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While the acronym ICE may have only recently crossed over into mainstream usage, the fear of ICE — or Immigration and Customs Enforcement — has been a prominent feature in immigrant communities across the United States since its formation in 2003. Artist Jenny Polak started her ICE Escape Signs series soon after she started to read and hear that certain populations, particularly Arab and Muslim communities, were facing increased policing and surveillance in the US.
“In 2006, I was tracking the increasing workplace raids across the country, and I was in a Lower Manhattan Cultural Council residency studio in 120 Broadway, building a prototype hiding place for vulnerable immigrants disguised as part of the HVAC ducting in the raw space,” she told Hyperallergic. “I was looking at the auxiliary parts of the office building and thinking about its workforce and came up with the idea for an ICE escape sign like the building’s fire escape signs, as an art intervention that might affect the real world operation of a building.”
The project, she explains, seeks to infiltrate the “real spaces” of immigration politics for the non-immigrant, adding that it “is more about raising awareness in the citizen population than offering immediate use to those threatened by ICE.” The signs have a deadpan look but are intended to jolt people into a realization that these types of actions are part of daily life for the undocumented. “It is important to me to make the point that art spaces are also workplaces, and also to ask US citizens to think about breaking anti-immigrant laws,” she explained
Polak is inspired by disobedience to repressive authority. “I grew up with stories of my family members hidden from the Nazis in occupied Holland, by people who were risking their lives stepping up, which I offer as one source of inspiration for this body of work,” she said. “But I’m also inspired by the work being done at the NY New Sanctuary asylum clinic I volunteer at, and by the Minnesota churchgoer I interviewed who hid 25 people from ICE during a raid in the local meatpacking plant a few years ago.”
The ICE Escape Signs series is currently on view in the exhibition I’m Afraid of Americans at Fiendish Plots in Lincoln, Nebraska. Featuring the work of Polak and Dread Scott, the show documents the continuing conversation between the pair (who have been married for 25 years) about social issues, political activism, and the surveillance state.
Jenny Polak’s ICE Escape Signs series is part of the exhibition I’m Afraid of Americans at Fiendish Plots (2130 Magnum Circle, Lincoln, Nebraska) through March 3.