Strings 1

‘dreams jangling with lost connections’

March 2024

notes   from/on/beyond   a border

16 February 2016, 12:13 GMT, LO 282, Warsaw to Lviv

neither here nor there / suspended in the in-between / hovering amongst a blend of languages

16 February 2016, 12:19 GMT, LO 282, Warsaw to Lviv

He [my father] dreamt of going to his birthplace but never did. It hasn’t been that difficult since 1991 [Ukraine’s independence].

He was never quite attached to any place, always unhinged.

unhinged / wishing to be always on the move / set in motion while fleeing at only a few months old / in motion before learning to walk / with a perpetual need to change a scene / unsettled

I’m going there [to Lviv, formerly Lvov / Lwów / Lemberg] to anchor his stories.

17 February 2016, 13:43 EET (GMT+2), Lviv, Ukraine

Languages blending, confusion in my head. Which language should I speak?

17 February 2016, 15:28 EET (GMT+2), Lychakiv Cemetery, Lviv, Ukraine

and fake flowers / the only colour in the field of grey / plastic / that will last longer than stone

17 February 2016, 18:17 EET (GMT+2), Lviv, Ukraine

There is a sense of time in the texture of this city /uneven / peeling / faded / nostalgic / with layers upon layers of time and falling balconies.

I thought this was just some made-up story I’d read in a novel, made-up for dramatic purposes, then I walked past a hoarding separating a building site from a street in the city centre and saw posters about the architectural details of Lviv’s old apartment blocks, describing, in Ukrainian and in English, the fate of the undermaintained balconies. There are so many of them in the city – old / beautiful / terrifying.

A lot of buildings look unoccupied and barely standing. Waiting to be restored or about to collapse. With the future of this country so uncertain, it’s hard to say which way things will go.

20 February 2016, 13:59 EET (GMT+2), Lviv, Ukraine

not a ray of sunshine gets through / these are not clouds hanging above / the sky itself is grey / as if the sun ceased to exist

22 February 2016, 11:38 EET (GMT+2), Lviv, Ukraine

Borders are changed through war, and we already have too many going on.

23 February 2016, 10:16 EET (GMT+2), Lviv, Ukraine

Did I find an anchor for my father’s stories?
I forgot to look, absorbed by the city in its present.

25 February 2016, 17:09 EET (GMT+2), Lviv International Airport, Ukraine

Military rucksacks / khaki green bags / brown peli cases.
Who’s on board this plane from Warsaw?
So much luggage comes out from the depths of the belly of a small plane.

7 May 2016, 10:36 BST, London, UK

I need to put my father’s place of birth in the naturalisation application form. I hesitate. Maybe best to sleep on it.

I want to phone the Home Office to ask what to do in a situation where the country of birth is unclear or changed.

26 May 2016, 19:09 EEST (GMT+3), Lviv, Ukraine

A smell of rain / evening sun shines through the trees / horse chestnuts in bloom / raindrops on garden furniture / a sense of excitement to be back here / a warm anticipation

Tomorrow, I’ll go find the house where my father was born.

27 May 2016, 11:22 EEST (GMT+3), Lviv, Ukraine

The city looks more alive. The weight of grey has given way to luminous yellow. I search for what I felt when I came in February. The low grey then was just right to deal with the delayed grief. Polish voices everywhere. Accidently dressed in the Ukrainian colours – the reverse of the flag with yellow of the wheat fields on the top and blue of the sky at the bottom – I walk behind a column of young soldiers to town, gathering the strength to go and see my father’s house.

27 May 2016, 14:59 EEST (GMT+3), 127 Lychakiv Street, Lviv, Ukraine

I meet a woman at the entrance to the house. She asks [in Polish, as far as I can remember, I did not note that down then], ‘Who’re you looking for? I don’t know how to answer the question, and I tell her that my family used to live here.

Her name is Maria, and she was born in 1947, after my family had left this house. She tells me that she remembers a woman coming back and crying against her front door, one of the last remaining original doors in the building.

28 May 2016, 10:09 EEST (GMT+3), Lviv, Ukraine

Last night, I hovered in a half-sleep state thinking / dreaming of the mysterious woman from my family who’d returned and wept against the door to what is now flat no 1. Maria couldn’t remember her name. Had she travelled alone, or had anyone accompanied her on those journeys into the Soviet Union?

30 May 2016, 20:36 EEST (GMT+3), Lviv, Ukraine

Thunderstorms end the hot and humid weekend.

23 June 2016, 14:27 BST, London, UK

[message from T]
Have a good return journey and get some rest if you can! XT

[message to T]
Or watch the news all night... Mx

[message from T]
Or get up very early to have a clearer picture! XT

[message to T]
I might be too anxious to sleep at all... Mx

[message from T]
You have done everything you can. And most likely more than most. Now you can sit back and see the drama unfold. XT

[message to T]
I can’t relax waiting for this news... Mx

24 June 2016, 7:40 BST, London, UK

[message from T]
Morning. They started the mess! XT

[message to T]
Not a good day for a meeting... I still can’t quite believe it! Mx

6 October 2016, 9:09 BST, London, UK

There are no wide shots in any of the images in my father’s family album from Lviv / Lvov / Lwów / Lemberg. The lives are in close-ups / devoid of context / devoid of space / devoid of echoes.

We understand space through echoes, without them we can feel oppressed as if there was no space around us. I’d found out about this from an artist film featuring a man whose eardrums were perforated during the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005. He lost a sense of space around him, and the world became oppressive and suffocating.

26 August 2017, 10:15 CEST (GMT+2), Poland

[Message to P]
In the car, driving East!

[Message from P]
Close to Ukraine?

[Message to P]
It’s pouring down.
It’s such a beautiful part of Poland. Wild, green with lots of old, wooden houses.

26 August 2017, 15:26 CEST (GMT+2), Poland

[Message from P]
Where are you now?

[Message to P]
26 km from Polish-Ukrainian border
Border crossing: Zosin

26 August 2017, 17:45 CEST (GMT+2), Route 816, Poland-Ukraine Border

You feel the border here; somehow you feel it in your gut. The forest on the right is in Ukraine.

27 August 2017, 10:35 CEST (GMT+2), Poland-Belarus Border

[message to T]
This is what the eastern border of the EU constitutes of:

No razor wire, no guards, no cameras, just a border post.

Somewhere in the middle of the river [Bug], there is a line.

It keeps the river wild.

[message from T]
So one could just swim across?! XT

[message to T]
Well yes! Or kayak.

27 August 2017, 12:30 CEST (GMT+2), Poland-Belarus Border

This border established in 1945 in Yalta defined where I am now, and who I am.

25 April 2018, 20:18 AST (GMT+3), Kuwait International Airport

3 August 2018, 15:46 BST (GMT+1), Lochmaddy, North Uist, Outer Hebrides, Scotland

13 August 2018, 11:34 CEST (GMT+2), near Janów Podlaski, Eastern Poland

[An installation titled March by Roy Talmon & Noa Biran (Talmon Biran Architecture Studio), 8th Land Art Festival, Poland, 2018. I came across it while wandering around near the border between Poland and Belarus. In October 2018, I used a similar image of the installation (taken with my medium format film camera) to represent a festival To Step Across the Line I curated on the island of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland.]

13 August 2018, 18:38 CEST (GMT+2), Poland-Belarus Border

Flies patrolling the border. Dragonflies.

13 August 2018, 19:16 CEST (GMT+2), Poland-Belarus Border

14 August 2018, 13:29 CEST (GMT+2), Poland-Belarus Border

[Message to P]

I met a border patrol [for the first time].

I think I have enough images now. And some sound. But there were tractors in the distance.
Harvest, I think.

23 August 2018, 9:15 BST (GMT+1), London, UK

[message from T]

Maybe your story needs to have at its core the sense of someone constantly moving and ‘borders’ and ‘demarcation lines’ shifting around them.

[message to T]
That’s a very good point. The sense of constant movement is definitely something I’m thinking of.

5 October 2018, 8:43 BST (GMT+1), London, UK

[message from T]

Tom Sachs to Open Swiss Passport Office at Ropac for One Day During Frieze [Art Market Monitor]

14 November 2018, 19:12 GMT, London, UK

[message from P]
Brexit Draft Agreement… frightening !
Waiting for Theresa May’s statement

[message to P]
En route!

1 April 2019, 15:01 BST (GMT+1), National Maritime Museum, London, UK

Borders in the sea are less visible. The sea creates an illusion of a free, open space.

23 May 2019, 7:05 BST (GMT+1), London, UK

[message from T]
What Is Europe? Freedom, Slavery, Austerity or Nothing at All [New York Times]
As Europeans go to the polls in a Continental election, a New York Times reporter set out to find out what Europe means to Europeans in 2019.

5 December 2019, 9:33 GMT, London, UK

Russia arrests conman who built fake border with Finland [The Guardian]

21 September 2020, 21:56 BST (GMT+1), London, UK

What does a border feel like?
What does a border feel like in a landscape?
What relationships does a border create? Relationships between people / between people and places / between countries.
What happens when a border shifts?

Can one ever leave?
Can one ever arrive?
Can one ever return?

The body carries the answers within its genetic make-up. Even a few years ago, the idea of inherited trauma was a figure of speech, an idea belonging to the realm of philosophy, while now it’s part of one of the most exciting fields in science – epigenetics – looking at the impact of past generations and environmental factors on the expression of genes. Genetic make-up is not a fixed, unchangeable blueprint. It’s a form of intergenerational memory.

Finding stillness in movement to overcome a border and its shifts.
Growing shallow roots in a foreign place doesn’t give a sense of stillness.

1 January 2021, 11:48 GMT, London, UK

[message from T]
Brexit: A ridiculous swagger
The quest for size has led to making Britain smaller. Is this the beginning of a development that will end with an English nation-state? Ein Essay von Fintan O’Toole [Die Zeit]

7 January 2021, 11:48 GMT, London, UK

[message to T]
Hi T, I spent my evening and most of the night watching news... It was quite unreal. Like a political fantasy B-movie... [attack on the Capitol, Washington, US]

P passed [nationality test] 100%. It took him less than 5 minutes.

11 January 2021, 21:29 GMT, London, UK

[message to T]
Dutch officials seize ham sandwiches from British drivers [The Guardian]
I wonder if Michael Gove knows… No lunch from the UK allowed. Mx

[message from T]
Poor driver
Not even the bread!
It’s bananas! Probably forbidden as well!

14 January 2021, 23:36 GMT, London, UK

[message to T]
British fish is ‘happier’ after Brexit according to Jacob Rees Mogg. Mx

9 December 2022, 10:01 GMT, London, UK

fact and fiction
history – histories

21 February 2023, 12:29 GMT, London, UK

I type ‘granica’ into the search field of the Polish National Digital Archives, and 65 pages of images are thrown back at me. I spend the rest of the morning looking at black and white photographs of borders – border posts / border crossings / soldiers / landscape / rivers / dogs / dignitaries / guns / barb wire.

17 March 2023, 20:17 GMT, London, UK

I pick up a book [The West: A New History of an Old Idea by Naoíse Mac Sweeney] from a shelf while queuing for the till at Daunt Books Marylebone. I haven’t thought before that I need to read something about the West to be able to write about the East. I have always felt I knew what the West is, what it means. An instinctive knowledge accumulated over time both from the place ‘supposedly’ outside it and from ‘within’ it.

‘… this deliciously witty book has the potential to upset the applecart of “Western Civilisation” itself,’ I read at the back, and I know I need this book.

17 March 2023, 23:22 GMT, London, UK

‘Colonized, oppressed populations usually have accents deemed inferior.’ [Moyra Davey, ‘I confess’, in Index Cards]

10 April 2023, 13:18 CEST, ersatz bus [rail replacement bus], Berlin Hpf – Warsaw, Germany-Poland Border, River Oder

This border mirrors the other one. It’s also ‘new’ [established at the same time, a result of the same war], and it’s a river.

But these days one passes it without much of a sense of travelling abroad. I look for a border post but can’t see any. Then we pass by a closed border crossing occupying an island surrounded by the motorway. We don’t stop. Not much changes from one side to the other. It’s a fantom border. One feels it, but there’s little physical manifestation. We haven’t even slowed down.

16 April 2023, 8:09 CEST (GMT+2), Poland-Belarus Border

20 April 2023, 9:00 CEST (GMT+2), Poland-Ukraine Border

27 May 2023, 22:23 BST (GMT+1), London, UK

Refugees seriously injured on razor-wire fence UK helped build to keep asylum seekers out of EU [The Observer]

23 July 2023, 8:43 CEST (GMT+2), Borsuki, Eastern Poland

Border Guards Post in Janów Podlaski
ul. Brzeska 71
21-505 Janów Podlaski

tel. +48 83 341 62 00

fax. +48 83 341 62 05


Border Guards Post in Kodeń
ul. 1 Maja 18
21-509 Kodeń
tel. +48 83 376 95 00

fax. +48 83 376 95 05

23 July 2023, 9:40 CEST (GMT+2), Poland-Belarus Border

Right where the Bug River becomes the border, opposite the gleaming border wall [metal, solid, razor wire on top] sloping down towards the riverbank, I get stopped by the first patrol I will meet that day. One policeman and one border guard. The border guard checks my passport, notes down the data, then calls the local border post. He is calm, not friendly but not unpleasant. He tells me that it’s quiet here at the moment, but he’s concerned that things will get worse. There’s sadness in his voice. We talk about the duty on the border in winter, and he tells me that as a border guard he is not allowed to light a fire, only the military can do so. He carries a thermos flask of tea instead. 

I walk into a tunnel of greenery along the path running parallel to the river / the border. Climbers have overgrown the border fence. On this stretch, there’s only a wire fence. It’s now green: a green wall.

As I walk on, through the border fence, I notice a pair of blue jeans, a darker piece of clothing, a towel, and two pairs of trainers spread out on the other bank, in Belarus. [Later on, a soldier will tell me that’s laundry. A refugee / a migrant stuck living in a forest on the other side of the border has spread out their washing to let it dry in the sun.]

23 July 2023, 11:38 CEST (GMT+2), Poland-Belarus Border

23 July 2023, 13:45 CEST (GMT+2), Poland-Belarus Border

[message to P]

23 July 2023, 19:35 CEST (GMT+2), Poland-Belarus Border

I don’t think I’ve ever seen quite so many butterflies anywhere before. And bees too. Different species of both. They’re abundant in the wildflowers all along the Bug River. The fence doesn’t seem to bother them. Perhaps it’s even beneficial with all the creepers and flowers that have swallowed it. It now looks like a strange village fence or a structure built deliberately for plants to climb onto and spread their branches and foliage. The fence has been reluctantly accepted into the landscape by plants and insects.

This can’t be said about the razor wire. It’s entangled with the grasses and river silt along the riverbank, clinging to it with its sharp tentacles. The creepers don’t go near it. It’s caused countless deaths of deer and other mammals trying to cross the river, their paths and territories cut off. I have seen a skeleton entangled in the concertina of death.

28 July 2023, 20:16 BST (GMT+1), London, UK

Lithuania and Poland ‘may close Belarus borders’ due to Wagner fighters [The Guardian]

14 September 2023, 21:50 BST (GMT+1), London, UK

Refugee film Green Border by Agnieszka Holland attacked by Polish government [The Guardian]

13 October 2023, 21:43 CEST (GMT+2), Frankfurt Airport, Germany

Dreaming of stillness but pursuing motion
Carrying fault lines within oneself
Oppression / freedom / trauma
Trauma in the landscape

24 October 2023, 8:45 CEST (GMT+2), Poland-Ukraine Border

24 October 2023, 9:58 CEST (GMT+2), Poland-Ukraine Border

[message to T]
There was a fog early this morning!

[message from T]
Beautiful and evocative!

[message to T]
But I drowned my zoom sound recorder in the river… it’s soaking wet and I don’t have much hope for it. Mx

MARTA MICHALOWSKA is an artist, writer, curator and producer based in London. Currently, she’s working on a book-length essay – Edgewater – focusing on the borderlands between Poland, Belarus and Ukraine, and a novel – Drowning – looking at a body as a contested territory. She’s recently completed her debut novel, Sketching in Ashes, supported by Arts Council England through the Developing Your Creative Practice programme. Her writing has been published in Migrant Journal and Litro, as well as in collections Interior Realms, Concrete and Ink: Storytelling and the Future of Architecture, and A Love Affair.