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An Artist Embarks on an Impossible Project for Tamir Rice

A slide from Rakowitz's talk (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
A slide from Rakowitz’s talk (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

CLEVELAND — Artist Michael Rakowitz is working with Cleveland on an unattainable goal: the removal of the color orange from the city. The project, “A Color Removed,” is a response to the November 22, 2014, shooting of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Cleveland boy who was killed by police because his toy gun was missing the orange rings that were meant to identify it as a replica. Rakowitz’s concern is with what he calls “the impossible prototype showing how things could be”: not the success of removing orange as a literal or even symbolic gesture, but the conversations the proposal of this act will inspire. By erasing the color orange from the urban landscape, Rakowitz wants to explore what he calls the “removal of the right of safety.”

A memorial for Tamir Rice in Cudell Commons Park, Cleveland (photo by Jeremy David Bendik-Keymer)
A memorial for Tamir Rice in Cudell Commons Park, Cleveland (photo by Jeremy David Bendik-Keymer)

As with the best conceptual artworks, no part of the process seems separate from the project itself. Everything is evidence, and as such is subject to a certain kind of scrutiny. Rakowitz’s introductory lecture to “A Color Removed” at Case Western Reserve University, which I attended, hit its mark both stylistically and linguistically. (Although I found it ironic that I needed to come all the way to Cleveland to hear a personal history based in Great Neck, Long Island.) The talk began with a series of thanks, in a way that felt genuine, not rote. Next, Rakowitz introduced his central belief that art should be useful, sharing old projects with the audience as a way to demonstrate both the problems he grapples with and the style he uses for grappling.

Michael Rakowitz delivering his lecture at Case Western Reserve University (photo by Jeremy David Bendik-Keymer) (click to enlarge)
Michael Rakowitz delivering his lecture at Case Western Reserve University (photo by Jeremy David Bendik-Keymer)

Immediately following this, attendees were asked to discuss the ideas behind “A Color Removed.” Rather than a traditional Q&A, however, Rakowitz and Case Western Reserve University Ethics Chair Jeremy David Bendik-Keymer engaged in a genuine conversation about the concept, taking audience comments with an openness I rarely see from either artists or arts organizations. Several audience members made suggestions about directions for the project, including a requisite point about the Cleveland Browns: the stadium seats are orange, meaning it would be difficult to remove that particular symbol from the city. Why not leave the color where it is but label it with a slogan that reminds people it’s not safe? (My immediate thought for the stadium seats was, “stand up, don’t shoot!”) Another audience member suggested that everyone in Cleveland carry a toy gun with orange painted on it, which would rupture or reverse the signifying system of danger. This idea makes me anxious, as it would require a police force as sensitively versed in conceptualism as Rakowitz himself.

This isn’t the first time urban challenges have been confronted with orange. I was immediately reminded of Detroit’s Object Orange project, which, rather than removing the color, uses it to highlight blight. But as Rakowitz made clear in his talk, orange is not a symbol in and of itself; rather, it is an invitation to another kind of conversation. The specifics of these anticipated encounters were left vague, but I can imagine that in the seemingly neutral gesture of removing a color, there’s a hope that dialogues about privilege could begin without defensiveness. In Rakowitz’s words: “This kind of action becomes an excuse for encounters which it’s crucial not to underestimate the importance of.”

A flyer for Rakowitz's lecture (photo by Jeremy David Bendik-Keymer)
A flyer for Rakowitz’s lecture (photo by Jeremy David Bendik-Keymer)

For me, the project raises a series of interesting questions and provocations. To say that removing orange is removing the right to safety is a fine conceptual gesture, but it may also be a bit heavy handed in communities that have no illusion about that right. Put bluntly, I’m not sure people need to be reminded that they’re not safe; they already know. If the color removal strategy can lead to discussions of the visibility (or invisibility) of privilege, however, I’m all for it. Second, the project seems to rely on compliance (agreeing to erase orange) as a form of participation — a gesture that could be fraught within communities who are taught that compliance, rather than active resistance, may be the only thing that keeps them safe. As “A Color Removed” unfolds, I’ll be curious to see how the evidence of participation accumulates both visually and emotionally, and what it might mean to embrace but also resist it, perhaps engaging with Rakowitz’s prompt in another way. Is it enough to ask what we can give by taking away? As Rakowitz optimistically suggested, will painting on a battlefield stop a war?

Michael Rakowitz’s 2015 biennial Beamer-Schneider Lecture in Ethics & Civics, “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets through,” took place at Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland, Ohio) on April 7, 6–7pm.

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