Introduction: Ordinary Life on High Alert
The hue and value parameters of Safety Orange are set by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the organization that oversees the development of standards for U.S. products, systems, and services. According to a Google Ngram analysis, the phrase “Safety Orange” first appears in the published transactions of the U.S.-based National Safety Council at their annual National Safety Congresses in the 1950s. By the late 1950s, the term could be found in technical news bulletins, trade and craft journals, and building standards journals. Starting in the early 1960s, Safety Orange was the color most often used in the United States for traffic cones, stanchions, barrels, and other construction-zone marking devices. For more information, see U.S. Department of Transportation, “History of Traffic Cones.”
In the early 1960s, Massachusetts became the first state to make Hunter Orange mandatory for hunters. The decision followed a study conducted by state, military, and medical experts, who determined that orange was the most visible color under varying lighting and atmospheric conditions for humans if not for other beings (appearing indistinguishable from other colors to deer, for instance). The choice of orange, moreover, accounted for the subset of the population that has color blindness and is thus likely to confuse reds and greens, according to journalist Dave Henderson: “According to the Hunter Education Association, Hunter Orange is the shading ‘having a dominant wavelength between 595 and 605 nanometers, a luminance factor of not less than 40 percent and an excitation purity of not less than 85 percent.’ In layman’s terms, it is a universally recognized, instantly identifiable color that has become the standard in the nation’s hunting woods” (“Blaze Orange”). For more on this history, see also Kelleher, “Blaze Orange.”
For a helpful overview of responsibilization as a key feature of neoliberal governance, see Trnka and Trundle, “Competing Responsibilities.”
OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) requires certain construction equipment to be painted Safety Orange; Safety Orange (under the name Hunter Orange) is also the color of hats and other safety gear required while hunting in most U.S. states.
On debility as a biopolitical concept, see Puar, Right to Maim.
This follows Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s classic definition of racism as “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death” (Golden Gulag, 28).
By twenty-first-century “attention economy,” I do not mean only the economization of attention on social media but the broader sense of how governance, resources, and public attention are distributed. Orange offers a lens for inquiry into the capitalist economization and politicization of attention, which feed systems of exploitation and oppression. As writer Tim Griffin anticipated almost two decades ago in a piece on Safety Orange for Cabinet magazine, it is the color of the information economy in postindustrial capitalism (“Colors/Safety Orange”).
The scam Fyre Festival marketing campaign sought to use the neon orange tile to “optimize social media—almost weapon[izing] it.” “My whole idea was, like, stop the internet,” the festival’s former head of marketing Oren Aks explains in the documentary Fyre Fraud. “Whatever [other accounts are] posting is not neon orange. That’s a stopper . . . and now I’ve got your attention.” Furst and Willoghby, Fyre Fraud.
According to Sianne Ngai, “the flagrantly unworthy gimmick, our culture’s only aesthetic category evoking an abstract idea of price, is also the only one in which our feelings of misgiving stem from a sense of overvaluation bound to appraisals of deficient or excessive labor encoded in form” (Theory of the Gimmick, 5). See also Ngai’s brief discussion of the Fyre Festival as gimmick, 47.
For Nick Mirzoeff, it is not orange but blue that is the color of U.S. white supremacy in the age of Trump (“Watching Whiteness Shift to Blue Via Nationalist Aesthetics”).
Rogers, “In the Pale of Winter.” Rather than a postracial attempt to exceed whiteness (as TV studies scholar Hunter Hargraves argues of the racial politics of fake tanning on the show Jersey Shore), I understand Trump’s orange glow—what the White House has said is the result of “good genes”—as an embodied claim for white nationalism.
Digital artist Abhishek Narula captures the orangeness of the Trump presidency with his web-based artwork Orange Alert, a parody of the infamous U.S. Homeland Security Advisory System of the 2000s. Orange Alert rates the threat level of the current political climate based on Trump’s Twitter usage “to tell you whether the Don is spending time thinking about how to govern the country or picking fights on the internet.” The rating level is on a scale of one to ten oranges, from a cool “Don is on the Internet” to a raging “Cheetos Dumpster Fire.” See https://www.anarula.com/orange-alert.
On Trump’s use of Twitter to spread his particular style of authoritarian capitalism, see Fuchs, Digital Demagogue.
Brian Massumi writes of Reagan, “Alone, he was nothing approaching an ideologue. . . . He was unqualified and without content. But the incipience that he was, was prolonged by technologies of image transmission. . . . It was on the receiving end that the Reagan incipience was qualified, given content . . . functionalized and nationalized, [Reagan’s projection of confidence] feeds directly into prison construction and neo-colonial adventure” (“The Autonomy of Affect,” 102–3).
Yellow 6 is used to enhance the color of industrial processed foods, such as candy, sports drinks, and breakfast cereals, as well as pet food, clothing, and medication. The International Agency for Research has labeled the food additive Citrus Red 2 a carcinogen, and the FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives has said that the additive should not be used in foods; it is approved only for coloring the skins of oranges. Kobylewski, “Food Dyes.”
These also include Red 40 and Yellow 5.
Here I cite James Huff, the associate director for chemical carcinogenesis at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences’ National Toxicology Program. Despite being approved for use in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration (which claims they are safe when consumed in small quantities), artificial dyes like Yellow 6 are banned in many other countries, where there is greater government oversight and public scrutiny of consumer product additives. For example, in the U.S. the color of Fanta orange soda comes from Red 40 and Yellow 6; in Britain, it gets its vibrant color from pumpkin and carrot extracts.
It bears noting, however, that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is not simply inattention but a form of attention dysregulation that is characterized by stimulation-seeking behavior.
For an extensive study of the correlation between artificial color additives and ADHD, see Lefferts for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, “Seeing Red.”
Climate activist Dougald Hine quoted in Beckett, “The Age of Perpetual Crisis.” Andy Beckett writes: “How will we remember the last 10 years? Above all, as a time of crises. . . . There were crises at the start of the decade, and there are crises now. Some of them are the same crises, unsolved. Others are like nothing we have experienced before.” On the urgency of the contemporary moment, see also Moore, “Introduction: Anthropocene or Capitalocene?”
Theater of Operations, 3. Joseph Masco argues that this is exemplified in the U.S. Homeland Security Advisory System, which was intended to charge and normalize an atmosphere of alertness. “The alert system addresses citizens not as thinking subjects capable of evaluating information but as raw nerve endings, part of a national nervous system that could be excited to enable a U.S. invasion of Iraq” (24).
Demos, Beyond the World’s End, 7. Here Demos is paraphrasing Isabelle Stengers’s In Catastrophic Times.
This popular quote is commonly attributed to the comedian Steven Wright.
1. Orange You Glad You Live in America: The United States of Perpetual Risk
Long-deferred substantial investment in the country’s infrastructure has left “43% of our public roadways . . . in poor or mediocre condition,” according to the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). ASCE has called for trillions of dollars of overdue investment to fix U.S. bridges, roads, dams, water systems, power grids, levees, railways, and other infrastructure. See the ASCE’s Infrastructure Report Card: https://infrastructurereportcard.org/.
Beck, Risk Society, 13, emphasis in original. The phrase “of the ‘logic’ of risk production and distribution” is a direct reference to Beck’s previous sentence.
In Cruel Optimism, Berlant unpacks Foucault’s distinction between the epidemic and endemic: “Foucault focuses on biopower’s attempt to manage what he calls ‘endemics,’ which, unlike epidemics, are ‘permanent factors . . . [that] sapped the population’s strength, shortened the working week,’ and ‘cost money.’ In this shift Foucault dissolves the attention to scenes of control over individual life and death under sovereign regimes and refocuses on the dispersed management of the . . . threat posed by certain populations to the reproduction of the normatively framed general good life of a society” (97).
Safety Orange traffic control materials are approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration to mark objects for “temporary traffic control” and “incident management” (Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways, 10, 30–33).
For literature in engineering and management sciences on warning sign design, see Ben-Bassat and Shinar, “Ergonomic Guidelines,” 182–95; Wickens, Gordon, and Liu, Introduction to Human Factors Engineering; Stridger, “How Readable Are Your Street Signs?” 36–38.
Safety Orange paradoxically promises both to alert one to exceptional situations and to normalize those exceptions. This paradoxical design aim is captured, for example, on the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration’s website for the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways. The manual defines its aim as helping citizens “get where [they] want to go safely, efficiently, and comfortably” by creating standards for traffic control devices that “speak to us softly, yet effectively and authoritatively” (“Your MUTCD: Guiding You for over 80 Years”).
Another well-known experiment with the traffic cone is artist Dennis Oppenheim’s Safety Cones, eighteen-foot-high public sculptures made of fiberglass, steel, and acrylic. Or to take a more quotidian example, we can think of the tradition of pranksters placing traffic cones on the heads of historic statues in city centers, a gesture that refuses the sanctification of historical monuments. See, for example, BBC News, “Why Do People Put Traffic Cones on Statues?”
Ghosh and Sarkar, “Media and Risk,” 4.
Chun, Updating to Remain the Same, 70.
Doane distinguishes three modes by which TV apprehends the event: information, crisis, and catastrophe. Information names “the steady stream of daily ‘newsworthy’ events characterized by their regularity”; crisis quickens the flow of everyday news without fully disrupting it; and catastrophe is “the most critical of crises for its timing is that of the instantaneous, the moment, the punctual.” Hence, TV relishes catastrophe, for it is the moment when the viewer, transfixed to the screen, is most immediately “in touch” with the real. While information and catastrophe are thought to be subjectless, crisis demands resolution, requiring that a subject take charge (making it eminently political) (“Information, Crisis, Catastrophe,” 252). While TV today is often indissociable from new media, the catastrophic televisual form of live TV that Doane discusses is the temporality of the 24/7 news cycle, not the “on demand” temporality of streaming digital TV services like Netflix. On a social media platform like Twitter, televisual catastrophe continues to play out live before a transfixed spectator, but the constant flow of catastrophe, perpetual catastrophe, has converted it into chronic crisis, demoting it to background noise (until the next catastrophe shocks and recalibrates our short attention spans). On the chronic and heightened forms of attention demanded by new media, see also Crary, 24/7, and Pettman, Infinite Distraction.
Chun, Updating to Remain the Same, 76.
Foster, “Père Trump,” 3, emphasis in original.
Selected as a color standard for its ability to pop against blue sky, Safety Orange thus requires a “normal,” nontoxic environment for its warning to be perceptible: it cannot register when the entire sky is orange, as it was in the Bay Area in September 2020 when the usual fog converged with the smoke from burning wildfires, exacerbated by climate change.
Sorkin, “Trump Wanted a Big Sendoff—and Didn’t Get It.”
Rexroat, “The Day the San Francisco Sky Turned Orange.”
Foster, “Père Trump,” 3.
Ahmed, What’s the Use?, 53.
Thomas, Training for Catastrophe, 5.
Thomas, “Forms of Duration,” 160, 162.
Thomas writes: “Preparedness media’s emphasis on instantaneous response is ineffective or even meaningless when tasked with the management of climate change. How do we respond immediately to disasters that are ongoing, slow moving, and nonlocal? What does ‘real-time response’ entail in this context?” (“Forms of Duration,” 162).
For a discussion of the U.S. Homeland Security Advisory System and Code Orange, see Masco, Theater of Operations, 21–26.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security retired the system in 2011, replaced by web-based “bulletins” that have been criticized for being inconsistently updated and largely ignored by the American public. (Brill, “Is America Any Safer?”).
For a discussion of problems with the color-coded U.S. Homeland Security Advisory System, see Shapiro and Cohen, “Color Bind.”
Masco observes of raising the threat alert level on the U.S. Homeland Security Advisory System: “Although the threat level had immediate implications for transportation security, police, and first responders, announcements of shifts in the system were rarely accompanied by discussions of actual sources of information, as officials sought to protect their sources and methods of intelligence during wartime” (Theater of Operations, 22).
Boris Johnson’s U.K. government received widespread criticism for its May 2020 decision to change the coronavirus safety campaign slogan from “Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives” to “Stay Alert, Control the Virus, Save Lives.” Critics argued that the warning evaded responsibility by not issuing clear public directives for how to avoid catching and spreading the virus. See Pearce, “Feeling Alert?”; Eardley, “Coronavirus”; and Hickman, “PR Pros.”
2. Orange beyond Orange: Normalizing Catastrophe in Public Risk Communication
The Doomsday Clock announcement includes the following boilerplate “editor’s note” about its creation: “Founded in 1945 by University of Chicago scientists who had helped develop the first atomic weapons in the Manhattan Project, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists created the Doomsday Clock two years later, using the imagery of apocalypse (midnight) and the contemporary idiom of nuclear explosion (countdown to zero) to convey threats to humanity and the planet. The decision to move (or to leave in place) the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock is made every year by the Bulletin’s Science and Security Board (SASB) in consultation with its Board of Sponsors, which includes 13 Nobel laureates.” Science and Security Board, “2019 Doomsday Clock Statement.”
Science and Security Board.
In The Great Derangement, Ghosh argues that probability and improbability are not opposites (unlike the possible and the impossible): “Improbable is not the opposite of probable, but rather an inflection on it, a gradient in a continuum of probability” (16, emphasis in original). This means that a probabilistic logic forecloses the possibility of an extreme event, which defies the laws governing what is considered realistic. Ghosh argues that if climate disaster is so far outside fiction’s imaginative scope that it cannot be integrated into a novel, it is because novels have integrated probabilities as their internal logic—they have adopted the probable as their horizon.
Marshall, Don’t Even Think About It, 73, emphasis in original.
A 2019 report by the Climate and Development Lab (CDL) at Brown University showed that fossil fuel trade groups spent $1 billion between 2008 and 2017 on PR and advertising, over 15 times the amount spent by renewable energy trade groups (“American Utilities and the Climate Change Countermovement”).
The suggestion by pro-Trump climate deniers that climate change is “uncertain” is what Naomi Klein challenges when she asserts that climate change “changes everything,” in other words, that it is predictable and real. In a passing remark, Barbara Herrnstein Smith chides Naomi Klein for her hyperbolic use of “everything” in the title of her 2014 book This Changes Everything (109, emphasis in original). However, I read the certainty Klein summons in her title as a consciously performative (rather than naïve) insistence, and moreover not an assertion of scientific certainty but of political certainty. As such, Klein’s use of hyperbole is very different from Trump’s authoritarian use of hyperbole. When Trump uses hyperbole he capitalizes on the idea that he has the power and authority to claim certainty when science cannot.
Climate communication experts often note that most people perceive climate change as a far-off threat. Engaging the public on the issue means surmounting the public’s psychological distance from the issue. “We humans have well documented difficulties with grasping long-term, gradually changing issues that are complex and system wide,” explains Climate Outreach, a U.K.-based organization that works to build social acceptance of climate change (“Managing the Psychological Distance,” 1).
Munger, “Avoiding Dispatches from Hell,” 118.
Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth, 3.
Bradshaw et al, “Underestimating the Challenges,” 1. “Widespread ignorance of human behavior and the incremental nature of socio-political processes that plan and implement solutions further delay effective action,” the report reads (2). For an excellent analysis of the article’s reception and consequence, see Ehrenreich, “We’re Hurtling toward Global Suicide.”
Munger, Avoiding Dispatches from Hell, 122, emphases in original.
Rost, “What to Consider.” See also Lin and Heer, “Right Colors.”
Journalist Maryn McKenna notes the ableism and cultural and literacy assumptions bound up in these color-coded visualizations: “Ordering risky activities top to bottom like a list, or left to right like a scientific chart, might seem a simple choice, as self-evident a communication strategy as borrowing the green-yellow-red symbolism of a traffic light. In fact, though, it involves assumptions: about an audience’s cultural background, about their graphic and data literacy, even about their ability to see color. (About 8 percent of men with European Caucasian ancestry and at least 4 percent of men of Asian heritage have red-green color blindness; the rates are much lower in women.)” (“Navigate Risk”).
Walker Rettberg, “Ways of Knowing,” 40.
In design terms, both color and brightness contrasts can be used to convey warning. Marc Green, an expert in the psychology of vision and information processing when applied to warning signs, explains: “One important distinction between sets of colors is whether they create brightness (achromatic) or color (chromatic) contrast. Both kinds of contrast make objects stand out from their backgrounds. However, there are significant differences in the properties of color and brightness contrast” (“Color Discrimination”).
Neely, Against Sustainability, 8.
The addition of the yellow light to the stoplight was the brainchild of Detroit police officer William Potts, who had studied electrical engineering. Though as a municipal employee he was unable to patent it, he invented the three-color stoplight by building on the two-color stoplight design of Cleveland engineer James Hoge. Nelson, “Brief History.”
“Many concepts evoke related colors—whether due to physical appearance, common metaphors, or cultural conventions. When colors are paired with the concepts that evoke them, we call these ‘semantically resonant color choices.’” Lin and Heer, “Right Colors.”
Lin and Heer.
Malm, Fossil Capital, 7.
Wallace-Wells, Uninhabitable Earth, 197.
Indeed, some Republican officials in the United States, notoriously Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick, have openly defended sacrificing lives in order to save the economy.
See Cox, “COVID-19 and the Corporate Cliché”; Asonye, “There’s Nothing New”; and Munger, “Avoiding Dispatches from Hell,” 120. For examples of how this phrase has been incorporated into COVID-19 public health messaging, see North Dakota’s COVID-19 Smart Restart County Analysis (https://ndresponse.gov/sites/www/files/documents/covid-19/ND%20Smart%20Restart/Additional%20Resources/NDSmartRestartPlan.pdf) and Dallas County, Texas’s, COVID-19 Risk Level (https://www.dallascounty.org/covid-19/).
The White House Coronavirus Task Force has also adopted the dark green to red spectrum, which by November was effectively yellow to red. Whyte, “Red Zone.”
Here I am discussing the New York Times coronavirus world map, which was created with online map developer Mapbox and uses data from local governments, The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University, National Heath Commission of the People’s Republic of China, and World Health Organization (available here: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/world/coronavirus-maps.html).
The data visualizations’ shift from a stoplight color scheme to a rainbow color scheme scale carries a logical pitfall: the scale is effectively circular because the colors at the beginning and the end are nearly the same. Wilke, “Common Pitfalls of Color Use.” David Borland and Russell M. Taylor observe that the use of the rainbow color map in data visualizations “confuses viewers through its lack of perceptual ordering, obscures data through its uncontrolled luminance variation, and actively misleads interpretation” (“Rainbow Color Map (Still) Considered Harmful,” 14).
Greenwashing describes attempts to give the false impression to the public that a company’s products are more environmentally sound than they really are. Dahl characterizes it as “the practice of making unwarranted or overblown claims of sustainability or environmental friendliness in an attempt to gain market share” (“Green Washing,” A247). Greenwashing has become more common as more consumers demand greener products and services; according to a greenwashing report from advertising consultancy TerraChoice Environmental Marketing, he says, the number of products making green claims has risen by 79 percent over the last two years (A247).
Berlant, Cruel Optimism, 96.
The severe warning blared by the color red putatively denotes a crisis that requires action. Menely and Ronda write: “Rather than respond to these grave emergencies, the U.S. government expends its resources in hyperactive scrutiny and prosecution of those who seek to draw attention, under the sign of red, to the increasingly catastrophic work of the free market” (“Red,” 38).
Menely and Ronda, 37, 24.
According to Menely and Ronda, “Red returns yet, however insufficiently, at the edge of the symbolic order. This said, the defining material conditions of our historical present remain almost entirely unavailable to such disclosure. Of the mostly invisible by-products of industrial capitalism, the most consequential, if among the least conspicuous, are the greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide and methane” (37).
Nixon, Slow Violence, 10.
Arias, Tejada-Vera, and Ahmad, “Provisional Life Expectancy Estimates.”
See also the Climate Clock website: https://climateclock.world/.
The Climate Clock is calculated by Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change. The clock’s creators cite the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) landmark 2018 Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5° C, which made these findings: https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/.
The Climate Clock showed this countdown as of August 4, 2021.
Moynihan, “New York Clock.”
Davenport, “What Will Trump’s Most Profound Legacy Be?”
Remnick, “The Biden Era Begins.”
Klein, This Changes Everything, 4.
3. An Infrastructural Band-Aid: Outsourcing State Accountability
Gitelman, Always Already New, 131–32.
While it is beyond the scope of this book, changes in digital contract law have helped to legitimize new norms of user accountability, which are slyly built into software tweaks sold as improvements. Digital software contracts often leverage mere presence to stand in for consent or legal answerability in user agreements; some user agreements posit “seen” as “signed.” Such agreements shift the procedures of the contract from the act of reading and agreeing merely to seeing. Similarly, “read receipts” instill a sense of social obligation simply by virtue of a user being present: once exceptional (and optional), messages that tell a user when something has been “Seen” are now ubiquitous, conditioning a feedback loop of call and response from which it can be difficult to opt out.
Galloway, Protocol, 241.
Compared to the traffic sign and speed bump, the information conveyed by the traffic cone is more implicit, ambient, and environmental. By demanding a wider field of attention, it may create greater difficulty in recognizing the cause of the interpellation and the nature of the information being communicated.
Shore, “Audit Culture and the Politics of Responsibility,” 100.
Masco, Theater of Operations, 2.
Rose, “The Death of the Social?,” 330, emphasis in original.
Brown, Undoing the Demos, 84.
Associated Press, “Ex-Officer Told George Floyd Investigators.”
4. Orange Is the New Profiling Technology
As Michael C. Dawson and Megan Ming Francis argue: “Instead of a permanent destabilization of the infrastructure of Jim Crow, neoliberalism has facilitated a rebirth of two of its flagship elements: race-based crime policies and economic exploitation” (“Black Politics and the Neoliberal Racial Order,” 34).
Nguyen, “The Hoodie as Sign, Screen, Expectation, and Force,” 801, emphasis in original.
As Ronak Kapadia has put it, these “intersectional systems of power and violence . . . fuel the ideological engines that legitimate the homeland security state’s use of global prisons, confinement technologies, overt killing, and permanent warfare as inevitable features of a political economy that seeks to ‘solve’ our multifarious contemporary crisis” (Insurgent Aesthetics, 11).
Beam, “Orange Alert.” In California, for example, people who are incarcerated must wear orange or red when they’re being transported (ibid.). On the enormous significance of color in U.S. prisons, see Fleetwood, Marking Time, 43.
Beam, “Orange Alert.”
Ash, Dress behind Bars, 4.
Another example of this is the traffic cone’s steroidal cousin, the New Jersey barrier, which architecture historian Trevor Boddy calls “the first visual icon of the Homeland Security era.” Boddy explains that the barricade’s “presence was a response to ‘an instant need for the symbolism of war—something needed to be seen to be done.’” Boddy observes that in 2002 and 2003, New Jersey barriers became ubiquitous in the Washington, D.C. city landscape: “They were the visual analogue of the rhetoric of the war on terror, a concrete icon inserted into the city to sustain the ‘all is changed’ sense of unease amongst law-makers, lobbyists and the media” (“Architecture Emblematic,” 278).
Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete?, 16.
Van Veeren, “Orange Prison Jumpsuit,” 124.
As Hinton has shown, the Reagan administration’s fight against the drug trade and traffickers focused on “high risk youth,” “defined as children from low-income households, runaways, drop-outs, products of dysfunctional families, and juveniles in the criminal justice system” (War on Poverty, 320–21)—in other words, a code for young Black men. This strategy helped the administration pass the Anti-drug Abuse Act, signed in 1988.
O’Neil, Weapons of Math Destruction, 87.
O’Neil, 85–104. Wang points to the central role played by algorithmic prediction in carceral capitalism. Just as financial operations increasingly rely on one’s credit score, invoking one’s future behavior to sanction decisions about the present, so too does policing rely on this strange temporality of prediction; it is “no longer primarily aimed at effectively responding to crime, but at anticipating and preventing it” (Carceral Capitalism, 42, emphases in original). Even though it has been shown on numerous occasions that “predictive tools often enshrine bias because they use datasets that are themselves tarnished by racial bias” (50), bankers and police hide behind the apparent objectivity of algorithms, denying loans to or targeting for enforcement those racialized populations who have historically been subjected to heightened scrutiny. Algorithmic prediction, Wang notes, operates as a self-fulfilling prophecy that perpetuates racial stereotypes: “in marking subjects as potential risks, they are actually produced as such” (43).
NYCLU, “Stop-and-Frisk Data.”
California’s Conservation Camp Program has itself been described as a “cheap and exploitative salve” for escalating environmental crises that replaces proper investment in public infrastructure. Fuller, “Coronavirus Limits California’s Effort.”
These aesthetic strategies parallel the epistemology proposed by McGlotten, who coined the term “black data” to describe an emergent mode of Black aesthetic practice that responds to the reduction of Black queer people, and people of color more broadly, to statistics. McGlotten writes: “Technes of race and racism reduce our lives to mere numbers: we appear as commodities, revenue streams, statistical deviations, or vectors of risk” (“Black Data,” 263–86). Interpretive and performative Black queer practices, figured as Black data, refuse to be reduced to bare accounting by engaging in aesthetic projects that foreground illegibility or encryption.
Hammons’s 2015 career retrospective, David Hammons: Five Decades, at Mnuchin Gallery in New York draws a formal connection among works through the repeated use of orange—from Orange Is the New Black to an untitled orange tarp draped over canvas to A Moveable Object, an overloaded orange flatbed dolly labeled with the caution DO NOT RIDE OR OVERLOAD. The plainly ignored warning is typical of the use of puns and dark humor central to Hammons’s practice. The use of orange speaks to Hammons’s tendency to work associatively, allegorically, or poetically, rather than didactically—viewers must connect the orange dots between the Nkondi sculptures, the Netflix show, the gallery space, and the carceral state (Hammons et al., David Hammons).
For example, in White Room #4/Wittgenstein + My Brother Frank (2005), Pope.L employs humor and the theater of the absurd by dressing up in a bright orange yeti suit and attempting to rewrite from memory both Wittgenstein’s On Color and his brother’s ideas about power and representation. The performance plays on the connection between color as a formal problem and an investigation of race; color (and thus race) is treated as a “language game,” in Wittgenstein’s terms. Wittgenstein is concerned with the “logic of color” that is neither a priori nor empirical; in the performance, Pope.L asks onlookers to interrogate “the logic of race” along similar lines. It is impossible to ignore the role of orange as the work’s principal visual element, given the formal contrast between the stark white of the room and all the other objects it contains and the bright orange of the yeti suit (Rove Projects, “William Pope.L”).
Almost twenty years before Martin’s murder, Hammons made a similar visual argument in his sculptural work In the Hood (1993), the hood of a sweatshirt nailed to a wall. The piece plays with language (hoodie, “the ’hood”) and the racialized fetish object as both a form of abstraction and metonymy.
In Training for Catastrophe, Thomas has shown how the racist logic of the hoodie operates within the coded visual rhetorics of U.S. Homeland Security training materials. Reading a series of “If You See Something, Say Something” videos, Thomas argues that the campaign signals the very idea of threat by depicting hoodie-wearing anonymous figures—embodiments of an unnamed risk—“whose faces viewers only indirectly glimpse, doing suspicious things like leaving backpacks in public places, breaking into storage units at night, taking pictures of train platforms and writing down the schedules of the security guards patrolling the platforms, and sneakily entering secure areas without authorization” (177). Thomas points out how this material stokes anti-Black violence: “The visual aesthetics of the campaign, combined with how it encourages people to interpret specific objects and actions, reinforces the audience’s associations, conscious or not, of suspicious behavior with people of color, especially, through the depiction of people wearing hoodies, with Black people” (181).
Nguyen, “Hoodie as Sign,” 800. Nguyen writes: “Just as the hoodie renders identification of its wearer more difficult, the hoodie also provides cover for antiblackness. Under such lethal structures and abstractions, the profile is the sensible assessment of risk that conceives misrecognition as an unfortunate consequence. Collateral damage, as it were. To put it another way, the presence of the hoodie in the profile renders what is systemic violence against black life an accident understandable as a rational calculation of danger deferring, but not displacing, the fact of blackness in such a calculation. The deferral of certainty (of meaning, identification) via the effacing hoodie provides recognition and misrecognition simultaneously and also supplies the occasion for the deferral of ethical and legal responsibility for targeting black life” (802–3, emphasis in original).
Wilderson, Afropessimism, 6, 17. “Make them feel safe, I had thought to myself, even though I had never felt more at risk” (6, emphasis in original).
5. Orange Applied: Artistic Appropriations
Detroit Free Press, “Bright Light on Blight.” (Object Orange, Detroit. Demolition. Disneyland). One member of the group explains that the artists selected abandoned houses with facades that overlooked major arteries. Before painting the houses, they scouted the sites for several weeks to make sure they were no longer in use (Interview with author).
Rahmani and Steinhauer, “Using Art to Stop a Pipeline.” Tyree Guyton has done something similar. When the city of Detroit attempted to demolish the Heidelberg Project in the 1990s, the artist responded by legally registering the work as a nonprofit. Agrell, “Detroit a Hotbed of Cool Art?”
For use of traffic cone in Hong Kong and Black Lives Matter protests, see Diss, “Hong Kong Protesters Get Creative”; and Ma, Shutler, and Bromwich, “Why Protest Tactics Spread Like Memes.”
Bello, “Urban Art with a Cause.” However, the artists have complicated this outcome; they now say that the group’s aim was not to have the buildings torn down but rather to raise awareness of Detroit’s housing crisis outside the borders of the communities that bore its brunt (Object Orange, interview with author, May 4, 2021). In an anonymous piece penned by the group, the artists maintained that problems of deindustrialization and suburbanization could only be superficially resolved by demolition and pondered whether reinvestment and renovation might be a better outcome (Object Orange, “Detroit. Demolition, Disneyland”).
As one member of Object Orange admits, “It’s fair to say that Object Orange did not do a lot of surveying of various community members. We were interested in putting the work out there. . . . A dialogue about these things is important and necessary and the goal was to get that started” (Interview with author).
For more on the Heidelberg Project and its self-sustaining mission, see https://www.heidelberg.org/. “The HP believes that a community can re-develop and sustain itself, from the inside out, by embracing its diverse cultures and artistic attributes as the essential building blocks for a fulfilling and economically viable way of life.”
Larsson, “Art of Abandonment.”
Bello, “Urban Art with a Cause.” For a discussion of Tyree Guyton and Object Orange, see Zacks “Orange Alert.”
Williams observes: “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about color as both an artistic medium, and then also as race. As an African-American person, color is always in the foreground as a racial signifier.”
Drew and Wortham, “Color(ed) Theory,” 134.
Sargent, “Amanda Williams’ Color Theories.”
Bianca Marks, representative for Amanda Williams, email to author, February 1, 2021.
Dionne-Krosnick, “What Color Is Racism?”
Svachula, “MCA Exhibit.”
As the art critic Susan Snodgrass observes in her discussion of these works by Object Orange and Amanda Williams, the Berlin-based artist Katharina Grosse’s psychylustro (2014) is an instructive analog to the time-based aims of these projects. With the support of the City of Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program, Grosse also used bright house paint—in her case, orange, green, pink, and white—to transform rail line corridors running through the city’s most impoverished areas, “converting the walls of abandoned buildings, broken fences, piles of rubble and patches of overgrown grass, into sites of momentary beauty and reflection.” But where Object Orange and Amanda Williams must grapple with the question of whether its intervention can (or should) invite the lasting effect of demolition, psychylustro thematizes the fleeting nature of its impression on the enduring landscape; it is a one-time intervention that will be allowed to fade over time (“Painting as Urban Archaeology”).
Sargent, “Amanda Williams’ Color Theories.”
See Corsillo, “5 Ways to Wear Safety Orange”; Schimminger, “Sorry Pantone”; Brannigan, “Spring 2018 Runways Have Spoken”; and Kelleher, “Blaze Orange.”
Browne, Dark Matters. McGlotten, “Black Data.”
This distinction is also an oversimplification. While Object Orange’s and Williams’s artistic processes can be characterized as “additive,” in the sense of layering paint over existing edifices, both projects are engaged in the problematics of removal. In one interview, Williams observed: “Architecture in certain neighborhoods is marked by a process of removal, not addition” (Sargent, “Amanda Williams’ Color Theories,” emphasis added). Characterizing Rakowitz’s process as subtractive runs into the opposing issue; although it is premised on the removal of a color from a city, the exhibition itself amasses those removed objects to fill up the gallery. These contradictions highlight an inverse relationship between these artists’ practices and their products. (I thank Dylan Volk for pointing this out.)
In the United States, it is required by law that the barrels of toy guns have tips of Blaze Orange, the same color as Safety Orange (“Marking of Toy, Look-Alike and Imitation Firearms”).
Qtd. in English, To Describe a Life, 1.
In his work on the slow violence of environmental racism, Thom Davies has shown that petrochemical pollution is in large part produced on the site of former slave plantations: the lower course of the Mississippi River is home to the densest cluster of chemical facilities in the western hemisphere, with 136 petrochemical plants and 7 oil refineries stretching along 85 miles of riverscape. “Many former slave plantations along the Mississippi were sold directly to petrochemical companies in the mid-20th century, and turned into chemical processing facilities. This exchange of land use—‘from plantation to plant’—has exposed local residents, many of whom descend from slaves, to the life-limiting and protracted threat of harmful pollution” (“Slow Violence and Toxic Geographies,” 6). In this legacy of endangerment, which trades one form of dispossession for another, one can observe that “the legacy of the slave plantation ‘provided the blueprint for future sites of racial entanglement’” (9).
Due to the lack of government regulation, manufacturers are not required to list the ingredients of their plastic products or the amounts of synthetic dyes used in foods, and it is impossible to trace the full extent of petrochemicals’ presence in these products. For a discussion of consumer transparency and federal regulation of plastics manufacturing, see Freinkel, Plastic, 95. The FDA requires food manufacturers to list all ingredients on the label, in descending order of amount, and “certified” color additives like Yellow 6 to be listed by name (“certified” meaning they require continual certification in batches); however, the FDA does not require that the precise amount be listed (U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “Color Additives Questions and Answers for Consumers”).
Recent developments in the plastics industry (fabrication technologies such as injection molding) mean that these products are inexpensive to produce and can be manufactured at unprecedented rates. Freinkel, 24–25.
Petrochemical plastics (including food additives containing Yellow 6) are disproportionately sold to lower-income communities and communities of color, and many of them primarily target children. Since these products are highly durable—one of their selling points—they are non-biodegradable and also require large amounts of chemical pollutants and fossil fuels to manufacture. Their cycle of production, use, and disposal releases toxic, chlorine-based chemicals that build up in the water, air, and food chain, causing severe health problems such as cancer, immune system damage, and hormone disruption (Greenpeace, “PVC”). See also Freinkel’s Plastic on the particular dangers of PVC and its effects on poor communities.
Bins set up around Cleveland to collect orange objects for the artwork were stenciled with these words: “The right to safety is a transnational problem that binds policing, militarization, colonialism, and racism. / Cleveland is Ramallah, / is Ferguson, is Soweto, is Kabul, / is Belfast, is Baghdad, is Standing Rock, / is Sydney, / is Bethlehem . . .”
Additional collaborators credited include Jeremy Bendik-Keymer, Amir Berbic, Christopher Horne, Elaine Hullihen, Kelley O’Brien, and Anthony Warnick of the Muted Horn, and Samaria Rice & The Tamir Rice Foundation.
The ethics professor Jeremy Bendik-Keymer first invited Rakowitz to propose the project as part of a lectureship at Case Western University in 2015. According to Rakowitz, Bendik-Keymer abandoned the project in March 2018 a few months before the exhibition was scheduled to open (Rakowitz, email to author, June 24, 2021). Bendik-Keymer has publicly criticized A Color Removed on the grounds that it “piled trauma on top of trauma” and made hasty associations between Rice’s killing and multiple other forms of violence wreaked by global neoliberalism: gun violence writ large, the refugee crisis, Palestinian occupation, and so on (not unlike the state’s arbitrary and hasty application of Safety Orange to elicit constant caution) (“Beyond Gestures”).
Rakowitz explains that he sought and received consent from Samaria Rice to proceed with the project and has worked to maintain collaborative ties with Rice and the Tamir Rice Foundation. The orange objects donated for A Color Removed were given to Ms. Rice for use by the foundation and eventual exhibition in the Tamir Rice Afrocentric Cultural Center. The drop boxes used for donations have since been repurposed to collect art supplies for the Cuyahoga County Jail Coalition Arts and Culture Team to support teaching efforts at youth detention centers (Rakowitz, email to author, June 24, 2021).
“Collective affect,” T. J. Demos argues, in one such call, is “precisely what is needed in expressing the intangible sense of justice’s necessary embeddedness and ultimate defining role in collective struggles like the Black radical tradition, decolonial praxis, and climate justice activism.” Demos, Beyond the World’s End, 11, 17.
Wilderson, Afropessimism, 16. “Why is anti-Black violence not a form of racist hatred but the genome of Human renewal; a therapeutic balm that the Human race needs to know and heal itself?” Wilderson writes (17, emphasis in original).
Among these explosive events was the decision by the Whitney Biennial to exhibit Open Casket, white artist Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till.
D’Souza, Whitewalling, 37.