The Refugee Project

Ai Weiwei

The Mobile Lives Forum has commissioned Ai Weiwei to observe and report on the refugee crisis, paying particular attention to how people use their smartphones. New graphic notes (photos and videos), guided tours and analyses will be published on the Forum’s website throughout this year-long project. This virtual exhibition is set within a Mobile Lives Forum research project which you can find here : The Refugee project.


Guillaume Logé (Researcher in History and theory of art)
Mimi Sheller (Sociologist)

Since December 2015, I have embarked on a project documenting the refugee crisis through Europe and the Middle East. By tracing the refugees’ origins and following their journeys, I seek to record and analyse the impact of the human conditions that we face today. (...)

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A Samsung selfie with the photographer reminds us: maybe they are just taking photos and sending them to friends, normalizing the experience of leaving one world for another. Is there a strange new form of “dark tourism” with a “mobile gaze” to quote Urry and Larsen (2011) into the phone screen on these Mediterranean ferries? We, as the audience gazing at these photos, feel we might be engaging in a kind of tourism of the refugee ship, a dark tourism of disaster in a place that is otherwise used for leisure and pleasure. The ship combined with the phone-camera affords a mobile gaze that has far more ease of movement than the people pictured.

Mimi Sheller

The cellphone screen as a mirror can be considered in the tradition masterpieces like Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434), Parmigianino’s Self-portrait in a convex mirror (1524) and Diego Velásquez’ Las Meninas (1656), crossing the long history of self-portraits (the “from Rembrandt to selfie” exhibition at the Lyon Museum of Fine Art (2016) and Self timer (2015) at the Salzburg Museum der Moderne both recently explored the theme of self-portraits). The artist uses his own image to break with and question the current reality, standing alternately on a boat and in front of a mirror, where the viewer would be. In the short video, the cellphone wallpaper simply mirrors of one of the omnipresent, ubiquitous (as media creates ubiquity), global images that shape identities, aspirations and representations: mental and cultural ubiquity on the screen of a cellphone.

Guillaume Logé

On the ferries people stretch their cords high to the sockets above their heads – as if reaching toward the “Hertzian space” of cell towers and satellites. Men assemble around chargers in another photo, every space taken by a phone. People stand, perch, and sit on plastic chairs in temporary formations. The phones must be kept going, charged, working, if human lives are to be maintained. From mundane everyday object the iPhones and Samsungs suggestively emerge as lifeline, ticket, identification, meeting point, fetish object, gift exchange.

Mimi Sheller

The "smooth space” concept, as defined by philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, is a space of nomadism (A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 1980) that contrasts with the striated space of regulations and states. The desert embodies the idea of smooth space: in the desert, one can draw lines wherever one wishes, as in the ancient times: with freedom and individuality. Are modern means of communications drawing nomadic lines in the desert of the global Hertzian reality, while here on Earth we must comply with the borders of striated legal and geopolitical spaces?

Guillaume Logé

A woman stands under a sign that says “Assembly Station C”, and to the left a smaller sign points toward the Agora – the original assembly point of Greek democracy – and the “Internet Corner” – the new assembly point of mobile modernity. How, where, when and whom do we assemble through our phones? What topographies of electronic space are people on the move traversing? Are they speaking with family at home to tell them they are safe, or to those at a hoped for destination? Are they arranging for money to be sent to human smugglers, or sending text messages, or reading the news?

Mimi Sheller

They remind us how we must maintain “connected mobility in a disconnected world,” though subtly hinting at its dependence on aerial power (Sheller 2016). Those connections are ironically based on the military origins of the satellites that support communication, the very same ones that enable warfare, GPS targeting, drone attacks. The humanitarian systems meant to protect those fleeing war has broken down. Yet today human violence and refugee flight is mediated by mobile phones, text messages, photos, and electronic connectivity.

Mimi Sheller

A woman speaks into her phone framed by a golden sunset but stands with seaweed engulfing her ankles, a deflated boat and flotation rings behind her; a young man on the same shore smiles into his red phone with seeming relief. The people-on-phones in these photos encapsulate order in a world of disorder, stabilization in the midst of flexible arrangements, and above all humanity in the midst of inhumanity.

Mimi Sheller

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