IN THIS FINAL CHAPTER, I turn to artists who seek to use Safety Orange’s hypervisibility as a tool of protection and redress, a way to force the state to make good on its promise of public safety. These artists explore whether the violence encoded in Safety Orange—violence rendered routine, uneventful, turned into a chronic crisis—might be used to compel the state to fulfill its duty of care. They ask: Must orange remain an abdication, an eternal traffic cone beside a pothole? Or, alternatively, can the color of warning and state racism be turned against its own logic and used instead to empower communities? However, these questions also pose their own problems. As we will see, many of these artists intervene on behalf of communities not their own, and their works often reflect the difficulty of forging solidarity through orange.
In the mid-2000s, an anonymous group of artists called Object Orange began painting abandoned homes in Detroit “Tiggerific Orange” (from Behr’s Disney paint series) to draw attention to the city’s pervasive urban blight, which is easily overlooked by those only passing through. For the series of interventions, which they called Detroit, Demolition, Disneyland (2006–8), the group chose to paint abandoned houses visible from the highway. They leveraged the visual rhetoric of state oversight to compel a dialogue about state inaction, drawing attention to the neglected houses’ negative impacts on their communities. Among those impacts cited in coverage of the work were the drug use they shelter and the dangers they pose to children who play in the collapsing structures.1
By attempting to use the color of state control against itself, the project wields orange as a catalyst, an agent that in and of itself has the power to trigger a reaction. The artists tap into the bureaucratically coded language of orange as a means to force the state to respond. They deploy color as a tactic, much as anti-fracking activists have done by painting and copyrighting trees as works of art in order to halt the expansion of natural gas pipelines.2 What these undertakings have in common is that they both exploit a right of protection afforded by the legal category of art. For the antifracking activists, the act of painting protects the trees by making them legally recognized as art; for Object Orange, it protects the artists by enabling their work not to be dismissed as mere vandalism and endowing it with a new kind of public significance (as “newsworthy” public art) and thus wider visibility.
Like the multiple valences of paint itself, the equivocality of Safety Orange makes it difficult to control, which allows it to be critically and politically recoded. We find a similar process of recoding at work in how protestors around the world have reimagined the uses of traffic cones beyond their uses as instruments of state control. From Hong Kong to Minneapolis, orange cones have been redeployed as creative tools of resistance, their ubiquity leveraged to challenge militarized state power: they have been used to trap tear-gas grenades to contain the gas’s spread, to function as makeshift megaphones during large protest gatherings, and to block roads as part of guerrilla public demonstrations.3 In the former instances, the cone’s appropriability is a function of its form; in the latter, it is largely a function of its color.
As a consequence of Safety Orange’s flexibility as a sign, at issue in the color is the question of who gets to do the appropriating and on whose behalf. In this regard, the ethics of Object Orange’s interventions are hardly straightforward, as the artists themselves recognize. When half of the houses were demolished soon after they were painted, it appeared that the project had successfully forced the hand of the city to make good on then-Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s lapsed promise to demolish 5,000 buildings in his first nine months in office.4 However, the city’s response showed the project to be primarily a dialogue between the artists and the city, largely staged for an elite art world and academic audience. Despite Object Orange’s good intentions, perhaps because of its status as a public artwork, Detroit, Demolition, Disneyland largely speaks past the community on whose behalf it is acting. If the work’s viewership has the relative social and financial capital to intervene, what does such an intervention actually do for the people who live in these neighborhoods? What are the power implications when primary audiences of the artwork (art critics and collectors, the mainstream press, intellectuals, suburban drivers) are “just passing through”?5
Object Orange was inspired by the Heidelberg Project, Detroit artist Tyree Guyton’s thirty-five-year effort to revivify his once-neglected block by painting polka dots on vacant houses (an effort not without its own ethical quandaries and considerable pushback from residents).6 One key difference between the projects is that Guyton has lived in the east side Detroit McDougall-Hunt neighborhood he works in, and the very house he grew up in anchors the Heidelberg Project.7 Object Orange’s success in grabbing the interest of the national press and art world was a short game, as Guyton has pointed out,: “Now that these guys have gotten attention, where do they go from there? That’s something you have to think about.”8 Certainly, Object Orange raises difficult questions about the ethics of outside artistic intervention—not least of which: Is it ethical to turn abandoned homes into public artworks? But my point here is not that artists always need to be part of the group on whose behalf they purport to act. Rather, it is that Object Orange, in attempting to put orange to use on behalf of others, makes manifest something important about how the color works: as a sign, orange inherently surrogates itself for, and thus abstracts, its subject. As a result, it can have the inadvertent consequence of exchanging one form of social invisibility for another.
Like Object Orange, Amanda Williams’s “Flamin’ Red Hots” strategically brandishes color to expose the arbitrary or ambiguous distinction between urban blight and urban beautification. “Flamin’ Red Hots” (named after the Cheetos flavor) is part of her year-and-a-half-long Color(ed) Theory installation series (2014-6) in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. Williams, though a trained architect, says she is not interested in Color(ed) Theory as an architectural solution or intervention; instead, she is concerned with making visible what is present and not present, and in that case, with highlighting the lack of investment and resources in the neighborhood.9 She uses color to lift into view the racialized structures of urbanization and gentrification and to visually disrupt the landscape produced by Chicago’s discriminatory housing lending practices, calling attention to the double bind of Blackness’s simultaneous invisibility and hypervisibility.10 Orange is only one color in Williams’s broader palette, which is “based on hues primarily found in consumer products marketed toward Black people” in her hometown South Side neighborhoods.11 Williams has said that the socially coded colors she chooses—which include Pink Oil Moisturizer (a light pink), Newport/Squares (a deep blue-green), and Harold’s Chicken (an orangey-red)—are rooted in the collective memory and experience of the people who live in the houses she paints.12 Echoing Pope.L’s amusement with the term “person of color,” Williams tongue-in-cheekily identifies herself as an “artist of color”—a phrase with a double meaning: she is both a Black artist and a painter whose primary medium is color. Inviting her audience to consider the structuring logic of color at work in processes of urbanization and gentrification (“redlining,” “white flight,” “greenlit” projects, etc.), Williams asks: “What color is urban? What color is gentrification? What color is privilege?”
While Harold’s Chicken approximates Safety Orange, Williams has said that she purposely chose not to use the bureaucratic color standard, presumably for its association with state violence.13 When the artist most pointedly addresses issues of safety and security in Color(ed) Theory, she opts instead for bright yellow.14 Williams appears to entertain deep misgivings about the possibility of repurposing Safety Orange—misgivings, I hazard, likely shared by many of the Black artists whose work I discuss in chapter 4, namely David Hammons, Cameron Rowland, Hank Willis Thomas, and Cauleen Smith (with the possible exception of William Pope.L). How can we explain these artists’ seeming reluctance? My guess is that for these artists, trying to repurpose Safety Orange entails accepting the terms dictated by a state founded on and structured by anti-Blackness. Moreover, as a form of state speech, orange functions not in spite of but because of its uncanny capacity to say one thing and its opposite (to mean both safety and danger), while never challenging the ideologies that underpin it. It is precisely orange’s capacity to be repurposed that has made it such a useful tool of neoliberal state violence.
Although Color(ed) Theory visually echoes the work of Object Orange, the two projects also differ in other important ways. First, the artists who make up Object Orange at the time lived in Michigan but not in the Detroit neighborhoods where they painted; Williams grew up on Chicago’s South Side, where her project is rooted. Second, unlike Object Orange, Williams’s project uses houses already slated for demolition, and the houses are not painted anonymously, under cover of nightfall; instead, they are painted collectively by residents, making the project more about a community reclaiming a sense of ownership of its surroundings. For Williams, the eventual demolition of the buildings is part of the project, but her main goal is to create space for community reflection about the buildings’ demolition (though as of 2017, half of the buildings still stood due to a backlog of condemned houses).15 Color(ed) Theory aims to memorialize the homes rather than erase them, as one could argue of Object Orange.16 Williams wants people to register a sense of loss, to mourn the casualties of state divestment. However, she dismisses the idea that community members would have a strong response to the project; the reality, she says, is that they are too “desensitized” to care.17
Much as William Pope.L’s, Williams’s use of orange explores the political possibilities of embracing extreme visibility. Like Frank Ocean’s iconic album Channel Orange (whose bright orange cover captures the artist’s synesthetic experience of being in love for the first time) or urban fashion’s adoption of hunting and work safety gear (with the popularity of orange-loving brands like Carhartt and Supreme and collaborations by Helmut Lang x Travis Scott and Fenty Puma), the Color(ed) Theory series appropriates the terms of visibility by which racialized surveillance operates in order to celebrate pride and pleasure in everyday Black life.18 Set against these stylistic practices, the series stands in strong contrast with the other projects I discuss in this chapter insofar as it trades Black survival for Black thriving; in its embrace of hypervisibility, Color(ed) Theory runs counter to the Black politico-aesthetic projects of undetectability and counter-surveillance articulated by Simone Browne as “dark sousveillance” and Shaka McGlotten as “black data,” which seek refuge from the glare of mass surveillance and biometric technologies trained on Black and Brown bodies.19
If the art projects I have discussed thus far in this chapter are (at least initially) “additive” in their application of orange, Michael Rakowitz’s A Color Removed (2015–18) is by contrast decidedly “subtractive.”20 A Color Removed is a community-produced conceptual artwork, which proposed to remove all orange objects from the city of Cleveland. Rakowitz, an Iraqi American artist, invited members of the public to donate orange objects as a statement on the safety denied to Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old boy who was murdered by police in 2014. Responding to a call about a young man with a gun outside of a recreation center in a predominantly African American neighborhood, one of the two responding officers, Officer Timothy Loehman, shot Rice twice in the stomach less than two seconds after the police car door opened. Police claimed that Rice was shot because the toy gun he was playing with was missing the orange plastic safety tip that identified it as a toy; it lacked the orange signifier of harmlessness that would have marked Rice as a child rather than a risk. The officers’ claim about the lack of orange was an attempt to deny that their unchecked use of lethal force was racially motivated. It was just an unfortunate accident, they seemed to say; any child playing with a realistic-looking toy gun would also have been killed. The lack of orange, in other words, was used as an alibi for Rice’s murder.21 And this alibi worked, for neither officer was indicted for the killing.
On the far wall of the Cleveland gallery SPACES, the viewer finds a makeshift altar: an orange-framed picture of Tamir Rice, accompanied by a poster reading “He was only 12.” Another poster, mounted alongside emblems of a typical American childhood—orange plastic baseball bat, football, and school-issued recorder—reads “He was only a kid playing in a park.” The altar, the creation of Rice’s mother, Samaria Rice, is surrounded by four traffic cones, a brutally belated refashioning of the danger associated with what Christina Sharpe has called “the apparatus aimed at corralling black life” into a memorial of safekeeping.22 The traffic cones allude to the disavowed affinity between Blackness and state infrastructure. Black bodies are the United States’ foundational infrastructure, the elided backbone of the nation’s economy since its founding. But Black bodies have instead been treated as a crisis to be managed. Here, the traffic cone bears witness to the hole in Rice’s family and community—the empty site of loss brought about by a perpetually broken system.
The rest of the gallery is filled with single-use orange plastic consumer goods and synthetic toys and foods donated by members of the community in response to Rakowitz’s call: artificial flowers, cups, coat hangers, parking signs, sleds, sand buckets, Halloween pails, NERF footballs, Play-Doh, Ramen noodle packages, Garfield watches, Despicable Me merchandise, Cheetos packets, Tootsie Pops, crayons, and so on. A Color Removed’s statement on the state’s brutal denial of protection to Black citizens is also an implicit commentary on environmental racism, for the environmental and health impacts of single-use plastics and processed foods fall disproportionately on lower-income communities of color, and particularly on their children.23 Safety Orange thus signals the structural enmeshment of consumer marketing, poverty, racial inequality, and climate injustice.24 Safety Orange is inextricable from the wider ecological and necropolitical material economies of toxic petrochemicals, which constitute about 90 percent of all plastics on the market.25 Crude-oil based products like traffic cones and plastic toys—the types of products that can be easily manufactured using orange colorants—are typically made from polyvinyl chloride, better known as PVC, the single most poisonous and environmentally damaging of all plastics.26
A Color Removed connects American anti-Black racism to global racism, depicting other sites where state violence manifests abroad. The installation includes a video of a mural created in solidarity with Rice by the people of Aida Refugee Camp; the mural memorializes Aboud Shadi, a thirteen-year-old Palestinian boy murdered by an Israeli sniper in 2015. The installation also includes a life vest that was used by a Syrian refugee who drowned before reaching Europe. The wall text for these items explains: “These objects make more apparent the entanglements of A Color Removed by drawing connections between the global endemics of racism, dispossession, militarism, and colonialism.” Using orange as a common denominator for the incommensurate impacts of colonial, ethnic and racial violence, the artwork seeks to open up a dialogue about the unseen commonalities between those subjects denied the care of the state.27
But as a reflection on the limits of solidarity, even as it attempted to initiate a dialogue about the intersectional politics of risk and safety, A Color Removed received some pushback from local activists and artists and one scholar close to the project. After some local Black artists and activists criticized A Color Removed for failing to include Black people, Rakowitz met with the artists and activists to discuss their critiques of the project. He responded to these concerns by reframing the exhibition as a collaboration featuring the works of four Cleveland-based African American artists who address related themes: Amber N. Ford, Amanda King (as part of the Shooting without Bullets youth photographers collective), M. Carmen Lane, and R. A. Washington of Guide to Kulchur.28 An early collaborator of the project later dropped out after accusing the work of appropriating the trauma of the Rice family,29 an accusation Rakowitz (who collaborated with Samaria Rice on the exhibition) strongly refutes.30 Such critiques of the work resonate with larger cultural debates over the right of non-Black artists to extract and display Black and Brown trauma subsumed under the sign of orange—a dynamic that threatens to abstract racial and ethnic violence from its lived experience, as some accused the artwork of abstracting the Blackness that underpins it and replacing it with orange.
By attempting to forge an intersectional politics, to create a kind of shared, cross-racial solidarity, A Color Removed offers a means of materializing—of making sensible and visible—calls for a radical collective vision for confronting a world beset by environmental and political crises.31 However, attempts to forge a common language against structural forms of oppression are, for some, not only impossible but unethical. Perhaps the most resolute proponent of this argument is Afropessimist Frank B. Wilderson III, who has argued that Palestinian and Black communities (two communities whose suffering A Color Removed explicitly draws into comparison) do not “share a universal, postcolonial grammar of suffering” even if they share the position of being targeted for state oppression.32 From such a perspective, artworks like A Color Removed can only ever fall into a form of solidarity politics that “analogize[s] black suffering with the suffering of other oppressed beings.”33
This conviction—and the broader questions of who has the right to speak and to set the terms of representations about Black suffering—has been at the center of fierce debates by museums, curators, and artists following a series of explosive events in the art world related to white and non-Black artists’ representations of Black death.34 In her book chronicling these events, critic Aruna D’Souza writes: “The question of when, and on what terms, a person is justified in taking up the cultural forms and historical legacies of groups (races, ethnicities, genders, etc.) to which they themselves are not part is always fraught, but especially so in the art world where cultural ‘borrowings’ are the cornerstone of the European avant-garde tradition we’ve been taught to admire.”35 Other artists, such as performance artist and theorist Coco Fusco, countered the polemical stance forwarded by Wilderson and others, asserting that “the argument that any attempt by a white cultural producer to engage with racism via the expression of black pain is inherently unacceptable forecloses the effort to achieve interracial cooperation, mutual understanding, or universal anti-racist consciousness.”36 My intention is not to adjudicate the ethics of using orange to bridge the representational chasms created by structural racism; it is merely to tease out why some artists have chosen to use the color, while others have not. By displacing the color onto objects and environments (rather than bodies), artists like Object Orange and Michael Rakowitz have employed Safety Orange’s tendency toward abstraction precisely to avoid spectacularizing black suffering. And yet by virtue of its abstracting nature, orange cannot but inscribe black suffering in an attention economy that exceeds the boundaries of its lived experience, and thus threatens to perpetuate the very trauma it seeks to redress.
For these artists, the use of orange presents a double bind: it encodes both the moral imperative for non-Black artists to respond to Black suffering and the risk of inadvertently reproducing that suffering. Even as they struggle with this double bind, these works effectively advance Safety Orange as a conceptual tool for making visible the plight of certain subjects, communities, and environments. They suggest creative ways in which the color orange can be used to deflect state reprisal: to protect against arrest, to preserve against demolition, and to shield against other forms of legal retaliation. And yet at the same time, projects like Detroit, Demolition, Disneyland, and A Color Removed reveal the limits of an orange solidarity. These are not just the limits of a “politics of visibility,” which assumes that raising awareness is the same as enacting social change—a promise that Safety Orange makes but never entirely fulfills. But more significantly, these projects show that when orange is used to resist oppression or neglect, it almost always abstracts (in a sense, removes) those being oppressed or neglected—and it is unclear to what extent it improves the lives of those it seeks to champion.
Ultimately, like Safety Orange, these artworks work by highlighting something different than they originally set out to highlight. By leveraging the slipperiness and mobility of Safety Orange as a sign, they further underscore the privilege that underlies orange’s significatory power: they show who can make orange mean what. By using the color to remediate the state’s failure to protect, these works cannot but participate in an attention economy that maintains whiteness’ implicit authority to set the terms of signification. This is not a condemnation of these artworks but an invitation to think alongside them about the conditions that afford certain actors the power to make meaning and not others. Indeed, these same conditions bind this book, since they are inherent to the very medium used to make a problem visible: Safety Orange.