The theatrics of the Culture Party
How did a fake political party fox the Swedish establishment?
In the late 1960s, then Swedish prime minister Olof Palme held a speech on a truck bed in Visby, a medieval town on the island of Gotland. During his visit, Palme initiated politicians’ week, which has now evolved into an annual event during which politicians, non-governmental organisations and corporations attempt to put a mark on the Swedish political landscape and to influence public opinion.
At the start of this year’s politicians’ week, between 3 and 9 July, a group of celebrities held a press conference to announce the formation of a new political party – the Culture Party (Kulturpartiet). They had designed a logo, printed t-shirts and balloons, and launched a website containing the party manifesto. As it turned out, the celebrities were acting, the press conference was their stage and the media and public their unknowing audience.
It was the tabloid Expressen that broke the news, and revealed that the new political party was formed during a secret meeting in Stockholm in March 2005, with the view of entering parliament for election year in 2006. The same tabloid was the first to announce that the whole thing was a con, and it consequently launched an attack against the organisations behind the prank: Riksteatern (the Swedish national theatre) and Plural (a national network for performance artists).
Since the hoax was exposed, the state-funded Riksteatern has been reproached for wasting taxpayers’ money in a PR stunt, and the leader of the mainstream Centre Party (Centerpartiet) threatened to report it to the National Audit Commission. Others accused Riksteatern of being desperate for attention or dismissed it as having a bad sense of humour. But Riksteatern is claiming that the whole thing was a success: ‘Through a 20-minute long press conference we reached more people than through thousands of theatre performances. For less than a hundredth of the cost.’ (1)
In a joint statement, Riksteatern and Plural declared that they will never start a Culture Party because they have great respect for politicians and for the media. ‘They are the ones who help us find necessary answers to questions of welfare, employment, healthcare and education.’ However, they go on to say that there are questions surrounding power and powerlessness, life and death and what it means to be human that politicians and the media will never address. These are questions that ‘somebody has got to pose’.
When the prank was exposed, it first seemed as if the project had backfired. The spotlight was on the failed performance – the fact that the fake political candidates did not get to stage the final act, a second press conference in which everything would be revealed – rather than on the issues that the artists hoped to bring to the fore. Riksteatern and Plural had hoped that the spectacle would spark public debate around cultural and artistic issues, but the media coup was cut short. Those who had fallen for the practical joke – that is, the media and politicians who had made statements immediately after the fake press conference – seemed to feel the need to either sternly criticise or ignore the celebrities, so as not to lose face in the eyes of the public.
Perhaps Riksteatern and Plural can take some consolation from their appointment as ‘opinion moulders of the year’ by the PR agency Hill & Knowlton. This prize acknowledges the spectacle as a successful PR campaign, bringing attention to the lack of debate on culture in established party politics. However, although the celebrities claimed that the arts were an appropriate medium for tackling the ‘big questions’, they seemed to lack confidence in the idea that these questions could be raised and disseminated through their own artistic media. Instead, they resorted to the spectacle of a fake press conference, which proved to be a more effective stage than concert halls and theatres.
The idea of pushing culture into the political realm seems to have wider resonance. Before the scam was revealed, Expressen claimed that one in three Swedes would consider voting for the Culture Party, and another tabloid, Aftonbladet, claimed that one in 10 would vote for it. Good news for the culture industry, bad news for the real political parties. Plural and Riksteatern have made it clear that they have no desire to represent the people in parliamentary politics. But the popularity of a fake, celebrity, single-issue party says more about the weak state of the real political candidates than it does about the strength of the fake ones.
Nathalie Rothschild is deputy editor of The Liberal.
(1) See the Riksteatern website