“How much control are you willing to give away, for how much protection?” asked artist Michael Hall at Thursday night’s art opening for “Security Question” at the David Brower Center in Berkeley.
Hall is one of 17 artists whose work was selected for the summer-long exhibit that hopes to challenge and explore the cultural perception of security. One of Hall’s pieces re-creates a handwritten birthday letter his father wrote him from a deployment in the Middle East. Nearby, two women in statement scarves clutching free wine heatedly debated a painting’s inclusion in the exhibit.
“What do you think of when you think of ‘security’?” Brower managing director Jackie Hasa asked the assembled crowd, many of whom looked as if they attend a lot of art openings in Berkeley and were delighted to answer group questions in front of strangers.
“Surveillance!” shouted a man near the front.
“401(k)!” came a response from a giggling woman.
“Blankets!” got a big laugh from the audience.
Hasa’s point is well taken. Each item in the exhibit is dramatically different from the rest, with most artists exploring the notion of security from unexpected angles. Stephen Whisler created a series exploring the history of watchtowers, and his large-scale drawing of an NYPD mobile watchtower hangs on one of the center’s concrete walls, just across from a black-and-white video installation about waterboarding.
“What did you think of the waterboarding?” asked Mark Seiden, a San Franciscan who had an artist friend in the show. Seiden’s eyes twinkled as he said, “If you liked it, there’s something wrong with you.”
The jovial Seiden actually works in security, and his thoughts on the subject could’ve been an art installation by themselves. “I actually critique security questions,” Seiden remarked when I pressed him on his job. “Many of them are ridiculous. They don’t apply to humans.”
Mid-reception, attendees were seated in the Brower Center’s impressively beautiful theater and treated to an explanation and video screening from artist Kim Miskowicz. For this installment, the painter, filmmaker and video artist asked herself, “What would I hold onto if all hell broke loose?” In a postapocalyptic world, which personal treasures, important documents and identification would Miskowicz grab?
Her answer is a “reverse archive” of digital material transferred to the analog format of Super 8mm film, titled “Saving the Next to Last.” Miskowicz screens her piece from a hand-cranked projector because when all hell breaks loose, there won’t be any electricity.
“Is that really hand-cranked?” a gentleman yelled into the theater as Miskowicz affixed her headlamp and got ready to dim the lights. She nodded, and was met with his deadpan response, “Whoa.”
Surrounded by artsy types sporting natural fibers and male ponytails while challenging their perceptions of security in the heart of Berkeley on a Thursday evening, it was hard not to join in. “Yeah,” I said to a woman nearby. “What is security?”
After her screening, Miskowicz was happy to show off her hand-built projector to the fascinated assembly. “I took it to Portland, and it went through the TSA’s security,” she told us. “I included a note explaining what it was. Obviously there is nothing bad in it, but I can only imagine what they thought.”
The 27-year-old Berkeley photographer Carter Johnston has an altogether different take on security. One of his two pieces in the show is a large color photograph taken in a Southeast Asian airport. A woman fully covered in a burqa sits in the airport’s waiting lounge. Her husband appears fast asleep with his head in the woman’s lap.
“I didn’t want to wake up the husband because that would ruin the shot,” explained Johnston. “So I went up and said I was going to take her picture. She kinda mumbled something and I could tell that she was smiling. So I stepped back, took the picture, gave her my card, and then I left … pretty fast.”
Beth Spotswood is a Bay Area writer and blogger.