Magazine article American Scientist

Walking the Edge of the Earth

Magazine article American Scientist

Walking the Edge of the Earth

Article excerpt

In 2007, environmental artist Eve Mosher read a report by Vivien Gomitz of Columbia University's Center for Climate Systems Research and learned that parts of her home city of New York are increasingly likely to be inundated by seawater in coming decades. According to the report, areas along New York's coast will experience what scientists call a "100year flood" much more frequently than the name suggests. As climate change accelerates, these neighborhoods can expect 100-year floods every 40 years by the 2020s, every 20 years by the 2050s, and every 4 years by the 2080s.

Mosher wanted to know what these numbers mean for the people and places closest to her. What exactly is in the flood zone? What will be the impact of warming oceans and melting glaciers for specific communities? Frustrated that the report did not answer her questions, and worried about the absence of climate change from public debate, she decided to find a way to make the data feel more real. She wanted to connect climate science with the places where we live, work, and play.

For Mosher, art provides the crucial link: "Artists can create visceral and emotional connections that can make change possible in ways that data and reports cannot," she says. In summer 2007, she set out on foot, equipped only with blue chalk and a chalk dispenser called a "Heavy Hitter," and drew a line marking an elevation of 10 feet above sea level-the elevation of the 100-year floodplain-through more than 70 miles of Manhattan's and Brooklyn's waterfronts.

Mosher's blue line wove through the neighborhoods of Chinatown, Coney Island, Tribeca, Dumbo, the East Village, and beyond. It outlined schools, churches, and hospitals. It wound around playgrounds and apartment buildings. Her public art performance, titled HighWaterLine, drew crowds of art lovers, activists concerned about climate change, and curious bystanders wherever she went. The project gave tangible meaning to the climate data, prying them free from academic reports and embedding them directly into the landscape.

Making a Modem Ritual

Taking a walk to think and to learn is a common ritual in the Western philosophical tradition. In her cultural history of walking, Wanderlust, author Rebecca Solnit traces centuries of writers' accounts describing how an outdoor stroll clears the mind, reshapes perceptions, and triggers intellectual epiphanies. Our feet seem to ground our imaginations, clarifying and solidifying new ideas. In recent decades, artists such as Hamish Fulton and Richard Long have approached walking as their primary medium, documenting their insights and interactions along their treks and leaving behind traces of their journey. Solnit writes about the artistic aspect of such performances: "One person's act can be an invitation to another's imagination; the way every gesture can be imagined as a brief and invisible sculpture, the way walking reshapes the world by mapping it, treading paths into it, encountering it; the way each act reflects and reinvents the culture in which it takes place."

Likewise, Mosher's HighWaterLine- both her journey through New York City and the trace of blue chalk she left behind-invites residents and passersby to reimagine the places they inhabit and to rethink the relationship of climate to culture. As Mosher walked, discovering exactly which areas would be flooded by seawater and storm surges, she snapped photos and documented her rpute online. (Readers can follow her journey on the HighWaterLine NYC website.) She also fielded questions from the public, handing out flyers when asked for more information. Such welcoming of unpredictable social encounters is a common feature of conceptual art. Mosher's intention, she says, was "to set up a space for dialogue about how climate change affects us as individuals and as communities"-precisely what is so often missing from media and scientific reports.

Some of the people experiencing HighWaterLine were inspired to share stories about bizarre patterns, such as the tornado that had whipped through Brooklyn earlier that summer. …

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