Photo: Brian Kahn (G/O Media)

Roughly a third of the Netherlands lies below sea level. Even when water isn’t physically present, the specter of it is.

That feeling of looming water is central to Studio Roosegaarde’s installation, Waterlicht, which made its U.S. debut this week at Columbia University. Viewers stand amidst a sea of ethereal fog that slowly rises to meet blue LED projections that undulate above viewers’ heads. The effect gives the sense of being underwater. Above the digital water, the buildings of Manhattanville rise into the sky. Rather than feeling stifling, the space is meant to open up a sense of possibility and contemplation in the face of one of humanity’s greatest challenges.

“The Dutch have such a big tradition in art and design and architecture, because we need to be creative in order to survive,” studio head Daan Roosegaarde told Earther. “There is no stability. The landscape is really shaping our thinking, and our thinking is shaping the landscape.”

A new way of thinking will be required not just in the Netherlands but around the world as the climate change worsens. Roosegaarde likened rising carbon emissions and the trajectory the world is on as “unintentional” design, which is just about the worst kind of design possible. Even if the world manages to design policies that draw down carbon pollution, the flooding crisis that rising seas has unleashed will last for centuries as the ocean comes to rest at a new equilibrium. That means we also need to design new solutions. In the U.S. as well as other parts of the world, building seawalls as the Dutch have is only one solution—and likely an inadequate one at that. Retreating from the coast is another option already taking place.

Photo: Brian Kahn (G/O Media)

But in the contemplative space of Waterlicht, it’s also a way to imagine other ways of existing as water takes over the coastal landscape. Visiting on Wednesday, and the crowd was murmuring beneath the artificial blue waves. Phones were at the ready to capture the moment for Instagram, but sporadic conversations about water, climate change, and our future also rippled through the crowd as well. It was like being at a rave, except thumping music and molly were subbed out for actually talking about some serious shit.

I caught up with a few friends who wondered if the LED projections were based on climate projections for Columbia’s Manhattanville campus, among the lowest places the university owns elevation-wise. They’re not, but then the fact that we were even talking about it is kind of the point (and also betrays that I hang out with some nerdy-ass people). Roosegaarde noted Waterlicht was a place to open up discussion and mull ideas rather than just focusing on numbers. To be sure, the numbers do matter. Six feet of sea level rise is worse than 5 feet and so on. If the world warms more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), low-lying islands will be swallowed by the sea, displacing entire countries.

Photo: Brian Kahn (G/O Media)

Those numbers have to inform policy, but narratives and ideas are what will shape culture and how we learn to live with water. And that is just important as constructing sound policies, including having the space to talk about our collective vision for the 21st century.

“[There’s this] notion of ‘protopia’ rather than utopia, because it sort of opens up the conversation without waiting for a final answer,” Roosegaarde said, describing Waterlicht as well as some of his other work. “If I can create projects that make people somehow more curious toward the future, that is a good trigger for me to wake up in the morning and get to work .”

The rest of us also have a lot of work to do, too. And the clock is ticking.

Photo: Brian Kahn (G/O Media)
Photo: Brian Kahn (G/O Media)
Photo: Brian Kahn (G/O Media)
Photo: Brian Kahn (G/O Media)
Photo: Brian Kahn (G/O Media)

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