Baltic to Balkan

We're now in Serbia on our way to Athens, via Macedonia. The drive down through Finland and the Baltics was punishing in lots of ways. The van took a beating on the roads in Lapland and its needed an oil change sooner than we expected and a new set of tyres. The water pump stopped working in Estonia and the door fell off in Latvia as well! We managed to get everything fixed without too much fuss though. There's always someone around to help. Our headlamp kept blowing its fuse but we pulled into a small garage this morning and a man quickly fixed it with a pair of pliers and some electrical tape and didn't charge us anything. Magical helpers have sorted us out at every turn.

On our way through Hungary we recorded love songs at a festival called Ordokatlan. The festival takes place in 4 villages in the South West part of Hungary near the border with Croatia. We were parked up there for 4 days and recorded over one hundred songs! Everyone was very happy to sing for us, and the folk song tradition in Hungary seems very alive as everyone, no matter what age, knew a folk song. We also had the opportunity to visit some singing groups in the villages and record them singing which was such a treat. The membership of the clubs is dwindling as they get older. Its mostly elderly widows left in the clubs (our oldest singer was 90 years old!) and where they were once 70 strong they're now down to a handful of members, but the strength of their voices was really beautiful to hear. We feel very lucky to have met them and to have their voices as part of the broadcasts.

Our next official stop to record songs is in Athens so we're now steadily making our way there in the heat so fingers crossed nothing else goes wrong with the van!

Nordkapp 71° 10" 21

We reached Nordkapp today, the most Northerly point in Europe. Its 11 weeks since we left Bristol and we've driven 14,830km before arriving here. We placed a beacon here this morning so anyone who comes here can listen to all the love songs we record. They'll be listening to the same love songs as someone listening at the beacon we left in Punta Tarifa in Spain, some 4315km away (as the crow flies).

The sun doesn't set at this time of year this far North so we've been in continuous sunlight for a while now. We reached the Arctic Circle in Sweden yesterday (we've left a beacon there too) and half bouyed by the magical light, half chased off by a mosquito apocalypse, we just carried on driving after dinner and didn't stop until we'd arrived in Norway. The midnight sun illuminating the forests and fjords as we drove through lapland in a weird late night hysteria was one of the highlights of the trip so far. After a few hours sleep we continued on until we reached Nordkapp. Despite its extreme remoteness, people have been visiting here for centuries (the first tourist was Francesco Negri, a priest from Ravenna in Italy who came here from Ravenna, Italy in 1664) so the North cape itself is a strange combination of utter barren remoteness and tourist trap. The Nordkapp centre includes a panaromic cinema and a 'light cave experience' (we don't even know).

Tomorrow we'll head south again starting the long journey through Finland and take the ferry at Helsinki to Tallin and keep heading south until we get to Athens. Take a look at the map and you'll see there's now lots of beacons playing the love songs. If you're curious to hear some of the songs before you make the 4,000km trek to Nordkapp you can listen to a few of them here

Listen to some Love songs

Because we've recorded so many amazing love songs we decided to make a short podcast as a taster for those of you who either can't make it to a beacon or those of you who have visited a beacon but still want to hear more songs! We recorded it in Sweden, and its us introducing just a few of the songs we've recorded so far.

You can access it here


Tarifa to Berlin

Today we’re in Belgium, just between Ghent and Antwerp on our way to Lille in France where we’ll be recording some more love songs. We’ve spent the last week or so in Germany. We recorded lots of people singing in Neustadt then made our way to the Rhone-Danube canal where we placed a beacon at the continental divide monument. We popped into Austria and put a beacon in the German town of Passau right on the Austrian border, then headed North to the small village of Mödlareuth which was divided in half by the inner German border between 1966 and 1989. We then spent some time in Berlin and placed a beacon at the Berlin Wall memorial.

A lot of the journey so far has been spent placing beacons and there’s now a good scattering of them across the Western part of Europe. Our reasoning behind where we’re placing them is partly to do with locations where two things meet or converge, where one thing begins and another ends, but its also about trying to re-imagine our relationship to the European landmass. There’s a lot of talk at the moment about Europe and what it is and what it means but we wanted to do less talking and more doing and more listening. By establishing these subtle but pervasive landmarks we hope to invite different possibilities, different connections and different routes through Europe. Its certainly our experience so far that moving through the landscape using these beacons as our guide has made us see the continent in a very different way. Especially as we think about the songs we’re carrying and all the possible meanings behind them.

All the beacons we’ve placed are transmitting the love songs we’ve recorded so far. So when you travel to one of them to listen you might hear a Czech campfire song about love for the forest, a teenager’s rendition of Pink’s latest release, an elderly German lady singing a love song in an old Northern German dialect, an Algerian pop song or the Mayor of Neustadt singing Elvis’ Love Me Tender. The transmission is unedited, everyone who sings ends up on the broadcast and they’re played at random so you won’t know what to expect or who/what you might hear. As we collect more songs they’ll be added as we go so in 6 months time there’ll be voices from hopefully every country in Europe. We’ve been amazed so far at the huge variety of voices and song choices we’ve had even so early on. There’s been little to no repetition of songs and each person has sung something very personal. If you want to hear them then you can download the Oh Europa app and it will guide you to the nearest beacon and then tune in automatically to the broadcast when you get there.

We’re now getting prepped for 6 days of recording in Lille then some more recording in Ghent before a big long drive up to Nordkapp at the very top of Norway to place a beacon there. After that its a monster drive down through Finland, the Baltic states and all the way to Hungary to record in some villages there with ordogkatlan festival.

Oh Europa Beacons so far...

Since leaving Bristol last month we've been activating the first beacons that will be broadcasting the love songs we record. We've driven over 6000km since the end of April and we've recorded a few songs on the way which we're thrilled about but mostly we've been focusing on getting the first beacons active. We've placed beacons at Hadrian's Wall in England, Dingle in Ireland, Cabo Da Roca in Portugal and Punta Tarifa, Sant Rafael Del Rio (San Rafael Del Riu) and Llivia in Spain. Its 2127km as the crow flies from Hadrian's Wall to Punta De Tarifa in Spain so we've had our work cut out in this first month getting far enough in the time we have to put the beacons where we wanted them. We'd planned to place a beacon on the Lunghin pass in the Alps this month too but had to put that plan to bed when we checked the weather forecast, its not accessible at the moment so we'll have to go there in early September instead. We knew this was an ambitious undertaking but we've realised in the first weeks just how much we've bitten off. Europe is a big place, and the distances involved are pretty huge. To get to the currently active beacons we've already crossed seas and mountain ranges, driven through thunderstorms and snow, and baked in hot sun. Its really exciting though to know that those locations now hold these audio secrets and to imagine intrepid people in the future making their own long journeys over seas and mountain ranges to hear them. All the beacons are already broadcasting voices of people we've met singing Algarve mountain songs, Bollywood classics, Tony Christie, Fleetwood Mac, Irish folk, Geordie anthems and lots more and those voices are there even as there's no-one listening to them. We like to imagine that they're having a kind of impact on the landscape, the way they connect each location and the way they allow those voices to exist there invisibly but with meaning. When the long drives and disturbed sleeps are taking their toll its a great motivator, to know that we have these songs in our possession. Songs that were gifted to us by courageous people who've sung their hearts out in the knowledge that it will find its way to these distant lands and one day someone will tune in and hear it.

We're currently in the foothills of the Pyrenees, in a simple campsite by a river in France watching the evening sun compete with passing storm clouds on our way to place the next beacon on the confluence of two rivers in Geneva, thinking about the voices we're yet to hear, the journeys yet to be made and the songs yet to be sung.

route map

Today we managed to plan the whole Oh Europa route for the first time! Its taken 3 years to get to this point as our route needs to take in all the beacon locations we’ve decided on (plus have room to accommodate more we discover on the way), and all the festivals and venues who are hosting us at the times they want us and try and hit every country!

It was made all the more challenging because one of the beacons we’re activating will be at the Northern-most tip of the continent in Norway and our motorhome is not equipped for snowy conditions so we can only make that epic part of the trip in July and then make our way all the way down to Hungary. We also want to make sure we actually have days when we’re not driving!

There’s still a few details to sort out with people who are hosting us and some decisions to make about when and where to take ferries from but essentially we know the route now. Its so long and convoluted google maps won’t let us include all the legs of the journey on one map!


Oh Europa

Hello, we’re Gemma and James. We’re British artists, and we work together under the name Action Hero. We’re spending the next 6 months making and presenting a project called Oh Europa.

On April 19th we're moving out of our house in Bristol, UK, and we’re driving over 30,000km through Europe for 6 months in a customized motorhome. Along the way, we will invite people into our motorhome to sing a love song, a capella.

We’ll be building up an ever-growing archive, an evolving library of voices singing in multiple languages with sentiments of love, loss, heartbreak, union, hope and longing. We hope to record traditional songs, folk songs, the latest Justin Beiber, obscure Greek death metal, classic Mariah Carey ballads, songs we know and songs we don’t, songs sung by voices from all the corners of the continent and further afield, sung to us by the people who’re living in Europe now, whoever they are wherever they’re from.

We’ll carry them with us as we travel to every corner of the continent. From the Northern-most tip in Norway to the Southern-most point in Spain, and pretty much everywhere in between. We’ll be attempting to reach all the cardinal points of Europe, the most northerly, southerly easterly and westerly points, the literal edges of the continent. In these locations, and at other borders/edge spaces/points of convergence and departure in between, we will set up a series of beacons from which to broadcast the love songs, a kind of epic song cycle transmitting 24/7.

These sites are distant coastlines, forgotten borders, ancient walls, remote outposts of vanished empires, rivers that divide cities, overgrown relics, mountain ranges, bridges, channels, straits or canals. The literal edges of the continent such as Cabo de Roca on the western coast of Portugal but also the invisible boundaries, the geological thresholds and the cultural junctures that populate the Europe. Places like a village train station in Ghimes, Romania on the historic Austro-Hungarian border that attracts trainloads of flag-waving Hungarian revellers once a year on kind of pilgrimage to celebrate the remains of a long-gone empire. The Lunghin Pass in Switzerland, high up in the Alps, a triple watershed where the water flowing from the mountain can travel to the Atlantic, Mediterranean or Black sea. Overgrown border patrol tracks in farmer’s fields. The continental divide monument that sits unassumingly on the banks of the Danube-Rhine Canal.

At each of these spots, the love songs are being transmitted, so reconfiguring edges, margins & hinterlands into multiple proliferative ‘centres’. Oh Europa’s beacons will begin a process of connection between these sites, an acupuncture of the body of Europe in order to create a different set of connections, flows and circuits. The project seeks to imagine other forms of mapping, one that represents the relationships between people and space rather than one that is about territory.

The broadcasts act as subtle disruptors– transmitting an opaque but heartfelt message. A dispatch from elsewhere containing each other’s voices, perhaps at their most vulnerable, broadcast loud and clear. Detached from political posturing, hollow rhetoric and empty sound bites, these messages speak in song about who we are and how we feel. In short, they cut straight to the heart, offering an opportunity to re-orientate, for people living in Europe to re-imagine our relationships to each other outside of the dominant discourse- to hear ourselves emerge out of the white noise.

It is our hope that the voices of the participants in the project and the planting of these beacons might re-imagine the European landscape. Our motorhome becomes an ‘All Terrain Vehicle’, a vehicle to explore all the terrains of Europe - psychic, emotional, political and physical. The journey becomes a hopeful, reparative act, an ambiguous, complex kind of connectivity. Like the love songs we carry with us it is an act of love but it contains all the pain, drama, loss and trauma that love can bring. Our connections are not defined by a romanticized or over-simplified universality but by contradiction, complexity and shared humanity and all that that entails.