Climate change as a storytelling problem

About 2 months ago I had the opportunity to speak in the TEDx Broadway 2015 conference. I spoke about the psychological difficulty of taking climate change as seriously as we should, because it seems like a long-term problem. Since I was speaking to people in the theatre industry, I related that to the problem of making good fictional stories about climate change. I proposed my own idea for a climate change scifi movie, you have to watch to find out what it is (I’m talking to you, Marvel Comics).


Maya Lin and the long thin coast

Today I saw Maya Lin’s piece “Pin River – Sandy (2013)” at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, NY. (This was my second time; I had seen it about a year earlier at the Pace Gallery in Manhattan.) The photo (taken by me) shows what the piece looks like from across the room. It’s the outline of the areas of New York and New Jersey that flooded during Sandy.

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The medium is little metal pins, like slightly bigger versions of the straight pins used in sewing, stuck directly into the wall. Here is a close up:

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This piece brings out one of the changes in awareness that Sandy forced on people in this region. We know now much better than we did before what places are at low elevation near the water: what their names are, and where they are.

It’s inherently hard to visualize the region inundated by the storm, though. It’s a large area, but in most places it’s very narrow in width inland from the coast, compared to its length along the coast. If you want to look at it all on a map, the map has to be so large that the flooded area looks like little more than a line – a one-dimensional region rather than a two-dimensional (much less three-dimensional) one.

The New York Times had an interesting solution to this in the online version of an article that came out a few weeks after, summarizing the damage:

They did it with interactivity, so clicking on some place produces a zoomed-in view of that place, with information in a few different formats (photos, text, map) about what happened there.

It’s harder in a static medium. Lin’s piece first highlights the almost-curvilinear nature of the flooded land area, by showing nothing else but the negative white space of the wall. But one is inevitably drawn in for a closer look at the pins, forcing a direct perception of finite width.