Europe: No name for an Anthem
Remco Torenbosch at the V&A
This February Dutch artist Remco Torenbosch will continue his long-abiding work through the bureaucratic seam of the European Union, drawing forward the grain of its much heralded crises in the dissonance of inherent and sedimented contradictions. The occasion is the Collecting Europe exhibition at the V&A Museum in London in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut London, an undertaking that is opens the great collections of this classical institution to contemporary art interventions, staged amid the ongoing dramas of Brexit.
Torenbosch’s new work EU (2017) departs from the seemingly humble fact of the official Anthem of the European Union, a musical portion of Beethoven’s Symphony No 9 Ode to Joy. Disassembling the six instrumental parts of the piece and dispersing them through the museum, the extraordinary implications of this politico-aesthetic gesture of the EU anthem gradually become perceptible.
Torenbosch discusses the work and its aims prior to the exhibition with curator and critic Vivian Ziherl.
Vivian Ziherl: Remco, I hadn’t known before now that the European Union in fact has an anthem. As a non-European citizen it was a shock to learn that. Perhaps less of a shock was to discover that it’s the somewhat hysterical hymn to Enlightenment supremacy Ode to Joy, albeit without the lyrics. The removal of the lyrics—and thereby the removal of Logos—from the anthem poses a real political problem though. I was, and I remain stalled at the question of what an anthem without lyrics means to the ethical-poetic form of the European project, and of what kind of person its proper political subject is in that case?
The anthem is quintessentially tied to the nation-state, and to its identitarian construction. Its proper singer therefore is the citizen of the state. The problematics of this vis à vis the immigrant and other asymmetric forms by which people occupy state spaces has been admirably dissected by Judith Butler and Gayatri Spivak in their dialogue Who Sings the Nation State. So then, what of the non-national anthem?
The Internationale is the anthem of socialist struggle for example; a trans-national anthem of the proletariat and their allies. It is resolutely a sung anthem however, one that prides itself on the extraordinary number of languages in which it is performed. The stark contrast of the EU anthem to the Internationale discloses an irony that is almost diabolical. Having removed the lyrics the EU anthem is not sung at all, but relies instead upon skilled professionals to execute its melody for the edification of a voiceless demos.
I am stuck on the reasoning behind this removal. Was there an ideological motive? Was it diplomatic, with its Prussian origins aggravating old Franco-German tensions? Or was it perhaps bureaucratic, just best to avoid the messy business of authorizing translations of Schiller’s poetry? Remco, you’ve spent quite a bit of time in the Council of Europe Archives in Strasbourg over the past years. What do you think might be the true answer?
Remco Torenbosch: 'I would argue that it was first and foremost diplomatic. It’s crucial to understand that during the founding years of the European project, quite some diplomatic compromises where taken. Maybe it's good to outline a little bit of the situation back then.
During WWII there was already a strong lobby underway to rethink and rebuild the concept of “Europe”. Shortly after the war, the European Movement International was formed, a lobbying association that coordinated the private and national efforts of promoting European integration (they fly a green pre EU flag by the way, as I found out during my research on the European Blue in 2011). We also should not forget that Europe was still suffering from a huge economic crisis since the early 1930s. These were times when people like Max Kohnstamm - a Dutch Jewish Holocaust survivor - later served as the private secretary to Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands and fulfilled many roles within the EU as we know it and together with Winrich Behr - recipient of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross of Nazi Germany – joined forces to rebuild Europe. Very early in the post-War reconstruction, from 7th to 11th May 1948, the Congress of Europe was organized by the International Committee of the Movements for European Unity. It was presided over by Winston Churchill and gathered 800 delegates from Europe and observers from Canada and the United States in The Hague. The congress launched the call for a political, economic and monetary Union of Europe.
Quickly, however, the focus of the European project was established as an economic one. In 1950 the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) was proposed by French foreign minister Robert Schuman as a way to prevent further war between France and Germany. His declared aim was to "make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible" by creating a common market for coal and steel. The political front followed in 1957 with the treaty of Rome established the European Economic Community (now known as the European Community) among six founding members: Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany.
Studying the correspondence found in the Council of Europe Archives, one of the earliest mentions of an anthem for Europe was in 1949 through a correspondence between Carl Kahlfuss (European citizen) and Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi (politician, philosopher, and founder of the Paneuropean Union). Later Winston Churchill was added to this conversation: “The European citizens deserve a flag, an anthem and a day” Kahlfuss argued. A year later Coudenhove-Kalergi proposed the finale of Ludwig van Beethoven's 9th Symphony; Ode to Joy as the European Anthem but in the later bureaucratic diplomatic conferences the notion of a competition, or even an open call was discussed. It was only in 1972 that Ode to Joy became the anthem of the Council of Europe, and another decade later, in 1986, the Ministers' Deputies of the European Community authorized it as the official European Anthem.
It appears that the main point of contention among the Ministers was that the music with lyrics was not universal enough, and that a German composer in combination with lyrics by the German poet and historian Friedrich von Schiller was altogether too much. Back then only Spain had a entirely instrumental anthem. Later on other European countries as San Marino, Kosovo (titled Europa), Bosnia and Herzegovina followed by also creating instrumental anthems. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Intermeco (accepted in 1998) remains instrumental to this day; lyrics have been written yet are still to be approved. The EU anthem is different. Appropriating one of the most played and well-known music pieces in history and turning it into an instrumental track was a novelty.
In reponse to your mention of Butler and Spivak, I would say that in a world of migration and shifting allegiances, the state should have become a more provisional place and its inhabitants more stateless. What is contained in a state has become more plural while the boundaries of a state have become more fluid. No longer does a state naturally come with a nation. Thinking of people that lived in the Jungle at Calais, Singing the Nation State is reserved only for the privileged who can think in terms of state and nation.'
VZ: It’s really interesting that you’d argue it was based upon intent. And it’s sad although again perhaps not surprising to consider how much the bureaucratic and political class’ notion of a European universal in practice sounds like a European elite.
In our conversations so far you’ve been quick to point out that the origins of the EU lies in a set of post-war economic contracts though. In that sense I have to think back to the Westphalian contract, also an agreement following an era of catastrophic European war and by which the institution of the nation-state, and its subject of the citizen was signed into being. We see at the present time that the citizen is under a great deal of pressure as a political category; increasingly unable to effect political change even through the most direct means of a referendum. At the same time citizenship is wielded as a weapon in denying the humanitarian rights of asylum seekers or, as proposed by the Dutch PVV, dual-passport holders.
Thinking by way of Westphalia, we might see the EU as an attempt by the European political class to ascend into a new formation that would do away with the warring tendencies of the nation-state. Inasmuch as this new form attempts to ameliorate the limitations of citizenship this could be welcome from the emancipatory point of view. Indeed, this seems to have been the position of French philosopher Alexander Kojéve who in the last phase of his life served in the European Commission, and theorized its constituency as supra-citizen sages who were not ruled over by political tyrants, but administered to by well-disciplined Romantic Bureaucrats. However, as the rolling Euro-crises have demonstrated repeatedly, Euro enfranchisement is pegged squarely to financial power and its form ultimately is Economic Peace, a form that does not eschew violence at all but transfers it to other means.
The underlying question is of what kind of political subjectivity the EU’s wordless anthem proposes. I wonder, again from your time in the archive, how the subjectivity of the European Union is witnessed to emerge there and how this influenced your current work? Is there is a Romantic or other bureaucratic personhood and is there a sense of whom they are serving? And how does that effect the protagonist and the viewer of your work, as it will be installed in the V&A?
RT: 'Regarding bureaucracy, my study towards the European blue (EU, 2011-2013) was really a bureaucratic piece in many ways. It was the result of an extensive period of research into the history of the European Flag, the changing socio-economics of EU nations at the beginning of the Eurocrisis, and particularly the disappearance of the once booming European textile industries along with the continuing assertion of strong national identities. The work was about the shift in European labor, production, distribution and what can be considered both national and extra-national about industries in general.
I’ve been interested in the EU as a subject for an extensive amount of time now, by which I mean not only the present crisis, but also the EU in its past, present and for centuries to come. Now, the European project is a large Brussels-centric juggernaut—a steely glass office complex—whereas it once began with a small group of idealists. In this piece I work with sovereignty as we mentioned before, but with the abstraction of its meaning and how it takes shape, just like Schuman's will to prevent further tension between France and Germany by making war materially impossible. This overarching reality is something that is touching base again, but actually this time it’s the other way around. My aim is to make work within this timeless relevance.
Within this new piece I am digging more into the appropriational tension between the EU as an appropriator of culture and myself as an appropriational producer. By taking apart the instrumentation of this anthem of no nation, Ode to Joy I’ve created the first sound piece I’ve ever made. Over the years, Ode to Joy has became a collective anthem within Europe by its usage for commemorations, festivals and sport events: from demonstrators in Chile during demonstration against the Pinochet dictatorship, to the concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The piece itself was already part of protest and part of the people, most likely because of the simple fact that Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and especially the finale Ode to Joy is one of the most recognizable and famous pieces of music ever written. You mentioned the Internationale. Not to defend the Ode, but speaking of Europe I think the Internationale has become much more exclusive then Ode. I’ve been raised in a left wing middleclass family in the Provence of Groningen. A red Provence, back then, and the only Provence within the Netherlands that still has an active Communist party. That’s the only reason why I know the Internationale. Though I think it’s a nearly unknown song now, at least for the people of my generation.
In EU (2017) each instrument on this six-channel sound piece was recorded individually, therefore creating the technical possibility of playing each instrument separately through speakers that will be dispersed throughout six rooms of the Victoria and Albert Museum by demounting the original score and centralizing the individual instruments in separate spaces. The work creates the effect of abstracting the instruments from the composition as a whole and achieves a dismembered unification as the viewer walks through those spaces. By fragmenting the score and utilizing the architecture of the V&A building, the listener is invited with an imperative to mentally complete the work while walking from room to room. Gaps then become traces, as they are neither present nor absent. This ‘disfiguration’ of the original composition resonates with the British Imperial and museological construction of the socio-political history of Europe. Across its rare and invaluable collection, disfigurement, segregation and diffusion often play essential roles. The many human figures and artefacts in the museum that show marks of mutilation are the most evident examples of that. Sculptures with missing limbs or the many ancient European objects seized from their homelands to be re-contextualized in London underline that political or even cultural disfiguration is a phenomenon of all times.'
VZ: But what do you mean by “all times”? “European Time” is recent, specific, and finite.
RT: 'Meaning putting disfiguration in the bigger picture of the human history. With that I mean human history and human nature to build up and break down. Sumer, Neolithic cultures, colonizing, decolonizing, recolonizing under the name of globalization, etc. For me working with and at the V&A with its rich history and their amazing collection, is also a confrontation with another Collecting Europe: that of a history of appropriating material culture and putting it in a museum space. On the other hand, I think it’s of great importance that a Museum as the V&A that is rooted in decorative arts and historical objects creates an opportunity to reflect on the situation as it is happening in the present, especially this particular present that took place so locally.'
VZ: Isn’t that the dissonance within the European universal sought in removing the lyrics and hence the voice from the European anthem?
RT: 'For sure. Personally I would agree to the decision of using only “Beethoven’s tune” as the anthem —like the Council of Europe reported in 1973. But for me to remove the lyrics would be more of an aesthetic choice then a political one. The poem by Friedrich Schiller that Beethoven turned into lyrics is way too overdone and Baroque for my taste: “Freude, schöner Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium, Wir betreten feuertrunken, Himmlische, dein Heiligtum! Deine Zauber binden wieder was die Mode streng geteilt; Alle Menschen werden Brüder* Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt” (“Joy, beautiful spark of divinity, Daughter from Elysium, we enter, drunk with fire, Heavenly one, thy sanctuary! Your magic’s join again what custom strictly divided; all people become brothers, where your gentle wing abides”). And this is just the first part. Without these lyrics and keeping the music purely instrumental, it gets more detached. With detachment I refer the philosophical meaning of the word: a state in which a person overcomes his or her attachment to material things, people or concepts of the world and thus attains a heightened perspective, so yes, universal and more open.'
VZ: In your work the music-lines will be playing to a series of artefacts that inherit a European telescoping of history. They are specific items though, with particular form. Are there combinations that you’re specifically interested by?
RT: 'Yes but not literally. The speakers will be installed to make them invisible, resonating with the six main spaces of the collection: The Cast Courts, the John Madejski Garden, the Europe 1600-1815 Galleries, the Europe 1600-1815 Galleries, the British Galleries, and the Medieval & Renaissance room called The William and Eileen Ruddock Galleries. A few of the spaces and their objects, like for example the European Galleries of 1600-1815, have a time bound connection with the anthem since it was originally created during that time.'
VZ: Once again with Kojève, the Romantic Bureaucrat was attached to a notion of society “After History”—after European Time. However, this condition as we live it feels a lot less like an ascendant ideal, and more like the system failure of European political and cultural institutions—parliaments and museums included.
RT: 'I admire Kojève and in particular his instrumental role in the creation of the European Union. His aim was that history ended with the French Revolution, as it had achieved specific individual freedoms and the universal recognition of human desires. I think this is an interesting thought however I can’t agree, since it’s too of a pro-European nostalgic thought. Nostalgia is something I am not interested in. It’s a cheap but powerful tool. We can see it’s been used way too long in history and now we are right back at it, with Brexit as its leading example. It becomes more and more clear that the EU is coming of age, or might be facing a quarter live crisis. In the late 90s but especially since the Euro crisis it came to the surface that the EU needs to reinvent and restructure itself to stay relevant and not be overruled by nostalgia. Talking about nostalgia, I found it not even that remarkable that a part of the UK wanted to leave the EU. Although the UK played a key role in the liberation of Europe in WWII, and although Winston Churchill was of huge importance during the forming of the EU, the government still opposed taking part in the European Coal and Steel Community (forerunner of the EU). It wasn’t until 1973 that the UK became a member. We should not forget that the EU is still a relatively young concept, yet we should also remember the pre-EU living conditions.I’d like to end with Schiller. His poem was eventually left out of the anthem of the European Union, as aforementioned Despite the lasting popularity of the Ode, Schiller himself regarded this as a failure later in his life, going so far as calling it "detached from reality" and "of value maybe for us two, but not for the world, nor Europe”.'
About two weeks after the invitation Torenbosch received from the Victoria and Albert Museum —V&A director Martin Roth (German) resigned, hastened by Brexit.