How Wolfgang Tillmans is rebranding Europe
Published 12 June 2018 by Rob La Frenais
Following an initiative by artist Wolfgang Tillmans and architect Rem Koolhaas, designers, experts and artists participated in Eurolab from May 31 to June 3 in Amsterdam. A creative forum to redefine Europe and “act for democracy”.
It’s exactly one year to go before the European elections, and Europe is still in a perpetual crisis of identity. The endless drama of the UK government’s incompetence in negotiating withdrawal terms, its impossible demands to keep trading with Europe while denying free movement, not to mention its impasse on the Irish border, have eclipsed the interests of the other 27 members for too long. Then there’s the looming threat from Italy…
From May 31 to June 3, artists, architects, theatre workers and designers met in Amsterdam for the Forum on European Culture, or Eurolab, a creative summit to redefine Europe, with the accompanying slogan “Act for Democracy”. The initiative was spearheaded by artist Wolfgang Tillmans, along with OMA architects Rem Koolhaas and Stephan Petermann. Around them, 45 activists and artists were selected (from 400 who applied to participate) and 20 experts were invited to the De Balie contemporary cultural center for a four-day brainstorming workshop and public conference. Objective: to think about the things that unite rather than divide Europe.
Wolfgang Tillmans, now based in Berlin, is well known in the UK, not only as a stalwart of the London art scene but for his brilliant anti-Brexit DIY poster and T-shirt campaign, worn (after initial reluctance) by role models such as Vivienne Westwood. Too little, too late—had the Remain camp adopted Tillmans’s strategies, the tiny 4% in favor of Brexit might have tilted the other way.
Vivienne. Pic #juergenteller @sadiecoleshq
A post shared by Vivienne Westwood (@viviennewestwood) on
In Amsterdam, Tillmans explains how this project can help raise the image of Europe: “We think the EU is endangered and can be strengthened by friendly acts amongst neighbors. Europe and democracy are under attack.” Showing footage of an art exhibition being attacked by black-clad thugs at the Visual Culture Research Centre in Kiev, Ukraine, Tillmans pointed out the fragility of democracy in Europe: “They shot at the works with guns and beat up artists in the face. The geographical center of Europe lies in Ukraine. The enemies of Europe use crass language with great success. The success of the EU in creating an open society has led to it being referred to as Gayropa in Russia.”
Referring back to his Brexit campaign: “The Brexiters don’t shy away from using racist language. American billionaires use lies, deception and manipulation to undermine the European project in the hope of getting rid of its regulatory global power. Whereas for people outside the EU, Europe is a beacon of hope, the last flicker in an authoritarian and violent world.”
“Maybe a different approach is needed. One has to address the seriousness of the situation. This first Eurolab is exactly one year in advance of the 2019 European elections. It’s the one truly democratic complete European process that has suffered dramatic decline in interest. The perverse thing about this development is that in 1979 (I was 11 when the European Parliament was founded), it was a joke: it had very little power, yet 62% of Europeans went to vote. Now it has a lot of power and it has done a great deal of really useful legislation, but people are less and less interested. In a way, it is a matter of getting back that few percent, because now it really does have power.”
From Copernicus to Zidane
How might they go about doing this? Tillmans suggests another DIY campaign: “Sport is a unifying phenomena in Europe. We thought that we could use T-shirts for soccer stars to be photographed in, because they are ‘natural foreigners’ that a lot of people are interested in. We found that the most important thing for the EU to thrive is for us to be interested in our neighbors, in the ‘other’. European icons are needed who could be considered as transnational, beyond being common household names—somebody like Nicolaus Copernicus, even though he was Polish, is understood as European. Stephen Hawking is now unfortunately dead, but for example people like Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, Lech Walesa, J.K. Rowling, Pedro Almodovar, Ian McKellen, Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis (the inventors of Skype), Roger Federer… and who are the scientists?”
Of course, it would be necessary once again to get people like this to step up to the mark for Europe. “Already for the T-shirt I did for my anti-Brexit campaign a couple of years ago, it wasn’t easy to find famous people to wear them, to stand up and speak out for Europe. It was interesting and kind of sad to see the lack of excitement before the vote. Afterwards it was different.”
It is indeed different. A majority of those polled in the UK now think that, knowing the terms of Brexit, there should be a second vote. The UK government has still failed to announce when the White Paper describing the terms of the deal will be published and is threatening to force through a vote to squash a number of amendments made to the Brexit bill by the House of Lords. There will be a march for a People’s Vote in London on June 23, 2018, supported by many of those role models Tillmans has cited.
My personal Europe
The forum also got to the heart of why Europe has such a bad image. “One thing we like about Europe is when we have positive personal experiences, as we have had here. However, one person from Bulgaria told us this story about Gisela Stuart, the UK Labour MP who led the Leave campaign for Labour. She was pro-European all her life, then had a very bad, personal and hurting experience at the European Commission. That personal experience turned her against the EU. We understand that it is personal why we like Europe and the European process.”
Tillmans also pointed out how humor in one of the many European languages could be used a weapon, citing a Czech poster campaign: “Nobody likes clean water, nobody likes four weeks of paid holiday, nobody likes free roaming to call Mum from abroad, nobody likes to vote. Please show that you like the EU and go and vote!”
Can Europe be rebranded?
What do Europeans living in London think of Tillmans’s campaign? Can Europe be rebranded? Sébastien Noël, a French citizen from Montbéliard who has lived in London nearly half his life and member of the artist collective Troika, currently exhibiting in London’s Barbican, responded: “I do think there are some fundamental flaws in the way the European project has been implemented. I guess it has to do with the fact that we inherited a way of seeing the world which is now more than half a century old, and not really adapted to the challenges of 2018. We can all quite clearly see this in the way Greece has been exploited on the financial markets, or the way the refugee crisis has been handled. That said, I do firmly believe in the importance of Europe and its federative, humanistic ideals… But Europe needs some radical, structural changes in order to fulfill its agenda. Not a mere rebranding. Failing to reform how we think about Europe and how it operates will only increase the space for populism and absurdist moves like Brexit. The crisis in Europe is mirroring a deeper crisis. We lack the conceptual framework as well as a sound theoretical position on how we, humans, imagine being in the world outside capitalism. Instead we are trapped in our Cartesian, mechanistic European cultural heritage. Seeking a new ontology is a long-term strategy, but this is where I choose to situate my artistic practice.”
Uta Kögelsberger, another European artist living in London, has been actively engaging with European identity in her photographic practice. For her project Uncertain Subjects, which will be shown during London’s Art Night on July 7, she photographed EU citizens settled in the UK and sent the images out randomly as postcards.
“This project situates itself between artwork and marketing campaign. The important thing is how the work circulates in the form of postcards. The idea is that the postcards end up on people’s doorsteps, and recipients have a moment where they need to assume responsibility for their actions. They are faced with a decision about what to do with these people who are landing on their doorstep with bare shoulders. Do they keep them or do they simply get disposed of? Do the postcards end up stuck to a wall or are they thrown in the bin? I am particularly interested in British but also EU citizens who are moving out of the UK, and whose decision to do so is partly triggered by a potential Brexit. Also people who, even if they are not moving, feel like they have been alienated by the vote, who feel like strangers in their own country. It has been heartbreaking to take photographs of all these smart, talented, amazing people who are leaving. This series is also a document of a city whose demographic is undergoing major transformations. This may be the beginning of an end of an era. In these crazy times, it is our civic responsibility to participate, to make sure democratic processes are respected (not decided based on a bunch of lies and misinformation). Like Wolfgang Tillmans, I am German, so my sense of civic responsibility is even stronger. There are too many parallels with what happened almost a hundred years ago to let this rebirth of nationalism slip.”
It is a year before the European elections, and the Brexit story has yet to unravel. Can Tillmans and his acolytes make Europe cool? “In Britain, for example, the EU is not a cool thing. People don’t think voting is necessary. So we had the idea to make voting in 2019 a cool thing. Organize voting parties, go to vote with your friends, make it an empowering act against haters: 27 countries with friends voting together across the continent.”
Watch the full proceedings of Eurolab, Forum on European Culture