Playtime Jan07 2016, Amsterdam

On the opening performance of New Europeans

At 11 in the morning on the first Monday of the New Year, eight of the twelve New Europeans sat nervously around a table in the small container that would be serving as our meeting room over the next six months. We were deciding on the final plan for our five minute meet-and-greet with the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Mayor of Amsterdam. From a vague brief permitting a performance of anything, so long as it was short and not insulting, we had come up with a few ideas over the Christmas break.

The day after, our performance in Dutch newspapers Volkskrant and Het Parool, among others.

In the early days of the New Year Wael and Elisa had produced a blackboard with text asking for contributions on what Europe and New Europe meant to people, with three unfinished statements “… is Europe” “Is Europe … ?” and “New Europe is …”. In the meet and greet we would invite the ministers to make contributions. In addition we had to briefly introduce ourselves and show the ministers our trailer.

When we met on the Monday morning, the performance as it stood was to involve the Mayor and Foreign Minister joining us on stage. We would be wearing white scarves and would present the two men with a scarf each. We would then hum the EU anthem for a minute or so. To flesh out the performance Charlien had asked if we could bring along any other instruments. Among those brought were a harmonica, a ukulele and a small Casio keyboard.

By an astonishing coincidence the demo on the keyboard turned out to be the EU anthem. This changed everything and immediately increased our optimism at the potential success of our opening action.

While the humming could have been too quiet and perhaps too solemn the keyboard was ideal in its light-hearted silliness. It could also be amplified. Amplified! On any other occasion why would you want to amplify such an annoying and conspicuously tinny take on the EU anthem? But here it served to demonstrate a way in which this heavy symbol is received in people’s everyday life. It subverted the imperious and somewhat authoritarian overtones of the traditional version. In the home the EU anthem is more likely to be heard through a cheap synthesiser than in its full orchestral majesty.

"letting the song play for just slightly too long (exactly long enough)"

After this lucky discovery everything seemed to slot in. The two politicians would be handed the ukulele and a plastic pigeon. Elisa would use the harmonica to suggest we were getting into key to sing. We would take a deep breath. Anna would hold the keyboard up to microphone and then start the demo, a smoke machine would pump white smoke onto the stage, we would gaze reverently into the distance, letting the song play for just slightly too long (exactly long enough). It was undeniably ironic, but we wanted to make a serious message that had depth.

Why the pigeon? The pigeon is the dove’s less appreciated cousin. But it’s the bird of the city, the bird of the people and it’s the bird we see all the time, in short, it’s the bird of everyday life. Being plastic made it all the more effective, the foreign minister gestured for it to fly away but could not consummate this symbolic gesture, having to hold onto the everyday bird rather than absentmindedly throwing it away.

"White was also for Provo"

Why the white scarves? The white scarves were inspired by traditional European clothing, but they also gave a ceremonial and almost religious dimension to the ceremony, thus heightening the contrast with the sillier elements of the performance. Even so, they had a remarkable unifying effect, through the scarves we were welcoming the politicians, not excluding them. White was also for Provo, this being the colour that their policies were branded with. Speaking of whom, the smoke billowing from behind the ministers paralleled the smoke bombs released by Provo during the coronation of Queen Beatrix, it shows how things have changed that we were sharing a stage with the politicians this time.

And finally, why the ukelele? Because it’s too small to be taken seriously. But honestly, because it was something that we had available (this was, after all a hastily produced thing).

This last point highlights an important caveat: I offer all this interpretation after the fact. It was mostly chance that these things were woven together into such a potent performance. Anna only found out the keyboard’s demo was the EU anthem the day before. The scarves were much more religious in their appearance when they were put on, and how were we supposed to know whether the Foreign Minister would still try to release the pigeon in spite of its inanimacy?

It was almost fitting that the performance later in the day didn’t quite work as well. We were doing the same thing in a different setting with a different set of people and the structure hadn’t been so rehearsed. It didn’t have the same kind of subversive edge. All this just made the success of the afternoon performance all the sweeter.

TV channel AT5 started their coverage of the Europe by People opening with a clip of the New Europeans act. You can watch it here.

Top image: ©ANP via Het Parool.