behind the scene

‘Submerged: Boston Underwater’ at ART’s Loeb Drama Center

A window marked with future rising sea levels in “Submerged” exhibit.
Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe
A window marked with future rising sea levels in “Submerged” exhibit.

Who: Artists Gretjen Helene, Johnathan Carr, Cindy Sherman Bishop, and Martha Bourne

What: “Submerged: Boston Underwater,” an interactive exhibit inspired by the ART’s staging of “The Last Two People on Earth: An Apocalyptic Vaudeville”

Where: ART’s Loeb Drama Center, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge


It’s hard to imagine, but one day in the not-so-distant future, Boston may be in a precarious position: under water.

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Climate scientists predict that sea levels around the city could rise as much as 7 feet in the next century, and up to 12 feet by 2300 — a very real possibility that American Repertory Theater-goers can now picture thanks to an immersive exhibit by four local artists. Curated by photographer Grejen Helene and co-designed by Johnathan Carr, “Submerged: Boston Underwater” is on display in the Loeb Drama Center’s lobby, inspired by the theater’s staging of “The Last Two People an Earth: An Apocalyptic Vaudeville.” The show, which is nearing the end of its debut run, stars Mandy Patinkin and Taylor Mac as Earth’s sole remaining inhabitants, united by their common musical language.

Like the production itself, “Submerged” is whimsical but has serious undertones, envisioning how swelling seas will impact iconic locales.

“[This exhibit] is about the possibility of a very different world and imagining ourselves in it,” said Helene, who, along with her collaborators, created “Submerged” as a playful way to tap into ART patrons’ inner gravitas as they visualize the threat of rising sea levels. “We thought, How do we take people there so they have a visceral reaction?”

To do that, Helene employed new-media artists Cindy Sherman Bishop and Martha Bourne to design the highlight of the exhibit, an installation that acts as a sort of futuristic photo booth. Called “PastPort Interactive,” it transports participants to the year 2315, placing their likenesses into images — taken by Helene — of popular Boston locations that have been digitally manipulated — by Carr, a videographer — to appear under water. Participants find themselves in locales such as Harvard Square, Faneuil Hall, and Copley Square; a futuristic soundscape by Bourne, complete with rushing water, rounds out the experience.


The installation, which uses an Xbox Kinect 3-D camera to capture and place participants’ images onscreen, is adapted from earlier immersive audio and visual installations by Bishop and Bourne, a singer-songwriter who also composes film music. Bishop, a visual artist and an interactive developer, recoded “PastPort” — controlled by a switchboard placed inside a wooden box designed as an artful time machine — to align with Helene and Carr’s vision for “Submerged.”

Bishop said that the interactive installation was particularly fitting for the ART’s thespian environment.

“‘PastPort Interactive’ is a very performative experience, and lets [participants] be actors,” she said. “It sublimates the art of gesture.”

The installation is complemented by the lobby’s window decor, marked projections of sea levels over the next millennium, running from 5 feet in the near future up to 35 feet 1,000 years from now: a daunting reality check for theatergoers as they mingle and purchase refreshments. Guests can also have a message-in-the-bottle experience; pedestals designed by Helene feature collective scrolls, placed in plastic bottles, where patrons can record their answers to apocalyptic-themed questions, such as “What would you have for your last meal?”

Helene, a freelancer who photographs many of the ART’s shows, said curating an exhibit for the theater presented challenges she wouldn’t face in a gallery or museum. Not only did she have to work within the confines of a small lobby, through which hundreds of people pass prior to performances, she had to make sure “Submerged” didn’t steal the limelight from “The Last Two People on Earth,” and that it fit with Patinkin and Mac’s vision for their show.


“Submerged” will be on display in the Loeb lobby through May 31.

Eryn Carlson

Eryn Carlson can be reached at