Referendum Night  2019

(Ten-minute preview of) 40-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 40 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 10pm 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 4.30am, and finally, at 8am, relays the resignation speech of Prime Minister David Cameron.

The programme is essentially engaged in a process of making the raw data of the election results meaningful. It is this emphasis on meaning-making – achieved linguistically 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 has become 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 will, crucially, be likely to have already formed an opinion about it. In shutting down conventional linguistic routes into meaning-making, the work can therefore be seen as adopting an approach to a widely-debated political theme that is pointedly and uncommonly non-discursive. If the work is to be interpreted as “political”, that attribution must stem solely from the viewer’s familiarity with its subject-matter – for the absurd form of the video cannot in itself be said to articulate any determinable critical position or argument.

One of the motivations behind the removal of the verbal content of the original broadcast is to introduce a moment of silence into what has become a relentless, polarising, and seemingly interminable debate over the rights, wrongs, and paths towards the UK’s proposed exit from the EU. To the extent that Referendum Night is “critical”, then, it is directed towards the representation of that debate as it is 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 in no way intended as an expression of any anti-Brexit “Remainer” stance. It is, rather, driven by a desire to displace an existing, highly conventionalised and entrenched discourse with an open-ended and indeterminate absurdity. As a consequence, advocates of both sides of the debate are presented in the video – via a carefully-implemented process of editing – as equally inarticulate and confused, as too are the presenters, reporters and analysts who attempt to make sense of the story as it unfolds.

The “erasure” performed in Referendum Night has the effect of leaving the discursivity of the original context entirely behind. As a response to the context from which it emerged, the work is in no way legible; it is, rather, a leap into an entirely different realm, a outright rejection of a given set of language and protocols – an effacement of a preexisting “sensible world” of critical discourse.

Text adapted from chapter of PhD thesis The Use of Tactical Absurdity in Critical Art Practice, Aug 2019.