Art

A Message to the Future from Artists on the Front Lines of Sea-Level Rise

In Miami, sea-level rise is not a science fictional future — it’s a present-day reality that artists must reckon with.

Alliance of the Southern Triangle: Intertidal, installation view. All images by Zach Balber and provided courtesy Art Center/South Florida.

MIAMI — In Robert Wise’s 1971 film, The Andromeda Strain, scientists conduct research on a deadly disease at the Wildfire facility, a laboratory that extends five stories under the earth. Its corridors are stark red, the same florid color of the control panels on the space station in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972). The visual language of science fiction is often severe.

Intertidal — an exhibition by the collective Alliance of the Southern Triangle (AST) and curated by Natalia Zuluaga at Art Center/South Florida — is all but a control room of its own. The show shares with its cinematic predecessors those deep reds and maroons, the womb-like colors that recall the bloody warmth of the body and its fallibility, its vulnerability and propensity for disease. Swaths of blue-green encircle benches like topographic maps. The sound of wind echoes throughout, building into a terrible, swelling, orchestral score.

AST, a collective of artists, architects, and a curator, describes itself as “driven by the idea that Miami is an ideal case study for thinking about the matrix of the global city and climate change.” Intertidal examines how to transmit a message to the future that our world — Miami in particular — is on the verge of drowning. Here, sea-level rise is not a science fictional future: it’s a present-day reality that lends itself well to constant low-level anxiety, thinkpieces, and prognostication. A high tide on Miami Beach tide once stranded an octopus in a parking garage, as if to replace the “canary in the mine” idiom with something far stranger.

Alliance of the Southern Triangle: Intertidal, street view.

The works on view at Intertidal are all short films, which together make up one four-channel video, also entitled “Intertidal” (2018). The biggest, a massive piece evoking a familiar control panel, follows a rendering of a city whose image is reflected on the water below. We travel its length at eye-level. The buildings we’re examining have no visible floor; they’ve flooded, and we’re swimming. Overlays of text explain that sending a message to the future about sea-level rise would be useless. Instead, the video asks, “How do we send a message to the past? How do we let them know we’re drowning?”

“Our megastructure terraformed the earth,” declares one such message, taken from a talk by sociologist and design theorist Benjamin Bratton at Simon Fraser University. “It drank and vomited earths elemental juices and spit back up mobile phones.” The text is accompanied by “Ilakaka Sapphire Mine Human Conveyor Belt,” a video by the collective Unknown Fields of sapphire miners in Madagascar, their bodies flanked with lines and numbers, like diagrams. (The cadmium once found in cell phone batteries was also mined in Madagascar.)

Intertidal, installation view.

Works like these always risk aestheticizing disaster. But AST is too caring and self-aware for that, and while there’s no solution immediately proposed here, their artistry is not the center of interest — it’s the impossibility of creating art that does not contend with Miami’s environmental reality. It seeps into everything; it’s their impetus for existing.

Getting visitors to think about the sinking of a city, or even the thankless labor that built their communication apparatus, is its own sort of helpful device, and I forgive that it does so stylishly. (The video has the persuasive aesthetic of a 1990s Windows computer, which seems to appeal to a generation that grew up playing on these machines.) We are all implicated in the disaster. It’s worth noting here that Intertidal is a kind of precursor to Art Center/South Florida’s upcoming year-long Art in Public Life residency, which will place an artist in direct conversation with city commissioners to address sea level rise.

The video goes on: “We are the ghosts screaming the reality you hear as a whisper. Atlantis is not the myth of your past; it’s a memory of your future.” The sentiment is repeated in text, painted on a wall opposite the gallery’s window onto bustling Lincoln Road. The window, which normally extends the length of the room, is shielded with red and purple vinyl, leaving only an open, ovular circle in the center. The street below almost seems to become a cinematic Iris shot — a closing scene before it gets swallowed by the sea. Across the window, there’s a small library of titles like Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven — because imagined dystopia is as much a reality as any other.

Alliance of the Southern Triangle: Intertidal, installation view.

Intertidal’s message can’t be sent into the past. But maybe a future civilization will find them, and sympathize with our collective fear that we couldn’t stop what was to become. Perhaps they’ll forgive us.

On the entranceway door, there’s a quote from Jeff Goodell’s 2017 book The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World:

A backpacker’s campfire throws out a spark, a tree ignites and soon the mountainside is burning and the soot is drifting up, some of it lofted into the Jetstream and settling in Greenland, darkening the snow and accelerating the transformation of ice into water, which runs down into the North Atlantic, and eventually pushes a little deeper into Miami, Shanghai, New York … and then a little deeper still.

Intertidal is on view at ArtCenter/South Florida (924 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach) through April 8.

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