By Sara Lee Burd
Miami Beach is a small island with a population of 90,000 people, but it is making an impact as an incubator for climate change awareness and action. Faced with the environmental challenges, the City of Miami Beach’s Art and Public Places office has dedicated significant funds to prioritize public awareness of the social, environmental, and cultural consequences of the crisis. Expressing the urgency of sustainability efforts, the city’s Director of Communications Melissa Berthier explained that “Miami Beach is not a community of climate deniers. We have seen the effects of climate change in many areas.”
During Miami Artweek in December 2019, the city unveiled two public art projects dedicated to the city’s sustainability efforts. The inaugural temporary art installation, Order of Importance by Argentina-based Leandro Erlich, added spectacle to highlight the causes and effects of climate change. Miami-based Miseal Soto presented Reflecting Pools, an installment of a larger series of happenings under their project The Department of Reflection (DoR). As the Art in Public Places Artist-in-Residence, a partnership with the City of Miami Beach’s Environment & Sustainability Department and Miami Beach-based Oolite Arts, Soto established the DoR as a faux municipal office dedicated to the area’s climate actions. A look into Erlich’s installation and a selection of Soto’s public interventions reveals that these artists appealed to the human effects of climate change in order to connect the complex issues with the community of viewers.
Erlich’s Order of Importance achieved success in terms of visibility for the temporary art program and signified Miami’s identity as a center of the climate crisis. The city’s Cultural Affairs Manager, Brandi Reddick, effused, “It became wildly popular. At one point we had to rope it off and only let a certain number of people in at a time. Something we didn’t want to happen, but we were getting hundreds of people in the installation at a time.” The public art office estimates that 411 million people viewed the work through the media and in person. Listed as an Art Week must-see in Forbes, Vogue, The New York Times, and Hyperallergic among others, the installation accomplished the goal of reaching a broad public.
Unaware of the Leandro Erlich’s Order of Importance, I first encountered it during a nighttime walk on Miami Beach. I was intrigued by the eeriness of seeing what looked like a post-apocalyptic traffic jam. The life-sized, sand-encrusted cars appeared to undulate on the beach, which gave the suggestion that the roads had washed away long ago. I immediately thought: were these real cars, what were they doing there, and were these really art or part of a tourist attraction? Considering the Art Week context, quality, and scale, I approached the art as a humbling commentary on climate change resulting from Miami’s traffic congestion.
In the sunshine, Order of Importance felt more like a statement of fun beach culture than a cautionary perspective on the environment. With lines of visitors waiting to take selfies, I questioned if they cared more about the unexpected spectacle on Miami Beach than the threats the work aimed to communicate. I will admit that I enjoyed posting pics on my Instagram story just like everyone else, but the work left me with mixed feelings. I concluded that Erlich’s direct association with the beach provided easy access for passersby to possibly think about sea level rise, coastal erosion, low street elevation, and greenhouse gases in Miami.
Erlich’s point of view in Order of Importance disrupts the narrative of a future that promises progress. Echoing the nearby gridlock on Lincoln Road and Ocean Drive, the installation of 66 car-shaped sculptures encourage reflection on daily priorities. A recent article in the Miami Herald reports: “Miami metro area drivers waste more than four days of their life a year sitting in traffic…If you live to age 75, it means you will have lost 300 days of your life…” Troubled that people waste hours in traffic and, while doing so, emit toxic emissions, Erlich proposed current forms of urban transportation as counterproductive for our well-being and existence. My takeaway: methods of moving people to action in Miami and globally requires an overhaul or we will face the disastrous climate and societal consequences of inaction.
When asked why the $300,000 commission went to an artist from the outside rather than a local artist, Reddick echoed a common refrain used by institutions worldwide to defend pulling from a narrow pool of artists who operate in the art market’s star system: “We consider internationally recognized artists. Artists are selected based on the quality of their work, and we felt like this was the strongest proposal presented to us. We felt it spoke on many levels about current issues here with environmental concerns. He has exhibited extensively throughout Asia and Europe. It was a great combination of an artist being in the right point in his career addressing a thematic work that was appropriate to us. All of these elements have to come together when commissioning public art.” The local/non-local conversation creates a bind. Local artists struggle to gain international attention when commissions go to those working in the mainstream art market. Conversely, public art councils garner greater attention if they commission renowned international artists.
The Art in Public Places Committee awarded Soto the first Art in Public Life residency in May of 2018. Since then the artist has concentrated on the hyperlocal perspective and created deep connections in the community with their DoR brainchild. As an artist-in-residence, Soto attended meetings with the Environment and Sustainability Department of the City of Miami Beach to learn the city’s threats and solutions. Backed by data numbers, driven by urgency, and amplifying the messages of the offices, Soto has created space for abstract associations and critical dialogue with his art.
Like Order of Importance, Soto’s Reflecting Pools also contrasts Miami Beach’s leisure culture with connotations of the destruction caused by sea level rise. With the ocean expected to elevate approximately 6 to 10 inches by 2030, 14 to 26 inches by 2060, and 31 to 61 by 2100, Soto’s work highlights what has become part of the new normal of living in Miami. Detailing progress with extreme flooding, Berthier explained, “King tides may happen in other parts of the county, but not Miami Beach. We are adapting and mitigating. Learning from steps from the past and taking that into other parts of the city.” While techniques such as elevating streets, building sea walls, and redirecting water have eliminated flood disasters in the area for now, Soto shares the lived experience of these efforts. They noted, “There’s not just a singular solution. A lot of times solutions lead to other problems.” Working with the city to inspire the DoR program, Soto considers myriad intersections of the natural environment, culture, and society.
Soto’s conceptual artwork Reflecting Pools allowed for open interpretation, and I engaged with it as a warning that the process of progress can be unwieldy and even contradictory. The relationship between the work’s main materials–sandbags and industrial water pumps–brought connotations of emergency disasters. Their arrangement into two 8’ x 10’ water features indicated symbolic intentions rather than a restricted hazard zone. When still, the standing water looked like flooded areas while also suggesting decorative ponds. The pumps were activated once a day, and they came alive as fountains. Of course, the unrefined materials did not provide the same effect as a reflecting pool at a hotel, and for me this contrast accessed the paradox of a city based on luxury and the challenging environmental future ahead.
The temporary installation of Reflecting Pools represents only one instance of the artist’s two-year vision of facilitating hyperlocal engagement with climate change-related issues. Manifesting as a program of nomadic art interventions around Miami Beach, the municipal-style DoR offers unique viewpoints and methods for connecting data, inspiration, and action. Soto hopes their work with the DoR will inspire civic leaders to invite more artists to participate in panels usually filled by scientists, engineers, and activists. To provide an array of experiences focused on the human effects of global warming, Soto commissioned artists working in a range of disciplines to create workshops, performances, discussions, and tours under the department.
As examples of the DoR’s commitment to relevant art happenings related to climate change in Miami Beach, Nicole Salcedo’s Befriending Mangroves and Julian Pardo’s El Ritual de Sancho stand out. Miami-based Salcedo led a program that emphasized the value of Miami’s natural ecosystem. The workshop facilitated participants’ appreciation for mangrove trees. Once ubiquitous, these trees protect coastlines from erosion and high winds. The population dropped because of development, but sustainability efforts have contributed to regrowth. To encourage empathy and conservation, Salcedo asked participants to immerse themselves in the foliage and and catalog feelings, emotions, and thoughts that they felt coming from the plants. As a group, they debriefed the experience, looking for overlaps and understanding gained from listening to nature. An uncommon yet engaging activity, Soto described the resulting conversations as locally minded, existentially focused, and yielding unique associations with nature. Unlike Salcedo’s focus on the ecosystem, Miami-based Pardo approached climate change through its social and cultural impacts.
In El Ritual de Sancho, Pardo completed a daylong performance making poetic reference to social and cultural effects of climate migration by serving a community meal. Environmental disasters displaced approximately 265.3 million people worldwide during 2008-2018, and those numbers are expected to progress with increased climate-related storms, droughts, and as sea levels threaten inhabited land. For his performance, Pardo invited passersby to enjoy a typical Latin American soup, sancocho. Significantly, the dish varies nationally and regionally depending on available crops and traditions. Explaining the history and preparation, Pardo allowed space to consider its future composition. Soto explained their personal experience that day, saying, “He turned the making and serving of sancocho into a conversation about Latin American diaspora.” Soto continues, “I thought of ways that colonialism and very intense global shifts affect something as simple as what we eat. I ate this meal and thought about what climate migration may look like in the future.” With his art, Pardo proposed a future filled with new flavors. I see this as a positive social consequence of migration, but also a devastating reality for those forced from their lands.
Soto’s DoR illustrates the difference between art as a communication tool and one that exists as a place for reflection, dialogue, and deepening the human experience. Soto gives credit to the city for its efforts, “Miami Beach is at the forefront. They are the most at-risk for sea level rise challenges. It’s in their best interest to not only tackle it in traditional ways like engineering, but also as they are doing it by inviting artists to share a different perspective.” Going beyond action-oriented solutions, Soto’s installation and the DoR open possibilities for personal vulnerability, intellectual engagement, and emotional exploration of the crisis.
The City of Miami Beach takes climate change seriously and aims to impart the threats, mitigation plans, and resiliency strategies publicly through easily accessible data and outreach through art commissions. Supporting Leandro Erlich’s Order of Importance and establishing an artist residency partnering with the Environment and Sustainability office, the Art in Public Places Commission provides inspiration to reflect on the human side of climate change. By admitting both local and non-local artists to participate, the city increases its reach, and selected artists different approaches to the subject.
Erlich’s large-scale installation stunned viewers aesthetically and directly broadcast the city as an epicenter of the climate crisis. In contrast, the more conceptual Reflecting Pools relied on viewers’ imaginations for meaning to unfold. The DoR’s programs have succeeded in promoting the complex web of ecological, social, and cultural complications associated with global warming. With $3 million in funding for public art coming over the next 3-5 years, this civic office has a great opportunity to continue enriching environmental-focused conversations in Miami Beach.
 Read more here: https://www.miamiherald.com/news/traffic/article226229120.html#storylink=cpy
 Rise Above website data compiled in the 2015 Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact (Compact) released a Regional Climate Action Plan, https://www.miamidade.gov/global/economy/resilience/sea-level-rise-flooding.page
Sara Lee Burd is a Nashville-based writer, curator, and educator. Academically grounded with a master’s in art history from Vanderbilt University, she engages her expertise in art by writing about artists, art fairs, biennials, museums, and galleries around the world. She has penned catalog essays and published articles in Number:,The Nashville Scene, Burnaway, South As a State of Mind, Huffington Post, and Vanderbilt University’s Afro-Hispanic Review.