The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is notorious for long lines and tossing liquids, but a lesser-known fact is that those traveling with thick stacks of books are likely to have their luggage screened. Their density is too heavy for TSA’s scanners, and in need of a more thorough search for contraband.
Art book publisher David King and his girlfriend Jaime Raybin say that on their way back to Nashville, Tennessee, after exhibiting at the Independent Art Book Fair in Williamsburg, they ran into an issue at LaGuardia Airport for this very reason. A package of unsold books was searched (as is routine), but the two say their following experience was anything but.
King and Raybin say they were ushered to a back room in the airport, where the couple was asked about one book in particular: Skull Microwave, an art book by Marlos E’vans published under King’s publishing house, Extended Play Press. E’vans’ work depicts renderings of gun violence, police brutality, and anti-war ideology. Raybin says, “One page shows a photo of Marlos’s ring-adorned hand, holding a gun. Another page shows a cartoonish Play-Doh gun. Both images critique the way that violence is sensationalized in popular culture.”
The pair says they were questioned by a room of TSA (which is a subsidiary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security), both uniformed and plain-clothed. Raybin told Hyperallergic they, “tossed the book to each other as though it were garbage. The book was pretty bent up and twisted.”
“Our feeling was that the officer was personally offended by content in the book about police violence against Black people. The officer was visibly enraged by the book, calling it ‘fucking disgusting.’ We felt like he was using the pretext of TSA security to punish dissent,” she added. “Even after the officer questioned us, checked the database, and determined that we were not a threat, he seemed to feel that our possession of the book gave him license to continue to berate and harass us and to disparage the art.”
One official reportedly told them, “It’s a free country I guess and you can say what you want, but this is pretty fucked up. It might be art to you, but to me, this is fucked up.”
Hyperallergic asked E’vans about a particular text piece that was called into question, which mentions ISIS. He says the piece was catalyzed by the widespread news of Jordan Davis, a teenager gunned down in 2012 for playing music at a gas station. He listened for mentions of the word “Jordan” on the news, transcribing audio snippets. He says:
… I listened to CNN and poetically wrote down soundbites that I heard during the broadcast. One of these writings mentioned ISIS and how they shot down a plane from Jordan and burned the pilot; the agents tried to link this to terror propaganda, but in reality, I was a making a link between the word Jordan and the shoe brand which, in my mind is calling for the end of violence both politically and that which circulates around the shoes. On the page adjacent to this, is a photo of me lying on the ground as if I had been shot, with an American flag draped over me and I’m actually wearing a pair of Air Jordans. They called this piece ‘disgusting!’
Another work they took major offense to is one that’s called “X Marks The Stop.” This piece depicts fighter jets dropping soldiers from the sky with pink X’s spray painted across every figure in the drawing. They also tried to relate this to the spreading propaganda to shoot down planes and soldiers, but actually my intent was to address “War for Profit” and trying to call an end to this worldwide obsession with spending so much time, energy, and resources on weaponry instead of finding solutions to poverty and food crisis, amongst other unsolved issues.
Raybin asserts, “As artists, we have the right to make work that responds to charged social issues.”
Hyperallergic spoke with a TSA representative about the ordeal. She explained over the phone that the X-ray machines can’t see past dense books, and the search was normal, “ensuring nothing is being hidden by the thickness.” She denied the possibility of an aggressive investigation. When asked about the reported questioning, she said, ““I can assure you it’s nothing they care about. Their only mission is that people arrive at their destination safely.”
King and Raybin, who are white, claim that the longer the questioning continued, the more curious the investigators became about E’vans, and it became clear they had researched him online.
“It became apparent midway through the questioning that the ultimate target of his anger was not us, but Marlos,” Raybin says. “A second officer came over and pointed out the photo of Marlos in the back of the book, saying, ‘That’s the guy I was telling you about.’ They asked us questions about Marlos that suggested that they planned to look into him further, asking things like if he is a pretty big artist in Nashville and if he sells a lot of work.”
The officer questioning them supposedly said of E’vans’s photo, “To me, he looks like a troublemaker.”
Marlos says, upon hearing the news, he was paranoid and worried he was on the no-fly list or TSA watchlist. “For the first week, I was watching every car behind me on the road or around the places that I go to,” he says. “My friends and family were concerned about whether or not they were being watched as well.” He says that, while it may be a coincidence, he has noticed an uptake in police cars parked nearby spots he frequents throughout Nashville, particularly outside of friends’ homes.
He says this is not the first time he has been told his work leans too political. He says, “There have also been situations where I couldn’t get my work shown in certain galleries because of the ‘tone’ of my work. This fact is why I held my debut show, Dyin’ By The Gun!, in an abandoned doughnut factory in North Nashville back in 2016; till this day I continue to show work in unconventional spaces instead of waiting on the institutions to deem my work worthy to be in their white boxes.”
He concludes, “Although I was paranoid for a while, now I feel that I’m ready for whatever because I refuse to be bullied and shut in or out because I choose to express myself within my 1st Amendment rights!”