Multi-disciplinary artist Jeff Carpenter is passionate about creating a radically new dialogue on the climate crisis. Towards that end, he conceived and curated the exhibition, FEMA: Fear Environmental Mayhem Ahead, which ran from October 31 through November 8, 2020, at the Icebox Project Space in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. FEMA was developed in just six weeks from start to finish so that it could serve as a space for open dialogue before the pivotal U.S. presidential election on November 4.
FEMA included 11 regional artists, whose work encompassed paintings, installation, multi-media, maps, and participatory elements. Their contributions to the exhibition directly and forcefully confronted the existential threat of rising tides, the homelessness it has and will continue to precipitate, and the political stalemate that has prevented critical action.
To add a visceral sense of the coming reality, Carpenter and his volunteer crew filled the entire 3,300-square-foot gallery with 10,000 gallons or eight inches of water. Once the gallery was flooded, the space became a white reflecting pool, which enhanced the impact of the dramatic work. In order to navigate the space, visitors entering the exhibition were provided with white rubber boots. Carpenter reported that the experience of sloshing around the gallery with childlike abandon offered them some comic relief from the overwhelming seriousness of the exhibition’s content as well as from feelings of anxiety and despair.
In our recent conversation, Carpenter explained how the exhibition came about. He noted that when his sister sent him a copy of a FEMA Flood Factor Map showing predictions of where flooding would occur in her Florida neighborhood, they discussed how the map, with its attractive, color-coded patterns, looked like something that could be seen in an art exhibition.
From that initial discussion, Carpenter began thinking about enlarging additional maps and creating an exhibition around them in Miami, Florida, where flooding has already become a common occurrence. After that option failed to materialize, he switched his focus to flooding predictions and Flood Factor Maps related to Philadelphia and began searching for an exhibition space in his own hometown. He was surprised when the maps indicated how serious the flooding would be in just fifteen years if nothing were done to mitigate the crisis in the meantime.
Fortuitously, the Icebox Project Space, which had not had a physical exhibition since March of 2020 when it closed due to the pandemic, agreed to host the show just three weeks before the date of the opening. (Ironically, a week after the exhibition was de-installed, Philadelphia imposed a shut-down and the gallery closed again.) The tasks required to fabricate the exhibition in such a short period of time were effectively accomplished by painter and sculptor Simone Spicer, who assisted in recruiting a number of the participating artists and designed one of the interactive components; builder Ken Schapira, who developed the 3-D elements; roofer Brian Spanier, who installed the white rubber roofing material used to protect the floor and a 12-inch portion of the gallery walls from water damage; and Carpenter’s studio manager, Katie Hubbell, who created the exhibition video, shown below.
Carpenter wanted a name for the exhibition that was as provocative as possible. He decided to use a play on the acronym for FEMA (the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency) that climate activists in Florida had already coined in jest: “Fear Environmental Mayhem Ahead.” Although the exhibition team had gleefully considered other iterations for FEMA, including “Farcical Environmental Management Acts,” “Fools Expecting Miracles From Above,” “Federal Enablers Masking the Apocalypse,” “Forget Even Mentioning Action” and many others, the farcical acronyms were actually pointing serious blame on the lack of the government’s action in preventing the significant consequences of the climate crisis.
Two six-foot-tall oil paintings by Johnny Everyman, an artist collaborative, served as focal points in the gallery. Hanging precariously low to the flooded floor, they depict surreal images of corporate greed and military might. In Happy Motoring, politicians in suits, including several in scary masks, stand on an off-shore drilling rig, in front of a huge Exxon sign, while armed soldiers point their weapons on “the people” who are standing far below on the roofs of their flooded homes. The skewed perspective in the painting emphasizes the power of the oil industry and their lackeys in preventing meaningful action to reduce the use of fossil fuel.
Three intriguing sculptural installations floated or were placed on a riser in the flooded space. Simone Spicer’s damaged and non-functional shopping cart, titled Life Support System for a Failed Economy, was filled with plastic junk and housed a working fountain spouting water in all directions. Two floating, make-shift rafts, created by the exhibition team and covered with camping tents, contained used camping equipment and necessities for daily life. All three pieces refer to the victims of rising seas, who are forced out of their homes and survive as climate refugees by living on rickety rafts in the sea itself or by roaming the streets homeless looking for food. In addition to its message of warning, Spicer’s fountain served as a soundtrack broadcasting dripping water into the large, echo-y, water-filled space.
Interactive elements personalized the exhibition and its content. Visitors could locate and mark their own homes on a large wall map showing 15-year predictions of flooding in the Philadelphia area; they could access a database showing flooding predictions for any address in the continental United States on a computer terminal located under a sign for the Philadelphia AtroCity Planning Department; and they could write a personal message at a working station, place it in a plastic bottle, then throw it into the gallery’s “sea.” Spicer’s poetic wall statement provided instructions and read in part as follows:
A “message in a bottle,” with the emotions that surround it; fear, vulnerability, optimism, hopefulness, and belief in human kindness becomes a metaphor for our predicament now, as a planet that supports us is in dire need of rescue and recovery from our unsustainable practice. What do you need? What would a rescue look like to you? Write a message, put it in a bottle, toss it into the ocean. Make contact.
FEMA: Fear Environmental Mayhem Ahead, created in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, and installed just days before an election that would determine how environmental issues like rising sea levels would be addressed or not over the next four years, was a cacophonous call to action. How we as individuals and as a society respond to this plea will determine nothing less than our future.
This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate disruption a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.
Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist and writer whose work has been exhibited in widely in museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Since 2011, all of her paintings, installations and photographs have addressed water and climate change. She co-created a national, participatory public art project, The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and which has inspired thousands of adults and children of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to protect this vital resource. Her most recent body of work calls attention to the growing number of rampikes along our shores – trees that have been exposed to salt water and died as a result of rising tides.