Crossing Borders: Creating spaces for belonging through a co-produced exhibition

Jessica Bradley, University of Sheffield

Jessica is Lecturer in Literacies in the School of Education at the University of Sheffield. Her current research focuses on creative inquiry and linguistic landscapes in collaborative research with young people. She co-convenes the AILA ReN in Creative Inquiry and Applied Linguistics.

What does it mean to belong? And how do we understand belonging? I was invited to see the exhibition developed as part of the Crossing Borders project, led by Sari Pöyhönen, Professor in the Centre for Applied Language Studies at the University of Jyväskylä, working with a multidisciplinary team of researchers in social sciences, film, cultural memory and visual cultures. The exhibition was guided by the research questions. How do people belong in physical, social and virtual spaces? And, furthermore, how do they talk about belonging and non-belonging? And why might this matter? What role might artistic practice play in facilitating the expression and performance of belonging?

The exhibition took place in the Galleria Ratamo in the centre of Jyväskylä, close to the station. I visit with Sari and with my 6-year old daughter who has come with me to Finland. We’ve spent a couple of days at the Ethnotwist conference at which I have presented a paper about ethnography in the context of arts production and performance. We’ve been fortunate to visit at a time of year when the snow is deep and we walk over a frozen lake, as if walking over the moon. The temperature has just started to rise from what – to us – have seemed extreme and almost otherworldly minuses and at times we sink into the softening snow, sink in over our boots. This sinking feeling is intense and I remember the warnings from my childhood to never walk on frozen lakes. Of course, the ice is so far down, thick and frozen solid. But sinking into snow – the sensation of sinking into snow – is something very particular and alien. As we walk through the city to the gallery Sari warns us to stay away from the sides of the buildings in case a sudden block of snow falls. I watch a drift fall from a block of flats, from a distance, safely far away. There are tall piles of snow, greying with dirt, stacked up by the path leading to the gallery. Two days ago these piles were solid – if we had climbed on them, it would have been like climbing a mountain. We had taken photos just the day before in front of the church of my daughter climbing the snow mountains. Today we would probably sink. We don’t try it. I imagine my daughter sinking into a snowdrift – ‘don’t climb these ones’.

In Spring 2018 the Crossing Borders research team held a series of community workshops across three areas: in film, visual arts and writing. A number of the pieces created through these three strands of workshops form the core of the exhibition and those participating in the workshops are therefore co-collaborators, or co-constructors of the exhibition. Named in the guide. Each has a page with an introduction to themselves and their artworks and each has the space to explain their rationale in their own way. This ethos of co-collaboration is central to the project’s aims and objectives. Here there are blurred lines between disciplines and approaches, between researcher and participant, between artist and participant. Co-production (e.g. Facer & Enright, 2016; Facer & Pahl, 2017) can – at times – seem to be something of a buzzword, perhaps a ‘turn’ (Bell & Pahl, 2018:105), in current research practice. We can ask, what exactly does co-production mean? To co-produce research meaningfully requires time, commitment and acceptance of what might not go to plan. Co-production is not safe or secure. It requires an epistemological shift and for researchers to accept what is described as a state of unknowing (e.g. Vasudevan, 2011; Hackett et al., 2017). We don’t know what belonging feels like for others. We may not be able to articulate it for ourselves. Co-production in the context of Crossing Borders opens a dialogue in which we can also ask why we want to know what belonging is and what belonging might be. What this is like in practice is often left unsaid, unwritten. An exhibition of this kind shows the co-productive processes, with the art-works working to perform them. The project itself highlights the complexity of these collaborative and co-productive relationships. It is developed in partnership with the Jyväskylä arts museum and the multicultural centre Gloria. These relationships represent the stable, structural, more ‘macro’ level co-production for research of this kind. The workshops themselves, delivered by artists and researchers, with participants who are – initially – public audiences, including recently arrived migrants and longer-term residents. These emergent collaborations are more temporally-defined, fluid, and open to interpretation and re-interpretation. In this sense Crossing Borders – and the project exhibition – exemplify and make visible the levels of collaboration involved in co-productive research.

What is evident from the exhibition is the diverse range of interpretations of the theme. Exhibits include documentary films about living and working in Finland, a personal film about a PhD defence, visual arts installations of movement, of moving, of being in a new place. A story about a bike and an accident. The exhibition is set out in two gallery spaces, each adjoining. You can move fluidly between spaces, there is no prescribed route. As an exhibition visitor there is the sense that this is work in progress – not in the sense that the exhibits are not finished – they are complete artworks. But work in progress in that they serve to punctuate the collaborative exploration of belonging embedded in the project. In developing spaces for these artworks to be created and curating the exhibition, the artworks, the objects, occupy a position that is both and between: both artworks and data and between artworks and data (this is something that Louise Atkinson is focusing on in the context of our research together in creative inquiry in linguistic landscapes).

Belonging is never complete, never finished. It changes. In this way it is slippery, and ever-changing. In our research in the North of England, we have seen a process of unbelonging, as people previously settled are made to feel unsettled through political changes and uncertainty. Perhaps what the artworks shown in the Crossing Borders exhibition teach us is that belonging is always in a state of becoming, always moving and fluid, understood in multiple, diverse ways. A dialogue. But the artworks also demonstrate the complexity of belonging. Anna Ruth, one of the exhibiting artists, states ‘I see belonging as a relationship which requires affirmative reciprocity’. To belong we must speak and feel that we are heard. We must develop what Dell Hymes described as the ‘freedom to have one’s voice heard’ and ‘a freedom to develop a voice worth hearing’ (1996:64). Belonging is implicated in both these. Is to belong to be heard? And how do we make ourselves heard? And what role do we play as researchers here? Whose voices get heard and whose voices are considered worth hearing? Why are some considered more worthy than others? To finish I will quote again from David Bell and Kate Pahl who describe a utopian co-productive approach as ‘within, against and beyond our present’ (2018:105):

We should fight for academia as a space in which to coproduce. Not to preserve an ideal form that never existed, but to transform it such that the utopian potentials immanent to co-production might be realised (p.114).

The Crossing Borders exhibition hints to us what these utopian potentials might be and different ways in which they might be realised. There is a contribution which can be made as the artworks are taken down from the exhibition and analysed – how can these collaborative relationships and the co-productive ethos be embedded in analytical processes? And how can belonging also continue to underpin the research as it moves towards analysis?


Bell, D. & Pahl, K. 2018. Co-production: towards a utopian approach, International Journal of Research Methodology, 21(1), pp.105-117. 

Facer, K. & Enright, B. 2016. Creating Living Knowledge: The connected communities programme, community-university partnersships and the participatory turn in the production of knowledge. Bristol: University of Bristol/AHRC Connected Communities Programme.

Facer, K. & Pahl, K. 2017. Valuing Interdisciplinary Collaborative Research: Beyond Impact. Bristol: Policy Press.

Hackett, A., Pahl., K. & Pool, S. 2017. In amongst the glitter and the squashed blueberries: crafting a collaborative lens for children’s literacy pedagogy in a community setting. Pedagogies: An International Journal, (12)1, pp.58-73.

Hymes, D. 1996. Ethnography, Linguistics, Narrative Inequality: Towards an Understanding of Voice. London: Taylor and Francis.

Vasudevan, L. 2011. An invitation to unknowing. Teachers College Record, 113(6), pp.1154–1174.