An Artist Reports on the Future of Europe

Ukraine Protest

Left: Ukrainian antigovernment protesters on Independence Square in Kiev, Dec. 10, 2013. Right: Dinner setting for “New Narrative for Europe” conference, Palazzo Clerici, Milan, Dec. 09, 2013.

We the outsiders at the gates of EU officialdom—the perennial emigrants, the wandering Jews—believe in Europe and all its bureaucratic trappings. Just ask our Ukrainian friends at Euromaidan Square, or our Iranian colleagues in the Green Movement, which sprung up after the contested 2009 presidential elections. So as an Iranian-Texan Russophile, I was duly delighted to attend the “New Narrative for Europe” conference this past weekend at Milan’s Palazzo Clerici, a grandiose 18th-century manor. Even more so when I received the brief in advance and discovered its emphasis on 1989 and 2008 as key years, two of the three dates (with 1979) that the art collective Slavs and Tatars looked at closely within the pages of 032c (issues 17 and 18). Artists (Olafur Eliasson, Andrea Büttner, Jimmie Durham), scholars, thinkers (Stefano Boeri, Czesław Porębski, Nicola Setari), economists, and politicians had been invited to discuss how culture could step in to fill an urgent gap—be it emotional, affective, or aspirational—left by the politicians’ unfortunate, if excessive, reliance on the rational and the economic.

If the older EU generation’s motto was “Never Again” (referring to war on the continent after 1945), the younger generation’s seems to be a more equivocal “Come Again?” Those born in the 1980s or later often take the EU’s landmark achievements—freedom of movement, a single currency, freedom of work (in the rare pockets one still finds employment, of course)—for granted. They simply don’t remember it being any other way. Of course, there’s no shortage of bricks to throw at the Union’s often aseptic façade: the EU’s inability to avert the tragedy of the Yugoslav war(s), the fetishization of economic growth, the inability to integrate (postcolonial) immigration, etc. But we’re equally spoiled with feats, even if less newsworthy: a robust, if teetering, welfare state, the only among the heavyweights of Russia, China, the US; no death penalty; women’s rights; a relatively strong record on environmental policy; to name just a few.

But how do you come up with a narrative without a counter-narrative? Nobody wants a negative sales pitch, just ask advertisers. Without fail, every national narrative is somehow conceived, drafted, or understood vis-à-vis the identification of an “enemy,” no matter how vague or concrete. What’s clear is that ideas have outsides (and insides of course) and this particular idea—a union of 27, and soon 28, member states, with a troubled history to say the least—cannot be considered without its reverse, its margins, its outsides. Our small committee—which included Michelangelo Pistoletto, the Prada Foundation’s Germano Celant and the Van Abbemuseum’s Charles Esche— kept coming back to the notion of emancipation. Equally immaterial and material, emancipation offers freedom but not the star-spangled variety. Emancipation from what then is the question? Perhaps the burden of history, from Big Data, our own complacency, or perhaps the need for specificity itself.

We presented our thoughts to the President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, who has been the driving force behind the New Narrative initiative. Refreshingly (and rather surprisingly for a politician), he seemed to embrace the otherwise complex notion of indeterminacy at the heart of the European project, even ending his short speech with a line from U2’s “Zooropa”: “Don’t worry baby / It’s gonna be alright / Uncertainty can be a guiding light.”

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