May 22, 2022

Charlie Doodle

Unique Art & Entertainment

‘Night Watch’ transforms San Francisco Bay into art installation highlighting refugees

6 min read
People gather at Fort Mason to view “Night Watch,” a floating media installation created by Shimon Attie that displays portraits of refugees granted asylum in the U.S. on Sept. 17, 2021. Photo: Nick Otto / Special to The Chronicle

About 100 people gathered at San Francisco’s Rincon Park, waiting in anticipation for artist Shimon Attie’s “Night Watch” to come into view on the San Francisco Bay after dark on Friday, Sept. 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 it was announced on June 20, recognized as World Refugee Day. With Leo Villareal’s “Bay Lights” glimmering above and a bright moon and calm waters, the conditions from weather to tides had been carefully considered for the West Coast debut of the project, a video installation on a 20-foot LED screen affixed to a barge.

When “Night Watch’s” glow became visible heading south at 8:15 p.m. there was a swift exodus from several tables at nearby restaurants Epic Steak and Waterbar toward the waterfront.

For 20 minutes, the barge kept a steady position as Attie’s video portraits of 12 refugees granted political asylum in the United States — from countries including Colombia, Honduras, Jamaica, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Peru and Russia — were projected in a cycle on the screen.

First, the subjects, against a black backdrop, move toward the camera, as though emerging from the night sky. Once in position, there is a long closeup where viewers have time to engage with each face, stare into their eyes and follow their breathing. Even in a public park on the Embarcadero with a crowd, there was an intimacy to the experience because of the openness and vulnerability the subjects conveyed to Attie just by existing in front of his camera.

The Bay’s own connection to the history of immigration, as well as the element of the 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 moving fluid fleeting, like memory. It’s challenging to work with, it’s the opposite of a gallery or museum piece.”

People stop to view “Night Watch”, a floating media installation created by Shimon Attie that displays portraits of refugees granted asylum in the U.S, as it nears the Bay Bridge in San Francisco on Friday, September 17, 2021. Photo: Nick Otto / Special to The Chronicle

The sharp quality of the images on screen juxtaposed against the Bay setting, with its mix of technology and natural elements, were a majestic combination. But more importantly, there was an urgent relevance to the subject matter. How do you look at “Night Watch” in the fall of 2021 and not think about the people presently fleeing Afghanistan and Haiti?

Although the project initially debuted in 2018 in New York during the United Nations’ General Assembly, current events remind us that there will likely always be a news peg for the work.

“It was a powerful way to experience the issue,” said San Francisco residenJulie Yarborough, who dined on the patio at Epic Steak specifically to see the installation. “Seeing the different nationalities, ethnicities displayed on the screen, it’s hard to avoid the topic when it’s that big in front of you.”

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

The barge, captained by Matt Butler on Friday night, began its voyage from Angel Island, commemorating its role in California immigration, and made its first stop at Fort Mason, where the Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture hosted a viewing party. Prior to the barge’s arrival, crowds took in a performance of “Kindred Swell,” a site-specific dance by San Francisco choreographer and dancer Kim Ip.

But Friday was just the first night of this three day event over the weekend, which also coincides with the opening of “Here Not Here,” a survey show of Attie’s work at the Catharine Clark Gallery.

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

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

“I’m excited about the reach it has had,” said San Francisco gallerist and Boxblur organizer Catharine Clark. “The ideas resonate with so many kinds of communities. Shimon and his project are the seed, but it’s bigger than Shimon. It’s rippled out into something giant with all these points of entry for different generations, ethnicities, sexual orientation and different kinds of organizations.”

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

On Sunday, Sept. 19, the barge is expected to stop for viewing at the Brooklyn Basin and Jack London Square in Oakland.

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

Since the start of the pandemic, the need for both reengagement in the public arts as well as creating events that can safely adapt to ever-changing COVID safety measures have been widely recognized by Bay Area arts organizations. The involvement of so many of them in the programming surrounding “Night Watch” shows that they’re willing to invest in it.

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

For all the technological wow of the LED presentation, what makes “Night Watch” so effective is how people are centered at the work. Even after only one night, it was clear that what “Night Watch” most significantly does is help audiences create a connection to the topic by putting human faces to a global crisis.

A viewer among the crowd at Rincon Park was heard saying that the subjects’ gazes brought up questions about who was viewing who in the installation, and that the ambiguity made them feel “confronted” by the issue in a way that was hard to avert their attention.

Attie himself pointed out that wherever his installation is done, it connects the waterways we live near 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”: 6:15-9 p.m. Through Sunday, Sept. 19. Free. San Francisco Bay and various locations. cclarkgallery.com

“Here Not Here”: 10:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday. Through Oct. 30. Free. 248 Utah St., S.F. 415-399-1439. cclarkgallery.com

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‘Night Watch’ transforms San Francisco Bay into art installation highlighting refugees