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Artist Shimon Attie uses urban, contemporary inspirations to tell refugee stories


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Artists can often use their work to draw attention to global events.

Special correspondent Mike Cerre has this look at one artist highlighting the refugee crisis.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Mike Cerre: Graphic portraits of recent asylum seekers on a barge silently floating past New York's Statue of Liberty, and on San Francisco bay past Angel Island, the Ellis Island of the West.

Visual artist Shimon Attie's floating electronic canvas is as much about engaging people in the current refugee crisis as it is about getting them to reflect on it.

Shimon Attie, Visual Artist: The common theme in my work is usually to give voice to under-told, underrepresented histories, marginalized communities, those who have been dispossessed, those who have been persecuted.

Mike Cerre: From projecting images of displaced shops in what once was Berlin's Jewish Quarter before World War II.

Shimon Attie: In the case of that particular installation, that Hebrew bookstore was located precisely there. That was 1930, that photograph that I projected.

Mike Cerre: To light boxes highlighting the ongoing tensions between Palestinians and Israelis in the occupied West Bank.

Shimon Attie: The cityscape overall in the distance or the natural landscape in the distance is part of the canvas as well.

Mike Cerre: Visual artist Shimon Attie relies on a variety of media and public art to draw attention to displaced and marginalized cultures.

Shimon Attie: My hope is to perhaps give the audience an opportunity to have a new experience, to experience a familiar subject matter in a new way.

Mike Cerre: A former psychotherapist, Attie includes what's called urban archaeology to his process of recovering lost histories of people, and bringing them back into view and our consciousness through his multimedia installations.

Shimon Attie: The reality is that much of my work does seek to articulate a shared common humanity between different groups of people.

Mike Cerre: Early in his career, he researched the genealogy of Manhattan's Lower East Side, a melting pot for Italians, Jewish and Chinese immigrants, who shared with him their stories and common experience of having to leave their original homes to start over somewhere else.

Shimon Attie: The laser write-out technique, the unseen hand, right, it's happening in real time, almost like as if a ghost is writing. And then, once the entire thought or reflection is written out, then it unwrites, like disappearing ink.

Mike Cerre: You know, when people talk about the medium being the message, the medium of the water, the medium of an LED screen, on the water on a barge, is that the art in itself?

Shimon Attie: No.

When I think media, I also think aesthetics. And I think that the aesthetics are part of the message, because I'm not a politician. I'm not an activist, per se. I'm an artist.

Mike Cerre: His video installation of a group of recent Syrian refugees playing roulette captures the uncertainty and risks they faced just weeks earlier while making their perilous crossing to Europe in small boats.

As prevalent as the refugee crisis is, do you think people are kind of numb to the images of people in distress and displacement, and you need to take them outside that normal realm of the news coverage?

Shimon Attie: Definitely, absolutely, 100 percent. And that's the potential of contemporary art, right, to put forward new representations, new images, a new way of considering a familiar subject matter.

Mike Cerre: An alliance of San Francisco Bay Area arts and human rights organizations recently featured Shimon Attie's work and others focusing on immigration, an animation of an Iraqi exodus in ancient Mesopotamia by visual artist Zeina Barakeh used San Francisco's tallest building for her canvas.

Shimon Attie: Water is a very amazing medium to work with. Number one, it's always changing. It's fleeting. It's constantly in movement. In terms of social history, it's very often been the media for escape, emigration, immigration, fleeing for one's life, being welcomed, welcomed into a new homeland.

Mike Cerre: The former immigration center on Angel Island in San Francisco bay was everything but a welcoming place for Asians migrating to California after the gold rush. Now a museum, some of them were initially interned in these holding barracks for nearly two years, until they could complete a complicated sponsorship process.

Shimon Attie: I respond to places and spaces and architecture and tangible concrete locations that I can touch and that I can move my own body through. So, the sense of place is very important in my work.

Sergey Arinkin, Kazakstan: My name is Sergey, and I'm originally from Kazakstan.

Niurka Mendez, Venezuela: My name is Niurka Mendez. I'm here because I fled my country of Venezuela.

Mike Cerre: The 12 refugees from seven countries featured in the Night Watch installation had recently been granted asylum in the U.S. The refugees' video portraits were designed to draw more attention than sympathy.

Shimon Attie: I try to avoid handing over the emotional goods in a simplistic kind of way which will make the viewer feel either sympathetic or empathetic or pull away or frightened.

Mike Cerre: Like in a gallery, his floating exhibit in very public spaces was viewed in collective silence, leaving each person to reflect on the images and what they represent.

Shimon Attie: I'm looking at you. You're looking at me. I'm looking at you. You're looking at me. And each viewer makes their own meaning from that experience.

Janet Biggs, New York Resident: One of those rare moments when political art and just stunning aesthetics come together in a way that's so powerful.

Mike Cerre: We're living through probably the greatest refugee crisis since World War II, over 80 million people displaced or refugees. This issue is not going away. Do you think your art will continue to focus on this?

Shimon Attie: I do.

I tend to respond to the issues that I care most deeply about, and I -- I don't think that I'll start caring less about helping those that are most in need.

Mike Cerre: Photographs of Shimon Attie's refugees installations are on display in San Francisco and New York galleries.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Mike Cerre in San Francisco.

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