Conceptual documentary photographer Richard Mosse’s multi-panel video installation Incoming is a deeply suggestive and aesthetically striking project reflecting on the way Europe today perceives ‘the refugee’. Using a thermal imaging camera as an artistic medium to respond to the most pressing socio-political issue in the West, Mosse explores the way surveillance technology could be used against its intended function. In collaboration with composer Ben Frost and cinematographer Trevor Tweeten, Mosse creates both an immersive and alienating experience for the viewer, making Incoming a unique project to unsettle our conception of refugees.
In the last couple of years, the tragedy of refugees and asylum seekers marked the biggest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. With increasing xenophobia towards migrants and political rhetoric fuelling the marginalisation of minority communities, evaluating the implications of the refugee crisis on the social consciousness is becoming a real challenge. It is from this question that Incoming seems to rise out of, focusing on the Western perspective regarding the refugee. In conversation with Alona Pardo, curator of the Barbican Art Gallery, Richard Mosse explains the refugee as ‘the incoming’, along with the word’s defensive, objectifying connotations. As the relationship between the camera - produced by a corporation specialising in defence and monitoring technologies - and its subject brings a new approach to the issue, the success of the project lies in the way it subtly explores its much ‘politicised’ subject.
In Incoming, the viewer witnesses a contrast between the immersive experience of video art and the distancing effect created by what Mosse calls ‘Heat Maps’, which are panoramic photographs of refugee camps. Creating a mixture of video and photography, Mosse enables the viewer to experience the material through different mediums. Furthermore, the monochrome colour palette generated by the thermal camera projects life as a video game-like virtual reality while displaying the human body in its most basic biological structure. This is especially striking in the first video Grid, where sixteen different channels function as a surveillance system to monitor a refugee camp. Here, constantly shifting frames scan over empty landscapes to focus on human figures, which are recognisable only through the brightness that marks their body heat. Compelled to follow these virtual beings through the labyrinthine setting, the viewer is confronted with the reality of how the West perceives the refugee - just a homogenised and dehumanised body. As this technique uses the idea of body heat symbolically to question the refugees’ presence simply as a ‘mass of bodies’, it also highlights their fundamental struggle for survival.
Photo credit: Tristan Fewings
Following Grid, the photograph of Hellinikon Olympic Arena in Athens further consolidates the overarching feeling of estrangement. The viewer sees a stadium where many tents are set up in the middle of it. In the photograph, only a small number of human figures are visible among the tents, while hundreds of empty seats surrounding the field seem to indicate an imaginary audience. In contrast to the videos, the dramatic stillness of the photograph captures a tragic irony relating to the situation, provoking the viewer to question his/her role in the ‘audience’ of this ‘spectacle’. As this photograph comes as a shock to the viewer, it proves to be one of the most powerful pieces in the installation.
Photo credit: Tristan Fewings
Lastly, the title video Incoming provides an ambiguous sense of finality to the viewer’s experience. With Ben Frost’s reworking of field recordings providing a mystifying soundtrack for the visuals, the video successfully communicates the uncertainty and discomfort experienced by the stateless refugees. As the video’s sequential structure demonstrates this sense of uneasiness, the combination and arrangement of seemingly unrelated scenes explore the ‘grey zones’ of humanity within the monochrome frame. Moreover, the most interesting motif to follow is the focus on children in several scenes. In one frame depicting refugees on the coast, a small child is seen lying face down, waiting. Although very subtle, this scene frighteningly echoes of the photo of Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian boy whose body had been found washed up on the shores of Turkey.
Incoming is a powerful, thought-provoking and beautifully realised project which meditates on our subjective viewpoints. A truly creative and distinctive approach to a controversial issue, this video installation is a must-see for those interested in the subject and for those prepared to be unsettled by its uncomfortable reality.