That Time Art Took Over a Former Military Complex
Now a national park, San Francisco’s Fort Winfield Scott hosted political artwork by 18 international artists.
Díaz Lewis, 34,000 Pillows, 2016–ongoing (view from outside Battery Boutelle); used and donated clothing and Kapok fiber filling; courtesy the artists and Aspect/Ratio, Chicago; © Díaz Lewis; photo: Robert Divers Herrick
British philosopher Bertrand Russell once observed: “Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of great fear." So when Fort Winfield Scott, the former headquarters for coastal defense of California at the Golden Gate, decided to host a range of new commissions and recent works in various media, the aptly-titled Home Land Security prompted critical reflection on the burgeoning national security state, which so often feeds on the fear to which Russell referred.
Built in 1912 as the headquarters of the Artillery District of San Francisco, Fort Winfield Scott now belongs to the National Park Service. Displayed in five historic structures, Home Land Security gave artists the opportunity to examine the current state of the military industrial security complex, of which what is now a national park was once a key part. Three of the five sites used for the exhibition were open to the public for the first time since being decommissioned.
The 18 featured artists hailed from China, Cuba, France, Iran, Israel, Mexico, Poland, South Korea, Syria, the United States, South Africa, and Vietnam, and their works fostered reflection on the human dimensions and increasing complexity of national security, including the physical and psychological borders people create, protect, and cross in its name.
The exhibition’s curator, Cheryl Haines, who also serves as executive director of the FOR-SITE Foundation, emphasized just how topical Home Land Security really was. "Exclusion defines home in a country built by immigrants," she said in a statement. "Our personal and intimate identities are open to surveillance, and those who are displaced, seeing conflicts sparked by fear, are the most vulnerable."
Haines also stressed that the "military setting" for the exhibition "turns a spotlight on the personal cost borne by soldiers, feelings of isolation and vulnerability, and the thin line between defense and attack. Placing art that examines the human cost of security inside a gun battery or missile installation collapses the distance between target and source: one cannot hide from the impact.”
The 25 timely works included in the exhibition addressed various aspects of security and defense, including questions about the nature of home, safety, and security. The featured works were created using a range of media, including painting, sculpture, video, installation, and performance. Four of the them were commissioned by FOR-SITE for this exhibition, including Trevor Paglen’s Operation Onymous, which focuses on the FBI Investigation of Silk Road.
Paglen’s contribution to the exhibition included an FBI challenge coin, a cryptic medallion recognizing an agent’s affiliation with the Bureau. The featured coin was given to agents facilitating the attack on the Silk Road online market in San Francisco. Paglen’s display also included a scrolling list of more than 4,000 code names used by the US National Security Agency (NSA) and the United Kingdom’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) for surveillance programs.
Meanwhile, Do Ho Suh responded to the American military presence on the Korean peninsula and explored questions of identity in his sculpture Some/One. The work incorporated thousands of dog tags representing individual soldiers in a larger-than-life suit of armor, reminiscent of the infamous cover of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, with its suggestion of power forged by the becoming-one of the many. But closer inspection revealed the dog tags to be fictional, each “name” a nonsensical string of characters. The mirrored surface inside the sculpture reflected the ambiguity of the individual’s relationship to the piece: When we see ourselves enrobed in the garment, are we secure in its embrace, or are we complicit in the illusion of security?
Referring to the misappropriation of personal property by the Transportation Security Administration, which figured in her own work in the exhibition, Encirclement, artist Michele Pred was clear on the reality of what some commentators have called "security theater."
"The small object that we have taken away from us here—we can replace them physically, but we do have the memories that have been partially taken away.” Thus, Pred said, “it’s sort of a false ritual to make people feel safe.” She observed that scissors, for instance, “were a particularly interesting symbol of that time in that they could represent all the lives cut short, the pain of their families, and how what was once a mundane household tool was now considered a threat.”
As Paglen said, “What I want out of art is things that help us see the historical moment that we live in.” Given the pervasiveness and intrusiveness of attempts putatively designed to promote safety at all costs, Paglen’s concern couldn’t be more appropriate.
Home Land Security was on display through December 18 at Fort Winfield Scott in San Francisco. Visit the exhibition website here.