14 Vote
Type
Reflection
Category
Culture
Politics

Signs of the times

The news even reached Australia, via the local chapter of Buzzfeed: ‘New Zealanders Are Vandalising Their Political Billboards And It’s Awesome’. Except, it’s not. As Toby Manhire has observed, the defaced billboards, on the whole, are rather unawesome. But it’s true that they are everywhere. I took this picture near my house last Friday.

Rongotai

 

The next day someone came to replace the billboard, and it was immediately defaced again. Then, for good measure, someone knocked it down, leaving the timber framing neatly disassembled beside it.

GE DIGITAL CAMERA

 

It’s a strange kind of vandalism, dutiful, almost polite. You erect your billboard. We’ll add penises and dollar signs to them, or cut your face out, or just knock the bloody thing over.

There is a peculiar drabness to these interventions. They are, with few exceptions, so utterly unimaginative. Only in rare cases is the statement bold enough to at least communicate a sense of passion and feeling.

3 Mud

 

4 Fuck off

 

But for the most part it’s penises, dollar signs, faces cut out. Swastikas and freemason symbols are also common, as is the phrase ‘casual fascism’, an indicator of the lazy shallowness of the prevailing anti-Tory rhetoric.

 

5 Swag

6 Working for rich people7 Fremmason, cock

8 Hitler9 Casual fascists

 

 

But the one-sided nature of the vandalism is also worth reflecting upon. The only other significant target is Colin Craig, a businessman who has thrown his personal fortune behind turning his coalition of social conservatives into a political force. You could argue that his unsettling billboards come pre-defaced.

 

10 Craig straight

 

But they have been subjected nonetheless to unusually well-crafted and witty reimaginings.

11 Craig frog

 

With the exception of Craig, however, it’s all National Party, all the time. But why? What makes this year and that party special? It’s possible that the hobby has taken off due to the social media resonance it has received after spawning its own tumblr blog. Or it could be the ubiquity of the Tory billboards, all identical, that generated its own backlash. In Christchurch, the city that still suffers from the ongoing devastation of neoliberal reconstruction after the earthquake of 2011, the sentiment is understandable for yet another set of reasons. But the vandalism, and the dreariness of its language, could also be the expression of a growing anti-political sentiment.

Consider the alternative: the centre-left coalition of Labour and the Greens has decided to counter the popularity of John Key’s government and of its matter-of-fact, confident message – Working for New Zealand – with expressions of optimism of their own: ‘Vote Positive’ and ‘Love New Zealand’.

 

12 Labour13 Greens

 

 

Even though the Greens’ slogan is somewhat undercut by its imagery, these are messages appropriate to a country that has no significant problems to grapple with, and can afford to choose its government based on the cheerfulness of its branding or how effectively the administration projects a sense of technocratic competence. There is no real contrast in the opposition’s campaigns, no real attempt to articulate an alternative set of values and policies, just the requisite reminder that there are other parties besides the one that has been in charge for the last six years.

With that in mind, I think it would be reductive to see this year’s wave of billboard vandalism as the expression of a specific opposition to the Tories, when it could equally voice a more generic dislike of the business of politics, which just so happens – quite appropriately – to be aimed at the party in government and its figurehead. This would explain the incoherence of the invectives, which are sometimes tinged with appalling sexism and racism to boot. These aren’t left-wing values in any recognisable sense. Then again, left-wing values aren’t being cultivated in any meaningful way.

14 Vote

There is another campaign that is ramping up as election day approaches, and it is aimed at getting more people to vote. Politicians and commentators routinely fret about the steadily decreasing turnout, which in 2011 was the lowest since women won the right to vote in 1893. Their inclination, naturally, is to view this trend as a symptom of voter apathy, as opposed to a consequence of the narrow range of choices on offer, or the inability or unwillingness of our parties to represent entire sectors of society. The slogan of the 45-second television ad commissioned by the Electoral Commission to Saatchi and Saatchi nicely illustrates where the moral failing lies:

Do you care about this country? Then you should vote.

Whereas the posters for the campaign articulate the other key tenet of the liberal democratic dream:

Your vote is worth the same as everybody else’s.

Neither of these things is true: voting is not a civic duty irrespective of the range of outcomes that it can be reasonably expected to produce; and the votes of the citizens whose interests are preferentially served by our politicians – most proverbially, those of bourgeois swing voters – are demonstrably worth more than the others.

The rhetoric that dominates the political discourse, in the form of admonishments to vote for the lesser evil and the demand to participate in the political process as a disinterested act of citizenship, represents the enlightened view mitigating not only against voter apathy, but also against billboard vandalism and our most destructive tendencies. Were those in fact the only options, I’d be tempted to re-evaluate and possibly embrace the penises, dollar signs, etcetera. But if the tide of anti-politics is indeed rising in New Zealand – as next month’s election might go some way toward proving or disproving – it will require serious critical analysis as opposed to a saddened, disapproving shaking of our collective heads.

Comments

  1. Surely the prevalence in the defacing of National billboards – actually, Internet-Mana have suffered quite sustained attacks too – is an offshoot of incumbency, not to mention National’s reliance on John Key’s media image carrying them through their 6 years, muting the real discontent created by the country’s facts on the ground. Inarticulate the anger might be, but it is acutely directed.

    The washed out electoral commission ads I also find disquieting, like a visual shrug. Many these ads would purport to aim at – the young and disenfranchised – will tune out in the first 5 secs, it doesn’t speak to them. Not convinced their heart was in getting more to vote this election, stick with the orange man.

    • An offshoot of the incumbency, maybe. Acutely directed, I just don’t know. Like I said, it is appropriate that the vandalism should be targeted mainly at National and Key, but it may also be that there is an element of self-reinforcing fashion in defacing the blue posters- in that it’s what everyone seems to be doing. It may seem a cop-out on my part, but I just think that these acts are hard to interpret one way or the other.

  2. Electoral politics is not the only form of politics, and rejection of the current electoral choices is not necessarily “anti-political sentiment”. (I dislike the term ‘anti-politics’ because its users generally assume that politics and parliamentary politics are the same thing). The recent demonstrations in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle are deeply political, but have little bearing on the electoral circus. The main problem with the billboard defacing, and of the whole “Fuck John Key” campaign of which it is an expression, is that it is directionless. There is nothing ‘progressive’ about it, as the anti-Semitic and sexist defacings prove. It vents frustration with the narrow choices of electoral politics, but without offering any way out of it, and thus actually strengthens the grip of the bourgeois electoral machine.

    • I’d be the last person to reduce politics to parliamentary politics, but it’s also true that our society has a number of political institutions, chief among which is the house of representatives, and to express disdain for that body or the manner in which it gets chosen is deserving of the name anti-politics unless inscribed in an alternative political project – say, revolutionary socialism or what have you. So, as to your conclusion (“It vents frustration with the narrow choices of electoral politics, but without offering any way out of it, and thus actually strengthens the grip of the bourgeois electoral machine”) I agree, but what’s what anti-politics is.

    • Best in my memory was Richard Prebble in 1999. They abseiled in the middle of the night down the huge billboard he had at the corner of Courtenay Place and Kent Terrace, in Wellington, and covered his full body picture, which was several metres high, with a perfectly proportioned Mr Burns. It was a great technical, artistic and athletic feat.

  3. An alternate interpretation to pre- defaced?

    This comment from an overseas friend, recently landed. re the Colin Craig billboard.-” Arty portrait in the style of Dorothea Lange picturing the American depression or Diane Arbus the misfits. Fitting perfectly with the subject. “

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