Bright orange can mean both safety—when it’s the color of a life vest—and danger, when it warns of a hazard. Ann Hirsch says that she and Jeremy Angier intended to send both messages when they created Safety Orange Swimmers (SOS), a floating installation of 22 figures made of foam and clutching inner tubes. The ensemble was anchored in Boston’s Fort Point Channel in fall 2016, then relocated to the Grand River in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan, for three weeks in the autumn of 2017.

The main danger the piece alluded to was the peril faced by thousands of refugees seeking safety, typified by the struggles of people trying to cross the Mediterranean into a less-than-welcoming Europe. Each figure represented more than a million of the approximately 22.5 million refugees worldwide. The generic, gender-nonspecific figures were rendered by Angier from a digital prototype, sculpted by Hirsch, and then molded from polyurethane foam—but once they were in the water, not every viewer realized they weren’t real.

ON SOCIAL MEDIA: “IT ALWAYS STOPS ME IN MY TRACKS”

“There was a very wide range of responses to the piece on Instagram and other social media,” says Ann Hirsch. “Some people, of course, were already tapped into the global refugee crisis, and they brought that awareness to the project. But a lot of people put their own meaning into it, which we were also hoping for. It was an open-ended experience. We also loved that it was a sculptural installation that doubled as a performance art piece, and we want to develop that idea further in our work.”

The following reactions on Instagram were compiled by Hirsch and Angier:

.

“Can’t even tell you what’s going on with this new exhibition with people floating on the rafts in that cold ass water. Made me shiver just walking over the bridge.”

.

“Cheetos Men crossing the river.”

.

“Thank you artists, humans and human artists who chatted today. We like this project of adventure, spontaneous compassion and conversation as an antidote to these rough and tumble times.”

.

“Would love to know where they got those made. Would love to make floating sculpture! :)”

.

“Saw this yesterday and it scared the crap out of me.”

.

“No matter how many times I walk by this refugee art installation in my neighborhood it always stops me in my tracks and takes my breath away. Today I stopped and said a prayer while quietly sobbing. As the world goes about their daily routines the refugees suffer. The worst humanitarian crisis in our lives [and] no plan to address it. None.”

.

“No way! Are those people?”

.

“We all look for safe harbor at some point of our lives.”

.

Public Art Programming: On Land and Water

SOS was commissioned by the Fort Point Arts Community, a multifaceted arts organization in South Boston whose public art program offers artists an unconventional choice: installation on land or water. While the program has supported terrestrial projects like installing window shutters on a former Necco Wafers factory and painting them in Necco Wafer colors (Mike Tyrrell and Sandra Vieira), and the festooning of a bridge with thousands of twinkling blue LED lights (Starry Night by Lisa Greenfield and Daniel J. van Ackere), it’s also “launched” a number of works, including Gianna Stewart’s 12-foot Iceberg—a reminder of global warming’s effect on the poles—and Don Eyles’s polystyrene pyramid made of replicas of Boston paving stones, which has had two incarnations since he first floated a pyramid in 1998.

THE PUBLIC RESPONDS: “AREN’T THEY GETTING COLD?”

Ann Hirsch and Jeremy Angier, pictured above with their floating sculptures, said they accurately predicted the figures would move and rotate in the Fort Point Channel when the tides went in and out. But, says Hirsch, they were surprised that the individual figures would rotate within the group. “We also didn’t realize that the way they were animated by the channel would lead so many onlookers to believe they were real people! A lot of them were asking, ‘When are they going to come out? Aren’t they getting cold?’ Kids were worried and asking their parents. Believe it our not, we hadn’t thought about how Blue Man Group has conditioned people to think of people with full body color as live performers rather than sculpture. And that wasn’t entirely off-point in terms of what we were hoping for in the piece. They’re very generic figures, but that movement really did the job of getting people to think of them as real.”

Jon Spayde is the senior editor of Public Art Review.

From Public Art Review #58, where this article originally appeared in Powerful Spaces as “Without Shelter: the Ones in the Water.”
Purchase original print issue