Saturday, 2 May 2015

A Pint Glass, A Laundry Basket and a High-Vis Jacket: Objects as Political Props

By Nick de Klerk

‘Every idea and object has a history, which describes its provenance and tells you what it is doing there.’ Christina Mackie

Scenario 1

A pint glass, full to the brim with warm, English ale is held aloft, a St George’s flag grasped in the other hand. The backdrop: a broad, apparently effusive grin that belies its well-worn, workaday nature.

Scenario 2

A lurid green laundry basket, carefully placed not quite under the second kitchen’s counter, hovers ambivalently in view. It appears empty, although there might be something heaped at the bottom. A man and a woman stand alongside each other: she leaning against the opposite counter, he facing her, resting his hand against the counter. They are both holding coffee mugs, and are apparently deep in conversation. 

Scenario 3

A pair of middle-aged men face each other, one awkwardly holding what at first glance appears to be an architectural model, but which, on discerning the trowel gingerly grasped by the other, reveals itself to be a plastering hawk. The space they are in appears to be a warehouse or construction site – what it is, is not clear, but the inference is: this is where work happens. As if to press home the point, they are wearing construction helmets set at deliberately jaunty angles and bulky high-vis jackets.

Three mass manufactured, synthetic objects, three contrived scenarios. The pint glass, the laundry basket and the high-vis jacket (as deployed) nonetheless attempt to create points of connection with the everywoman and man at whom these scenarios are targeted, within three visible spheres of influence: the pub, the home and the workplace.

The pint glass, an ‘inverted truncated cone around 6 inches tall’ which tapers by ‘about 1 inch over its height’, is pushed to the foreground, augmenting its bearer’s claim to an authentic ordinariness. The measure of the tea coloured ale is regulated by UK law and sold in imperial measure while the definition of a pint of beer was the subject of an early day motion in 2008. As an ‘an imperial symbol of defiance that says "back off" to Brussels’, it’s a pithily appropriate flagstaff for a nationalist political party. It’s very form and identity is rooted in the commons, matched by the ale’s ability to fuel and lubricate public discourse.

The laundry basket, according to apparently genuine customer reviews, is popular and robust. ‘Verified Purchaser’ bunny1967, from Gloucester deems it ‘lightweight but sturdy’. In the constituency of customer reviews its purchasers have exercised their franchise, assessing value, quality and ease of use. It too is a truncated cone, which tapers out from a slightly narrower base. The basket wall is punctured by a series of oddly truncated arched openings for ventilation, set out radially from the centre of the bin, grouped in four rows of four. They look like they could be windows and have a curiously architectural quality. It has an odd, borrowed monumentality, shot through with pathos, given the cheapness and disposability of the artefact.

The high-vis jackets, like a small cluster of fluorescent carapaces, cannot help but dominate the image, simultaneously obscuring and yet conferring authority on the scene playing out in front of us. They too have become a well-worn trope of political posturing, used by many politicians as a visual shortcut to working credibility. Perhaps if you build it, or at least appear to be trying, they really will come.

The props demand an increasingly central role in a political culture dominated by images and soundbites, with less and less of a demand for, or interest in, ideas. They have become both product and process, and constitute publics around them – in use, consumer reviews and comment forums. It’s a short cognitive leap to consider whether these objects are merely artefacts of a political culture or whether they are the culture itself.

Two current exhibitions suggest there may be some credence to this proposition. The Parliament of Things, currently on at FirstSite in Colchester, draws its title from Bruno Latour’s notion, and considers how we ‘understand and perceive objects’ and ‘the influence that technology bears on how value [and meaning] is assigned.’ In brief, Latour’s project complicates what he sees as artificial categories of social and physical constructions and the discourse that surrounds them.

Okwui Enwezor’s Parliament of Forms, one of the main exhibitions at this year’s Venice Biennale, suggests that forms or objects can be ‘brought together to form one stage of meaning, one stage of enunciation, one stage of articulation’. These forms have long been relegated to a supporting role – codified and regimented and always seen in relationship to a social or political action. By invoking the collapse of history and the recognising the entanglement of things, time and people and processes, we can begin to articulate an equivalence of form with other actors in any given scenario, offering an opportunity to see the political process and our relationship to it anew.

The pint glass, the laundry basket and the high-vis jacket have a visual and formal language entirely of their own which has embodied and associative qualities. Consider the supply chain or the market in which they are bought, sold or traded, the extraction and processing of the minerals from which they are manufactured, the communities displaced, and labour exploited and organised in the process. Territories, titles and land, shipping and transport, storage and packaging and ultimately disposal to waste or recycling – only to change shape, continuing in an unbroken cycle.

No longer mute accessory to or conveniently representative of an expressed political narrative or scenario, the props jostle, compete and occupy a political stage alongside, against and in concert with the usual protagonists.

Nick de Klerk works in architecture, tweets at @nick_deklerk and blogs (occasionally) at

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