Opinion Jun13 2016, Amsterdam

The Hut of European Identity: some context

What is Europe? Europe is real, but structurally open and indefinable. It is hardly a “thing”. The crisis of legitimacy that the European Union is facing is merely a corollary of the crisis of identity that Europe has been repeatedly going through. They are two faces of the same coin: an apparent lack of meaning contributes essentially to making the EU’s institutional architecture so distant to many of us.

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Notwithstanding, the idea of a common European identity has been in the working for quite some time now. In overly simplified terms, it would either rest on the argument of a linear European history, a grand narrative that from ancient Greek democracy, Roman civilisation, the Enlightenment, and Modernity, points to a self-fulfilling destiny; or, alternatively, on a supposedly common cultural milieu, one where in reality it’s surprisingly difficult to find intellectuals equally praised, for example, by the Poles, the Portuguese, the Swedes and the Greeks.

The fact that Euro banknotes don’t feature portraits of “notable Europeans” is a point in case. The lowest common denominator of a EU identity apparently could not feature romantic patriots who were also insurrectionists, scientists who were also heretics, intellectuals who were also homosexuals, philosophers who were born outside our current borders. On our banknotes, we see instead an impersonal narrative, told through a sequence of architectural styles, applied to monumental infrastructures: a series of roman, romanesque, gothic, renaissance, baroque and modern bridges. Equally telling is the fact that these bridges don’t exist anywhere in Europe. How could you choose? How could we ever agree?

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In fact, battles over the meaning of Europe begin with its very name. The etymology of Europe is uncertain. In classical Greek mythology, Europa was a Phoenician princess whom Zeus abducted after assuming the form of a dazzling white bull. Europe wasn’t a geographical designation yet, and with its first mention came an act of violence. The Greek words εὐρύς and ōp translate as “broad face” or “broad eye”, and give Europe a self-contained identity, through a set of physiognomical features. However, this is contested by explanations supporting the Phoenician and Semitic influence of the word ereb, which means “where the sun set”, placing Europe in an immediate relation with the land where the sun rises – the land West of Mesopotamia, and of Bosphorus – presenting us with the possibility of a rather more relational identity. To sum up, the difference would be between choosing an etymological explanation that defines Europe from the inside out, or one that defines it in relation to others.

“What is Europe? Battles over the meaning of Europe begin with its very name”

There are things and persons “in” Europe that are not necessarily “of” Europe, that don’t necessarily fit in, for example, the Judeo-Christian and/or the Enlightenment tradition. Moreover, Europe also exists for those who are not in it, and some of them have important stakes in it too. Where do we hear the voices of those who are usually not asked? When Europe’s political project is defined only by the conformity to an imagined and unified cultural past – as something we inherited – we run the risk to leave out of our proposition the contested and – truth be told – the future.

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If consensus is shallow – and honestly: unlikely – what happens if we embrace our deepest, essential quality instead? (Can we say at this point that said quality is discursiveness?) Can we search for the roots of a European identity not in simplistic “agreements”, but in the myriad of conflicts we meaningfully fight, and have fought? Social struggle is “internationalist”, environmental movements address issues at a larger scales that any nation state could, human rights are supposedly universal. Can we find the essence of a united Europe in the agonism implicit in advocacy, argumentation, and objection? What materials could such conflictual conditions offer to a re-reading of the European identity? What would we want to keep of them, and what would we prefer to forget? And who would be the collector-in-chief anyway?

Inside the Hut of European Identity, we suggest the possibility of European characters – and histories – that are not agreed upon, that are not based on the lowest common denominator of several national cultures, but on Europe’s inherent conflicts, on the idea of Europe as a contested political space – a project, in fact.

The Hut is also an actual space: pieces of wood raised perpendicularly suggest the idea of columns, while horizontal beams laid upon them afford us the idea of entablatures. Fabrics and sheets salvaged from the demolished sector of the Jungle in Calais form and cover an incline that protects the interior from the sun and the rain. Placing all these different and diverging conflicts under one roof is not meant to finally resolve them by forcing them into a narrative of agreement and consensus, but rather the opposite: it is to suggest the possibility to live among multiple statements. The Hut concedes to the conflict between them in no way direct violence, but the violent feeling of many layers coming together, a strength of emotion and passion. It also sketches and tests the possibility of an archive where multiple readings would be possible across a material culture of conflict and other EU-related archaeological findings.

“Inside the Hut of European Identity, we suggest the possibility of European characters that are not agreed upon, based on conflict”

We have started by collecting material evidence. If the official material culture of the EU (again, think of banknotes, memorials, buildings, squares) is manufactured to manifest an “imperialistic” narrative (what Europe “should be”: transparent, continuous, technically democratic), what are then the objects, spaces, architectures that witness other possibilities, or that deny this narrative?  An archive of such materials would encourage oblique readings through the EU’s parallel and possible histories and identities. The structure stayed empty for over one month, representing the identity of a ghostly polity, and then the first objects started to come in. We are in the process of acquiring multilingual banners from Athens, a Pan-African flag from Calais, squatters’ posters from a past European Summit in Amsterdam, flower crowns found in Schengen, burnt or weary construction materials from Calais. We will live among them at The Wall.

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All these objects are evidence of a European political life, taking place everyday, everywhere. They are proof that Europe exists as a project. Perhaps the Hut, a read-write memory device to be plugged into different contexts, could be said to add footnotes, annotations on the margins of the more institutional process going on in Brussels at the House of European History. We have talked to the Academic Project Leader of the institution to explore this scenario. See Part 3 of this series to read the interview.

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