Europe in 4017

Following the UK’s decision to leave the EU and the rise of populist movements in France and the Netherlands, many people across the continent are starting to reconsider what Europe is and what it means to be European.

This is what the V&A, Goethe-Institut and the British Council asked us to consider in their exhibition, Collecting Europe. We collaborated with Alastair Parvin of 00 to imagine what Europe looks like in 2000 years time, to reflect on what Europe is like now.

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Our installation for Collecting Europe was installed in the Renaissance Room, near the entrance of the V&A in London. (Photo: Pamela Gottsponer/IF).

Reading weak signals

When Alastair and I started to talk about our response to the collecting Europe Brief, two recent things bubbled up.

Firstly, in the weeks after the referendum result, someone posted a photo of a sign in a Post Office in Northern Ireland saying that they’d run out of Republic of Ireland passport application forms. People had started to consider ways they could hold onto their European citizenship.

Secondly, the government of Estonia offers “e-Residency”, a way that anyone, regardless of where they live, can start a business a bank account in Estonia by creating a digital identity after paying a fee.

It’s these weak signals in the present that show how some people are starting to look at citizenship as something that’s more flexible than we’re used to. We wanted to reflect on these trends by imagining how they could play out over the next 2000 years. That’s how we got to Europa.

Europa imagines a future where the idea of European citizenship still exists, but it has nothing to do with the European continent. It allows anyone, no matter where they live, to become an Europan citizen and get the rights currently afforded by the traditional nation state.

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Visitors to Collecting Europe could step into our booth and take the Europan citizenship ceremony. After answering a few questions and taking the oath, they leave as new citizens with a provisional Europan passport. (Photo: Pamela Gottsponer/IF).

Helping people think about citizenship

A challenge for us was to take our ideas about what Europa could be, and shape them into something interesting that helps visitors to consider what citizenship meant to them.

We liked the idea of a citizenship ceremony because there’s a solemnity about them. New citizens are surrounded by symbols of the state and take an oath to their new country, compressing the history and values of a state into a short and thoughtful act.

Europa is a state, but also a digital service. As internet users, we sign up for digital services almost passingly. There’s a striking contrast between becoming a citizen and signing up to digital service, something we wanted to reference in our installation.

What we ended up with was a console where visitors can become a new citizen of Europa. It has a touch screen, a microphone to speak the oath into, and a metal pad that detects when someone is touching it. It mimics a holy text some people use when taking oaths.

The console combines the grandiosity of citizenship ceremonies and the mundanity of signing up to a website. A kind of vending machine for citizenship.

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Europa lets people choose what rights they want from the state. (Photo: Pamela Gottsponer/IF).

Rights, responsibilities and democracy

The most radical idea we brought into Europa, was an “à la carte” approach to rights as a citizen. Rather than give everyone the same rights by default, we invited people to choose what rights they wanted. We wanted to prompt people to interrogate what each right means to them.

We included rights that are part of the European discussion at present, things like access to a universal market and the free movement of people.

We introduced new rights that would make sense 2000 years in the future. For example, citizens dividend, that would give every Europan a share of the countries automated productivity to live on in a post-work world.

As we found by looking at organisations like the Catholic Church and the Red Cross and present-day countries, having rights as a citizen also requires responsibilities.

It seems unlikely that we’ll be paying taxes in 2000 years time, so we looked at using time as a type of currency. By giving time to Europa, we wanted to show that some rights required more commitment to Europa than others, either 5, 20 or 50 years. It adds a dark side to a somewhat utopian idea, that there are still classes in Europa.

We also looked at how democracy would work in Europa. We played out the growing ubiquity of sensors in our living spaces by imagining the Ecclesia, a way of algorithmically molding the laws of Europa with data collected about how Europans feel about different issues.

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A Europan passport. (Photo: Ian Hutchinson/IF).

Welcome to Europa

We had a fantastic response from visitors. People very diligently selected what rights they wanted from Europa. I watched people nervously place their hand on the metal pad to start the oath, breaking the one rule we’re conditioned to obey in galleries, “do not touch”. People in groups would watch on as one person took the oath, looking relieved at the end of it and looking rewarded by receiving their Europan passport. Someone I spoke to felt like the way the Europan oath was written lent itself to a prayer-like rhythm when spoken aloud.

This collaboration helped us create an accessible and fun space for museum visitors to consider what it means to be European and to reconsider something as intimate as your own citizenship. As we learn the new shape of Europe, it’s important that we, as designers and cultural organisations, continue to make these conversations open and engaging.

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Hard hats on: installing scaffolding amongst antique statues at the V&A. (Photo: Ian Hutchinson/IF).
Huge thanks to Lynton Pepper, Margit Kraft, Ryan McLoughlin, Will Brown, Emerson Domingo, Stephen Biggs, Sarah von Büren, Jakub Jelen and Emma-Louise Clark for helping us put up and take down the installation, to Richard Pope for letting us store planks of wood and scaffolding in his shed and the team at the V&A, Goethe-Institut and the British Council for organising a fantastic exhibition.