• Red Alert: From an Artist’s Perspective
  • Detail of Hall of Reflections (2003), installation, Taraneh Hemami Red Alert (2004), Chris Cobb, red tape on curb, Sacramento Street, San Francisco I found a place with parked cars and after they left I put red tape along the curb all up and down the street (Sacramento Street). The next day no cars parked there because of the red curb. My point was to extend the short amount of red at the corner so that the police would have symbolically extended their control/authority just by using the color red.

I am fascinated by how painterly our government has become with its seemingly abstract use of color. Originally, the color coded alert system introduced after 9/11/2001 was supposed to tell the public how serious the threat of a terrorist attack is at any given time. But that’s not how it’s working. Instead, we are given mixed messages about the alerts and what the colors mean. In theory, “Green” alert means “low risk.” “Blue” alert means “guarded risk.” “Yellow” alert means “elevated risk.” “Orange” alert means “high risk”. But what does “red” alert mean? What, exactly, is “severe” risk? According to the Department of Homeland Security’s Web site, red alert, it seems, could mean anything. It could happen to just one city, or state, or to the entire country. What is supposed to happen during a red alert is still largely unknown. By definition it is site specific and therefore cannot be defined until it happens.

This question is especially important now because it has come out time and time again that the information that drives the orange alerts has been false, misleading or flat out lies. Before the Iraq war, it turned out that Ahmed Chalabi had been feeding us most of the fake information about WMD. Not only did he stand to gain both financially and politically from lying but it later turned out that one of his aides was a double agent working for Iran and the United States. When they are not being lied to by shills like Chalabi, American intelligence agencies get their information from prisoners whom our military may or may not be torturing in Guantanamo Bay, Iraq, or Afghanistan, or from non-specific “chatter” gleaned through surveillance, all of which is inherently unreliable. After all, most people would say anything or sign anything under threat of torture.

All of this might seem unbelieveable if it didn’t have such real world effects on life in America. When the threat levels change, law enforcement must adapt. The hysteria surrounding threat levels has brought armed soldiers to patrol the streets of New York, has placed anti-aircraft missile batteries around Washington D.C. and national guardsmen with automatic weapons at the Golden Gate Bridge. Like the mythological Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, the terror alert warnings get a lot of play in the media. But no one ever seems to address the issue of what happens when we go to red alert. Perhaps that is because our constitution will be suspended during red alert and no one wants to go there. Just discussing it would make someone sound paranoid. However, the Department of Homeland Security Web site plainly states that various government institutions may be eliminated and/or modified when the color change moves from orange to red.

Staff will be reassigned and budgets will be shifted for red alert and there will be no accountability or checks or balances to ensure tax money is spent where it is supposed to be spent. In short, red alert is not just a state of emergency, it is martial law. During red alert the military and law enforcement will be in control, not elected officials. During red alert citizens will be instructed to stay in their homes unless told they can leave. Supposedly this is for our own safety. Red alert meanshundreds of millions of dollars may be moved with no one knowing. No accountability means that there might not be a need to justify the red alert, just as there has been no need to clearly explain or justify the moves from yellow to orange alert.

So while artists struggle to make ends meet by creating beautiful things like paintings, sculptures, and installations, our government has figured out a way to use colors to make money. In our government some have created a color wheel that may ultimately free up unlimited amounts of cash for the chosen few. I just wonder who those chosen few are and how they got to be so lucky. It is such a brilliant idea actually: use green, blue, yellow, orange and a little red and put it all together. Using the same colors I have only managed to earn the most modest of incomes. I wonder what I would have to do
to join their club?


— Chris Cobb is an artist based in San Francisco.