cameron’s ties. But recently Cameron too has started to adopt purple as an attempt to woo floating voters.

A survey of recent ties shows Cameron stays towards the violet end of the spectrum – though he’s not afraid to venture into a lustrous mauve. Nick Clegg tends to lean towards lilac. Whereas Brown’s neck-ties are more variegated, ranging from lavender to magenta.

The purple reign of UK politics is the target of the Liberal Democrats’ new marketing campaign launched on the eve of April Fools’ Day. Marketing agency Iris has beautifully undercut the one-upmanship of Labour and the Tories by inventing a satirical campaign for the Labservatives, a bogus party which recasts the big two as a single flawed hegemony.

The graphics are a bastardised blend of Labour red and Tory blue, with fuzzy bland sans serif statements promising ‘more of the same’. Lines like ‘Familiarity Breeds Consent’ are cleverly cloaked digs that echo Pim Fortuyn’s Puinhopen Van Acht Jaar Paars (The Ruins of Eight Purple Years), the explosive book that effectively demolished the Dutch Purple Government when Fortuyn used it as the agenda for his political campaign in 2002. 

But there is a danger that the subtlety of the Labservative message will be lost on the majority of voters. The obliqueness of the campaign inadvertently reinforces the Lib Dems’ position at the fringe of the mainstream. By continuing to concentrate on the weaknesses of the big two rather than their own strengths, they may be condemning themselves to obscurity.

Fortuyn was assassinated 9 days before the Dutch General Elections, but went on to be posthumously elected to the House of Representatives.
In the absence of a bright alternative of any colour, perhaps Britain will end up voting in a purple advertising campaign.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Ask The Chancellors

Ask The Chancellors sets the three would-be Chancellors in a studio debate. It's part of a new role that TV is playing in the UK general election - later we'll see the party leaders doing the same for the first time.

The idea of introducing the televised debate as part of the election campaign – common in many other countries – comes it seems from the increasing disinterest that the electorate seem to show in politics and politicians.

So Channel 4s 'Ask the Chancellors' is an interesting development in the platforms of debate in the UK. It becomes a new type of space –somewhere between game show and the debating chamber of the House of Commons.

The show opened with an overview showing the three candidates each behind a podium on a stage (arranged left, centre, right according to traditional political leaning), facing an audience with Krishnan Guru-Murthy as the host.

Already the traditional spatial arrangement of British political debate is skewed. Instead of the opposing benches of the House of Commons, politicians relationship to the audience is frontal. And it seems to leaves them looking slightly awkward.

The most immediate visual effect is the sheer amount of purple. The whole stage is bathed in washes of non-partisan lilac.

The platform – in the design vernacular – "floats". That’s to say, it's raised slightly from the studio floor.  From underneath, it throws out a bluey-UVish light like a souped-up Vauxhall Astra.

Suspended somewhere over to the right, behind George Osborne, was a large floating oblong like an overscaled fluorescent light fitting.

Behind them a series of panels form a screen – the kind of thing you'd see in the makeover of a 60s office block, suggesting efficiency, contemporayness, openness, clarity. Here though its projected with three C4 logos and highlighted with more lilac spotlights.

The podia themselves are strangely flimsy things –a cross between the dispatch box and a game show. But is not a podium you could thump as you make a point without it collapsing.

 Perhaps the most affecting moment is when the camera shoots across the line of the candidates as one addressed another directly, rather than addressing the camera or the audience. Suddenly, the space becomes visceral, and intimate – the lens collapsing the space between them suddenly forcing an aggressive intimacy more familiar to a boxing weigh-in.

Of course, it’s a little ridiculous to be examining a no-doubt hastily assembled studio set for a profound semiological text on the nature of contemporary politics. But, perhaps the fact that its most obvious quality is a generic emptiness is an interesting attribute in itself. Of course it has none of the gothic spookiness of Westminster. But equally, it has none of the Day Today overblown drama of the contemporary news studio, or even the clubbish setting of Sunday political talk shows. Does this apparent expediency attempt to suggest transparency – that the medium itself isn’t anything more than a means of transmitting information in an innocent manner?

Whether TV is the answer to electoral disinterest is open to question – especially at a moment when TV itself has been fragmented by multi channels and platforms.  It was apparently watched by only 1.7m - 2.1m viewers.

One other thing ... tell us about that tie Krishnan

Monday, 29 March 2010

The Typology of Swingometers in Brief

It may only come out for one evening every 5 years, but nevertheless, the swingometer is perhaps the most definite design object of any election. It acts out democracy in front of our eyes, as if the reality of counting votes isn't real enough. 

A brief history of BBC Swingometers from 1955-2005

Election 1966, BBC Swingometer

Election 1970, BBC Swingometer

Election 1974

Hopefully, Swingometers will be a subject we return to again soon.

David Camerons Face as Pink, Fleshy Semiology

This piece on the first round of Tory pre-election posters was first published in Icon

I can’t quite describe the visual effect that struck me while driving around the Vauxhall one-way system. Suddenly, on a gigantic billboard, a huge, glowing image of David Cameron burst into the landscape.

Through my windscreen, his massive fleshy face stared at me with a Mona Lisa smile that seems to both care and sneer. His visage, with £50,000 of photoshopping, appeared three-storey huge. Suit and shirt but no tie and a slight tilt to the head. A touch of ruddiness to his cheek suggesting the Englishness of Home Counties outdoor activity. A hazy background suggesting a public-private initiative-type space: AHMM education or Penoyre & Prasad healthcare. A few simple elements: just face and whiteness and simple type that reads, Jenny Holzer-style, "We can’t go on like this" (the kind of thing you say compassionately to a lover you no longer love, but don’t want to hurt). Cameron’s image seems instantly clear. But also entirely foxing.

The image marks the start of the Conservatives’ pre-election campaign. And it’s a strange campaign that seems to distill the current state of British politics. Traditional political rhetoric has evaporated into soundbites, focus groups and neoliberal consensus. Politics has become an aesthetic project rather than a verbal one. Positions are not set out in words, but expressed through hyper-sophisticated images.

In Cameron’s face, the distinction between form and content seems to have collapsed. There is no message apart from the medium. The form is the content. Here, the differences between the politics of design and the design of politics dissolve into one another. In contemporary politics, there is an absence of argument. In its place we have image. Politics has become totally aestheticised.

Cameron’s poster presents what seems a transparent window to the image of a real live human being. But it’s not really a picture of his face, and not really a picture of a human being. It’s an ideological construct played out in flesh and airbrush. Face here is not a function of biology or physiology. It’s pink, fleshy semiology.

The poster has a blank quality, flat and still as though it were a pool reflecting the world back at itself. Its image is slippy like ice, so that it falls from your hand when you try to grasp it. Its effect is a ghostly haze; an apparition of meaning that vanishes if you fix your gaze on it. It possesses an intense but unfocused sincerity.

To set this poster in relief, we might note how it differs from other recent forms of political communication. For example, Shepard Fairey’s celebrated posters for Obama’s election campaign used a retro technique that explicitly recalled counter-cultural image-making from previous generations. The nostalgic visual language is overcoded with red, white and blue patriotism and slogans that are banal-positive with an Orwellian touch: "Hope", "Change" and so on. Form and content head in opposite directions.

In Cameron’s massive and mass-produced visage we see image-politics matured to a point where it is confident to express no slogan, policy or allegiance to any ideology, or even any sense that he is the leader of a particular political party. Empty of traditional politics, it fuses techniques of image-making in a way that strangely seems to synthesise art and life. Design and politics become the same thing – as complete as any constructivist could dream of.

We are as suspicious of design as we are of contemporary politics. In both, the perfect surface – the image – represents the artificial and the superficial. But in the collapse of one onto another, it’s just possible that two wrongs might fuse into a right.

Instead of mourning the loss of wordy political rhetoric or design as a zombified aestheticism machine serving the military-industrial complex, we might recognise that profound and very real political discourse has shifted to the image world. In doing this we might recognise design’s potential as a radical surface to act out the politics of the 21st century. And that, ironically, this vector might reconstruct design as the political agent its modernist forefathers told us it could be. 

The Aesthetics of Politics

According to prevailing opinion, there's not much politics left in politics, the difference between left and right having become a hazy blur of neo-liberal spin. Personally, I'm not sure I subscribe to this view entirely. But it's certainly true that the language of politics - and especially politics in election campaign mode - has become ever more visual.

Rather than dismiss this non-verbal political rhetoric as shallow spin, here at Election Aesthetics we think it's imperative to take the visual rhetorics seriously - to examine their techniques, meanings and intent. Over the course of the coming months, we'll be looking at the aesthetics of politics as it plays out over the election campaign.