Security, immigration, and defense dominated our political rhetoric this presidential election season. But while Donald Trump argued for a wall between the United States and Mexico, an art exhibition installed at the Presidio, a former military post in San Francisco, calls attention to historic defensive landscapes and the impact of contemporary conflicts on individuals.
Titled Home Land Security, the exhibition (on view through December 18, 2016) takes place in three decommissioned batteries—concrete structures dug into bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean that served as part of the U.S. Army’s Coastal Defense System—as well as a Cold War-era administration building used as the control headquarters for Nike surface-to-air missiles, and the Fort Scott Chapel. The Golden Gate National Recreation Area manages the sites.
Organized by the nonprofit FORSITE Foundation in partnership with the National Park Service (NPS), the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, and the Presidio Trust, the exhibition was timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the NPS. It’s also part of Art in the Parks, an NPS initiative that draws on a long history of photographers, painters, musicians, and writers interpreting public lands for a greater audience.
The curator, Cheryl Haines, placed each of the 25 works by 18 artists. Two commissioned works by the artist and cultural geographer Trevor Paglen, Operation Onymous (FBI Investigation of the Silk Road) and Code Names of the Surveillance State, are installed in a vault that once housed classified documents of the 902nd Military Intelligence Group.
Exodus, a video by the Iranian artist Mandana Moghaddam, depicts a flotilla of suitcases adrift on the ocean. Displayed in the more than 100-yearold Battery Boutelle, which once housed guns protecting San Francisco Bay, the artwork underscores the plight facing refugees. “I wanted to draw a connection between the coastal bluff and the crashing waves,” Haines explains. “[Exodus] is about the dispersal of the diaspora.”
Haines is the director of the FOR-SITE Foundation, which was founded in 2003 with a mission to use public art to deepen understanding of particular locales. “Artists have the unique ability, through the lens of their creative expression, to think about place, history, and culture in a new way,” she says.
In 2014, the organization mounted @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz. Howard Levitt, the director of communications and partnerships for the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, says this site-specific installation increased local attendance to what is normally a tourist destination by 50 percent.
He adds that guidelines ensure that these preserved landscapes don’t suffer from the additional impact produced by art exhibitions. In fact, out at the batteries, conservation efforts are already in place. As visitors walk between sites they’ll see signs for protected areas and didactic material that calls out the plants that have adapted to the serpentine soils along the coast: Presidio clarkia, Franciscan thistle, and wallflowers. There’s a surprising resonance between the artworks— many of which speak to the resilience of immigrants—and the windblown terrain. This excites Levitt. “People can explore what took place here and our contemporary efforts to restore habitat in the western bluffs,” he says. “Art in the Parks is a tool for them to go deeper and understand the meaning of the place.”