Reflections on notions of borders
The Danish/German border was really what sparked the whole thought process of and which I am increasingly seeing as being central to the project as a whole.
In the days before budget air travel, I used to drive with my daughter from Denmark to England and I remember thinking how wonderful it was to be part of the EU where I could simply drive across national borders without having to show my passport once until we got to Calais. I also remember driving to Italy and later to Prague, with the same feeling of freedom. It made me feel European. Danes, who I have often felt were a nation constantly in search of a national identity, in spite of having a really strong one, would often ask me if I felt British or European and I would reply English first because I was born there and also because I think that for all our faults - and there are many, there is much to be proud of. Then I would say that I also felt European because I liked the idea of being part of something larger; a philosophical idea of unity that emerged from the twin cataclysms of two world wars that resulted in the European Union; the idea of social welfare - the idea that everyone deserves the right to a decent life and closer to home, a National Health Service. But Europe is also beautiful, and now it was accessible in a way it had never been before. What was more, all I had to do was walk out of my door, get into my car and drive.
On TV recently by chance I saw a programme about Britain in the Dark Ages, presented by Dr Alice Roberts. We know very little about Dark Ages Britain. There is little or no extant written material from this period and we have hitherto ascribed this to the hordes of barbarian Saxons, Angles and a few Jutes who, we believed, invaded Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries after the Romans left, destroying everything.
Alice's argument was that this is a fallacy and that archaeology allied to ground breaking scientific methodology was the key to unlocking the mystery of Dark Age Britain. To cut a long story short, it now appears that the myth of the Saxon invader slaughtering every random Briton he came across is just this - a myth. The 5th and 6th centuries in fact represented a relatively peaceful period of immigration and assimilation, especially on the eastern side of the country, of people from Northern Europe with whom we also traded, importing and exporting skills and goods. One of these tribes was the Angles from Angeln, an area close to the Baltic Sea in north eastern Germany. The Angles decamped apparently en masse from Angeln to what we now know as East Anglia before disappearing without trace in both their old home of Angeln and their new one to which they ultimately gave their name. At the same time, the south west of the country was trading with Southern Europe as far as Byzantium and doing the same, although settlement was not as prevalent here. Ultimately, this created an east/west divide that would give rise to political issues later once the country got organised, but for the moment, there was no king and no power base - just people, living peacefully.
This is why I can't understand the mentality of Brexit; this desire to become more insular behind the excuse that we're an island nation that doesn't need anyone else. Last night, Alice Roberts proved that we've never been insular. We have become what we are because we were outgoing and also because we saw the value of trading and learning from others.
Although the exploration of cultural identity in the Borderlands Project is anchored in geographical regions and reflected in tangible elements such as photographs and paintings, the psychological conception of borders goes deeper than geography. It is about who we are and what has shaped us.
Although the activities in the project take place in Europe, I believe that it has a particular relevance to the UK and its relationship with the continent and its people at this time. In Britain, following the EU referendum – a vote that was emotionally charged and largely driven by the immigration issue, there has been much discussion about ‘Britishness’ and more specifically about Englishness and who we are as a nation. In truth we are a nation of immigrants. Only a few, if any, can trace their lineage back through centuries without some connection to an immigrant and for many, our sense of identity comes from the fact that we are an island and apart from a few close shaves, have not been invaded since 1066. We know our borders stop and start at the sea. We have remained secure in our island fastness, yet have always welcomed immigrants and refugees - often from violent upheavals in Europe and then later from our own colonies. How times have changed.
It’s different in Europe. There, borders have often been determined by who won the most recent war, or the peace and in the past, people have sometimes gone to sleep in one country only to wake in another. That has never happened in the UK and is one of the primary reasons why I believe taking a look at the architecture, landscape and cultures of some European Borders will resonate with British and European audiences. I also believe the project will also resonate in the countries I have selected as part of the project.