In July 2020, trees and flowers, plastic bottles, dustbins, buildings and cars suddenly started speaking. They stared out at us from our smartphone screens, sometimes smiling, sometimes angry, sometimes sad, often resolute, loud and clear. Look after nature. Don’t throw away so much rubbish. Ride your bicycle more often. Month by month, the choir of voices swelled. It was the children of Europe who were speaking with the help of Earth Speakr, sending their hopes and ideas for the future of the planet out across the continent as talking trees, flowers or buildings.
Earth Speakr, the main artwork of the cultural programme of the German Presidency of the Council of the EU, gives Europe’s youngest citizens a voice. The Icelandic-Danish artist Olafur Eliasson developed it together with children and young people. Strengthening the future, citizens’ participation and the European public sphere – these are the themes that characterised the cultural programme of the German Presidency of the Council of the EU.
“Europe is also a cultural project. That is why the European dimension of our cultural relations and education policy should be brought more into focus on all levels, especially in view of the German Presidency of the Council of the EU in 2020” - that’s what is written in the current coalition agreement. Culture can strengthen cohesion in a free and democratic Europe and promote a European public sphere and strong civil society. That is why culture was such an important topic for the German Presidency of the Council of the EU. The programme featuring interactive artwork went beyond what state-sponsored culture traditionally offers; it was designed to be accessible to all people, all across Europe – while at the same time being anchored at the highest political level. This is what Earth Speakr symbolises.
Earth Speakr has shown how vibrant the European public sphere can be – and that politicians are listening. More than 500,000 young Europeans took part, and in total the artwork reached over 100 million people. It created a space, a platform for a conversation between old and young, between different cultures, between civil society and politicians. What is European identity, what unites us? What do we imagine for the future of the planet?
As we approach the end of the German Presidency of the Council of the EU, we asked the creators of the project some questions.
Conversations with the people behind the scenes
Taylor Dover and Michelle Chen, Studio Olafur Eliasson - “Thousands of messages from children in the newsfeed and suddenly it was clear - this is how Europe sounds.”
Mr Taylor, Ms Chen, you followed the artwork Earth Speakr for more than a year. What impressed you the most?
Taylor Dover: What I found so exciting was creatively putting into practice such a large project of great political relevance in cooperation with children throughout Europe – and it works. Thousands of people who were sitting somewhere in Europe took part. Those of us in the Olafur Eliasson Studio in Berlin had to bring everyone together and work out “how can we create a space so that Earth Speakr really feels like a communal artwork?”
Michelle Chen: I was most impressed by the children themselves. The honesty with which they participated was incredible. The children came from many different countries and cultures. And as different as their social backgrounds, their everyday lives, their habits and their languages were, their ideas were so similar. All of them wanted more trees, less rubbish, very simple things. But the point is: irrespective of whether they are from England or Poland, from Italy, France or Romania, all the children have the same objectives in mind. It showed me how much unites the people of Europe, at least as children. As adults we sometimes forget this because we look a lot more at our cultural differences.
Some adults think children don’t have anything new to add to the discussion about the future of Europe.
Dover: That’s unfortunate. A question at the press conference at the start of our planning comes to mind: “what are children supposed to say that adults aren’t able to say more intelligently?” Well, it may be the case that children have less knowledge. But children look at the world very differently. More impatiently, more clearly. They see what needs to be done. It’s refreshing and important. As adults we tend to see why things are difficult to implement. The clarity of the children also helped us a great deal when we were developing Earth Speakr.
In what way?
Dover: At the start we wanted to conduct test workshops to find out how children might best convey their messages. We let them create collages or draw and showed them different ways they could express their opinions artistically. As a team of super-professional designers and communication professionals, we had put a lot of thought into it. Then the children said: why should we make things? If you want to know what we think then just listen to what we have to say. That blew us away. Children bring honesty to a discussion which is missing with adults.
Over this period of time, you organised more than thirty workshops, trying in particular to reach children from less educated families.
Chen: I wouldn’t have thought that the social differences within the EU are so great. And the social background of the children has of course influenced them. Children from socially disadvantaged families were more pessimistic, their visions for the future more modest. And they were convinced that they couldn’t influence much…
Dover: …over and over again they said: why do you want to hear my voice? No one wants to hear it. It isn’t important. In contrast, middle-class children were on board straight away: OK, sure, let’s do it. Then they just started talking. We were shocked by the difference. For this reason, we wanted our app to encourage the socially disadvantaged children in particular. Of course we didn’t want the design to be like speaking your message into a bottle that is then thrown into the sea and gets to someone, somewhere at some point. This is why we tried to use Earth Speakr to build a community, a community of children’s messages. Ah, there are others who have something to say, and they are listening to me.
In the end you reached half a million Europeans with Earth Speakr within six months. How was that possible?
Taylor: With a large, excellent and well-established network. The Federal Foreign Office, the embassies, the branches of the Goethe-Institut across the whole of Europe and a further 30 or 40 partners supported us. And fortunately Earth Speakr is a digital project, which meant it wasn’t so significant that due to the COVID-19 pandemic we weren’t able to do as many face-to-face events as planned…
Chen: (laughs) … but it did cause us stress. We had to rethink time and again, make decisions quickly. It was an extremely tight schedule.
Looking back, what is it that surprised you while working with the artwork?
Dover: I was very surprised when I met the Director for Culture and Communication of the Federal Foreign Office, Andreas Görgen, for lunch for the first time. Here was someone who believed wholeheartedly that culture can play a very important role in politics, that it can move forward and shape policy greatly, and he works at the Federal Foreign Office? Hard to believe. It felt more like a lunch with a museum director. He was curious about what culture can do and he was courageous enough to really try it out. I would never have thought that such an attitude exists in such an institution. It changed my perception of political institutions for the better.
And what did Earth Speakr succeed in changing?
Dover: Culture can show things that otherwise remain hidden. What is Europe? A shape on a map, a flag, a history, several personal encounters. But we can’t touch Europe. Earth Speakr makes it tangible. Anyone who scrolls on the news feed of Earth Speakr for two minutes hears messages from all corners of the Continent. And suddenly it was clear. This is how Europe sounds.
Was it possible to also reach the decision makers in Europe?
Dover: Absolutely. Politicians of the highest calibre took part, from Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, to the Minister of State for Cultural Affairs Michelle Müntefering. I think Earth Speakr created a space where politicians were able to take a moment to breathe and simply listen. And when Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen or President of the European Council Charles Michel arrive at the Justus-Liepsius building in Brussels every morning throughout the German Presidency, they have to walk past a long row or screens with Earth Speakr messages from which Europe’s children are speaking to them. I hope that reminds all decision makers in the European Union of who and what they are working for.
The German Presidency of the Council of the EU ends in just over one week. What will become of Earth Speakr?
Dover: The site installations will be taken down, but the main message of the artwork remains extremely important: listen to the children of this world! Do something about the climate crisis! That is a message not just for Europe, but for the whole world. Earth Speakr started out as a European project, but now we want to make it a global one.
Taylor Dover is the co-Director of Encounters in the Studio Olafur Eliasson in Berlin, Michelle Chen worksed as a designer for Earth Speakr in the Studio Olafur Eliasson in Berlin.
Peter Lund, AKQA digital agency - “With Earth Speakr, we gave children a microphone. We cannot take it away now.”
“We realised from the start that we would need to create a digital project if we were to actually reach millions of children all over Europe. We started off with three keywords: platform + children + listening. We just needed an inspiring idea and the right technology. We tried out all sorts of things with Olafur and his team ‒ digital libraries with flowers and leaves, digital masks. We wanted something that would be fun and interesting for children to use. We tested each prototype with children to see if it bored or intrigued them. At some point, we stuck two dots and a mouth on a plastic bottle in the office and had a children’s voice talk through it. We immediately saw that this was the magic we needed.
I tested an early digital version of the idea on a walk in the forest with my son. He’s five years old. I was totally amazed by how quickly he could imagine he was a tree and speak for it. We had completely underestimated how easy it is for children to imagine they are someone or something else.
However, it was a very tricky balancing act to find the right technology for our idea. The project was for children, so naturally it had to be safe and to protect their privacy. It was for a sustainable artwork, so we worked with a hosting provider who specialises in a particularly small carbon footprint. The idea was to create something new and innovative, but also something that would be easy to use and accessible to everyone. It also needed to work on a basic mobile phone. I think we achieved a good compromise.
I would never have believed how imaginatively and creatively children would approach the artwork. Some of them even wrote short plays using their Earth Speakr faces. As a father, I saw how cool this tool is for parents, too. It provides a light-hearted way to speak with your kids about the endangered environment and the future of Europe. Without Earth Speakr, I would never have been able to discuss this with my young son.
I see Earth Speakr as a duty. We should introduce a fixed day in the year or month when all adults listen to the messages from the children of Europe. This could be on Universal Children’s Day or at the start of each EU summit. In Earth Speakr, we gave children a microphone that allows them to finally be heard. We can’t take this away from them again.”
Peter Lund works as creative director at the AKQA digital services agency.
Kassandra Kanthak and Hannah Cuvalo, Goethe-Institut - “To be able to talk to the people in power in Europe - these were defining moments for a lot of children.”
Ms Kanthak and Ms Cuvalo, when it comes to the future of Europe, why was it important for you to work with children?
Kassandra Kanthak: Children will live longer than anyone else on this planet, but today’s adults decide the future. It is time for children to be heard. Movements like Fridays for Future show this. Earth Speakr has tapped into this spirit.
Hannah Cuvalo: Goethe-Instituts have been doing education work with young people all over Europe for years. It is important to speak with them and to strengthen them.
In total, you held over 80 Earth Speakr workshops.
Kassandra Kanthak: Yes, over 2000 children in 21 EU countries took part, although many of the events could only be held online. There were ten workshops in Lombardy alone, and more than twelve throughout Lithuania.
The 51 Goethe-Institutes across Europe have excellent local links.
Kassandra Kanthak: Yes, our contacts range from people in the cultural sector and civil society to NGOs and policymakers. Many Goethe-Institutes also made new contacts for Earth Speakr, particularly with sustainability organisations like the Italian organisation Legambiente. We held workshops for children in disadvantaged urban districts in Belgium with the youth organisation Foyer des Jeunes.
Hannah Cuvalo: It was really easy to use Earth Speakr to address other topics, too. We held workshops on sustainability and discussed upcycling and political participation, using theatre, film or music. Earth Speakr was always a part of this. We were able to raise awareness of our work very easily, also via social media.
You also visited schools. Was it hard to gain a foothold there?
Kassandra Kanthak: On the contrary, the Goethe-Institut has a good relationship with schools in a lot of countries. However, some of these workshops had to be stopped at short notice because of the pandemic. Luckily, Earth Speakr is a digital artwork, but it would probably have been able to build up greater momentum had there been a large number of physical events throughout Europe.
Hannah Cuvalo: Naturally, the technology had to work well, both in schools and during the workshops. The studio provided technology kits for the workshops. To be on the safe side, we sometimes also lent the participants new devices so the app worked properly. We worked with an iPad class in Luxembourg.
You held many events in cooperation with German missions abroad.
Kassandra Kanthak: Yes, we worked together closely in many states. Without the help from our Embassies, we would probably not have reached the Rumanian President or hosted so many Members of the European Parliament. The Embassies opened the doors to the decision-makers to whom the children’s messages were mainly addressed.
What role did contact with politicians play for the children themselves?
Kassandra Kanthak: We were actually almost surprised by how important this was for children all over Europe. It was an amazing feeling for them to be given a microphone and to know that everyone, including European leaders, was listening to them. This was a defining moment for many children. We helped them to prepare for their meetings with politicians by giving them public speaking training in some of the workshops. The aim was to boost their self-confidence so that they felt able to express their opinions. Most of them were shy at the start, but then they really came out of their shell.
How did the politicians react?
Hannah Cuvalo: There was tremendous openness. The fact that such a large number of prominent EU politicians took part in Earth Speakr, showed me how important culture is for politics, especially at difficult times. The political sphere wants and needs input from culture.
What were the highlights of Earth Speakr for you?
Kassandra Kanthak: The children’s messages. I find it moving when a ten‑year-old boy explains in great detail how a machine he wants to invent will work and suck CO2 out of the atmosphere. Or when teenagers from a deprived region in Naples suddenly get into an impassioned discussion about how the sea doesn’t belong to anyone, but rather to us all, and so we should treat it with respect. Earth Speakr really sparks something.
Hannah Cuvalo: The very fact that thousands of children and teenagers were so active in Earth Speakr despite the COVID‑19 pandemic speaks for itself.
Did this have an impact on the European public sphere?
Hannah Cuvalo: Yes, I think it did. “European public sphere” describes in my view the interaction between various viewpoints, cultures, countries and languages. A multilingual public is always both a challenge and an opportunity. Language can be a barrier, but most importantly it is the key to other cultures. If you visit the Earth Speakr website, you will hear messages in all European languages. This creates nearness in time of distance. Earth Speakr became a truly European artwork for an European public sphere.
Kassandra Kanthak managed the Earth Speakr project at the Goethe-Institut, Hannah Cuvalo works in her team as a PR officer.
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.