Spectrality and Dark Humor in Artistic Engagements with Refugee Mobilities: Incoming (2017) and Homeland (2016)

Nilgün Bayraktar


Incoming (2017), installation view
. Richard Mosse in collaboration with Trevor Tweeten and Ben Frost
. The Curve, Barbican Centre
Photo by Tristan Fewings / Getty images

We, the uncountable,
doubling each checkboard square,
your sea we pave with bodies,
so many that you’d walk on it.

You cannot count us:
if you try, we multiply,
we children of this horizon,
washing us up, spilling us out.

—Erri de Luca, The Uncountable[1]

In Richard Mosse’s Incoming (2016), a film installation made in collaboration with cinematographer Trevor Tweeten and composer Ben Frost, different stages of refugee mobilities from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Senegal, and Somalia into Europe are projected on three over-size (8 meter-wide) curved screens in a pitch-black gallery. Such refugee crossings have become both increasingly deadly and highly mediatized, especially since the spring and summer of 2015, when thousands crossed the Mediterranean on poorly equipped boats, and thousands more navigated numerous borders through the Balkans, enduring the violence of tightening border controls at each checkpoint.[2] In Mosse’s installation the refugees and asylum seekers materialize as ghosts or zombies. The colorblind camera erases the features of their faces—skin is turned blotchy gray and eyes are darkened. Shot with an infrared camera designed for long-range military surveillance and targeting, they have been stripped of their individuality and humanity. As spectral screen-subjects, they ooze a sense of melancholia and loss.[3]

This effect echoes the impact of border control apparatuses, which constitute what Joseph Pugliese defines as “statist regimes of visuality.” Supported by tools such as biometrics, drones, databases, and sensors, such frameworks are designed to abstract human targets, reducing them to measurable “risk factors” and identifying those to be intercepted, detained, or deported.[4] The technology employed in Incoming extends such forms of surveillance. Penetrating the darkness and detecting body heat from a distance of more than 30 kilometers, Mosse’s infrared camera carves out glowing bodies from blurry gray landscapes as it slowly scans tormenting scenes of war and forced displacement. Missiles launched from the other side of the Turkish borderland in Aleppo; an overloaded boat sinks miles offshore in the Aegean Sea; people are swept out to sea by the tide; body bags are carried into a morgue, where pathologists perform autopsies to identify those who have drowned. In the immersive environment of the darkened gallery, refugee precarity appears to be at once immediate and abstract: Mosse’s footage is paired with a dissonant soundtrack that engulfs viewers with the voices of rescue workers trying to resuscitate drowned refugees, the whirling blades of rescue helicopters, and the echoes of children’s screams.

Incoming (2017), installation view. Richard Mosse in collaboration with Trevor Tweeten and Ben Frost. The Curve, Barbican Centre. Photo by Tristan Fewings / Getty Images.

What makes Mosse’s multiscreen project both compelling and disturbing is that it uses surveillance technology “against itself” to disclose the visual infrastructures of control and exclusion. Exposing the dehumanizing gaze of the European border regime, Incoming illuminates the ways the structures of militarism and vision are intertwined through the spectacle of border control and war. The project’s distanced, impressionistic style, combined with its “documentary” basis, generates an unsettling ambiguity, positioning the viewer as a witness (and an accomplice) to the violence of borderzones. Within the cinematic installation, viewers are confronted with suffering, death, and violence through haunting footage that emphasizes the political illegitimacy and invisibility of refugees. Notably, the figures onscreen cannot return our gaze: through thermal technology (which, in Mosse’s words, registers the human body as “an intimate system of blood circulation, sweat, saliva and body heat”[5]) they have been grotesquely reduced to their corporeal bodies. Incoming thus emphasizes their collective victimization and loss, effectively diffusing and generalizing their highly specific and diverse experiences of forced displacement and statelessness.

This reductive take on the refugee experience is not uncommon. As many have argued, in political, media, and humanitarian discourses, refugees are generally depicted as a depersonalized, speechless, and faceless mass, evoking what Liisa Malkki has described as a “dehistoricizing universalism.”[6] As Malkki has observed, such representational practices void refugees of their specific social worlds.[7] Despite its attempt to provide a new aesthetic of refugee mobility, Incoming enacts a similar erasure, and the camera’s gaze remains aligned with those of the European state and its citizens.

As Incoming reveals, technologies of surveillance and visualization have taken on an increasingly sinister, totalizing, and authoritarian tone—they dematerialize and multiply borders while inscribing them on people’s bodies.[8] And the spectral corporeality the border regime produces is primarily enacted on non-white/non-Western people fleeing violence, environmental catastrophe, or poverty—in the case of Incoming, undocumented or illegalized bodies from the global South. When characterized as part of a “refugee crisis” or “migrant crisis,” these anonymous bodies become linked to invasion and criminality. In fact, as the New Keywords Collective suggests, these commonly used terms locate the “‘crisis’ in the body and person of the figurative migrant/refugee, as if s/he is the carrier of a disease called ‘crisis.’”[9] The “crisis” becomes most tangible (and thus normalized) when dead refugee bodies turn Euro-Mediterranean borderlands into mass graves or exhausted crowds populating bus or train stations become highly visible in the media. Yet it is important to note that the crisis is not necessarily a “refugee crisis” but rather a crisis within the current European Union (EU) border regime, which “directly produces the illegalized condition” of undocumented people “in the first place.”[10] Indeed, border-related deaths are not unforeseen tragedies—they are caused by militarized policies and practices of exclusion.

Homeland (2016), videostill. Courtesy of Halil Altindere and Pilot Galeri, Istanbul.

Is it possible for the sea to be tomb?
Is it possible for it to be treacherous?
The colors differed and everything is blue
Is it possible I am drowning?
O sea, throw me towards Mytilene
But please let me alive

—Abu Hacar, Homeland

(2016), a single-channel hip-hop music-video made by Istanbul-based artist Halil Altindere in collaboration with the Berlin-based Syrian rapper Mohammed Abu Hajar, explores similar themes to Incoming. Tracking precarious refugee mobilities, it takes us on a journey from a desolate Syrian landscape to the Turkish seashore and on to the Tempelhof refugee camp in Berlin. Disavowing the perspective of a dis-embodied Western gaze, it explores various spatio-temporal contexts of refugeehood and asylum from the perspective of mobile subjects—with an emphasis on borderzones as multidimensional and mobile constructs. Moreover, instead of foregrounding refugee precarity, Homeland employs humor and surrealist techniques to tap into European fears about “mass invasion” by the “illegal masses.” With dark humor, the video reframes traumatic experiences and events in ways that signal refugee agency and embodiment, exposing the absurdity of categorizing people fleeing violence and oppression as “illegal”.

Homeland (2016), videostill. Courtesy of Halil Altindere and Pilot Galeri, Istanbul

opens with a striking aerial view of a destroyed and abandoned city, shot by a drone gliding through the urban wasteland to the sharp tones of electronic music. The images of a war-torn Syria, with its collapsed apartment blocks and destroyed infrastructure, bear no traces of life. An equally lifeless drone takes an indifferent visual tour of this shattered, spectral homeland, which serves as a background against which Abu Hajar’s—and many other refugees’—story of forced displacement unfolds. The next sequence takes us to another aerial view, this time of an idyllic beach, where a group of white women are practicing yoga on a wooden pier that extends into the turquoise sea. As we watch the women holding different poses and hear the soft voice of the instructor (speaking in Turkish) encouraging them to be aware of their surroundings, we see, in the background, a group of refugees with orange life jackets walking hastily and determinedly on the sandy beach—a scene that evokes widely circulating images of refugees arriving on European shores after perilous journeys on cramped dinghies. The refugee bodies seem to be invisible to the yoga practitioners—they are in plain sight, yet apparently remain unseen. Slow-motion photography and the accelerating rhythm of the music suggest a shift in tone, transforming the idyllic scene into a space of turbulent mobility. Then we cut to a drone carrying a lifebuoy with the words “refugees welcome” printed on it. In this shot the buoy resembles a menacing weapon rather than a life-saving object, evoking the drone strikes that have been widely deployed since the advent of the so-called global war on terror. Ironically, the drones that populate the material and visual space of Homeland seem welcoming in comparison to the EU countries. They are not simply monitors of mobilities but also seem to offer company and assistance along the refugee journey—they document Abu Hajar’s explosive rapping and even paint surveillance cameras to block their pervasive gaze. In contrast, Altindere also records various obstacles to migration, including barbed-wire fences, police brutality, surveillance cameras, and paternalistic refugee integration programs.

The unsettling opening images of Homeland capture the contradictions inherent in refugee mobilities, juxtaposing touristic sites of privileged mobility with scenes of people escaping violence and poverty. Significantly, Altindere re-appropriates media stereotypes in order to refocalize refugee experiences—a gesture based on “multiplying perspectives of looking and telling.”[11] We see reenactments of well-known refugee crossings in Europe: the Hungarian camerawoman tripping a man carrying a child; multitudes storming over border fences or traversing countries on foot or crammed into trains and buses. These staged scenes, featuring real refugees, are reframed/re-appropriated to show the ways precarious bodies that are typically not considered to have any agency are resilient and can disrupt and resist the discriminatory practices of border control. Some moments evoke Hollywood action films, with refugees emerging as heroic characters who jump fences with a single leap or avoid bombs through front flips—acts that draw attention to the physical demands of their journeys and the risks they take to reach safety. Such actions further emphasize that the physical practice of journeying and border crossing is a highly materialized and emotional undertaking that creates spaces that are real and tangible in their own right.

Köfte Airlines (2016), photography. Courtesy of Halil Altindere and Pilot Galeri, Istanbul.

also includes humorous and surrealist, dreamlike scenes that underscore the absurdity of border violence and ridicule European fears (or fantasies) of invasion. We see people emerging from a Trojan Horse, an image freighted with public anxieties around the idea of “terrorists” infiltrating Europe as refugees. We also follow refugees as they navigate the dark spaces of the Basilica Cistern, a Roman-era underground water depot in Istanbul—a moment that crystalizes their invisibility as political subjects. We see black and brown bodies tumbling off a train arriving at Berlin Hauptbahnhof, their numbers stoking panic at the thought of mass invasion. Another scene focuses on people sitting atop an airplane operated by Köfte (Meatball) Airlines. Here refugee bodies transform the aircraft, a quintessential symbol of mobility, into a staged space of arrested movement for a group stranded in legal limbo.

Significantly, Abu Hajar’s lyrics situate the refugee journey in a specific historical and cultural context, illustrating the powerful ways that individual stories can create understanding about how exclusion and inclusion are materially enacted and the ways the practices of control can be undermined. The border portrayed in the video represents more than a mere geographic and political marker. It is enacted materially and it is multiplicious and diffuse in its functions.

Incoming and Homeland are timely works that offer diverse responses to a shared set of questions about artistic engagement with refugee im/mobilities in the twenty-first century: How might we reconceptualize refugee mobilities, narratives, and bodies outside the crisis/emergency framework? How can artworks disrupt the invasive gaze of the surveillance apparatus and avoid reducing the diverse experiences of refugees into narratives of victimhood or criminality? How can artists provide counter-hegemonic imaginings and new forms of visuality through the representation of precarious mobilities?

Mosse’s Incoming expands the possibilities of human vision to disclose the hidden terrors and unspeakable violence of forced mobility, statelessness, and militarized border enforcement. However, the installation’s immersive spectacle, along with its ghostly aesthetics, restricts our ability to envision counter-narratives, instead foregrounding the victimhood of refugees without employing any self-reflexive strategies that might alert us to the complex and contested issues intrinsic to representing vulnerable lives. Nor does Incoming explore spectrality’s link with the imagination, especially in regard to imagining alternatives to the dispossessing effects of the global border regime on people from the global south.[12] In fact, the anonymity and voicelessness of the precarious figures represented in Mosse’s project underpin the state-centric political imagination. Homeland, however, asserts the complexity as well as the socio-political specificity of refugee mobilities. Through dark humor and surreal aesthetics, Altindere and Abu Hajar’s collaborative rap music-video invokes provocative fictions that allow for new forms of imagination and visuality, leaving a space for uncertainty and ambiguity in which harsh “realities” can be scrutinized and negotiated and alternative stories can be framed. By stressing autonomous movement and agency, Homeland challenges the hegemonic choreography of European borders and illustrates the ways in which practices of governance intertwine with the practices of resistance that mobile subjects enact. Indeed, the video shows that despite their violence, the borderzones inhabited by mobile people have the potential to conjure new forms of creativity, agency, and resistance.



I would like to thank Amanda Glesmann for her invaluable feedback on the article.



[1] Erri de Luca, “The Uncountable”, in Migrations: An Afro Italian Night of the Poets, ed. Wole Soyinka et al. (Los Angeles: Marymount Institute Press, 2015), 81.

[2] Since 2015, when migration to Europe peaked, thousands of refugees have died on the region’s militarized borders. In 2016 more than five thousand refugees lost their lives; in 2017 it was more than 2,500. Sadly, this phenomenon is not recent. Since the turn of the twenty-first century more than twenty-two thousand people are estimated to have died trying to reach Europe. See “IOM Releases New Data on Migrant Fatalities Worldwide: Almost 40,000 Since 2000”, International Organization for Migration, September 29, 2014, https://www.iom.int/statements/iom-releases-new-data-migrant-fatalities-worldwide-almost-40000-2000. Accessed October 1, 2017.

[3] For further discussion of sprectrality and migration see Esther Peeren, The Spectral Metaphor: Living Ghosts and the Agency of Invisibility (London: Palgrave Macmillan), 33–75.

[4] See Joseph Pugliese, “Technologies of Extraterritorialisation, Statist Visuality and Irregular Migrants and Refugees”, Griffith Law Review 22, no. 3 (2013): 572.

[5] Richard Mosse, “Transmigration of Souls”, in Richard Mosse: Incoming (London: Mack Books, 2017), unpaginated.

[6] Liisa H. Malkki, “Speechless Emissaries
: Refugees, Humanitarianism, and Dehistoricization”, in Siting Culture: The Shifting Anthropological Object, ed. Karen Fog Olwig and Kirsten Hastrup (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), 228.

[7] Ibid.

[8] For a discussion of multiplication of borders in the global era, see Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor (Chapel Hill, NC: Duke University Press, 2013).

[9] New Keywords Collective, “Europe / Crisis: New Keywords of ‘the Crisis’ in and of ‘Europe’”, Near Futures Online 1 “Europe at a Crossroads” (March 2016), 21. Accessed September 20, 2017. www.nearfuturesonline.org/ europecrisis-new-keywords-of-crisis-in-and-of-eu- rope/. Accessed September 20, 2017.

[10] Ibid., 24.

[11] Esther Peeren argues that the dehumanizing gaze of the global mobility regime, “which presents itself as . . . unaccountable, uncrossable, [and] universal”, can be contested or subverted through “refocalization”. Esther Peeren, “Refocalizing Irregular Migration: New Perspectives on the Global Mobility Regime in Contemporary Visual Culture”, in The Irregularization of Migration in Contemporary Europe, ed. Yolande Jansen, Robin Celikates, and Joost de Bloois (London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2015), 179–80.

[12] For a discussion of the politics of spectrality see María del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren, “Spectropolitics: Ghosts of the Global Contemporary / Introduction”, in The Spectralities Reader: Ghosts and Haunting in Contemporary Cultural Theory, ed. María del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 91–101.



NILGÜN BAYRAKTAR is an assistant professor of film history, theory & criticism in the Visual Studies Program at California College of the Arts. Her work focuses on migrant and diasporic cinema in Europe, experimental and avant-garde cinema, time-based installations, site-specific art, and performance. She received a B.A. in Cultural Studies from Sabanci University, Istanbul and a Ph.D. in Performance Studies with a designated emphasis in Film Studies from the University of California, Berkeley. Her recent book, Mobility and Migration in Film and Moving Image Art: Cinema Beyond Europe (Routledge 2016), examines cinematic and artistic representations of migration and mobility in Europe since the 1990s.


Mobility and Migration in Film and Moving Image Art: Cinema Beyond Europe, Routledge 2016.

“Location and Mobility in Kutluğ Ataman’s Site-specific Video Installation Küba,” in Turkish-German Cinema: Texts, Contexts, Methods. Ed. Sabine Hake & Barbara Mennel. Berghahn Books, 2012.

“Heterotopic Intersections of Tourism and Undocumented Migration in Southern Europe: The Video Essay Sudeuropa (2005-7),” New Cinemas Journal of Contemporary Film 10, no:3 (2012): 17-43.