MIAMI — In Aesop’s fable, The Boy Bathing, a child who cannot swim decides to bathe in a river. As he finds himself in danger of drowning, he calls out to a nearby man for help. “If you don’t know how to swim,” the stranger rebukes, “why did you bathe in the river?” Frantic, the boy replies, “Pray help me now, and scold me afterwards,” shocked by the cruelty of his ill-timed admonition. The moral: Counsel without help is useless.
There are many cautionary tales regarding sea level rise and its effect on Miami, where the future leaves hints of impending easy flooding and eroded shores. But unlike the bathing boy, most of us here didn’t willingly immerse ourselves into danger; and unlike the chiding man, the information we’re given on geographical shifts are arguably, in fact, counsel as help. Still, the water rises, and one wonders if didactic information might be less impactful than, say, a fabled fiction of consequence.
Cara Despain’s “Sea Unseen” is a sort of omen, a story ascending, quite literally, from beneath the ground, co-narrated by the ocean itself. Despain placed speakers in a number of downtown storm drains, where they blast loud enough for the streets to hear the tale of a great American paradise, swiftly and frantically overtaken by the sea. The project’s first incarnation took place in the pool at The Standard Spa Miami Beach, where Despain invited visitors to dive underwater and listen, placing silver bubble-lettered balloons spelling out “UNSEEN” on the surface.
Soundtracked with a score by Andrew Shaw, the story is read by Scott Fetzer, Jenny del Rosario, and actor Patrick Fugit, and filled with deeply unsettling tones. The music is strange, mixed in with the percussive clanging of a construction site and croaking frogs, which have also made their home in the drains. There’s something of Orson Welles’s 1938 radio broadcast present, given that the story is frightening, its delivery dramatic enough to feel real, and its plot fictional — but here, there is some verisimilitude.
A Utah native based in Miami, Despain often addresses the mythos of the American West, its landscape and the narratives that give it its particular aura, by examining the movement of time through western panoramas, or unearthing and reimagining its treasures. She treats her current city with the same sort of interest, with equal parts reverence and morbid curiosity.
Sea Unseen is part of Fringe Projects, a program that commissions temporary public artworks installed in less commonly known spaces in downtown Miami. The four storm drains are located in Kyriakides Plaza, a courtyard of sorts on Miami-Dade College’s Wolfson Campus; stand in between two of them and you’ll hear the stereo sound thundering powerfully enough to give you chills.
In Sea Unseen, the ocean warns us, “I’m coming. Well, I’m here already … With your complete trust and blind optimism, you’ve become vulnerable.” To what, exactly? To the flood, says our narrator, his voice bellowing, a total submersion for which we are wholly at fault. He recounts our history of reclamation of the land, a disaster in the making: “Then rose glittering spires, ever higher, grander, and more expensive … Pretty soon, it was coming up everywhere. From all sides, from the sky, from the storm drains, and even people’s front lawns. Where you’re standing, right here, it’ll be a lake soon.” Sea Unseen has an aural swell that feels physical; it crescendos and blisters the ear. It is strange to watch passerby pause and attempt to locate the source of sound. This is when the story feels especially truthful, watching unassuming students look for the voice of the ocean. It’s stranger still when they don’t seem to hear it, proving the ocean and the narrator right.
Despain’s story, too, marks the divide between the newcomers who help bring the destruction — wealthy developers, it’s assumed — and those left to suffer the most, the ones who knew all along and had no choice. “Those before knew it lived below … They knew to listen. The newcomers were deaf.” Later, the aftermath is especially cruel for longtime residents and the poor: “The elite were the first to arrive and the last to leave…The rest, they lived in the cruel briny wake of toxic upgrowth until they couldn’t take it anymore.”
As listeners, we live in both the present and future: the sea has already come, though it’s yet to arrive. One might liken the experience to waiting for a hurricane — knowing the future, at least a little bit, and rendered helpless. Actually, says our narrator, we are not so much forlorn as complicit, a bunch of Icaruses rushing toward a watery sun: “But they didn’t stop; even though the edges were moving, they didn’t listen. They chased them because, well, in the end, they were hypnotized by the horizon.”
You can listen to the audio of “Sea Unseen” on Soundcloud. The project was designed in stereo, so plug in your headphones for the best listening experience.
Cara Despain’s “Sea Unseen” continues at the Miami-Dade Wolfson Campus, Kyriakides Plaza (NE 4th Street between NE 1st Avenue and NE 2nd Avenue, Miami) through November 5.