Between 1910 and 1940, somewhere between 500,000 to one million immigrants passed through Angel Island, or “the Ellis Island of the West.”
On Friday night, a barge carrying the moving images of 12 political asylees on a giant LED screen will pass by that historic isle on a journey through the San Francisco Bay, creating a moment of confluence between the Bay’s past as a gatekeeper to the American Dream and its present as a new home to Afghan refugees.
The barge will move along San Francisco Bay’s shoreline Saturday and Sunday, with a bevy of art activities happening on land in San Francisco and nearby Oakland.
Titled “Night Watch,” the floating art installation is the brainchild of New York-based visual artist Shimon Attie, who debuted the work off the banks of the Hudson and East Rivers in 2018 as the UN General Assembly converged. It comes to the City by the Bay courtesy of a multi-organization collaboration spearheaded by San Francisco gallerist Catharine Clark, whose eponymous art space in the Mission hosts fine art exhibitions and proscenium-bending performances.
The idea to bring “Night Watch” to San Francisco came many months before horrific video of desperate Afghans clinging to a U.S. Air Force Jet pierced our news feeds. But that humanitarian crisis does come to the forefront in a contemporary consideration of Attie’s work and puts the plight of refugees “in particular focus,” says Clark.
“There was no way we could have anticipated that when we decided we wanted to do the project,” says the gallerist, recalling the early stages of the project born some six months ago. “I flew to New York and I met with the executive director of Moreart.org that had produced the first project, and I remember COVID was bad enough that we actually sat on a park bench, and it was quite cold outside… with a distance of at least probably eight feet between us.”
For Attie, who is Jewish-American and has long focused on topics of migration and displacement in his work, the Afghan refugee crisis makes “Night Watch” even more “topical…urgent and current in the present day.”
Its revival in San Francisco and West Coast debut is also thematically resonant.
“Like New York City, San Francisco is a place and the Bay Area is a place with a history of immigration, opening their arms and welcoming the outsider, foreigners, multiculturalism,” says Attie, who spent his early career in the Bay Area and received an MFA from San Francisco State.
“And it’s a city of waterways,” he adds.
That’s important for the barge, which carries the 20-foot-wide LED screen on which Attie’s video portraits of 12 asylees, many from the LGBTQ+ community, are displayed. In the film, each individual emerges from a black void bathed in Caravaggio-esque lighting, approaches and stares into the camera for about 35 seconds, then disappears in a cut to black.
“There is a certain kind of a singular power of video portraits,” Attie reflects, “whereby you look at someone, and you might think you’re looking at a still photograph, but then they blink or a muscle in their mouth quivers. It adds a whole other kind of level, I think, of identification.”
But the vessel is not merely a vehicle to transport these compelling images; it’s a bit of a time machine that melts the distances between past and present, too.
“A barge is kind of an anachronistic mode of transportation. It’s kind of 19th century,” muses Attie. Combined with the high-tech technology of the LED screen “there was kind of a sweet synergy between old fashioned and cutting edge that I thought would be quite poetic,” Attie reflects.
The artist hopes that the aesthetics as well as the content of the piece, originally conceived during the politically polarizing Trump era, help to break down the walls that some Americans have put up between themselves and foreigners in recent years.
“Kind of like a thawing,” he says, “a reconsideration, a shifting of the ground somehow between insider, outsider, American versus the other.”
“In Hebrew, there is an expression which you might know called tikkun olam,” he adds, “which literally means ‘repairing the world.’ And so there is an impetus to try to make for a more compassionate, just society that is built on empathy and that articulates a shared common humanity among different groups of people.”
Similarly, Clark hopes that “Night Watch’s” revival can collapse “divisions between left and right…around providing safe harbor for refugees.”
In some ways, “Night Watch” has already broken down barriers in the local art scene, Clark observes, by including local artists in programming around the project and encouraging collaboration rather than competition between Bay Area cultural organizations.
“Whether it was a direct service organization or a museum or another nonprofit or arts organization, everybody was like, ‘Yeah, we want to align ourselves with this,’” says Clark. “And I think that has been one of the most beautiful parts of this is to recognize that this issue resonates so loudly for people that everybody sort of abandoned whatever concerns they may have had around collaboration and has just joined in.”
On Friday, “Night Watch” will begin its journey along SF’s shoreline passing through the channel between Tiburon and Angel Island, then making a stop at the Fort Mason Center for Arts and Culture around 7:15 p.m., where the center concurrently hosts its Fall Arts Preview Party. (Tickets for the Fort Mason event are sold out, but Clark says you can still see the barge for free at Piers 2 and 3 at Fort Mason and Pier 39.)
The barge will then come around the peninsula and make appearances at Pier 15 (adjacent to the Exploratorium) and restaurants Epic Steak and Water Bar, where live music will be performed.
“Night Watch” makes an encore journey around the peninsula Saturday night, finally docking at Warm Water Cove around 8:15 p.m. Tickets to that night’s panel featuring Attie and several local artists and nonprofit leaders at nearby Minnesota Street Project are sold out. But everyone is invited to march with 15-piece brass band Mission Delirium from 24th Street and Tennessee to Warm Water Cove to greet the barge around 8 p.m.
“You might miss the panel discussion… but you won’t miss the barge,” says Clark, adding that the floating artwork will also be viewable from Fort Mason, the Exploratorium and Covey Cove on Saturday. “Night Watch” concludes its voyage in Oakland on Sunday.
An exhibition of Attie’s work at Clark’s gallery on Sept. 18 extends “Night Watch’s” stay into October and more artists’ talks, screenings and performances are scheduled through Nov. 5.
Visit www.immersiveartsalliance.org/nightwatch for a full list of programming and events.