‘Night Watch’ turns San Francisco Bay into an art installation showcasing refugees

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People gather in Fort Mason to see “Night Watch,” a floating media installation created by Shimon Attie that displays portraits of refugees who have been granted asylum in the United States on September 17, 2021. Photo: Nick Otto / Special for The Chronicle

About 100 people gathered at Rincon Park in San Francisco, eagerly awaiting artist Shimon Attie’s “Night Watch” to appear on San Francisco Bay after dark on Friday, September 17.

The collaboration between Boxblur and the Immersive Arts Alliance has been one of the most talked about public art events in the Bay Area since its announcement on June 20, recognized as World Refugee Day. With Leo Villareal’s “Bay Lights” twinkling above, a bright moon and calm waters, weather conditions, tides had been carefully considered for the project’s beginnings on the West Coast, a video installation on a 20-foot LED screen attached to a barge.

When the “Night Watch” glow became visible looking south at 8:15 PM, there was a rapid exodus of several tables from the nearby Epic Steak and Waterbar restaurants to the waterfront.

For 20 minutes, the barge held a steady position as Attie’s video portraits of 12 refugees who have been granted political asylum in the United States – from countries such as Colombia, Honduras, Jamaica, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Peru and Russia – were cycled on the screen. .

First, the subjects, on a black background, move towards the camera, as if they were coming out of the night sky. Once in position, there is a long, close-up where viewers have time to engage with each face, look them in the eye, and follow their breaths. Even in a public park in the Embarcadero with a crowd, there was an intimacy to the experience due to the openness and vulnerability subjects imparted to Attie simply by existing in front of his camera.

The bay’s own connection to immigration history, as well as the element of water itself, also added power to the presentation.

“Water is an ethereal medium,” Attie told The Chronicle in an interview in August. “It’s always changing, always in motion, fluid, fleeting, like memory. It’s difficult to work with, it’s the opposite of a gallery or a museum piece.

People stop to see “Night Watch,” a floating media installation created by Shimon Attie that displays portraits of refugees who have been granted asylum in the United States, as she approaches the Bay Bridge in San Francisco on Friday September 17, 2021. Photo: Nick Otto / Special for The Chronicle

The sharpness of the images on the screen juxtaposed with the The bay setting, with its blend of technology and natural elements, was a majestic combination. But more importantly, there was urgent relevance to the topic. How do you watch “Night Watch” in the fall of 2021 without thinking about the people who are currently fleeing Afghanistan and Haiti?

Although the project initially debuted in 2018 in New York at the United Nations General Assembly, current events remind us that there will likely always be an anchor for the work.

“It was a powerful way to find out about the problem,” said Julie Yarborough, a San Francisco resident, who dined on Epic Steak’s terrace specifically to view the installation. “Seeing the different nationalities, ethnicities displayed on the screen, it’s hard to avoid the subject when it’s so big in front of you. “

People gather at Fort Mason to see “Night Watch,” a floating media installation created by Shimon Attie that displays portraits of refugees who have been granted asylum in the United States, in San Francisco on Friday, September 17, 2021. Photo: Nick Otto / Special for The Chronicle

The houseboat, commissioned by Matt Butler on Friday night, began its journey from Angel Island, commemorating his role in immigration to California, and made its first stop at Fort Mason, where the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture hosted a viewing evening. Before the barge arrived, crowds watched a performance of “Kindred Swell,” a site-specific dance by San Francisco choreographer and dancer Kim Ip.

But Friday was only the first night of the three-day event over the weekend, which also coincides with the opening of “Here Not Here,” an exhibition investigating Attie’s work at the Catharine. Clark Gallery.

In addition to viewings of “Night Watch” in person on Friday, Attie’s portraits were shown on the tower of the San Francisco Art Institute in Russian Hill and outside the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

Other partner organizations include the California College for the Arts, the Minnesota Street Project, and the Saint Joseph’s Arts Foundation.

“I am thrilled with the reach he has had,” said Catharine Clark, gallery owner and organizer of Boxblur in San Francisco. “Ideas resonate with so many types of communities. Shimon and his project are the seed, but it’s bigger than Shimon. It has turned into something giant with all these entry points for different generations, ethnicities, sexual orientations and different types of organizations.

In-person viewing locations on Saturday, September 18 will again include Fort Mason as well as Warm Water Cove in San Francisco, with a video viewing event at the Minnesota Street Project.

On Sunday, September 19, the barge is scheduled to stop for a visit to the Brooklyn Basin and Jack London Square in Oakland.

“Night Watch”, a floating media installation created by Shimon Attie that displays portraits of refugees who have been granted asylum in the United States near the Bay Bridge in San Francisco on Friday, September 17, 2021. Photo: Nick Otto / Special for The Chronicle

Since the onset of the pandemic, the need for a re-engagement in the public arts as well as the creation of events that can safely adapt to the ever-changing COVID security measures have been widely recognized by arts organizations across Canada. the Bay Area. The involvement of so many of them in the programming around “Night Watch” shows that they are ready to invest in it.

“It’s so encouraging. It’s so San Francisco, ”said Adam Swig, founder of the event partner, Value Culture, arts organization. “It’s not just the artistic community here, it’s everyone. … Seeing all arts and culture groups come together for this is important, there couldn’t be a better time for it than now.

Despite all the technological wonder of the LED presentation, what makes “Night Watch” so effective is the way people are focused on work. Even after just one night, it was clear that what “Night Watch” does the most is help audiences connect with the topic by putting human faces to a global crisis.

A spectator among the crowd at Rincon Park was heard to say that the subjects’ gazes raised questions about who was watching whom in the installation, and that the ambiguity made them feel “confronted” by the problem in a way that was. difficult to avoid. Warning.

Attie himself has pointed out that wherever his installation is made, it connects nearby waterways with the journey of immigrants and refugees who have used them for safe passage, prompting viewers to reexamine the stories in our own communities.

“Night watch”: 6:15 p.m. to 9 p.m. until Sunday, September 19. Free. San Francisco Bay and various locations. cclarkgallery.com

“Here not here”: 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday to Friday; 11 am-6pm Saturday. Until October 30. Free. 248 Utah St., SF 415-399-1439. cclarkgallery.com

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