Artists in New York City Call for Climate Change Awareness

“Unmoored” by Mel Chin. Photo by Amy Bohnenkamp

Claudia Dreifus teaches a course for the MS in Sustainability Management program, Writing About Global Science for the International Media, which will takes place on Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 6:10 PM to 8:00 PM starting on Tuesday, July 9th. In her course, she emphasizes developing practical skills with real-world applications. Using the diverse possibilities of New York City as a base, students are encouraged to develop the skills they will need to produce magazine articles from international locales.

In the piece below, student Amy Bohnenkamp reports on how artists in our town have been raising their voices to make the public more aware of climate change issues. Amy, like most of the students in the class last summer, was encouraged to go off campus, witness events and people and tell a good story about what she saw. Professor Dreifus believes that issues of science and sustainability are often made more accessible through this kind of storytelling.

Artists in New York City Call for Climate Change Awareness

By Amy Bohnenkamp

MS in sustainability Management Student Amy Bohnenkamp

On a hot Wednesday afternoon in New York City’s Times Square, I found a large wooden sculpture had taken over the plaza. It resembled the skeleton of a whale or a sunken ship, I couldn’t say certainly which one. Throngs of tourists took photos in front of it while waiting in line for their Broadway show tickets. Nothing unusual.

Then, this sculpture assembled itself into a large wooden ship, and a few minutes later, hundreds of colorful motorboats gradually cruised down the streets but above my head, creating a massive, dirty, marine traffic jam.

So this is what Times Square could look like if it were underwater.

Artist Mel Chin is responsible for this experience. As an extension of his survey show All Over The Place at the Queens Museum, Chin created Unmoored, a virtual reality project that imagines what Times Square would look like if flooded by sea level rise caused by climate change. He created the wooden sculpture, Wake, too, which is the first structure that comes alive during the experience.

With nearly 350,000 pedestrians per day passing through Times Square, the project has enormous potential to reach a large audience. Chin commented in a press release that “I see Times Square as most Americans might; it represents the endless clock, the public heart of New York City. Placing a work in Times Square tests its capacity to engage the imaginations of a population that is more diverse than in any museum or gallery I can think of.”

Given the project is staged in an overstimulating environment that is covered in sparkling theater marquees, gigantic flashing advertisements, and costumed entertainers simultaneously begging for your attention, it is impressive that Wake and Unmoored can capture your focus for a few minutes.

Artists exhibiting in New York City are trying to do just that; capture our attention and give us a place to reflect upon some colossal challenges that climate change has posed in the years past and how it will impact the present and future. In a time when our government rolls back environmental regulations and does not rectify climate change related problems, the arts community in New York City is responding to them. These exhibitions can serve an act of protest, a call to action, and a space to contemplate what could be lost in the future.

At the Queens Museum in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, I joined a tour led by Mel Chin through the All Over the Place exhibit with an eager, attentive group of students, elderly couples and young families that came to meet him. He guided us through daylight-filled galleries while speaking concisely and enthusiastically about the inspiration behind his work. He has the charisma of a natural leader, which captured a crowd of nearly fifty people by the end of the two-hour tour. He has clearly has done this more than once.

Although the exhibit was not organized chronologically, his work has changed over time, from intellectual projects inspired by Greek and Chinese scientific ideas and surrealism, to large-scale collaborative projects created in response to current events including the Flint, MI water tragedy and the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal. He has experimented with seemingly every medium including film, sculpture, collage, virtual reality, and fashion design.

One of his works created in response to climate change is L’Arctique est Paris (“The Arctic is Paris”). As world leaders gathered to sign an agreement to lower greenhouse gas emissions at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris in November 2015, Chin was compelled to respond to the events’ importance. He assembled a team to create a video starring a Greenland Inuit hunter, Jens Danielsen, who pulls a sled through the streets of Paris while humorously attended by a team of standard white poodles. He is dressed in traditional furs from head to toe and speaks of the effects of warming temperatures and ice melt that is destroying his culture and is forcing him off the land of his ancestors. He speaks of the ignored connection that the Arctic has to the climate of all other places in the world.

The video was scheduled to film on November 14, 2015, one day after the major ISIS led terrorist attack across Paris. The team decided to proceed with the filming despite the tragedy, which gives the video an eerie and mournful undertone to the already haunting message.

He recognized that it was a controversial decision to proceed with the project considering the circumstances, but also explains how Chin thinks about his responsibilities as an artist. He explained to the tour group that, “I feel compelled by the reality of the world. When disaster happens we all lose, so I feel the need to respond to it, and do not mean to take advantage of a situation.”

Laura Schaub, who works at the visitor desk at the museum, noted this piece was a favorite in the exhibition and that “we need a government that really cares about environmental problems.” Indeed, the tour group was utterly captivated by it; nobody took their eyes off the screen for its duration.

The artist has created pieces in response to other environmental issues as well. He is passionate about lead contamination in drinking water and how this problem can be detrimental to the well being of communities and individuals. His research in this area has resulted in a series of portrait drawings, a fashion show with designer Tracy Reese show entitled Flint Fit, a collaborative project called Fundred, and as part of the Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass, his own lamp that showed the parts of the brain that are affected by lead poisoning.

Although rising seas from a melting Greenland have yet to reach Flushing Meadows and Times Square, another area of the city has already endured severe damage from coastal flooding.

In Breezy Point, a coastal peninsula neighboring Rockaway, Queens, Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama’s famous installation and performance art piece Narcissus Garden is currently restaged at Fort Tilden, a former military base, as part of 2018’s iteration of the Rockaway! Art Festival.

Klaus Biesenbach, the director of contemporary art museum MoMA PS1 and his close friend and collaborator, writer, artist, and musician Patti Smith, conceived the biannual festival together. Both are residents of Rockaway, which was completely flooded when Hurricane Sandy hit on October 29, 2012. It is considered the most vulnerable area of New York City’s five boroughs for flooding from sea level rise, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

This gentrifying beach town is a serene escape for artistic expression for both Biesenbach and Smith. Biesenbach bought and remodeled a home there with a large, dreamy garden, and he helped Smith buy her beach bungalow there in 2012. She affectionately refers to as “her Alamo” in her memoir, M Train, because it was still standing after nearly a hundred homes around it were burned down or destroyed by floods in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

The storm left hundreds homeless and unable to get basic supplies. The MTA subway was not able to run there for months. To help his neighbors, Biesenbach set up the “VW Dome 2”, where his staff at MoMA PS1 distributed food and household goods to residents in need.

The friends have used their highly influential stature in the New York art world to create the Rockaway! Arts Festival to draw attention to the vulnerability this place has to climate change, and to provide the community with a platform for recovering from widespread destruction with artistic self-expression. The Rockaway Artist Alliance, a nonprofit that supports artists in the area, sponsors the festival as well.

Kusama gained widespread attention when she first staged Narcissus Garden in 1966, where she wore a gold kimono and sold plastic reflective spheres for $2 on a lawn outside the Venice Biennale. She was not officially invited to exhibit there, but instead protested the commercialization of art and self-centeredness of the organizers of the event and the artists there. In the years following, she became known in the New York art world and globally for her protest-spirited provocative performance art pieces.

Since the piece itself has only two sets of stainless steel spheres for installation, one of 1,300 and one of 1,500, the setting they are placed in transforms the mood of the piece. The piece has shown in venues around the world, but most recently, it has shown in nearby venues including the Glass House Museum in Connecticut and New York City’s Central Park.

In choosing this space in Queens, one of the attendants working at Fort Tilden noted that Biesenbach “thought about how this building in correlation to [Kusama’s] work represents the resilience of the Rockaway community.” Based In an abandoned train garage in Fort Tilden, each of the 1,500 stainless steel spheres, about the size of soccer balls, have been meticulously placed according to a dot on a blueprint that Kusama created. She is now 89 years old and does not travel often, so she instead sent a team to install according to her specifications and supervised them via Skype.

She further explains, “This building is perfect. I love it so much because it’s been abandoned since the ’70s and it’s still here through Hurricane Irene, through Hurricane Sandy, through everything.”

The reflective steel balls placed in the space are visually stunning in contrast to this graffiti-covered steel garage, with a rusted frame and broken windows.

The spheres do transform Fort Tilden into a space for contemplating the inevitably troubling future that the most vulnerable place in New York City to sea level rise will face in the future. Clearly, the message of the installation resonates with art admirers, as they have been traveling hours from all over the city and country to see it. I met a retired couple, families with small children, a lawyer from Seattle, and an Indian teen. About 1,200 people visit per day on Saturdays and Sundays, and about 200-300 people on Fridays, which is quite a lot of people to pull out to a far corner of Queens that is not easily accessible by public transportation. The exhibit runs from the first week of July through Labor Day.

The numerous organizations that have been involved with the project helped elevate it too. To name a few, the National Park Service and Jamaica Bay – Rockaway Parks Conservancy own the land, Bloomberg Philanthropies helped provide funding, Rockaway Artists Alliance sponsored it, and MoMA PS1 and Rockaway! provided the vision.

These exhibitions are not the only ones exploring climate change and environmental issues around the city. Storm King Art Center in Cornwall, NY, a 500-acre sculpture park located in the Hudson Valley, devoted this summer season’s exhibition to climate change. A new exhibit at the American Folk Art Museum is showing the drawings of Orra White Hitchcock, a little-known female scientific illustrator who frequently drew extinct species.

As times goes on, we are fated to see climate change effects grow and come closer to home. Accordingly, we will likely see more artists creating work to inspire solutions.

The M.S. in Sustainability Management, co-sponsored by the Earth Institute and Columbia’s School of Professional Studies, trains students to tackle complex and pressing environmental and managerial challenges. Visit the website to learn more.

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