The alternative Eurovision party, taking place at London’s Scala tonight, is a loud spin on Europe’s flag-waving obsession
Type ‘Can Britain still compete in Eurovision after Brexit?’ into Google, and you’ll see around 25m results. The short answer to the question is, of course, ‘Australia’, but that hasn’t stopped nearly every major news outlet from publishing handy, step-by-step explainers on Britain’s legal status within the annual music showcase post-Brexit.
From where does the confusion arise? And since when did membership of a contest long since regarded as a joke in the UK become a complex issue on a par with the Northern Irish backstop arrangement? For the organisers of Euronoize, an alternative Eurovision taking place at London’s Scala tonight (May 23), the problem lies with the idea of borders themselves.
“We became interested in Eurovision as an ideological parade ground where this idea of the nation state is turned into a weird, really camp spectacle,” says Pil Kollectiv, who masterminded the event with fellow Israeli-born British artist Galia Kollectiv. Following this year’s controversy over Israel’s hosting of the event – and Madonna’s decision to perform on the night – the artist argues that Eurovision has taken on new significance in light of rising nationalist sentiment sweeping the continent. “In a way, Eurovision is even more relevant than ever because (in the current political climate) the performance of European and national identity has become even more tense, theatrical, weird and interesting. It feels relevant because Europe is asking those questions about itself.”
Part affectionate piss-take, part serious-minded provocation, Euronoize features an eclectic cast of musical “punx and weirdos” drawn from 11 European countries. (Britain doesn’t feature, “due to Brexit”.) Each has been tasked with writing a song on the theme of national identity, which they will perform at Scala tonight (May 23) for an audience who will decide the eventual winner (non-attendees can vote online where the show will be live-streamed). Think of it as light relief from the EU parliament elections, taking place the same day.
The project is also one of the last to receive EU arts funding in the UK – a bittersweet twist, given that Pil and Galia dreamed it up when Brexit was still a twinkle in Arron Banks’s eye. We spoke to the pair about their vision for Euronoize, and their lingering affection for the main event’s mixture of kitschy glamour and bureaucratic red tape.
Can you tell me about yourselves and what you do in your work outside of Euronoize?
Galia Kollectiv: We’ve been working collaboratively as artists for a very long time now. We have this art band called We and we thought we could represent Britain at the actual Eurovision, which we’d grown up watching as kids. Eurovision is a big occasion in Israel, partly because it’s the only time that Israel was ever counted as part of Europe. We were interested in this idea that you can ‘represent’ a country musically, you know – what does it mean to represent a nation?
Pil Kollectiv: To go back to your question, (our work together) started with an interest in ideology. We became interested in Eurovision as an ideological parade ground where this idea of nation state is turned into a weird, really camp spectacle.
It’s a bizarre collision, isn’t it?
Pil Kollectiv: Yeah, absolutely. The best moment of Eurovision for me was when this notion of the state was forced into a stage prop, almost, in the 2010 entry for Armenia when they had this apricot stone decorating the set (apricots are the national fruit of Armenia). But (beyond the music), there is something really weird about the whole event, and the kind of bureaucratic ritual around it - the phone votes, the points system. There’s something very kind of EU about it. It’s a celebrated red-tape event.
Galia Kollectiv: There’s always that (political) subtext in Eurovision, but we wanted to make it into the main text.
There were calls to boycott this year’s Eurovision, which took place in Tel Aviv, but it sounds like your idea for Euronoize predates all of that?
Galia Kollectiv: Yes. It’s added a political charge to our project, but really we see what’s happening in Israel as kind of the forefront of what is happening globally. I think developments in Israel often precede things that are happening here, in terms of the rise of neoliberalism and the technological security state. So really we wanted to foreground the problem with the nation in general, which Israel has become a symptom of, rather than talk specifically about the conflict.
Pil Kollectiv: In pragmatic terms, part of the project (was about) the possibility of us inviting bands from places like Russia and Serbia – to get the art visas for these artists’ work was really, really difficult. The way we managed the project spoke to the conditions we were looking to critique.
The boycott calls were part of a wider discussion among the music community about the ethics of performing in Israel, where do you stand on all that?
Galia Kollectiv: We are sympathetic to the boycott, (but) it’s a complex issue. It’s not just an internal thing, you know – people like to talk about the horrors of Gaza and certainly they’re very real, but how many of those people actually support those borders or border abolition? How many people would accept Palestinian refugees in this country, considering the current political tone around immigration and asylum? Those were the kind of questions we wanted to think about.
“(Eurovision is) more relevant than ever because now, the performance of European or national identity becomes even more tense, theatrical, weird and interesting” – Pil Kollectiv, Euronoize co-founder
Can you talk us through the selection process for the competition? What kind of artists did you want to involve?
Pil Kollectiv: We were thinking about the relationship between local and global scenes, so we looked at bands who’d been very active in local scenes. For example, the Serbian entry, EPP!, have an interesting scene around them in Belgrade, or the Greek band, The Callas, publish their own zine. We were interested in looking at how the global language of international pop music or rock’n’roll connects very disparate local scenes.
Apparently there’s a former Eurovision entrant in there too?
Pil Kollectiv: Yeah. One of the bands we immediately wanted to include was Winny Puhh, because they nearly made it to Eurovision to represent Estonia but they didn’t get to the final. They became a cult band on the back of that – they did this really intense, incredible performance that included two drummers spinning upside down from the ceiling. A lot of people in the Eurovision fan community thought they were robbed.
And they’ve been asked to write new songs for the event, right? How have people responded to the brief?
Galia Kollectiv: They’ve all responded very creatively. We’ve also commissioned a video artist to do the ’postcards’ from the different countries in between the songs. You know how they do in Eurovision, where they have a video on the country with, like, leaping salmon or something? We asked our video artist to produce a more critical response to that brief.
One of the funny things about Eurovision is this kind of artfully maintained pretence that it isn’t just a huge diplomatic exercise in a way.
Galia Kollectiv: I mean, Eurovision started as a political project; it was set up to unite Europe in the wake of the world war. It was a very self-conscious exercise in balancing national identity and globalism in a way. But the world has changed a lot since then, and I think the vision of a peaceful postwar Europe is falling apart.
Do you think the competition is a relic in that sense?
Pil Kollectiv: No, in a way it’s more relevant than ever because now, the performance of European or national identity becomes even more tense, theatrical, weird and interesting. And this is maybe why, beyond the boycott, Eurovision feels more relevant than ever, because Europe is asking those questions about itself. For example, is there such a thing as Italian identity, and is that not an inherently racist notion? To what extent do we need to hold on to these definitions? That’s what we’re trying to reflect with the event.