Former Military Site Houses the Powerful Artwork of a Post-9/11 World
September 26, 2016
As I wandered around the parade grounds at Fort Winfield Scott in San Francisco’s Presidio, looking for the FOR-SITE Foundation’s new exhibition Home Land Security, I heard something buzzing overhead. Thinking it was wind-rustled trees or a wasp nest, I looked up to see a small drone flying above me. Later, I found the two middle-school aged boys who were flying the toy in the near-empty historic complex. Still a little lost, I walked past a flag flying at half-mast. For an oblivious second I wondered which congressperson, military official, or civic leader had passed away. Then I remembered the date: September 11.
The moment struck me. On the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I was looking for an exhibition about the ubiquity of surveillance and security in contemporary life while two children flew a drone on a decommissioned military base. Their toy was a recreational version of the killing machines introduced into our lexicon precisely because of those terrorist attacks.
The passage of time is often difficult to quantify. Even major events unfold slowly in retrospect. But the attacks of September 11, 2001, feel like one of those rare moments that unambiguously divide the worlds before and after it. It was the true first day of the 21st century.
Home Land Security displays works in five neighboring sites in the Presidio: the Fort Scott Chapel, three artillery batteries overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and the Nike Administration Building, part of the nation’s Cold War-era anti-aircraft missile program.
In the latter, a pair of installations by New York-based Israeli artist Tirtzah Bassel and Oakland-based artist Michele Pred encapsulate the changes brought on by the omnipresent security state of the new century.
Bassel’s Concourse (2016) mural wraps around the interior concrete wall of one of the building’s rooms. Made entirely of colored duct tape rather than paint, the mural depicts an everyday scene in the departures hall of an airport. One subject is taking off a belt, several drag oversized suitcases, and all of them wind their way through a labyrinth of stanchions and retractable belts that define contemporary airport security. The duct tape makes the subjects anonymous; their experiences are abstracted. The scene is almost universal: this could be Ben Gurion, JFK, or SFO.
On the floor in an adjacent room, Pred’s installation Encirclement (2003) is a large donut-shaped collection of items confiscated from airport security—another everyday occurrence in the post-9/11 paradigm. The innocuousness of the safety scissors, butter knives, corkscrews, and toy guns contrasts with the potential for violence ascribed to them by the TSA. Encirclement makes the abstracted elements of Bassel’s Concourse concrete.
Together these works depict a banal oppression. The kids flying the drone outside never knew a world in which people could travel by air without having to strip down, pose for body scans and surrender their fingernail clippers. Instead, they live in a world in which everyone is a potential terrorist.
Krzysztof Wodiczko’s installation in nearby Battery Godfrey is a prime example of works in the exhibition that deftly utilize their site. Deep in the dungeon-like 19th-century structure is a long corridor with a projection of a flickering flame at its end. An audio track plays stories of trauma told by Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans. Though Battery Godfrey is unrelated to these contemporary wars, Veterans’ Flame (2009) gives life to the soldiers that once walked these dark halls. The battery has been inactive for over 70 years, but the stories reanimate it as a place of war.
Like the other batteries, Battery Boutelle sits in the shadows of the Golden Gate Bridge, overlooking the Pacific. Iranian-Swedish artist Mandana Moghaddam’s video installation, Exodus (2012), installed in an empty ammunition storage room, shows suitcases bobbing up and down in ocean waves. The piece references the dangerous journeys — whether by water, land or air — that millions of individuals take to flee violence and persecution, and the many refugees who fail to complete those journeys. Viewers face west as they watch the video, and sound from the piece and from the Pacific blend together. The screen is like a porthole in the battery, a window into the turbulent waters just feet away.
The state of surveillance and security is not uniform across the many countries the 18 artists in the exhibition call home or have called home. Risking one’s life at sea and having scissors confiscated at an airport are incredibly distinct experiences. But each of these artists addresses something shared among the world’s citizens: we are all subjected to forces that wish to watch and control us. And just as no single work can represent the totality of these forces in the world, no exhibition venue can provide the perfect context. But by exhibiting these works at the Presidio, the FOR-SITE Foundation is able to ground them in a tangible site of war and military surveillance, placing the world we live in now in the context of its precedents.