AMSTERDAM — With populist politicians across the Continent attacking the European Union and negotiations underway for Britain to leave the bloc, the very idea of a unified Europe seems to be under threat. Some artists feel the union needs to rethink its public image and refine its communications strategy to combat these attacks. In other words: to rebrand Europe.
The German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans has teamed up with a friend, the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, to encourage artists and other creative people to brainstorm ways for Europe to better present itself to the public.
They put out a call in March for rebranding proposals, asking: “How can the European Union be valued by its citizens and be recognized as a force for good, rather than as a faceless bureaucracy?” They requested ideas “for communicating the advantages of cooperation and friendship amongst people and nations.”
More than 400 proposals from 43 countries poured in. A German fashion designer had an idea for a unisex jacket that would serve as a ticket for public transportation in all 28 member states. A dance troupe with members from Albania, France and Italy proposed filming folk dances at European historical sites that could then be broadcast or viewed with virtual reality goggles. A musician from Hungary proposed a new anthem, and dozens of artists sent sketches for new European Union flags and designs for new euro bills and coins. Several proposals suggested the bloc needed to develop a new sense of humor.
Starting Thursday, about 30 of those who submitted the liveliest ideas will participate in Eurolab, a four-day event led by Mr. Tillmans, Mr. Koolhaas and the architectural historian Stephan Petermann during the Forum on European Culture in Amsterdam. Yoeri Albrecht, one of the forum’s organizers, described Eurolab as “a kind of jam session for the greatest cultural thinkers in Europe to tinker and work with the idea of Europe.”
The ultimate goal of the session “is not about a happy, clappy symbol, song or gesture” to sum up the benefits of a united Europe, Mr. Tillmans said. “It is about coming to a deeper understanding of how this misinformation around the E.U. works and how can we counter nationalism.”
Mr. Tillmans considers himself to be a product of a “Pan-European experience.” He grew up in West Germany, moved to England as an exchange student in the 1980s, and has spent much of his adult life between London and Berlin; his burgundy European Union passport gives him the right to live and work in any member country.
When he saw the “nationalist wave crashing,” as he put it, with the campaign for the referendum in Britain on European Union membership, and subsequent attacks on the bloc by right-leaning politicians in other nations, he said, “I realized that there is an urgency to defend what I have enjoyed and what other previous generations have fought for. I feel that’s my duty as a citizen.”
Mr. Koolhaas said that, having lived through the formation of the European Union, he had “seen and felt the difference between being part of a single nation and being part of something bigger.”
“Anyone who hasn’t experienced that transformation in an almost physical way has a hard time getting excited by it,” he said in an interview in his Amsterdam office. “How do you get excited about a given?”
Mr. Koolhaas said that he ultimately wanted “to find a crystal clear language to talk about Europe and to give it a more coherent narrative.”
“I think that inevitably we also need to look at what’s causing this kind of persistent problem of the difficulty of communicating about Europe,” he added.
The European Union communication department is primarily tasked with informing member states and journalists about legislation and political initiatives. It has recently introduced a campaign called “E.U. and Me” to help younger Europeans learn how they benefit from the union. Carolien Peeters, a project adviser on that campaign, said that she and other officials planned to attend Eurolab, adding that she hoped to leave with new perspective and inspiration.
Mr. Albrecht said that he had organized the conference to give cultural leaders a voice.
“If Europe is a culture in which traditionally artists, philosophers and writers have pointed the way forward, how are these people going to be heard?” he said. “One of the problems with Europe today is that there’s hardly any place where real artists are given a place to talk about the future of the Continent and its culture. It’s a black hole in the heart of the European project.”
Mr. Tillmans said that he wanted the project to move beyond talk and result in concrete action after the end of the conference. He added that it would be finished only when people felt “a sense of ownership with the goals of the E.U.”
Mr. Koolhaas said that Eurolab would not end with a single winning proposal, but rather a range of ideas that could be put into play. He said he wanted to focus on refreshing “the raison d’être of Europe, and describe it in new words that do not repeat the old clichés or used-up rhetorics.”
“It’s a big challenge,” he said.
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