The project, titled Blueprints 2017-2020, distills and recaptures images from the British media that came to characterise the years following the EU referendum
On 23 June 2016, Britain held a referendum on membership of the European Union; 51.89 per cent of those who voted opted ‘Leave’. Nearly four years later, on 31 January 2020, the UK actually did leave, after protracted debate in Brussels and the UK, and two changes of Prime Minister. Arriving in London in August 2017 to study at the University of Westminster, German artist Norman Behrendt was thrown into the deep end of fraught discussions about nationality, patriotism, and immigration, and found himself at a loss.
“It was a very specific time to be in the UK – a time marked by a lot of uncertainty, tons of questions but also a lot of misunderstanding on both sides of the argument,” he says. “It was a void. I wanted to deal with Brexit for my MA but I was struggling a lot. The struggle was defined by uncertainty of how to proceed, of how to photograph something almost invisible, how to photograph a relationship between the EU and the UK.”
Behrendt is an award-winning photographer, whose photobook Burning down the house, 2007-2012 won first prize at the Fotobook Dummy Award in Kassel in 2013, and whose project Brave New Turkey, 2015-2017, was nominated for the New Discovery Award at Rencontres d’Arles in 2017. His work often explores topics surrounding national identity. Brave New Turkey looks at President Erdogan and his depiction of the country’s history, for example, and Morning has not dawned yet, 2016-16, explores Lithuania, the first Soviet state to declare independence in 1990. Even so, he felt he couldn’t document Brexit.
Instead he became fascinated with how it was being portrayed by others, and in particular with videos shared via YouTube and social media. Starting with “the most obvious propaganda”, including the £350 million Brexit Bus, the UK Independence Party’s “Breaking point“ poster or the Brexit song by Mandy Boylett, he began to take screenshots; as the project progressed, he started to follow political parties’ YouTube channels and also collect footage from speeches and news channels. Eventually he realised, “I didn’t need to speak about this issue inevitably through my own photographs.” Instead, he captured these stills at higher quality with a digital camera.
“The images that I selected persuade, lie, convince, scare and seduce us. They are visual metaphors.”
By 2018 he had collected nearly 4000 images, from which he selected 175 for his MA degree show installation, titled Blueprint 2017-18, and by 2020 he had selected another 175, for another installation. Both sets of images have now been collected into a book, published by the Swedish independent publisher, Kult Books. For both installations, the images were printed as A3 cyanotypes, nodding to the blue of the European Union flag, and to the British Conservative Party, which steered the Brexit referendum and process. The cyanotypes are also intended to help distance the viewer from the images, though, to give them space to take a step back. This, because Behrendt believes we consume so many images per day, “we don’t look carefully….any more, we just consume them”.
The shots Behrendt has selected are interesting, and include scenes that might otherwise fly by unnoticed. There are instantly recognisable politicians and emotive shots of flags and beaches, but there are also more oblique views of lecterns, or shadowy figures, or pointing fingers. “The images that I selected persuade, lie, convince, scare and seduce us,” he explains. “They are visual metaphors.”
The images of pointing fingers are a good example, a gesture of the self-righteous which also evokes a famous British Army recruitment poster from World War One, featuring Lord Kitchener and the tagline “wants you!”. That visual correspondence is important, because Behrendt also made cyanotypes to suggest blueprints – reproductions of technical drawings that help ensure the same model can be repeated elsewhere. Brexit has felt messy but even so, politicians elsewhere in Europe have suggested it as a template for their own countries; Behrendt is now making a new series, Alternative, exploring imagery posted online by the German Far Right.
Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy