Referendum Night  2019

(Three-minute preview of) 36-minute video for monitor or projection.

Referendum Night edits out all of the articulate speech from the BBC’s live coverage of the 2016 United Kingdom European Union membership (“Brexit”) referendum. The original eleven-hour broadcast is reduced to a sequence of 36 minutes of stuttering silence, hesitation, confusion and nonsensical utterances.

Comprised of rolling coverage and analysis of the results, as well as interviews with politicians and journalists, the original broadcast begins at 10 pm at the close of the polls, announces the earliest regional results around midnight, continues to report on incoming results over the next few hours, declares the “Leave” side the winner at around 4.30 am, before finally, at 8 am, relaying the resignation speech of Prime Minister David Cameron.

The programme is engaged in a process of making the raw data of the election results meaningful. It is this emphasis on meaning-making – achieved discursively through various strategies of summarisation and explanation, interpretation and analysis, argumentation and the giving of opinions – that the subtractive editing process seeks to disrupt.

Having attained the status of an omnipresent and inescapable news item, Brexit became a ubiquitous discussion-topic in broadcast and social media, as well as in academic, cultural, and everyday discourse. It can be reasonably assumed that a viewer of the work will not only be familiar with the result of the referendum, but also, crucially, will have had some exposure to the debates surrounding it – and perhaps already formed their own opinions about it. In shutting down conventional verbal routes into meaning-making, the work can be seen as committing itself to a pointedly and uncommonly non-discursive approach to a widely-debated political theme.

One of the motivations behind the removal of the spoken content of the original broadcast was to forcibly introduce a moment of “silence” into what had become a relentless, polarising, and seemingly interminable debate over the rights, wrongs, and paths towards the UK’s exit from the EU. To the extent that Referendum Night articulates a “position”, it is directed against the representation of that debate as mediated through various discursive channels.

Although my own views on Brexit are clear (as a university-educated British citizen living in the cosmopolitan capital of Germany, they hardly need clarification), the work is not intended as an expression of any anti-Brexit stance. It is, rather, driven by a desire to displace an existing, highly conventionalised and entrenched discourse with an open-ended and indeterminately critical silence. As a consequence, advocates of both sides of the debate are presented in the video – via a carefully-balanced process of editing – as equally inarticulate and confused, as too are the presenters, reporters and analysts, whose attempts to make sense of the story as it unfolds result only in nonsense.

The tactically absurd “erasure” performed in Referendum Night leaves the discursivity of the original context entirely behind: its imposition of silence within an arena of political meaning-making represents a leap into an entirely different realm, an outright rejection of a given set of discursive protocols.

Referendum Night has been shown at Dave Ball: Tactically Absurd at Winchester Gallery, UK in 2020.

Text adapted from chapter of PhD thesis The Use of Tactical Absurdity in Critical Art Practice, Sep 2020.