Shimon Attie, Night Watch (Norris), 2021. (Image courtesy the artist, Mullowney Printing and BoxBlur)

Night Watch: A new kind of film festival is coming to San Francisco Bay

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What does a community look like? This is just one question that Shimon Attie's Night Watch invites.

The 20-foot-wide LED video features portraits of refugees and asylees, many of them LGBTQIA+ and unaccompanied minors. Collectively, they represent the most vulnerable of populations fleeing their home countries to seek asylum in the United States. But that's not all. Already a powerful feat of public art, the enormous screen is also mounted on a barge that moves its way through the Northern Bay Area and Oakland Estuary.


Night Watch is a masterpiece of institutional arts collaboration, as well. The project gathered steam behind the energy of Catharine Clark, founding director of Catharine Clark Gallery, and BoxBlur. This project, which Clark calls her "love letter to the city," came together with the support of more than 40 distinct arts institutions in little more than a year's time. For Clark, who is celebrating the 30th anniversary of Catharine Clark gallery, this love letter was an opportunity to, once again, congregate as an artistic community.

Incredibly, the barge will make its way around the San Francisco Bay for three nights of free shoreline viewing, prompting a plethora of onshore activations from partnered organizations. Join the 15-piece brass marching band as they march to the Warm Water Cove; reserve a ticket at Cowell Theater for an evening of dance; or listen to the music of Classical Revolution along the shoreline in Oakland. Night Watch is a festival of experiences for everyone.

Night Watch debuts at historic Angel Island, a site which saw generations of immigrants arrive amid intense scrutiny and racism during the early 20th century. By beginning here, Night Watch nods to the currently fraught politics surrounding the arrival of refugees amid a rise of nativism in the United States. When we see faces of people indistinguishable on the surface from U.S. citizens and displayed on such a large scale, we are forced to grapple with the current presence of vulnerable populations in our community and the political context in which they arrive. According to Catherine Seitz, the legal director of the Immigration Institute of the Bay Area, we must also confront the unknowability of an immigrant's personal story of arriving here.

"They're the people who our kids go to school with, or we go to church with; sometimes they came here seeking opportunity but other times it was because they were pushed out by violence. You just never know. You can't judge a book by its cover."

Shimon Attie is well acquainted with the rich geographic and individual histories of the Bay Area community. Though a New York-based artist, he grew up in San Francisco, and the questions he asks in his art are in many ways a product of his time growing up in the city. Attie uses his art, not necessarily to preach to his audience, but instead "the hope is to create complex, affective, emotional, and experiential moments for the viewer, whereby some oxygen, maybe even some poetic oxygen, is created that allows for a shifting, subtle kind of reconsideration."

In short, his art is an invitation. It is an invitation to open oneself up and experience the transformative potential of art.

Shimon Attie, 'Night Watch' (Norris with Liberty), 2018. Originally produced by Moreart.org in New York City. Courtesy of Shimon Attie.

There will be opportunities to experience Attie's larger body of work, in addition to viewing Night Watch. Catharine Clark Gallery presents Here, Not Here from September 18th to October 31st. Featuring acclaimed projects representing decades of Attie's artistic career, the exhibition also debuts an exciting new video, Time Laps Dance, which features Brazilian martial artists in a bitingly humorous critique. The oeuvre of Attie's work contextualizes and elaborates on the themes of identity, memory, and location so prominently displayed in Night Watch.

Bearing witness to Night Watch in tandem with Attie's legacy affirms the communal invitation to acknowledge, celebrate, and experience the undeniable fact that our community includes everyone; from the most privileged of us to the most vulnerable, from people living here for generations to people who have just arrived.

Presenting organizations include Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, California College for the Arts, Congregation Emanu-El, Gray Area, Fort Mason Center for Arts & Culture, Minnesota Street Project, Museum of the African Diaspora, PhotoAlliance, Saint Joseph's Arts Foundation, San Francisco Art Institute, and University of San Francisco.

// Night Watch is on display September 17 -19; find more info at immersiveartsalliance.org.


This article was written by Luke Williams for SF/Arts Monthly. Williams is a Bay Area-based writer and artist whose works include Black literary, visual, and performing arts. His writing has appeared in KQED, New York Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, among others. You can follow his personal blog at explorationsme.wordpress.com

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