by Holly Bond
"I’m not interested in making work that is simple because life isn’t simple."
Visit oheuropa.com and you will be see a map of the continent, covered in blue pin points, each marking beacons that transmit love songs, forever.
Clicking on a pinpoint takes you to a short video from the beacon, ranging from the serene and beautiful to the fantastically epic landscapes that Europe offers. These beacons were placed at border points, at the most northerly and southerly, westerly and easterly parts of Europe; places which, as stated on the website, are at the ‘literal edges’ of the continent. We are told that to listen to the love songs at each location, we need to visit the beacon in person via the Oh Europa app.
The long songs are direct from the source, sung by the people of Europe. The recordings and placement of the beacons is all the work of Action Hero, a Bristol based live art and performance company. In 2018, Action Hero set off on a 30,000km trip across Europe in pursuit of loves songs. Spending over six months in their blue motorhome, Gemma Paintin and James Stenhouse - the live artists that collaborate on Action hero - recorded thousands of love songs from people across Europe to create Oh Europa.
It is a magnificent project aiming to capture the diverse feelings about Europe. They asked people from all over the continent: if they knew a love song, come into their van and record it.
For Action Hero, this project is one that pursued the most intense involvement with a place and the complex ideas that come with it. As a company they have already made and shown work in a variety of spaces, from bars to campsites and beyond. Their work engages with the ‘iconography of popular of culture and its use’, an engagement which has created a myriad of work that fuses different mediums and in spaces that create an exciting and different audience experience.
Just visiting the website is a new audience experience in itself. As I click through each pinpoint at home on my laptop, I am taken across the diverse landscape of Europe, from Ireland to Spain, Norway to Bulgaria. It makes me realise how much there is to see, right there across the channel. I also think that maybe I don’t have long until my freedom to explore it is gone.
I spoke to Gemma from Action Hero to discuss the creation of Oh Europa, the future of the project and why it’s not a work about Brexit.
What gave you the idea for Oh Europa?
It was quite a slow burner actually, so maybe in 2015? Before the Brexit referendum we had an idea about making a piece that traveled slowly, partly from a desire to tour in a different way. We are a touring company and have been lucky to go all over the world, but often that kind of touring comes with a lot of travel where you only see the airport, the hotel and the theatre or space where we perform. We wanted to do a tour that had a more in depth engagement with a place. We spoke about the ‘classic road trip’ and its American roots, but how that could work in Europe where we are from. And then the referendum was called, and it developed from there. There was this narrative in the wider European context about whether there was a crisis in Europe, which we wanted to explore.
Why love songs in particular?
We knew we wanted to travel in Europe, and visit the extremes; most northerly, southerly, westerly etc. We wanted to meet people and talk to them and have an interaction which could get to the heart of what Europe is and what we have in common. We didn’t just want to ask people how they felt about Europe. I feel that those conversations are more common but they are the ones that are difficult to have. Not that they are hard between people, but because there’s something about that conversation that doesn’t get to the heart of who we are and sharing this space on a continent together. Love songs became a way to have a different conversation, to find out what connects people and how we connect to each other. As soon as we decided to collect love songs, the project came together and everything made sense. We realised it was that idea we had wanted to explore for the last two years.
In your ‘Baltic to Balkan’ blog entry, you say there was always someone around to help when your van broke down. Was everyone you met friendly? Did anybody react to you coming from a country that had ‘Brexited?’
A lot of people ask that. Most people are really nice, or even if they don’t care, it’s rare that someone would respond in an aggressive way. What you realise when you leave the UK that although Brexit is central here, it’s not everywhere else. This isn’t a project about Brexit. Even after Brexit we will be living in Europe. It’s about what Europe is and its complexities. To be honest a lot of people didn’t realise we were English. People would come over and sing a song, or be chatting, and then after a while they would ask where we were from. The rest of Europe isn’t as preoccupied with Brexit. Some people said sorry this happening. It was an unusual person that would say the EU is stupid. We had one slightly fraught conversation and some gentle challenges. I feel a great personal sense of loss, but when we were on the road I would only say that if someone asked me.
You rock up at a place with a sign saying ‘we are collecting love songs.’ Did anyone have a strange reaction with that?
Yeah totally. What is weird about this project is that what you think might happen- doesn’t happen. There was this dreaded feeling on the road when we first set out where we thought ‘what if no one comes and sings!’ We thought of tiny details like how we worded the sign, how wide open the door was. But all those things matter. In some places, they knew in advance we were coming, but the vast majority were just popping to the shop, or on their lunch break. It becomes this curious thing for people. Most people don’t sing, but you would be surprised at the amount of people who do. The amount of people who stop to listen to the songs of others, as we have headphones on the front of the van, or just to chat. It’s a reason to stop in a public space.
When I looked at your website and watched the videos of each beacon location, often the descriptions- for example of the strict border point between Russia, Lithuania and Poland- contrasted to the beautiful video accompanying it. I wanted to know if you purposefully tried to juxtapose the violent border language with the actual scenery- does it makes us realise how unnatural borders are?
I have a lot of thoughts about that. That particular border point you’re talking about, the reason we filmed like that is that you can’t film the border point. The actual border point, 180 degrees the other way, is barbed wire and CCTV. There’s a border stone that marks the tri-point. Depending on where you stand you could be in Poland, Lithuania or Russia. I could just stretch out and touch Russia, but I didn’t as it’s strictly patrolled. It gave me the jitters. We went to 42 border places. It makes you think about these places as impermanent, continually drawn and redrawn and realise how arbitrary they are. They are very real if you don’t have the permission to cross them, but they’re also a function of this changing political landscape. Even geological borders, the tectonic plates are moving away from each other, even they don’t last forever. It makes you think that really, they are fiction. Sometimes you see the physical nature manifest in reality, and sometimes you don’t. It’s easy to forget. It’s very human, the marking of territory. The ease with which you can move across these places is changing. You can’t boil it down to one easy thought. You realise the complexity of Europe as an idea, as a place. I’m not interested in making work that is simple because life isn’t simple. I’m interested in complicatedness. The culture at the moment is making things simple to understand, but the world isn’t like that and neither are people.
What was your favourite song?
God, I mean we have over 700! I guess the ones where you feel like that person has taken a risk in that moment to sing you a song. It’s weird to be walking along in your normal life and someone says ‘do you know a love song?’ and then sit inside their van. This isn’t necessarily my favourite but there was this couple in Greece and it was their 20 year anniversary, and it was the first song on the mixtape he had made her when they first got together. Neither can sing, but it is so heartfelt in that moment. There are people walking past and go ‘yeah we will sing a song.’ Some people who know we are coming have prepared, those experiences are always touching because it is a project that touches people in this extraordinary way. To some it’s a funny thing they did on a Saturday, and others think carefully about what they want to say in the context.
So what is next for Oh Europa?
In 2019 we are continuing to collect love songs. Next year we will be doing a performance and installation at Transform, Leeds, where we will play every love song we have collected back to back and people can come and listen. It will be like a 10 hour performance at Transform. We will be doing a work in progress of that in Spain on the night of Brexit (28th March) in Madrid. But if you can’t make the performance, you can download the app and you will see if there is a beacon close to you. The app will tune into the love song broadcast from the beacon. They are playing forever, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
To find out more about Oh Europa, visit oheuropa.com. If you want to hear the songs, download the Oh Europa app to see if there is a beacon near you. To explore more of Action Hero’s work visit actionhero.org.uk