Author Archives: Johan Schimanski

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.



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).




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.