In an auditorium in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, a taskforce of artists, activists, branding experts and psychologists are hatching a plot. Their mission? Rebranding Europe. Led by German artist Wolfgang Tillmans and Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, the 50 attendees of Eurolab, a four-day workshop held earlier this year during the Forum on European Culture, are devising a pro-EU communications campaign that will run in advance of next May’s parliamentary elections.
Eurolab fears the bloc is losing touch with its citizens. “One of the greatest communications blunders in Europe’s history came from Marie-Antoinette,” says Italian political activist and Eurolab attendee Lorenzo Marsili. “We can’t say, ‘If they are hungry, give them free roaming.’”
As far-right rhetoric seeps into the mainstream, Eurolab sees the EU as too bound by bureaucracy to combat pre-election populist propaganda. That’s why it’s taken it upon itself to do the job better. With decades of professional creative wisdom on board, it hopes to capture the attention of the so-called moveable middle with words and images.
“It’s not about finding a new song or flag,” says Tillmans. “We want to have an honest look at what’s going wrong with communication in the EU.” Given there are 24 languages officially spoken across the bloc, communication will always be a challenge but the EU’s track record of preserving such diversity among its members is precisely what makes it worth protecting. “If you wanted to simplify the EU, you wouldn’t do it justice,” says Tillmans. Oversimplification – the nicest thing far-right parties can be accused of – is one of the most effective tactics employed by populists; eradicating nuance always helps justify snap solutions. “People feel they can toy with nationalist vocabulary without consequences,” says Tillmans. “Peace is taken for granted. Wars are forgotten.”
Eurolab isn’t Tillmans’ first call to action. Two years ago the UK’s EU referendum spurred him to launch an anti-Brexit campaign but people didn’t back the cause as he’d hoped. “There’s embarrassment about a project as uncool as the EU,” he says. The problem with brand Europe, he believes, is the lack of a shared sense of cultural belonging. In the US, he says, a common identity is created through television. “But in Europe you’re dealing with 28 different media markets. There is no single European public.”
Eurolab’s designs nevertheless play on the idea of a shared European history, focusing on emotion over fact-based arguments: “Our grandparents fought for it. Our children depend on it. You just need to vote for it,” says one. Another envisions a Europe with hard borders reinstated, where deportation buses line motorways. A caption below an image of a weeping, fair-haired family reads: “Father was French.”
Tillmans’ photograph of a man’s nape (pictured) is overlaid with messages supporting freedom of movement. “We ask, ‘Could my parents’ neighbours in my small village understand this campaign?” says Swiss activist Flavia Kleiner. The group’s next steps are undetermined – aptly, given that the EU is an unfinished project. “I don’t want to wake up and feel I could have done more,” says Tillmans of the elections next year. One message is clear: only those who get out and vote will help design Europe’s future.
On Wigmore Street in central London an Italian family stands around a sign board as mum runs her fingers along the detailed street map of the neighbourhood: a stroll to Selfridges is under five minutes, any of three royal parks less than 15 minutes. Museums, galleries and other local points of interest are all clearly signposted in New Johnston typeface against a yellow-and-blue background.
These scenes are now being repeated more than 9,500km away, after the UK capital’s transit operator, Transport for London, licensed its wayfinding system to its Hong Kong counterpart. A three-year pilot scheme has kicked off in Tsim Sha Tsui, a retail-and-restaurants mecca at the tip of the Kowloon peninsula seen as the beating heart of Hong Kong. Smartphones, wi-fi and Google Maps may be ubiquitous in both cities but clever ways to help pedestrians navigate the streets have global appeal.
Ben Acornley, a partner and creative director of Applied Wayfinding, designed the London system in 2007 and worked on similar projects across the Americas. “The idea was to encourage walking to ease pressure on the transport system,” he says. London sets a global wayfinding standard according to Acornley, although he sees Hong Kong’s decision to adopt the UK design without tailoring it to its own visual characteristics as a missed opportunity.
Eyebrows are also being raised at what is effectively the return of British signposts to Hong Kong. It has been 21 years since the city was handed back to mainland China but plenty of colonial vestiges remain on the streets. Postboxes provided one recent flashpoint: they were painted green in 1997 and lately there have been moves to cover up any remaining royal insignia. A more controversial debate involves renaming colonial-era streets. Roads such as Salisbury, Chatham and Carnarvon may seem incongruous in Chinese Tsim Sha Tsui but changing them now would be a sure-fire way of creating confusion – although the city’s new maps could help.