July: Human Flow

“The Production of Crisis”

Eszter Zimanyi (University of Southern California)

A sparkling sea lies below me. It seems to stretch for an eternity, an endless blue in all directions. Only the white silhouette of a flying seagull disrupts the expanse, until, on the right-hand side of the frame, an inflatable boat packed with passengers appears. Though the water looks calm from my elevated, distant viewpoint, I already know to expect chaos once the boat nears land. Soon, the steadied movement of a drone-operated camera gives way to shaky, unfocused images as volunteer aid workers frantically work to help refugees and asylum seekers disembark.


These images open Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow (2017), a sprawling documentary that traverses 23 countries and 59 refugee camps over the course of one year. By now, such scenes—of boats and rafts crammed full of people wearing bright orange lifejackets, or groups of asylum seekers huddled together and wrapped in metallic thermal blankets—are so widely and regularly disseminated as to be almost cliché. Since the summer of 2015, journalists, filmmakers, and photographers have flocked to Greece and Italy to document the arrivals of hundreds of people per day, and media coverage of dramatic maritime rescues and violent confrontations at border crossings continues to proliferate. Human Flow is just one of a number of documentary films made about what has variously been called the “migrant” or “refugee crisis” over the past three years. But what separates Ai’s film from others is that it upends such visual clichés by foregrounding their construction, and maintains a consistent self-reflexivity throughout its 140-minute run-time. In doing so, the film offers a meditation on processes of production – not only of images, but also of the refugee crisis itself, and of the “migrant,” “refugee,” and “asylum seeker” as knowable entities that can be recorded, surveilled, and ultimately contained.

Human Flow is not Ai Weiwei’s first commentary on the contemporary refugee crisis. The dissident artist has created various installations and performance pieces over the past several years to raise public awareness about refugees, though critics dismissed them as being cheap, insensitive PR stunts that erase migrant and refugee subjectivities. However, where Ai’s previous works have perhaps lacked self-awareness, Human Flow excels. The film gives extensive airtime to the testimonies of refugees and asylum seekers from a variety of different circumstances, while also providing information about the institutional management of the refugee crisis through interviews with doctors, politicians, and representatives from the United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR. Throughout, Ai regularly reveals the construction of his images. In one scene, we cut from interview footage of a group of Palestinian girls in Gaza to a third-person perspective that reveals Ai’s crew in the process of filming, with Ai’s translator visibly mediating between the director and his subjects. Elsewhere, Ai inserts fragments of pre-interview conversations, presumably recorded while the crew checks sound levels and the camera’s focus.



The effect of this reflexivity is to defamiliarize the trope of the eternally suffering and victimized refugee, as well as the authoritative voice of experts brought in to contextualize institutional responses to irregular migration. Human Flow’s moments of transparency raise questions about where and how refugee testimonies are made legible, and to whom they must be made legible in order to be perceived as authentic. As Kelly Oliver points out in her book Carceral Humanitarianism: Logics of Refugee Detention, refugees are forced to “convincingly testify to the trauma of violence and fear of persecution” to gain legal status and asylum, and they must do so in front of the proper authorities. This process does not account for mistakes or discrepancies in the translations of their testimonies, nor does it account for cultural differences which may affect how a refugee’s testimony is given and interpreted (28-9). It is vital that we hear these testimonies; however, the requirement that refugees and asylum seekers continuously testify to and prove their trauma is itself an act of violence against them, one that keeps migrants and refugees epistemically outside the bounds of agentive political subjecthood. Human Flow makes visible how the “refugee,” “asylum seeker,” and “migrant” become constituted as knowable figures through processes of mediation, whether in the institutional process of taking new identification photos and receiving case numbers, or through providing testimony to journalists, artists, aid workers, and politicians in the hopes of receiving aid. Ai’s decision to prominently foreground the artifice of filmmaking, as well as his attention to the institutional mechanisms refugees must navigate after fleeing their homes, allows viewers to contend with the refugee “crisis” as a hyper-mediated construction. That construction assigns varying valuations to human life, and makes refugees trackable, containable, deportable, and even killable under the auspices of war’s “collateral damages.” The film repeatedly asks us to question what it means to witness in this context, evoking what Hito Steyerl calls “documentary uncertainty,” while also revealing the entanglements of humanitarian aid, militarism, capitalism, and displacement.

The frequent use of drones in Human Flow, often celebrated for providing a “birds-eye” view of the scale of the refugee crisis, also allows the film to enact what Lorenzo Pezzani and Charles Heller call a “disobedient gaze,” wherein tactics used by border control agents, such as biometric surveillance, GPS tracking, and photography, are used against that same structure to reveal its violence, reclaiming a more ethical use of media technologies. In this case, the drones that fly above border walls and refugee camps are used not to surveil refugees and their movements, but rather to reveal how the production of the refugee crisis allows for the proliferation of state securitization, militarized borders, and the invisibilized segregation of refugees into camps and detention centers. This combination of reflexivity and disobedient gazing ultimately asks us as viewers to contend with our own roles in producing the refugee crisis. While the film does not offer extensive context for the root causes of mass displacement, the breadth and scale of its narrative insists upon our connection and responsibility to people whose homes have been made unlivable by war, economic instability, and climate change. Human Flow’s engagement with technologies of seeing—and its insistence that seeing is never neutral—offers a compelling and thought-provoking reflection on migration. Rather than crafting a simplistic liberal narrative that calls for viewers to perform empathy, solidarity, and charity, the film’s consistent attention to its own production implicates viewers as part of the problem. It emphasizes not only how we see and understand refugees, but also how our ways of seeing produce and sustain the event of crisis.

“Art, Celebrity, Politics”

Janani Subramanian (Hammer Museum)

Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei’s documentary Human Flow is epic on multiple levels – in the number of countries the crew visits (23), in its length (140 minutes), in the amount of labor put into the production (200 crew members and a range of filmmaking technologies), and the sheer magnitude of the subject itself (over 65 million refugees worldwide). The feature-length, Amazon Studios-produced documentary also marked a turning point in Ai’s career as a visual and video artist, bringing the political provocations that have defined his work into the mainstream – and into the Hammer Museum, a public arts institution in Los Angeles where I work as Manager of Public Programs. In addition to programming the film, the Hammer invited Ai to do a post-screening Q&A, an event that we knew would attract major crowds to our space. Hosting a celebrity artist such as Ai can be a double-edged sword for public programming departments that foreground social justice, such as the Hammer’s. On the one hand, high profile artists such as Ai can attract fans who are there for the celebrity, not necessarily the politics, raising the question of whether these fans are the “right” audience for his message. On the other hand, using celebrity to draw attention to human rights issues – particularly in a public institution that regularly focuses on social justice – can be potentially productive and informative. We asked Karen Koning AbuZayd, former Special Adviser on the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants and one of the world’s leading experts on the global refugee crisis, to join Ai for the post-screening Q&A. Pairing Ai with an expert in the field was meant to direct the conversation towards the subject matter rather than towards Ai himself.

Ai’s career has been built on the collision of politics, celebrity, and art (see research on Ai’s celebrity brand by University of London scholar Chloe Preece). His 2011 detainment by the Chinese government created outrage in the art world, leading to an international day of protest organized by New York-based arts organization Creative Time and an online petition spearheaded by several prominent museum directors, including the Hammer Museum’s Ann Philbin. The artist was released 81 days later, probably due to the massive outcry from the artistic, political, and human rights communities, yet he was forced to remain in China until abruptly granted his passport again in 2015. The high-profile nature of the entire incident not only pointed to the Chinese government’s history of censorship and curbing artistic freedom, but also to broader questions about the intersection of art, politics, human rights, and freedom of expression.

The Hammer Museum screened three days of documentaries about and by Ai in September of 2012, starting with Alison Klayman’s Never Sorry (2012) and followed by Chang’an Boulevard (2004), Disturbing the Peace (2009), Beijing: The Second Ring (2005), Beijing: The Third Ring (2005), and One Recluse (2010). Never Sorry – which follows the artist from 2008 until his 2011 release – was booked before Ai’s detainment, with the intent of having the artist come and do a post-screening Q&A, yet Ai could not attend because he was still under house arrest in China. He did Skype in to do the Q&A, and having his face projected unto the Hammer’s large auditorium screen was a strangely intimate experience. Ai was physically removed from the audience yet he made an effort to be present digitally, and in doing so emphasized his forced exile even more. Showing a documentary about an artist and having the artist do a Q&A afterwards are standard practices of museum programming, yet the timing of the screening, Ai’s inability to attend, and his digital presence made the event feel like a political act. Never Sorry was followed by two documentaries by Ai about the Chinese government’s abuse of state power and three video pieces that are intended to be shown in galleries: Chang’an Boulevard (2004), Beijing: The Second Ring (2005), and Beijing: The Third Ring (2005). The video pieces were screened all day in the Hammer theater as the galleries were not available. Screening these art pieces as public programs, alongside the documentaries, brought together Ai’s role as an artist, political activist, and symbol of Chinese art’s contentious relationship to the state.

The Hammer Museum’s mission statement says: “The Hammer Museum believes in the promise of art and ideas to illuminate our lives and build a more just world,” and opening up museum spaces for politically provocative programming is fully in line with the museum’s social justice mission. Human Flow’s subject matter fit with the Hammer’s previous programs on migrants and refugees, and this time Ai, free from his confinement, agreed to attend for a Q&A. The political climate has shifted in the six years since the last Ai series at the Hammer, and museums and cultural institutions in the United State and abroad have felt a sense of urgency to respond to threats posed to basic human rights by the current U.S. administration. Just recently, Kaywin Feldman, Director of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, wrote: “In my 25-year career as a museum director, I have not seen a more challenging time to be an arts leader; the national and global political climates have created a situation in which our essential principles are under attack.” Feldman urges museums to take stands against injustice while also being conscious of their own privilege and resisting the cries from museum traditionalists that there is no place for politics in art. “Art is political because it is an expression of lived human experience,” Feldman reminds us.

The Hammer opened its doors to nearly 1,400 guests for the Human Flow screening, and a majority of those guests, we can assume, were there for the promise of seeing Ai. The program raised crucial questions about celebrity and social justice – how do we reconcile the facts of Ai’s star power with a humanitarian crisis happening in some of the poorest and most politically volatile countries in the world? How do we think about a crowd of relatively privileged people watching a film about people with little to no privilege? However, the way the evening unfolded pointed to the productive potential of celebrity and raising awareness about social justice issues. Ai yet again was unable to attend the Q&A because he was stranded in New York due to severe winter weather (somewhat ironic considering that climate change is one of the factors contributing to the refugee crisis), so Karen Koning AbuZayd led a post-screening discussion on her own. Despite Ai’s absence, a diverse and engaged crowd filled the theater and museum courtyard to watch a nearly four-hour film and discussion about a troubling and urgent humanitarian crisis. The documentary is fairly conventional in its approach to the subject matter – mixing talking heads and individual stories with commentary about the broader issues that have created this massive human displacement – and Ai has a minimal presence in it. Ai’s identity as “artist” was elided in the documentary and in the program experience overall, as Ms. AbuZayd focused extensively on the refugee crisis, its historical precedents, and tangible steps to change it in her post-screening discussion.

The Hammer Museum is situated on the west side of Los Angeles, near the relatively privileged locations of UCLA, Brentwood, Beverly Hills, and Bel-Air, and museum staff are continually creating programming designed to bring more diverse audiences into our spaces. Part of this of relates to the art on the walls and the artists that the museum engages with, but part of it is tied to the free public programming that we offer several nights a week. The goal of our public programs is ideally to bring together people from different communities across the city to form connections – personal, social, political – and for that one night, it certainly felt like Ai’s presence (in the film and in the museum) was urging the audience to leave the space and take action.

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