Borders of Belonging

University of Bayreuth, Centre of International Excellence „Alexander von Humboldt“
Fand statt
In Präsenz
Vom - Bis
28.06.2023 - 30.06.2023
Ionna Louise Larissa Streitberg, Berlin; Aurelie Toitot, Politics and History, Brunel University London

The University of Bayreuth Centre of International Excellence „Alexander von Humboldt“ funded a conference on the theme of „Borders of Belonging: Historical and Creative Approaches to Heritage and Placemaking,“ held at the Institute for Franconian History at Thurnau Castle and organised by Astrid Swenson (Bayreuth) and Alison Carrol (London). The conference brought together participants from across the world to discuss the idea of fixed and movable borders as a tangible, intangible, transnational, connecting and dividing concept.

Marking the beginning of three fascinating days, ELISABETH VLOSSAK‘s (Ontario) keynote considered historic borders and how they are used to create mental maps of one´s surroundings and one´s place within them. Vlossak took her audience on a personal journey, taking account of the border sites she encountered throughout her life and work, starting from her childhood in Canada on the US border, to her family's migration history from the Romanian-Hungarian border, to the shifting border between France and Germany in her studies of women's organisations in Alsace and the Weimar Republic, and her current work in the Niagara border region (which includes ideas of transcending borders, regional Black History and history of indigenous people in Canada). In locating these vectors in her life and work, she demonstrates how borders can take different forms, from linguistic to political and cultural, underlying their three-dimensionality, changing across time and space but also how they are very personal in how they shape us. She comes to the conclusion that we all create a mental map for ourselves, which means that we constantly (re)position ourselves within and against these different types of frontiers, which are never completely fixed, but which “bleed over” instead.

Following up on the idea of mental maps, the paper given by REBECCA MADGIN (Glasgow) summarised her work exploring new methods to evaluate how meaning is ascribed to places through emotions. She described one of her initial experiments whereby she asked panelists during a workshop to use emojis to express their feelings towards historic monuments. This marked the beginning of a series of unique approaches developed by Madgin to find connections between emotions, places, and borders. Through her research, she found common patterns, which she categorized into three streams: Firstly, six main emotional responses help individuals relate to the past, present or future of a place, namely; anger, pride, enjoyment, sadness, fear and a sense of “wow”. Secondly, personal attachment, plays an important part as people give meaning to a place depending on the personal relationship with it. Finally, she depicted emotional communities, created through everyday use, memory, practice and interest. Madgin´s sees heritage to be “at the centre of who we are”, which is why she developed these “people-centred methodologies”.

ARTEMIS IGNATIDOU (Bayreuth) and EVI NAKOU (Berlin) shook the audience with an unconventional paper, perhaps best portrayed as a postmodern critique on immigration politics, aiming to break borders through the performative nature of the presentation itself. The two presenters started by playing video recordings of women singing emotionally together, which they later explained to be performances by migrant and refugee women in Athens, who had come together to share a creative cultural community. The presentation was accompanied by loud sounds and increasingly dramatic music, recordings of political statements on migration, debt and country frontiers, and Ignatidou reading out the GDP/debt, of different countries. Evi Nakou also began to read something aloud (now already indistinguishable), as everything became louder and louder until the boundaries of speech, recordings and music merged into one another to culminate in an intense, threatening mass and then suddenly (as if hitting a wall or indeed another frontier) ended in complete silence, broken by one last sentence: „Thank you, we will now take answers“.

The second day started with an inspiring paper by ALISON CARROL (London) where she looked at the role of the tunnel between France and the UK specifically, and the meaning and symbolism of tunnels as pathways between borders and landscapes more generally. The channel tunnel was a project proposed by Louis Joseph Aimée Thomé de Gamond who claimed that plans for the tunnel stemmed from much earlier, going back to Napoleon. In her paper, Carrol spoke about how she could not find evidence for this claim during her archival work, therefore it raises the question of whether de Gamond claimed this in order to flatter the then incumbent Napoleon III by giving his ancestor credit for the plans. What she could find archivally was that the idea of the tunnel provoked anxiety and echoed a long history of fear of the French invading British soil, which in turn made her think about „the power of borders“ and their „emotional pull“. Carrol proceeded to speak of the ambiguity of the tunnel being a connection between two countries whilst at the same time being representative of the turbulent Franco-UK relationship. Discussing the public’s lack of interest for the tunnel’s memorial museum, she questioned why some borders are forgotten and others remembered.

ANNA KÄLLÉN´s (Stockholm) fascinating paper, made the argument that commercial DNA testing changes people's perspectives on borders, their sense of belonging and the way they perceive common heritage. Källen criticised Genetic Ancestry Testing as unscientific, describing those test as ‘Genetic Astrology’. She sees danger in the fact that these tests give people a sense of belonging to bordered ‘ethnic’ groups determined by one’s ancestry, which can be genetically inherited. She argued that the illustration of ethnicity through maps and pie charts also deceptively conveys the illusion of stringent and unchanging national borders and suggest a homogeneous identity of the population within those borders. While Genetic Ancestry Testing companies claim that people who take those tests are aware of this deception, Källen concluded that maps give an illusion of truth, because, she argued, "Maps matter".

Discussant KERSTIN STAMM (Berlin) raised important questions about the symbolism of language, e.g. whether the name of the „border“, i.e. the English Channel rather than Ärmelkanal or la Manche influenced the perception of the tunnel. She also considered the difference between „going under the tunnel“ and „crossing a bridge“, the latter being often used as a metaphor for connection whereas the former is associated with something hidden and dubious. Kerstin Stamm drew attention to the relationship between mobility, relations and time. Discussions of the role of GAT in determining people’s attachment to places also led to debates about decolonising research and heritage, considering notably, the question of relationality as participants concluded that objects and artefacts are rarely given back to who they belonged to, rather they are sent back to where they came from.

Opening the second panel on borders as ‘Spaces of encounter’, SYBILLE FRANK (Darmstadt) problematiced political violence. Analysing Berlin’s Breitscheidplatz and Checkpoint Charlie, she delivered a fascinating talk describing space as a socio-spatial relation and network. Frank argued that the memorialisation of Checkpoint Charlie, and the fortification of Breitscheidplatz following the 2016 terror attacks, marked inner borders within Berlin itself, part of an ‘architecture of fear’, revealing Berlin’s heritage of political violence. Frank insisted on the importance of scale in border analysis, revealing the different meaning of territory and network: locally, Checkpoint Charlie was closed, whilst internationally, it was an open point of the East-West border. She concluded that political violence is networked and global, and creates new borders within national spaces.

MURIEL BLAIVE (Graz) then gave a compelling presentation on cross-border love relationships at the Czech-Austrian, Slovak-Hungarian and Israeli-Palestinian borders since the fall of communism. Her analysis revealed the impact of issues of identity, nationalism and networks on love relationships along contested and unstable borders. Using images, interviews and video extracts from documentaries, she drew an engaging picture of love-hate relationships across borders, unpacking how borderlands are both spaces of mixed love stories, racism and xenophobia. This led her to conclude that cross-border love requires a form of distance. Moving abroad to a ‘neutral’ country gives cross-border couples a better chance by removing themselves from the border space where identities and mixed relationships remain contested.

Based on interviews done in 2021 in Lviv, TATIANA ZHURZHENKO (Berlin) delivered an insightful analysis of the politics of memory construction at the Polish-Ukrainian border since 1945, a crucial border as it is also the European Union’s border. Her paper focussed on Lviv in particular, where Polish, Jewish and Soviet heritage are in competition. Looking at the conflicts around competing memorial spaces (war memorials, museum as well as cultural heritage), Zhurzhenko defined borderlands as temporal boundaries associated with beginnings and endings, ruptures and continuities. Conflict over competing heritage sites and identities reveals those border temporalities and victimhood as main memory narrative.

The following discussion led by CASSANDRA MARK-THIESEN (Bayreuth) considered memory and heritage in borderlands understood as spaces of encounters, networks and exchange rather than closed spaces. She argued that political violence, conflicts and the resulting border shifting complicates the memory making process in the border region.

DACIA VIEJO ROSE (Cambridge) and HYUN KYUNG LEE (Seoul) opened the last panel with a paper on heritage in the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ). They described their visit to the DMZ – which is both a functional border and heritage space - as a ‘confusing experience’, characterising the DMZ as both an ordinary and extraordinary everyday space. Their paper spoke to the way in which tourists can simultaneously experience the border as a space of conflict, fear and terror (landmines field, security tours) and a space of hope promoting a narrative of peace. Dacia Viejo Rose and Hyun Kyung Lee focused on two spaces which embodied this contradiction: a one-hole golf course claiming to be the ‘most dangerous golf course in the world’, and ginseng growing on former landmine fields. Between tourist attraction and the danger zone, the DMZ, they argued, ‘performs the border’, each side observing each other in a disturbing space where fear and hope too, confront each other.

NABILA OULEBSIR (Poitiers) analysed belonging and colonial memory from a transnational perspective, focusing specifically on the few memorial spaces shared between France and Algeria: the case of Abd-El-Kader, and the Statue of the Duc of Orléans. Oulesbir’s presentation of the case-study of Abd-El-Kader’s was particularly engaging. An Algerian figure of anti-colonialism, Abd-El-Kader was admired by both Algerians and French fighters for the chivalrous values he embodied. Memorialised both in Alger and in Aoise Castle in France, Oulesbir argues that his memory symbolises an interesting and rare heritage consensus between France and Algeria, based on shared values.

The follow-up discussion led by TAMARA VAN KESSEL (Amsterdam) focussed on the evolution of memory and heritage spaces, questioning the difference between political or diplomatic memory; and the issue of re-signifying or adding layers of meaning to potentially non-consensual memories.

The conference gave participants the opportunity to experience the legacy of borders of belonging through a creative workshop led by Artemis Ignatidou and Evi Nakou. Participants were encouraged to write their own erasure poetry in a very engaging workshop at the end of which, participants performed their poetry to a sound background composed by Evi Nakou. The conference ended on a fascinating tour of the village of Mödlareuth, crossed by the German-German border, which gave participants the opportunity to physically experience borders and their impact on the local populations, and heritage.

The conference’s final discussion concluded a rich and stimulating workshop. Key themes across the three days were brought together. Issues of language around the terms ‘feelings’, ‘emotions’, ‘mood’ and ‘affect’, led the group to conclude that a creative writing scholar might have been a valuable addition to the conference. The conversation then moved on to consider the future of the arts and humanities, notably, how to encourage creative approaches for students, an important consideration for most academics that is too often left out of conference debates. Throughout the conference, conversations revealed the importance of the concepts of emotions and feelings when discussing heritage and borders, and the crucial insights that a creative approach could bring to the field of heritage and border studies.

Conference overview:


Elizabeth Vlossak (Ontario): Borders and borderlands: Reflections on meaning and identity

Rebecca Madgin (Glasgow): Why Do Historic Places Matter Emotionally?

Artemis Ignatidou (Bayreuth) / Evi Nakou (Athens): A conversation on our sound-based approach to interdisciplinary

Panel: Borders of Agency
Chair: Martin Ott (Bayreuth / Bamberg)

Alison Carrol (London): Looking forward and looking back. The presentation of the past in the case of the Channel Tunnel

Anna Källén, (Stockholm / Umeå): Borders of heritage in a geneticized culture of identity and belonging

Discussant: Kerstin Stamm (Berlin)

Panel: Spaces of Encounter
Chair: Marcus Mühlnikel (Bayreuth)

Sybille Frank (Darmstadt): The Heritage of Political Violence: Borders and Checkpoints in reunified Berlin

Muriel Blaive (Graz): National hyphenation: the negotiation of otherness in love relationships at the Czech-Austrian, Slovak- Hungarian, and Israeli-Palestinian borders

Tatjana Zhurzhenko (Berlin / Florence): Contested heritage at Ukraine’s border with Poland

Discussant: Cassandra Mark-Thiesen (Bayreuth)

Panel Forgotten and Remembered Borders
Chair: Inge Dornan (London)

Dacia Viejo Rose (Cambridge) / Hyun Kyung Lee (Seoul): The Evolving Heritagescape of Borders: Between bellwether and heterotopia

Nabila Oulebsir (Poitiers): Shared colonial/national cultural heritage: Memory, borders, places across France, Algeria and beyond

Discussant: Tamara van Kessel ( Amsterdam)

„A heuristic, interdisciplinary workshop on the modalities of approaching knowledge” led by Dr Artemis Ignatidou (Bayreuth) / Evi Nakou (Athens)

Concluding Reflections on the Day