The Insecurities Project

Until air travel changed so dramatically last September, airport security gates were generally no-photo zones. Anyone snapping a picture while passing through the metal detector would likely be hit with a barrage of questions. Film confiscation, a strip search and a stern lecture wouldn't be out of the question, either. In today's heightened security climate, however, airline passengers are routinely asked by security personnel to prove that their cameras are indeed cameras. And the best way to do that -- especially if you're toting a manual camera -- is by taking a picture.

While chatting to several artist friends about how artists have been reacting to Sept. 11 and its violent aftermath with somber, "heavy" ideas, Isabelle Devos had an epiphany. The subject of airport security gate photos came up, and the Belgium-born visual artist became curious about what a cross-section of these pictures would reveal. So last fall, Devos bought a few newspaper ads and sent out a press release asking people to send her their unwanted airport snapshots. She got a smattering of local media coverage and received 10 submissions, one from as far away as Munich.

With a $6,000 grant in hand, Devos recently launched The Insecurities Project. She's interested in exploring one of the many changes in our security culture that's being unwittingly documented by people just doing what they're told.

"When exhibited," she writes on her Web site, "the final piece will create an intriguing record of one seemingly insignificant detail in our ever-changing world…. Throughout the gathering process, [I expect] to see patterns begin to emerge in the subject matter of the photos, giving shape to the project as it hurtles along."

Talking on the phone, Devos puts a more personal face on her intentions.

"It's sort of a stressful situation," she says about security checks. "Some people even have to remove their shoes! Normally, when you take a picture, you take a picture of something beautiful; a friend or family member. Now people have to take pictures when they don't really want to. You only have a second and you don't really have time to think. People have these unwanted photographs kicking around. I wondered if I collected them, what would I see?"

When Devos received her first batch of photos, she got pretty much the range of images she expected. One was a close-up shot of a guy in a blurry vest; it reminded her of the work of an out-of-focus painter she knows. There was another with a blurry figure in the foreground and a passerby in sharp focus in the background. Several depict bland airport interiors.

In addition to sending photos, either electronically or via snail mail, contributors are asked to say where they were traveling to and relate the circumstances behind the picture. Devos wants to blow up two dozen of the images she receives to two-feet by three-feet or three-by-four prints and curate an exhibit next year, an exhibit she thinks could travel to university galleries and public spaces throughout North America. She also intends to use the stories people send her as part of the show, and she's doing her own research into the terms "security" and "insecurity" -- even financial market "securities" -- which will help her create text as well.

Devos has a security gate photo of her own that may be part of the show. She took it in June, when she was taking her kids through the gate at the airport in Moncton, New Brunswick. Even though The Insecurities Project was underway, the moment snuck up on her and she didn't have a chance do anything devious or deliberate; she just snapped a shot of the line of travellers getting their bags checked.

"Someone said to me, 'You knew you were doing it,' but I still didn't have any time," she says. "I started laughing, because it hadn't even entered my mind until then. It was a nervous laugh."

Thinking that her unusual interest in airport security zone phone might spark concern from security officials, Devos half expects some kind of probing phone call or visit. For now, though, Devos is being left alone by the authorities to do her research and collect photos -- a process she considers artistic in and of itself.

"I don't really know what I'm going to get out of this," she says. "The theoretical/philosophical part of art, it comes to me only after the fact, even when I paint. The show will push its own way to where it wants to be. It's just a different take on all the heaviness since Sept. 11. It's just one of the little offshoots."

Dan Rubinstein is the news editor of Vue Weekly in Edmonton, Alberta. For more information about The Insecurities Project visit www.insecuritiesproject.com or contact Isabelle Devos at artist@insecuritiesproject.com.

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