If you had to leave your home indefinitely, under threat of violence, and you were unable to take much with you, chances are the first thing you would grab is your smartphone. It would keep you connected to family, as well as the world events causing you to flee, and — if worse came to worst — you could use the camera function to upload your final moments if, say, the raft you were traveling on sank into the sea.
In the summer of 2015, as thousands of refugees flocked to the mainland of Europe via the Aegean Sea, Israeli photographer and video artist Ronnie Karfiol found herself obsessing over news and social-media postings, trying to keep up with the crisis. “I discovered some tweets that were filled with rage over the fact that the refugees carried mobile smartphones. Some people simply saw it as a complete contradiction to how a refugee should be — financially poor, that is,” Karfiol said. And then she stumbled upon an article in The Guardian in which a refugee told a reporter that without Facebook, he would not know where to go on the route to Europe. Interest piqued, Karfiol used her Arabic language skills to dive into the vast world of refugee support groups on the social network, where she found everything from people looking for lost relatives to human traffickers charging for passage on overcrowded rubber boats, along with loads of live “boat selfies” and geolocation information posted by refugees who were drowning.
“All of this was overwhelming, but at the same time I was hooked,” she said. Karfiol collected the evidence she found of the ways that smartphones and related technology are integral to the contemporary refugee experience and created an archive and art project, Relief and Monitoring. If one were to come across the website (www.reliefandmonitoring.org) with no prior explanation, it would appear to be a technology-driven relief organization rather than a documentation of individuals on their own in dire situations. She wanted to introduce people — especially those in Western societies — to the plight of those who must escape a war zone and the sensation of being so alone that your most trusted friend is your smartphone. After many months of sticking to the facts of the news and the stories she found in the Facebook groups, “I gave myself some artistic freedom at last and decided to view this from the point of creating a tangible information center for future refugees.”
The video element of Relief and Monitoring screens as part of the Currents New Media Experimental Documentary Shorts program. Included in the video is a found voiceover by a Syrian woman in exile who posts updates and routes through the Aegean and Mediterranean seas to a Facebook group. “Discovering her voice was quite a revelation. She explains so bluntly the terrible things that are going to happen in the sea,” Karfiol said. “She smashes every false hope [refugees] might have — and in the end, she even asks them to promise that they would try to dissuade anyone from actually crossing the sea. It is a great firsthand example of how complicated the whole immigration decision is for them. You risk your life because you have nothing more to lose.”
Karfiol said the whole idea of refugees being poor and uneducated — and in the logic of some, therefore not entitled to possess smartphones — is ill-informed. Syrian and Kurdish people have mostly fled their country because of war, not economic disenfranchisement. “We need to understand that many of them come from middle-class households and may be educated, with a university degree. They had proper first-world work and are definitely as fluent with technology as a person living in Europe, the U.S., or elsewhere. Actually, we might need to grasp this fact: The really poor ones hardly have the financial means to venture on this trip to life. It is quite costly.”
Relief and Monitoring has been installed a number of ways at galleries and festivals. In other venues, Karfiol has created a kind of futuristic information center to enhance the surrealism of the project. “I try to respect the intelligence of viewers, since it is important to me not to represent this phenomenon as an Orientalist extravaganza of bloodshed and medieval tragedy, a unique war crime that happens far, far away — but rather as a very cold, bureaucratic, technical, dystopian possibility that might next strike just about anywhere we call home.”
“Relief and Monitoring” screens as part of Currents New Media at 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 14, and Wednesday, June 21, at Violet Crown (1606 Alcaldesa St., 505-216-5678); no charge.