For a moment last summer the photograph of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up on the shores of Izmir, roused near-universal empathy for people seeking refuge in Europe from violent conflict at home. Of the more than 1 million refugees, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan, who arrived in Europe since the beginning of 2015, over 85 percent entered Europe through Greece. According to the U.N. refugee agency, they continue to arrive at a rate of almost 5,000 per day despite the hazards of winter and tightened immigration policies following the November terrorist attacks in Paris.
By now though, shootings, U.S. electoral theatrics, and international climate change negotiations have eclipsed that humanitarian crisis in the news cycle and most people give it little thought as they go about their daily lives.
One person who thinks about it constantly is Georgia Lale, a 26-year old artist from Greece who is in the second year of the MFA program at The School of Visual Arts in New York. In October she launched #OrangeVest, a performance art project designed to raise awareness about the refugees’ plight.
The performance constitutes Georgia walking silently through public places around New York dressed in black, a gesture of mourning the nearly 4,000 refugees who have drowned in the Mediterranean, and wearing an orange life vest symbolizing their hope for the future. By raising eyebrows, she aims to disrupt the complacency with which most New Yorkers regard the refugees, not only from Syria, but also from other war-torn countries, who risked their lives for a chance to live in safety. If passersby engage her in conversation, she answers their questions, otherwise she remains silent.
“To me, the life vests refugees wear as they cross the Aegean have become visually synonymous with the refugees themselves,” Georgia explains. “The vests symbolize their hope for a future free from death and destruction. I wear them around New York against the backdrop of iconic landmarks to reinforce the idea that this is a global humanitarian crisis.”
The first four iterations of #OrangeVest took place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in Times Square, on The High Line, and across the Brooklyn Bridge. Sometimes she performs alone, other times people join her, and she is always followed by photographer who documents the performance for her social media campaign. I joined Georgia for one of these performances, and spoke to her about the origins, intention, and reaction of #OrangeVest.
What is the purpose of #OrangeVest?
My goal is to raise awareness about the refugee crisis. That’s why I perform in public, not in an exhibition space. Even though Greece in particular and Europe more generally bears the brunt of the burden in accommodating refugees, this is a global humanitarian issue and we have a collective responsibility to help.
Do you think your message is getting through to people?
I think the power of #OrangeVest emanates from our silence. We walk peacefully, we don’t hold signs, or chant, or even speak unless spoken to. Our message might not be clear at first, but I hope that even if people do not understand what we are doing, the image of us in our life vests will stick with them, even subconsciously. Perhaps later they will see something in the news that triggers an understanding. I don’t want to force this issue on people, I am simply present, there to represent the refugees if and when people are ready to engage with the issue.
But most people seem to ignore you. As I followed you from the main entrance of Grand Central up Lexington Avenue to 46th Street, and across to First Avenue, I counted only 11 people who looked at your group, and of those most just gave a passing glance. Even as you walked back and forth in front of the UN and lingered to be photographed near the entrance dotted with tourists and diplomats you didn’t command nearly as much attention as I would have expected. Does that frustrate you?
It’s true, I am practically invisible in my bright orange vest. Each time I’ve done this performance, almost everyone ignores me. It is normal to ignore what makes us uncomfortable. But making people uncomfortable is the point because the sensation gets their attention when little else can. Even if they do not acknowledge my presence, they might later ask themselves why they felt uncomfortable. In this way, art can be more effective at conveying a message than a news report since we have become desensitized to images and statistics of tragedy.
Also, it is important to note that the live performances are just part of the project. The social media aspect is equally important. As my Facebook friends share my posts about the project, I gain more and more followers and people engage me in conversation that way as well. One Greek-American lady from Boston encouraged me to bring the performance there, which I might do. On social media, the message is more obvious because I often share news reports in conjunction with my photos.
How did this project come about?
I am from Greece, which is struggling to cope with the hundreds of thousands of refugees pouring in at a time of great social duress owing to the economic crisis. For many months I’ve been following the news from Greece and am touched by the many acts of kindness and generosity toward the refugees from ordinary people who have very little themselves. I wanted to do my part too. Initially, I thought about going to volunteer on Lesbos last summer, but flights were prohibitively expensive.
In any case, I realized there is power in art too. I’m surprised how few artists around the world are directly responding to the crisis. I think it’s because we feel too disconnected, especially outside of Greece. I wanted to do something because even if artists are understandably absorbed in their own projects, the art world should be informed about the rest of the world.
So the project primarily targets other artists?
Not necessarily, it targets everybody. It is just that I live in a community of artists, so I tend to see things through that lens.
Who are the other people involved?
I conceived this by myself and performed the first iteration alone. After that, some friends and acquaintances who saw it online started asking if they could participate. Four joined me at the High Line, fifteen at the Brooklyn Bridge, and five at the U.N.. I wanted to perform alone at Times Square.
So far it is mostly other artists who want to participate, and mostly women, which I think has to do with the fact that women are more in tune with our bodies and therefore less reluctant to making ourselves feel vulnerable.
Collectively, the participants represent a wide range of nationalities, which I like because it reinforces the need for a global response to the crisis.
The other person involved is George Xourafas, a Greek photographer who recently moved to New York. We met shortly after I launched the project in October. He was interested in it and agreed to photograph all subsequent performances. He has a background in fine art photography as well as photojournalism and takes beautiful pictures.
Have you thought about putting out a call to the general public to participate?
Yes, I was thinking about that, but I have a few concerns. One is safety. The other is I don’t want anything to compromise the integrity of my art. If a performer starts shouting or in any way acts contrary to the tone I try to set, it will ruin the piece. So I have to trust the people who participate. If a stranger approaches me about it, I ask to meet over coffee to get to know them first. It has only happened once.
Is it the most overtly political art you have produced?
I’ve always felt a responsibility to give voice to vulnerable people. My work generally centers on social, economic, and humanitarian issues. It often deals with the human body – how it functions within and relates to different social and economic architecture. All my work stems from my personal experiences. This is no different because I relate to these people through my family’s experience.
By that you are referring to the 1922 population exchange between Greece and Turkey, which had disastrous humanitarian consequences for all involved. Tell me about that.
Yes, my ancestors were from Anatolia. Following the birth of modern-day Turkey in 1921, Greeks who had been living there for centuries were forcibly relocated to Greece. My great-grandparents left with nothing. My grandfather, who was five years old at the time, remembers eating dirt to stave off hunger. One of his siblings was born on the docks as the family was waiting to board the boat that would ferry them to Greece. It was practically the same route that many refugees are taking now. And, like today’s refugees, when my family arrived in Greece they faced discrimination and social exclusion because they were considered “Turks.”
To what extent were you thinking about your own family history when you designed this project?
I hadn’t noticed the parallels between their experience and the current situation when I conceived the performance. I grew up hearing these stories from my grandfather so I guess they were always in the back of my mind. But I wasn’t really thinking about them until my mom told me that in the photos of my first performance of #OrangeVest at the Met I looked a lot like my great-grandmother. My family’s stories have been on my mind ever since.
Speaking of that first performance, why did you choose to do it at the Met?
Much of their [antiquities] collection was amassed in the 19th century under illegal or quasi-legal terms. Like today’s refugees, the art is stuck far from home.
So the fact that it is a celebrated art museum was less a factor in your choice than the fact that it is a repository for artifacts from around the world?
Exactly. And, on another level, my trajectory from the Assyrian galleries [which includes art from what is now Syria] to the Greek galleries was symbolic. Not only was I tracing the migration route, but I was walking between representations of two countries in the midst of distinct but connected crises.
I’d visited these galleries before, but that day I responded to the art more emotionally and the experience was more intense. I was struggling to discern my own identity while also trying to identify with the refugees. I saw the Assyrian pieces through the lens of a culture on its way to extinction. In the Greek galleries I found myself asking the art for help, help for the refugees, help to understand other cultures, how it feels to be lonely, lost and and alienated by language barriers and discrimination.
Photos by George Xourafas