For 28 days last March, London-born and based Joe Sweeney planted a phone box titled +44 Leave a Message for Europe on Dungeness Beach in Kent.
Inviting the public to anonymously call and – you guessed it! – leave a message for Europe, it was born of a feeling he had of being stuck in the liberal “London bubble”.
“I became exasperated by the same point of view being churned over,” the 28-year-old says. “Everyone has their own opinion and reason, and that’s why it was so important for me to do this project, if anything, just for my own understanding.”
Sweeney envisioned the piece before thinking up the concept – an urban fixture (a phonebox) in a remote location (Dungeness), just 30 miles from the French coast. Soon after, he questioned what purpose it could have. “I thought: why can’t this have a function? Why can’t people call this phone box and talk about Europe?” he says. This led him to apply for an Arts Council grant, taking four months or, as Sweeney put it, “the longest part of the process, to be honest”.
With Sweeney’s piece taking a non-partisan approach, and with the anonymity of the messages protected, the installation was free from judgement from either side of the debate – judgement which had become personal for Sweeney.
“I come from a background that voted Brexit,” the artist says. “In my eyes, these people aren’t evil or stupid – everyone has their own opinion and reason.” Giving Brexiteers a fair platform, as well as Remainers, like himself, and those caught in the middle, was paramount to the project.
“When you leave an opinion with just your voice, you think about it a bit more, because it’s a real person rather than an Instagram comment with a picture attached to it,” Sweeney says. Through this, the anonymity led to a mix of genuine fears, beliefs, hopes and optimism which are presented in the film.
The end result is just what Sweeney was hoping for: diverse opinions bound together by the artwork while providing a safe space for those using it. Sweeney has a welcoming optimism, and while the future of Britain remains unknown, he is hopeful that there are enough good people out there to make it work.
“I’m not into a defeatist attitude,” he says. “Uncertain times it might be, but uncertainty can also become good. We all need to be working together to get stuff done.”
Watch the film below