“Ocean Cube,” a pop-up exhibit on view in Manhattan’s Lower East Side through August 18, offers a futuristic vision of life under the sea in 2119.
As the show’s website explains, the underwater world—designed to not only immerse visitors in a fantastical, bioluminescent experience, but also draw attention to ocean conservation concerns—transforms coral reefs into traffic tunnels, jellyfish and whale into transportation portals, and pearls and bubbles into the building blocks of shopping malls.
The exhibition unfolds across five separate rooms. First up is the Coral Tunnel, a fiber strand-filled channel that leads from what a press release describes as the “polluted surface” to the deep sea. Then comes the Net Guard, a space lined with fishing nets protecting visitors from both pollution and potentially predatory ocean creatures.
The third and fourth rooms, dubbed the Jellyfish Station and the Bubble Mall, are perhaps the most Instagram-friendly. The former acts as a transportation hub, connecting commuters with jellyfish and whale “vehicles,” while the latter envisions a shopping experience where each bubble draping the walls and ceiling represents a brand of clothing, food, accessories or other commercial items.
In a statement, Randy Fernando, one of “Ocean Cube”’s designers, notes, “The jellyfish are meant to make you seem as if you are floating with them. They are light, delicate, and play with both color and texture. You end up immersing yourself into a tranquil and meditative state in a field of these delicate creatures and cool color tones."
As Amanda Svachula reports for The New York Times, the exhibition’s final room features its most obvious nod to ocean sustainability and preservation. Titled the Recycle Bank, the space presents a sea of plastic water and soda bottles that Fernando says “really makes you think about where your disposable garbage could be ending up.” On a more positive note, according to the “Ocean Cube” portal, the room also serves as a place where you can write down your nightmares—particularly those related to the current state of the Earth—and leave them behind.
“Ocean Cube” was created by Intashow LLC in collaboration with artists, designers and sponsors, including the University at Buffalo’s SMART Lab, an advanced robotics research group, and Fabrication Workshop, a space designated for researchers to build and test their designs on a large scale. Svachula writes that team members used leftover items from the fabrication workshop within the exhibition; a repurposed safety window, for example, forms part of the show’s sign.
Speaking with Svachula, Fernando concludes, “The show is meant to provide an interactive and playful experience to appreciate the aesthetics of the ocean environment, while incorporating touches of activism.”
Although “Ocean Cube” adopts a hopeful, even upbeat, tone toward the deep sea’s future, the reality of the situation is much starker. In March, a study published in Nature Climate Change found that ocean heat waves (defined as periods of extreme temperatures lasting five days or more) have become increasingly common in recent decades, damaging framework species such as kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs and triggering cascading consequences for marine biodiversity.
Separately, an April study published in Nature revealed that marine animals are twice as vulnerable to climate change-driven habitat loss as their land-dwelling counterparts, who are better equipped to escape excessive heat by seeking shelter in the shade or a burrow.
The underwater enclave represented by “Ocean Cube” offers a whimsical escape from the troubles of life aboveground. But as the studies allude, the pop-up show's vision of a thriving deep sea hub is just as—if not more—vulnerable to the effects of climate change as the lands surrounding Earth's oceans. Snap a selfie now, but be warned: Come 2119, life under the surface may be far less idyllic than the exhibit imagines.