'There Is So Much at Stake': As EU Elections Loom, Artist Wolfgang Tillmans Is on a Mission to Boost Voter Turnout

‘There Is So Much at Stake’: As EU Elections Loom, Artist Wolfgang Tillmans Is on a Mission to Boost Voter Turnout


German artist Wolfgang Tillmans wants you to vote.

The photographer has teamed up with more than a dozen fellow creatives, including Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra and German photographer Thomas Hoepker, to launch a campaign encouraging the public to exercise their right to vote in the European elections later this week. As Tillmans explains, the stakes are high.

The Vote Together initiative, developed by Tillmans and his Berlin-based foundation Between Bridges, is churning out shareable images, video content, self-printing posters, and voter information on a sleek website aimed to spread awareness about the upcoming vote on May 26. (If you are a citizen of an EU member country, you can find out how to vote here.)

The goal is also to explain, in big bold font and clear language, how and why citizens should vote. (All told, the campaign spans 24 European languages.) Voting in EU elections has long been viewed as complicated and less critical than participating in national elections. However, the EU plays a major role in member nations’ policies on food safety, immigration, labor rights, and environmental issues.

With four days to go, it’s crunch time. The quinquennial elections for European Parliament are seen by many as a second referendum on Brexit—and polls are suggesting that Eurosceptic, right-wing, and nationalist parties could make major gains. Members from far-right parties in Denmark, Finland, Germany, and Italy have formed an alliance in an effort to secure additional seats.

Photo: Rineke Dijkstra. Courtesy Vote Together.

“The EU has made our lives much better in many ways—and even though there is undoubtedly room for improvement, using our democratic rights is the way to shape it for the better,” Tillmans wrote in an open letter shared with the public as part the European Parliament’s get out the vote initiative on May 10. “Others decide for you [i]f you don’t [t]ake part in democracy.”

The German photographer has long been an advocate of pro-European ideals. At Galerie Buchholz in 2016, he lined the foyer with posters ahead of the Brexit referendum in the UK. Last year, he teamed up with Rem Koolhaas’s design studio OMA to launch a campaign to rebrand the European Union.

Photo: Wolfgang Tillmans. Courtesy Vote Together.

Last weekend, Tillmans marched with 5,000 people in Berlin for the “Unite & Shine” campaign, a demonstration against the restriction of artistic freedom in the face of rising far-right nationalism in Germany and across the EU.

“What we are experiencing is a reactionary rebellion against a hundred years of social progress,” he told German magazine Monopol during the event. “After three and a half years of part-time dedication to activism, I’ve concluded that above all democracy comes down to electoral participation. What’s really necessary is mediating through the basic principle of one person, one voice.”

Tillmans’s Vote Together campaign includes a large and growing portfolio of European photographers capturing people donning the initiative’s t-shirts. (Designer Andreas Kronthaler recently documented his wife, fellow designer Vivienne Westwood, wearing Vote Together gear.)

Vivienne Westwood by Andreas Kronthaler. Courtesy Vote Together.

Due to the complicated bureaucracy intrinsic to a multinational organization like the EU, voter turnout has been in decline since the bloc’s elections were first held in 1979. Tillmans wants to move the needle. “Voting is a privilege and a powerful democratic tool,” he wrote his letter. “Whatever your political opinions may be, they only register in parliament when you actually show up and vote.”

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