Since 1993, 33,293 refugees and migrants died trying to reach Europe, a majority of which drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. While the global discourse around immigration and refugees has been fraught with divisive rhetoric, multidisciplinary installation artists Ann Hirsch and Jeremy Angier (A+J Art and Design) are bringing awareness to the dangerous journey refugees take when seeking asylum.
When you turn the corner heading west along the Toronto Waterfront, beyond the Toronto ferry terminal, you cannot miss the bobbing orange torsos in the water. When you first see these 25 floating figures, it is difficult to decipher whether the figures are people or sculptures. The life-like quality and scale of the figures allow you to imagine yourself within the installation; whether you’re an immigrant yourself or come from a family who immigrated, Safety Orange Swimmers shares a concept about diaspora that many people can relate to. The artists intentionally sculpted the figures to be genderless, ageless, and associated with no particular ethnicity; Ann Hirsch explained that refugees don't look like any one type of person, they look like every type of person. There is a quiet desperation in the sculptures' eyes, as their arms grasp onto the flotation devices with fingers spread wide. Watching the figures from various viewpoints, as they gently rotate and move with the water, you begin to realize how unfamiliar this scene is for Canadians.
In 2018, Canada resettled more refugees than any other country, taking in 28,100. Despite seeing orange flotation devices and capsized boats in the newspaper and on TV, this installation brought you face-to-face with the harsh realities of displacement. Roughly 1 in 49 refugees will die on their journey across the Mediterranean sea, an indication of risk people are willing to take to escape persecution, conflict, violence, or humans rights violations. Ann Hirsch and Jeremy Angier are extremely familiar with these statistics, and have 25 figures to represent the 25 million refugees now displaced globally.
S.O.S. Safety Orange Swimmers was the first project the duo ever collaborated on in 2016, and Toronto is its third iteration. Contacted by Toronto Waterfront, the duo use the cardboard layout that you see above to get an idea of scale, figuring out how the sculpture would be situated in the water. All of the figures have a tethering system that keep them in the formation you see above, whose web is then anchored to the bottom of Lake Ontario. To get further into their work and how it relates to a broader social and cultural context, we spoke with Ann Hirsch about the work and how it came to be:
Q: A lot has happened since the initial inception of your 2016 exhibition in Boston, how has the rhetoric around immigration changed since then? Is there anything people can do to support displaced refugees and immigrants?
A: The rhetoric around the broader subject of immigration has become more extreme in the US because the subject of immigration has proven to be such a successful wedge issue in U.S. politics. At the same time, climate change is making it increasingly more difficult to ignore the fact that sea level rise, extreme weather, flooding, wildfires, etc. mean that more and more people will need to migrate away from their homes. What’s changing is that while we have historically associated refugees with political circumstances, climate change and displacement are increasingly intertwined and will only exacerbate the current global refugee crisis (of which there are almost 26 million), internally displaced persons (of which there are over 40 million) and the vast population of economic migrants. As artists, we aren’t comfortable with the idea of telling people what they should do. Independently of our work we know there is much to do to support displaced persons, even beyond charitably contributing to global programs that support refugees in host countries and local programs that support refugees and asylum seekers in the developed world (and Toronto has many excellent refugee support groups, including Lifeline Syria, as we do in Boston). We can also talk to one another about the issue and remind each other that we’re all the product of migration. We can listen more intently to one another about our needs and concerns. And we can strive to demand that the journalism we consume is committed to truth rather than entertainment and polarization.
"Art can be a pathway to empathy when other paths are closed."
Q: Is there anything specific that you want people to take away from this particular installation? As artists our focus is less on the political and more on supporting spaces for conversation and connection while highlighting our shared humanity. We all have a way of relating to the condition of the Swimmers whether it’s thinking about our own journeys, our family histories or those of others. The figures in the water can’t go home - they are adrift and in danger – and one way or another they can’t keep swimming.
Q: Did your artistic practices begin as socially engaged? No, our artistic practices did not begin with social engagement but with an interest in form, the figure and the process of making. We hope that carries into the work we make that is socially engaged. As public artists we feel we have a different responsibility than we do as studio artists. If we have the privilege to make work for a public space then we have the responsibility to make that work integrally engage its site, to create space for conversation and connection and to engage with a type of meaning that one can’t get to with words but that relies on empathic connection and narrative.
Q: What do you believe the social function of art is? We believe that if art has a social function (and not all art does) it must at least in part be to help us walk in another’s shoes. Q: What do you think art can offer than news headlines and articles cannot? In our polarized cultures, art can offer greys where there are only blacks and whites. It can help us be comfortable with conflicting ideas and to make connections with one another where they aren’t apparent. And art can create space for conversation that enhances connections rather than that which separates us starting with a simple question like “What is going on here?”.
Q: In 10 words or less, why is art so important? Art can be a pathway to empathy when other paths are closed.
If you want to support refugees in Toronto , we have compiled a list of resources below where you can learn, donate and get involved:
Lifeline Syria - Lifeline Syria recruits, trains and assists sponsor groups as they welcome and support 1,000 Syrian refugees coming to Canada as permanent immigrants to resettle in the GTA over the next two years.
Matthew House - Their primary goal is to restore refugees’ dignity by providing shelter and support in a welcoming, home-like setting. Many refugees arrive with little more than a small bag and need practical support, they ensure that their individual needs are met and empower refugees to restart their lives in Canada.
Romero House - Romero House welcomes refugee claimants: people who claim refugee status after arriving in Canada. We welcome refugees regardless of religion, ethnicity, political beliefs, sexual orientation or gender identity.
Adam House - Adam House provides refugee claimants with clean and safe living accommodations. The staff at Adam House provide assistance and advice with immigration procedures, primarily to our residents and former residents.