The Underwater

The Underwater

A socially engaged art campaign that is facilitating a grassroots climate justice movement in Miami by creating widespread, data-driven, interactive public art installations, exposing the community’s vulnerability to rising seas and providing a platform for storytelling, with the ultimate goal of inspiring civic engagement and collective action

Miami | Started on 10/03/2022

“The Underwater” is a large-scale socially engaged art project by Xavier Cortada that uses elevation-driven art to systematically reveal South Florida’s vulnerability to rising seas and mobilize residents to demand that their elected officials equitably plan for a future impacted by climate change. By partnering with local governments, schools, and universities, thousands of Miami-Dade County residents have found their property’s elevation above sea level and then installed an “Underwater Elevation Marker” (a yard sign that has the number depicting their house’s elevation) in their front yard.

The yard signs announce a given location’s elevation above sea level, however that meaning is unknown to anyone not familiar with the project. Due to the ambiguous nature of the numbers, coupled with their inherent strangeness (not being traditional political or “for sale” signage), the elevation markers work to pique the interest of passersby. It is in these moments of intrigue when the curious individuals can learn about the local impacts of sea level rise by either scanning the sign’s QR code or talking to whoever originally installed it. In this way, the artwork allows people to discover their home’s elevation above sea level, explore relevant online resources, and learn how they can get involved in local climate action.

While the signs work to communicate scientific fact, they simultaneously utilize property elevations as common ground in an extremely polarized society, providing a shared problem as a mechanism for neighbors to learn and work together. In addition to the personalized signs, local public schools were engaged in painting elevation murals on four intersections along a major roadway, temporarily renamed “Elevation Drive.” These interventions have generated dozens of community meetings, an online resource hub (Underwater Intel) providing climate education, and a community town hall and fair showcasing local climate efforts.

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