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.