Being on a Border

Gákti Joonas Vola 1200X628

The invisible borders of the Arctic, commonly imagined as vast open space, become visible when they collide with beings, and, in the collision, become noticeable. Bordered lives in the degrees of the North intersect with the development of outmigration, urbanization, nationalization, privatization, Indigeneity, traditional livelihoods and symbolism. The analysis takes us from the understanding of borders as striated spaces towards the characteristics of liminality and transformation. The conversation is pound to the enwoven figure on a wired fence that emerges as a sign of passage from one era to another; an anthropocenery.

It seems vast and open. The Arctic landscape, with its decreasing tree line, sparse inhabitation and softly rolling terrain, appears to be borderless. Sight, light, and life may travel free in the wide and wild world, from one fell to another. By and by, all these collide. They hit something. They are being cut, blocked or turned around. The interrupted flux leaves its mark to the border that had been out of sight. We become what we are when we reach our borders. Borders define the Arctic: the degree of latitude setting the Arctic Circle as one of the defining borderlines.

In winter 2016, I encountered a sight, a frozen entanglement, a woven figure within a wire fence. The fence was separating a pavement belonging to the public sphere, from a construction site. This open area previously known as “Lapinaukea”, Lapland’s square, a public sports field locates in the immediate presence of the Rovaniemi city center. It is surrounded by a graffiti wall, a set of plywood covers attached to the wire, and decorated by the local art students with graffiti paintings, year after year. Now the square had become a rental blot for a new set of buildings for private housing. The bare wire fence was supporting a different kind of piece of art: a set of colorful stripes of fabric woven around the squared metal wires. The piece’s maker(s) and their intentions are unknown to me, and now the figure has worn out leaving very few traces to the fence, when I was searching them again in 2018.

As a part of an experimental science and art side project for NUORGÁV (2014–2017) project, studying the urban future for Sápmi in relation to the Sámi youth’s organizing and political networking in Nordic cities, I photographed this figure in the fence. It became one of the twelve printed pictures on the photograph exhibition ‘Staging Sámi in the City’. My senior colleague and producer of the exhibition, Tanja Joona, proposed it the name Gákti, due to the resemblance to the Sámi Indigenous people’s traditional clothing, especially the women’s red headpiece, having also an overall anthropomorphic resemblance with upright head and outstretch arms. After its second display, the image started, so to say; speak to me, beyond its resemblance to any regional icon, living or artifact. It was now about its placement, displacement, or disfiguration, about the figures that become acknowledgeable when they collide, engage or cross borders. These borders may shift between what is known as collective and private, as well as rural and urban, belonging (in)to one or the other.


 Rovaniemi, 66°30′N, 025°44′E, has established itself as the official hometown of Santa Claus and Finland’s Arctic capital located just below the range of the continuously moving Arctic Circle. Due to the urbanizing development of the Arctic, Rovaniemi has started to resemble more of the idea of a ‘capital’ with its densifying center. In the overall picture of the Finnish Lapland, it has become more and more so, a border, a buffer for the outmigration from the northernmost parts of the country moving further to the south and coast, where the metropolization is taking place. As a buffer, Rovaniemi is therefore under a regional and local development pressure. The basis of Rovaniemi’s current city plan rise from the ashes of the Second World War, with an organic design for future growth developed by architect Alvar Aalto. A lot of Aalto’s ideals with open, green and fluid areas never fully took place and the city space is becoming stabilized while new type of borders are emerging to the land, whether on a map or in the ground level.

Degrees as drawn lines on the mapped surface of the Earth make concrete spatial and temporal division separating living worlds with time zones and numeral coordinates. Degree (n.) stands for "a step, a stair," and for a position in a hierarchy[1]. The degrees as steps indicate movement. Movement of humans articulated as nomadism has established the characteristics of the arctic way of life as seasonal and circular. Degrees as hierarchy on the other hand is linear and structured, disfiguring the romanticized image of a nomad. These sharp, hard and inflexible features are in contrast to the smooth spaces related to the nomads, and their rationality follows what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari speak as the striated spaces[2]. The striated spaces are bounded territory in which everything is ordered and stabilized, with fixed practices and identities. In contrast, smooth spaces are associated with movement and instability, enabling new identities and spatial practices to arise.[3] The degree of striated spaces is at rise in the urbanizing Rovaniemi. The “dice-like” city planning with empty blots left for the future to define their function[4], has started to look more like a cube that has six pips on every side.

The degrees do not only proceed outwards, but like stairs, upwards and inwards as well. The city center growing inwards will soon meet its boarders horizontally and must proceed vertically. This is where the ‘stairs’ and ‘hierarchy’ meet. In the city plan established by Aalto, a building was not supposed to exceed the height of four floors[5] one of the reasons being the horizontal sun during the winter months. The taller the building, the longer the shadow it casts. While higher buildings are emerging in central places, they are beginning to compete about the remaining view with one another. The price of an apartment higher above, peaking to the yet open landscape is higher and more exclusive as well. Greater number of stairs elevated from the ground, the greater the status in the social hierarchy. The houses that are rising to the

previously vast open sports field is becoming closed space. The fence was there before the construction site emerged within, but it was raised there to keep the balls in, not out.


Besides, of making wide into dense, striating draws a border, which sets a question whether one is kept in or out, and which one is out in the open. “As a space, the clearing is open, but as a place in the world, it is enclosed.”[6] (Ingold 2008, 1797) Does the same go with the sports field that has turned into a construction side? Following Tim Ingold on James J. Gibson, the terrestrial environment becomes habitable only when it is enclosed from the open, which according to Ingold means that the inhabitant remains an exile[7]. In the open world, there are no insides or outsides, only productive movements generating formations and occurrences, never objects[8]. Following the thought, the buildings may seem to stand for an enclosing, emerging set of furnishing objects. The figure on the other hand seems to oppose the closing of a space, since it rather occurs than inhabits. Instead of speaking of a woven figure as an object, one should threat is as a verb, an act, weaving, and as a practice of art rather than a piece of art. In Ingold’s words, it is not occupying a world of pre-existing things, but inhabits it in continual coming-into-being[9]. This continuous reconfiguring movement is evident, since the object of the photograph is no longer out there. It has worn out, disappeared; or rather, it has simply become something else.

Since the fence is about transformation on norms and identity, is it a liminal space, rather than a border enclosing inside and outside? Arnold van Gennep described ‘liminar’ as ambiguous subject after separation that passes through a realm lacking attributes of the ‘before’ and ‘after’ when they are neither one thing nor the other, in between two identity constructions[10]. The weaving in the fence seemed to depict the Fennoscandia’s pain in giving birth for the brothering nation states. The states, by definition, are holding borders. The border between Finland (or in that time Grand Duchy of Finland, as an autonomous part of the Russian Empire) and Norway, was closed in 1852. It took away the old right confirmed in 1751 in the peace agreement

between Sweden and Denmark-Norway, allowing a passage cross the border for the reindeer herding Sámi people, later recognized as the Indigenous people of the region. In practice, such enclosure was not total, but still the reindeer fences ended the access to the winter pastures in the Finnish side and disrupted the seasonal rhythm phasing the way of life.[11] Some of the Sámi that had been living in the area of both states became now permanent citizens of either one of them, which again by definition, is a part of state’s characteristics.

The life of the semi-domesticated animal is highly administrated, and in contrast to the romantic image of free roaming reindeer in an open landscape, they are kept in a limited pasture divided by reindeer fences. The fences are necessary for current tradition of reindeer herding by keeping the different herds separated from each other since someone owns the animals and the pastures are used by a specific reindeer cooperative. While the lives of the herders have become stationary, so have the pasturing, to keep the animal within reach. The ownership is signified by earmarking, but for the animals, to point out belonging to a certain pasturing area, the only enacted norm is a physical borderline. The reindeer fences within the cooperatives enable managed seasoned grazing and protecting the cultivations from the animals, while keeping the livelihood somehow economically sufficient. These borderlines protect from roadkill and isolate the inhabitation from the animals, but only in some extend. The signs of reindeer presence is detectable even in the areas close to the heart of the city of Rovaniemi. Still, even when the reindeer is not visible, their borderlines are.


Borders inevitable will fail, whether they are considered as natural or manmade. They are never total, rather liminal. The liminality sometimes equates death, when changing from one status to another. Partially permeable means that the passing will be only partial, whether this means the partiality of the total number of subjects, or the partiality of an individual subject. As some animals pass through, over or under the fence, some are wounded by or getting entangled to the wires of the fence. Part of them did not pass the fence, with fatal outcome. Wildlife, mainly grouses and hooved animals are known to suffer physical injuries, and the stay wire without special markings remain invisible to their eyes especially in the dense growth[12]. That is what

features the fence as a liminal space instead of a total dividing line. Passage may be spatial, and conditional, compromising the form of the passing being. The collation with the invisible line leaves a momentary visible mark, such as feathers stuck in the wire.   

Fences are just one type of a border, besides of natural and national one’s. Reindeer’s roaming is bordered mainly by rivers between Finland and Sweden. Then again, this border fails as well, since during the arctic winter, it becomes a frozen passage. And, the fluidity of such passage fails again, breaks under the hooves, and is therefore a liminal space, a passage not over, but to the underworld. In Ingold’s story concerning his herding experiences close to the border between Finland and Soviet Union, the borderline was marked by a clear-cut strip of forest and observation towers with armed border guards. Passing of this seemingly open space was with a risk of immediate death[13]. Even without a fence, the liminality of the space actualizes, not just a normative rule, but as a physical restrain over one’s life.

The aesthetic appearance of the figure takes us to where the term liminality and the closeness of death inevitably leads to, to the sphere of spirituality. The figure’s shape and positioning on a flat surface resembles the figures known from the historical shaman drums, mainly the ones among the Sámi and Siberian Indigenous peoples. Some of the deities have abstract geometric appearance and resemblance continues in the worlds-tree with its crossing lines dividing the world into four parts[14]. The drum has served as a liminal instrument, a way for the Shaman to move between the worlds and cross their borders. The spiritual dogmas, as any normative border, leak, and mix with another, as the silhouettes or churches are appearing in the Sámi symbolism[15].


The figure’s cut-loose ribbon, broken blue LPPE-markings in the reindeer fence blown by the wind[16], and the colourful prayer flags in the mountains of Tibet, without a historical, political, spiritual or philosophical relation share the same aesthetics. In addition, just maybe they share the same purpose of being on a border, where the border owes it visibility to them. As for the

enwoven figure, it stands in-between, within a border, dwelling in the in-between-ness. The liminality is its supporting structure, or as a co-constructive act between individuals and social structures[17]. The figure both builds on and mimics the patterns of its dominating environing surface, as well as challenges it, by making the invisibility of the transparent and grey net into highly visible with rich colours, by smoothening and warming its harsh and cold surface, and by giving characteristics and humane appearance to the characterless and synthetic fence. It invites to look at, and not to see through, a physical, enforcing and demanding border, in all of its unsightly mundaneness. If the argument that the threading, twisting and knotting are the most ancient of human arts from which all else derives[18], the net woven from the metal wires have captured instead of something anthropomorphic, something truly anthroposcenic.


Joonas Vilas is a junior researcher in the Culture Based Service Design in the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Lapland, and a member of the Northern Political Economy research group at the Arctic Centre of the University of Lapland.

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