The Sun channels Shepard Fairey's image of Obama (image: © The Sun/Nisyndication.com)
The British general election was a sorry spectacle of reused imagery drained of ideology, says Sam Jacob
At one point in the BBC's election night coverage, David Dimbleby took a moment to congratulate the Corporation, and himself, on an image over his shoulder on a large TV screen. It showed Big Ben with a red-blue-yellow bar chart projection designed to show the seat-by-seat progress to power mapped onto the site of power itself.
This infographic – the kind of thing that tells us that politics is clear, straightforward and objective – overlaid Pugin's neo-gothic elevation (which we should remember is itself a form of information, where architectural language represents politics as a shadowy, cloak and dagger-ish activity). These two representations of politics merged into a single image with multiple meanings.
The picture over Dimbleby's shoulder was working four times over: as establishing shot denoting British politics, as the actual site of power, as datascape and as arcane 19th-century architectural language. It was, despite Dimbleby's admiration, an underwhelming image – the Houses of Parliament being a technically poor projection surface, as we've known since Gail Porter's arse advertised FHM.
The muddy, mixed-up image might have missed its spot, but it did say something important about the idea of representation, about, to use the curious phrase coined by Cameron during the campaign, a "subjecty subject".
Representation is the core of democracy. We elect representatives who enter parliament to represent us. In order to win our vote, these prospective representatives represent things to us: competing images of the nation, policies, concepts, ideas and so on. The democratic process is itself represented through the media. These media representations then feed back into the representatives' representations, and the way that we choose to be represented.
Politics is like a hall of mirrors. And during an election these mirrors are polished to Hubble-esque performance. Forms of representation bounce off one another in a kaleidoscopic, semiological orgy. Even when it's all been settled, we wonder how representative parliament is of us. Does it, for example, "look" like us?
Representation in politics – as in other areas of life – seems in crisis. After years of images increasing in importance, sophistication and power, the 2010 election was – visually – strikingly un-striking. No "Labour Isn't Working", no "Demon Eyes", no "Tax Bomb". Poster campaigns constantly shifted message, style and technique.
Instead of strong, direct imagery we had parodies of existing images with alternative messages. Lib Dem posters turned 1992's Tax Bomb back on the Tories. They merged blue and red to advertise the fictitious "Labservative" party (led by Gorvid Camerown). Labour produced an ad for a faux TV show, casting Cameron as Gene Hunt from time-travel-based 80s parody Ashes to Ashes. And the Tories gave us someone else's slogan, switcherooing Obama's "Change".
Media played this game too. The Sun gave us Cameron in socialist realist form one day ("Iron Man Cam"), Obamafied the next. These multiple strategies created scattergun aesthetics which reused imagery drained of its original ideology or political significance. By removing this original meaning, these images slipped across the ideological spectrum with ease.
The way that image and representation works changes in a culture so dominated by the visual. What we saw in this campaign was a delamination of visual effect and meaning – a peeling apart of their traditional intimate relationship. Instead of fixed and strong images, the election gave us malleable, weak images. These are images that acknowledge our lack of trust in direct statements. They already know that we are suspicious of the old political narratives that they served, and of those who serve them to us. Their weakness is a means of including – and so representing – our doubt.
This crisis of symbolism and iconography in political representation was mirrored in the system's inability to deliver a clear result. The resolution of the electorate's decision was so low that it took immense political skill to construct a plausible interpretation – or, as Alastair Campbell put it on election night, "construct political narrative" around the unfolding events.
For the parties and the media, the campaign was organised around the normal first-past-the-post narrative that characterises British political culture. Swingometers waited for their orgasmic finale. It never quite came. The BBC's Big Ben infographic became redundant as a narrative image. On the night it was the wrong kind of tool, like trying to paint a watercolour with a spade.
The results projected onto Big Ben (image: Graeme C Hall)
The Lib Dems recycle an image from 1992 (image: Alex Folkes/Fishnik)