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MMC Professor Lays Bare the Ravishes of Climate Change in New Exhibit

How is climate change reshaping New York City’s geography? A new interactive sculpture created by Sarah Nelson Wright, an associate professor of communication and media arts, and her longtime collaborator Edrex Fontanilla, a communications professor at St. John’s University, offers a startling look at the impacts of rising sea levels, storm surges, and massive human development on four endangered Staten Island coastlines.

Titled Shifting Sands, the installation uses a virtual reality viewer built by Wright and Fontanilla and immersive video to transport the public to remote shores so that people can see locations that will be radically transformed in the fight against the effects of climate change. It is currently on display at the Staten Island Museum as part of Vulnerable Landscapes, an interdisciplinary exhibition curated by artist Rylee Eterginoso that ends its seven-month run on December 30. We spoke with Professor Wright about the project, the latest in a series of interactive installations she’s created to examine social issues, and what she hopes students and the public will take from it.

How did the idea for the viewer first come to you?
Edrex used to teach at MMC—he was an assistant professor of communication and media arts for several years, which is how we met—and we began collaborating as teaching mates. In 2016, we did a show at the Radiator Gallery in Long Island City as part of the art collective Chance Ecologies; we created a virtual reality mask that showed Hunter’s Point South in Long Island City as a verdant accidental forest, which it was before it was cleared by the city in 2015 to make way for housing and a new park. To create the virtual mask, we 3D-printed VR goggles in MMC’s Theresa Lang Center for Producing and installed them on a little square of gravel to add some sensory input.

But we wanted to find a way that visitors could view the installation easily and unattended, so we began thinking about creating a kind of indestructible VR. That’s when we came up with the idea for the viewer. It’s based on those coin-operated binocular towers that you sometimes find at waterfronts, which is nice because our current installation focuses on shorelines.

I’ve always found VR in galleries a little intimidating and fussy—a lot of people feel self-conscious when they put VR masks on because they can’t see what’s happening around them. So I was excited that with our viewer, you can easily step up to the installation and look into it. It’s very approachable and accessible. Also, the way we did the design, it’s quite hardy. It doesn’t require any adjustments while you’re using it. We showed it in 2016 at the Queens Museum, last summer at the South Street Seaport for the Art at the BlueLine festival (Ava Makris ’21, a technical support analyst in MMC’s IT department, served as my assistant!), and now at the Staten Island Museum. From what I’ve observed hanging out in the museum’s gallery, there seems to be a great crowd for it. People spend a lot of time with it.

How did you create the viewer?
Edrex and I designed it together. He does the carpentry and wiring, and I do the editing and sound editing. And we generally capture the 360 video together. Usually, we decide where we’ll go, and sometimes we location-scout beforehand. Shooting 360 is funny because we’re shooting in outdoor spaces and don’t get to live-watch it as it records. So there’s some faith involved and also a few surprises. In the last project, we had a baby seagull in the shot that we didn’t even realize was there. The other funny thing is that you have to get out of the shot. So basically, we walk away from the setup and hide somewhere for three minutes, which is when it’s nice to have company because we’re often in very remote places. Then we go back and see if everything worked technically, and if it did, we move on to the next shot. We do sound recording separately.

How would you describe your mission as an artist?
It definitely includes revealing hidden value and engaging people with the city but through a lens of social justice and other issues I’m interested in, like environmentalism. But in a lot of my work, I’m trying to create experiences that lead people through their own evolution of ideas rather than just telling them my ideas. Edrex and I also find it interesting to try to show the perspective of places and non-human species through VR. We wrote an article about it called “Empathy for Place” in Mediapolis Journal, which was founded by former MMC professor Erica Stein.

For students who visit the exhibition, what other opportunities for exploration does Staten Island hold?
The museum grounds are in Snug Harbor [Cultural Center and Botanical Garden], a fun, intriguing place that was a retirement home for sailors in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It has this huge campus with old historic naval buildings that are used for events and art exhibitions now. There’s also a gallery called New House Contemporary Art. I showed there 10 years ago; it’s doing a lot of really interesting programming as well. So that’d be a fun field trip to see the museum and its unique interdisciplinary approach and then take in art in a space that’s more experimental.

View the Vulnerable Landscapes exhibit now through December 30.

Published: November 20, 2023