Acting Normal In A Tank Full Of Water: Art And Rising Seas

Dec 2, 2015

A woman in a beautiful red sari sits on a small stool; She holds a basket full of bright orange persimmons and tries to sell her wares. In a matter of seconds, though, water has risen to her calves, then her hips and then above her head.

Her clothes swirl around her as she tries to grab the floating fruit.

All of this happens in an elevator-sized tank for a performance art piece called Holoscenes  at the Wolfson Campus of Miami Dade College.

Lua Shayenne tries to gather her persimmons in Holoscenes.
Credit Jose Iglesias / Miami Herald

“When I’m in the tank it’s that frustration of the water coming in and destroying what I’ve built,” said Lua Shayenne, the persimmon peddler. 

Performers spend from 45 minutes to an hour and 15 minutes doing “everyday things” in the tank. Besides selling fruit, performers try to read a newspaper, use a garden hose or tune a guitar. These activities are constantly interrupted by water that rises and falls at different speeds.

“It goes from normal to bewilderment because something dramatic happens - you get flooded,” said Shayenne. “And then there has to be some acceptance and [you build] a new normal.”

The floating is at the same time beautiful—her clothes billowing around like ink in water—and jarring—she’s scrambling to breathe.

“I’ve heard kids argue about whether it was about mermaids or death or dreams,” said Lars Jan, who came up with the idea for this project. “I've also heard some very inspiring words spoken by climate scientists about how this … distills some of the very complex science behind climate change.”

A performer tries to tune and play a guitar under water in Holoscenes.
Credit Jose Iglesias / Miami Herald

A couple years ago, he knew wanted to do an art piece about water in the 21st century. And as simple as water's molecular structure is—two parts hydrogen one part oxygen—its role in our world is not.

His research brought him stories about climate change, melting glaciers, sea-level rise, carbon dioxide and a few Al Gore talks.

From that he “wanted to make something that was visual and visceral and public.”

While this piece wasn’t made specifically for South Florida, the struggle that plays out in the tank clearly reflects the larger relationship this place has with water: rising seas.

“We’ll need more people to get in those aquariums,” said Henry Briceño, associate research scientist at Florida International University’s Southeast Environmental Research Center. His research focuses on sea-level rise and the impacts it has on water quality.

Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN

“I see the person inside trying to adapt, trying to float and breathe. And I think that’s what our cities are going through right now.”

He says in 100 years the place where the tank is located in downtown Miami will look a bit more like the inside of the tank than the dry sidewalks outside.

But communicating that message is something scientists struggle with, he says.

“In science,  we are used to talking in a different language. We are used to the academia,” said Briceño. And as a general rule, “people are more sensitive to what you present as a piece of art than what you present as a piece of science.”

Briceño points out South Florida’s ocean waters are rising more slowly than the Miami-Dade tap water inside the tank, so the immediacy of the performance art isn't reflected in the real world.  

The pump farm for the piece that allows the 3,500 gallon tank to fill and drain quickly.
Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN

Therefore, the response isn’t the same, even for Lua Shayenne who plays the woman selling fruit inside the tank.

By the end of the weekend, she’ll have spent hours in the tank as it floods and drains, but afterwards she has trouble bringing that understanding into her day-to-day life.

“I think I fail,” said Shayenne. “I fail to be this human that can be a bit more kind to nature. Because sometimes I'm like, ‘how can I stop using  plastic when people keep giving me plastic?’ 'How do I not use as much water?’ … So I do think about all of it and it’s scary.

And there’s a hint of that fear as she bobs for persimmons.

You can see Holoscenes at the pavilion at the Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus  from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. until Saturday.