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Reframing Borders Talk - Review

Last Thursday I attended the “Reframing Borders” event at Pakhuis de Zwijger. Due to the ‘Refugee Crisis’ this topic has received a lot of coverage in the media and as a student in European Studies with a special interest in identity and integration, I assumed I was fairly well read. But as I rode my bike home that night, I found myself lost in thought. The talk had made me reevaluate my whole perspective.

When entering the room each audience member received a different coloured piece of paper. Since my friend saved a seat for me, I didn’t pay much attention to this until I sat down and saw that I was supposed to sit on the other side of the room, according to the color of my paper. I thought about moving to that side, obeying to the rules and accept that I had to sit alone because my friend got a different color. Before I could do so, the event started and it felt wrong to stand up. When the moderator asked us to show our papers, I felt slightly awkward sitting in this chair that did not belong to my color, I was illegally sitting in that specific part of the room.


This set the tone for the rest of the night. The first speaker was Henk van Houtum, head of the Centre for Border Research at the Radbound University. His speech focused on the constructed concept of borders starting with Mercator, a Belgium cartographer born in 1512, who introduced the word atlas. His ways of mapping the world are still the most common we know, with Europe in the middle and with lines used to define the borders of the states. By mapping the world we constructed how we view the world in the present day.

The Mercatormap is the one that we use today to teach our children topography and thus how the world looks. But this is not the ‘natural’ state of the world. Borders are constructed by people (mostly men) and not by nature. We decide, based on this perspective of the world, that certain people can cross our part of the globe, our borders, while others cannot. And though this message is far from new, it was worth pointing this out to the audience in order to re-frame the concept of borders (the goal of the event).

With this important message in mind, the next three speakers, Irene van de Linde, writer for de Groene Amsterdammer, Sébastien Wielemans, director of Connected Walls, and Valerio Vincenzo a photographer, took to the stage. Their speeches focused on their projects about people living near the border, ‘borderpeople’. Irene van de Linde quoted some stories of people she interviewed on the Eastern European border: ‘Border people guard not only their own country but also the EU’. For some of the guards this is a mission they view with pride, for others it is a heavy burden. Her stories on the guards’ various real world experiences helped make the abstract idea of borders more concrete for the audience. Through a discussion of the internet’s role, it also brought the issue closer to home, revealing the endless possibilities to connect with people on the other side of the border.

Wielemans also explored these possibilities in his project ‘Connected Walls’. They took two filmmakers, one on each side of the border and let them work together on short documentaries about topics chosen by the public. The two teams were Mexico and US against Spain and Morocco. Connected Walls playfully demonstrates that even in a world with borders, people can connect, have interaction and even make a documentary together. It thereby forces us to ask, if we are all connected anyways, why do we still need borders? What are we even protecting? And why are we so scared of what is on the other side of the border?

At this point of the event I already felt like getting up and doing something with these questions. I wanted to tell the audience to tell all their relatives and friends that borders are constructed, that we have been fooling ourselves and that we should rise up and get rid of the borders. Why should we have the right to tell others that they cannot come to this part of the globe, what makes it ours?


Fortunately for the audience I did not have to do this. Because the last speaker was Dhjana a political activist, who had a strong and convincing story explaining why she is involved in direct action, instead of debates. She made the (predominantly white) audience painfully aware of its privilege, sitting in the room only talking about it, while at the same time in The Hague, Geert Wilders is proposing to close our borders completely. More than ever before I felt distanced from Dutch politics and the EU.

As I sat there I couldn’t help but notice a number of couples that were evidently there on date night. It occurred to me that the lady was right, we were privileged and we weren’t going to act. What could we really do, sat there enjoying a nice evening of talks that filled us with hope but little confidence to act? There is a big gap between polite talk and direct action, it would be nice if that gap could be made a little smaller. Maybe then we can really reframe the world’s understanding of borders. We can open the debate and change the discourse so that we no longer see them as tools for exclusion but as tools for inclusion.

This article was originally published on

As part of the Cultural program of the Dutch presidency of the EU in 2016.

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