John von Bergen is an American artist based in Berlin. He recently finished a two-month residency at Fountainhead in Miami. In the process of making site-specific art, von Bergen discovered the true meaning and ease of the right to bear (and purchase) arms in America.
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 went into many directions, such as the process for purchasing gun parts legally, what is actually considered a “firearm,” non-functioning gun parts vs. potentially functioning gun parts, loopholes with international customs, art materials vs. dangerous materials, and the grey-zone of interpreting illegal activity.
I arrived in Miami last December for a two month stay at The Fountainhead Residency, and had been curious to find some new direction for a project. The natural environment in South Florida was amazing, and it had been my first impulse 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 had been ordering take-out food in Little Haiti when I noticed a postcard for a gunshop 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 for me; I cant rememember ever holding a real gun in my hand, let alone pulling a trigger. But now I wondered if some newfound accessibility to guns could somehow develop into a project, and ultimately exemplify something “site-specific.”
“Hey, would you guys be able to sell me some...”
The idea to acquire real gun parts for an art project led me to start visiting pawn shops in Miami, including a big one near the airport. After explaining I was a non-Florida resident trying to make a sculpture with gun parts, the usual response was a suspicious stare. But one employee was kind enough to direct me to Gunbroker.com. After a slightly complicated process (registering in Florida with a New York State Drivers License bearing a Connecticut address) I was finally able to bid on real gun parts sold online. What actually shocked me was how easy parts could be purchased and delivered to almost any address in the United States, with possibly little or no regard as to who was buying them.
- 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).
This completed the main parts of the sculpture: a hybrid of a real .357 Magnum with a water gun that was originally based on a .357 Magnum.
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 grinded off parts of the metal pieces to remove serial numbers, and also 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.
MIA > LGA
As I was about to leave Miami I decided to disassemble the parts of this new gun-sculpture and pack them next to all sorts of tools and materials I had been using along with untampered toy guns (other water models, B.B., cap, video-game, etc.).
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 suited official with my passport started, “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.
LGA > JFK
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 it was definitely not allowed, regardless if 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.
JFK > LHR
I prepared for the first leg of my journey to Europe by getting to the airport four hours before departure. After waiting in line I approached the airline representative and calmly said “Hi, could you please contact T.S.A. and Port Authority Police, as I have gun parts in my luggage that need to be inspected.” He stared at me a bit confused, as did the representative standing next to him, as did the passenger standing next to her. I explained it again, in more detail that the gun parts are part of a sculpture, which probably sounded more confusing. He jotted down notes, then made a call. Some minutes later a young, heavyset police officer walked over, and I explained I had damaged gun parts in my luggage that were to be used for a sculpture. He was non-chalant, inspected the parts, handed me a small paper to sign. As he walked away a T.S.A. employee suddenly appeared and wanted to inspect the rest of the suitcase. Meanwhile a long line of passengers stood staring at the whole episode, perhaps amused, perhaps concerned. Eventually the suitcase was taken away for further T.S.A. inspection, as their biggest fear was that some of the art materials could be flammable. I felt like I was creating a real headache for everyone around me, but somehow it was all calm and cool, never a moment of any real drama or serious tension.
LHR > TXL
My three hour layover in London was also pretty much drama-free. Just before boarding I checked at the gate to see if all was ok with my luggage. They informed me that one suitcase had been pulled by security. For a minute I was worried The British sensed something afoul, but then it turned out all my baggage would be safely accompanying me to Berlin.
... TXL ...
The flight was smooth, and I enjoyed some Bloody Marys to start forgetting about any potential problems with the luggage. As I was exiting the plane my body was in shock from the freezing cold draft creeping at me as I walked between the plane and the terminal. The clouds that I had just seen from overhead twenty minutes before were now dooming above Berlin as a blanket of winter grey. Once inside 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...
...and more TXL...
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 perfect to just wait for the bathroom, then get the other luggage from the conveyor belt, and then lastly confront 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 intentional surprise, and responded in German “I don’t have a gun! I only have parts of a sculpture that involve 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!” And he replied “Well, the laws in Germany are different than America,” and I just responded “Really?”
Eventually my luggage and I were all escorted to the customs office where after a few minutes of discussion between all 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 all of this was to get away with in the end.
~John von Bergen
Images: Top: Katharina Fengler. All other images John von Bergen.