He splashes his dark face, whitening it, milky drips speckling his dark coat. Kneeling, the man’s hands smudge this whiteness across his face, the colour fading through greyscale with each gestural movement. His gaze affixed, he prays, his head touching the grey and mottled ground. Captured with the use of a military-grade thermographic camera, this intimate scene has been warped with an eerie aesthetic. These cameras photograph warmth with deft precision, allowing a human body to be identified from 30km, and have been exploited by the militaries tightening Europe’s borders during the refugee crisis. In his new three-channel video, ‘Incoming’ (2016), Richard Mosse has repurposed this technology to detail the greatest humanitarian crisis of our time.
Mosse’s piece takes the viewer to the wagons crossing deserts, amongst the leaking boats, and into camps and detention centres, creating a loose narrative that is geographically ambiguous and focusses upon no individual. Indeed, the thermographic camera acts to strip those filmed of their individuality, reducing them to a trace of their body temperature, a biological metric. In the hands of Frontex, this is a technology of exceptionalism, homogenisation, one to denote ‘us’ and ‘them’. In Mosse’s, however, this mechanism becomes unifying, reducing us all to our lifeblood. This notion is cemented when we are shown an autopsy – the incomplete corpse glows white in its chill. There is only life and death to separate.
In ‘Incoming’, the other is played by the European state apparatus. In their helmets, suits and protective gear, those that meet and interact with the refugees are rendered alien in the thermographic camera’s aesthetic. Mosse’s camera is able to present the true inhumanity of the crisis by inverting the roles of the migrant and those enforcing the violent borders. This inhumanity is emboldened in the thermographic camera’s astounding ability to capture deeply humane moments. The shedding of a tear, the hand that lifts a man to safety, each leaves a thermal trace, an acknowledgement of compassion. These are moments that are amiss in much of the film.
In presenting ‘Incoming’ in three channels, Mosse points us towards an understanding of the crisis with reference to the three modes of time. The piece ‘opens’ on the middle screen – the present – and then spreads onto the bracketing screens – the past and the future. As the statisticians always note, today the number of displaced peoples surpasses that of the Second World War. Why should our actions differ today? The scenes of ‘Incoming’ repeat and leak between the screens, as if acknowledging the inescapable interconnection of the past, present and future, probing us to question our reality. As missiles are loaded on to an aircraft – are these wars connected to the artificial borders of colonialism? As emissions billow from a chimney – how many refugees will global warming create? As a man walks tattered and shoeless – is our wealth based upon the impoverishment of the many?
In both its content and titling, ‘Incoming’ asks us to question the subject-object relationship of our Western gaze. Evoking incoming fire, the title points to the vilifying political narratives that have emerged across Europe during the crisis. Those fleeing war, impoverishment, and political, ethnic and religious violence, have become a homogenous bogeyman. But what are we to fear? In the intimate moments that Mosse’s camera captures, the true nature of those seeking refuge emerges: bereaved, confused and angry, yes, but also hopeful of normality. We are forced to question our complicity in the punitive actions of a government that deems 325 children to be enough and looks away as refugee camps grow at its border.
‘Incoming’ is presented on an endless loop. Migration in the hope of safety and prosperity is no different. The refugee crisis that has rocked Europe in recent years is not a singular event. Globally, the future promises greater uncertainty and greater movement. In reaction, an increasing number of states are acting to embolden the current violence of borders – in 1990, there existed only 15 countries with border walls or fences, last year that number had reached 70. ‘Incoming’, the result of Mosse’s hack of the technology of exclusion, is an essential rebuttal to this present and future violence.