Envisioning a future that’s under water

Conceptual artist and activist Mel Chin launches Unmoored, a mixed reality experience in New York’s Times Square that imagines a world where climate change has gone unchecked.

For the past 40 years, Mel Chin has worked across mediums to create uses his art that incites public discourse—and hopefully, sparks meaningful change—around social causes. Now, the North Carolina-based conceptual artist is taking on the timely topic of climate change.

Mel tests Unmoored on HoloLens in Times Square
Mel tests Unmoored in Times Square

“I think the most important motivation as an artist is to use what James Baldwin has described as extracting the question that is buried within the answer. If the answer is ‘The world will be inundated and destroyed by our own doings,’ then what is the question that we have to ask now? This project is about now.”  – Mel Chin, artist

His latest piece is a provocative public art installation: a site-specific mixed reality experience that explores a potential future where global warming has gone unchecked; where thanks to melting ice caps, erosion, and coastal flooding, New York’s Times Square is entirely under water. Developed in partnership with Microsoft, Unmoored allows guests to explore this submerged version of Times Square in mixed reality using the Microsoft HoloLens, or in augmented reality via their mobile phones.

Guests begin their experience via Wake, another public art work by Chin on view in Times Square. A large-scale (24ft by 34ft by 60ft) installation, it evokes the hull of a shipwreck crossed with the skeletal remains of a marine mammal. This structure is linked with a carved 21-foot tall animatronic female sculpture, evoking a figurehead of the 19th-century opera star Jenny Lind that was once mounted on the USS Nightingale.

An early rendering shows the placement of Wake in Duffy Square (within Times Square).

Mel Chin: Wake early digital rendering
Mel Chin: Wake early rendering

Wake relates to both the city’s triumphs and its problematic past. While New York City has become a center of trade, commerce, finance, and entertainment, it also has a complex history that includes the shipping (by the USS Nightingale, among others) of guns and slaves that augmented the city’s burgeoning economy.

At the beginning of the Unmoored experience, the shipwreck reanimates, reconstructing itself as the USS Nightingale and rising 26 feet in the air. It’s soon joined by hundreds of boats forming a nautical traffic above. This flotilla includes ships of all types and sizes, slowly making their way around existing buildings and landmarks. The untethered boats occasionally bump into each other and buildings, causing undulations of wave-like action and sending amplified underwater sound effects to audiences below.

Mixed reality helps me because it's agony to have thoughts and dreams and visions and not have them realized... Having an opportunity like this conquers that demon. Not silencing, but expanding a vision.

- Mel Chin, artist

Microsoft’s mixed reality technology—in both HoloLens and mobile app form—has empowered Chin’s storytelling around climate change, and allowed him to explore his artistic vision in a new, dynamic way, creating a visceral experience for guests that would simply not be possible via another, more traditional medium.

The installation is part of a multidisciplinary, multi-location exhibition titled—Mel Chin: All Over the Place, presented with Queens Art Museum and arts nonprofit No Longer Empty. Unmoored’s mobile app will be available for download and use in Times Square from July 11th through Labor Day, 2018 at www.unmoored.nyc.

If you look at the history of art, every time it's taken a gigantic leap forward it's been because of some technological innovation. I think mixed reality is another such technological leap forward. It's a material that allows the creativity of an artist like Mel to find a much larger audience.

- Manon Slone, co-curator of Mel Chin: All Over the Place
Mel Chin sketches Jenny Lind for Wake