Miami's beaches are eroding, the coral reefs are dying, and its citizens fear the strike of the next hurricane. The effects of climate change are apparent just about everywhere you look in South Florida, including the arts scene. Miami's cultural landscape has become the setting for a battle over global warming — debating not whether it exists (because it does) but whether local artists are doing enough to address it.
The climate clash came to a head just before Art Basel 2016, when Gene Moreno, the curator of programs at the Institute of Contemporary Art Miami, told the New York Times that Miami artists' failure to respond to global warming was a factor in their exclusion from the upcoming Whitney Biennale. Filmmaker and marine biologist Colin Foord, part of the art and science duo Coral Morphologic, responded in a New Times op-ed, saying Moreno had overlooked work like his.
"He's either incompetent or simply ignoring us," Foord told New Times last month. "The world of contemporary art is effectively obsolete at this point and is not in a position to effectively convey the greater concerns about the social and environmental issues that confront us today. We now must move beyond contemporary art and into postcontemporary art... We need to create for a purpose other than making art as a commodity to be purchased." Foord pointed to Miami artists such as Bhakti Baxter, with whom he collaborated on designs for sculptures intended to be placed in Biscayne Bay to gauge sea-level rise, and fellow Miamian Xavier Cortada, who has created installations at the Earth's poles to generate climate-change awareness and whose nature-inspired mosaics can be found in locations from South Miami to South Beach.
Moreno did not respond to New Times' interview requests.
That simmering disagreement makes this an especially potent time for a project such as ARTSail, a floating four-to-six-week artist residency aboard a catamaran launched by ArtCenter/South Florida. In the residency, artists and cultural practitioners sail Florida's waterways and coastlines to conduct research and later return to their studios in downtown Miami to reflect and produce work. The program is for artists and cultural practitioners who work with or have an idea pertaining to water.
The project represents a halfway point between Foord's and Moreno's views. On one hand, ArtCenter executive director Maria del Valle says, the residency was inspired by a citywide lack of concern about the warming climate. "Our city is surrounded with water, and yet we thought there wasn't enough attention paid to a variety of issues, from coral bleaching to sea-level rise... [and] sustainability of ecosystems like Everglades Natural Park," she says.
On the other hand, ARTSail isn't a moneymaking endeavor: It's funded by a $40,000 grant from the Knight Foundation and is a residency and research program that collaborates with the Frost Museum of Science.
The goal of the residency is to generate dialogue and critical thinking around environmental issues. Ombretta Agrò Andruff, the independent curator who initially pitched the program, says, "The curatorial vision is pretty straightforward: to stimulate a dialogue between the art and the scientific communities and extend it to Miami-based communities." Local students and artists will collaborate with ARTSail participants throughout its run, and at the end of the residency period, she points out, artists and practitioners will give a presentation to the public.
The first artist to embark on the ARTSail residency was Mark Lee Koven, a Miami-born professor in the school of applied sciences and technology at Utah State University. For more than a decade, Koven's work has married art and science during early stages of environmental research and intervention.
"Creating projects that are restorative, educating, and impacting on the public and governmental entities in order to alter mindsets that lead to behavior and policy changes are my priority," Koven says, "not gallery representation, art sales, or inclusions into exhibitions. The hope is to change the beliefs and behaviors of the public that lead to real change and inspire others to follow suit."
During his residency at ARTSail in December, Koven worked on the continuing project Taking One's Temperature. The work is an interactive installation containing a mobile planetarium, communal fountains powered by water collection, and a video-and-sound piece blending local landscapes with stories from South Florida residents. Video footage of the piece shows Stiltsville and select mangrove islands; Miami Beach, including Collins Canal and the Venetian Causeway; and coral reefs in the Middle and Upper Keys. At each location, Koven interviewed locals. He says the project was inspired by conversations he had with climatologists, biologists, and social scientists.
Between April and July, Koven will return to South Florida to shoot additional footage of canals and waterways, salt barriers, underwater reefs, the Everglades, the city of Miami, and surrounding urban areas. Taking One's Temperature will open on the pavilion between the new Frost Museum of Science and Pérez Art Museum in downtown Miami this fall.
"Miami has and will continue to be a major point of impact for the effects of climate change," Koven says. "It has a natural nexus of water and extreme weather conditions, both environmentally and economically. While there are likely Miami-based artists responding to climate change, I was unaware of any seeking to address governmental policies and shape community resilience plans through integrating art and science."
However, Coral Morphologic's Foord is both an artist and an activist. At a meeting, he spoke out against the $45 million bailout of the Frost Museum of Science, the institution that has a partnership with ArtCenter for the ARTSail residency, addressing reports of bureaucratic corruption and unsustainable architecture. In fact, he wants to open his own small-scale hybrid coral museum. "I want to put Miami on the map for coral science, since it's ground zero for sea-level rise. Miami is in a great position to stand out as a global innovator in this field," he says.
Though Foord agrees ARTSail is a project with positive intentions, he cautions, "We don't just want to let Miami's predicament be defined simply by a bunch of artists who parachute in for a couple of weeks a year. It's important for artists who live here full-time and see their future here to be actively engaged. There should be opportunities for artists whose studios are based here to make projects about climate change and sea-level rise."