Sociopolitical and academic discussions focused on migration processes have become more and more persuasive in convincing us that we live during an era of unprecedented instability and rapid change. The theory of a Global North and Global South divide, put forth by scholars and politicians in the 20th century, has affected our worldview. The image cultivated for the general public is a kind of global confrontation in which the citadels of prosperity, order, high culture and low fertility are at the mercy of history, repelling waves of frenetic demographic chaos from a Third World engulfed by poverty and crime. This kind of paradigm generates images such as “Fortress Europe” fighting off attacks from refugees. Under the influence of these images, we continue to perceive the categories of “borders” and “migration” as the opposing embodiments of order and chaos, consistency and instability, norms and deviance, prosperity and crisis, tranquility and menace, being static and moving.
What if we are wrong? What if things are not as they seem?
Strangely, despite academic, cultural, and technological achievements, the number of boundaries that surround us keeps growing. New restrictions constantly emerge in our lives, from ubiquitous turnstiles, checkpoints, and protected areas to new legal statuses, positions, posts, and affiliations that all increase the number, the height, and the complexity of social ladders. The number of independent states is increasing quickly, and increasing right along with them is the number of new special visa regimes, political restrictions, political leaders and their bilateral recognitions and non-recognitions, as well as colors and formats of new domestic and international passports. As we need more and more documents in our everyday lives, their validity periods get shorter, and the procedures necessary for obtaining them become more complex. At the very same time, the value and applicability of each document goes down. The development of the global economy carries with it the growth of institutions and factors creating limits for the benefit of large political coalitions, economic alliances, individual states—both large and small—and transnational and national corporations. The development of cultural ties is accompanied by restrictions originating from the aspiration to regulate them within the frameworks of different value paradigms and agendas set by each of the limiters involved, e.g. states, institutions, study groups, schools, social circuits, associations, etc.
These days it is impossible to imagine public opinion or freedom of thought and conscience without a complex system of formal and informal restrictions put in place to serve somebody’s interests and/or to protect somebody. The need to consider what the established boundaries are becomes a habit, which grows into a complex system of rational and/or irrational self-imposed limitations that exists inside all of us. In this way, we get used to boundaries, start perceiving them as not only natural but also necessary, permanent, clear, and even insurmountable. We grow accustomed to separating “us” from “them,” “ours” from “theirs.”
In this way our fortresses turn into Kafkaesque castles, while the boundaries come to control us.
History vividly demonstrates the fluidity and instability of state borders. Just try playing a video illustrating the historical development of states on a geographical map on fast forward, and you will be startled by the scale and chaotic nature of this Brownian movement. After this sort of experience, the phrase “and tomorrow we will wake up in a different country” doesn’t seem so ironic anymore. This certainly rings true for every generation of people living in Russian and German that has experienced waking up in a fundamentally new reality time and time again, just like in Groundhog Day.
This happened, for example, to citizens of the Soviet Union, who one fine morning in 1991 suddenly became residents of 15 independent states. From that moment on, visiting relatives, moving to another city, entering a university, or changing jobs likely implied international migration within the borders of the Commonwealth of Independent States or even countries of the Council of Europe. For those people who then became migrants, new borders came along with new legal restraints and restrictions, which is unsurprising since each state measures the degree of its sovereignty by its ability to discriminate citizens and non-citizens in line with its interests. These restraints and restrictions are clearly defined each time you happen upon a differently colored patch on the world’s political map and depend on whether you are a tourist, foreign worker, refugee, immigrant or fellow citizen, on whether your country is nearby or far away, and whether the presidents get along well. A person who does not conform to the established restrictions becomes an illegal immigrant and is subject to penalty, confinement or expulsion BEYOND the border—such are the universal rules.
Travel restrictions determined by de jure boundaries have only one permanent quality: They change constantly and unpredictably. The same holds true for cultures, languages, identities, and people’s physical appearances, both in part and as a whole. Historians know that the number of reforms that have been made says a lot about how effective these reforms have been: As a rule, the more laws are passed and the more frequently this occurs, the less people abide by them. Over the past 10 years, five significant reforms were made to Russian legislation on migration. In Germany, the same number of changes was made in the sphere of integration legislation. Changes made to previously established borders strongly reflect efforts to respond to the current situation in the sphere of migration.
And yet, migration, the crossing of borders, is a consistent and inevitable process.
Borders are evanescent, fragile, fluid, and subtle. Migrations never stop. They are powerful and have enormous influence. The directions of migrations might change, as well as their qualitative and quantitative characteristics, but one thing remains the same: Borders and restrictions are just a form of adaptation by states and societies to migration, and not vice versa.
Humans are natural migrants. Homo sapiens are tougher and better adapted to long distance and prolonged travel than any other primate species. Migration has brought about unprecedented biological success for humans: Through our constant and unrestrained relocations, the entire earth became our habitat. Migration processes that overcame natural boundaries allowed humans to take over the entire planet, from the North to the South Pole, from the depths of the ocean to the upper stratosphere.
Migration preserved the intraspecific unity of humankind: Over a couple hundred thousand years, emerging racial diversity could have led to the formation of several separate human species had it had not been for constant amalgamation. Interracial and interethnic conjugal contact between migrating groups formed the planet’s single anthropological cover, within which it is impossible to distinguish any “pure” races since on every part of the planet humankind is made up of a continuous spate of mixed and related populations.
Migration continues to mix up ethnic groups, leading to the formation of new nations and splits within old ones. The New World and Latin American countries provide us with the most striking examples of this, but even today, before our very eyes, new identities of Europeans, Germans, and Russians are being formed as a result of migration. Thanks to migration, national languages and cultures intermix and enrich each other, and in the process a single, universal informational space is being formed.
Interaction between people is not possible without the migration of meaning, which overcomes natural boundaries of distance, time and lack of understanding. In this light, writing systems, mobile telephones and the internet are nothing but means of conveyance used for the migration of meaning. In the course of this constant migration of meaning, new ideas emerge, and forms of human existence such as art, science and creative work continue to develop.
Migration always means overcoming. In moving to a safe location, displaced persons overcome war, hunger, poverty, and rightlessness. Economic migrants overcome difficulties related to relocation and becoming legal. Overcoming boundaries requires enterprise, courage, and vigor. It mobilizes people’s inner resources and talents, enhances their social ties, forces them to learn new things, changes their cultural and social identities, and, ultimately, contributes to the realization of their personal potential.
Migration is a test. Migration not only overcomes old boundaries—both natural and cultural—but also creates new ones. In this respect, the influence migration processes have on society can be compared to gem cutting: Some boundaries are erased, and new ones are created in their place. The risks of xenophobia, polarization, and segmentation of society are accompanied by the formation of new identities and social groups—and a host society’s future depends on how effective its rules are for these interactions.
Migration is the most valuable resource for any society. Host countries get new residents and citizens capable of realizing their potential and abilities for the good of society. Sending countries do not lose their citizens entirely: Economic, cultural, and family ties allow sending societies to reduce economic inequality, receive new cultural stimulation and maintain their ethnical identity. Little by little, having a so-called “migration background” is becoming an important competitive advantage for an individual.
Migration is a challenge. Migration aggravates the problems already faced by the host environment and creates new problems for the sending society. For host countries, migration is a true test of the effectiveness of their social, legal, and cultural institutions, which risk becoming feeble under the new conditions. In less advantaged host countries, migration can aggravate corruption, inequality, and economic inefficiency. At the same time, however, migration can contribute to finding a solution for these problems by forcing host states to combat them. Migrants themselves seek to overcome these problems as well, laying the groundwork for solidarity with the local community.
Migration and boundaries are interrelated in art, with the formation of an artist’s identity functioning as an instrument for self-analysis, synthesis, and reflection. Migrant artists dissect their own identities, identifying fragments of old and new influences and environments and then combining them together into something cohesive and very intimate in character that plays an instrumental role in the process of subsequent (self-)reflection. The very identity of migrant artists ultimately becomes a piece of their art, creating itself—and each migration-related work is just a tool in this process.
Conceptualizing categories of migration and boundaries, with art as a format for analysing social realities, opens up new possibilities for understanding culture not as a phenomenon that has been limited over and over through interaction, but as a multifaceted phenomenon that is open for brand new interpretations.
And this implies a new degree of freedom—overcoming boundaries.
Andrei Iakimov - antropologist, historian, legal expert & social activist, expert on labour migrationðnic minorities, project coordinator at the Promotion of Awareness Raising&Social Enhancement Projects Charitable Foundation "PSP-foundation" (Saint-Petersburg, Russia)