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What Times Square would look like underwater

A lot of Manhattan may eventually be submerged by rising sea levels. A new art installation gives visitors a preview.

As global temperatures rise, the seas will rise as well–about 20 feet every two degrees Celcius. That means that in a few hundred years from now, much of Manhattan could be underwater, including Times Square.

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That future is the premise of a new mixed reality artwork by the artist Mel Chin that shows what Times Square would look like immersed in water. Using either an augmented reality app on a smartphone or a Microsoft Hololens headset, visitors to Times Square can watch a six-minute experience called Unmoored that shows all kinds of boats zooming about overhead. I visited Wednesday to get a sense of what it’d be like to be underwater in Times Square for myself. As I watched, the boat traffic intensified and finally slowed to a halt. The boats, suspended above me, slowly started to rust and degrade, almost as if human activity has ceased entirely. Then, a host of bizarre sea critters covered in spines and tentacles began to appear, making it seem like the only life that was able to survive was a new species of creatures that can live within a toxic sea. The experience ended as these new forms of life proliferated, the boats still hanging static above them.

It was a horrifying, disconcerting way to witness firsthand the potential degradation of our planet from an unfamiliar perspective. As I gazed upward at the rotting boats, the words appeared: How will you rise?

Unmoored by Mel Chin. [Image: courtesy Times Square Arts]
The work, commissioned by the nonprofit Times Square Arts in partnership with the curatorial organization No Longer Empty and the Queens Museum, is a direct critique of our inaction on climate change. Many of Chin’s other works, some of which are on display at the Queens Museum right now, also comment on the environment. But as he noted in a press conference held at the event’s unveiling Wednesday, he’s not trying to change anyone’s mind.

“It is a surreal experience meant to connect us with our reality,” he says. “It is not about convincing you to believe in climate change or not believe in climate change. It is there to provoke a question: How will you rise?” In fact, those are the words that appear on your screen as the experience ends–both a question and a challenge for everyone who visits the work. How will you rise to the occasion and do your part to avoid Chin’s vision from becoming a reality?

Unmoored, which was built by Microsoft and the marketing agency Listen, has a sister work in Times Square. Called Wake, it’s a sculpture that looks like the giant skeleton of an old sailing ship, complete with an animatronic figurehead inspired by the opera singer Jenny Lind, who was carved into the front of the 19th century clipper ship the U.S.S. Nightingale. Built by UNC Asheville’s interdisciplinary STEAM Studio while Chin was a fellow there, Wake grounds his digital art in the real world: The AR experience starts with the shipwreck transforming back into a real boat, rising from the plaza, and sailing off down Broadway. The connection makes it a bit easier to imagine what Times Square would really look like if it was below the ocean’s surface.

Wake by Mel Chin. Commissioned by Times Square Arts in partnership with No Longer Empty and the Queens Museum. Supported by the Times Square Alliance. [Photo: courtesy Chelsea Lipman for Times Square Arts]
While the smartphone AR experience, for both iPhone and Android, is available for download on the artwork’s website and will be available until September 5, a booth with four Hololens headsets is currently set up next to the shipwreck for the public to experience in a more immersive way this week. Figuring out how to use the Hololens in broad daylight during the heat of summer was one of the biggest problems with designing Chin’s artwork, according to Sarah Ibrahim, the technical director of Listen. Her fix was to add a film to the glasses that could prevent ambient sunlight from making the holograms disappear. (It shouldn’t be too much of a problem after 3 p.m., when the plaza where Unmoored takes place is completely shaded.)

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However, the heat is another problem, especially during scorching New York summers. Before I donned the headset, it was sitting under a gel cold pack–a comically low-tech solution to the device overheating. Even an installation about climate change is being threatened by climate change.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and sign up for her newsletter here: https://tinyletter.com/schwabability

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