Terminal: Ed Atkins, Walead Beshty, Simon Denny, Taryn Simon

Ed Atkins, Safe Conduct, 2016, video installation, 9min 4sec, Collection Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; Mervyn Horton Bequest Fund and German Foundation Tour 2018

A gross-out parody of airport instructional videos, Safe Conduct loops—violently, ominously, purposefully. Playing out across three video walls, it tracks a man slowly and torturously submitting to airport-security protocols in order to be designated a safe traveller, to be granted safe conduct. He empties the contents of his bag, his brain, and his body into trays. They are fed into the X-ray scanner, which demands to know everything—from his darkest fantasies to the contents of yesterday’s lunch. Mumbling mantras to himself, the man peels away and surrenders layers of his skin, his internal organs, severed head, and any illusion that he exists as a sovereign body. He is a walking embodiment of psychologist Paul Ekman’s idea of the human body as a ‘leaky container’ ready to divulge its secrets to authorities—a concept at the heart of the modern surveillance apparatus that is the post-9/11 airport.1 We become witness to a technological evisceration by a machine built to process bodies and freedoms, in order—we have to believe—to protect them.

As the cycle, with its Bolero soundtrack, nosily nears its absurd climax, we glimpse our battered traveller, having passed through security, seated on the plane. He buckles in with a belt made of tiny arms (‘please help yourself before assisting others’) and glances through the window and the screen with a look of pure horror, betraying his acceptance that this torturous process will start again at the other end of the journey, and each and every time he travels. Soon, after he adopts the foetal/brace position, the video restarts its strange loop, signalled by the siren call of the beeps and whirs of the airport soundscape.

Technological purgatory is Ed Atkins’s subject and also his medium. His computer-generated films satirise the dehumanising effects of our technological society on concepts of self and the body—especially the privileged white-male subject. Our traveller is a CGI model purchased from a software company, customised using facial-recognition and performance-capture technologies that let Atkins map his own features and movements upon it. The traveller, then, is a digital surrogate for Atkins, and the work a kind of mediated performance. He also becomes a surrogate for all travellers, a projection of collective fears and anxieties. Atkins treats him like a digital voodoo doll. He pricks and prods him to ensure that those looking up at this oppressive installation of screens and beams—which curator Justin Paton called ‘a high-tech torture rack’2—suffer with and through him.

At LAX, Mark Bradford’s Bell Tower (2014) employs a similar sense of sculptural oppression to upset the very passage that Atkins’s video charts—from the inside. Part jumbotron, part medieval bell tower, this hulking, multisided sculpture hovers above the TSA screening area. Bradford uses art to transport his audience out of this treacherous experience; Atkins to trap his within it. Atkins’s airport folds back onto the gallery space. Galleries, after all, present themselves as another form of ‘safe space’, while similarly putting visitors through the wringer. Ironically, Safe Conduct is the only work in Terminal with a ‘content may disturb’ disclaimer. It has been identified by invisible authorities as a potential threat to the ‘safe conduct’ of the visitor passing through the exhibition.

This specific surrogate—and others like him—is familiar from Atkins’s back catalogue. It is less usual to encounter them in a real-world setting, especially one as clearly defined as this computer-generated airport (albeit one that’s eerily vacated, as much Café ller as Heathrow). Atkins’s surrogates normally find themselves ‘trapped’ within the flat limbo space of the virtual world. Safe Conduct is part of Atkins’s recent push into three-dimensional settings, here achieved by blurring the airport and virtual environment as supposed ‘non-places’ existing apart from real-world rules and expectations.

Animated airport instructional videos provided Atkins with a cue to re-render this dynamic. As animations, they mask the airport’s physical and psychological effects by situating the experience outside the real world and physical bodies. The truth, he argues, is too terrifying to acknowledge:

If you actually had a live action version … there is something too obvious about the violence that people have to go through, or the stress, the anxiety, the paranoia … but if you have a cartoon funny guy removing his watch and putting it in a thing the suspension of disbelief, the illusion of the whole thing is able to continue.3

Charles and Ray Eames pioneered this strategy in their animated film The Expanding Airport, putting a utopian spin on the terminal as a friendly, human space. Yet, like the Tandem Sling Seats they also made for the terminals of the jet age, their film serves the airport rather than the human body. Those seats look modern and sleek, yet are designed for discomfort, denying any possibility of sleep—just one thing our weary traveller in Safe Conduct so desperately needs.

Safe Conduct fights back by grotesquely and gratuitously pushing the real-world implications of the seemingly innocuous instructional animation video. A more-recent Atkins series, Ninth Freedom (2020)—which has been shown with Safe Conduct—inserts disarming foley soundtracks into real inflight safety animations. In both works, Atkins ‘speaks of the reality … [by] push[ing] through its representation’.4 This approach lets Safe Conduct play up the abject horror of the security check as the purgatory of our age.

Another loop the work returns to is the meeting of the technologies of surveillance and art. Atkins uses the same facial-recognition and digital-mapping technologies as airport surveillance systems to monitor and profile passengers. His surrogate parallels the virtual ‘data doubles’ airports create of the travellers they process. (Covid-19-responsive thermal scanning and temperature checks have now added to these data flows. A failed test could be due to non-viral conditions, such as cancer treatment or urinary-tract infections—more bodily secrets that need to be disclosed to the security apparatus to protect the collective body.5) Atkins pushes the bizarre, horrific elements of this work without ever severing its connection to the real-world experience and brutality of the security check. As Toke Lykkeberg observes, this is one of Ed Atkins’s most absurd works, but also one of his most realistic.6

Safe Conduct is not defeatist. We suffer along with the traveller, yet there is something triumphant in his confrontation with the security apparatus. As Atkins says: ‘I survive it, mock it, make work out of it … to be able to reconstitute yourself afterwards is the prerogative of animation and the massively lucky traveller.’7 The same applies to the lucky viewers, who are granted some form of safe conduct through the work. Until, that is, the next time they line up for the security check and Bolero starts playing in the back of their heads.

Walead Beshty, Transparency [Positive (Fujichrome RDPIII Provia 100F Em. No. 064-821) December 19, 2018–January 6, 2019 LAX/EWR/FCO FCO/EWR/LAX; Negative (Kodak Portra 400NC Em. No. 1101) December 19, 2018–January 6, 2019 LAX/EWR/FCO FCO/EWR/LAX; Positive (Fujichrome RDPIII Provia 100F Em. No. 064-821) May 11–July 9, 2019 LAX/IAD/FCO NAP/GVA GVA/NCE NCE/NAP NAP/ZRH ZRH/FCO/NAP NAP/LGW LHR/LAX; Negative (Kodak Portra 400NC Em. No. 1101) May 11–July 9, 2019 LAX/IAD/FCO NAP/GVA GVA/NCE NCE/NAP NAP/ZRH ZRH/FCO/NAP NAP/LGW LHR/LAX; Positive (Fujichrome RDPIII Provia 100F Em. No. 064-821) August 29–September 9, 2019 LAX/ORD/BRU CRL/TSF VCE/FCO/LAX; Negative (Kodak Portra 400NC Em. No. 1101) August 29–September 9, 2019 LAX/ORD/BRU CRL/TSF VCE/FCO/LAX; Positive (Fujichrome RDPIII Provia 100F Em. No. 064-821) October 10–26, 2019 LAX/EWR EWR/LAX; Negative (Kodak Portra 400NC Em. No. 1121) October 10–26, 2019 LAX/EWR EWR/LAX; Positive (Fujichrome RDPIII Provia 100F Em. No. 064-821) November 20–22, 2019 LAX/EWR EWR/LAX; Negative (Kodak Portra 400NC Em. No. 1121 November 20–22, 2019 LAX/EWR EWR/LAX]  2019, archival inkjet prints

Walead Beshty had a jet-fuelled 2019. The year started in Italy, with an exhibition in Naples. He was in Italy again in May, en route to Geneva for a solo exhibition at Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain, while taking in Brussels and London. He returned to Brussels for an exhibition in September, and attended the Venice Biennale, before returning to Los Angeles via Chicago. A month later, he had an exhibition at Petzel Gallery in New York, and he made that return trip again in November. These are just the exhibitions he travelled for. We know about these movements through the 2019 iteration of his Transparencies project (cross-referenced against his CV). It consists of ten parts, each made during transit. Whenever he travels, Beshty leaves unexposed 4×5 film in his checked baggage to be exposed by the X-ray beam of the baggage scanner. The Transparencies are presented in year-long increments. Each indexes the amount of travel he undertook that year, and is titled according to the airport codes and dates of travel.

These photographs are produced by the X-ray machine via the global contemporary-art world. Both are treated as readymades. In one sense, the photographs are not about Beshty as artist (he sets the parameters but is not responsible for their production or look). In another, they are all about Beshty as artist (mapping his travels, where his audiences and galleries are located, when opportunities spiked or levelled out).

The idea developed out of an airport experience. In 2006, Beshty was working on his Travel Pictures—photographs of an abandoned Iraqi diplomatic office in Berlin. On his journey from Los Angeles, the film was corrupted after accidentally passing through several X-ray machines. This damage registered as light bands, colour flares, and fogged areas. The photographed site and the photographic damage fused, transforming the project. Both were embraced as material traces of the politics of travel and border control, specifically connected to the Iraq War, which led to the closure of the office and increased airport-surveillance systems.

Beshty started using this surveillance system as a generator rather than a destroyer of art, handing over the making of the work to the X-ray scanner. The colour washes in his Transparencies may appear abstract, but they are concrete expressions of invisible surveillance technologies. The photographs are ‘transparent’—emptied of pictorial content and any sense of underlying theme, metaphor, or symbolism. They reveal only the conditions, logics, and systems of their own production. They are not images of the world, but objects that pass through it, as and when the artist does. They come out of accident and chance, and find agency and freedom in the subversion of technologies engineered to order and control. In ceding art to the machine, Beshty perversely reveals the agency we can find in systems that purport to control us.

The Transparencies align with Beshty’s FedEx pieces—glass boxes shipped to order for exhibitions, and displayed in the exact condition they arrived, alongside the standard FedEx boxes they travelled in. Both projects use the international circulation of objects as a mechanism to produce work. It is movement within this system that generates the works’ appearance, meaning, and worth (smashed glass boxes and exposed film are, in a sense, more successful than undamaged ones). These objects pass through many hands and technologies, becoming art only after they leave the studio and the artist’s control. Beshty reveals the conditions for all art that operates within the art system.

The Transparencies project embraces its inevitable obsolescence. While the start and end points of each iteration are structured by the calendar, the larger project will stop when changes to the conditions of production it depends on make it impossible to continue. When this work was prepared and crated for Terminal, the most likely project-ending scenario would probably have been the discontinuation of the photographic film it uses or technology upgrades at the border. But this has changed with Covid-19. The project is now more likely to be impacted by the recalibration of the aviation and art industries in response to the pandemic. There will be changes to how we fly and to the once-lauded globalised art network that the Transparencies have always problematised, while parasitically participating in. Each iteration anticipates the next. The difference between the 2019 and 2020 iterations may be the most telling yet.

The iteration sent over for Terminal has been directly impacted by these changes, in ways that link it to the FedEx works. At the time of writing—one week after the exhibition’s originally scheduled opening—the photographs still sit in secure storage at the Auckland branch of the international art courier Global Specialised Services. They cleared customs but were bumped as a non-essential transport item. Their journey to Terminal was halted, as was the Air New Zealand LAX-AKL flight they arrived on (which has always been a gateway for New Zealand art to the world). According to the parameters of the project, they just continue to accrue meaning.

Simon Denny, Marciana Library/Marco Polo Airport Overlay Proposal Diagram 3,  2015, silkscreen on plastic, Jim Barr and Mary Barr Loan Collection, Dunedin Public Art Gallery

In 2013, Edward Snowden spent forty days living in the transit lounge of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Alexander S. Pushkin International Airport. Indicted under the Espionage Act for leaking classified National Security Agency documents that exposed the existence of an unlawful global-surveillance system, Snowden landed in Russia to find his passport cancelled. Unable to either enter or leave the country, he was stuck in the transit lounge while his application for temporary asylum was processed.

Simon Denny’s project Secret Power, which analysed global surveillance and espionage culture via the Snowden leaks, was Aotearoa New Zealand’s official presentation at the 2015 Venice Biennale. It would play out over two sites. The main part was staged at the historic Marciana Library on Piazzetta San Marco—a humanist centre of power, knowledge, and learning. It holds rare texts from antiquity and maps from the Age of Exploration. The second site, at first, sounds far less revelatory. Denny was the first artist in the history of the Biennale to stage a project inside Marco Polo Airport—the gateway for most international travellers to Venice. (Thanks to his Transparencies project, we know that Walead Beshty passed through and made work there in 2019.) Airports are the most visible apparatus of the global-surveillance complex that for the most part is invisible—at least until the Snowden leaks.
One of the most high-profile leaks exposed how Canada’s electronic spy agency had illegally harvested metadata from the wireless devices of unsuspecting travellers via airport free-WiFi hotspots, which continued for a week after they left the terminal. This was a trial operation for a new passenger-tracking system undertaken with the NSA—one that is now probably ‘fully operational’.13 The level of surveillance that passengers knowingly accept at the airport in exchange for safe travel is just the tip of the iceberg.

Denny collapsed these two spaces and their systems of information gathering and sharing into one another, linking old-world and new-world forms of power, control, and world building. A series of modified-computer-server-racks-as-vitrines were installed in the Library. They featured materials related to the Snowden files and the visual culture of surveillance. Here, this material sat alongside the Library’s famous collection of maps and globes—documents of the renaissance world being charted, routed, and controlled. Denny made a contemporary addendum to the Library’s iconic ‘golden staircase’ built to symbolise ascension through levels of knowledge. Visitors now had to enter the Library up the stairs and through new sliding plexiglass doors of the contemporary security check—symbolising a very different form of passage through the world. The Library’s painted ceiling was photographed, printed on adhesive vinyl, and applied to the floor of the airport, stretching from the border-control zone into the baggage hall, crossing the carefully protected borders between Schengen and non-Schengen spaces (subject to European and international law respectively). Denny treated both the Library and the Airport as sites of power that regulate the flow of people, data, and individual and collective freedoms across borders.14

Denny was drawing out connections already hidden in plain sight. The airport was built in 2002 as ‘a union of tradition and technology’.15 It takes architectural cues from the historic city, offers vistas of its skyline, and is named after the famous thirteenth-century Venetian merchant and explorer Marco Polo. His opening of international trade routes initiated an era of globalisation and expansion, where the world was reorganised by centralised forces we might now call ‘intelligence’. This airport looked forwards as well as backwards. The first European airport built after 9/11, it was an early adopter of the advanced data-management and communication-security systems that US authorities insisted become mandatory. Architects Studio Architetto Mar described its high resolution video-surveillance and facial-recognition technologies as ‘an avant-garde security system’.16

Denny’s act of ‘space/time collision’17 makes this ultra-contemporary airport part of a much older system of power and control, while the historic library becomes a default site of contemporary geopolitical images and ideologies. He exposes the way that both sites are ‘charged with information’.18 The project performs one of globalisation’s greatest tricks against itself, collapsing time and space to reveal the covert workings and effects of surveillance capitalism.

Secret Power drew attention to the role of artists in these systems. Titian, Fra Mauro, Studio Architetto Mar, and, especially, mysterious former NSA Creative Director David Darchicourt were all implicated. Darchicourt oversaw the NSA’s internal communications and was a key creator of the visual culture of surveillance. He presided over the entire project as the embodiment of a particular form of contemporary knowledge—like the ancient philosophers depicted on the walls of the Library. He even unwittingly contributed to Secret Power in the form of a garish map of New Zealand commissioned by Denny.

Denny’s reframing NSA internal documents as art echoes Taryn Simon’s photographing the CIA’s modern-art collection as an expression of political ideology in An American Index (for which she also photographed the New Jersey landing site of the Transatlantic submarine cable that enables mass surveillance). Both projects address the airport, reveal secret systems and structures, and test the role art can play in support of or in opposition to them. Denny’s project was endorsed and funded by the New Zealand government, while exposing the country’s role in the Five Eyes spying alliance.

Responding to Secret Power, Darchicourt was able to laugh off the irony of an artist gathering and spreading his information without consent. What the Guardian termed ‘reverse-espionage’19, he called ‘flattering and creepy’.20 He did react by removing some sensitive images from his online portfolio. Meanwhile, Denny’s graphics are yet to be removed from the floors and baggage carousel at San Marco Airport. Five years later, they have become—like the cameras and other security apparatus—a naturalised, inconspicuous, but inherently dangerous part of the airport environment.

Taryn Simon, Contraband, 2010, archival inkjet prints in plexiglass boxes

An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar (2007) enters the white noise of the restricted spaces of post-9/11 America. Working through various government, state, and industry officials, Taryn Simon accessed and photographed the great unseen apparatus of contemporary American power. She took us to places hidden in plain sight that shape public discourse and politics: weapons-development-and-testing sites, a nuclear-storage facility, a corpse-strewn forensic-anthropology research lab. Another image festers with decay. Resembling an old-master still life, it shows an abundance of organic matter dumped on a stainless-steel table in a clinical institutional space. A disturbing mask-like pig’s head sits atop the pile of fruit, plant matter, and meat. Taken inside the contraband room at JFK, the photograph shows all the organic material seized by customs staff from incoming passengers over a twenty-four-hour period. It’s a grotesque contemporary tableaux set in the carefully guarded space between the US and other countries—the byproduct of policies designed to shield citizens from invasive pests and from their own ‘exotic’ tastes and desires.

Realising that the potential of this site remained untapped, Simon returned to JFK to make Contraband in 2009. This project would take different form. Simon and her team spent an entire working week at the airport. They worked around the clock with border-control authorities to open up the project to the airport’s rhythm, its labour practices, and the ceaseless flow of objects and people across borders. Contraband is a collection of photographs of all 1,075 items seized at JFK’s Customs and Border Inspection Site and US Postal Service International Mail Facility over the designated period.

Where the photograph from the earlier series was elaborately staged and aestheticised, these images are more forensic and mechanical. Each seizure was photographed. From the illicit (heroin) to the mundane (a ham-and-cheese sandwich), each was treated uniformly. It was arranged to reveal its contents and any packaging it may have been transported in, then photographed against a neutral grey background. The production-line aesthetic emulates the ‘painful repetition’ of objects that relentlessly pass through the security X-ray machine at any given time.8

Simon indexes, rather than editoralises or moralises. The contraband is arranged alphabetically (from alcohol to the sleeping pill Zolpidem), in small or large groups depending on the volume of items seized (a single yam was confiscated, while there were forty seizures of khat—a chewable African plant-based stimulant). The accompanying index classifies each item according to data provided by customs and border-protection agents: its country of origin (if known), the code it violates, and the reasons for its seizure.

Contraband parasitically folds border-control’s operations into its own. Simon describes it as a portrait of desire and an endurance performance—referring to acquiring the necessary permissions as well as its epic execution.9 These photographs come from deep within the contraband room and the apparatus of the airport. Contraband’s deadpan, classificatory approach also opens onto issues related to the geopolitics of border control, giving visual form to the international traffic in counterfeit goods and to post-9/11 economies of global movement and exchange. Simon began the project expecting to photograph drugs and guns. The volume of seized counterfeit goods came as a surprise—revealing border control’s role in protecting brand identity and global capitalism, as well as primary industries.10

Simon’s mugshots of shadowy items tap into photography as an agent of authoritarian control. The human subject is absent, yet implied. The photographs become surrogate portraits of the passengers who transported the contraband across the border—whose motives and punishments remain unknown. Two ‘accidentally seized’ immigration applications sit amongst the contraband. Along with the index’s tracing the items’ geographic origins (predominately Africa, South America, and Asia), these documents link the migration of items to the migration of people caught within this system, while suggesting levels of cultural clash and prejudice that are upheld by law and enforced at the border.

While Contraband’s deadpan style apes the tone of officialdom, its idiosyncratic sculptural arrangements feel aligned to the passengers’ intricate means of concealment (cold meats pressed inside a child’s jacket, a counterfeit Louis Vuitton handbag ‘disguised’ within a generic-brand one). Simon seems as drawn to these acts of inventive subterfuge as to the processes and systems set up to detect them. Seen in this way, the disguised bag can stand in for Contraband as a critical project that conceals itself as a complicit, even documentary one. It works both sides of the security line. Contraband begs us to imagine its shadow collection—all the illicit items that passed through border control undetected over that period. Noting passenger-survey findings that eighty percent of contraband makes its way into the US, art historian Claire Courtney Payne suggests that a ‘cynical reading’ might see Simon’s project less as a victory for border control than ‘an articulation of 1,075 ways the economy or people of the United States might come under attack’.11

Where An American Index made visible hidden internal systems and structures within the US, Contraband looks to what—and by extension who—the country strives to keep outside its borders. Both projects operate as X-rays of the national psyche and interests. Simon has pointed out the final irony of the project, which connects to the idea of the counterfeit.12 Like all of those fake Louis Vuitton handbags, a photograph is a copy. Simon, then, makes copies of copies that were pulled out of circulation and destroyed as threats to the economic system. Her photographic copies were granted safe passage out of the contraband room and into the US. From there they were able to freely participate in the international art economy—which emerges as another of those shadowy global forces and regulatory systems navigated by Contraband and all of Simon’s work.

Published in Terminal (Wellington: City Gallery Wellington, 2020), 34-51.

1        Leeron Tur-Kaspa, ‘SAATA: Surveilling Art at the Airport’, master’s thesis, Dutch Art Institute, Art Praxis and Graduate School, Art EZ University of the Arts, Arnhem, 2019: 11.

2        Justin Paton, ‘Ed Atkins: Unsafe Conduct’, Look, September–October 2019: 53.

3        ‘Safe Conduct: Ed Atkins in the X-Room’, National Gallery of Denmark, 2018,

4        Ibid.

5        Natasha Frost, ‘Airport Surveillance Is about to Reach a Whole New Level of Ridiculousness’, Slate, 15 June 2020, http://www.slate.com/technology/2020/06/flying-airports-coronavirus-surveillance.html.

6        Toke Lykkeberg, ‘Hollywood Structuralism in a Collapsed Age’, Kunstkritikk, 23 March 2016, http://www.unstkritikk.com/hollywood-structuralism-in-a-collapsed-age/.

7        Ibid.

8        Hans Ulrich Obrist, ‘Ever Airport: Notes on Taryn Simon’s Contraband’, Taryn Simon: Contraband (Göttingen: Hatje Cantz, 2015), 7.

9        Ibid.

10     ‘Blow-Up: Brian De Palma and Taryn Simon in Conversation’, Artforum, Summer 2012: 3.

11     Claire Courtney Payne, ‘Knowledge Organization as Critique: Postcolonial Positions in Taryn Simon’s Contraband’, master’s thesis, University of North Carolina, 2019: 14.

12 Camilla Boemio, ‘Interview with Taryn Simon: Contraband’, Landscape Stories, 1 November 2011, http://www.magazine.landscapestories.net/en/interviews/taryn-simon-contraband.

13     Greg Weston, ‘CSEC Used Airport Wi-Fi to Track Canadian Travellers: Edward Snowden Documents’, CBC News, 30 January 2013, http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/csec-used-airport-wi-fi-to-track-canadian-travellers-edward-snowden-documents-1.2517881.

14     Denny’s use of the airport-terminal floor as a site would play out in his 2019 project Mine at Hobart’s MoNA, where the exhibition experience was transformed into a boardgame, where visitors follow set pathways and devices as pieces or data flows in someone else’s game.

15     Studio Architetto Mar, ‘New Terminal, Marco Polo Airport: Tessera, Venezia, Italy, 2002’, http://www.architonic.com/en/project/studio-architetto-mar-new-terminal-marco-polo-airport/5100588.

16     Ibid.

17     Chris Kraus, ‘Here Begins the Dark Sea’, Simon Denny: Secret Power (Milan and London: Mousse Publishing and Koenig Books, 2015), 24.

18     ‘Mary Barr Talks to Simon Denny’, Simon Denny: Secret Power, 96.

19     Charlotte Higgins, ‘Simon Denny, the Artist Who Did Reverse Espionage on the NSA’, Guardian, 5 May 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/may/05/edward-snowden-nsa-art-venice-biennale-reverse-espionage.

20     Ryan Gallagher, ‘Inside the Secret World of NSA Art’, The Intercept, 12 June 2015, theintercept.com/2015/06/11/secret-power-nsa-darchicourt-art-denny/.