When It Comes To Sea Level Rise, Can Art Keep Us Afloat?

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Above: artist Noel Kassewitz and one of her floating paintings.

With Superfine! Miami Beach right around the corner, our focus shifts back to the Magic City…

…and all of its challenges. Two Art Weeks ago, the city got so much rain during the festivities that you would have been better off getting around in a kayak than a Lyft, and stiletto heels suddenly took on a new (maybe more practical) purpose beyond pure fashion. It amplified a question that was already on most attendees’ minds: how many more years can Miami (and Art Week) stay afloat?

The annual week of art, networking, and general Bacchanalia is oft-criticized for not being vocal enough about the very real, and very obvious threat sea level rise has on Miami Beach. While it’s not too hard to envision a future in which the art world abandons Miami and leaves it to sink into the Atlantic, that grim scenario is being increasingly questioned. In Miami, at least, artists are leading a cultural conversation around the city’s future when it comes to sea level rise.

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Above: Monica Jahan Bose performing at Superfine! Miami 2016

At Superfine!, artist Monica Jahan Bose will be bringing her performance piece RISING UP to this year’s Miami Beach fair on Friday, December 7th. Working with women from Miami as well as her ancestral island village in Bangladesh, the performance brings together two of the world’s locales most susceptible to sea level rise and asks us to ask what must be done at the individual, local, and global levels. Using saris from Bangladesh and wind, sand, water, and other natural materials found in Miami Beach, performers will create an immersive, interactive experience for visitors to the fair.

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In the Magic City’s artsiest neighborhood, Wynwood, social entrepreneur Linda Cheung is behind the project Miami Murals: Climate Awakening. The project is a marriage of art and technology, in which new murals being painted on the neighborhood’s now-famous walls become an augmented reality when viewed through the lens of a smartphone app developed for the project. As the name implies, the art and augmentation focuses on the rapid impact sea level rise is having on the city.

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“The greatest challenge in this whole battle is cultural,” Linda explains, “the question is: how do you get people to pay attention?” For most Miamians, dealing with flooded streets on a regular basis is enough to draw attention... but it’s not always enough to spark productive change. Linda hopes to change that by asking locals (as well as the throngs of visitors who circulate through Wynwood’s muraled walls) to more carefully consider their personal impact on the environment. “The most lasting behavioral change is the result of culture,” she says, “which makes art one of the most impactful ways we can spark change.”

In terms of getting people’s attention, most artists know that after shock value, a sense of humor can be one of the most powerful tools in their creative arsenal. Washington, DC and Miami-based artist Noel Kassewitz approaches a very serious subject with a healthy sense of humor. And most impressively, she manages to do so without seeming flippant.

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Her latest works are designed to adapt to sea level rise by literally floating. Constructed with found flotation devices and other mixed media including woven tapestry, her art responds directly to the problem of sea level rise with a novel solution. Having grown up in Miami, she always had a deep respect for the sea, but it was only after visiting Venice for the first time that she questioned its relationship to art, as she tells us:

“My visit to Venice, the perpetual sinking city full of art historical treasures, deeply resonated with me and cast all the problems Miami and the world at large face in a new light. I began to think more and more about sea level rise from an artistic standpoint as a threat to cultural objects and treasures.”

Impressive even in the absence of water when displayed on the wall, her works force us to confront a (possibly) dystopian future but also bring up questions about the life and death of any artistic work. Hers are meant to suggest immortality. As she puts it, “should their coyly coded warnings fail at prompting us to change, their dystopian pragmatism remains; as sea levels continue to rise, my paintings will float, surviving to mark this important era for both art and humanity.”

So even as some artists, and most scientists, prepare for a future in which Miami becomes the next Atlantis, we can only hope that art will help inspire the cultural changes needed to turn the city into the next Venice instead. At the very least, more artists are creating works that start an important conversation and shift the focus from finding problems to planning solutions. They’re helping our future look a lot more optimistic, which, some would argue, is the highest purpose art can serve.

Looking for art to change your world? Catch Monica Jahan Bose’s performance of RISING UP and much more at Superfine! Miami Beach 2018.