State of the Planet

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Science in the Streets

Eve Mosher, High Water Line, New York City
Artist Eve Mosher drew a chalk line around New York City marking 10 feet above sea level, a work that presaged the impact of hurricane Sandy.

By Shari Lifson

If you happen to have been near the Brooklyn or Manhattan waterfront during the summer of 2007 you might have seen a strange sight. On many days a lone artist would appear pushing a clunky, four-wheeled, aluminum hopper that laid a bright blue chalk line on the street as she walked. As she progressed she marked where scientists predicted floodwaters would reach more frequently due to climate change, approximately 10 feet above sea level. If you stopped to ask her what she was doing, she would have patiently told you about her project, named High Water Line, and given you an information packet explaining what it meant for you.

The artist, Eve Mosher, began her work over a year before the chalk hit the streets in Brooklyn by meeting with scientists at NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies at Columbia University. The subsequent project, based on this collaboration, reflects a growing trend. Scientists and artists have been talking to each other, to the benefit of both. Several artists like Mosher have pushed the collaboration even further. They have taken science out of the classroom and art out of the museum and brought the issue of climate change to people in the street.

On a warm sunny morning in April 2013, at a funky coffee shop in Brooklyn that seemed far from possible flooded streets, Mosher talked about the High Water Line project, and her artistic evolution. She drank a large mug of warm coffee and her eyes shone as she spoke expressively about her journey.

Originally from Texas, Mosher, 44, has a master in fine arts from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where she now lives. In 2006, Mosher was communicating her ideas by creating objects of cloth and fiber. One day she picked up the January 2006 issue of Sierra Magazine and her creative life changed. The issue contained Sebastião Salgado’s photos of Galapagos Islands wildlife, images of retreating glaciers, and scans of Environmental Protection Agency documents that had been altered to minimize climate change by the Bush administration. All of this in “one handy slap in the face,” Mosher said, laughing.

“I was mad, and anger is a really powerful motivator.” She continued, “And I thought what can I do about this? I am not a scientist, I am not a lobbyist…what I was good at was creating visual interpretations of things that seemed to be effective.”

"Science alone is not enough to really communicate the challenges of climate change to the general public, and ... art and artists play a special role in doing so, because it’s communicating on a very different level." -- Climate scientist Cynthia Rosenzweig
“Science alone is not enough to really communicate the challenges of climate change to the general public, and … art and artists play a special role in doing so, because it’s communicating on a very different level.” — Climate scientist Cynthia Rosenzweig

Having just moved, and without a studio, Mosher was able to imagine her work on a larger scale. “I really wanted to do something looking at climate change and understanding it at the local level. But at that time it wasn’t really being talked about, what does it (climate change) mean for my street?” She started researching and came across a 2001 report about potential consequences of climate change on the metro East Coast of the United States co-edited by Cynthia Rosenzweig, senior research scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

“I was trying to look for something that we could really grasp within our own timelines,” Mosher said. “A flood we get, sea level rise is funny…what does that really mean?” She realized that the 10-foot-above-sea-level line was significant and contacted Rosenzweig for help. She worked with the Climate Impacts team to figure out exactly where to place the line and to prepare her information packet.

“The project itself was about creating conversations. … It wasn’t a lecture, I wasn’t telling people this is what you have to do. I was creating a space where they would come to me, and say, ‘Hey what are you doing?’” Mosher said. “I would explain what the project was, and I would know where they were coming from and be able to have a conversation. So that was really what the project was about. And there were these packets that I could hand out as part of that conversation.”

Rosenzweig, a petite woman with a non-stop schedule and a seemingly unlimited store of energy, spends much of her time communicating her research results on the potential impacts of climate change to policy makers and other scientists. She said several artists have approached Goddard about projects.

“I have come to realize that the science alone is not enough to really communicate the challenges of climate change to the general public, and that art and artists play a special role in doing so, because it’s communicating on a very different level,” Rosenzweig said. “The science is on the rational side, and art communicates other human experiences.”

What motivates artists may be different than what motivates scientists, but they can investigate similar ideas. Artists interested in sustainability issues might partner with scientists to make sure their work is accurate. Scientists benefit from art projects that communicate their research to a broader audience than would normally read a journal article. However, the most interesting type of collaboration is an enriching experience for both parties, which both the artist and scientist learn from.

Mary Miss, Broadway: 1000 Steps, New York City
Artist Mary Miss, who is working on a project called “Broadway: 1000 Steps.”

New York-based artist Mary Miss also is working with scientists to bring sustainability and science to the streets of Manhattan. She has imagined Broadway, the iconic street that runs the length of Manhattan and into the Bronx, with all the roofs of the buildings along it painted white to reflect the sun and lower energy usage. Down at street level, interactive nodes placed at intervals, beginning at Bowling Green and ending at 240th Street, Van Cortlandt Park, would inform passers-by about the normally overlooked sustainability projects, infrastructure and natural systems that support daily life in the neighborhood. It’s Miss’s vision to turn Broadway into the “green corridor” of the city with a project called “Broadway: 1000 Steps.”

Miss, 69, was born in New York City, but grew up in California. After studying at the University of California and the Maryland Art Institute, she focused her work on place-based installations in collaborations with architects, urban planners, designers and scientists. In 2011, she completed an installation in Indianapolis entitled “FLOW: Can You See the River?” The project consisted of mirrors that reflected adjacent shiny red oversize “map pins” that marked the White River’s path through the city and described the river’s interactions with residents’ daily lives. Amanda Burden, chair of the New York City Planning Commission, saw “FLOW” and suggested to Miss that she should do a similar project in New York.

In September 2011, Miss’s non-profit organization, City as Living Laboratory, installed a trial of the Broadway project at Montefiore Park, at 137th Street in Manhattan, funded by a National Science Foundation grant. The grant was the first ever awarded to an artist-initiated project. She installed bright green poles with attached mirrors or nodes that were planted around the park.

Broadway: 1000 Steps, New York City
“Broadway: 1000 Steps” would install interactive stations along Broadway that would highlight sustainability projects, infrastructure and natural systems that support daily life in the city.

Each pole, about the size and height of typical sign pole, held a large convex mirror at average human height. Information discs within the mirrors focused on air, water, food, waste, energy and other sustainability issues in the neighborhood. Some reflected a nearby object or place that was related to the node, while others displayed information and illustrations about the location as it was 100 years ago. The nodes also highlighted sustainable features of the current landscape, such as community gardens or water systems. For those who wanted more, a phone number conveniently marked on the poles connected you to a guided tour, including the voices of scientists explaining local issues.

In her airy studio in a fifth-floor walk up in the heart of Tribeca, Miss discussed “Broadway: 1000 Steps” and how collaborations with scientists have been essential for her location-based work. She spoke in a soft voice seated in front of a large horizontal map of Broadway marked with all the planned nodes.

“What we are focused on is trying to get New Yorkers to understand their relationship to the natural environment, to make them aware of the ‘services’ that nature provides to support their lives and how everything they do affects the rest of the world because of the use of those services,” she said.

“We have found one of the best ways to communicate all this complex information is through providing equivalencies that people can relate to,” Miss said. “We could point something out in the mirror, like a fast food store, and then point out that that the hamburger you buy there takes 350 gallons of water to produce.”

Miss and her team have been collaborating with scientists, students and community groups to come up with the issues and equivalencies identified at each node. This semester, Miss has been a “client” of the undergraduate Sustainable Development class at Columbia University taught by Stuart Gaffin, associate research professor at the Center for Climate Systems Research. They, along with students from six other universities, have been identifying, measuring and validating equivalencies for the nodes.

Gaffin, whose research includes studying impacts of climate change on New York City, the urban heat island effect, and population shifts spurred by climate change, explained that as a scientist he would not have chosen to do equivalencies but he understands why Miss is using them.

“She is going to reach vastly more people than a scientist, she wants the equivalencies to be catchy, fun, gee whiz. The goal of the scientist is not wow gee whiz,” Gaffin said.

So Gaffin’s students are figuring out how many cups of Frappuccino the wasted water in New York City is equivalent to, or the area of a year’s worth of New York City garbage spread out one and a half feet high (about the size of Texas). Gaffin checks the student’s work to make sure Miss is getting accurate information. Miss is now waiting word on funding, including a second National Science Foundation grant, to keep the project going.

Eve Mosher works on High Water Line.
Eve Mosher works on High Water Line.

Making the connection between artist and scientist is not always easy. Miss and Mosher met some of their scientist collaborators through a group called Positive Feedback, an arts and climate science consortium led by Columbia University’s Earth Institute, the New York University Center for Creative Research and the City University of New York Institute for Sustainable Cities. Their last event was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and was called “The Art and Science Dating Game: How Artists and Scientists Find Each Other…And What Happens Next?” It featured three artist and scientist couples just beginning their collaborations, and hoping to spark long-term relationships.

Positive Feedback is led by Lisa Phillips, the assistant director of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy at Columbia University. The initiative was conceived at an event that was co-sponsored by a British group called Tipping Point and the British Council UK in December 2009. Since then, Positive Feedback has held several dating events, including speed dating, for artists and scientists to meet.

These events have spawned some long-lasting collaborations, but the group has been less successful in acquiring seed money for a planned two-year project. The dating game events continue, but the participants involved use their own time and funds to complete any collaboration.

“If they are both looking at climate change, and they are looking at a particular aspect of climate change, we are hoping that there is some influence and expansion of possibilities in the line of inquiry in the science or in the investigation itself,” Phillips said. ”We find they are often asking very similar questions; they just have different modes of operation and expression.”

One of the couples dating at the Met event was Mosher and Kenny Broad, an environmental anthropologist and professor at the University of Miami. When he is not scuba diving in underwater caves and making National Geographic films, Broad studies the relationship between people and their environment. The University of Miami is incorporating the High Water Line into three courses next semester, when the project will be replicated in Miami, and Mosher and Broad will work together on the curriculum.

After Mosher completed her line in Manhattan and Brooklyn, she moved on to other projects. But she has been approached to replicate it not only in Miami but also in London. In 2012, her High Water Line became prophetic during hurricane Sandy, marking in many places where flooding did indeed occur. Mosher wrote a blog post after the storm, titled “I didn’t want to be right,” about her feelings when she saw actual flood lines match her chalk ones.

“Watching it happen was really hard.” Mosher explained, “Not only because I was seeing my community devastated, but also because I had been there. It just felt yucky. It was so gross to be the person to say this is what’s going to happen and then to have it happen…I am sure the scientists felt the same way, they didn’t want to say, ‘We told you so!’”

Shari Lifson is communications coordinator for The Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project, in the Climate Impacts Group at the Center for Climate Systems Research. She is also a student in the Masters of Science in Sustainability Management program at Columbia University.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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