The responsibility that comes with seeing

Submitted by Matthew on 12 April, 2017 - 11:39 Author: Pat Yarker

Pat Yarker reviews Incoming, free at The Curve, Barbican, London, until 23 April.


Hundreds of thousands of people continue to flee war and persecution in the Middle East and northern Africa. Thousands die as they attempt to find safety in Europe. This installation, an artwork not a documentary, comprises almost an hour of video footage of migrants and refugees making their perilous journey.

Mosse, a prizewinning photographer, and his collaborators, Trevor Tweeten, a cinematographer, and Ben Frost, a composer, used a military-grade thermal imaging camera to film in the Aegean sea and the Sahara desert, in the migrant camp in Calais as it burns, on the deck of a US aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, and at the Turkish-Syrian border a few miles from the battleground of Dabiq.

I didn’t want to see this work. I told myself that however benevolently and skilfully undertaken, it couldn’t but be intrusive and voyeuristic. It could not help change the situation. In truth I think I wanted to evade the responsibility that comes with seeing.

The footage is shown on three eight-metre high screens, in a pitch-dark auditorium. Sometimes the same material appears on every screen: sometimes each screen shows its own particular footage.

At one point all screens go black, and for a minute we can do nothing but listen to the desperate voices of rescue workers attempting to revive a drowned child. The type of camera used by Mosse and his team is classified as a weapon. Powerful enough to detect a human body eighteen miles away, and to present it identifiably from a distance of three miles, it is deployed by the military for surveillance and detection at borders and around coasts. To record, via this device, aspects of the experience of migrants and refugees as they seek to evade detection and breach borders is a political as well as an artistic decision.

The camera generates monochrome images made up of the relative heat differences within a framed scene. The footage appears marginally-slowed in projection. The camera’s tonal range is very wide, producing visually sumptuous images rich in detail. Together with the slight slo-mo this makes textural qualities of places and bodies come to the fore. Eyelashes appear to glow, but eyes themselves are lightless.

When a man washes before kneeling to pray, the water sluicing his face appears like cream. A handprint lingers uncannily on the side of a shelter in the camp at Calais, or on a thrown duvet in the Berlin Templehof staging-post, or, most disturbingly of all, on the hypothermic body of someone pulled from the sea whom someone else is trying to revive. The physical actuality of human bodily presence is rendered unusually visible, but in a way which also effaces or anonymises. Everything is recognisable, newly fascinating, and yet estranged. We are shown the world as it might be taken in through the “eye” of a non-human being.

As I watched I was hyper-aware of having to align my understanding of and reaction to what I was being shown against my full colour, full speed, experience of the world. I had frequently to decide which screen to look at and for how long, and what to take account of on the screen. I was positioned as both questioning and implicated, a spy whose awareness was being enlarged. The textural qualities of everything caught in the camera can displace concern with the human story being depicted. Yet human stories are at the heart of this work, whose form articulates its own dilemma, distancing the viewer from what is being shown while also intensifying the haunting grip of the images.

Mosse takes the risk of aestheticising the experience of forced displacement or migration in order to give us a chance to look afresh at what it means to be made a refugee. And at what it means, for those who are neither exiled nor in flight, to see those who are. Mosse understands how the refugee crisis has been used by right-wingers to sow fear and division, and how inadequate or callous has been the response of mainstream European politicians. In an essay to accompany the installation, Mosse references the philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s notion of “bare life”, embodied in the stateless person stripped of the political representation and legal status conferred by citizenship.

Bare life puts in question the basis of the nation-state, whose sovereign power is predicated on a political order founded by excluding such life and allowing the suspension of law in relation to it. For Agamben, bare life has neither rights nor legal protection, and is always subject to the threat of death.

Mosse’s film stays with me, its images so clear and legible it is easy to forget that much of the material must have been shot at night. The man who washes his face and kneels to pray in the desert before dawn had no idea he was being filmed. We encounter his unselfconscious humanity. Is this simply an exploitative moment? Is the man to be seen as an icon of Agamben’s bare life? Or does his image recall my irrecusable obligation to welcome and share, without thought of reciprocation or hesitation at the potential risk? If the figure of the refugee or the migrant radically destabilises ideas of belonging based on territory, and reveals the violent face of a bourgeois legal and political order in Europe, what are the implications for solidarity, and for building a more just order?