The Whitney Museum of American Art’s sixth-floor terrace is a place to catch a bit of sunlight and spectacular urban views. But through April 14, it’s also a spot to contemplate humanity’s threat to the world’s ocean life, thanks to media artist Tamiko Thiel.
“Unexpected Growth,” an augmented-reality installation by Thiel in collaboration with a programmer known as /p, helps visitors imagine the terrace as engulfed in ocean water and home to colorful coral. But all is not as it seems. The “coral” actually comprises organic matter and ocean trash — and it grows, morphs and bleaches out every day.
Visitors can see the coral’s strange formation and catastrophic bleaching on a big screen, smaller tablets and an augmented-reality app. It surges in size depending on the number of people who view it. Underwater plants add to the otherworldly effect.
The installation, commissioned by the Whitney as part of “Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965-2018,” was designed to provoke questions about how human-fueled climate change and people-produced waste could transform Earth in the future.
Could New York’s Whitney one day be inundated by ocean water? How do people’s unthinking actions on land affect sea life? Will trash one day outnumber marine animals?
Those questions are linked to disturbing data on our effect on Earth. Last year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warned of the potential destruction of all of Earth’s coral reefs if global warming reaches 2 degrees Celsius. And plastic waste is already choking our oceans. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a vortex of plastic that has accumulated in the waters between California and Hawaii, is thought to contain at least 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic — and it is growing quickly.
For years, Thiel has been using augmented reality to highlight pollution and climate change. But the point is to inspire people with whimsy instead of scaring them into action.
“I know myself that artworks that only spread doom and gloom make an emotional impact, but leave the viewers depressed rather than energized,” she told Hyperallergic’s Allison Meier. “With all my artworks, I try to give the visitors a bit of delight to encourage them to engage with the artwork, which creates an emotional moment when they realize the underlying darkness.”