While television played a part in the 1963 General Election in New Zealand, it wasn’t until the 1969 and 1972 campaigns that televisual political messages assumed their current form. Colourful and punchy, these pieces borrowed from the audio visual vocabulary of advertising and became creative endeavours in and of themselves.
In terms of representation, Party Political Broadcasts are at their core self-determining. Rather than relying on the media to construct narratives, each political party has creative freedom to show themselves as they would like to be perceived. In commissioning the Party Political Broadcast project we asked eight New Zealand artists to imagine and present a future vision for the country via a fictional television advertisement, the only constraint a 30 second time limit to reflect the likely broadcast length of such advertising.
This project comes at a time when our public broadcasters (TVNZ and RNZ) are no longer obligated to provide free airtime for New Zealand’s political parties to broadcast their opening and closing statements. The Broadcasting and Electoral Amendment Bills were passed in March 2017 after complaints from TVNZ that viewership dropped by over 25% during the 2014 opening and closing statements and were therefore putting the broadcaster at a commercial disadvantage. Running up to nearly a quarter of an hour for each of the two main parties – an hour in total for the full complement of parties – the electoral programmes were called "boring", "wildly unpopular", and "outdated" by commentators and politicians.(1)(2) While these long form explications of policy and vision were, by most entertainment standards, "dry", they were nonetheless a platform that provided an opportunity for indepth discussion around certain issues at election time.
The removal of these opening and closing statements can be read as another blow for the public discussion of politics and democracy within a broader context of the dwindling interest of the fourth estate in serious politics both locally and internationally. This structural shift over the last 30 years has occurred concurrently with a heightened awareness of spin and spin doctors (the most nefarious of political actors).(3) Issues of authenticity and truth telling have become so exacerbated that former BBC Director General Mark Thompson has claimed that "The gap between the claims and promises of political leaders and the facts on the ground…" has become "insupportably wide", and that this failure of conventional political rhetoric has created a disbelieving public and resulted in a "crisis in public language".(4)
The majority of artists commissioned for Party Political Broadcast, in one way or another, explore the failure of political language. Fantasing’s four channel split portrays a mostly wordless state of catatonia engulfing the four characters. One delivers an apology choking back tears while another, Hulk-like in appearance, screams in guttural rage on the edge of a river. A third character is curled like a foetus in a hole that fits their body perfectly, while another sits in a basement with knees drawn to their chin, holding a lighter. Also featuring four protagonists of different political stripes, Li-Ming Hu’s 80s pop-infused work combines faux cheeriness with a savage commentary on the reality of personality driven politics. Again, there is an overwhelming feeling that the world will continue burning as petty, fleeting human dramas hog the spotlight.
Watching National MP Nick Smith stumble for excuses to explain away the housing crisis in the snug den of a plush Wanaka Hotel is cognitive dissonance at its surreal best. Well, at least until Murray Hewitt drops the first bars of AC/DC’s Back in Black and we find out that the beautiful beast of a fire in the background is the Jet Master SFB 150 – and then the surrealism gets better, and the situation gets worse. As the laughter subsides, the terror that this could be a twisted vision for the future sets in. That these people are able to maintain belief in the status quo, precisely because it suits them, becomes an almost undeniable truth.
The crescendo of frustration with the "crisis of public language" comes with the most humble of fanfares: a snail parps and slimes its way across a generic surface in Mark Harvey’s "Let’s Go!", seemingly losing energy and motivation as it moves forward. The only message it remains capable of delivering by the time it crosses the screen is "Yes" – an affirmation hollowed out of any meaning or determination by the pathetic display that has gone before it.
The most verbose of the series, Callum Devlin’s prevarication around the delivery of pancakes instead of cakes is a masterclass in political rhetoric veiled as honesty: anti-rhetoric rhetoric. Despite flip-flopping between not being capable of baking a cake to not having the ingredients for a cake, but actually having the ingredients for pancakes, when clearly the McDonald’s hotcake package is discarded in clear view, there is a disarming approximation of candour throughout. You might hear someone exclaim that "At least he’s fronting up" or "Pancakes are as good as cakes anyway" as he slips out of the noose by exclaiming, “I didn’t say that they were the same. They were something that I could do. If you trusted that what I’m saying is the truth then maybe we could just run with that.” As Thompson said, "once viewers are convinced you’re not trying to deceive them, they may switch off critical faculties they usually apply to political speech and forgive you any amount of exaggeration, contradiction or offensiveness."(5)
The sampling of footgage from the New Zealand produced feature film, The Quiet Earth, showing Zac Hobson (played by Bruno Lawrence) destroying the television in Terri Te Tau’s Te Ao Ngū can be read as an urgent warning to switch on our critical faculties, whilst simultaneously switching off from the simulacra of the mediated political world. In the preceding scene, Hobson, who believes he is the only human on earth following an apocalyptic envrionmental catastrophe, indulges in a megalomaniacal scenario whereby he declares himself President of the World.
The urgency in Te Ao Ngū continues in Janet Lilo’s video, which also riffs on the ‘man alone’ theme. There are very few messages of hope or positivity in the series, but ‘Don’t let them win without a fight’, the parting text of Janet Lilo’s video, is as close to a meaningful rallying cry as we come. Lilo’s animated work features a protagonist seemingly isolated and suggests that an antidote to the disillusionment with politics lies in collective action and increased participation in the democractic process. Similarly defiant, Miranda Bellamy’s confrontational work turns the camera back to the electorate and asks them to consider their behaviour in relation to others, to act with empathy and in the knowledge that we create the common good.