Crowning the King Tide

 Water Level Update
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  December 12, 2013

heralding the arrival of the king tide, rubber ducks
and waterproof boots were in order.

How will sea-level rise affect Portland in the next hundred years? The data projections, measured in feet and damage dollars, can pose a rather cerebral challenge to the imagination. (See “How Wet Will Portland Get?” by Jeff Inglis, October 4.) But last Wednesday, a community event called “Envisioning Change” took a more visceral approach to consciousness-raising about sea-level rise: In observance of the highest astronomical tide of the year, or king tide, artists and citizen observers convened to watch, document, and release rubber ducks as the waters of Back Cove flooded the junction of Marginal Way and Cove Street.

Also billed as the “East Bayside King Tide Party” — and followed by a “Portland Underwater” pop-up exhibit on Commercial Street — the happening was organized by faculty and students from the University of Southern Maine and Maine College of Art, in cooperation with the East Bayside Neighborhood Association and Zero Station Gallery. Their goal: to use art and community engagement to help Portlanders more vividly envision their tidal future.

Plans for the day were two-fold. First, participants walked from Zero Station to Marginal and Cove for an 11:22 am high tide with instructions from organizer Jan Piribeck, USM digital arts professor, to “observe and interact” with King Tide. Their photos and video art of the inundation will be collected online (an effort in which Portland joins King Tide observation initiatives already under way internationally), and will be part of an ongoing USM project to chart sea-level change in Portland between 1900 and 2100. Later, at the pop-up exhibit, visitors to Casco Bay
Variety encountered MECA students’ underwater art objects, interactive coastal map, and water-balloon dartboard.

Why public art happenings? “The role of the artist,” explained Piribeck, “is to tell the story of sea-level change in a visual way that has emotional and psychological relevance.” Paul Gebhardt, professor of public engagement at MECA (whose students created postcard art of an underwater Monument Square, a hipster fish, and a lady fishing from a second-story window) agrees. “The idea of story,” he said, “is so much more engaging that facts and data.” Artists thus have unique abilities to encourage creative community responses. “Getting a lot of people mobilized to interact with the tide and each other,” Piribek avowed, “is an art unto itself.”

About 35 participants gathered at Marginal and Cove as the seawater slowly seeped in and formed a small pool (six inches at its deepest, by unofficial measurement). Rubber ducks and a blow-up deer head bobbed. Kids gleefully dug a channel for the water. Rumors circulated about daredevils waterskiing from the backs of cars. The mood was not apocalyptic. In fact, it was distinctly festive.

“From my perspective, it’s not doom and gloom,” said Piribeck. “It’s a call for creative interventions and innovative ways of dealing with the phenomenon.” In fact, she sees the event as upbeat. “If we choose
to acknowledge sea-level rise as part of our situation, it means we’re open to the potential for collaboration
and change.”

“And Back Cove, which I love, is reclaiming its edge,” she added as the sea crept up, lapping the artists’ and citizen observers’ boots. “It’s an incredible thing to watch.”

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