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From Europe, with love: The collective spreading cheer to Brexit-weary Brits

A duo known as Action Hero have been driving around Europe, recording love songs. Matt Trueman investigates ahead of their grand homecoming at the Bristol Old Vic

Matt Trueman
Saturday 20 October 2018 09:04 BST
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Action Hero – Britain's ambassadors of love
Action Hero – Britain's ambassadors of love (Paul Blakemore)

It might be the ultimate parting gift. As Britain prepares to leave the EU, two Bristol-based artists have left hundreds of love songs blaring out across the continent. Tune in to the Oh Europa app, and you might hear a Belgian schoolboy singing “Hey Jude”, or a Greek couple duetting the first track on a mix tape they made 20 years ago.

For the past six months, Gemma Paintin and James Stenhouse – collectively known as Action Hero – have been driving around Europe, recording love songs en route. Since setting off from Bristol in April, the couple have covered around 32,000km in an adapted camper van that doubles as a recording studio, and have captured more than 600 love songs. It’s a journey that’s taken in 30 countries, stretching to the very edges of Europe – and all of it, as U2 might put it, in the name of love.

Tonight, their teal mobile home, dotted with a white soundwave design, pulls up outside Bristol Old Vic for a grand homecoming, giving Brexit-weary Brits the chance to tune in to their continental compilation album and, perhaps, lock down a love song of their own.

Oh Europa was conceived four years ago, long before Brexit hove into view. Speaking via Skype from their final stop, in Bucharest, Paintin says they’d become fed up with flying visits on international tours: airport to hotel to theatre. Instead, they envisaged making a show of sorts on the go – a form of “slow touring” that would allow the duo to do something big. Their work often plays with scale. Early shows shrunk stock westerns and Evil Knievel-style stunts down to size for the stage.

At the time, the refugee crisis was cutting through to the public consciousness. Borders were beginning to harden. Action Hero decided to explore the continent and the possibility of a continental identity – what European countries might have in common. “We both felt European,” she says. Since the conception of the tour, shifting political sands have only upped the urgency, and not just with EU freedom of movement due to end in Britain. “We felt we had to do this now,” Paintin adds. “It means more than ever.”

Gemma Paintlin and James Stenhouse conceived Oh Europa four years ago (Pelagia Karanikola)

The plan was to pitch up in towns and cities across Europe and invite people into the van – their home – to sing a love song of their choosing. “When we started, we weren’t sure anyone would sing,” Paintin says. Plenty did – everywhere they went, some with pre-planned songs, some with impromptu numbers. “If you offer people a space and say ‘we’ll listen’, that invitation is very freeing.”

Although it might sound like a gap year trip at the taxpayer’s expense – the £100,000 project was part financed by the Arts Council – Oh Europa is anything but. Save for three days “sitting by a lake in Slovenia”, the artists have driven an average of five hours per day, their route determined entirely by the project. The distance covered is equal to three-quarters of the world’s circumference. As art, Oh Europa sits in several traditions at once. They’ve fostered thousands of individual encounters, as people open up about the experiences of Europe and of love, but the whole endeavour is a kind of grand improbable act.

“That’s what art should be,” Paintin says. “I could have stayed home and written an email about Europe and its future, but that’s not why I’m an artist. For me, the function of art is to connect with people and to make these big propositions of ‘what if?’ What if you went around an entire continent asking people to sing you a love song?” She pauses. “That’s why people have responded to it, I think. It’s a massive act of hope.”

What’s more, Oh Europa will leave a trace. “We knew we didn’t just want to stick the songs on our website like a Spotify playlist.” Instead, Action Hero has dotted the continent with listening stations. At key locations en route, they placed broadcast beacons transmitting an online radio station to the nearby area. The technology uses GPS to play by proximity, like an art gallery audioguide. An app points people in the right direction and, as they approach a hotspot, listeners hear static that gradually gives way to song. “The effect is like tuning in to the radio. The love songs are playing 24/7 – even if no-one’s actually listening.”

It means there’s a conceptual element to Oh Europa, as well as an experiential one. Action Hero have, in a sense, changed Europe, studding it with love songs at significant points. Each beacon’s location was carefully chosen – all of them at borders or thresholds of some sort. As Paintin puts it: “the places where they’re needed most”. She likens the process to acupuncture – injections of love into Europe’s pressure points.

Action Hero have sought sites of historic and cultural significance for their continental playlist (Pelagia Karanikola)

Their collection has its fair share of classics. They picked up Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose” in France, and a giggly rendition of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”, courtesy of 15 Belgian teenagers. In Hungary, a bride-to-be sang them Frank Sinatra’s “L O V E” halfway through her hen do.

But more often than not, people picked songs in their local language, many of them not remotely romantic. “People sang about loving the mountains or the trees,” says Paintin, “or about loving the country they live in.” A Romanian mother sang a lullaby to the three-month-old at her breast while in Finland, a woman in her nineties sang an ode to her homeland; the song Finns sing on coming home from abroad. Born in Karelia before it became part of Russia after the Second World War, she wore a Finnish flagpin in her lapel. For Paintin, she seemed “the living embodiment” of Oh Europa – a personification of the mutability of borders.

In Britain, a beacon sits on Hadrian’s Wall, others are at the edges of Europe itself, calling to outsiders from the northernmost coast of Norway to the southernmost tip of Spain. Europe’s history is one of border disputes, and Action Hero see the current crisis as more of the same. “It’s all about territory,” Paintin says. “This is our space, this is your space.” The beacons broadcast in both directions.

Not all borders are international, however, and none are immutable. Action Hero have sought sites of historic and cultural significance as well. One is in the town of San Rafael, which straddles the border of Catalonia and Valencia. During the Catalan referendum, “only half the local population was allowed to vote.” Another’s on the Morava River, just at the point where it meets the much larger Danube. At one point, it lay along the Iron Curtain – 20 metres of shallow, slow-flowing water separated Slovenia from Austria, East from West. Today, it’s a beauty spot, but, as Paintin points out, “hundreds of people lost their lives there”.

“It’s really important to remember that these thresholds are in flux, and they’re not only manmade, but natural and metaphorical.” In Switzerland, she and Stenhouse climbed four hours to reach the Lunghin Pass, 3,000m up – Europe’s only triple watershed. There, each raindrop’s landing point determines its destination – be it the Adriatic Ocean or the Black or Red seas.

That symbolises something about all our lives: national identity is, in part, down to chance. With nationalism rising across Europe, Oh Europa feels like a small tonic. “It’s a cliché to say it but nevertheless it’s true: love matters to everybody,” Paintin points out. Their experience on the ground, for all that the current news cycle feels fraught, has only confirmed that. And while Brexit’s come up in conversation, it’s not been as present as you might think. “Other countries just aren’t thinking about it all the time.”

Oh Europa is at Bristol Old Vic on 20 October. Tickets here.

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