TCS Daily

The Strangest Show on Earth

By Craig Winneker - October 19, 2004 12:00 AM

BRUSSELS -- A huge circus tent suddenly dominates Brussels' Rond Point Schuman, the institutional epicenter of the self-styled capital of Europe. No, I'm not talking metaphorically about the Berlaymont, the now-infamous headquarters of the European Commission, which is about to reopen for business after a 10-year asbestos-removal (and construction contracting) fiasco.

Rather, I'm referring to an actual circus tent, complete with candy-colored stripes and an old caretaker with a sleeping guard dog. Inside is a mind-bending panorama of images depicting Europe's past, present and future -- surrounding a Dr. Strangelovian circular table and high-back chairs.

What's the point of this unfortunately temporary artistic installation at the heart of the EU? It's all meant to illustrate the "Image of Europe". Sponsored by the current Dutch presidency of the EU, the exhibition aims to "show the way in which Europe is represented through words and symbols" and tap into "the enormous and unexplored potential of the image of Europe."

One of the things the EU does best is to convene working groups, commissions, special committees of wise men and other such talking shops. Usually it does this when confronted with an intractable problem: a pensions crisis, say, or the failing effort to make Europe's economy the world's most dynamic. Can't solve the problem? Appoint a panel to study it further.

One of the big challenges facing the bloc in recent years is its inability to convey -- or even define -- its own identity. What is Europe? It has to be more than just a bureaucratic entity based in Brussels -- more than just a common economic market born of a desire to avoid another world war. But lately Europe's leaders have found it difficult to come up with a raison d'ĂȘtre. Candidates in recent elections for the European Parliament campaigned almost exclusively on local issues - not on any overarching European ones. It didn't matter. Turnout was low, and probably would have been lower if candidates had chosen to talk about Brussels.

For this project, EU leaders asked Rem Koolhaas, the noted Dutch architect with the impossibly hip name, to convene a group of "artists" and "thinkers" and produce a vision of the Image of Europe. Never mind the "democratic deficit" now plaguing the EU. This project aims to address the "iconographic deficit". The inevitable symposia and reports will follow. So far the tent is the main product. Whether it is an image of Europe or not is difficult to say. If Europe is a mishmash of post-modern imagery, a disjointed collage of the horrific and the beautiful, then I suppose the exhibit has accomplished its mission.

Visitors are confronted at each of the tent's four entrances with the outer wall of a circular panorama. Huge posters adorn it, most of them of the Orwellian propaganda variety. You'd think Europeans would hesitate to use this kind of imagery, even in what is supposed to be (I least I desperately hope) an ironic way. "Cooperation Means Prosperity" reads one, over an image of a factory depicted in the Soviet five-year-plan style. "Whatever the Weather -- We Only Reach Welfare Together," proclaims another poster. There's also "Say Yes to Everything" and a parody of a McDonald's ad, with the Golden Arches turned on their side to form a European "E" with the slogan, "Europe's: We're Lovin' It".

Inside the circle is an 80-meter panorama, a dizzying mural timeline of Europe's history and potential future (which postulates the euro as the global currency and, in what can only be described as a sick joke, predicts the new Freedom Tower in New York City will be sold to Vivendi). In the middle of the tent is a replica of the European Commission's circular meeting table -- reminding us all, I presume, that at the epicenter of all this imagery and symbolic hype, it's still really about the bureaucrats.

There is plenty of humor on display. Perhaps the funniest -- and, in a way, most effective -- installation can be found just to the left of the circular Commission table. It is an actual copy of the Acquis Communautaire, the EU's governing rule-book. At 80,000 pages (and growing), it sits like a behemoth, some five meters long. Again, it's all about the bureaucracy.

And Koolhaas and Co. don't want us to forget this. A strange inscription at the end of the mural makes plain where the image of Europe really comes from and where its leaders hope it will go in the future.

"The bureaucrats in Brussels have created a new political space that has the power to make the 21st century the European century," the mural proclaims. Hooray for those bureaucrats! It goes on to explain that the EU is in fact the "world's first viral political space". How has this been achieved? "By creating common standards that are implemented through national institutions, Europe can take over the world without becoming a target for hostility." Ah, now it becomes clear. Europe can create its image as the Anti-America. "While every US company, embassy and military base is a target, Europe's invisibility allows it to spread its influence without provocation."

But don't stop scratching your head just yet, or bother asking the geezer with the guard dog whether the exhibit's designers have been spending too much time in Amsterdam coffee shops. There's more explanation available inside a handy little "Passport to Europe" -- which looks very much like an official passport document and can be bought from a converted snack vending machine inside the tent (this may be a little joke on the fact that bogus European passports have been infamously for sale from unscrupulous Belgian consulates all around the world).

Perhaps never before has the history of the EU been summed up so perceptively - or ominously. "After World War II, visionary politicians created a new structure with new codes of behaviour for the entire continent in a series of highly improvised steps and arrangements. Because the operation was so radical, it could only take place by stealth; for the initial part of the EU's existence, its ulterior motives could never be openly stated.

"For the average European the EU now is a parallel universe that coexists -- inexplicably and unexplained -- with the real world as we know it. The EU perplexes more than inspires," the little passport concludes. And anyone who visits the fantastic (and, I must admit, overwhelmingly brilliant) tent show on the Schuman roundabout will certainly see that is true. "This exhibition celebrates an end to its inhibited iconography, its coming out. From now on the EU will be bold, explicit, popular..."

Roll up for the Mystery Tour.


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