The 2008 Conference of the Association for Borderlands Studies

Cultural Production and Negotiation of Borders: The 2008 European Conference of the Association for Borderlands Studies, University of Tromsø/Barents Institute, Kirkenes 11-13 September 2008



The 2008 European conference of the Association for Borderlands Studies was held in Kirkenes, 11-13 September 2009. This interdisciplinary and international conference had as its theme the “Cultural Production and Negotiation of Borders”. It aimed 1) to put cultural and literary studies on the agenda of borders studies and bring cultural researchers into dialogue with social geographers and other social scientists working in this field, and 2) to put Barents regions borders on the map of border studies world-wide.

The conference was located in Kirkenes, in the Norwegian-Russian borderlands, as a way of facilitating these goals. The conference built on ongoing work at the University of Tromsø (including the recent publications of the books Border Poetics De-Limited, eds. Schimanski/Wolfe and Russia - Norway: Physical and Symbolic Borders, eds. Nielsen/Jackson) and the Barents Institute. In 2007/2008, the University of Tromsø also arranged a popular lecture series streamed on video to locations across Northern Norway, on the theme of borders.

Cooperation on organizing and funding

The organization was led by the Border Poetics research group at the University of Tromsø, in close cooperation with the Barents Institute in Kirkenes, the History Department at the University of Tromsø, the CEPIN (Citizenship, Encounters and Place Enactment in the North) research school at the University of Tromsø, and Petrozavodsk State University. The Barents Institute played an invaluable role in the on-site organization of the conference and liaison with various local organizations and firms in Kirkenes. The very successful book stand was organized in cooperation with the Akademisk kvarter bookshop in Tromsø. The lectures and papers were given at the Rica Arctic Hotel and at the Kirkenes cinema.

The conference received funding from the Norwegian Barents Secretariat, the Sparebanken1 Nord-Norge Research Fund, the University of Tromsø, the Research Council of Norway, the Barents Institute and the Humanities Faculty at the University of Tromsø. Individual participants paid for their accommodation, the field trip and use of conference facilities through registration fees; the exception being the Russian participants, who had all expenses paid for by the conference. Through careful planning, the conference reached all of its main goals while keeping within the budget.

International and transdisciplinary participants

The conference attracted 69 registered participants, including social geographers, literary scholars, historians, philosophers, ecologists, librarian scientists, tourism researchers, political scientists, media scientists, anthropologists, ethnologists, sociologists, economists, artists, and artistic producers. Local leaders and residents, including a group of Russian women in Kirkenes, were invited to take part, and did so. A group of students from the Finnmark University College Barents International School came to lectures and at most the audience reached 75 people.

The President of the Association for Borderlands Studies, James Scott, was one of the participants, as were many other leading researchers in border studies. One group of participants were part of the newly started project The Construction and Negotiation of Borders: Discourses Related to the Border between Norway and Russia, led by the Finnmark University College and funded by the Research Council of Norway. All of the Border Poetics research group (3 faculty, 3 postdocs, 1 PhD student) at the University of Tromsø gave papers.

Of the registered participants, 27 came from Norway, 7 from Russia, and the others from the Netherlands, Italy, Sweden, Northern Ireland, Denmark, Portugal, England, Finland, Austria, the United States, Canada, Japan, Germany, and South Africa.

Scientific content

The programme included 48 papers in 3 parallel sessions (this was notably the first 3-track conference hosted by the Barents Institute in Kirkenes). Of these papers, 22 directly focused on borderlands between Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. The programming was carefully designed to encourage participants to attend papers concerning a wide variety of regions.

Topics, all connected with borders and borderlands, addressed everyday life, musical styles, literature, cultural studies, urban complexity, scientific policy, border creation, media perceptions, narratives of local identities, EU borders, resources, cultural identities, transborder cooperation zones, films, conflict, tourism, migration, the body, colonialism, history writing, shopping, polar politics, and cultural festivals.

Some titles include:

  • Border Rhythms: An Examination of the Relationship between the Socio- Political Landscape and the Production of Music in the Border Regions of South Texas and Southern California

  • Preconditions for Establishment of the Zone of Individual and Economic Cooperation – Pomor Zone Kirkenes-Pechenga

  • Cultural borders between the Skolt Sami and the Finns in the era of Petsamo and after

  • Destroying the Fence to Build a New One? Some Trends and Patterns in Russian Media Discourse on Cross-Border Cooperation.

  • The Cultural Boundary and Intercommunication in Two Films from the North-West of Russia

  • Cultural Heartlands beyond the Border: Finnish Kalevala Tourism in Russian Karelia

  • Written on the Body: Difference and Transgression

  • Creolization and the Production and Negotiation of Boundaries in Breyten

    Breytenbach’s Recent Work

  • Borderlands and EU Identity Politics: Selectivity at the Frontiers of


  • Binaries and Cognitive Cartography: What on Earth Does Poetry Have to Do with Border Transactions?

  • Theatrical Negotiations of the German-Polish Border

The conference was opened by the pro-rector of the University of Tromsø, Gerd Bjørhovde, and featured three keynote lectures by David Newman, of the University of the Negev; by Einar Niemi of the University of Tromsø; and by Mieke Bal of the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis. Mieke Bal’s lecture was accompanied by the showing of her film Becoming Vera, which was also attended by local Kirkenes residents and students.

PhD students attending the conference and giving papers were given credit for their contributions as part of a PhD course (the humanities faculty, HIF-8015).

Einar Niemi’s lecture introduced the history of borders in the Barents Region to conference participants. The conference also finished with a panel discussion on Placing Border Studies in the North.

Field trip across border to Boris Gleb and Nickel

On the second day of the conference, the participants were given the chance to experience the Norwegian Russian border hands-on during a field trip arranged in cooperation with Pasvikturist AS. Thanks to close cooperation between the Norwegian and Russian border commissions and the Russian consulate, this field trip included a unique visit to the Boris Gleb church, situated in a small Russian enclave on the west side of the Pasvik river. Participants with the expertise to relate these experiences to the theory and practice of borders in many different contexts were allowed the chance to see the town of Nickel and the protocols of the Storskog border-crossing.

Cultural and social programme

The conference was launched with a reception at the Barents Institute, providing a chance for social networking. Participants also attended a reception at the Borderlands Museum, including addresses by the mayor, the museum director and the Russian consul and had the opportunity to walk through the museum and thus see an example of one important form of cultural negotiation of borders. At the museum, participants also enjoyed a performance based on the life of Ellisif Wessel by Samovarteatret. This opportunity to get first hand experience of cultural production in the Norwegian-Russian borderlands continued with a Transborder Café arranged by the art production group Pikene på broen, which also included a public conversation with the Russian Consul. Also taking part in the conference were two artists of the Barents Mobile Intercultural Bureau project, who documented most of the proceedings on video.

Secondary benefits, future cooperation and publications

Bringing keynote speaker David Newman to Northern Norway enabled the arrangement of guest lectures on border studies and borders in Israel-Palestine at the Centre for Peace Studies, at the University of Tromsø, on the day before the conference. Newman is a prominent political geographer at the University of the Negev, editor of Geopolitics, Israeli peace activist, contributor to the BBC, The Economist and the New York Times. Both lectures were well attended and one has been placed on the Internet as a video stream.

The involvement of Mieke Bal, prominent cultural theorist and film-maker, led to a visit by Bal to Tromsø in January 2009, where she showed her film Becoming Vera at the Tromsø International Film Festival and gave two lectures the University of Tromsø. Both the showing and the lectures were well attended. Her film, a documentary on a French child of Russian and Cameroonian ancestry, was subsequently shown at the Barents Spektakel 2009.

Contact and conversations at the conference have led to further international cooperation on Tromsø-led applications for EU Frame Programme 7 and Research Council of Norway KULVER research grants, both involving research activities focusing on the Barents region. Pikene på broen and the Barents Institute have participated in the subesequent KULVER project Border Aesthetics. Ultimately, participation in the EU FP7 project EUBORDERSCAPES has been secured.

An informal cooperation was initiated between the Border Poetics group at the University of Tromsø and the University of Potchefstroom, South Africa, which has led to a planned video link-up for a seminar in March 2009.

Successful cooperation between departments and schools at the Humanities and Social Science Faculties at the University of Tromsø show the potentials of the ongoing faculty fusion.

The conference contributed to the local economy through use of hotel and café facilities; the trip arranged by Pasvikturist showed the potentials of reopenings in cross-border tourism and ongoing cooperation.

The conference organisers have published three special issues of papers from the conference in the academic, peer-reviewed journals Journal of Northern Studies (1/2009), the Journal of Borderlands Studies (25.1) and Nordlit (24). Papers published in these special issues include several by participants from Russia.

Johan Schimanski & Stephen Wolfe Department of Culture and Literature, University of Tromsø