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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.

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.

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Battery Boutelle, one of five Home Land Security exhibition sites overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge; photo: Nina Dietzel

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.”

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Trevor Paglen, Operation Onymous (FBI Investigation of the Silk Road), 2016; high-density epoxy and chrome; courtesy the artist and Altman Siegel Gallery, San Francisco; © Trevor Paglen; photo: Robert Divers Herrick

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.

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Do Ho Suh, Some/One, 2005; stainless steel military dog tags, stainless steel structure, fiberglass resin, mirrored stainless steel sheets; edition of 3, exhibition copy; courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong; © Do Ho Suh; photo: Robert Divers Herrick

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?

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Michele Pred, Encirclement, 2003; airport-confiscated sharps; courtesy the artist and Nancy Hoffman Gallery, New York; © Michele Pred; photo: Robert Divers Herrick

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.

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The Propeller Group, AK-47 vs M16, 2015; fragments of AK-47 and M16 bullets, ballistics gel, custom vitrine, and digital video; edition 14/21; courtesy the artists and James Cohan, New York; © The Propeller Group; photo: Robert Divers Herrick

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Bill Viola, works from the series Martyrs (installation view); single-channel video on LCD displays; 43 x 25 x 4 in.; executive producer: Kira Perov; performer: Darrow Igus; © Bill Viola; photo: Robert Divers Herrick

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Tammam Azzam, Untitled 1−3, 2016 (installation view); from the Storeys series acrylic on canvas; courtesy the artist and Ayyam Gallery, Dubai; © Tammam Azzam; photo: Robert Divers Herrick

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Krzysztof Wodiczko; Veterans' Flame, 2009; single-channel video projection with sound; courtesy the artist and Galerie Lelong, New York; © Krzysztof Wodiczko; photo: Robert Divers Herrick

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Shahpour Pouyan, Untitled 1−3, 2016; Untitled 4, 2014; courtesy the artist. Projectile 10, 2013; collection Nader Ansary, New York. All from the Projectiles series; steel, iron, and ink; © Shahpour Pouyan; photo: Robert Divers Herrick

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Tirtzah Bassel, Concourse, 2016; duct tape on wall (detail, installation view); dimensions variable; courtesy the artist; © Tirtzah Bassel; photo: Robert Divers Herrick

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Michele Pred, Encirclement, 2003; airport-confiscated sharps; courtesy the artist and Nancy Hoffman Gallery, New York; © Michele Pred; photo: Robert Divers Herrick

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Shiva Ahmadi, Lotus, 2014; single-channel animation; courtesy the artist and Leila Heller Gallery, New York; © Shiva Ahmadi; photo: Robert Divers Herrick

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Shiva Ahmadi, Lotus, 2014 (still); single-channel animation; courtesy the artist and Leila Heller Gallery, New York; © Shiva Ahmadi

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Alexia Webster, Refugee Street Studio, Bulengo IDP camp, D. R. Congo, 2014−ongoing (installation view); digital archival print; courtesy the artist; © Alexia Webster; photo: Robert Divers Herrick

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Yin Xiuzhen, Weapon, 2003–7; used clothes and materials from everyday life; courtesy the artist and Beijing Commune; © Yin Xiuzhen; photo: Robert Divers Herrick

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Yin Xiuzhen, Weapon, 2003–7 (view from outside Battery Boutelle); used clothes and materials from everyday life; courtesy the artist and Beijing Commune; © Yin Xiuzhen; photo: Robert Divers Herrick

Home Land Security was on display through December 18 at Fort Winfield Scott in San Francisco. Visit the exhibition website here.

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