The dark side of the prom: Cold War Steve beached

When asked whether he would be producing any new episodes of his famous satirical show, ‘The Thick Of It’, Armando Iannucci replied that British politics was now so silly, it was beyond parody. One artist who has, nonetheless, successfully satirised not just British politics, but populist politics around the world over the past four years is Christopher Spencer aka Cold War Steve.

His is a dystopian vision where Salvador Dali, Bruegel and Bosch meet Hitchcock in Cold War Britain. Seedy rooms, rusting hulks, wrecked cars. The occasional re-imagining of an old master’s painting, often on the theme of the English Civil War. World leaders bound together by sinister populism pressing the flesh, or flashing their own. An entourage of assorted hangers on: celebrities, TV presenters, people famous for being famous. Steve McFadden looking on stern, bemused, perplexed. Sometimes a reflection of a ghostly Cilla Black trapped somewhere in the décor. Perhaps a tapir to represent hope and diversity. A tin of Fray Bentos to remind us of Dominic Raab’s promise of ‘adequate food’ in a no-deal Brexit. And, since the coronavirus pandemic hit, the inclusion of Harold Shipman, the most prolific serial killer in British history.

Cold War Steve’s collages depict the absurdity of current events in general, and Brexit in particular. The epic failures of our venal leaders inspire wry smiles, sharp intakes of breath and sheer relief that somebody is expressing the turmoil that millions of us are feeling.

His alias harks back to ‘before Brexit’, when Chris was creating memes depicting the Cold War which, even then, included the EastEnders actor Steve McFadden ─ making manifest the existential angst of the viewer. Working in the public sector, witnessing the impact of the cuts first-hand, and dealing with mental health issues, Chris turned to meme-making as a form of escapism. He downloaded a £3 Pixomatic app onto his phone, and he was away, making photo-montages on his way to work, in his lunch-hour and even on his loo-breaks.

“Then, when Brexit happened, which would have sent me completely off the rails before in distress, I channelled everything into my art, which I’ve found to be a great relief really. Rather than ranting on Twitter, to send it up as art,” he told Adam Boulton on Sky News.

With a massive following on Twitter, two books, three jigsaw puzzles, several exhibitions, a Big Issue cover, a collaboration with campaign group Led by Donkeys at Glastonbury Festival 2019, a commission from the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, an installation in Las Vegas, and even a Time Magazine cover, Chris was winning larger and ever more appreciative audiences for his work. He had created a do-it-yourself downloadable exhibition, ‘You, Me and Cold War Steve and was about to embark on a tour of over one hundred pubs, hairdressers, village halls, libraries, shops and front rooms that would take him from Falkirk to the Falklands — when coronavirus hit.

A new series of incisive Twitter memes later (nailing the Government’s failings in ‘managing’ the coronavirus pandemic in a way which mainstream media shied away from), and by now the proud recipient of an honorary doctorate from Wolverhampton University, Chris decided to emerge from cover and go massive. He planned four ambitious new artworks against natural backdrops at Medway, Bournemouth, Coventry and Liverpool.

The first, in Medway, went off without a hitch. The next, down here in the South West, was not so smooth. Chris posted a photo to Twitter of himself and two associates dragging gear along the golden sand of Boscombe beach in Bournemouth. “There’s been a bit of a drama with the local council,” he tweeted.

On September 16th, the council leader and head of a coalition of multiple parties, Vikki Slade, was ousted in a vote of no confidence brought opportunistically by the Conservatives. Two members of the coalition had sadly died and another had departed, leaving the coalition weakened as no by-elections can be held. The Tories invited Ms Slade to stay on as leader in a ConLib coalition, but she refused, saying she had no wish to be Poole’s Nick Clegg. While the situation gets sorted out, Ms Slade’s deputy, Martin Howell of the Poole People Party, is acting leader.

This is the backdrop against which Chris’s drama unfolded. He’d been invited to exhibit one of his works at Bournemouth’s Arts by the Sea Festival, which is a BCP council-run event. The council says the artist was supposed to submit the work beforehand, but didn’t do so in time. When Chris turned up with his massive 25m windbreaker, his largest piece yet, they loved the hopeful side ─ a cheery scene set on the West Cliff Beach by Bournemouth Pier, celebrating values that make this country great: inclusivity, compassion, diversity, charity and creativity.

Then they saw the dark side… Boris Johnson, stark-bollock naked, holding a Fray Bentos pie and chasing a wart-hog. Nigel Farage, Rupert Murdoch and Tim Martin (the Brexiter CEO of Wetherspoons) as giant, slimy worms emerging from the sand of the East Cliff Beach on the other side of the Bournemouth Pier. Beanie-clad Dominic Cummings wearing a military uniform, standing up in a convertible car with Vladimir Putin sitting beside him, being driven by Harold Shipman. A far-right protestor throwing a Nazi salute. A parade of skeletons… It was all too much for them. They baulked, and made the artist cover the work up.

Describing the montage as ‘challenging’ and ‘provocative’, both council and festival spokespeople claim this is not censorship. They say they can’t be seen to be endorsing one political viewpoint over another, as this piece appears to do. Some people might be offended by the scenes depicted (Bournemouth being one of those towns where, seemingly, you could plant a blue rosette on anything and it would get elected to parliament); they considered it to be divisive and it didn’t fulfil the brief to be ‘playful’. It seems they were expecting something like the collage Chris had done for the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art – the only optimistic piece he had ever created at that point in time – and, ironically, set on Bournemouth beach.

As it is, BCP’s response certainly resembles censorship. This is *peak Brexit* − let’s just look at an artificial vision of sunlit uplands and ignore the dark reality behind it. Had BCP not checked the Cold War Steve Twitter feed? Boris Johnson often appears naked, alongside Presidents Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, wallowing in morbid obesity. Shady characters like Nigel Farage, Arron Banks and Rupert Murdoch are shown for who and what they are, rather than wrapped in a BBC-like pretence that they are somehow respectable, decent people. And yes, there are Nazis, white supremacists and murderers. It’s dark, gallows humour.

Students of history will see strong parallels between what happened in 1930s Germany and what has been happening in our country over the past four years. British exceptionalism will be the death of us. We are in danger of sleepwalking into becoming the worst version of ourselves if we keep pretending ‘it couldn’t happen here’. Conservative MPs, bar a few honourable abstainers, have voted to pass a law that enables government to break both international and domestic law. How messed up is that? We would do well to remember that the Nazis didn’t appear out of nowhere, suited and booted. There was a gradual dismantling of democracy following a controversial referendum…

The windbreak will be on display on Boscombe Beach until October 4th, from 7am until 11pm each day. Images of both sides can be downloaded for free on the Festival website. Who knows, maybe the stormy weather will dislodge the material hiding the dark side of Chris’s work and we’ll be able to make our own minds up? As it is, BCP’s ban will almost certainly have guaranteed its immortality.