Rising Waters on the Gulf Coast: The Cartography of Robert Tannen

Sarah Dupee examines a recent project by Robert Tannen that combines conceptual art and mapmaking.

Installation view of Robert Tannen’s GOM, 2016, at the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans. Courtesy the artist. Photo by Jonathan Traviesa Studio.

When I met with local artist Robert Tannen and asked him about his work as both a visual artist and a regional planner, he shared with me a memory from his own childhood growing up on Coney Island in New York. At the age of 15, a wooden boat he’d constructed was reduced to splintered pieces by storm surge from Hurricane Hazel. Tannen had anchored the boat in a supposedly sheltered harbor, only to see it get dashed upon the rocks. This firsthand encounter with a storm’s unforeseen consequences marked the beginning of a lifelong quest to answer a pressing question: How do we, as individuals and communities, live with the unpredictable possibilities of nature, storms, flooding, and rising sea levels?

It was this question that first drove Tannen to relocate from Massachusetts to Mississippi in 1969, while working for the Cambridge-based environmental planning firm Meta Systems, Inc., in order to help devise a regional plan in the aftermath of Hurricane Camille. His firm made a case for building new communities outside the Mississippi Gulf Coast floodplain, with I-10 as a spine for development. Though the master plan was ultimately not implemented, relocation nevertheless happened organically, as many Mississippians did not rebuild their homes in the floodplain, given the demonstrated risk and the high insurance costs.

Two years later, an urban planning firm brought Tannen to New Orleans where he has lived ever since, in a house on the “high ground” of Esplanade Ridge, working in public infrastructure, transportation, historic preservation, and most notably visual art. Tannen was, in fact, a pioneer for contemporary visual arts in New Orleans, first drawing attention to the city’s dire need for art spaces and then, in 1976, successfully launching the Contemporary Arts Center.

His ongoing work as a planner and an artist underscores the precarity of living so closely to water and in constantly changing environments. He notes that human societies have long observed and respected the environmental risks of certain areas, with or without the data to back it up. Native Americans, he points out, came down to the floodplains to fish and hunt, then retreated back to higher ground. They built their permanent settlements outside of the floodplains, as is demonstrated by the prehistoric Poverty Point’s location in northern Louisiana, secure from rising waters. Here in South Louisiana we have inherited the task of developing sustainable communities in a region so highly vulnerable to storm surge, coastal erosion, and rising sea levels.

Tannen’s most recent work—his central focus while a Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Artist in Residence on Captiva Island, Florida, early this year—spells out these regional vulnerabilities by converting scientific, geological data into a clear, visual representation of the Gulf Coast’s low-lying areas. Large portions of this work appeared publicly this fall as part of the Contemporary Arts Center’s “‘A Building with a View’: Experiments in Anarchitecture.” His installation, GOM, 2016, juxtaposed full-color maps, a large landscape painting, and several 3D models to illustrate land elevations along the Gulf of Mexico.

All in all, Tannen created 67 maps, each of a county or parish located along the 1500 miles of coast stretching from Florida to Texas. The maps show both natural features of the landscape as well as human-made cities, towns, highways, and borders. Low-lying floodplains are shaded in green, with higher elevations in orange and brown. Tannen uses the formal conventions of cartography in conjunction with his own informal verbiage, labeling the varying elevations as “high ground,” “mid ground,” “low ground,” and “no ground.”

Installation view of Robert Tannen’s GOM, 2016, at the Contemporary Arts Center, New Orleans. Courtesy the artist. Photo by Jonathan Traviesa Studio.

With one foot in regional planning and the other in visual art, Tannen has a way of translating data and specialized knowledge into straight-forward, meaningful, and “visually appealing” terms. When viewing the maps side by side on a wall, the contrasts are clear—some counties run the gamut of elevations, while others, including many along the Louisiana coast, are less colorful. Orleans Parish, for example, is entirely green (“low ground”) and blue (“no ground”), with some grey-shaded areas indicating “built up” ground.

The other main component of Tannen’s GOM installation—a 9-by-36-foot landscape painting on white paper—again leverages the color-coding of topography to illustrate coastal loss. Each section of color, painted in wavy, haphazard strokes, reaches directly into the next section of color, like fingers interlocking. The overall effect is that of a river flowing right to left, from brown to yellow to green and eventually blue.

The blue “no ground” area constitutes over half the painting, with words handwritten over it in black. The names of coastal cities, towns, and barrier islands are grouped together in the form of arcs or waves, as if swirling like sediment in open water. They represent the low-ground communities that are particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels, storms, and flooding. Each place lies within range of a 50-foot rise in sea level and risks falling into the Gulf within 500 years from now. This is according to the most recent scientific studies, which predict a six-foot rise in sea level in the next 84 years.

Tannen made a point of qualifying this prediction, leaving ample room—as he is apt to do—for the unknown and unpredictable. Some of the variables that are difficult to pin down, beyond those of the natural world, include rapidly evolving technologies and unprecedented investment in mitigating coastal loss—two things he confesses he could not have predicted a decade ago. Present-day predictions are based only on existing technologies and projects, which are likely to evolve and expand, resulting in new means for living with water 50 years from now.

Finishing our meeting, Tannen left the conversation on that cautiously hopeful note, which mostly amounts to “let’s stay on our toes, shall we?” He believes that, while we can be prepared and potentially intervene, living with water remains “a work in progress that cannot be [precisely] predicted in the long-term.” In the meantime, he appears determined to continue illustrating the reality of risk in certain regions, the limits of short-term solutions, and the vital work of connecting water, ecology, and land through positive, sustainable systems.

Editor's Note

Songs of Home Songs of Change was on view August 6 – October 1, 2016, in “‘A Building with a View’: Experiments in Anarchitecture” at the Contemporary Arts Center (900 Camp Street) in New Orleans.