I recently embarked on a journey that surprised quite a few people, myself included. What started out as an art project evolved into a series of questions that led in many directions, such as the process for the legal purchase of gun parts, the legal definition of a firearm, the difference between functioning and non-functioning gun parts, loopholes in international customs, the distinction between art materials and dangerous materials, and the gray zone of illegal activity.
I arrived in Miami last December for a two-month stay at The Fountainhead Residency, curious to find some new direction for a project. The natural environment in South Florida was amazing, and my first impulse was to use it somehow as a subject. But as interesting as it was, I was ambivalent about nature themes dominating a project. So I tried to re-examine Miami through a fresh perspective every day, to see what else was there.
One of those days I was ordering take-out food in Little Haiti when I noticed a postcard for a gun shop on the counter. It was somehow scary to see it there, but also inviting, and for some reason I decided to grab it. A gun has always been a strange, foreign thing to me; I can’t remember ever holding a real gun in my hand, let alone pulling a trigger. But now I wondered if some new-found access to guns could somehow develop into a project, and ultimately exemplify something “site-specific.”
- On Gunbroker, I won a barrel and a cylinder from a .357 Magnum (paid about $75 via PayPal).
- On eBay, I won a vintage toy water gun that looks identical to a .357 Magnum (paid about $7 via PayPal).
- Also on eBay, I won vintage wooden grips for a .357 Magnum (paid about $50 via PayPal).
Once I had the parts I made some slight modifications and was able to fit all of the pieces together. But the idea of finishing the sculpture and showing it in Berlin led me to the question of how to bring it there legally. To be on the safe side, I ground off parts of the metal pieces to remove serial numbers, and to create some “damage” that would not interfere with the aesthetic of the artwork. I also contacted my lawyer in Germany about all of this, asking her if she could research things on that end.
My luggage was checked in and I had about a two-hour wait before boarding. An hour before departure I was hanging out at the gate when two men in suits approached the counter and grabbed the mic of a loud-speaker. I already had a feeling that they were airport security, and that this was about me. “Mr. John van Berger please approach gate 21.” Ignoring the mispronunciation of my name, I walked over and introduced myself. As one politely asked for my passport, the other just stared at me blankly. I simply said with a smile, “Yeah, I know what this is about.” The official with my passport said, “OK. What’s going on with your suitcase?” I calmly explained I was a professional artist, transporting materials for a project. “Why do you have batteries in a plastic bag? How come your gun parts look concealed? You know, all we’d need to see is a wire connecting it all and you’d probably be in handcuffs right now!” and so on. They lectured me on how I should pack my suitcase, and the importance of declaring the gun parts when checking in. I basically got a slap on the wrist, and nothing was removed from my luggage. But in the end the security guys were actually quite friendly, and wished me a safe flight.
With a three-day layover in New York I had time to decide if I would proceed to bring everything to Berlin as planned, or if it was as reckless an idea as all my family and friends believed. My lawyer had checked with the Beschussamt and other customs authorities in Germany to find out the legal end of things. She emailed me, “don’t even try it,” and explained that it was definitely not allowed, regardless of the fact that the gun parts were to be used for an artwork. To do this by the book would be a complete headache, not to mention expensive. But after calling my airline, The Transportation Security Administration (T.S.A.), and Port Authority Police, I realized there was no law against what I was doing in the U.S., and that no one would need to see any documents, as the U.S. officials apparently had nothing to do with customs or international laws. What was important was declaring any firearm parts at the time of check-in. I concluded that if there was nothing hidden, it could be worth a try.
The flight was smooth, and I enjoyed some Bloody Marys to forget about any potential problems with the luggage. Once at Tegel, my body was shocked by the freezing cold draft creeping at me between the plane and the terminal. The clouds that I had seen from overhead twenty minutes before were now dooming above Berlin as a blanket of winter grey. I handed my passport to the border control agent, who spent more than a few seconds glancing between my passport and his computer screen. Eventually he handed it back to me without a word. But as soon as I walked towards the baggage claim I noticed a customs agent holding my special suitcase, standing next to two uniformed Berlin police. My heart began to race… and I seriously needed to pee…
The biggest dilemma I faced was to decide what to do and in what order: wait for my other checked-in suitcase, confront the customs guy, use the bathroom, or simply try to get back on the plane. In hindsight the process worked out perfectly. I just waited for the bathroom, then got the other luggage from the conveyor belt, and then, at last, confronted the customs guy. I waited for most of the passengers to leave the baggage claim, then walked over to him and said, “Hi, that’s my suitcase.” The agent asked for my baggage claim ticket, and then proceeded to hand the suitcase over to a police officer. In German, the officer asked me if I had the right papers for the gun. I looked at him with feigned surprise and responded in German, “I don’t have a gun! I only have parts of a sculpture that involves damaged gun parts.” Then it was his turn to look surprised. I explained I would gladly show him anything in my luggage, at which point we set the suitcase on a table as four policemen and two customs agents looked on with curiosity. I took out the suspicious pieces and pointed out where they had been damaged. But none of them could decide if they were damaged enough to be dysfunctional, and thus, allowed. I calmly said to them, “I don’t understand. I called my airline, the New York Police, no one said there would be a problem!” The agent replied, “Well, the laws in Germany are different than in America,” and I just responded, “Really?”
Eventually my luggage and I were escorted to the customs office where, after a few minutes of discussion among all of the agents, a head officer made the decision to let me keep it all; no papers, no fees, no arrest. They just handed everything back to me with a friendly Auf Wiedersehen. On my way home in the taxi a feeling of relief slowly settled in. But I also felt a slight disturbance at how easy, in the end, it was to get away with all of this.
This essay was originally published on ArtSlant.
Images by John von Bergen.