Berkeley artist reworks contraband artifacts of ‘fear culture’

A barrage of shiny scissors hang from beneath a floating black umbrella, stabbing the space where one would hypothetically hide from the rain. This is the first thing that you see when you walk into Berkeley native Michele Pred’s art exhibit, “Confiscated.” The umbrella is one of nine pieces assembled from objects that were confiscated at San Francisco International Airport. Pred has been collecting these objects over the span of almost 10 years, since only a few months after airport security was reformed in response to the 9/11 attack. The artwork, which is a collection of confiscated objects assembled into the forms of national symbols, manifests the effect that 9/11 has had on American society in terms of transforming our cultural understanding of danger and security.

The umbrella piece, titled “Travelers,” is a comment on the false security created by the confiscation process. To Pred, airport security reminds travellers of potential danger while simultaneously instilling a sense of protection against it — a process which leaves them with a fabricated affirmation that they are being taken care of.

The most impressive aspect of the exhibit is the 234-piece grid of confiscated objects cemented into red, white and blue petri dishes with clear plastic and arranged into an American flag. At first glance, the flag registers as a pleasant Pop Art take on patriotism. With a closer look, however, the objects within the petri dishes tell a more provocative narrative. Tiny scissors, antique pocket knives, novelty lighters, an eyeglass screw driver, nuts and bolts, a golf cue, a pocket wrench. The array of objects goes on and on. Pred calls it “Fear Culture.” She is not only attempting to underline our culture’s basis on fear, but to illustrate how we have physically manifested that fear in manageable objects as an attempt to gain control of our anxieties.

Pred also wants to highlight that each object possesses its own historical weight and can be viewed as a time capsule made up of the “cultural residue” resulting from 9/11. “The fine text on the matchboxes, corkscrews and other items is suggestive of the complex geography of that moment, of people and commodities coming into conjuncture with one another,” Pred describes in her artist’s statement.

People from all over the world had possessions of varying degrees of sentimentality taken from them in response to this single event. Pred calls attention to the emotionally defeating process of having something confiscated through a collection of video interviews. Visitors can contribute their own narratives via an iPad at the exhibit.

Although Pred has displayed works under the same theme before, she wanted to open up the exhibit once more for the tenth anniversary of 9/11. “I think the anniversary is a way to process and understand the experience, and in some ways to heal … We are mourning over, in a sense, the death of safety in the United States,” she said in a phone interview.

By ascribing the national grieving of 9/11 to the process of confiscation, and materializing that through commonplace objects, Pred poignantly urges viewers to reflect on how the event has affected them personally, as well as society as a whole.

Pred is also interested in the way that reactions to the exhibit have changed over time. While shortly after 9/11 the shocked public had no issues with the security, she has found that people have gradually become increasingly skeptical of its necessity and effectiveness. “Back then if I had been vocal on a larger scale, it would have been considered extremely unpatriotic,” she said. Now, people are more receptive to her message.

“Confiscated” will be showing at The Jack Fischer Gallery in San Francisco until October 8th. In addition, Michele Pred will doing an artist talk this Saturday in the gallery at 4 p.m. When asked what she thinks the reaction would be if she were to show her work again in another decade, Pred answered that she believes in 10 years airports will no longer be confiscating items from passengers. Whether another 10 years time is enough to rebuild the foundation of fear slipped under American society remains to be seen.