If the recent United Nations conference on climate change, COP 19, left you feeling totally stranded in terms of visible evidence of environmental policy shifts on the horizon, public works artist and urban interventionist, Eve Mosher, just might be the beacon of light or the life raft that you have been frantically searching for. Mosher’s recent HighWaterLine Miami is another timely project by the Brooklyn-based activist who is on a mission to “visualize climate change impacts to local communities via creative acts.”
‘Climate Portrait 03′ shot in Miami’s coastal waters by Hugo Montoya
‘Climate Portrait 08′ shot in Miami’s coastal waters by Hugo Montoya
The question of how and why Mosher uses visual storytelling “tools” to lure folks out on to the streets in order to engage in face-to-face dialogue should now be de rigueur with the frequency of events like Hurricane Sandy and Tropical Storm Irene. For starters, drawing a colored chalk line along the footpaths, waterfront zones, and diverse urban neighborhoods that would be dramatically effected by rising sea levels and flooding predictions is an act that every one can and should be able to follow.
Eve Mosher chalking the streets of Brooklyn for HighWaterLine NYC (2007) | photo by Hose Cedeno
The first HighWaterLine project took place in NYC during the summer of 2007. I remember it well because I witnessed the project, and it was beyond moving to see an artist simplify complex data that typically might seem too abstract to relate to. Eve’s walking and chalking over seventy miles of NYC’s coastal sections of the five boroughs translated vital statistics into impromptu chats and stoop meet ups. By ‘walking the talk’ and also installing an array of light beacons in waterfront parks along the way, Mosher was able to engage busy New Yorkers and, like a good neighbor, halt folks in their tracks.
“The line would follow a particular elevation—ten feet above sea level—much like a contour line on a map. Ten feet above sea level was the height that waters were expected to reach in New York during a hundred-year flood. Owing to climate change, though, the whole concept of a hundred-year flood was becoming obsolete. By the twenty-twenties, according to a report that Mosher read by a scientist at Columbia University, what used to be a hundred-year flood could be happening once every forty years. By the twenty-fifties, as sea levels continued to rise, it would become a twenty-year event. And by the twenty-eighties it could be occurring as often as once every four years. Mosher couldn’t understand why a projection like this wasn’t a major topic of discussion in Washington. In fact, it wasn’t being discussed at all.” viaThe New Yorker (2012)
Which brings us to 2013 where Mosher, new team member Heidi Quante, and Florida volunteers just completed HighWaterLine Miami (HWLM) on November 13th, 14th, and 17th. With a pressing goal to make an environmentally-vulnerable city like Miami more resilient for what lies ahead, Mosher went on tour again (this time with a fleet of ‘Heavy Hitters’) to empower the local residents of Miami’s diverse neighborhoods so that they might rise up and unite in linear fashion. The community-led Resilient Miami action group also cropped up during the process and is just the beginning for an urban gathering that might now build upon “a robust suite of tools” that Mosher envisions other communities adopting.
HighWaterLine Miami (2013) | photo by Jayme Gershen
We caught up with Eve Mosher upon her return to Brooklyn this past weekend, and she shared the following thoughts and reflections at the conclusion of HighWaterLine Miami (2013).
Eve, tell us a a bit about how the next generation of HighWaterLine was initiated? Who invited you to travel to Miami and what specific organizations or individuals were involved?
This whole process started in the summer of 2012 when my friend Heidi Quante was commiserating with me about the state of extreme weather events occurring around the world and the lack of media coverage on climate change. With fourteen years of experience designing environmental campaigns and using “creativity” to engage audiences, Heidi wanted (to create) new methods for inspiring people around the world. She was the one who asked me to travel to Miami, knowing that I offer all of my work under a Creative Commons licensed, and Heidi actually took the first steps to bring the HighWaterLine project to North America’s most climate vulnerable city. As HWLM project’s director and fundraiser for all of the local initiatives, she was instrumental in organizing members of the community to make this next chapter for HighWaterLine a reality.
Heidi is specifically interested in working with groups that do notself identify as climate change organizations, so we openly joined forces to ask Miami’s local community organizers if they might be able to use the project to advance their current issues. Heidi ended up moving to Miami full-time in August 2013 to facilitate and coordinate bringing together a myriad group of people and specific groups working across Miami Beach and the City of Miami. Because of her on-site presence, we were able to create real momentum, enough so that a new group has emerged: we will continue to support and work with Resilient Miami in 2014 as they stage more creative interventions around building a resilient Miami.
Participants take to the streets for HighWaterLine Miami (2013) | photo by Jayme Gershen
How was the project received by the community at large?
The project was a completely different experience from NYC in 2007, where I was an individual creating the line over the course of six months. In Miami, over 70 different local residents marked the line in their own neighborhoods, handing the field marker from one person to another to mark a 26 mile long continuous line. The similarity was in how interesting and supportive the interactions were with the people that we met along the way. The residents who participated overwhelmingly felt the power of walking, marking, and talking. As one participant stated, “As a resident walking the HWL Miami 2013, it’s rather eye opening. Not frightening. Enlightening.” Many of the interactions (I was lucky enough to accompany participants for most of the drawing) were moments of clarity and beauty, connecting on shared concerns, and discussing ways of moving forward.
In relation to HWL Miami , how has your outlook and strategy changed (if at all) since the HighWaterLine in NYC during 2007?
I realized soon after HWL|NYC that I wanted my work to encompass a larger scope than the awareness raising that the project created. I wanted something that had a greater legacy, i.e. the idea of giving the work away in order that others could experience the project (researching local impacts, speaking to neighbors, witnessing affected areas) was a start, but partnering with Heidi, given her immense skills in building a movement, elevates the project to a level that I could never achieve on my own. We have crafted all these ways of passing along skills that the community could use in realizing this project, continue to carry them on as leaders in their respective communities, and help them participate in the larger conversation.
A ‘Heavy Hitter’ chalking device or community drawing tool being prepped for HighWaterLing Miami (2013) | photo courtesy of Resilient Miami
Why is it important to create “tools” so that each community you work with can essentially be self-sustaining in terms of how they approach climate change issues in their specific region(s)?
I really believe that using creativity in taking on the complex challenges of climate change is a way to allow everyone to participate. Putting those tools in the hands of individual community members allows them to go into their own neighborhood and bring their neighbors into the conversation in ways that no one outside of the community can do. It also gives them the ability to use and reuse the tools for different subjects or at different times.
What sort of resistance have you experienced towards the project – either by city officials, the media (naysayers), community members, or otherwise – if at all?
Surprisingly little. Heidi was able to talk to the office of sustainability and the office of emergency management, neither of whom opposed the project. I think there is awareness in the need to raise public visibility around the direct impacts from climate change. I also think using “art” lets us off the hook a little bit – we aren’t laying blame or forcing people to do as we say. The intention was about opening up the conversation around climate change and its local impacts – getting more people involved in the conversation at all levels. The most difficult part was the permits. There is no precedent for creating this kind of public artwork, so understanding how to permit it can be a real challenge.
Do you feel that onlookers become “believers” or simply more engaged after observing others actively out in the community helping to visualize this vital information?
I always think of the encounters of one of many that a person might have and that the encounter with the project might be the first time they hear about the real local impacts (or maybe they have heard it several times before) but this finally gets them to act. For example, I had a wonderful conversation with a parking enforcement officer in South Beach. We started chatting about the power of knowing and talking to your neighbors, and she was describing how she wished more people were more neighborly towards her while on the job. We talked about her own ability to reach out to people and build a stronger community – and then we concluded our conversation by talking about recipe ideas for dinner. I hope that conversation might get her talking with others about the project and having these conversations (even within her own family) about climate change and strengthening community bonds.
Chalking the line during HighWaterLine Miami (2013) | photo by Jayme Gershen
Why is it important to physically do the chalking, i.e. draw the line so to speak in terms of actually visualizing potential rising waters in a given community? How does this act empower individuals and also connect them to one another in ways that sitting down at a community board meeting or petitioning does not?
Initially, it was just really empowering for me to witness the implications of the flood zone – noticing all the homes, meeting the people, etc., but I think the literal drawing of a line through a neighborhood can be a really powerful indicator. We have a visual language and understanding of a line drawn on the street. This wobbly ephemeral line intercepts our lives and our paths in a new way. Since we gave the project over to local residents, they had the moments of witnessing the potential impacts on their own communities and creating a surprising action which drove the curiosity of onlookers ( … and one of the best ways to learn is indeed through curiosity).
What other cities do you have on the calendar for HighWaterLine? (I know that your website currently lists Philadelphia and London for 2014). How were these locals chosen? What other cities would you like to take the project to?
Currently Heidi and I are working with a local organizer, Isobel Tarr and the arts organization, Invisible Dust, to bring the project to the London. I am also working with Chemical Heritage Foundation for a HighWaterLine | Philadelphia. In each of the locations the project takes on different methods of engaging with the public. Wherever the project goes, the intention is to respond to the local community in the interpretation of the project.
Tell us a bit more about the new Action Guide created in partnership with ecoartspace?
After creating the project I was approached by other communities to create the project, I didn’t think it made sense for me to travel and walk through other cities that were not my home. I started crafting a plan for how local educators or artists could re-enact the project. I shared on FaceBook one day that I wanted to write curriculum for the project and Patricia Watts (founder/curator of ecoartspace, who also works in partnership with director/curator, Amy Lipton) responded. She was interested in creating a series of guides for recreating artists projects in different communities that used art as a tool for learning about environmental issues. It just seemed to be the right timing. We went through several iterations of the project and then released the first version of the HighWaterLine Action Guide this past summer. It is available for free for schools, groups or individuals to use. We only ask for feedback in return so that we can use this information to refine the guide.
Are there any other climate action tools that you have in development?
Right now a lot of my time is focused on supporting the ongoing projects around HighWaterLine – there’s more that I want to do, including working on an app and creating an open source tool for crowd-sourced mapping and storytelling. I am also continuing to work with Heidi as we work together to develop methods for continuing to share our approach to creative interventions – which (also) involves bringing together various disciplines, using storytelling as a means to connect, and then creatively strategizing around local issues.
We’ll be launching this new collaboration in 2014 under the name, Creative Catalysts.
What is your WILD Wish?
I would love to see a leader be really bold and brash in the face of climate change – to enact sweeping reforms that have a huge impact on how we live, and to do so in a way that inspires us all to live better.