Watch the Waters Rise in 'Holoscenes' Climate Art Installation

A human body confronts 3,500 gallons of water in the climate-change art installation "Holoscenes," presented in New York City's Times Square by the World Science Festival and Times Square Arts. (Image credit: M. Weisberger/Live Science)

NEW YORK — An artistic interpretation of climate change comes to Times Square for the 2017 World Science Festival, in the form of "Holoscenes," an outdoor installation that places a series of human occupants in an enormous aquarium, to explore humanity's uneasy relationship with rising seas in a warming world.

Created by visual artist Lars Jan with the multidisciplinary art lab Early Morning Opera, the installation challenges viewers to confront the reality of climate change and coastal flooding from sea-level rise in an unusual way — by watching a person going about an ordinary activity, such as cleaning a floor, while inside a glass enclosure that's slowly filling up with water.

One person occupies the aquarium at a time, and must deal with the water as it gradually becomes deep enough to first impede the person's activities, eventually covering his or her head and buoying the individual up off the aquarium floor. [Watch Live: World Science Festival 2017]

The tank fills and empties repeatedly over several hours, with water cycling in and out through the pumping action of a hydraulic system. While inside the tank, each occupant appears largely unconcerned with the rising water. Still, the participants must adapt their behaviors to meet the challenges that accompany the changing water levels, in much the same way as people living in vulnerable coastal cities will likely find themselves adjusting to more frequent flooding events as ocean levels rise, Jan said in a statement.

Visual and visceral

Inspiration for the piece initially came to Jan as a vision of a singular scene: a person sitting in a chair and reading a newspaper, in a room slowly filling up with water, Jan told Live Science.

"The person didn't react — he kept turning the pages," Jan said.

In the scene that Jan imagined, the reader, oblivious to the rising tide, simply kept reading his newspaper underwater until the paper fell apart in his hands.

"And then he kept turning pages that weren't there anymore," Jan said.

The artist realized that his vision was linked to his own memories of coping with extreme flooding events driven by climate change, he told Live Science. He wanted to create an installation that would stir curiosity in viewers about rising seas, while affecting them on a gut level — with the sight of a person submerged in 3,500 gallons of water. Art can be an important gateway to awareness about science — by encouraging people to be inquisitive, art can lead them to confront important issues affecting the planet, Jan explained. 

"People don't like being told what to do. And I'm not sure what people should do. But I want people to ask the question, 'How do we change?', and understand that it's necessary that we do change," Jan said. [6 Unexpected Effects of Climate Change]

Confronting the risk

The installation's title — "Holoscenes" — is a play on "Holocene," the current geologic epoch. This age began with humanity's appearance on the planet around 12,000 years ago and was later defined by large-scale changes to the global landscape that came from human activity.

Rising ocean levels represent one of those changes. Arctic sea ice and glaciers are melting at an alarming rate as global temperature averages climb. Climate scientists warn that sea level rise presents a growing threat to people — particularly those living on islands or in coastal cities, with projections estimating that coastal regions inhabited by one-quarter of the world's population will be uninhabitable by 2100 due to sea-level rise, researchers reported in 2016.

By placing human bodies in direct contact with water as it rises to fill their "world," "Holoscenes" connects viscerally with viewers to sound a warning bell about the consequences of climate change, Brian Greene, a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University in New York City, and co-founder of the World Science Festival, told Live Science.

"The heart and soul of the festival is bringing together science and art in a way that allows people to experience science — not just in a cognitive way, but in a more emotional way, and this piece illustrates that well," Greene said.

"We all hear about climate change, but this piece is one where you can experience how we will react to climate change, how we will react to changing water levels. The average person walking by can leave this having had some emotional connection to these ideas that you really can't get any other way," Greene explained.

The wordless travails of "Holoscene's" performers as they are repeatedly submerged puts a human face to the somewhat daunting science of climate change, making it more accessible and more relatable for audiences, Greene said.

"It's really reaffirmed my belief that I've held for a long time — that you need to catch the human drama, you've got to capture the part that makes us feel connected to these ideas," he added.

"That integration is vital. And that's really what drives the way that we tell the stories of science," Greene said.

"Holoscenes" is on display in New York City's Times Square from June 1 to 3, 2017, from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. local time.

Original article on Live Science.

Mindy Weisberger
Live Science Contributor

Mindy Weisberger is an editor at Scholastic and a former Live Science channel editor and senior writer. She has reported on general science, covering climate change, paleontology, biology and space. Mindy studied film at Columbia University; prior to Live Science she produced, wrote and directed media for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Her videos about dinosaurs, astrophysics, biodiversity and evolution appear in museums and science centers worldwide, earning awards such as the CINE Golden Eagle and the Communicator Award of Excellence. Her writing has also appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post and How It Works Magazine.  Her book "Rise of the Zombie Bugs: The Surprising Science of Parasitic Mind Control" will be published in spring 2025 by Johns Hopkins University Press.