Short version of the final report for the Border Aesthetics Project (2010-2013)
Border Aesthetics (2010-2013) was a research project led by Johan Schimanski and Stephen Wolfe, financed by the Research Council of Norway (project code 194581) as part of the KULVER programme.
background and objectives
The premise of the project was that borders have an aesthetic dimension. Borders become meaningful through sensory perception and are thus subject to aesthetic evaluation. Furthermore, social practices and institutions connected to national borders often involve forms of cultural production. An investigation of the concrete function of a border aesthetics in specific contexts has to build on previous work on narrative and figural representations of border crossings (border poetics), but would necessitate exploration of wider aesthetical questions. The perceived current convergence of border studies in the social sciences with humanities-based approaches to borders suggested a transdisciplinary approach for the project.
The main objective was to investigate how changing perceptions of borders relate to shifting practices of aesthetic evaluation. Secondary objectives were 1) to address the question of how aesthetic activity participates in the processes by which people relate to the real and conceptual border regions in which they live, work and through which they move, 2) to develop and interrogate further the notion of a migratory aesthetics and to formulate a zonal aesthetics: a new “aesthetics of place” that emerges from and responds to the co-existence of migrants, minorities, and trans-national identities within border zones, 3) investigate the presentation of border zones using different techniques and medial presentations that engage and invoke aesthetic and ethical values, and 4) to establish models for bringing together the study of territorial, cultural, and medial borders and to investigate how they are reflected in and sustained by academic interdisciplinary practice.
Specific regional contexts were chosen as focuses for the project: the Barents and Mediterranean regions.
The project confirmed the premise that borders, including national borders, have a dense aesthetic dimension, often involving works of literature, art and cinema. In the Barents context, cultural production has had an important role in the formation of a “soft” geopolitics and cultural-political mobilization in the borderlands. In the Mediterranean context, aesthetical bordering today primarily concerns migration.
Gradually, specific themes and terms have emerged as ways of analysing the aesthetical dimension of borders. Especially salient were themes of relation and visibility. An emergent and not fully-defined term in border studies, the borderscape – a wide material and virtual field constituted by “re-/de-/bordering” processes and aesthetic representations of the border – became a way of mapping the relations of the border to power, resistance and connection, and proved to be more useful than the terms “place” and “zonal aesthetic” suggested in the original objectives. The borderscape, with its suggestion of a topography defined through perspective, connects power directly to visibility in a way directly comparable to contemporary theories of aesthetics. Other terms used to describe forms of relation within the project are liminality, memory, translation, participation and rudimentariness. The inclusionary approach of such terms allow us to see the aesthetic and other dimensions of bordering processes more traditional social science approaches do not account for.
More traditional aesthetical terms – such as sublime or grotesque – proved a way of interrogating borders and bordering processes as represented in different artistic, cinematic and literary genres and media. Such terms imply different forms of boundaries in their definitions, and can connect changing concepts of borders to other cultural, psychoanalytical and ethical values to do with human bodies and practices. Changing border concepts were also shown to be connected to aesthetic forms of evaluation in such as everyday practices of violence, colonization, migration, surveillance, control, language and exclusion. The ethics of such issues have become incorporated in the academic practices themselves, as also exemplified within the project through interdisciplinary cooperation, “critical” analyses and “artsci” collaboration. An unplanned focal point for this thinking in the project were certain key texts by the literary author Franz Kafka.
The collaborative book project, which has been the main activity during the last period of the project, has allowed six operative concepts to crystallize. Ecology, giving space to the mobility of people and art in provides an alternative to naturalizing concepts of borders. Sovereignty posits the limits of political control, but borders open for indeterminate spaces in which art and literature can express the experiences of refugees and migrants. Waiting at the border, which decides who can pass and who must wait outside, defines hierarchical relations between border-crossers and border guards, who together desire both order and freedom within a play of the real and the aesthetic. The imaginary refers to the symbols, images, perceptions and myths of borders which hold society together, but also hide uncanny memories and alternative futures; especially in art and literature which help us see traditional concepts of borders from a remove. The palimpsest (texts which have been erased to make room for new texts) helps us describe the collage of territorial, economic, administrative, historical and culture layers in the borderscape and the way in which culture can influence political process through this assemblage. Invisibility raises the question of how the line between the visible and the invisible is so easily taken as expressing political relevance.
The project was centred around a core of 8 researchers at the University of Tromsø (UiT) and a network of 8 external partners (in Kirkenes, Bergen, Amsterdam, Düsseldorf, Nijmegen, Joensuu and Bergamo), including literary scholars, media scholars, a political geographer, a folklorist, an urban planner and a social anthropologist. An already-financed doctoral grant led to a dissertation on liminality in war movies and games, and the project financed a 2-year postdoc focused on architectural symbolism in the NW Russian borderlands and other post-Soviet centre-periphery contexts.
In the first phase of the project, a number of case studies were developed by both groups, resulting ultimately in 19 published and forthcoming articles. Within the Barents region focus studies were made of women’s border writing in a circumpolar context, postcolonial aspects of Sámi poetry, cultural mobilization in the Tornedalian borderlands, artistic and literary sublimes in the Norwegian-Russian borderscape, North Norwegian artistic imaginary, liminality in the border films of Knut Erik Jensen, the photographic aesthetics of Karelian borderlands, place identities in the Barents Region and the road movie form of cross-border trips to Russia from Norway. Within the Mediterranean focus a longer historical perspective was allowed for, involving the influence of classical terminology and literature on Romantic and contemporary literature and theory, transatlantic connections in Barbary Coast captivity narratives, the Italian/Libyan borderscape and European migrant cinema. Additional studies have looked at American-Russian borders and Franz Kafka’s short text “Before the Law”.
In the second half of the project, work has concentrated on a collaborative book project Border Aesthetics with six chapter focusing on the themes listed in the previous section, with each chapter being written in collaborations between an “internal” and an “external” group member. The project coordinators also contributed a preliminary statement of research results to the KULVER programme anthology Assigning Cultural Values (2013).
Excluding the case studies and the book, group members have produced some 71 published and 21 forthcoming articles and monographs relevant to the project theme. These have provided frameworks for the case study regions, objects of comparison in other regions, and theoretical thinking on borders and border aesthetics. While applying for the project, a special dossier was prepared for Journal of Borderlands Studies. Early on in the project, the project created a conference panel on literature and coastal borders which has resulted in chapters in a forthcoming book. The project contributed articles and an interview to a special issue of Folklore. The “Border Aesthetics” conference in Tromsø in 2012 created a concrete interface with other researchers in the field, resulting in a forthcoming special issue of the open access journal Nordlit with 11 conference papers, including 4 by group members.
The project has already been well profiled within the humanities and social sciences communities at UiT, contributing centrally to the work of the Border Culture Research Group there. Its work has received attention in European and North American border studies publications with its timely contribution to a cultural turn in the field and more specific contributions to the development of the concept of the borderscape.
In very concrete terms, the project led to UiT being included in the large-scale EU FP7 research project EUBORDERSCAPES (2012-2016), where UiT runs a work package on border-crossing and cultural production, working with partners in Joensuu, Grenoble, Barcelona, Beersheba, St Petersburg and Bergamo. The results of the project feed directly into this work package and to UiT research there on borders in migrant narratives. A spin-off of the Border Aesthetics project has been a research focus on “disorientation” developed together with the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis.
The project has contributed to developing the competences to early- and middle-stage researchers including a doctoral student and 5 postdocs. An interdisciplinary Border Poetics masters course at UiT, held in 2010 and 2012, applied project research within student education. Project research has been presented at doctoral courses in Tallinn and Copenhagen, and at an open seminar in London.
The project group included as a partner the cultural production group Pikene på broen, based in Kirkenes on the Russian border. They were instrumental in creating a collaboration with the critical artist collective Chto delat?, based in St. Petersburg, who during the project period were invited to attend project activities at workshops, festivals, and the project conference. Chto delat? conceptualized and created a 49 min border art musical focusing on migration across the Russian-Norwegian border, and the Border Aesthetics project is credited for its assistance. A more limited project in collaboration with the literary portal MurmanLit.ru and the University of Eastern Finland resulted in a writing competition in Russian in 2010, with the theme borders. At the project conference, a public discussion was arranged with North-Norwegian stakeholders from the artistic field. A lecture early on in the project at a one-day conference on cultural policy in Northern Norway held at the Nordnorske festspillene in Harstad brought the cultural dimension of borders to the attention to a wide range of cultural workers and administrators.
The project was assisted by a supplementary grant for public dissemination which has lead to a wide range of activities (some with financial support from other sources) and the awarding of the public dissemination award for 2011 by the Faculty of Humanities, Social Sciences and Education at UiT.
In connection with showings of Chto delat?’s border musical in arts festivals and galleries in Kirkenes, Tromsø, Bergen and Berlin, the group has distributed a Chto delat newspaper theme issue on ”Language at/of the Border” produced in collaboration with the project, including 4 articles presenting project research. This newspaper has also been distributed at border studies conferences in Grenoble, Aix-en-Provence, Joensuu and the KULVER conference in 2013.
Taking a different form of public participatory dissemination, the film series Filmgrenser/Filmborders ran over three consecutive Fall semesters from 2010 to 2012 in cooperation with Verdensteatret Cinematek in Tromsø. Each series included a number of films (8 + 8 + 7) introduced by members of the group and other researchers, and followed by public discussions. Through these screenings, major themes and concerns of the project were conveyed to interested students, the general public, and university employees, attracting attention from North-Norwegian media. The free admission was profiled through the University and Cinematek web sites. An extensive programme book with a presentation of the project was printed for each series, with similar information on the Verdensteatret web site and through facebook events. In the Spring of 2013 this concept was successfully transferred to Joensuu in Finland under the coordination of the research project Writing Cultures and Traditions at Borders (WTCB), the VERA Centre for Russian and Border Studies, and the North Karelian Regional Film Association. Lectures presenting project research to popular audiences have been held in Tromsø and Kirkenes, one of the project co-leaders has been interviewed by the Estonian cultural journal Sirp, and an article is to appear in the Norwegian literary magazine Kuiper.
A brochure presenting project themes and activities was produced in Norwegian, English, Sámi and Russian versions and made available at all activities of the project, ensuring access not only to an international audience, but also to important end-users in the Barents transborder region. The project web site at https://uit.no/hsl/borderaesthetics provides information on and detailed documentation of project activities with several pages covering different aspects of the project, targeted at both academic and non-academic end-users. Where possible, lectures by project guest researchers are streamed as videos on the website. The associated website https://uit.no/borderpoetics provides extensive resources for research and teaching, functions as a communication and reference tool, showcases current research and activities of the group, and encourages connections with other research groups and projects. The project has an active social media presence with a global reach: the regularly updated Border Aesthetics facebook group has 147 members and the @bordaesth twitter-feed has 128 followers including journalists, artists, border research projects, migration research centres and NGOs.
Participants at the University of Tromsø
Gerd Bjørhovde, English and Canadian literature
Anne Heith, comparative literature (now at University of Umeå)
Nadir Kinossian, urban planning
Ruben Moi, Irish literature
Holger Pötzsch, media and documentation studies and film studies
Timothy Saunders, classical studies (now at Volda University College)
Johan Schimanski (co-leader), comparative literature and arctic discourses
Stephen Wolfe (co-leader) British and transatlantic literature
External project network
Chiara Brambilla, cultural anthropology, Università degli studi di Bergamo
Reinhold Görling, media studies, Heinrich-Heine-Universität Düsseldorf
Henk von Houtum, geopolitics and political geography, Nijmegen Centre for Border Research, Radboud University Nijmegen
Lene M Johannessen, American literature, University of Bergen
Mari Ristolainen, Russian literature and culture, Karelian Institute, University of Eastern Finland
Mireille Rosello, comparative literature, Universiteit van Amsterdam and ASCA
Urban Wråkberg, Senior Researcher, Barents Institute (now at Finnmark Faculty)
Pikene på broen, a company of Norwegian and Russian female art curators and producers based in Kirkenes