In recent years, the European project has come under increasing pressure. Many people, even entire nation states, feel threatened by this supranational structure. Since there is barely a European public forum, people are not always well-informed about the accomplishments of the EU and in some countries fake news and disinformation – spread by extreme right politicians – create a climate of distrusts. However, this can be opposed by bringing the achievements of the EU to the surface. In the engine rooms of our society – the places where goods are traded between the European nation states – the EU’s accomplishments are best visible. If there were no standardised pallets for example, our ports would experience much inconvenience, resulting in higher prices for consumers.
A Euro-pallet (officially: EUR-pallet) is a wooden pallet with dimensions and specifications laid down by the European Pallet Association. It measures 800 mm × 1200 mm × 144 mm and is made of wood nailed with 78 special nails in a prescribed pattern. Euro-pallets circulate in an exchange system set up by the European railway companies in the mid-twentieth century. It was calculated that using Euro-pallet, it was possible to load railroad cars in just 10% of the time of earlier loading processes. Some Euro-pallets retain their natural wood colour, others are painted signal blue. This colour scheme (yellow wood or blue paint) refers to the flag of the European Union. In a broader perspective, Euro-pallets are the perfect symbols for the European project: imposed by a bureaucratic apparatus, the standardisation makes it possible to move goods easily between different nations and thus to cooperate better.
In August 2019, Jason Slabbynck and his Studio mxmxm designed and built an architectural sculpture at Bruges Seaport – one of the places where Belgium connects with the rest of the world, one of those engine rooms of our society where goods arrive and leave. The sculpture was a re-enactment of the well-known Parisian Arc de Triomphe, but twelve times smaller and entirely made of blue Euro-pallets. The floor plan consisted of four stacks of Euro-pallets with a cross-shaped opening in the middle. After a few metres, the four stacks start to build an arch and meet at the top. To realise the sculpture, a total of 170 Euro-pallets were needed. Since pallets have a deposit value, they could be borrowed from a neighbouring freight company and they were returned afterwards. In this way both the ecological footprint and the cost of the sculpture remained minimal.
Arc de l’Europe was more than a silent evocation of Europe’s achievements: it also talked to passers-by through a couple of music performances which took place under the triumphal arch. Since 1985, the European Community has the prelude to Ode to Joy, the fourth movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony as is official anthem. The fourth movement was originally written for orchestra, large choir and four soloists. The European anthem, however, does not include the German text by Friedrich Schiller because this text refers too much to one specific nation. The Belgian composer Benjamien Lycke orchestrated the European anthem for four musicians and this version was played under the triumphal arch. In the first music performance, the four musicians played the trombone. This performance was recorded and in the next music performance, the four musicians added music playing not the trombone but the synthesizer. This was also recorded and in the last performance, the musicians held music speakers through which the synthesizers from the previous day and the trombones from the day before sounded. In this way, we wanted to tell a story about the automatization of labour. Automatization is something Europe is inevitably confronted with, in ports specifically and in labour in the general sense. Automatizations questions the place of humans in the process of making and transporting ‘goods’.
The musicians were wearing a blue safety vest, which referring to the yellow vests (who damaged Arc de Triomphe in Paris) as well as to the workers in Bruges Seaport. Besides these ‘costumes’ there was an omnidirectional ‘staging’ since each of the four musicians was standing in one of the four openings of the triumphal arch, encouraging spectators to walk around. Arc de l’Europe succeeded in activating and energizing the space around itself, conducting people flows in a circular movement around the musicians. Underneath the arch, as a kind of keystone, a yellow star made of Plexiglas was installed. At times when there was no musical performance, the star was able to track the movement of visitors going through the arc and started playing an 8-bit version of the European anthem, lighting up at the same time. The materiality of the plastic (made in China) stood out against the rough aesthetics of the wooden re-usable pallets and the musical finesse of the performance.
Photos: Jason Slabbynck and Jordan Slabbynck