Originally published by The NY Times
Standing on the waterfront of Brooklyn Bridge Park on a misty Sunday evening, the visual artist Shimon Attie pointed to his latest installation moving slowly up the East River.
It was a tugboat dragging a barge that had been carrying an LED screen through New York City’s waterways for four days. The project is called “Night Watch,” and the screen on top of the barge — 20 feet across, 12 feet high — looped a silent film lasting nearly 10 minutes. It shows portraits of a dozen individuals who live in or around the city who were granted political asylum. They appear on screen with blank faces staring intently into the camera, occasionally walking toward it.
The beginning of the film features a quote attributed to James Baldwin: “We contain the other, hopelessly and forever.” The ending spells out the installation’s intent more clearly: “For the millions who have been forced to flee their homelands to escape violence and discrimination. For the fortunate few who have been granted political asylum in the United States.”
As the barge went by where Mr. Attie was standing, the Statue of Liberty was prominently visible behind the installation.
“The waterways for New York for the last two centuries have been integral toward welcoming new immigrants from all over the world,” Mr. Attie said.
The exhibition was commissioned by More Art, a socially conscious nonprofit based in Manhattan that specializes in public art projects, and was timed to coincide with the United Nations General Assembly convening this week.
Mr. Attie has been doing this kind of work for decades. In a 1991 installation called “The Writing on the Wall,” he collected pre-World War II photographs of everyday Jewish life in Berlin and projected them on the streets where they had been taken. In 1998, for “Between Dreams and History,” to convey the New York City immigrant experience, he projected written thoughts, including poems, memories and wishes, from 75 residents onto tenement buildings on the Lower East Side.
But this one may be more difficult for viewers to comprehend, given that the only hints of the project’s purpose come at the beginning and end, which, because of the barge’s movement, many viewers will miss. But even watching the footage without knowing the context, Mr. Attie said, was still valuable.
“There’s a powerful resonance about simply having the poetry of these large faces floating by on what looks almost like a 19th-century raft in a completely unexpected location,” Mr. Attie said.
In an interview, Mr. Attie, 61, discussed his most recent project, which will run through Sept. 27. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Why did you decide to spotlight former asylum seekers?
There are two answers to that. One is I have a long history of working with refugee and asylum communities. Also, it’s a topic of great urgency in this moment of our history. These are people whose lives have been saved by the United States. I couldn’t think of something more urgent to do.
How did you decide on the 12 people to feature in the film?
That process took a few months. We partnered with several legal advocacy organizations that were getting applications approved for asylum seekers. They came to trust us. They came to trust me. They opened their clients to us. I showed them my past work. I talked to them about what the idea was. I asked them what they thought. If they didn’t like the idea, this project would not happen. They loved the idea because it’s different. More specifically, I picked people who have character, strong faces, and people who would be good in front of a camera.
Where does this project rank in terms of logistical difficulty?
I’ve had more difficult and challenging projects and less difficult and challenging projects. The Berlin project was just guerrilla art. That was easy. That was me and four slide projectors.
This project, we started about two years ago. I took about six months considering what I wanted to do.
I’m going to answer a question you didn’t ask. The barge and the tugboat resonate in a very historical way, almost like a raft. Yet, right in the middle of it, there’s a large contemporary, high-tech, high-resolution LED screen. So they make a very nice synthesis together.
Was connecting with the 12 participants the most challenging part of the process?
Over the years, I’ve done a lot of community-based projects, especially with communities that have been marginalized. It’s a territory I’m familiar with. It is challenging, but it isn’t the most challenging part. The most challenging part, I think, is to try and make a strong work of art.
Because I don’t work in an instrumental way, I don’t have a message. I’m not trying to communicate something that’s reduced or specific or foreclosed. Rather, I’m trying to do two things: One is to try to use the language of contemporary art; two, to transmit a possibility to experience this subject matter in a new way.
What do you want people who see this to think about?
As an artist, I’m a little hesitant to get that specific because it’s a little more multifaceted than that. I would say that I would like members of the public to take away a possibility to reflect on this topic: “The Stranger Among Us.”
There have been different art projects with asylum seekers and refugees even recently. But they typically deal with people from far away trying to flee to safety, whether in Europe or here. These are people who live among us. These are our neighbors. They are our co-workers. They are our friends. This notion of insider and outsider and trying to scramble that and turn that upside down.