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The EU is almost without things; looking around, we have the impression to be left with nothing to explain, not much to remark on, interpret, or complain about. “Without things, we stop speaking.”1Examples of a gritty materiality that’s charged with significance are not easy to find. In fact, the process of European integration has effectively created a system of supranational entities, often discussed in relationship to concepts of post-nationalism. Therefore, we struggle to relate blurred cognitive sketches to real “things”, solidly built and tied together. Artistic representation of a ruling power is historically one of the forms in which the state makes itself public.2 We seem to live in a “state of amnesia”. For all that, the future for Europe appears to be now reliant on a public sense of the Union’s legitimacy. This legitimacy depends on an emotional connection with a plausible and visible manifestation of a European political identity, via symbolic and visual language.3
In fact, a European identity cannot be autochthonous, but openly constructivist. A European identity is detected in its citizens’ interactions with symbols; it is visible in the mundane manifestations of the EU, such as currency, documents, flags, and similar banal paraphernalia, and in performances of the everyday, from cash transactions to choosing the correct queue at passport control.4 The Euro has transformed economic integration from abstract and complicated financial deals between bankers, to a series of mundane, quotidian performances between ordinary citizens on the street.5 Simultaneously, even transcending frontiers constructs a boundary between Europeans and non-Europeans. The European currency is then more than just a medium of exchange: it means circulation, dissemination, publicity, exposure, acceptance, popularity. It permeates material culture, operating within the construction of identities. In a singular twist of ideology, power, and meaning, the currency equals freedom.
Euro cash is European Realism, it is a representation of things as they actually are, it is the sincere, un-idealised rendition of contemporary life in the EU. We normally look at architecture, or more broadly at the built environment, as the interface through which we can encounter shared identities. Keeping a concern with an interest in things, materiality and landscape, we still find the Euro sign (€) marking more than coins and banknotes: it can inform the material components of our social and political life, including those that we recognise as peculiarly European.
A popular example, worthy of closer attention, is the Euro-Skulptur. Although its appearance should be familiar to most, some might not know where the sculpture actually lies, as it has become more prevalent in the media than in Frankfurt. Ottmar Hörl designed it in the late 1990s and created two copies. One was placed at the Frankfurt airport, the other was donated to the Frankfurt Cultural Committee, which had it set up in Willy-Brandt-Platz, where the European Central Bank (ECB) was at that time located. It is a big Euro sign, built in fluorescent plexiglass, yellow and blue. A gift from a private association, the ECB only pays the electricity for the blue neon lighting. The brutally unimaginative giant Euro was approved for only three months, and why it is still there, no one seems to know for sure.6 An illustration of the centrality of the financial market, its meaning has changed considerably in recent years and months, from the original grandeur, to current doubts and worry. The euro sculpture and its image have been used inflationary, almost daily, in the news. Recently, a camera crew asked if they could film the Euro sign from the roof of the opposite Schauspielhaus, to give the icon a new perspective, and overcome mediatic desperation. The Euro-Skulptur might be the single most recognisable piece of public art associated with the European Union – although more precisely the Eurozone – flowing almost literally like currency. As a singular embodiment of matter and representation, it is as abstract as money, as tangible as cash. It is oddly familiar, weird, untidy, as if “the desire for an image quickly outstripped reliable data about its configuration”.7 More than an object, in fact, it has the features of a global image, an event invoking an ideological script, which it is literally made to fit.
By shaping the built environment, the currency enters collective memory: “l’image du milieu extérieur et des rapports stables qu’il [un groupe] entretient avec lui passe au premier plan de l’idée qu’il se fait de lui-même”.8 The Euro materialises an instance of the post-national political contract. However, the predictable story also gives rise to predictable counter-narratives. Even at the centre of the eurozone’s financial capital, light bulbs need to be replaced, bumper stickers mark the sculpture’s exterior, and apparently someone recently painted one of the twelve stars in red. Once a symbol of the single currency, it is now a beloved object of hatred for its opponents.
After the relocation of the European Central Bank in 2015 into its new headquarters just outside the city centre, a large number of residents requested it to be removed from Willy-Brandt-Platz. Yet even before that, criticism of the sculpture was common. For example, during the financial crisis of 2008, several residents, many from the cultural sector, complained that the object was inappropriate, out of place and tried to have it shipped to the nearest museum. In a way, the sculpture effectively became an agonistic piece, hosting and symbolising competing, if not polarised, opinions and practices.
In 2011, this symbolic heart of European finance, seemingly an image of turbo-capitalism and of violent financial policies, became also the most visible feature of the headquarters of Occupy Frankfurt, the European offshoot of Occupy Wall Street. In Frankfurt, the coexistence of the 99% with institutions proved very peaceful, although the movement displayed banners protesting the European Central Bank. Tolerated by the police, in the narrow green space in front of Willy-Brandt-Platz, the occupants and their tents shared a mutual indifference with customers and bankers throughout the whole winter. The camp was finally evacuated in August 2012.
Now the small green space in front of the former European Central Bank is fenced, with prohibition of entry. The sister sculpture at Frankfurt Airport was removed in 2012, due to a glaring need for restructuring. A Cultural Committee in Frankfurt claimed that it would be welcomed in “a prominent location in Paris”.
Back in 2001, as part of the introduction of the European single currency, a large Euro sign encircled with the twelve stars seemed an adequate idea, even becoming the most popular photo opportunity in the city. The sculpture had its historical moment, when matching a thing to a thought really seemed irresistible. At such a juncture, it became an attractive object of association. It realised the dream of a perfect language, in which words and world merge: Euro is the currency, the currency is Europe, Euro is freedom. A Euro is a Euro is a Euro.
Whether people like it or not, the Euro-Skulptur became a symbol of the European project, a re-presentation of Europe. As Alois Riegl pointed out in his book “The Modern Cult of Monuments: Its Character and Its Origins” (1903), values win over novelty and artistic intention at play in the making of public statuary. As an object, it constitutes a node around which meanings are thickly layered. It became talkative when it fused matter and meaning; it lapses into speechlessness whenever its matter and meanings no longer mesh9. It appropriately followed the EU’s three “positionings”: its institutional imposition, its social constitution, and its desire of withdrawal and destitution.10
The Euro-Skulptur is not be an incidental substitute, a stand-in. Society is made of individuals and material things,11 deeply and in many diverse ways entangled. Facts are made and the real fabricated. Traditions and cultures are invented, nations are imagined and knowledge constructed. This does not make them unreal or false.12 It is tempting now to think of the sculpture by Ottmar Hörl as a reminder of a strange idea. While evidently a technocratic, one-dimensional monetary symbol, put in some public place and proving separated from the place of reception,13 it also unashamedly displays an effectual clumsiness that makes its rhetoric somewhat less authoritative. At the same time, the confidence in its efficacy is questioned and untroubled every time the public appropriates its surroundings, in a way utterly unintended by the authors of the work. Its presence helps the relationship between the art and the public realm in which it is placed becoming visible and troubling. Are we able to make new plans, new gifts, to produce more images, and imaginaries? Would they also, willingly or not, contribute to the construction of publics around them? For people to take action, is there anything more effective than simply making visible and known the situation of contemporary society, stating the obvious? Isn’t European Realism then enough?__
Paolo Patelli is a designer and a researcher. Through his practice and often collaborative enquiries, he engages critically and by design with space, society and technology. He holds a PhD in Architecture and Urban Design from the Politecnico di Milano. Currently, he teaches at The New School’s Parsons School of Design in Paris and collaborates with the Programme d’Expérimentation en Arts et Politique (SPEAP) at Sciences Po in Paris.