Atlas Miami: Flotsam from the Future


Screengrab, showing sea level rise projections, from a presentation given by Alliance of the Southern Triangle during Cannonball's "Making a Global City" conference, April 2015, Miami.


THE RUMOR THAT Miami’s December art fairs could be called off due to the outbreak of the Zika virus was a perverse reminder of how measured the panic in the city feels. No meltdowns and hyperventilating politicians, no quarantines or doomsday warnings. Just a few canceled school field trips, an overbooking of indoor tables at restaurants, and a robust quarter of earnings for insect repellent companies. (In any case, given congressional failure to fund a proper federal response, the Zika scare has only magnified Florida governor Rick Scott’s ineptitude in the public health sector.) Having made a news staple and shelf-clearing commercial opportunity of the yearly hurricane season, Miami is used to finding itself abstractly plotted on maps and in “zones of probability” diagrams that forecast storm landfall. “Points of origin” and “perimeters of contagion” and radiating rings of viral spread are taken in stride.

All the maps tracking the virus, marking off neighborhoods and threatened areas, are also a reminder that Miami is a series of geographies, a compendium of zones that seem to flourish independently. The situation is rendered all the more complex by the appearance of porous or temporary borders where least expected. While of course all cities are heterogeneous assemblages to some degree, few in the US are nothing but parts that don’t recognize each other.

The art fairs, for instance, belong on a map that includes the new museums and the sprouting luxury condos-a zone awash in money, inexplicable red jeans, wildcat investments, and other jet-set attitudes that baffle the locals. The reaction to these phenomena goes beyond the natural shock that the native strains of outrageous behavior elicit. Outside the environs where obscene amounts of money are blown on rarefied decor (contemporary art) and its containers (luxury condos), there are many other geographies to move through.

There is the map that binds Miami to the Black Atlantic-Miami as the twenty-first district of Kingston, Jamaica, and part of Haiti’s diasporic “Tenth Department.” This geography is marked by botanicas, sacred ceiba trees, and Creole restaurants rather than by condo towers. Percussive music and sinuous betterments of the English language saturate its atmosphere. Plastic bags filled with enigmatic things and left at railroad tracks for orisha, loa, or other voodoo spirits speak to the mysteries of this Caribbeanized Miami.

Then there is the map-perhaps the newest one-of Cuban migration in the wake of the “normalization” of US-Cuba relations. This territory rarely coincides with that of other generations of Cubans who have capitalized on the city’s image and resources. Its cartography is soundtracked by a reguetón repertoire identical to the one currently playing in Havana. As writer Ivan de la Nuez recently put it in the Madrid-based magazine El Estado Mantal, reguetón, which pervades the Caribbean, is the most significant expressive form for the first post-Revolution generation that can live both on and off the island of Cuba, divesting the Florida Straits of their old physical and symbolic power to obstruct the traffic of cultural and affective transactions.

Finally, there is the projective map that is consolidating around climate change. It marks a future geography that increasingly prompts younger Miami citizens to demand substantial changes in the city’s politics. This is perhaps the darkest terrain of all, despite the unprecedented Southeast Florida Regional Compact, an effort by the four coastal counties vulnerable to climate change-Miami-Dade County among them-to join forces and, in collaboration with local universities, develop policy and push state resources toward “mitigation and adaptation strategies.” Yet many of the efforts undertaken have led to dead ends. Miami Beach’s recent $400-million infrastructural expenditures, including investments in water pumps and elevated roads, have not kept the city from flooding during non-storm high tides or safeguarded a substantial swath of it from almost-assured disappearance over the next century.[pq]If ever there were a time for interventionist programs and new pedagogical platforms, this is it.[/pq]Beyond this, the new infrastructure has had devastating unintentional environmental consequences, irreparably damaging the biodiversity of Biscayne Bay (where the Miami Beach pumps expel collected waters). We know that we can’t survive climate change unscathed. Pessimism weighs heavily on the collective imagination, even as this ambient gloom mobilizes a new critical vocabulary and energy.


ONE OF THE MOST surprising things about Miami, pressed between sea and swamp, a slight past and a watery future, is that none of the concern about climate has made much headway in local cultural production. Somehow still caught up making discrete objects for showroom spaces-be they booths at an art fair or entryways in luxury condos-many Miami artists seem to be imagining themselves safely ensconced in some landlocked city far from here. To be fair, a few artists have responded more conscientiously. When Liesbeth Bik and Jos van der Pol, of the duo Bik van der Pol, visited the city, they couldn’t believe that there is an unofficial mandate, according to what state employees have told reporters, to excise phrases like “climate change,” “sea-level rise,” and “global warming” from official Florida documents. The Dutch artists, familiar with their homeland’s long history of tangling with the sea, produced Speechless (2015), an aviary in which parrots spoke lines from T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” evoking the madness of language’s failure to bring about positive environmental change. They installed it at the Pérez Art Museum Miami, which was designed as a raised structure that can withstand a ten-foot storm surge. Alliance for the Southern Triangle is an art collective that has generated speculative fiction in the form of documents, PowerPoint presentations, and murals that speak to us from fifty years and a few feet of sea-level rise in the future, when, according to their narratives, South Florida will have seceded from the rest of the state and its head-in-the-sand politics. There are other artists who illustrate ecological instability. But what we need now is the opposite of symbolic production. If ever there were a time for interventionist programs and new pedagogical platforms, this is it.

When art glides on the surface of things, anthropogenic effects and their everyday consequences are articulated only in technical terms-in scientific jargon and its journalistic recapitulation. We can continue to shoot videos of the ocean that insinuate some impending doom, or make paintings of coral reefs proliferating over the DJ booths of submerged South Beach clubs, or draft a few sketches of species on the “red list”; we can even, as Jean Nouvel recently did, put lagoons in architectural animations for luxury towers and hope that these will convince someone that they can mitigate the flood and the fleeing that it will demand. But the amount of pep talk needed to think that this is enough defeats the effort in the first place.

We don’t have to become dry and charmless analysts. We can still underpin the work we do with some J.G. Ballard-type thinking when looking for ways to supplement hard science with sensible speculative forms. After all, we know that, aside from indispensable local crime writers, Ballard is the only psychosocial diagnostician that Miami has. His novel The Drowned World (1962) is a picture of the city’s future. The gigantic reptiles and poisonous ferns are coming. The vertical gardens will no longer be planned.

On the other hand, an imagination of the future drawn from Ballard helps only insofar as light can bounce off it and onto topics like the “climate gap,” the disparities in the projected impact of climate change on poor and affluent communities. Such a shift in attention can return difference-in terms of race and ethnicity and class-to the homogeneous anthropos that many global-warming narratives presuppose and promote. Pollution hotspots, heat islands, food deserts, and flood-prone areas can be easily mapped, and they usually coincide with communities of color. There is work to be done here.

The very exercise of understanding Miami as a landscape that has so far survived year in and year out assaults by uncontrollable forces has made us immune to panic when faced with a Zika outbreak or a toxic algae bloom. But perhaps that same capacity has prevented our cultural sensors from registering the magnitude of what is coming. Perhaps it has dulled our sensitivity to the need to retune our practices so that the forms we produce are spared the sad fate of becoming useless driftwood when viewed from the future.