BY Sam Thorne in Opinion | 01 JUN 10
Featured in
Issue 132

Political Parties

The mingling of art and elections

BY Sam Thorne in Opinion | 01 JUN 10

Election-night get-togethers are always a good way to ruin an evening: tense, television-orientated affairs, they’re the most fraught kind of event that people still dare call a party. Because, whatever the circumstances, election nights are always an apprehensive period of limbo between two soon-to-be discrete periods – the nervous fun is in the waiting for a verdict on the first of these, which decides the shape of the second. I’m writing a day after the first coalition government since 1945 has been formed in the UK. For those with an eye on arts funding, details on cultural policy are unusually scant; prospects are bleak. But I’d guess that the arts are considered by some to be a niche interest for a country that has had its longest period of sustained economic growth since records began, followed by its longest-ever period of sustained economic contraction. I doubt 2010 is a vintage year for election parties.

Television’s continued importance to election night produces the kind of community of viewers that, X Factor-style shows aside, rarely coalesces around live events anymore. Many watch the same things on the same channels unfold at the same time. But this was an election lacking a single star performance; one in which the complexity of the key issues – the national deficit and the threat of economic breakdown – was difficult to properly visualize. It’s not surprising that few artists have tried tackling the subject. As Dan Fox wrote on the frieze editors’ blog last October: ‘In the absence of visual subject matter that might inspire a latter-day Walker Evans or Dorothea Lange […] how can today’s artists make work about the relative abstraction of the current economic recession?’ Does image (and information) saturation on the one hand and the dauntingly abstract nature of financialization on the other mean an impasse for artists drawn to the complexities of politics?

As well as providing a highly-strung pause, the oddities of election night might also be a means to focus. Skip back to November 1988; it’s the end of an American presidential race – between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis – that has been defined by a new level of television-led spectacle. We’re in New York, where Group Material’s ‘Democracy: Politics and Election’ is showing at Dia Art Foundation. Decked with all the festive trimmings of a televised election rally, the gallery looks set for a party: hundreds of red, white and blue balloons cover the ceiling; caterers mix drinks in matching colours; a television tuned to major network campaign coverage sits by the entrance. The atmosphere is uneasy; as the press release notes, the exhibition looks like ‘a perversely patriotic party gone wrong’. It’s characteristic of Group Material to harness the queasy set-up of an election party as the framework for a show: where else – amidst tired news anchors, tears and unscripted victories – are the mechanics and artifice of mainstream broadcasting stripped so bare? Keep watching live TV long enough and something interesting will happen.

Fast-forward 20 years to November 2008 and we’re in another New York gallery on election night. At first glance the exhibition looks remarkably like the Dia show, only the mood is one of jubilant optimism rather than awkwardness. We are at the end of what’s been touted as the first Internet-led presidential campaign, with important battles won and lost on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Despite this, it isn’t computer monitors but two flat-screen televisions that hang back-to-back from the gallery ceiling, piping in CNN on one side and the Fox News Channel on the other. Televized coverage mediates a good deal of our election experience; indeed, this exhibition – by Jonathan Horowitz – presents rival news networks as being equally representative of political divisions as party colours. (A split carpet of red and blue accentuates the divide.) Although the gallery is separated down party lines, there is no ill feeling; the happy community of viewers is as partisan as you’d expect of a show titled – presumptuously, but correctly – ‘Obama ’08’. Group Material’s icy scepticism of patriotic baubles has thawed; rather than scrutinize proceedings at a remove, Horowitz earnestly embraces the spectacle of art-directed electioneering. As the hoped-for result is announced, the crowd cheers; red, white and blue balloons fall from the ceiling. The Huffington Post reports from the event: ‘We were laughing because finally the dream was coming true […] today we had a chance to be the best we can be.’ Apparently critical distance doesn’t mix well with long-held political views: individual judgement is replaced by unquestioning consensus.

Trudge on a further 18 months and we’re back to the present. When the polls closed, I was in a gallery full of screens, only this time they weren’t showing election coverage, but a new, five-part drama – Popular Unrest by Melanie Gilligan – that takes a markedly different approach to the problems of representing life in the aftermath of the financial crisis. (It’s a little like satirical news show Brass Eye directed by David Cronenberg.) Filmed in London during the run-up to the election, Popular Unrest is set in a jittery near-future that is very much like the present, in which all social and financial transactions are overseen by a man-made system known as the Spirit. This version of the city is plagued by a spate of mysterious killings by knife-wielding invisible force; everyone is keenly aware of the absurdity of being at the prey of abstractions. (A character exclaims: ‘Just our luck – we live in a totally rational world where they can’t find a supernatural killer!’) One group, who seem to be speaking in tongues, are actually channelling the language of commodities, shares and algorithms: such nefarious abstractions are inscribed on the whole population – a paranoiac, election-night fantasia. Welcome to the world of complex finance – it’s not pretty but, for the moment at least, it’s not going away.

Sam Thorne is director of Nottingham Contemporary, UK.