An afternoon in mid-September at the Federal Foreign Office. High-pitched voices echo around the sun-filled Atrium, the centrepiece of the Ministry building’s modern extension. There are children here today: Nova, Maria, Ghiselle, Shamiso, Niklas and Ruben have come to tell politicians – and, in fact, all the adults in Europe - what they wish for the future of the continent and the planet. “We adults take the decisions that affect your future,” says Irmgard Maria Fellner, the Foreign Office’s Director for Cultural Relations Policy, as she welcomes the group. “That’s why it is so important for us to know what shape you want this future to take.”
As part of the cultural programme of Germany’s Presidency of the Council of European Union, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas nominated Danish-Icelandic artist, Olafur Eliasson, to create an art project offering children from around Europe an opportunity to speak their minds: Earth Speakr.
Eliasson developed an app and an interactive website - in all 24 official EU languages - which allows the young people to record their ideas for the future of Europe. As they speak, their facial expressions are projected onto an object of their choice, and their messages placed on a virtual map of Europe. Children from all EU countries have already recorded messages on Earth Speakr.
The Earth Speakr messages are projected on video screens high above the Atrium, the children’s voices sing-songing together. Talking rubbish bins dance across the screens, as do flip-flops and soft toys, angry vases, herbaceous borders and swimming pool floors. The objects call for better environmental protection, more consideration, less pollution.
“I like the talking tree stump best,” says Nova. “It’s been sawn off and it’s sad. I see lots like that in Berlin.” Maria’s favourite is the exasperated COVID-19 face mask, discarded on the city pavement. “There are lots of them where I live in Kreuzberg too. It’s a new kind of litter that I don’t like.”
Maria: This is what I wish…
Now it’s time for the children to leave their own messages. To do this, they go to the recording studio dedicated to the German Presidency, located in the older part of the Federal Foreign Office building. They go across the courtyard known as the Protokollhof, across the red carpet, up some stairs and then into the recording studio. This is where the Foreign Minister himself records videos, where virtual conferences with other ministries are held and livestreams are broadcast. But today this room belongs to the children, all aged between ten and 12.
Ruben and Shamiso rush over to the lectern by the European flags. In front of them are the microphones, opposite are cameras, and on the walls the logo of the German Presidency of the Council of the European Union. “We are important!” exclaims Ruben. As soon as the children have been given the mobile phones with the Earth Speakr app, they get busy recording messages, with faces speaking from tables and chairs, a computer screen, a German flag, a bottle of disinfectant or even their own clothes – in this case, a floral printed skirt.
“I don’t just want to talk about the environment, I want to talk about justice as well,” says Shamiso. She has found out how unfair the world can be. Not long ago, someone told her sister to “go back to Africa, you monkey”. The incident has left a lasting impression on Shamiso. Europe should be different, she says. Just, fair and appreciative of diversity. “I wish there was less racism in Europe and that people treated others as they would like to be treated themselves.”
Shamiso: This is what I wish...
Ruben wants people to cycle more and throw out less rubbish, and not to throw it into waterways. He also wants less paper wasted and more recycled, fewer plastic bags used and more bags made out of cotton or other fabrics; and to give less fortunate people more help and more respect. Niklas would like disinfectant and hand sanitiser to be more rigorously used across Europe to kill coronavirus. Ghiselle just can’t forget the pictures of dolphins with plastic in their stomachs that were on posters all over town recently. “I think it’s bad. We have to stop animals dying because of things that we humans throw into the sea,” she says. Nova wants politicians to finally do something about the destruction of the rainforest: “It is so important for the planet. So many special animals and plants that live there are endangered. And in the jungle there are also loads of substances for new medicines.” Maria has lots of wishes: she would like more plastic recycled instead of trees being chopped down to make paper, and she would like more plant habitats to be protected, and that plastic didn’t pollute the environment everywhere. “I used a bit of plastic I found floating in a fountain for an Earth Speakr message. It says: ‘I’d rather be recycled than wet’.”
Where can I find Earth Speakr?
Michelle Müntefering, Minister of State for International Cultural Policy, welcomes the children to the Federal Foreign Office. “It’s great that you are so committed, because it’s your future at stake. If people want to change things, they have to take action themselves.” The Minister was moved by what Shamiso said about her experience of racism, and encouraged her to speak out. “We are all different – and that’s a good thing. We are all worth the same. It is important to raise the issue. We must never be indifferent when other people are insulted and degraded because their skin is a different colour, for example.”
Most of the kids agree on one point: “Europe is home”. And for some of them Europe is also “trust and community”. But this feeling is not always a simple one. “Sometimes Europe is fear, too,” says Shamiso, “when I go home at night, I don’t feel safe.”
And what if there were borders between countries again? “Inconceivable,” say Maria, Nova, Ghiselle, Maria, Shamiso and Niklas. Ruben shakes his head. “Never,” he says. “I’m just glad I wasn't around when they still existed in Europe.”
You can find more information on the cultural programme of Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union here, or in the following film.