Capturing The Enclave: Richard Mosse shines a light on the refugee crisis at the Barbican

Richard Mosse’s latest work uses technology as a vehicle to challenge perspectives of the refugee crisis unfolding in EMEA, marrying military-grade thermographic imaging with cinema-quality projection. Charlotte Ashley visits London’s Barbican arts centre to find out more.

Artist Richard Mosse isn’t afraid to go the extra mile to challenge perceptions. “We’ve been arrested at  gunpoint by Hamas in Gaza, travelled  under the smuggling tunnels of Rafah and documented  Saddam Hussein’s  palaces in Iraq. We’ve also made art about homelessness in Oklahoma and the effect of the tsunami off the coast of Thailand,” reflects 39-year-old Mosse, following the opening of his latest project, ‘Incoming,’ at the Barbican Centre.

The work, over two years in the making, evolves his use of military-level infrared imaging to create iconic pink-hued images of the war-torn fields of Congo in his previous installation, the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize-winning ‘The Enclave.’ Technology is once again the medium Mosse uses to immerse but also challenge the viewer, this  time  with images of refugees in locations including  Syria, Greece and France  presented in striking monochrome. Within the 52-minute film, footage of children playing in camps is juxtaposed with scenes of toddlers being rescued from sinking dinghies captured using a military-grade thermographic surveillance camera. Three 8-metre  projection  screens  powered  by  Christie M-Series projectors  (using  0.67:1 short throw lenses) envelop the viewer in the narrative.

Artist Richard Mosse at the Barbican arts centre, headshot“One of the extraordinary things about the camera is that it can detect the human body from 30.3 kilometres. It does this through medium range infrared, which travels in a different way to visible light or ultraviolet light. As it’s much less diffuse you can image much further,” says Mosse. “What we’re really trying to do  is  work  the technology against itself, and create a space in which people can start to understand how our governments represent and therefore regard, the figure of the refugee.” The camera intuitively exploits the metaphor of heat (represented in black), presenting stark imagery of rescue workers trying to transmit body heat through their hands to refugees suffering from hypothermia in the cover of darkness. With many people seen fleeing the Sahel in Africa, the unliveable circumstances created by climate change also come to the forefront of the observer – further intensifying the theme of heat. “But it’s not simply a metaphor, it’s a fact of what was unfolding in front of us, which couldn’t be perceived with a normal camera,” says Mosse.

The use of thermal imaging is nothing new for the art world,  but the aesthetic tonality (a happy accident for Mosse) created by the military tool is unique – presenting contrasting images  of  pained  black faces of refugees and white uniforms of army  patrols that  are  both captivating and disturbing. “We’re trying to make a humanist piece, but one that puts the viewer in an unusually awkward space where they don’t really know what to think as they’ve never seen imagery like this before.”

“One of the extraordinary things about the camera is that it can detect the human body from over 30 kilometres.”

Mosse was first introduced to the camera by BBC Planet  Earth’s  Sophie  Darlington  in  April 2014  –  and  he  would  finally be able to work with it around nine months later, financed by the Barbican, Mosse’s gallery and the National Gallery of Victoria  in  Australia  –  where  the  exhibition will head to after London. Buying and travelling across borders with a camera that falls under the International Treaty of Arms Regulations was not the only difficulty faced in working with the military tool. “The camera wasn’t designed for storytelling,” says Mosse.  “It  was designed  as a  tool  to  detect  the  enemy,  to enforce border regulations,  or  in  a combat situation.” With no buttons, dials, knobs or lens focusing rings, and the appearance of a waste-paper basket, ergonomically the 25kg, metre-long camera was far from being hand-held ready. “We tried to mount it on Steadicam but this was completely counter to what you would expect to do with a telescopic camera like this,” recalls Mosse. “It was also technically very glitchy,” he continues. The surprising solution – an Xbox controller – was programmed by the camera’s designer to resolve such issues. “So there we were controlling this extraordinarily unusual, unique and expensive camera with a gizmo for kids.”

Although fairly low resolution at 720 x 1280 pixels, Mosse says projecting the video footage on such a scale along the bent wall of the centre’s Curve Gallery, offered a new viewing experience. “The first viewing of the projection was breathtaking. It was quite cathartic to see the imagery on the screen – with all the small details and the scale. The projectors are so bright, but they’re also very sensitive in terms of tonality. All  the shadow  detail  in  the blacks were really complicated  –  there  was  a  lot  of  information there that we hadn’t seen before.” The final result  was  achieved in collaboration  with  the colourist Mosse  worked  with  on The Enclave, a  six-screen  projection,  who helped perfect the  balance  across  the  three  screens of synced projection using Scratch.

“We’re  using  Blackmagic  HyperDecks, which are  great  because  you  can  get  up  to  four channels  playing  in  perfect  sync. It’s designed for  4K  playback,  but  we’re  using  the  breakout to  lead  to  different  standard  HD  outputs,” continues Mosse. “As a result, it’s perfectly frame accurate without a single shutter, and it’s pro-res. Normally these playback devices are all H.264 encoded, and that’s fine most of the time, but it can have a hard time compressing old grainy film stock that’s been scanned. This is much less compressed, and as a result much nicer looking.”

Although not fully realised in the art industry, Mosse expects collaboration between the modern technology and modern art to continue to grow to get people more engaged with the museum-going experience. “Now the next thing is virtual reality, which I haven’t even thought about, but a lot of artists are and that’s just another form of AV.”