49th City Talks: Square of the European Promise

A speech by Jochen Gerz in Bochum Museum of Art, January 17, 2007

“If it were possible to start Europe all over again,” said Jean Monnet, the European Union’s French father, “then I would start with culture.” Culture has certainly not been waiting for politicians in order to make a contribution to Europe; nevertheless, this sentence is still as valid today, fifty years on, as it was back then. Europe lacks a spontaneous curiosity about itself, a curiosity which only culture knows how to awaken and satisfy. There is no doubt that great progress has been made in the economic and political practise of negotiation as well as in our subtle balance in peace, and certainly not a single day passes without the community growing. However, the questions that we can only answer with the help of our cultures are not posed. Europe has remained an immigrant of the community. In the hearts of its citizens, this new continent of peace rhymes with almost nothing.

What does culture promise? It promises to accompany the identity of each individual and each community beyond restricting national borders, through to the shores of encounter. It can be the bridge leading away from fear and ignorance into the adventure of similarity, a gift to every stranger. Culture promises more than just protection by customs duties and borders. It promises a new day, turning us into people with our lives in front of us. In spite of all the things we have done and what has been done in our name, culture makes us curious about ourselves again. It makes us curious about our contribution to this world; it makes us curious about our promise. It promises us a new country that has never waged war. Its history requires a new memory, which still lies in front of us. What can culture do? It turns the future into the present. It allows us to experience the future as a shared promise.

While working on the Square of the European Promise, I asked myself for the first time how I would respond if I wanted to make a contribution to my own work. What would my answer be? What would my European promise be? What would I do? The short answer is: Give my name. The short answer is: Give my own name, so that it can be set in stone; for now and for tomorrow.

A well-known public question of the 20th century is Josef Goebbels’ “Do you want all-out war?” We know the answer, it was not nuanced, it was not secret; it was not kept private. The answer given in the Berlin Sportpalast of 1942 was also a European promise. Who made this promise? Who was there? There are people who say “nobody” and others who say “everybody”. We know the effects on Europe. Let us be wary of questions we can answer too quickly. Questions that have only one answer are an affront to human dignity. Let us be wary of a time that might tempt us into shouting one right answer. We can think about Europe, we can doubt it in private and in public. We are free to do this, but let us not forget that we – and especially we – owe something to this European freedom.

What would my answer be? Everyone will wonder about his or her own contribution. The answers will remain secret like a mark on a ballot paper; however, every participant must decide for themselves what is to be voted for. It is not about ‘yes’ or ‘no’. The variety of responses from here as well as from other places outside of Germany does not show Europe to be the new home of statistics, but rather to be the new home of imagination. Anyone who wants to read the European promises will have to imagine them as he reads the many names that will fill the Square of the European Promise in Bochum. Nobody will be able to buy them; nobody will be able to take political advantage of them; people will have to imagine them one after another, when they read the names inscribed into the ground; and by doing that, they will themselves become the Square of the European Promise.

These are the reasons why this work neither asks a question nor publishes any answers, why it leaves the conditions of participation as well as the decision to participate open. Anyone can take part, irrespective of what they think of Europe. Nonetheless, the European Promise is not just a question to be answered personally or subjectively, even though this will of course happen. Arguing about Europe cannot be avoided or least of all forbidden. On the contrary, it is an intended aspect of this work to spark discussion and create publicity, in order to help Europe to wake up from its local (political) anaesthetic.

Europe often appears strangely groundless, in other countries of the continent too. Like a tree without a shadow. Something you do not talk about. As if that which Europeans have in common was not Europe itself but rather this groundlessness. The European Promise is an answer that everyone keeps private and for which everyone gives his name. Like a signature. The names, which stand for signatures, give the tree a shadow. Therefore the secret answer is a manifestation as well as a demonstration.

Participation in itself is the statement. So, if thousands in Bochum and Europe, each with their own name, participate publicly in the Square of the European Promise, what are they declaring in doing so?

My first answer was: I promise peace. Against the backdrop of our long European history, in particular the history of the 20th century, and not least my own generation’s biography, Europe can only mean peace – today and tomorrow. Then I noticed that, despite the fact that Europe means peace, I too had given Europe a wide berth.

I realised that Europe’s strange groundlessness is the actual reason for the Square of the European Promise; that Europe’s absence and suppression are the topic. I understood that it is about Europe’s lack of ability to be the object of public debate and democracy. Almost instantly my own answer was there: I promise Europe.

This is the European promise, our promise. Although it is true that the precondition for peace is Europe, it is even more important that a precondition for the Europe of today is the crusades, pogroms, massacres, the ethnic hatred and the racial fanaticism, the genocides, which have taken place in our name on our continent and elsewhere between “enemies“, who have now – at least here in Europe – become friends.

The Square of the European Promise takes place as a contribution to the Ruhr 2010 European Capital of Culture. It is permitted to point out that Europe can only exist if people want it to. There are many Europeans who are prepared to warn others of new dangers, i.e. new neighbours. They are less aware of the fact that it is dangerous to cut Europe off from its time and its problems. We Europeans have been involved in creating many of these problems. To want Europe means to build upon the cultural patience, solidarity and imagination of those people, who have not forgotten misery and sorrow, whether they have suffered or caused suffering. Politics cannot take on this wanting on behalf of the people. The responsibility for too many things is passed on to Brussels and too many things are blamed on others. As a sponsor and contracting authority, Europe has the right to expect more of its annually alternating cultural capital than just having to dig deep into the community’s purse. European Capital of Culture – that does not only mean cash and carry, but also: What is being done for the idea of Europe, what responsibility do we take for the community? This square not only documents gratefulness for Europe, but is also a return present for Europe.

Europe is perhaps an old promise and perhaps a dream, with the first traces of futility becoming visible. There is no more radical step into the future for the first generation after reunification especially in Germany. In Bochum, an invitation is extended to the people of Europe to embark on a journey from many different places to a new home. The Square of the European Promise does not portray Europe as a work of the past, but as the ‘here and now’ of our ideas and our actions.