Culture, Migration and Policy in Multilevel European Borderscapes

Conceptual and research work in the EUBORDERSCAPES Working Package on “Border-Crossing and Cultural Production” might help to shape and foster innovative border policies by showing that these could be finally enhanced only by grasping and critically addressing the multilevel complexity of the border-migration nexus – from the geopolitical level to the level of social practices and cultural productions. This would represent a significant shift in border policy perspective that might offer a real opportunity to fully capture the many implications that the constantly changing historical, political, and social contemporary world’s contexts imply at different scales.

In line with Johan Schimanski’s recent post on the Border Culture blog, I would argue that our conceptual and research work gives us the opportunity to productively apply the borderscaping approach while highlighting its conceptual and methodological potential to foster innovative border policies and practices. It does so by raising three arguments that are still understudied in border research and that deserve much attention as I have emphasized in my contribution to plenary panel “Location and Dislocations of Borders: Theoretical Discussion” at the EUBORDERSCAPES Policy Conference held at the University of East London (10-12 November 2015) as well as in my guest lecture at the Centre for Migration and Diaspora Studies, SOAS, University of London (2 December 2015). These arguments are:

  • The politics-aesthetics nexus and the need for considering that political implications of border imaginaries are closely interweaved with aesthetic activity, at the same time bringing into the foreground aesthetic languages’ crucial position in the articulation and transformation of spatial imaginaries, which, in their turn, translate into beliefs, rules, policies, and practices.
  • The need for a ‘genealogical’ viewpoint in elaborating border policies (Brambilla, 2014).
  • The need for a novel methodological approach, which is conceived as political, participatory and performative.

In terms of border policies, conceptual and research work in WP 10 calls for European and national institutions to be more attentive to the specific contextual conditions and to promote regulations in line with their specificities and their problems. Not only should European and national institutions be more attentive to the specific contextual and historical conditions of contemporary borderlands, but it would also be important to start broadening the spectrum of actors involved in border policies.

In the light of this, it would be important to advance border policies based on complementary perspectives capable of grasping the dialogic nature of bordering processes and imaginaries, as well as the tension between institutional formal modes of political agency and social non-formal modes of agency that co-constitute contemporary borderscapes.

Taking this perspective, policies should be elaborated adopting a novel gaze on contemporary borders, which could be defined as both “kaleidoscopic and double” (Brambilla, 2015a). It is a gaze that, just like the lens of a kaleidoscope, is able to convey complementary and dialogical perspectives, grasping the interaction between political visions and everyday socio-cultural practices, as well as social representations and artistic imaginaries (Brambilla, 2015b). It is also a double gaze able to grasp the configurations assumed by the border on a small and large scale, globally and locally, and taking into account not only the “big stories” of the nation–state construction, but also the “small stories” that come from experiencing the border in day-to-day life (Brambilla, 2010). In this way, the notion of the borderscape provides an opportunity to move one step further towards “new methodologies of the everyday” in studying the contemporary configurations of the border–migration nexus (Dittmer, Gray, 2010).

In this framework, the following are, in my opinion, the priorities to be addressed at different levels by the EU(rope) and neighbouring states that conceptual and research work in WP 10 greatly helps to highlight in order to foster productive border policies to improve not only economic but also social and cultural cooperation:

  • Advance a perspective which gives voice to a multiplicity of individual and groups’ stances on contemporary borders lying in the realms of identities, perceptions, beliefs, and emotions, while also looking into people’s practices and experiences of dealing with the border interactions, both political and territorial, as well as symbolic and cultural. At the same time, this grounded diversity of perspectives and practices must be related back to the broader geopolitical, economic and socio-cultural shifts defining contemporary fluctuating borders, in order to better understand the dialogue between the various scales of action through which borderscapes are made and experienced.
  • Involve different and sometimes new actors who can constitute the nodes of cooperation networks across borders, to facilitate relations and improve dialogue thereby adopting a ‘bottom-up’ perspective.
  • Carry out a multi-sited, interdisciplinary participatory research aimed to foster not only participation but also engagement of a wide range of different actors.
  • Advance an act(or) centred approach based on innovative ethnographic methods involving participant and non-participant observations, cultural cartography and counter-cartographies, notes related to the research process, photographic documentation, informal interviews and correspondence, aesthetic, multi-sited ethnographic and geographic fieldwork. Special attention should be given to people’s perceptions, interpretations, experiences and representations of borders by adopting participatory and performative methodologies.
  • Adopt video and cinema as a geographic and ethnographic practice and method for social research, understanding video as an aesthetic, communicative and analytical tool, not only for visually describing social practices and discourses, but also for understanding how space is constructed, perceived, reshaped and represented by its inhabitants.
  • Move beyond the ‘fabricated’ rhetoric of crisis by rethinking borders as spaces of creativity, spaces of possibilities for new political agencies and subjectivies. Following this, innovative border policies should be able to productively act on the creative positive potential of borders as both “markers of belonging” and “places of becoming” (Brambilla, 2015a, 2015b).

Chiara Brambilla


Brambilla C., “Borders Still Exist! What Are Borders?”, in Riccio B., Brambilla C. (eds), Transnational Migration, Cosmopolitanism and Dis-located Borders, Guaraldi, Rimini, 2010, pp. 73-85.

Brambilla C., “Shifting Italy/Libya Borderscapes at the Interface of EU/Africa Borderland: A ‘Genealogical’ Outlook from the Colonial Era to Post-colonial Scenarios”, ACME – An International E-journal for Critical Geographies, 13(2), 2014, pp. 220-245.

Brambilla C., “Exploring the Critical Potential of the Borderscapes Concept”, Geopolitics, 20(1), 2015a, pp. 14-34.

Brambilla C., “Navigating the Euro/African Border and Migration Nexus Through the Borderscapes Lens: Insights from the LampedusaInFestival”, in Brambilla C., Laine J., Scott J.W., Bocchi G. (eds), Borderscaping: Imaginations and Practices of Border Making, Ashgate, Farnham, 2015b, pp. 111-121.

Dittmer J., Gray N., “Popular geopolitics 2.0: Towards New Methodologies of the Everyday”, Geography Compass, 4(11), 2010, 1664-1677.


What is a border figure?

My research task in the EUBORDERSCAPES project is to investigate how novels and autobiographies by immigrants may confirm or change our ideas about what borders are.

One of the most useful concepts in this work has been that of the border figure. But what is a border figure?

Let me first break things down: border + figure. Both these words can mean different things, but what do they mean specifically when we’re talking about border figures?


The border can be so many different things. The simplest way of thinking about the border is to think of it as a line dividing two different territories. But does the border have to divide between two nation-states? Of course not. We can also talk about provincial borders or the borders between different neighbourhoods in the city. Or borders on a much smaller scale, for example borders between the inside and outside of a house (walls, doors, thresholds, windows), between the pavement and the street (the kerb), or between the inside and the outside of the body (skin).

We can talk about symbolic borders, for example the invisible lines which may be crossed (or not crossed) between different communities and identities. In the English language we can talk about borders as frontiers, limits, boundaries etc. The border does not have to be a line or a barrier: it can also be a zone and a place of crossing.

To find out how border concepts are changing, we need to be aware that borders are part of our lives in many different ways. The main aim of the EUBORDERSCAPES project is to discuss exactly different variants of the border concept and why they might be useful in different situations.


But how do we conceive of borders? My answer would be: with words, images, hands-on experiences, stories, treaties, etc. And indeed: figures. This is another word with a multiplicity of meanings. In English, a “figure” can be a number, or a person. Borders can of course be enumerated and quantified, i.e. expressed in numbers (e.g. the number of people who cross the border between Turkey and Greece illegally, and the number of people who have died in the event). And there are various people associated with borders, for example migrants, refugees, border guards, smugglers, borderland dwellers etc.

Here however I am most interested in a more technical use of the word, the one used mainly by literary researchers or sometimes in daily life, when we talk about the “figural” meaning of a word (rather than its “literal” meaning). This is what we are refering to when we talk about “figures of speech” or “rhetorical figures”. For us literary researchers, a figure is a way of using language to say something indirectly. This is something which we all do – especially when we are talking about borders – and which authors and poets do, often in a very advanced ways to express things which are difficult understand concretely, such as borders and border-crossings.

Border figures

For borders, precisely because they can be so many things, and because they ultimately are rather abstract phenomena (even when they lead to segregation, violence and death), are difficult to describe and conceptualize directly. Take the word borderscape, now very popular in border studies, and for good reasons. The borderscape is a border figure, since it makes the claim that the border is something like, or part of something which is like, a landscape. In a literary text, the border and border-crossings can be expressed through more concrete figures, such a pane of glass, or a mirror, or a kite, or a contrast between green and yellow grass (I am taking my examples from novels and autobiographies by Carlos Fuentes, Amal Aden, Romeo Gill and Maria Amelie).

Sometimes border figures are metaphors, but the more complex configurations of space and time we meet in stories of border-crossings can also be border figures. A story can convey the way a border creates spaces of disorientation, waiting, in-betweenness, doubleness, etc. through its plot, without actually naming these spaces directly. Border figures do not have to expressed in words, they can also be images (the term used above, “figures of speech” is misleading) and even things, such as a border fence. A border fence both enforces and figures a border.

All such border figures imply different things in different situations, and it is our job to find out what – if we are to understand how we conceive of borders.

Johan Schimanski

Further reading


Schimanski, Johan. “Crossing and Reading: Notes towards a Theory and a Method”. Nordlit.19 (2006): 41-63.


Aden, Amal. Min drøm om frihet: En selvbiografisk fortelling. Oslo: Aschehoug, 2009.

Maria, Amelie. Takk. Oslo: Pax, 2014.

Fuentes, Carlos. La frontera de cristal: Una novela en nueve cuentos. México, D. F.: Alfaguara, 1996. (in English: The Crystal Frontier. London: Bloomsbury, 1999.)

Gill, Romeo. Harjeet: Roman. Oslo: Oktober, 2008.

Gill, Romeo. Ung mann i nytt land: Roman. Oslo: Oktober, 2011.



Educational Workshops in Lampedusa with Children of the Island on their Border Imaginaries

On October 16-17, 2015, the Centre for Research on Complexity (Ce.R.Co.) of the University of Bergamo in collaboration with the local Collective Le mamme di Lampedusa organized educational workshop activities in Lampedusa with children of the island on their border imaginaries.

The workshops were held at PortoM on Lampedusa. Porto M (Port/Harbour M) is a self-managed space where the Lampedusa-based Askavusa collective, in collaboration with the collective Le mamme di Lampedusa, has established a project of non-institutional museum. Askavusa launched a successful crowdfunding campaign during 2015 to move Porto M from its initial location to a very evocative new location in a natural cave near the statue of the Virgin Mary in the old port of Lampedusa facing the Mediterranean Sea. The initial “M” stands for the Italian words ‘Mediterraneo’ (Mediterranean), ‘Migrazioni’ (Migration), ‘Militarizzazione’ (Militarization), ‘Memoria’ (Memory), ‘Mare’ (Sea), ‘Madre’ (Mother). Not only is Porto M an exposition of migrant’s objects, but it is also a place for fostering active practices of political memory. The members of the Askavusa Collective have literally salvaged, one by one, the remains of the shipwrecks and the landings that have happened on the shores of Lampedusa over the years, in order not only to save the memories of the migrants from oblivion and carelessness, but also to use them in the creation of new works of art.


The documentary film “Houdoud al bahr | The Mediterranean Frontiers: Mazara-Mahdia” has been shown and discussed with children as a part of the workshop activities.


During the workshop activities, great emphasis was given to narrative approaches considering the relevant role of narratives and narrations – be them written text, oral narrations, or stories told by visual means – for expressing identity processes. Specifically, narrative visual tools were used (drawings, maps and participatory mapping) in order to encourage children’s ability to tell their stories through visual narrative tools that bring their spatial imagination to the foreground.


Educational workshop activities with children of the island aimed to tell about children’s own imaginaries of the Mediterranean as a borderscape between Europe and Africa and to make children’s ideas of Lampedusa as the place where they live and as a border island in the Mediterranean in-between Europe and Africa emerge. Establishing a dialogue with children, the workshops also had the objective to foster a critical reflection on how children of the island would like Lampedusa to be, collectively discussing about what they feel is lacking in Lampedusa as the island where they live and interrogating the reasons why they feel that particular lacking and what possible solutions they envisage to productively solve the situation in the future.

In so doing, the workshop activities were first and foremost aimed at recalling much attention on the importance to consider children as active participants in constructing the borderscape where they live as a space of social liveability. This would be possible by deserving attention to children’s own ideas of the borderscape and to the affective, emotional meanings that children give to the places where they live. Listening to children and embracing their viewpoint on the borderscape which they inhabit means to acknowledge their right to participate in the public sphere, at the same time providing them with a democratic responsibility of which they are deprived as they are usually excluded from the political and administrative life and obliged to carry a sort of “postponed citizenship” that can be compared in some ways to that of migrants or in other ways it is a sort of “diminished citizenship” as that given to the marginal people who inhabit the world. Listening to children’s viewpoint on the borderscape where they live and giving voice and visibility to their ideas offers us the chance to make their agency emerge as a form of resistance capable of combating what Foucault calls a ‘microphysics of power’ through which an essentialized, external contemplative idea of borderscape is imposed. These practices of resistance find room in children’s experiences of local places on Lampedusa and they express what de Certeau defines as a ‘counter-microphysics of everyday practices’. These practices are acted by children who inscribed them in the borderscape that they inhabit as a space of ‘good life’ and liveability, contesting and challenging hegemonic configurations of their border island while searching for novel and ‘common’ configurations of Lampedusa. This entails relevant political implications coming from the opportunity to reflect on alternative forms of belonging describing emotional attachment to place rather than official citizenship. Children’s imaginaries and experiences of the borderscape can be regarded as ‘forms of resistance’ to the dominant monolithic image of Lampedusa as a border island in the Mediterranean. They sketch a counter-image of Lampedusa through a form of resistance that begins in the concrete. Thus, children resist with their own experiencing, performing, and inhabiting of the borderscape. It is a resistance that is acted through a political presence in the everyday showing the relevance of paying attention to mundane practices in lived places. It is also shown, in this way, the urgency of reconsidering modern categorizations of political belonging by enlightening in/visible thresholds where alternative political agencies and subjectivities become possible.

Discussing on Lampedusa – a border island how it is and how the children of the island would like it to be, the argument of the presence of migrants on the island emerged as a key argument for children to define Lampedusa as a border island. Specifically, it is worth considering that children often refer to the presence of migrants on Lampedusa to describe how it is the border island where they live and how they would like it to be:

“Migrants are now living in a fenced building in Contrada Imbriacola. There are bars to the windows. It looks like a prison…I would like to build a new house for migrants with windows that can be opened and without bars and I would also like to build a gym for both the Lampedusians and migrants.”


“Thinking of Lampedusa as a border island, I think of migrants landing in Lampedusa on overcrowded boats…It would be great if migrants could live with us in Lampedusa…it would be great if we could eat ice-cream together or have a chat sitting on any bench in town.”



Brambilla C., “Exploring the critical potential of the borderscapes concept”, In Geopolitics, 20, 1, 2015, pp. 14-34.

Brambilla C., “Mobile Euro/African Borderscapes: Migrant Communities and Shifting Urban Margins”, in: A.-L. Amilhat Szary, F. Giraut (eds.), Borderities and the Politics of the Contemporary Mobile Borders, Palgrave-McMillan, Basingstoke – London, 2015, pp. 138-154.

Brambilla C., “Educare all’intercultura attraverso il paesaggio: esperienze a Mazara del Vallo” (“Educating the Children on Interculture through the Landscape: Experiences from Mazara del Vallo”, Dialoghi Mediterranei. Periodico bimestrale dell’Istituto Euro-Arabo in Mazara del Vallo, gennaio 2015,

Brambilla C., “Navigating the Euro/African Border and Migration Nexus Through the Borderscapes Lens: Insights from the LampedusaInFestival”, in: C. Brambilla, J. Laine, J. W. Scott, G. Bocchi (eds.), Borderscaping: Imaginations and Practices of Border Making, Ashgate, Farnham, 2015, pp. 111-121.

De Certeau M., 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Foucault M., 1997. Il faut defender la société, Paris: Seuil Galliard.

Ingold T., 2000. The Perception of the Environment. Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill, London: Routledge.

Knorr J. (ed.), 2005. Children and Migration: From Experience to Agency, Bielefeld: Verlag.

Rancière J., The emancipated spectator, Verso, London – New York, 2011.

Houdoud al bahr | The Mediterranean Frontiers: Mazara – Mahdia (Italy, 2015)

  • Film run: 60’
  • Concept: Chiara Brambilla
  • Direction: Chiara Brambilla, Sergio Visinoni
  • Script: Antonino Cusumano, Chiara Brambilla, Alessio Angelo
  • Anthropological Research and Consulting: Chiara Brambilla, Alessio Angelo
  • Production Coordination: BC Today Agenzia di Comunicazione
  • Camera Operators: Riccardo Baratella, Leonardo Bruzzese, Alberto Micheli
  • Editing and Post-producing: Riccardo Baratella

Houdoud al bahr is a documentary film based on conceptual reflection and ethnographic research conducted by the Centre for Research on Complexity (Ce.R.Co.) of the University of Bergamo within the EU-FP7 EUBORDERSCAPES project.

Houdoud al bahr is an Arabic expression that literally means ‘the borders of the sea’. The title comes from discussion with some of the young protagonists of the film and the documentary tries to describe the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of this title. The original title in Italian ‘I confine del mare’ is the literal translation from the Arabic. Yet, after discussion with the protagonists we decided to translate it into English using the expression ‘Mediterranean frontiers’, making explicit reference to the Mediterranean and using the word ‘frontier’ in plural instead of the word ‘border’. It is also worth considering the subtitle: ‘Mazara – Mahdia’, which allows us to zoom in on the particular case study in the Italian/Tunisian borderland that the documentary tells us about.

Mazara Mahdia

The film is intended to dis-orient spectators in an attempt to emancipate them, by favouring an active engagement of spectators who are called to critically interrogate the images they are seeing. In this sense, the film wishes to contribute to overcoming the essentially passive routines of the mass media visualizing the Italian/Tunisian borderscape at and across the Mediterranean.

Gazing into the Euro/African border and migration nexus through the borderscape lens, Houdoud al bahr provides an alternative multi-sited choreography of the Italian/Tunisian borderland. By adopting such a multi-sited approach, the film aims to reveal the complexity of this Euro/African borderscape that is perceived as mobile and relational, resembling a fluid terrain of a multitude of socio-cultural, political and economic negotiations, claims and counterclaims that are actualized at the level of everyday practice. In so doing, the documentary illustrates how the Mediterranean Europe and North Africa have become enmeshed in multiple layers of competition and integration through trends of colonialism, migration, and the formation of transnational communities.

In the film, attention is given to ‘traces’ in the border landscape on both the Northern and Southern shores telling us about the genealogy of the Italian/Tunisian borderscape. Great emphasis is placed on the need to ‘humanize’ the borderland, by giving attention to experiences. Indeed, borders are not experienced in the same way by all people. Consequently, Houdoud al bahr intends to describe how ‘pluritopical’ and ‘pluriversal’ experiences of borders often clash with the assumptions of geopolitical theory and dominant mass media representations, and to investigate how the rhetoric and policies of borders impact, conflict and are in a dynamic relationship with everyday life; how these rhetoric and policies are experienced, lived and interpreted by those who inhabit the Italian/Tunisian borderscape. The documentary is also aimed at responding to the need to search for new ways to give voice to these experiences and make them visible, embracing the very concept of ‘visibility’ as elaborated by Hannah Arendt – a kind of visibility understood as a first way to access the public sphere, or as the precondition for active political participation.

During the research, we have worked with young people living in Mazara del Vallo (Sicily), whose families are originally from nearby Tunisia, to capture their kaleidoscopic perceptions, experiences, representations, and imaginaries of the Italian/Tunisian borderscape. A variety of qualitative research methods have been used:

Short videos



Short videos

Short videos








Participatory mapping and counter-mapping

Participatory mapping and counter-mapping



Walking expeditions and shadowing

Walking expeditions and shadowing



















































Young people’s viewpoints have been incorporated into a broader ethnographic work, also involving other kinds of actors, on both sides of the borderland and mainly focusing on urban borderscapes of Mazara del Vallo, in Italy, and Mahdia, in Tunisia.

Houdoud al bahr attempts to take the chance to relate the somewhat abstract level of conceptual change in critical border studies with actual borderscaping as practices at and across the Mediterranean through which fluctuating borders are imagined, materially established, experienced, lived as well as reinforced and blocked but also crossed, traversed and inhabited. This could help move toward alternative border imaginaries ‘beyond the line’ able to describe the shifting processes of b/ordering in-between Europe and Africa; thereby denying that Europe and Africa can be reduced to single bounded entities and exploring transversal Euro/African borderscapes that contribute to dis-closing Africa in Europe and Europe in Africa.

Borders, Policy and Creativity

Border policy in Europe is in a mess; that is at least the impression we get from media coverage of recent events. Of course, there do exist many sustainable policies on mobility, security, migration, cooperation, etc. However, we clearly need new thinking on the design of European borderscapes. How should we be ”borderscaping” our societies in the face of current needs?

Border policy must involve knowledge, imagination and creativity. It needs knowledge based on research, it has to imagine possible futures and the consequences of actions, and it has to be creative in coming up with solutions.


The borderscape. Still from Houdoud al bahr / The Mediterranean Frontiers. Mazara – Mahdia.

Cultural Production

This is where cultural production comes in. Cultural production is a kind of social laboratory, a space in which problems may be made visible and potential risks and solutions can be acted out. Because art, literature and other forms of cultural production are semi-autonomous activities, they allow us give expression to our experiences and to try out ideas without fully commiting ourselves.

At the same time, art and literature are obviously part of the world which people spend time producing and consuming. The sheer amount of art, books and films about borders in recent years poses the question: what does this production mean for the way we imagine and negotiate European borders today?

Kiryat Arba - Hebron

Children, the wall and images. Still from The Invisible Enemy Across the Wall: Israeli and Palestinian Children’s Perspective of the “Other”

Participating in Policy and Research

Cultural production is also very much conncted with subjectivity, an important factor in social and political life. Indeed, art and literature provide an arena for ”policy-from-below”, essential in democratic societies if they are to remain open and allow for dissensus and innovation. ”Policy-from-above” cannot dictate artistic bordering, but it can create spaces in which critical forms of culture can thrive, forms connected to the everyday experiences of many different people.

For researchers on borders and cultural production, such as those in our working package in the EUBORDERSCAPES project, art may provide a key to future research activities in such an ethically fraught field as border studies. How can we research the subjective, everyday experiences of for example migrants and refugees – without appropriating them as informants or reproducing repressive forms of border surveillance? The sort of participatory art/sci collaborations which some of us have been working with suggest future possibilities in which researchers collaborate with for example illegal migrants in creating art works and films about border-crossings.

The Colour of the Sea-HD-7

Participatory border film. Still from The Colour of the Sea: A Filmic Border Experience in Ceuta

London Policy conference: presentations and films

These questions became very visible at the recent EUBORDERSCAPES policy conference held at the University of East London. Here, Sarah Mekdjian and Anne-Laure Amilhat Szary presented their participatory cartographic art workshops held with illegal migrants in Grenoble, detailed in Sarah’s post in this blog. Jopi Nyman and Stephen Wolfe discussed how ”sonic”, musical borderscapes have helped formed public spheres among migrants in Great Britain, also through contemporary novels. Ágnes Németh analysed migrant bordering and debordering at festivals and in writers’ organizations in Finland. Johan Schimanski assessed the public impact of different border concepts in Norwegian migrant writing. Chiara Brambilla emphasized the cultural and aesthetic dimensions of the borderscape in her keynote.

Three striking films by work package participants were premiered at the conference. Chiara Brambilla’s Houdoud al bahr / The Mediterranean Frontiers: Mazara – Mahdia reenvisaged two closely-connected towns on each side of the Mediterranean as a common space. Renen Yezerski’s The Invisible Enemy Across the Wall: Israeli and Palestinian Children’s Perspective of the “Other” opened a double conversation across a splitting divide. And Keina Espiñeira’s The Colour of the Sea: A Filmic Border Experience in Ceuta allowed African migrants in the Spanish border enclave of Ceuta to script their own cinematic meditation on their experiences there.

The Policy Agenda: Preliminary Points

So what policy recommendations can we make on the basis of our research? As yet, these have not been fully formulated, but at a meeting some of us had in London, we came up with some very preliminary suggestions:

  1. Cultural production helps make visible an extended borderscape over the long term, beyond such immediate issues as the current refugee crisis in Europe.
  2. Extending the borderscape is a way of critiquing the reduction of the border to the line of control implied in e.g. the Dublin convention.
  3. Cultural production can suggest strategies for an ethics of representation (avoiding spectacle, victimization & surveillance) when dealing with border-crossings
  4. The extended borderscaping perspective with a focus on the future rather than the past provides keys to creating new ways of thinking the bordering of public spheres delinked from national identities.
  5. Researchers should be encouraged to interact with the creative sphere emerging around borders by engaging in art/sci activities.
  6. The potential of cultural production is to produce new borderscapes precisely without formulating policy.
  7. Further research into cultural production and borderscaping would benefit from an improved research infrastructure, for example a participatory database platform registering cultural production connected to border-crossing.

Johan Schimanski, UiT The Arctic University of Tromsø/University of Oslo


Report in the Times Higher Education Supplement on London conference.

Programme and abstracts for the London conference


The Invisible Enemy Across the Wall: Israeli and Palestinian Children’s Perspective of the “Other” (2015), director Renen Yezerski (2015), 30 min., in cooperation with Work Package 5. online video

Houdoud al bahr / I Confini del Mare / The Mediterranean Frontiers. Mazara – Mahdia, directors Chiara Brambilla and Sergio Visinoni (2015), 60 min., in cooperation with Work Package 5

The Colour of the Sea: A Filmic Border Experience in Ceuta, director Keina Espiñeira (2015), 28. min.

Out of the Border Box with Gladeema Nasruddin, with involvement of Centre national de la recherche scientifique/Pacte (forthcoming).




Crossing Maps: an art/science mapping project of contemporary border-crossings

CROSSING MAPS is a device at the intersection of humanities and art resulting from an experimental and participatory mapping workshop. This workshop was held in Grenoble between May and June 2013 and involved twelve participants who were asylum seekers or refugees, three artists – Marie Moreau, Lauriane Houbey, Fabien Fischer the Association, two researchers in geography – Sarah Mekdjian and Anne -Laure Amilhat Szary ( Lab – PACTE EUborderscapes program), and a photographer – Mabeye Deme.

Asylum Seekers, refugees, artists and researchers address mapping as a creative technique highlighting people’s experiences of border-crossing. CROSSING MAPS is a workshop, a fieldwork and an installation.

The installation consists of texts, audio-visual and choreographic works: Marie Moreau’s ‘Atlaslocal’ installation; ‘Travel Legends’, an installation by Sarah Mekdjian, Anne -Laure Amilhat  Szary and Gladeema Nasrudden ; ‘Ici pas encore’, a sound installation by Fabien Fischer ; and ‘D’ici là le milieu’ a walking sound installation by Lauriane Houbey.

1 — Space-refuge maps?

Marie Moreau, artist and participant in the Crossing Maps project, expresses the observations of her sister, a social worker in a day-shelter for refugees in Grenoble, France. Many people come to obtain lunch from this facility each day:

She told me that at the end of the meal, disposable place mats were often used for drawing trajectories, covering the tables with fragmentary and personalised geographies. The “guests” used them to understand where others had come from, even when they didn’t speak the same language. She explained how some of the maps served as improvised city plans of Grenoble. These maps were passed from one hand to the next as a means of indicating important places of interest.

In this location of transient refuge, cartography serves as an act of communication and as an act of presenting oneself. Few words are used, mostly just features. Maps are also drawn to help others in the community: to show where to sleep, where to eat, and where to receive medical treatment in Grenoble. Cartography thus becomes tactical. On place mats made of paper, the city is reconfigured according to people’s needs…

JPEG - 724.6 kb
 The workshop, 2013

The cityscape is revisited at lunchtime on a table corner. Practicing cartography enables people to reinvent their relationship with the city during the time it takes to create their map. Mapping is a means of taming the city, and the map itself becomes a safe haven for its artist and others.

Cartography is used to communicate and reconfigure relationships to space, and to create a temporary refuge… This was the starting point of our project, which we performed with asylum seekers (or people who were just about to open their claim to asylum). These individuals were then teamed up with four artists (three visual artists and a photographer).

How do people communicate when neither one speaks nor understands the other’s language? How does one go about conjuring up the spaces one has traveled, where one lived, and places where suffering and disillusionment once occurred? In order for refugee status to be recognized, asylum seekers must provide an account of the violence and threats they have experienced. Complex administrative and judiciary procedures take place in France at theOFPRA (the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons), and then, should the case continue, at the CNDA (the National Court of the Right of Asylum). As explained by Didier Fassin and Estelle D’Halluin, “in France, as immigration control increases, asylum seekers are more and more submitted to the evaluation of their physical sequels and psychic traumas, as if their autobiographical accounts were not sufficient”. In this political context of suspicion, we sought to bypass the classical narrative form and above all avoid replicating an “interrogation” that lead asylum seekers to present themselves as mere victims.

JPEG - 3.3 Mb“Walk” — Halimjan Sidiqi’s map — 2013

In the context of the workshop, cartography seems to become a shared gesture from which the categories of “asylum seeker”, “refugee” or “migrant” can be questioned and renegotiated — as well as notions of hospitality and spaces of refuge.

These “cartographic encounters” between people confronted with asylum application process, social science researchers and artists took place twice a week at the ADA (“Accueil Demande d’Asile”: Reception of Asylum Seekers)NGO in Grenoble, between May and June 2013. This association offers help with the writing of appeals within the framework of the asylum procedures, along with the assistance of social workers, lawyers, interpreters and numerous volunteers.

We organized alternate sessions for asylum seekers with artists Marie Moreau, Lauriane Houbey and Fabien Fischer. To foster conviviality, a set of drinks and snacks were offered, and people began to eat and draw. An uncertain cartography was born along the way, through features drawn on paper (but also on fabrics and wooden boards) from collective discussions, as well as through more intimate confidences made at the edge of the paper.

We never asked the participants why they sought refuge, nor what they went through, nor when they arrived in France… We invited them to express themselves on broad categories such as conditions of migrations, borders, daily life in Grenoble.

So, on the table, we set drinks and cakes, but also sheets of paper and some felt-tip pens. We also lay out maps of the world using different projections and perspectives (notably an “upside down” world map with a much a less common perspective on our planet).

Sarah Mekdjian:

I begin a session by presenting myself and state that I don’t belong to theADA association, but that I am teaching geography at the University of Grenoble. I take my time and allow everyone to take a seat and have something to drink, in order to put hospitality into practice here and now.I address the participants, thanking them for being there and make my intentions clear — I don’t wish to understand how and why they left. I don’t represent the administrations in charge of handing out the right of asylum, and I don’t want to compile a case file that could retrace anyone’s steps.

I talk about the arrows that are generally used to represent general patterns of migration on the maps. How can we give them substance? What could we draw about migratory experiences to promote a political and ethical reflection upon the limitations of asylum? Or on the strengthening of the borders of the European Union?

I explain how I would like us to work together to find a way of evoking migratory experiences — without it resembling one of the interrogations of the administration. Necessarily “spectacular” images or accounts are not needed here. Instead, the goal is to stimulate a political reflection about the current conditions of migration and asylum. The result of our work is intended for a wide audience.

Their individual and collective experiences of crossing borders and of displacement can stir reflection and lead to political action.

The discussions begin, and we exchange information in different languages. While we don’t always understand each other, we start to get to know one another.

2 — Keys to the journey

Over the course of subsequent sessions, we begin to prepare a common key, or legend, for the maps. The participants write down individual words — often in several languages — that reflect their experiences with migration and the right of asylum. We put all of these words on a board and regroup them while trying to translate them into as many languages as possible. We then give them a symbolic meaning with the help of some coloured stickers which different shapes and sizes correspond to the emotions felt during the migratory journeys.

JPEG - 818.8 kb“Keys to the journey” — 2013

Even when there was a consensus about individual words, not all experiences can be represented. Thus, “darkness / obscurité / ظلام ” very quickly stands out because it represents an emotion as well as a material circumstance. Darkness occurs along the journey: in the back of trucks during nocturnal trips through the forests, following behind their smugglers; the absence of a horizon; and more generally the depressive state in which many find themselves. But no sticker can be chosen by the participants to express all of these feelings. These constitute emotions that cannot not be “mediatised”, at least not at this stage of the project.

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“From Sudan to Libya”, I.A’s map — 2013
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“No problem, police, stress, luck, fear”, K.A’s map — 2013

On the basis of this language that we constructed together, each participant begins to draw the memories they have from journeys. They may choose to illustrate their own memories, those of their friends, or those that they have overheard and discussed. Then they add stickers to their sketches. Some will choose to build on the key by adding new symbols to it (a drop of water for tears, for example). But it is compelling to see how frequently our symbolic language is used on the drawings, even by those participants who ignored the collective code and instead created their own key.

Little by little, as time goes by, the maps begin to take shape. Each time, new steps from their journeys come into view. We don’t ask them to complete, nor to specify, nor to explain. We let the blank spaces on the maps expand as needed. By changing the format of the paper sheet or the focus (for example, through a series of successive zooms), new elements from the personal stories come up to the surface.

JPEG - 652.5 kb“From DRC to Benin”, S.’s map — 2013

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“Tablecloth” — 2013

Besides the “sticker maps”, Marie Moreau also suggests drawing on tablecloths and embroidering them, an approach she has already used in a local Atlas (exhibited at the Laboratoire d’Art d’Aujourd’hui in Grenoble in 2012 as part of the Interior Geographies exhibit).

The use of fabric as a new medium for art production generates discussion. The white fabric calls to mind the shrouds in which corpses are covered according to Islamic tradition. It often evokes, with some violence, the memories of friends and companions who died en route on the journey.

Those who nevertheless decide to draw or embroider frequently confront some very painful memories.

JPEG - 928.9 kb“Crossing the desert, Eritrea, the Sudan, Libya”, A.’s map — 2013

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“Crossing the desert, Eritrea, the Sudan, Libya” (close-up) — 2013

Gladeema Nasruddin decided not to draw on the fabric. He made his map out of clay. It is a technique that, as he confided in us much later, he picked up in the Sudan where he worked with sand during his childhood.

He started with a boat representing the crossing of the Mediterranean Sea from Libya to Italy… and then constructed his map out of clay to recount his journey from Africa to Europe.

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“The boat”, Gladeema Nasruddin — 2013

He called his map “The World is Stopping Us”. Refugees are represented facing a red light; for them, it is impossible to go back to the country from which they fled (the Sudan, in this case), and there is uncertainty of being welcomed elsewhere or being officially recognised as a refugee. His work turned out to be a monumental map, one of the most evocative creations produced in our workshops.

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“The World is Stopping Us” in the making, by Gladeema Nasruddin — 2013
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“The World is Stopping Us”, Gladeema Nasruddin’s map — 2013

During the months of the workshop, the participants return on a regular basis despite tenuous living conditions (some of the participants are homeless).

Even though the principal theme at the heart of this project remains “the voyage”, the participants were pleased to escape their administrative status as “asylum seekers” during the time of the workshops. Without any pretence that this collectively-constructed act could help them obtain their right of asylum, it did produce a shift in the relationship towards the procedures and administrative processes. For a few hours, the participants became cartographers and autonomous asylum “researchers”. We tried to step back from the forms of domination created by procedures. However, inter-individual relationships were not always consensual. For example, one participant refused another homeless participant access to his collective lodgings because they did not have the same geographic origin.

3 — A voyage that never ends

The diverse mediums of expression used in the early stages of the workshop (fabric, clay, sound) permitted a return to paper, in order to recollect memories in greater detail. We asked the participants to “zoom in” on parts of their previous drawings and, by changing the scale, other dimensions of their socio-spatial experiences were revealed.

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“Years at the hotel”, drawing by T. (detail) — 2013

Anne-Laure Amilhat Szary:

We are in the middle of May, and I am surprised to see the workshops still as packed. Everyone is now working on their own project in a rather autonomous way.I meet the gaze of a young woman who looks distraught. I met her when she first visited our workshops, and she has already produced two maps that retrace her journey from Armenia. These maps contain few contextual details but are instead focused on her psychological distress. She hesitates greatly before taking the plunge to zoom in.

She first begins to explain verbally, and I feel I have to make notes, become her scribe, and not only because she does not write French very well. What she says is hard to depict, and she does not really know how to complete her account (nor whether she should even tell it). It is not about discussing her country of origin or her journey, but the way she was welcomed — or rather, not welcomed — in France.

She explains, “Sometimes my son asks me why we don’t have this or that. It is complicated to explain to a child. Sometimes, I try; sometimes, I tell him we will have all of that, later on.”

In my writing, I attempt to reflect her feelings, but after a few lines, she starts to draw rather frenetically. On the sheet of paper, first one, then two, then three, four, five hotels appear, all linked by arrows. The drawing is exact, and any observer would recognise the big hotel chains whose buildings pepper our industrial zones. This familiarity inevitably questions us in as much as we never see this landscape the way she does.

We end with a word tree linking up important words to her story and condensing her message. The words “papers, money, apartment” are poignantly positioned next to the emotions of “fear, difficulty, crying, not speaking, hurting”.

JPEG - 2.5 Mb“From Tripoli to Nice”, L.’s map — 2013

During the last sessions of the workshop, we decided it was necessary to shift the focus of our maps to a familiar space: that of Grenoble. The idea was to create — with participants working together — a guide for newcomers. In the end, the drawing was finally born from the work of six hands. It is a map without any background layer that positions key places on the route of asylum seekers. The mental links between these places are more important than their exact physical location within the city. They appear in a sequence materialised by numbers (from 1 to 7), similar to a board game.

The itinerary begins at the railway station…

During the administrative procedures, you always sleep at the station. Call 115 [the telephone number of the local SAMU, the humanitarian emergency service] every day. You can sleep at the station when you don’t know where else to sleep.

…Go to Relève, an administrative branch of the city where the applications are registered, and continue to the Préfecture [local offices of the central government where strangers’ right of admission to French territory are processed and identity papers are delivered]…

When you arrive at the Prefecture, there will be police officers. Don’t be scared; they won’t do anything to you. You will be asked for your fingerprints. That is to find out whether you have asked for asylum in another country in Europe. Afterwards, they will give you an APS(“Autorisation Provisoire de Séjour”; temporary authorisation to stay) for one month. It is like an identity. You are “recognised” for now. Go to the ADA.

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“A new-comers’ guide to Grenoble”, K.’s and S’s map — 2013

In addition to these instructions, what is most striking about this map are the arrows making Grenoble a territory where, at the end of a long journey, one never fully arrives.

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“A guide to Grenoble: detail”, K.’s map — 2013

At the end, two of the artists from our team created an audio piece based on participants’ comments about the map drawings. The work of Laurianne Houbey, titled “D’ici là le milieu” (The Middle Ground Until Then), invokes the sounds and atmosphere that the travellers recall from different legs of their journey, as depicted on their maps. The work is arranged to form part of a choreography: when the installation is ready to be shared with an audience, the listener hears the tape through headphones while his or her movements are guided by the voice of the artist, intercut with extracts of conversations from workshop participants. Fabien Fischer created a montage he named “Ici-là, pas encore” (Here-There, Not Yet), in which he chooses extracts of interviews that mostly discuss the life of the asylum seekers in Grenoble, in particular their struggles to find love…

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“Encountering love in Norway”, H.’s map — 2013

4 — Exhibiting: showing, saying, risking

At the very beginning, we agreed that the works made in the workshop would be shared with the wider public. This was not without obstacles, as questions relating to the status of the maps were raised, both in terms of material and intellectual property. To whom do creations belong when they are produced by a temporary collective? Who should preserve them, and how? What roles do the artists’ play in the process? The project was made possible by financial support from the CNRS PACTE Laboratory, a partner of an important European research programme focused on conceptual changes in the notion of borders. This support enabled us to purchase necessary materials and to remunerate the professional artists with whom we worked. The status of the participants as asylum seekers does not give them the right to work in France, and so they participated as volunteers. However, in light of participants’ daily needs, workshop organizers were often able to personally contribute.

In view of its mediatisation, the judicial service of the CNRS was put to the test, having never before had to face such a scientific operation, bringing together people from such diverse horizons in view of an extra-ordinary experimental modus operandi! An agreement was signed between the researchers and the artists, the asylum seekers being included as such.

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A visitor to “Crossing maps” installation during the “antiAtlas of Borders” exhibition, Aix-en-Provence, Musée des Tapisseries, 2013

It was stipulated that the textile creations and the audio recordings would remain the property of the three visual artists, while the drawings and models belonged to the CNRS and the asylum seekers. The contract stipulated explicitly that the works must remain permanently accessible to all members of the collective for different events, provided the parties involved are all publicly acknowledged.

This element of accessibility, which seemed secondary to us at the beginning of the project, ultimately proved to be essential. These works initially endowed with a personal value and serving as an eyewitness account for the participants, were then valued for their intellectual and documentary quality by the researchers. Finally, these same pieces took on a complex artistic dimension for the workshop’s visual artists.

The exhibitions provided moments of reflection on the aesthetic, political and didactical status of the “Crossing Maps” project. The diversity of places where the project was presented and exhibited made it possible to reach a large and varied audience.

The “launch” took place in a social centre in downtown Grenoble close to theADA on World Refugee Day, June 20, 2013. It was a momentous festive occasion that brought together all the participants and others close to them. The contrast with the very official presentation at the AntiAtlas of Borders exhibition in the Musée des Tapisseries d’Aix-en-Provence was particularly conspicuous (this other exhibition took place within the framework of the Marseille-European Capital of Culture 2013 celebrations). At the heart of a larger project focused on the role of technologies of control in the governance of borders, “Crossing Maps” shifted the focus towards individual experiences of crossing borders. In doing so, the project helped to re-humanize what surveillance tools have sought to dehumanize. We ensured that at least one of the participants and asylum seekers was present during each of our question-and-answer sessions in the exhibition spaces. This was the case in Grenoble (at the social centre and the Festival Migrant’scène, 2013), in Aix-en-Provence, and also in Geneva (“Rencontre Frontières et migrations. Chercheurs, practiciens et artistes croisent leurs regards”) as well as in Pontcharra (International Solidarity Week).

The participants’ maps have provided support for discussions between participants and a very interested public. Sessions with high-school pupils and university students have been particularly productive.

The project paradoxically found “disciplinary validation” at the International Festival of Geography in Saint-Dié des Vosges (exhibition at the Pierre Noël Museum in October 2014), where pupils, students, university professors and teachers valued the heuristic functions of the maps.

While the mediatisation of the project has made it possible to increase the dissemination of the “Crossing Maps” creations, the risk of aestheticisation remains forceful. Furthermore, displaying painful experiences and individuals’ emotional responses to them in no way guarantees a political response. Sometimes, it is quite the opposite. The mediatisation here nonetheless finds its origins in the evocative cartographic and audio material. The latter contrasts with some of the sensational images (often incriminating or re-victimizing) disseminated by the media, a situation that is often reinforced by administrations dealing with the right of asylum.


This cartographic and artistic experiment has explored new ways of approaching migratory experiences. Maps, drawings and audio recordings created during the workshop draw on polyphonic narrations that assist us in seeing and hearing the multiple points of view on contemporary border crossing and asylum.

Through our acts and practises, we sought to create conditions suitable for the transmission of knowledge and artistic production. The collaborations between researchers and artists have helped to shift and denaturalise the classical methods of inquiry in the social sciences. Geography, cartography and art here share a critical ambition. If “Crossing Maps” did not contribute to the administrative regularisation of its participants, nor to an acceleration of asylum seekers’ procedures, it nonetheless permitted a destabilisation of the sensational images of migration one finds in the media.

We also sought to give some depth to border lines and migratory arrows in order to promote a consideration of the politics of freedom of movement and the right of asylum. This is consideration is particularly important for a general public that is not necessarily very familiar with these questions and concepts.

The “workshop participants”, “drawers-cartographers”, and “artists” whose creations were exhibited have helped to shift the “asylum seeker” stereotype into something to study, question and subvert. This creative cartographic gesture also allowed for a methodological reconsideration within the worlds of science and art, as well as a reconsideration of the ways in which we communicate our stories.


Border Culture

The Border Culture blog focuses on cultural production and artistic endeavour involved in the social construction of borders. It explores different literary and artistic examples of how culturally produced representations have contributed to socio-political interpretations of state borders as well as challenged official meanings, symbolisms and functions attached to state borders. It opens a humanities perspective that is not merely additional to social science approaches and that also promotes a more comprehensive understanding of the role of cultural production as a bordering practise.