TSA's contraband stocks the best art gallery you aren't allowed to see

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Beneath the concourse of Terminal 3 at O'Hare International Airport, far from the eyes of holiday travelers, there is an art gallery with an ever-changing, carefully curated selection of remarkable pieces that say a great deal about the United States, security, consumerism and our general frame of mind.

It is found in the middle of the kind of long, concrete, administrative-looking hallway that you might imagine exists in the bowels of Disney World, stripped here of any cheerful flourish. This gallery has no sign to announce itself and is only slightly larger than a broom closet. It is never open to the public, usually locked. It's scrappy, quirky and filled with enough irony to be a storefront gallery in Pilsen or Logan Square. And yet, the Transportation Security Administration, which maintains the room, does not see it as an art gallery, or its contents as art.

But they're wrong.

"OK, and here we are," said Doug Ruhde, TSA transportation security manager for O'Hare, unlatching the lock and swinging open the large steel door. "The accumulation center — the place where everything goes."

"It's like a gallery of found objects," I said, marveling at its contents. "Each piece tells a different story."

"Yeah," he said dryly, "and to us, the accumulation center."

Meaning: The place where most of the stuff goes that doesn't make it through TSA security checkpoints at O'Hare. And what stuff it is. Inside this room, on shelves and in bins, were Swiss Army knives, hunting knives, box cutters, steak knives, cake knives, hammers, hammers with built-in wrenches, staple guns, scissors with custom handles, a bow (with no arrow), lava lamps, brass knuckles — anything you might try to slip through security in a carry-on but security has decided is a potential threat to airline safety. Actually, considering the number of infrequent flyers who move through airports at the holidays, seemingly unaware of TSA bag restrictions, some of us might even be unwitting contributors to this unintentional gallery of obliviousness.

Ruhde stepped aside to let me get a good look. We considered the room and its stuff, each piece torn from its original context and given a different life here: A power drill, separated from its bit, stripped of its power by another power. (Overzealously? Smartly?) A stash of novelty Blackhawks hockey sticks bundled in a corner — happy memories held in detention. The line between a simple room full of junk and an art show devoted to found objects is thin — what exactly are we seeing here?

"Things get pretty seasonal here," Ruhde said. In the summer, the room becomes a small museum of unexploded fireworks and promotional Cubs bats; during the holidays, it's full of gifts that TSA screeners decided could be used as weapons. Ruhde picked up a snow globe that read "Baby's First Christmas." He frowned: "That's too bad. Now someone's going to have to commemorate that birth in another way."

Like any compelling art show, the pieces in this quasi-gallery hold together as a unit, raising questions, contradictions, and, here, issues of context and ownership, terrorism and taste. Outside of O'Hare, a Fisher Price aquarium might be a reminder of innocence and curiosity. Locked away in the recesses of an airport, it holds more than 3.4 ounces of a liquid (3.4 ounces being the TSA-designated limit for any snow globe or water-filled toy), and therefore becomes a grim image of threat, fear — even paranoia.

But then, almost from its inception in November 2001, the TSA and the airport culture that surrounds it has lent itself remarkably well to artful consideration. Particularly the art of the prosaic. Think about how quickly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that the phrase "security theater" became a kind of shorthand for the feeling that TSA checkpoints were more theatrical mimicries of security than actual security. A dozen years later, a clever Tumblr site like "TSA Security Theater," a regularly updated photo blog of images of bored-looking TSA personnel and their Eastern Bloc-looking checkpoints, effortlessly makes every security area resemble the setting of a Beckett play. And who could forget: Until the agency began phasing out those Rapiscan body X-rays — the name itself well-suited to a ghoulish, Orwellian satire — ghostly, indistinct portraits of the nude human form were a travel commonality, an eerie reminder of the line between privacy and surveillance.

Still, on the art of the found object, the TSA soars.

You might even say the agency has gotten out in front of its artful self, however unintentionally: Last summer, the TSA joined Instagram and began posting fuzzy, somewhat artful, sepia-tone images of the most remarkable items it confiscated at checkpoints. The Palm Springs Air Museum in California was first, putting on a 2012 exhibition of confiscated items ("Banned Booty: Palm Springs Checkpoint"), but the TSA's Instagram account is a study in what we fear and how we choose to handle it. The account works as a learning tool (Who knew you couldn't bring a flare gun on a plane? Who knew there was a person left who thought you could?) And it works as a catalog of violence: goofy images of pop violence (pepper mills shaped like hand grenades), queasy images of daydreamed violence (a bludgeoning medieval mace, confiscated at Midway Airport), disturbing images of violence disguised as the quotidian and everyday (stun guns that resemble packs of Marlboros and lipstick cases, walking canes that conceal huge swords, shivs concealed inside credit cards).

There's a lot to think about, even assumptions to challenge: As easy as it is to knock the TSA, is it always the most oblivious party here? Are people who travel regularly less deluded than the people who know nothing about airline safety? Who knew that Americans were so obsessed with stealth and disguise?

Is the threat the person carrying the fake grenade or the culture that produces the fake grenade?

And that word, "confiscating" …

"You keep saying that," said Ruhde, "but the TSA does not actually confiscate. People have a choice, and most of the time they choose to voluntarily abandon the item called into question by the TSA."

Ruhde, who has worked for the TSA since 2004, looks like every TSA person I have ever met: polite, quiet, direct, hard to remember a moment later. He explains that the items in the room we were standing in are there because of free will. But I wonder if it's free will that leads someone to abandon a Blackhawks novelty stick or practicality. Or maybe the accoutrements that come with our memories are less important to us ultimately than the memory itself?

The room was so stark that, as in an actual gallery, it left plenty of room for considering loose thoughts. And there was so much to think about as I picked through dozens of types of knives. Alongside it, a very pungent bin stuffed with liquor and wine: I wondered why I worry so much about that small tube of toothpaste I always pack when there are people out there who stuff huge, end-of-the-world-size Tanqueray bottles in their bags?

I mentally catalog: A bullet shell retrofitted as a bottle opener, an Alabama Crimson Tide BBQ skewer, pool cues …

There are so many purses outfitted with brass-knuckle handles that Ruhde could open a specialized boutique. But the real heartbreakers are the snow globes: Mickey Mouse and Shedd Aquarium, scores of Chicago skyline snow globes. There are so many that there is an entire display unit just for snow globes. In fact, the only thing that would make this room more like an actual art show would be an ironic list on the wall of items that the TSA prohibits, a juxtaposition of what is asked of people and what people have actually tried to get onto planes: pickaxes, spears, hatchets, torches, vehicle airbags(!), cattle prods, sabers, meat cleavers.

One thing I should mention: As insane as the items in that room sound, those are only items that TSA gathered at O'Hare in the two weeks surrounding Thanksgiving. This room is cleared out twice a month, then quickly replaced with new items. Last year it held more than 50,000 pounds of stuff. (That's just the "non-hazardous" stuff; items classified by the TSA as "hazardous" — shaving creams, hairsprays, etc. — sit in sealed drums in a corner of the room.) And if Ruhde is the curator in this metaphor, the state acts as his dealer: Every other Thursday, a truck from Illinois' State Agency for Surplus Property arrives at O'Hare, gathers up the room and takes the fresh stash down to Springfield, where items become part of Illinois' iBid auction site.

Anyway, eventually Ruhde had to close the gallery.

But before he locked it up, I asked if he ever wonders about this stuff, where it comes from, why it ends up here. He said: "You know, I don't." He said he used to try putting himself in a passenger's shoes: "OK, my suitcase is empty. I have to go to the airport. I have to fill it. Why would I think that this belongs in there?'" And now? "I don't wonder now."

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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