“Europe for me contains the people and all that richness and diversity and history that colors who we are.”

A written conversation between Nada & Co. (Nada Gambier and Mark Etchells) and Kerstin Schroth.

For your project The Voice of a City you travelled together through Europe between 2015–2018, encountering a wide range of local inhabitants in different cities. How was this project born?

Nada Gambier: In fact, the project officially only started in 2017 but the idea was born in 2015 during a residency in Zagreb, Croatia. We were working on another two-year project and came to Zagreb with already quite an overload of things done in previous sections of the process and a frustration of always travelling to work but never actually taking into account WHERE we were, the place within which our work was taking shape. We decided to spend our three weeks in Zagreb to get to know the city and its people and create from there. It was a very pleasurable process and gave birth to some very interesting writing and a cool performative reading, I thought were too good to leave at that. Some other work came in between and it took us quite some time to set up everything and find funding for the project. But eventually, in April 2017, we picked up the thread by going to Tbilisi, Georgia. By now, we have officially left the process but it stays with me as something very precious and quite addictive. New projects are now taking my attention but I do dream of picking up this thread again sometime, somewhere in the future.

Mark Etchells: Zagreb was a new city for me personally, although I had worked in the Balkans region before, but always in Serbia and Bosnia, with a brief airport trip to Split back in ‘96. It was another piece of the region’s jigsaw for me, and it was exciting to learn a city and the people by a natural and specific immersion process, rather than picking up little bits here and there while doing other work. It was quite a revelationary experience to just take everything and everybody in and then try and filter out a specific form and direction with what we were picking up daily.

The project consists of three elements, a performance for eighteen spectators at a time, an exhibition and a book. Could you tell about the choice to present the project in these three ways?

Nada Gambier: We began working knowing that we wanted to collect a maximum of impressions, traces, materials and end up with a huge archive of stuff that somehow would all want to be made public. I had a feeling that a performance might not be the right format for all of it and that maybe it would make sense to divide our attention on different ways of reaching an audience and sharing the experience with others. Now, the different works work together but also apart as they each bring in another perspective of what we did. The book for instance is the most direct trace of the people’s stories whereas the exhibition brings in fiction as an alternative to talk about what we observed. In the process, we also engaged in other ways of sharing. Since 2014 I have been working on blurring the contours of the different phases we work with in performance, namely research, creation and then presentation. I think it is more interesting and these days more relevant to open that up and so also with this project we included sharing at odd intervals as a way to keep it dynamic and alive. We did a couple of writing workshops that included blind-dates where the participants got to meet someone local in a one to one conversation. We also did a performance with children in Budapest based on testimonies from locals there and we have a participatory version of the performance. The end presentations were never more important than the process to get there and ideally we would still be focusing on encounters and all public presentations would continue to evolve.

Mark Etchells: The archive of material that we gathered was vast. We were recording audio, filming, photographing, transcribing meetings and writing creatively. The sheer volume of material lent itself to being used in a variety of formats. It was soon obvious to us that some elements of the archive were more suited to being represented in a particular way, some things performatively, other things better as the written word, or indeed as part of an exhibition. I believe by seeing the performance alongside the exhibition it gives the visitor a fuller experience of what we were doing and how we came to represent the work in these ways. The book is really the icing on the cake in terms of being a more exact, though still slightly abstract, representation of just what we were doing.

When you look at Europe and the European idea, what do you see, especially after a project like the one you made, and during the global pandemic we are now going through?

Nada Gambier: That’s a huge question and a very complex one. Mark and I sometimes fight about this because for me Europe is the continent but nowadays people talk about Europe when they refer to the EU. I think the EU is very problematic as it relies so heavily on economy and continually fails to take into account cultural differences and how that influences everything else. It is as if bureaucracy somehow is supposed to even things out but in reality that’s not how things work.

Paradoxically, during our travels, we encountered a lot of similarities between people everywhere. The idea of borders as something solid became a very silly notion. In all places we’ve been to people struggle with similar issues and enjoy similar things. It is kind of obvious of course but I think I didn’t expect to what extent that would be visible and tangible. I think what makes people think differently and behave different from one place to another is history and how they have been shaped, as a culture, as a society and as individuals by the past. However, as we try to show in our performance, there are also similarities there. For instance, we all have links to immigration and our roots are spread.

Now with the Covid response and negotiations in the EU I think we are facing a very difficult period. We all remember what happened in Greece a couple of years back (the Greeks we met were all still paying the price of that) and do not want to see that happening again. It was a failure on all sides. This is a real test of what the EU claims to be. Will it remain or has it already started crumbling? Did Brexit start an avalanche of cracks in the system that we are now witnessing come to the surface also in other issues? Is this the beginning of the end or the beginning of something new and better? I guess it is too early to say. But again, here I am talking about the EU when in fact I prefer to look at Europe. Europe for me contains the people and all that richness and diversity and history that colors who we are. I’d like to think that what we encountered, the humanity, generosity and curiosity, is stronger than anything else but I am not a politician nor do I work in politics.

Mark Etchells: Indeed, that’s a biggie ! And yes, Nada and I do tend to be different in our interpretation of Europe. For the record, I am completely pro the European idea in whatever way it manifests itself as an organized unit of Nations.

Our differing interpretations of Europe stems from my geographical view of a European land mass with the various nations sharing land borders. As an islander from the UK I do see “Europe” as something I’m happy to be part of, though feel slightly removed from somehow. Not in any kind of arrogant way, just a geographical way. After all, the population of the UK is made up of Angles and Saxons, Danes and Norwegians, Picts and Celts, and of course the French, plus numerous other cultures from around the globe. In actual fact, a glorious mix of races and cultures of which I’m immensely proud of. The idea of nationalism from people of such mixed international heritage to me is laughable. We are a mongrel breed, and I’m super happy to be just that.

Through the work and travels and meeting people in the various locations you get an incredible sense of just how much we are the same. There were tales of conflict, migration, economic hardship, and love and laughter, we share such a rich and varied personal and national heritage that goes beyond land borders and nation states.

It was the similarities between us all that struck me. Maybe this is obvious, but it really became evident because of the immersive process and the way we built relationships, mostly in a very personal way, that brought this feeling to the fore.

There are a lot of us out here and out there in many nations that recognize and appreciate our shared history and heritage, but not enough. Austerity leads to Xenophobia and Nationalism, and as Europe as a whole struggles along with its boom and bust rollercoaster of capitalism, this is happening again.

It’s a very complex situation….and maybe this isn’t the place to go on!!

The current pandemic has been challenging to say the least. Tit for tat border closures, Governmental incompetence, shameless opportunism, and an ill-educated public haven’t made it any easier.

The EU as an organization isn’t without its faults, but it is at least better than a fragmented bunch of nations all arguing with no one direction. We saw that we are really pretty much the same, but with glorious and beautiful differences, and we should stay together and be educated to recognize this.

Interview conducted in July/August 2020.

The Voice of a City is going to presented as part of Moving in November: Traces from November during 2021.

Picture: Isabel Gonzales