You and the Union

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In the months before the 2014 European Parliament elections a co-student (Jeppe Lai) and I made an attempt at gathering all election posters from all European candidates to post them in the lampposts along Danish candidates in our native Copenhagen. The intention was to create a visual acknowledgement of the complexity of the European Union, and to discover if this could serve as a vehicle of engaging voters with the original intention of the Union. This is an account (from mid 2015) of the many reactions and insights gleaned from collating the faces of the Union.

REASON TO BE CONFUSED Public opinion on the European Union differ greatly within the 28 member countries: is it a beacon of peace and prosperity, or an all-encompassing Moloch of free-market capitalism? Media discussion on the Union is versed and raised in the modern dialect of superlative binary. This suite of communication actions were concluded in the summer of 2014, and I will begin by introducing the observations and political backdrop that informed this attempt at confounding Danish voters into a new kind of engagement.

Denmark is an affluent Scandinavian country and opinion on the European Union among Danish voters is unexited, to say the least. Berated by the political left as an iron gauntlet of neoliberalism and ridiculed by the right as the nitpicky regulator of permissible shapes and sizes of cucumbers. Despite resistance and ridicule, Denmark is one of 28 member countries today. How is that possible?

One feasible answer arise from the scrutiny of debate among Danish politicians: some of those who purport to be against the Union are actually in favor of the Union. Yes, some of the most aggresive assailants to the purpoted stEUpidity of the Union are in fact secretly and eager proponents of the Union. In an era where political discourse have assimilated all of the focus group strategies native to marketing, any professional Danish politician running for re-election in the European Parliament tailors his/her actions to match the generally unfavourable opinion on the EU within the voting contingent. You might be running for the EU Parliament for a political party founded on the virtues of liberalism, but you can never forfeit the opportunity to ascend as the voice of reason whenever there is even the slightest unfounded rumour, that the Union are cooking up new legislature prohibiting, say, candy emulating the appearance of a tobacco product.

EXTREMELY REASONABLE AND WRONG A real life example from 2014. The Liquirice Pipe is a piece of novelty candy holding immense emotional sway among the populace of Denmark. One Hungarian MEP (short for Member of the European Parliament, behold the erection of a grand acronymic wall surrounding any scripture on the Union) proposed new tobacco legislature to include a ban on confectionery in the shape of tobacco products. This gave Danish mep (since 2009) Bendt Bendtsen (Conservative-Liberal Party of Denmark) the opportunity to act the voice of reason in the face of the supposedly overregulating European Union. Any insight into the workings of the European Parliament will reveal that legislature is not formulated at the whims of a single member of parliament. This, I imagine, Bendt Bendtsen knows, but he vies for reelection by casting himself as the voice of reason and thus reinforcing voter misconceptions about the Union, in accepting a free piggyback ride in the media circus lambasting the EU as a fuzzy nitpicker. This kind of self-serving cynicism and mythmaking makes it difficult for the average voter to gradually come to an informed understanding of basic procedures in the European Union. It is also a possible explanation why the Danish media’s debate on the EU is highly polarized, often fraught with incorrect postulations. To the mildly disengaged voter, confusion ferments and becomes boredom. Why bother?

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A GOOD KIND OF CONFUSION Our intention was to contribute something helpful to the vaguely disinterested Danish voter who had to make a supposedly significant and very important smear of graphite on the 25th of May, 2014 Election for European Parliament. We wanted to impart to the voters an impression of the essentially overwhelming nature of the Union by gathering as many different election posters from as many European countries as possible, and posting them in the lightposts of Copenhagen. It was to become a bold display of the multitude, complexity, and confusion inherent to any attempt at unionizing 28 different countries. If this complexity is in itself generating confusion and lies, it becomes viable to frame complexity itself by erecting a vessel for speculation to navigate and conquer oceans of ignorance. In all humbleness, of course. We attempted to do this in the months leading up to the election in May 2014 by emailing and/or telephoning all political parties and independent candidates in the 28 countries in the Union. This information graphic details the scope of the process and common types of reactions.

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Entire PhDs are waiting to be written on the convergence of political observation and choice of telephone waiting music (you will be delighted to learn of certain fractions of the Italian right-wing nurturing the patience of their callers by treating them to the theme music from the 2000 movie »Gladiator« starring Russell Crowe.

But in general attitudes toward our enquiry for posters reflected the political entity’s stance toward the Union. Dialling 151 political parties/candidates elicits a wide gamut of human response and is a psychosocial mapping of the very prerequisites for maintaining a European union: from the ill-tempered and impatient to the flirtatious to the simple-minded and to the most common of them all, unsurmountable language barriers. Much stands in the way of uniting 28 countries speaking 23 languages and 508 million individuals careening along their own wafer-thin veil of sanity.

Soon posters started arriving at our doorstep. We had the incoming European posters printed to conform with Danish election poster regulations and installed them in the lampposts of Copenhagen. At this point we offered no curatorial elaboration as to why foreign election posters were appearing in city. On a long day of climbing lampposts, passengers of the sidewalk would approach us and assume either a) that our hanging of foreign poster was a spiteful stab at heart of the very concept of the European Union, or b) that it was a jubilant celebration of unification and peace. Most reactions, though, were snide and directed at the cultural and aesthetic differences apparent from the tandem display of pan-European election posters. Copenhagen citizens were puzzled. They asked questions. It was fun.

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EDITORIAL CONFUSION With the posters in place and election day still a month away, we started work on a single issue newspaper documenting and elaborating on our poster exhibition. We named the newspaper »Emotions and the EU«. Official publications from the EU will often go to great lengths to denounce the essential boredom of the European Union. Perversely, this makes these publications real mind-melters of boredom. Our newspaper was an experiment in embracing boredom and developing a many-splendored editorial setting where many different types of original content (interviews with Danish meps, a quiz, photos of our election poster exhibition, custom-made advertisements suggesting various metaphorical allusions to the EU) added up to a mental framework for thinking about the Union and in editoral sleight of hand avoiding a common and harmful notion of the Union as something you either understand or do not understand at all.

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Page through the newspaper here. It is in Danish. It was designed for a large printed page and is not overly pleasant to read on a computer monitor. Download [47 mb].

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MEDIA REACTION Two days prior to election day we handed out 200 copies of our newspaper. To arouse attention we built a little house out of the remaining election posters on a bridge in Copenhagen that has the most cyclists a day in Europe (Nørrebrogade). To our surprise we barely had time to hand out the newspaper due to a sudden and overwhelming media reaction. Throughout the day we were interviewed for radio and television, as well as appearing on a political talkshow in the evening (DR2 Deadline). It became increasingly obvious that our strategy of framing confusion was at (at the very least) solving a problem for the many news editors hungry for an alternative angle on what was clearly that boring election in newsroom parlance. Ironically, our experimental series of actions were being assimilated by the jumpy and entertainment-saturated news culture it was also a kind of reaction against. Personified by the all too familiar semi-ironic joviality in the voice of a radio host interviewing me that day, the brainless attack on complexity itself that is echoed in pseudo questions like: “Whaddaya say William, hasn’t this EU thing gotten MUCH TOO COMPLICATED???!”

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Here’s video clip featuring some of the more in-depth coverage of our project. It’s from Danish National television DR2.

The generally low-resolution media reactions confirmed our working hypothesis and made the effort come full circle in an ironic way. But many instances of our overhearing baffled/angry/bemused reactions of voters and citizens trying to guesstimate the intention or origin of the foreign posters, showed that enabling curiosity and confusion to take precedent over political absolutism will, in turn, allow strategic communication efforts to engage the recipient not only emotionally, but also intellectually.

LOOKING BACK Rarely did political debate in Denmark during the 2014 European Parliament election connect with basic, ideological ideas. Single-minded squabbling from all ends of the political nexus failed to let the voters see how politics forge ideas into compromises and priorities. Politics becomes the forgotten aquarium of a strange person. We exploited our non-partisan position to create a suite of communicative actions that would have been unheard of as official European Union informational efforts. It is difficult to imagine anything both compelling and official from the web of communicative precautions the European Union is (by neccesity) gridlocked in. The usual attempts at explaining the totality of the Union by insisting it is not, at some point, boring (to people whose life is not depending on Union-backed support to survive, or, did not by their own accord choose a professional life in political organization) leads to frustration and resignation.

By interspersing pan-European election posters and their Danish counterparts, the inherent complexity of the Union was curated in a way that translates a tension of meaning into curiosity. We exploited such moments of curiosity to turn voter attention back to the “why?” and “how?” of the grandiose idea of encompassing so many different personal and national narratives of identity into a working, political Union. Cultural differences were used to resassure, repulse or inspire you. Let this bounty of cultural differences entertain you, while you educate your opinion on the Union from a level-headed ratio of analysis and temper, I hope.

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ANECDOTIC REMARKS FOR THE UNBORED READER 
Our research relied heavily on a technique of asking basic questions to journalists and people working within the Union: people with a personal and professional capacity of dealing with our many questions and observations on the Union. Individuals in a professional position to appreciate the inner workings of the Union. Individuals sentient enough to muster a wry, apologetic smile when you ask: “How do you build public support for the technocratic achievements of the EU in a media culture obsessed with entertainment and deeply troubled by notions of complexity?”

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While visiting offices and talking to professionals, we were stumped to discover many obscure little attempts 
at synthesizing a common European lore. Nowhere else does the bulletproof glass ceiling inherent to spawning emotional value within a technocratic framework become so hilariously obvious as a E-Unionized adaptation of the Royal Danish lifeguard. Too controversial to Danish sentiment to stand in the street level window of the offices of the European Parliament in Copenhagen, it is now hidden away in the third floor office of the Head of Communications for Parliament. To a national frame of reference it is obvious how easily a national symbol is stripped of all emotional value. It was never just about the colour… or was it?

Another personal favourite is the European Edutainment Passport for Kids: equally at home in hotel rooms in Bukarest or Helsinki it is sure to keep the kids severely edutained in the backseat of the car with a rich bounty of demographic facts on the populaces of Europe.