Conference Summary: Telling the Story of the Border

By Mareike Riedel

The relationship between landscape and movement is ambivalent, even at times paradoxical. While land and sea enable the movement of people and the global flow of goods and capital, they are increasingly co-opted to inhibit and obstruct human mobility. For many, land and sea have turned into insurmountable borders. The conference therefore approached the border as a landscape, as designed spaces that are at once architectural, infrastructural, and geophysical, as Derek Denman, postdoctoral research fellow at the Max Planck Institute, who had organised the conference together with Ayelet Shachar, explained. He pointed out how the heat of desert borders, the vastness of the sea, and the remote location of detention centres have been utilized as constraints on human movement. At the same time, Denman noted, the changing configuration of borders complicate the relationship between the inside and the outside, leading to new modes of power that need to be acknowledged. By tracing the changing shape of a global bordering regime, the conference set out to explore some of the contours of the emerging and shifting border landscapes, their design and materiality, and to follow the traces of those who navigate them.

Panel 1: Border Infrastructures

Deborah Cowen’s (University of Toronto) presentation “Imprints of Empire. Border Infrastructures and the Landscape of Jurisdiction” opened the first panel and invited the audience to follow her for a journey along the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Taking up the suggestion to think of border landscapes as architectural, infrastructural, and geophysical spaces, she suggested to conceptualize borders also as historical spaces. This would mean to understand border spaces as ‘haunted spaces’ and as genealogical objects imprinted by empire. In her presentation, Cowen reflected on the extraordinary power of infrastructural systems in the making of border spaces and pointed out the key role of infrastructure in the making of settler colonial jurisdiction. “Wielding the law, the rifle, and capital at once,” she argued powerfully, “the transcontinental rail literally built settler jurisdiction and cemented the constitution of Canada.” Yet, she also urged the audience not to think of the railway only in past times but to consider its afterlife, noting the colonial legacies of infrastructure and its relation to forms of white supremacy. Nonetheless, Cowen urged the audience to remain optimistic by paying attention to how the rail also opens spaces of refusal and survivance – for an infrastructure otherwise.

Lecture by Deborah Cowen (University of Toronto): “Imprints of Empire: Border Infrastructures and the Landscape of Jurisdiction”

In his comment, Bernd Kasparek ( reflected on the relationship between European integration and borders. While European integration was built on an idea of the border as nuisance that obstructs the flows of goods, services, and people, today we see the weaponization of former spaces of connection, such as the Mediterranean Sea that has turned into a mass grave. Nonetheless, he pointed out attempts by asylum seekers to appropriate the European integration infrastructure, such as the tunnel or Italian and German trains, which could provide the possibility of an emerging counter-infrastructure for transit and sanctuary. Could this be another hidden and different European integration along human connection, a Europe from below?

In his comment, Derek Denman first asked how the railway project was narrated in terms of technological triumph over nature. He commended the paper for providing an important corrective to the critiques of industrialization by adding a focus on the settler-colonial politics of building the railway and the racialized politics of labour on the train. Denman’s second question concerned land struggles at particular sites of “critical infrastructure” and other forms of “counter-logistics around the railway. He invited the audience to consider the ways in which infrastructures that have already been built are politicized in unexpected ways.

In the following conversation between the panel and the audience, questions directed to Cowen problematised the notion of progress underpinning the temporal exploration of the rail tracks, pointed out tensions between the nation and the global in the story of the rail, and asked about the dependency of the railroad on other infrastructure.

Panel 2: Spaces of Asylum

Katerina Linos (University of California, Berkeley) opened the second panel “Spaces of Asylum” with a presentation that investigated how social media puts pressure on refugee law regimes. Based on empirical data of both online communication of refugees as well as interview data and ethnographic accounts, Linos observed how informal information networks in social media and smugglers are filling in gaps where governments fail to provide timely, accurate, or accessible information. She described how governments of receiving states frequently communicate ineffectively with refugees by using complicated modalities and languages or withhold information and thereby breed distrust. People smugglers, on the other hand, provide both information and misinformation as well as their own peculiar kind of “customer-service,” promising refugees choice of transport, timing, and destination. Linos pointed out that the refugee regime is not equipped to handle these refugee choices and that certain areas of attention require reforms to improve the safety of refugee travel and better compete with options offered by smugglers.

Sabrina Ellebrecht (University of Freiburg) opened her presentation by quoting from an interview with a Frontex official who had told her, “The boat tells the story.” Ellebrecht raised the question of what kind of story the boat actually tells. In her presentation, she tracked the boat as a judicial and material formation and argued that the prioritisation of the vessel in legal assessments – in which the boat is often represented as small, overcrowded, and unseaworthy – allows postponement, circumvention, or dismissal of the rights of its passengers.

In his presentation “Hostile Environments: Policies of non-assistance as liquid violence,” Charles Heller (Goldsmiths, University of London) explored how environments are deployed as means of governmentality. He argued that water has been turned into a lethal weapon by drawing on the sea as an inherently ambivalent element, a geo-power that enables some mobilities while restricting others. Thereby, he noted, the sea turns into liquid violence. Heller traced the “becoming border’ of the Mediterranean Sea as part of a process of the pushing outwards of borders and the implementation of policies that daw on the liquid violence of the sea. He invited the audience to zoom out to recognize how other landscapes have been enlisted in the creation of hostile environments such as the Sahara Desert and the Alps.

The conversation that followed addressed difficult questions of methodology regarding who and what is to be made visible in the study of asylum law and politics. Heller proposed a “disobedient gaze” that seeks to render visible what state power conceals while leaving hidden what states seek to uncover.

The workshop concluded with an expression of gratitude to the participants and organizers. It had provided a forum to examine new ways of telling the stories of borders, stories told by the vehicles of transit, new media of information sharing, and the infrastructures of passage, composing new environments of stasis/mobility. These are stories told across time and space—stories of near and far, here and there, and then and now.