Interview: Stefan Kruse, director of The Migrating Image
With Stefan Kruse, we inaugurate our series of interviews with artists appropriating user-generated content. Stefan Kruse is a Danish artist and filmmaker. In his documentary film The Migrating Image, he explored the multiple forms in which the so-called refugee crisis was represented in the global media by each of its actors.
Gala Hernández : First, I would like you to explain a bit the title of the film, “The Migrating Image”. This title is polysemic and can be interpreted in two – or more? – ways. The first one, more literal, refers to the theme/topic of the film, the “crisis” of the refugees. The second, on the other hand, would refer to the form of the film and would consist of interpreting that what migrates are not only the bodies, but the (technical) images that embody and represent them, passing from one medium to another, from screen to screen, suffering small variations in each transfer, demonstrating their own openness, ambivalence and polysemy. Can you develop where the title, which seems to synthesize the very idea of the film, comes from, and what does it means for you?
Stefan Kruse : To me the title of the film refers to the constant flow of media images that surround us and from the beginning of the influx of refugees in 2015, have maintained a certain visual landscape and language surrounding refugees. When I initially started the project, I remember visualizing these vast amounts of images crossing borders and screens, constantly changing their shapes to fit into certain mediums,vernaculars and cultural temperaments. The idea for the title came immediately when I stumbled upon examples of very clear image migration – seeing a clear path of an image moving undisturbed from one country (and screen) to another. No question of origin or intention being asked. These images were displaying refugees unable to cross borders and the symbolic contrast was too strong for me to let go of and I knew this would be the title of the film I would eventually make.
Gala Hernández :The film states at the beginning that the footage remains ‘unedited’. Why was it important to you to make this point, and what did your work consist of, if it was not editing?
Stefan Kruse : This additional piece of text was added to the film after a few test screenings. I was surprised that a recurring question among the viewers was to why I had accompanied these images with classical music. Especially the scene of the Italian coast guard saving people from an overcrowded rubber boat, shot with a gopro camera attached to the helmet of the coast guard employee, would spark a lot of frustration and anger towards me. If I would in fact have put this music, it would have undermined the whole premise of the film and that is also why I initially did not feel the need to add this comment. For the most part I wanted the viewer to be left with his or her own judgment towards the images in the film, but I felt like this specific discussion and the belief that I had put this music, became too dominant. In the end I still get this question quite a lot despite the explicit explanation in the beginning of the film. I believe it’s due to the sheer disbelief, that I also felt when I first encountered this footage, that the media department of the italian coastguard would decide to combine these elements in order to reinforce a heroic narrative.
Gala Hernández :The smugglers’ Facebook profiles that appear at the beginning of the film, are they available publicly on Facebook without any kind of dissimulation or censorship? How did you find them, and did you contact them?
Stefan Kruse : Facebook would (and still does) shut down these pages immediately when they found them. In the beginning of my research I attempted to access these pages with no luck. Most of the images from this chapter is from articles written about the subject, which means that I chose to show images that had already been mediated. I do not let viewers in on this (only in the credits i guess), but it also brings me to a point, that to me the film is not (as often described) an educational documentary. I think the french film blog Ecran Noir recently described exactly how I often feel about the film, when they used the term “Under its falsely educational airs [..]”, when describing the concept of the film. Yes there is a lot of information to gain in the film but most importantly the film attempts to break the cycle of migrating images and look at them out of their original context. It’s a film that assumes and questions but withholds from giving straight answers.
Gala Hernández : The voice over says at some point “the migrants have enabled the image production in the European Union”. It’s very interesting that you mention that just at the moment when you show the satellite images of the migrants being represented as points, lines, and so on. That is to say, in those images the immigrant does not have a mimetic representation, but are reduced to geometric figures in maps and graphs. What does this imply? Are this still “images”? Do they still have an image? What is the migrating image then?
Stefan Kruse : When making the film I became very fascinated with what Harun Farocki describes as operational images; ‘Images without a social goal, not for edification, not for reflection,’. These images are oftentimes not meant for human interference. They are working images, undertaking an operation that another machine or algorithm responds to. I became interested in these ghost-like images that are never being seen by the human eye but played a major role in the image production at that time and now.
The specific moment in the film that you are referring to is compiled by a set of images made by FRONTEX, the protective arm of the borders of Europe. These images have a slight similarity with operational images, despite the fact that they are created with human hands. They are there to fulfill a very specific goal – to showcase the workers of FRONTEX protecting the borders of Europe. These images are almost designed in their neutrality and as spectators of newsreels throughout our lives we are numbed to never reflect upon these images. In this case the workers are looking at the satellite images in war like control rooms and the underlying narrative seems to be that they are protecting the european receiver of these images. The only representation given to the refugees is as you mention moving vector points and pixels. When refugees are represented as moving dots and immediately after represented through military means, it seems to me that they must represent some kind of a threat. I recently revisited the website of FRONTEX and a lot has happened since. I personally come from a background of graphic design and it seems obvious that a commercial team at some point had been asked by FRONTEX, to change the makeup of the brand. Most of the brand identity seems to have been streamlined so that the logo now is only being used in very specific ways. The general production of the videos is professionalized and motion graphics has been added. I’m currently working on a new film project addressing the military–industrial complex and the visual identity of FRONTEX is very similar to the way private military production companies brand themself; Clean, generic and with a majority of stocklike images and catchy sentences. These pages feel very similar to websites of hoax companies – boasting with professionalism in their commercially glazed images, but falling short, when actually describing their address or phone number.
Gala Hernández : The film also speaks, indirectly, of the relationships between visuality, the right to see, and power – the right to see, the complex of visuality as a complex of power. All those devices, radars and satellites that Frontex and Copernicus use to track, map and control the territory are somehow producing non-existent, confidential, “missing” images. The power that this data gives to those who possess it implies that the data is exclusive and private – if these images were shared with the citizens, these companies would lose some of their power by sharing this data. But there is also that image shown in the film, published by Frontex on the 6th of October 2016 – so their power also implies some kind of publicity, in its fair measure, to show that they save lives and help rescue the migrants… And there are also the images made and controlled by the EU, images which “makes it impossible to get any actual information” from them. What difficulties did you encounter in illustrating this specific part of the film, in terms of the lack of documentation and information? Where is all this visual documentation (the technical images of Frontex, by example), if it is available to the public? How much of it is public?
Stefan Kruse : In The Vision Machine when describing the slow replacement of the human eye (as a dependent source of evidence), with the camera lens and all the subsequent technology that has come along with the surveilled society we live in today, Paul Virilio states; “The human eye no longer gives signs of recognition, it no longer organises the search for truth, it no longer presides over the construction of truth’s image, in this mad rush to identify individuals whom the police do not know and have never seen” When reading the book I became both fascinated and frightened by the slow decay towards the totalitarian surveilled society described by Virillo where in the end, our right to see with our own eyes slowly gets swallowed by The Vision Machine. As with surveillance and the military–industrial complex, the power that these technologies and images withholds are not easily accessible.
All of the images from FRONTEX and the EU were publicly available when I used them in the film. The images are often downloaded by news media in different European countries and function as a kind of glue to visualize the massive stream of news that would overexpose our screens during the first influx of refugees. To me these images seem to function as a kind of glue in the large landscape of images of refugees. Their availability and neutrality makes us blind to their complit role in the grand visualization of refugees.
Gala Hernández : The same thing happens with the images from the military cameras of the coastguards and marines. Is all of this visual material public? I guess it is, if they put their logos on it – where did you find it? Is there any purpose in filming and documenting this apart from propagandistic goals? I guess the ones which are published depict them as heroes, as saviors, with emotive piano music and mourning tone, in the mode of political propaganda – what are the limits of this representations – the images they would never publish? Apart from filming the rescuing task, do they ever let the migrants speak, or film what happens after the rescuing? And where did you find the video of the migrants filming themselves on the boat, which functions as the countershot of the coast guard’s images?
Stefan Kruse : Yes all of this material was available on the YouTube of the different coastguards and marine military. Some of the material is still available, some has changed and some has been deleted. This material all reflects a certain moment in time. Like most other image producers in the film the images functioned as evidence of the work and a neutrality towards politics. Almost all of the clips I found from the Italian coastguards display an inherent contrast of softness and sternness. They make it very clear that they are stern and surgical when extracting the terrorists from the crowds and at the same time they are soft and mild when rescuing the children from potentiel drowning death. Again, the refugees unwillingly become the subjects in the visual narrative created around them. Their role changes from being vectors in the operational images, threats in the eyes of the military camera and finally reduced to helpless subjects rescued by the heroic italian coastguard. Ironically the images that were hardest to trace were the ones created by the refugees. They simply have almost no say in the landscape in the landscape of images, which is thought provoking.
Gala Hernández : It seems like the heroic narratives built by the coast guards are the public and manipulated/biased part of a whole picture, which also includes the Frontex images that are not/less public. What do you think about this? The epic trailer we see in the film, is it really made by Romanian border police?
Stefan Kruse : The specific clip you are referring to from The Romanian Border Police seems to serve a very specific purpose. A purpose that is hidden in plain sight and also something, I only started to reflect upon after having finished the film. This has actually been a recurring pattern in my reflection and learning about the film. The clip from The Romanian Border Police consists of still images of war and in the middle east followed by the sequence of rescue images created by The Romainan Border Police. Just like The Italian Coastguard this clip also emphasizes that The Romanian Border Police are soft when receiving the refugees and stern and tough when identifying the terrorists. I found this clip on the frontpage of The Romanian Border Police. Its uncanniness is undoubtable as it is constructed as a Hollywood film trailer consisting of low pixelated images divided by sensational textbites floating towards the viewer in golden letters as the music intensifies. “HUNDREDS OF WOMEN AND CHILDREN, RUNNING AWAY FROM THE TERROR OF WAR, IN SEARCH OF A BETTER LIFE, RESCUED FROM THE SEA, BY ROMANIAN BORDER POLICE”. I initially thought that this clip had the intention of creating goodwill amongst the Romanian public towards The Romanian Border Police, but as many of the clips in the film created by public institutions or receivers of some kind of funding, this clip seems to speak directly to the money that funds it. The last piece of golden text that floats toward the viewer says “DURING FRONTEX OPERATIONS” and becoming aware of that, I noticed that the word FRONTEX is squeezed in several times in the film. It seems to me that the clip exists to preserve the profitable connection to FRONTEX and publicly show how the money and support from FRONTEX, is being used in a very heroic fashion.
Gala Hernández : The images of drones that record the multitude of migrants walking in the countryside like a human river are clearly filmed with the purpose of, first, being spectacular, and second, once again, representing the immigrants as a compact and threatening mass that penetrates their own territory almost like an invasion or a virus, whereas if the same event were filmed from the ground, the sensation would be very different. Did you find any image of this filmed from other point of view?
Stefan Kruse : I did not find other material from the specific incidence with the drone. I remember when trying to understand the impact of these images, I would try to trace who actually created the images and where these images had travelled. Lowress screenshots of these videos would appear mostly on right wing newspapers and blogs. Alway paired with a certain kind of terminology. ‘Invasion’, ‘swarm’ and ‘wave’ were several of the most common words that were being used. This had me wondering about which images in our collective visual consciousness would be triggered in our minds when being exposed to these non horizontal landscape images with crowds walking in a straight line. My own theory is that when a large crowd walking in a straight line, is depicted from above, it is very easily connected to images of an invading army. Having been a fan of strategic war based computer games in the late 90’s and 2000’s, a quick google image search also confirmed the resemblance towards this aesthetic.
Gala Hernández : There is one aspect of the film that can be problematic in the sense that you seem to be treating immigrants as a shapeless, homogeneous mass of people rather than individualizing them, singling them out. You constantly repeat “the migrants”, as if they were all the same, when in fact there are very different realities, nationalities, stories and contexts among them. What do you think about this, that could be maybe criticized as an occidental and simplistic look?
Stefan Kruse : The decision to only speak about ‘the refugees’ or ‘the images of refugees’ as a constant mass was very deliberate. Your question buys into the always relevant discussion or representation or in my case re-representation. With this film I had the intention of showing a different and less talked about issue (image production and distribution infrastructures), and less about the individual stories of the refugees. I believe both approaches are equally valuable when exposing the horrors and complexities of this topic. I wanted to show a glimpse of the huge amount of images being produced and distributed, to give a small idea of the massive scale of interests that goes into the global visualization of refugees. In order to do that, I wanted to use the same pace and aboveness that is on our screens everyday. You could maybe argue that I am extending the coldness or aboveness of the images that I use in my own film. On the contrary, I believe that by taking these images out of their original context, I am doing something different.
Gala Hernández : The film shows how each actor in these events produces their own images and edits them to make them say what they want with a clear purpose. But very few are interested in what the migrants have to say, or in giving them the camera to give them control of their performance/representation. It is as if in all the images, except the video from inside the boat, the migrants end up being reified, reduced to a word – migrants –, or an image from the exterior, but lacking the human condition. Your film also contributes to this rhetoric, as no migrant speaks in your film. What’s your position on this matter? What was the main purpose or motivation in remixing all these images?
Stefan Kruse : When I started researching for this film, images of refugees were everywhere from my Facebook feed to the news channels that I follow. Alongside was an ongoing dumbed down political debate about the influx of refugees. Are you for or against the refugees? Those were and still are the options put in front of us. I wanted to make a small contribution towards nuancing this debate and also include and expose our own eurocentric point of view as image producers and image receivers. What does these images tell about each of the institutions and individuals that have produced them? These image producers and their personal or economic intentions are never included in the story of refugees that is being told to us. I think sometimes it’s important to not be scared to use less ethically correct approach, especially when trying to expose the less visible economic infrastructures, that construct the visual narratives around us.