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Ben Ray discusses the stubborn presence of obsolete borders in Europe and looks at how creativity and culture can play a role in their commemoration.

To find a border in Europe is to search for a paradox. Europe tells itself it is about the elimination of borders – the unity of countries that were once tearing each other apart, now peaceful siblings that have supposedly come together to create one cosy, continental family. But all those borders we have supposedly left behind are still uncomfortably there in our present – old scars that have not yet healed on the corporeal landscape.

The Berlin Wall today is an odd mixture of forgetting, commemoration and kitsch.

Reclaimed restrictions

National, political, ideological: for as long as humans have been in Europe they have been drawing these lines across the map, and these separations could not just vanish the day after the Treaty of Rome was signed. So, what to do with these obsolete, dangerous relics of our divided past?

The answer to this question has almost been as varied as the borders themselves. Former boundaries were absorbed back into the landscape and the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, existing now only in the memories and museums of the island stands out. Some are celebrated and championed as a glorious meeting of cultures, like Trieste, where Italian, Balkan and Central European cultures all clash in this colourful melting pot by the Adriatic. Most cannot make their mind up as to what they have become, and form a confused muddle of celebration, forgetfulness and opportunistic land reclamation, such as the wall that formerly kept one half of Berlin from the other.

In order to comprehend the divide and the subsequent implications that these past boundaries created some form of commemoration is almost always necessary. But how to mark these odd, liminal spaces that are by their very nature neither one thing nor the other?

The need to simultaneously memorialise and recognise obsolete borders is key, both to consign their power to history and to ensure that their dark legacy is not forgotten. In this struggle of identity, memory and morality, it is unsurprising that culture and creativity is almost always one of the first tools employed.

Homogenous, monolithic stone memorials to endless divisions and atrocities are now routine in our landscape, and have obtained a sort of expected non-recognition, in the same way a lamppost or road-sign might. The task of interpreting and unravelling the language of these borders in the mind of Europe must be approached more innovatively, more creatively – after all, one ceremonial plaque does not connect the reader to the space or the importance it actually commemorates.

A cold war cycle

EuroVelo’s 10,000 kilometre cycle route tracing the former border of the Iron Curtain from the Barents Sea to the Black Sea allows users to interact with this historically weighted, tumultuous space in a new and personal way, familiarising cyclists with the passage of this history whilst re-interpreting it for a new generation of Europeans. Users may be aware they are also following the European Green Belt, a grassroots movement for nature conservation along the entire corridor of the Iron Curtain which aims to create an ecological backbone bringing east and west together. A new Europe growing out of the ashes of the old.

Cyclists following EuroVelo’s 10,000 kilometre cycle route which traces the former border of the Iron Curtain

In the virtual world, the website ‘Schengen Border Art’ maps contemporary artistic and other creative expressions which address Europe’s borders, bringing everything from major sculpture to students’ art projects together in one shared forum. Even the pavement-tiles laid into the Belgium-Netherlands border, running through cafés and forming the butt of endless jokes, creates an almost sarcastic reflection on the power, or lack thereof, of certain borders within Europe. These are just a few choice examples of the creative interpretation of old borderlines – turn any direction in Europe and you will stumble across a dozen more.

The Belgium-Netherlands border at the Belgian-Dutch town of Baarle, which lies in both countries.

It is clear that the European Project will always have the shadows of its former borders looming over it. What is important now is that they are interpreted in a way that keeps their dangerous rhetoric in check whilst also passing their lessons on to future generations. These lines that once divided us can, perhaps, now help to bring us closer together.

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Ben Ray
Ben Ray is a freelance journalist in European affairs, specialising in communications and environmental issues. He is also a professional poet with three publications, and has recently won the 2020 New Poets Prize. A graduate of Oxford University and the College of Europe, he currently works as a communications strategist within the EU Commission and lives in Brussels. Find out more about his work at: www.benray.co.uk, or on Twitter at: @Benj_Ray

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