I’ve been going to to CreativeAI meetups that Luba Elliot has been organising for the last few months. These happen in London, which involves a train journey. Normally I just pop down in the afternoon, go to the talks, and head back, but I’m at a relatively looser end having got a big funding application in on Friday (No, I haven’t looked at the email backlog. Yes, I’ll look at it tomorrow.) and Fi had a spare day, and one of the privatised train companies had a “sale” meaning their tickets were at sane prices, so we decided to make a day of it and see some Art.
First stop, The Barbican, for the Richard Mosse exhibition. I’d heard of Mosse for his amazing false-colour infrared photos from the war in Eastern Congo, using a chemical interpretation of invisible light to bring a new perspective on the conflict. They start of being weird, and then beautiful and then you’re engaged.
His new body of work, Incoming, uses infrared and a technical process again but in a very different way. Using a military grade telescopic infrared camera capable of magnifying details 30km away, he shoots footage of the people and infrastructure involved in the Euro-African refugee crisis. The combination of false colour (in this case the greyscale runs from hot to cold, not black to white) and distance gives a stark detachment, but unlike the reconnaissance footage usually produced by these machines, his eye lingers and creates something surprisingly intimate and human.
One scene which struck me was a man preparing for Muslim prayer. The calibration is hot=black, cold=white and his face is pitch black with heat. He washes his hands and face in preparation, the cold water appearing like opaque milk or paint as it drips down his clothes. His face appears to be covered a dark grey film as the water cools it, like skin cream. It makes him look sickly, emphasising the tiredness in his body language.
The camera holds steady, the narrow focus depth-of-field isolating him from the background. He starts to kneel for prayer and manages one prostration before stopping. We can’t see the expression on his face properly, but he looks exhausted, not just physically but emotionally. The camera lingers on, never leaving him. He doesn’t move. He looks straight ahead at nothing in particular. Too tired to move, too tired to pray, too tired.
The whole piece had this affecting quality and really made me think about the power of these otherwise alienating imaging tools. We’ve become familiar with the drone-eye-view or the camera mounted on a cruise missile as it approaches its target, these mechanised visions of military death machines, performing ritual movements with no humanity. But Mosse sees that these tools can be neutral. They have unique qualities that can be repurposed with a humanistic intent. Their immense power can be used for good.
In times when the machinery of surveillance, from street cameras to online activity, feels in the hands of oppressive, malevolent forces beyond our reach, it is heartening to see their tools being used against them.
Richard Moss - Incoming is at the Barbican, London until 23th April. Free entry. Well worth it.