“If the U.S. cultural present were a color,” Anna Watkins Fisher writes in her new book, “it would be Safety Orange.” The highly visible hue is the subject of a new 98-page volume, Safety Orange, which came out in January as part of the University of Minnesota Press’s reliably good “Forerunners” series. The book considers the color as an emblem of neoliberal “responsibilization.”
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In Watkins Fisher’s conception, safety orange can be read as a tool that the government uses to warn everyday citizens of hazards and disrepair while placing the responsibility of safety on everyday citizens, rather than the municipal powers that be. Traffic cones and tape that prevent pedestrian access are mere stopgap measures that make passersby accountable for avoiding obstacles, regardless of whether a safe alternative route is provided. Flashes of orange on graphs and maps signal growing Covid hot spots without suggesting what might be done to dial them back to yellow.
Pick up Watkins Fisher’s book, and you’ll start seeing America through orange-colored lenses. Our last president was orange, while our current one deploys the color left and right as part of his bid to patch up crumbling infrastructure. According to the author, in at least eight states—Ohio, Indiana, Montana, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Texas, and Florida—residents commonly joke that the traffic cone is their official state flower. And of course, nothing is truly American without a promise of a better future—so safety orange can also be a symbol, however unconvincing, that our streets are under repair and better buildings are on their way. Safety Orange epitomizes, as Watkins Fisher writes, “life lived in unsustainable conditions.”
Safety Orange couldn’t be more different from other books devoted to single colors like Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (2009) and Anne Carson’s The Autobiography of Red (1998). Watkins Fisher’s chosen hue is bereft of romance, and her interpretation hardly hinges on metaphors. That safety orange is entirely manmade makes this a book of design history more than poetic pontification. The color, which first emerged in the U.S. in 1950 as a warning device in technical manuals and federal regulations, was engineered to contrast with any natural environment—blue skies, gray days, forest greens. Soon, hunters began wearing it to distinguish themselves from whatever else might be lurking between patches of leaves.
Though originally designed for a specific function, the semiotics of the high-visibility hue have grown complicated. Watkins Fisher writes that the color signals urgency “but is oddly unspecific,” and that it is “informational without being informative.” Its imperative to stay alert and cautious is undermined by its pervasiveness. If everything is an emergency, then nothing is. In this, way it reflects how threat today is “chronically immanent.”
In her scholarship, Watkins Fisher often turns to complicated strategies of subversive affirmation. A media scholar with a PhD from Brown’s storied Modern Culture and Media Department, she now teaches at the University of Michigan, and her theoretical writing often thinks through works of contemporary art. She has written about artworks that issue critiques by performing stereotypes or caricaturing cultural assumptions in excess, so as to point out how stupid or absurd those stereotypes and assumptions are. In her best-known essay, “Manic Impositions: The Parasitical Art of Chris Kraus and Sophie Calle,” from 2012, she describes a tactic she calls “parasite feminism,” showing how both Calle and Kraus have each performed a kind of self-aware, stereotypically feminine needy helplessness. These two artists create characters who are so passive that they become needy, even threatening—especially in the eyes of the male figures whom they take as host bodies.
In a similar spirit, the final chapter of Safety Orange is devoted to art projects that retool the rhetoric of the titular hue by appropriating the color as “a way to force the state to make good on its promise of public safety.” The author considers works—by Amanda Williams, Object Orange, and Michael Rakowitz—that use orange to show who public safety is really intended for in a state founded on and structured by anti-Blackness.
The most compelling example is Rakowitz’s A Color Removed (2015–18), for which the Iraqi-born artist proposed displacing all uses of the color orange from the city of Cleveland to a gallery in protest of the killing of Tamir Rice. The two officers who shot 12-year-old Rice claimed their actions were justified because the toy gun he had been playing with did not have an orange cap. They said that, without this cap, they were unable to recognize the child as “safe.” This argument helped both of them get acquitted.
Rakowitz’s installation, which he created for Cleveland’s 2018 Front Triennial, includes an arrangement of orange toys on poster board by Rice’s mother, Samaria Rice, alongside donated orange objects from the community—traffic cones, Halloween decorations, Cheetos wrappers. In her reading of Rakowitz’s work, Watkins Fisher shows that when the state applies safety orange to Black people, it often frames them as crises to manage more than people to protect. Similarly, incarcerated people are often marked orange so that they remain visible to their captors, and the same plastic barricades that can be used to warn of obstacles can also be wielded to contain protestors in pens.
In an age when so many books of aesthetic and critical theory feel not only dense but several degrees removed from things that matter in daily life, Safety Orange stands apart. It’s a convincing kind of argument that makes you see things differently, be they artworks, the United States, or urban detritus on your daily walk.