In so many ways, I have finally caught up with myself.
This is Lanzarote. A not-so-small island off the coast of Morocco, one of the Canary Islands claimed by Spain for the past five centuries or so. The island is all lava and ash, turned black by the last volcanic eruptions in the 1700s, stark and alien and wonderfully not tropical. Barely a hundred thousand people are here year-round, but from July to November the island is packed with European tourists cramming in a moment of sun. I was supposed to be here eleven months ago. I am here now. Things change.
I came to Lanzarote to investigate what might be the most well-known aspects of my project: the underwater sculptures of Jason deCaires Taylor (JdCT). When it comes to exploring sense of agency in mitigating global climate change by design, JdCT’s work is the perfect case study (which is why I write about it in my article for Resilience: Discourse, Policy, and Practice). JdCT designs concrete sculptures that take on contemporary themes like climate change, narcissism and selfie culture, the refugee crisis, and warfare. Integration and harmony with the natural world is a prevalent theme in all his work. Sculptures are submerged, intended to act both as artificial substrate for accumulating biomass and a new dive site to relieve pressure on natural reefs. Note the specific word choice of “accumulating biomass”: not all of these works are designed to support coral growth, let alone located in places with endemic coral species. Lanzarote has some coral, but coral restoration is not necessarily the intended purpose of the Museo Atlantico.
The Museo Atlantico is, really, the world’s first underwater museum. When it is formally completed in December, it will consist of over 400 sculptures sunk to 15 feet at high tide. At the moment, it’s about one-third done; while Jason’s crew finishedd sculptures, the local tourism authority is test driving Museo logistics. I could have visited any number of places in the world to explore Jason’s work: his many sculptures in Granada, an underwater garden off of Nassau, Bahamas, the MUSA installations in Cancun, the list goes on. But no one site is as comprehensively planned, as tied in to the island’s tourism branding, or as philosophically precise, as the Museo.
Strangely enough, these three aspects of the Museo Atlantico aren’t necessarily new to Lanzarote. When development began to ramp up on Lanzarote in the late sixties, artist and architect César Manrique returned home from studying art abroad in a fury. He saw his home island at risk of ecological destruction from mega-developers. Manrique was, to my knowledge, amongst the first artists to place Environmentalism, capital-E Environmentalism, at the center of his practice. He wanted to highlight the local landscape and vernacular architecture as tourism products, not banal and identical developments, and did so through embedded design.
As such Lanzarote was, I argue, one of the first “art islands”, discreet geologic sites made unique in a competitive globalizing island tourism industry by embedding art into the local ecology itself. Thirty years later UNESCO designated Lanzarote a World Heritage Site for this socio-ecological synthesis (in part), in some ways precluding overdevelopment and in other ways encouraging Lanzarote’s branding as a certain type of desirable tourist destination. I’m curious to see how these different factions, and different generations of artists, have encouraged and shaped each other over the decades.
Lanzarote is an island in flux. Unrest in the Middle East pushes more European tourists to the Canary Islands (I’m so sorry the Arab Spring has interrupted your usual vacation itinerary), and divers who once enjoyed Egypt’s Red Sea seek new marinescapes; oil and gas interests clash with locals protecting their maritime interests, and graffiti declares “no se toca”; and the Museo Atlantico capitalizes on climate change and turns tourism in on itself, trying to be everything at once: a site of criticism, restoration, and recreation without compromise.