Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood is so well-known for murals that some worry its walls have become little more than Instagram backgrounds for tourists. But when people lift their phones to the scene wrapping around a former art gallery on NW 25th Street, it’s for entirely different reasons. Painted by local artist Reinier Gamboa last December, Anthropocene Extinction shows several of South Florida’s most iconic creatures: a roseate spoonbill stretches its wings, a manatee floats near a sea turtle, and an alligator grins. But download the corresponding smartphone app, point the camera at the wall, and see plastic six-pack rings float near the manatee or watch the looming Burmese python give way to a video of the invasive species slithering in swampland.
Anthropocene Extinction is the most recent climate-focused work produced by the Miami Murals project, the brainchild of 32-year-old activist Linda Cheung and her nonprofit Before It’s Too Late. It’s also the latest to incorporate augmented-reality technology, which adds a digital layer to the artwork. The first to do so, What Future Do You Choose for Miami?, graphically spells Miami using symbols of the city’s party culture. (A Xanax pill stands in for the second I.) Water materializes when you view the mural through the app, and two buttons offer the choice between “Make No Change” and “Be the Change.” Pick the former and the water rises, destroying the letters; the latter transforms them into an idyllic cityscape with tropical fish and wind turbines.
Cheung, who is originally from New York City, started exploring how art and technology could wake people up to the urgency of climate change while earning an MBA at MIT in 2017. She initially planned to work in the renewable-energy industry, but she says, “I became convinced that the problem is social and political will, which come from our culture.” So she moved to Miami, where the effects of climate change are already urgent, and got to work producing student films, launching design competitions, and, in her most popular project so far, creating murals.
“It’s not just boiling a message into its simplest essence. It’s also instigating the right emotions,” she says. “Certain emotions aren’t useful—there’s no use guilting people.” Instead, the dramatic images draw viewers in, and augmented reality brings concerning facts (the invasive lionfish can spawn as often as twice a week) and possible futures (goodbye, adorable manatee) to life. “Never before has our species had a need for complete radical transformation of all our systems in a way that will require massive collaboration,” she says. “I’m trying to unify people and give them creative juice.”