Ocean art: the Mediterranean Sea terrace proposal

Richard Brook Cathcart


A new art form, Ocean Art, is announced. Complementing Land Art, the artist/macro-engineer team proposes a deliberate Mediterranean Sea terracing. Ocean Art could constitute a needed new category of very controllable post-completion mitigation macro-engineering, a planning and decorative local sea level adjustment solution, required by the prospect of a future post-Ice Age worldwide sea level rise. The Mediterranean Sea Terrace Proposal's purpose is to help preserve existing and irreplaceable artworks, such as Venice (Italy), located on the Mediterranean Sea Basin's seacoast.


1. Precursor art forms

Space Art proponents have mostly opted to construct various symbolic artifacts in extra-terrestrial space that could be visible from Earth's surface with the naked eye. Using various plastic film and dense textile envelopes, Air Art's advocates have already exploited some of the possibilities of compressed air (or other safe-to-use gases) as well as natural winds. Land Art projects usually result from different personal interpretations of natural and anthropogenic landscape significance and their deliberate alteration.1 To date, few artists have attempted geographically large-scale Ocean Art and yet such a revolutionary, but down-to-Earth, art form is far more readily realizable nowadays with available technologies than, say, Star Art.2


2. Ocean art progenitors

Artworks were installed in the ocean near Tobago, West Indies, during 1969 by Peter Hutchinson and Dennis Oppenheim and Christo installed eleven flamingo-pink floating plastic collar-mats, covering approximately 600,000 m2 in a lagoon of Florida's Biscayne Bay in 1983.3 Installations of this type were christened "Oceanographic Art" and they are best labeled as purely decorative efforts. Ocean Art, however, is a form of seawater sculpting by aquatic terracing focused on the 70% of Earth's surface that is oceanic. Seemingly, and perhaps actually, the originator of Ocean Art is the renowned German architect Frei Otto, who first contemplated the concept circa 1953.4 In our view, Ocean Art has a practical, commercially useful aspect that Oceanographic Art lacks and, therefore, is of interest to 21st century adherents of macro-engineering.5


3. Staircase farming "land art"

About 5,000 years ago, the atmosphere's methane concentration started to increase markedly and its main source was human cultivation of rice in flatland paddies; about 2,000 years ago, humans commenced growing rice in watery paddies on laboriously terraced hillsides. Terracing refers to the bench (terrace) constructed in the form of a ridge and channel the entire earthen surface of which is cultivated as a farm field. For example, the spectacular tourist attraction of hillside rice paddy terrain at Ifugao in northwest Luzon (Philippines) is preserved as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site.6 UNESCO's dedication reflects people's unwillingness to accept the natural duration of their outdoor physical creations since, currently, a global financial undertaking helps to prevent natural erosion and human reconstructive actions obviously causing decay of the old anthropogenic terrain.


Methane is a greenhouse gas and the anthropogenic contribution to the atmosphere causes some enhanced global warming and, consequently, also contributes to the on-going rise worldwide of the ocean's level.7 Perhaps half of all living humans eat rice and the microorganisms inhabiting anoxic rice field soils contribute between 10% and 25% of annual methane emissions; by 2030, there might be five billion persons eating rice.8 Artificial wetlands on shaped hillsides have in the past, and continue today, to contribute to the ocean's instability in terms of volume and area. By 2100, our world's ocean could elevate by as much as 1 m relative to its present-day level thereby directly affecting the world's coastline. Worst-case global warming geophysical scenarios focused on the invasion of land by the ocean were devised by artists such as Terry Schoonhoven and Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison.9 By September 1994 Quarry Cove, a part of the Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area near Newport, Oregon served to permanently remove a minute volume of seawater from the ocean10 yet far short of the anti-global sea level rise management macroproject proposed during 1986 by geoscientists.11 (Al Nakheel Properties' continuing commercial artificial island construction effort, which does extend Dubai's sandy shoreline seaward, more than offset all beneficial effect of Quarry Cove.)


4. Sea terracing

About 4,300 years ago, urban governments commenced construction of monumental edifices and massive infrastructures following the post-Ice Age natural stabilization of our world's ocean.12 About 2.2% of this planet's land that is ten meters or less in elevation probably supports 10% of all humans and about 13% of all population designated as "urban".13 Humanity's activities (to make and earn a living) will "globalize" the Mediterranean Sea – its seawater, organic and inorganic contents, and periphery.14 Mediterranean Sea Basin nation-ecosystems have several expensive 20th century ameliorative macroproject options available – possibly, someday, including even Atlantropa's institutional realization as contrived by Herman Sorgel (1885-1952) after World War II.15 However, recent R&D and newer industrial products derived from advanced material technologies – particularly, technical textiles and films exhibiting high-performance, purely functional, and precisely woven or non-woven fabrics – offers teamed artist/macro-engineers the prospect of a cheap Mediterranean Sea Basin anti-sea level rise barrier macroproject hung underwater.16 A fabric artwork and barrier, the Gibraltar Strait Textile Barrage (GSTB), could replace the discontinued and/or postponed MOSE (Modulo Sperimentale Elettromeccanico) macroproject to save Venice (Italy) with a facility of costly operationally complex-to-manufacture-and-maintain storm surge gates.17


The Strait of Gibraltar connects the North Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, making it inevitable that the Mediterranean Sea will rise as our world's ocean elevates. The GSTB will likely be draped on a 20 km-long alignment between Tarifa in Spain and Ksar e' Sghir in Morocco, creating an aerial and submarine fabric artwork somewhat imitative of Christo's "Valley Curtain, Rifle, Colorado, 1970-1972", which was macro-engineered by Ernest C. Harris (1915-98).18 Its sole purpose will be to insure the maintenance, for a long period of future time, the present-day Mediterranean Sea Basin's sea level; in other words, this artwork would preclude any future erosion of valued land-based artworks encompassed by the urban fabric of North Africa and southern Europe! The GSTB's structural, mechanical and hydrodynamical physics was first fully demonstrated in 2007.19 Basically, the seawater-impervious Gibraltar Strait Textile Barrage replicates, in a critical oceanic setting, Christo's temporary suspended fabric curtain.


5. Gibraltar Strait textile barrage

"Valley Curtain" was punctured to prevent its being torn asunder by strong up and down valley winds. Coincidentally, a watery version of "Valley Curtain", concocted by the UK engineer Andrew Noel Schofield, was offered as a Thames River Storm Surge Barrier during 1971-1972. The GSTB will be impervious to seawater, safely sealed to the sidewalls and seafloor of the Gibraltar Strait. Consequently, the GSTB will bow or billow like a ship's sail eastwards from the selected site because of marine (differences in sea elevations on a two-sided, bottom-anchored and virtually vertical suspended membrane and natural currents such as North Atlantic Ocean tidal solitons) and aerial (seasonal winds) pressures acting directly on the GSTB. Indeed, prevailing seasonal winds flowing along the Gibraltar Strait will pile approximately 5-6 mm of seawater on the GSTB's west face. To cope with these natural environmental forces, macro-engineer planners must draw on the installation experience with heavy wire nets, floatation systems and their seabed moorings derived from World War II antisubmarine net installation in strategic harbors and that documented experience offered by the 100 km-long World War I anti-submarine Otranto Strait Barrage (1915-1919).


From its western approaches, the GSTB will have the characteristic of an architectural deception resembling an English Garden or zoo landscape architect's geo-textile "ha-ha" (also known as a sunken fence) in that – absent warning light-buoys and radar reflectors – ship navigators will visually misapprehend the true nature of the plotted sea-route ahead. Those mariners, such as private-sector fishermen and yachtsmen, piloting their boats without benefit of up-to-date navigational sea-charts that indicate clearly the GSTB's presence, will have no inkling via normal optical clues that a 1 m drop in sea level occurs in the Gibraltar Strait! Mariners without radar readouts using the eastern approaches will visually spy a 1 m-high tensioned fabric wall spilling some seawater caused by wave over-wash, which if made of clear or aquamarine-colored material might be almost invisible until closely sighted!


The total area of the vertically draped GSTB is about 200 km2 but only approximately 20,000 m2 will be constantly exposed to the air and material-degrading sunshine on its eastern face while the GSTB's submerged western face will be required to continually resist a 1 m seawater hydraulic head. The GSTB artwork will be mechanically lifted by shore-based winches gradually only as much as the North Atlantic Ocean actually rises – it will, therefore, act as an active compensation mechanism to accommodate the 21st century ocean changes in volume and area.


6. Artwork preservation paramount

The proposed Gibraltar Strait Textile Barrage is an artwork intended to preserve extant artworks within the Basin of the Mediterranean Sea. It is means to improve humanity's ability to apply macro-engineering principles which skirt or correct a near-term future global oceanographic problem impairing the economic usefulness of low coastal land. It is a practical and low-cost example of Ocean Art for the 21st century that preserves humanity's heritage situated in the Mediterranean Sea Basin.



1. Ben Tufnell, Land Art (London: Tate Publishing, 2006).
2. Francisco Infante, "Projects for the Reconstruction of the Firmament", Leonardo 25, (1992) p. 11.
3. Werner Spies and Wolfgang Volz, Christo: Surrounded Islands, Biscayne Bay, Greater Miami, Florida 1980-83 (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1985).
4. W. Nerdinger, Frei Otto: Complete Works (Basel: Birkhauser, 2005).
5. Viorel Badescu, R.B. Cathcart and R.D. Schuiling, MACRO-ENGINEERING: A Challenge for the Future (Dordrecht: Springer, 2006).
6. Vernon L. Scarborough, "How to interpret an ancient landscape", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 100, (2003) pp. 4366-4368.
7. W.F. Ruddiman, Plows, Plagues & Petroleum (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006) pp. 76-83.
8. G.S. Khush, "What it will take to feed 5.0 billion rice consumers in 2030", Plant Molecular Biology 59, (2005), pp. 1-6.
9. H.M. Harrison and N. Harrison, "Shifting Position Toward the Earth: Art and Environmental Awareness", Leonardo 26, (1993), pp. 371-377.
10. J.W. Thompson, "Taming the Tide", Landscape Architecture 86, (1996) pp. 74-102.
11. W.S. Newman and R.W. Fairbridge, "The management of sea-level rise", Nature 320, (1986) pp. 319-321.
12. J.W. Day, J.D. Gunn, W.J. Folan, A. Yanez-Arancibia and B.P. Horton, "Emergence of Complex Societies After Sea Level Stabilized", EOS: Transactions, American Geophysical Society 88, (2007) pp. 169-170.
13. G. McGranahan, D. Balk and B. Anderson, "Low coastal zone settlements", Tiempo No. 59, (2006) pp. 23-26.
14. J. Blondel, "The 'Design' of Mediterranean Landscapes: A Millennial Story of Humans and Ecological Systems during the Historic Period", Human Ecology 34, (2006) pp. 713-729.
15. E. van der Vleuten and A. Kaijser (Eds.), Networking Europe: Transnational Infrastructures and the Shaping of Europe, 1850-2000 (Sagamore Beach: Science History Publications/USA, 2006) pp. 99-128.
16. M.N. Cullen, "Tension membrane water retaining structures", Transactions of the Built Environment 79, (2005) pp. 427-436.
17. Venice might be saved by raising the non-liquid surface upon which its rests. See: A. Comerlati, M. Ferronato, G. Gambolati, M. Putti and 18. P. Teatini, "Can CO2 Help Save Venice from the Sea", EOS: Transactions, American Geophysical Society 84, (2003) pp. 546-553.
19. M. Vaizey, CHRISTO (New York: Rizzoli, 1990) pp. 74-79.
20. R.B. Cathcart and A. Bolonkin, "Ocean Terracing", posted 9 January 2007 at arXiv.org>physics>physics/0701100.