Homeland Insecurity Ignites Adams ArtSpace

ArtsMonday: Interactive displays and mix of art media make for unique, open dialogues on war

ENTERTAINMENT SYSTEM
Roberta BEATRIZ A. camacho

This display of television sets and other interactive installations offered onlookers an innovative forum for discussion on issues of war, displaying artists' creative responses to political challenges.

Better Homes and Guardians

Adams House ArtSpace, April 19

Within the peaceful courtyard of Adams House, there’s a protest going on. It’s as aesthetically pleasing as the manicured gardens, as community-oriented as the four enclosed walls of the House and as intellectually provocative as any of the discussions going on inside students’ rooms.

“Better Homes and Guardians” opened last Saturday in the Adams ArtSpace, promoted as “the Domestic Frontier of Homeland Security.” Curated by non-resident tutor Lisa L. Gordon ’93 and David Publow, the exhibition combines interactive media, live performance, painting, sculpture, photography, video and text—all with the hope of opening a community dialogue on what they’ve labeled “homeland insecurity.”

Stemming from discussions on the Adams “schmooze” e-mail list, students were invited to bring forth their thoughts about the state of the nation. Gordon describes e-mail as “a raw and direct means of communication,” and so she encouraged students to visually manipulate printed copies of e-mail and display them censored, cut up and highlighted.

But this wall of e-mail exchange is only one facet of the unique exhibition with pieces by Harvard undergraduates, faculty and local artists. Human performers moved among the crowd at the opening, tagged with labels that read “with us” on one side and “against us” on the other. A young woman nicknamed “Media Frenzy” chatted with the audience in her slashed newsprint wig and dress, and “Miss Homeland USA” strutted around in camouflage hot pants, explaining that she was the USO girl of the future—when America would be in the seventh year of its “holy crusade” against the rest of the world.

The exhibition’s dialogue continued in both text and images, from video footage of modern-day Iraq to multicolored quotes from friends and family responding to the question, “What do you wish for?” to a tea party of duck-taped stuffed animals.

Many of the items exhibited invited interaction. One shopping cart depicted politician’s pictures next to brand names—former President Bill Clinton as Charmin, former presidential candidate Bob Dole on a white meat-only can of chicken soup and President Bush smiling patronizingly from a bag of Cheez-its. This accessible medium broke down traditional barriers between the display and spectators, delivering a message with more immediacy than a museum piece could.

In the highlight of the evening, suited members of the “Compassionate Conservative Authority” approached the audience and asked them, in heavy Southern drawls, to complete questionnaires about their activities. The participants were photographed and invited to spin the wheel on the “Terrorist Slot Machine,” a video pop-up with “Slots for Security.” As the suits clapped and cheered, “Let’s catch a terrorist,” three photographs lined up on the screen—in this game, three of a kind meant a successful conviction.

Many of the pieces leaned towards the evocative and politically conscious rather than the campy. Fake checks from the “Bank of the Lapsed Conscience” showed the $3.75 billion given by the United States to Israel each year in aid and cited statistics of human rights abuses that tax dollars allegedly support. And under a large sign reading “Fear is Love,” audience members saw video footage of the other room of the two-room ArtSpace—realizing all their movements were recorded as they moved among the works.

Though touted as an open dialogue inviting all political persuasions to voice their opinions, the production was clearly dominated by the far left. Still, many images of flags were around—admittedly, with a sense of irony attached.

While the event has closed its run after addressing a variety of political issues with strong artistic sensibilities and intellectual wit, there is still one last chance to participate in its homeland security dialogue, in a gallery talk on Monday night at 6 p.m. If that discussion is anywhere near as provocative as the exhibit itself was, this is a forum not to be missed.

—Crimson Arts visual arts critic Sandra E. Pullman be reached at pullman@fas.harvard.edu.