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Intertwining of Futures: Interview with Xavier Cortada and Adam Roberti

Photograph of Xavier Cortada and Adam Roberti of the Xavier Cortada Foundation (Courtesy: Max Sano)

Learn more about the Xavier Cortada Foundation here.

So yeah, I just wanted to talk to you both about the work that you do for the Xavier Cortada Foundation. First of all, addressed to Xavier, what does it mean to be an ecological art activist? How do you define that?

Xavier: Yeah, I think I'm an artist who uses activism. I believe I'm an artist that uses art to engage others, and the engagement is around changing society.

So, by its very nature I would call that activism, but I don't think of myself as an activist even though I clearly am an environmentalist and an activist. I think the role I embrace is artist, and I am trying to model what an artist is in today's society, and the important role of bringing creativity into every conversation, every boardroom, every classroom.

I do believe the power of creativity and innovation has to do with two approaches that are really important: One is to help us imagine, to help us create, to help us reframe the way we see things. So I do value that more traditional creative role of an artist.

I also think that an artist has a role of helping, you know, sort of shape worldview. And from that, although similar to the first, I want you to understand that I believe that artists are beholden to goals that don't advance the true nature of their career.

In other words, if you're pleasing a curator, or you're pleasing a collector, or you're pleasing a critic, then you are censoring yourself, and you're limiting the full potential of your creativity. So I believe in art as this incredible force that humans have, and 8 billion people have that force. And somehow they temper that force to fill into whatever industry, institutions, traditions have been created

I think that just limits you. So I want people to understand and embrace the full potential of an artist, which is when you ask me, “Am I an activist?” I say, “No, I'm so much bigger than that.” I’m an artist, and guess what I share that with 8 billion other people, we have creativity inside of us.

And it's about creating that agency so that you're not confining yourself to how society might view and reflect your artwork. It kind of speaks to the independent nature of the organization that you're working with.

This is something I wanted to direct to you, Adam–When you're trying to engage young people across different age groups in this work. Maybe they haven't heard about climate change, maybe they don't consider themselves artists beyond doodling. How do you activate young people to feel like, “Oh, like I can actually be proud of this”?

Adam: Yeah, it's a great question. I think the fact that it is, at its core, an art project, that the work that we're doing is, is art, it's not something that this one kid or this one student, or this one person is doing alone, by themselves, you know, in their room or at their school, it's something that the way that we're doing it, it's as part of a much larger collective.

So we're doing a countywide art project, or a citywide art project, and you're creating these, you know, these large-scale public art installations. And to me, and from what I found with the students like that, that gives them motivation, that gives some inspiration because you don't feel like you have this, you know, minuscule part in the solution. You feel like, “No, I'm actually a part of this really big solution.”

Because I feel like a lot of times, when it comes to climate action, it's at least how it has been framed for a long time, it's like, “Okay, we need you to ride your bike and change the light bulb into an energy efficient light bulb, and we need to eat less meat.” And so there are these little things that each of us can do, which is yes, great, we should walk the walk, as we talk the talk with this, it's important.

But at the same time, it's really hard to just place personal responsibility for an existential crisis on you know, children. And obviously, there's all of the mental health implications of that between climate anxiety and depression and suicide rates that have been going up, right.

So how do we then instead of thinking of this as like, “I'm doing this by myself and this is a massive problem, and I'm overwhelmed, and I'm scared, and this is pointless” to know that there's all of these other people that are doing this with me and art is this tool for my storytelling for my activism. It's understanding the power that you have in your own creativity.

Xavier: In many ways, I think activism has been relegated to carrying a sign with a slogan someone else branded, or wearing a shirt someone else printed. I want to instill into activists the creativity that they have from their lived experiences, and from their passions and what they want to do. And if they can be the agents of change, right, if they can tap into their own creativity, and set a path that hopefully others will engage with them, then we're starting to build conversations and community and leadership and strengthen that.

So that's why I think art is so important. You're not just parroting my slogan, you're creating your own. To me, it is so sad to have people sort of limit themselves thinking that what they need to do is sort of do what everyone else is doing. I want you to break away from that and set on your own course.

That's very well said. And that's why I really wanted to have a conversation with both of you is because you're able to work regardless of your different spots in life that you're in and the relationship that you're able to form through higher education.

It makes me think about my own relationship with past mentors. How can you be an effective, both mentee and mentor where it feels like you're not just in this transactional relationship, like you're growing Together? It's something that I think about a lot.

Adam: Yeah, I mean, I feel like when you are aligned with that other person, it helps a ton. What I mean by that is, you know, I know where Xavier stands on all of these issues, given the time that we have spent together, right, so through our day to day, through the speeches that he gives that I hear through, just like the minutiae of projects, and interactions and conversations, you're able to pick up and learn so much from that.

I feel like when it comes to building that relationship, it's understanding your strengths and your weaknesses. And so when you get to know that person, more, you know, deeper than just, this is who they are professionally, but like, this is who they are, as a person, these are their values, this is what they care about. You really can understand how you compliment them, and understand what their strengths and weaknesses are, right, nobody’s perfect.

We all make mistakes, and so understanding and being humble and honest about those things allows each of you to be more vulnerable, allows you to be more honest, and then allows you to correct each other you know, and there needs to be that kind of just really open and honest communication.

Xavier: Yeah, as a mentor, I believe that finding the right relationship and with the wisdom to know that there are years of experience that you have to be able to understand to see– In Adam's case, he was not a diamond in the rough, but to see– diamonds in the rough, to understand the potential that hasn't been realized yet.

And also, the humility, right, so to have the wisdom to understand the potential of your mentee, but also have the wisdom to understand the potential of your mentee and the humility to know that you don't know it all and to be open. To develop a sense of trust is important. That is a process. It's a process that takes time and there will be a lot of mentor-mentee relationships that don't happen, that become more transactional or that become a steppingstone for another career.

But the more that there is a shared vision, shared mutual respect, and this intertwining of futures, right that the one supports and grows the other. Along with an absolute disposition on part of the mentor to pass that torch, that the mentor understands that you're investing in that person because you believe enough in that person to pass that torch.

When that kind of mentorship exists, then you know that something's happening. You see this all this time in academia, right? There are these professors who are doing studies and there's this researcher who's a graduate student and then becomes a postdoc. And now he's, you know, sort of co-authoring articles. And before you know it, this professor knows that that scientist is going to take over the lab, and he knows that he's not going to find the end result to whatever that scientific discovery is and neither does she, but maybe his mentee’s mentee will.

As long as that thread, where we stand on the shoulders of others, continues you feel sustained.

So for a mentor, it's really, really important if they believe in their work. It's really, really important for them to find the person who will take that legacy, knowing it may go in another direction, but hopefully, one that will be superior to whatever reach that mentor had otherwise you're dwindling. You're not growing.

So it takes a certain kind of individual to be that open, and it takes a certain type of mentee, at a young point in his or her career, to take that kind of responsibility. What we've found here with Adam is that kind of relationship, and the more we believe in each other the more we can work together towards that end goal.

I like how you phrased it “the intertwining of futures,” because that's largely a big part of climate action in general, you're not just thinking about how it's affecting myself and my children, but generations down the line, especially in an area like South Florida that has seen a lot of ecological and human costs of the climate crisis.

It makes me wonder, how do you work with the Miami community to strengthen some of this ecological resilience? You mentioned earlier about the Reclamation Project in regards to mangrove restoration, as well as the Underwater Homeowners Association? What are some of the ways that you want to carry on some of these projects going into 2023?

Xavier: I'll let Adam talk about where we're going forward on both fronts. But let me just give you a little perspective.

I think it helps to have some institutional knowledge, right? So having I mean, Adam and I are both South Floridians, I just have been to South Florida for longer because of my age, right? I'm 58 years old, over 30 years his elder, so I have the knowledge of understanding this community and how it has evolved through time.

So we live in that context, I'm able to layer and create participatory art projects that respond to the needs of that community. Early on in 2006, we were not talking about climate, we were hardly talking about environmental degradation. I saw an opportunity to talk to people about the importance of protecting wetlands.

Why? Because we live in Miami, which has a gorgeous bay at its center that used to be fringed by mangroves, and now it's literally barricaded by sea walls made of concrete, which makes it impossible for mangroves to take root. There's literally not enough grade, there's no sand for them to take root. It's a wall and then it has a place for you to park your boat. So there's no way for a mangrove tree to grow at the water's edge like they normally do and serve as habitat for marine life.

There's also no longer this restorative ecosystem service provided by mangroves, right that sequesters carbon, but also helps filter the surf not just as lungs, but as it's kidneys for our community.

So absent that I wanted to create a campaign that would involve people in doing and that created a spectacle on South Beach. The places where mangroves used to thrive decades ago, and shops with Victoria secrets and Starbucks and neon and concrete live today.

I created vertical nurseries putting mangroves and water filled cups in the shape of the very city grid that displaced them. And then I had volunteers do something that no one did, which is go into a mangrove forest and experience it–like literally immerse yourself in a mangrove forests, see the light filter through, see the waves lapping on the mangrove roots like just being in the wilderness for half a second.

We collected mangrove propagules, and then installed them on these vertical nurseries to bring awareness to the hundreds of 1000s, literally hundreds of 1000s, of people who would walk up and down Lincoln Road, so that they understood that these weird things in water filled cups, this life support nursery I had created was what the beach before.

And importantly, we had volunteers do that; then volunteers trained the storekeepers, and then those storekeepers were the ones that would tell the visitors what those mangroves were and then at the end we plant them.

So that whole process–of immersing someone in a forest, of educating them, of having them collect and then distribute the proper gills and then planting them again– all of that is called eco-art. That was early on.

I was the first eco-artist to do any kind of work like this in Miami. There had been other environmental works, but not this bioremediation kind of work. That process of engaging volunteers and problem-solving led to the creation of this social practice, one that Adam came to see many years later when he was my graduate student.

Adam: Yeah, it was really in seeing the way that he was engaging community and seeing the way that he was using art to bring people who are not having conversations about mangroves or people who have never been into a mangrove forest into advocacy, into, their own conversations with their families and their friends.

So the work that we do now with mangroves, with sea level rise, with pollinators with trash, you know, all of this really is centered around, “What can we do? In what way can we go out of the box to pique people's curiosity?”

And so that's where the visual art comes into play, whether that's an installation of mangroves, since people don't know what mangrove seedlings are: “So they look like cigars or asparagus or something, and so what the heck is that?”

So then that makes you stop, and then you can read the little palm card. In that moment of you reading the information of the project, you're like, “Oh, I'm standing on the literal place where mangroves used to live like, WOW, that's a shocker, you know.”

That’s when you start to understand your disconnection, not maybe your disconnection, but society's disconnection, the city's disconnection from nature. Because this is [disconnection], it's not apparent. You wouldn't know that this was all a mangrove forest with roseate spoonbills, right?

So having that kind of moment of the piquing curiosity within education complemented, provides for that experiential learning opportunity that you will remember.

At the end of the day, when you remember that experience, it sticks with you in a way that a lecturer doesn’t. When you go to school and you have a class, you're gonna forget, unfortunately, most of what you learned in that class, or maybe what you read in that textbook. But when you are engaged and engrossed, and you're asking questions, and you're curious, then it's different.

Especially when you get the mangroves going into a forest or you are planting a tree. That's something that you're gonna remember. And so one of the things that Xavier says a lot is, you know, “We care more that a person planted a mangrove than the fact that a mangrove was planted.”.

So like, there are much more efficient ways of planting mangroves, if that was the goal. And so yes, we want to plant the mangroves. But really, we want to transform the people through this process.

With the Underwater Project, right, so it started as the Underwater Homeowners Association back in 2018, in Pine Crest, has grown into what is now called The Underwater, which is expanding all across South Florida into Broward County this year.

We are finding new and innovative ways of getting this message of sea level rise out right because with this project, it's having people find their homes elevation above sea level through an app “Eyes on the Rise.” Type your address and you find that your house is at 3.2 feet, or 11 feet or whatever you are, and you paint that on a yard sign that you put in front of your house.

This is not a political yard sign or for-sale yard sign. It is a number; it is just a fact and it's ambiguous and strange. So I'm saying it's a fact. But to somebody else walking by that doesn't know the project, it's just a six. And what does that mean? It's weird.

That sparks the conversation with the person who installed that. Or if that person isn't around, there's a QR code on the sign, you scan the QR code you get onto the website, you learn about how vulnerable your community is, because if you're walking down that street, it's likely that you live nearby.

This project, although it has had intersections painted with murals that denote the exact elevation of that intersection, or it has had these yard signs popping up all over the place. One really exciting thing that's happening over the next few months is working with the county. So there's the Department of Parks Department, and what we're going to be doing is–also in partnership with the University of Miami engineering lab–what we're going to be doing is placing these sustainable concrete elevation sculptures at the entrance of every single county park, which is almost 300 county parks across Miami Dade County.

Imagine the elevation marker that people put in their front yards, but now it is this concrete sculpture that has a QR code. Again, it's the same idea. There's a number five, kids are coming through saying, “Mom, what does that five mean?” Mom's like, “I have no idea. Oh, there's a QR code. Okay, let's find out so that I can tell my kid what that five means. Oh, crap, that means we're at five feet above sea level, like I need to…”

And then you go down that rabbit hole as people do, right, you start to learn, you see the GIF of what six feet of sea level rise looks like in Miami. Uh oh! Then light bulbs start going off and like, “Oh, you know, hey, husband, did you know about this and like”, and then there are now conversations.

Then there's the Underwater Intel as part of this project. There are educational resources, so now that maybe they're curious, and they want to learn more. Here's a whole section that has podcast recommendations, book recommendations, videos, websites, you know, things so that they can learn more on their own if they want to.

Then there's also a list of local nonprofit organizations that they can get involved with, right? There needs to be a call to action. We can't just stop at raising awareness, we need to actually do something. We need to advocate, we need to push for policy change, and we need to hold our elected officials accountable.

So here are all the local organizations that you can get involved with. This one is working on energy. This one is working on transportation. This one's working on housing, because obviously climate is an intersectional issue and people are passionate about different things. So we don't want to say, “Hey, everybody, go and go to this protest or go and sign this petition” and be like, “Okay, that's it. Now we're going to solve the climate crisis.”

No, you need to do something that you actually care about. So that's where this project really convenes people and provides people's sense of agency. And I think that's why we're so excited about what we're doing.

And I just appreciate how you're not only disrupting the narrative in terms of what it means to have a mentor-mentee relationship, but also how to have a relationship with art while also thinking about climate action from an embedded, local perspective, It's very tangential to the lived experiences the people that you're working with and yourselves

So I just wanted to thank both of you for making the time to talk today. And if you want to say anything else, before we close, the floor is yours.

Xavier: Well, Max, I just want to celebrate you. You were here at Aspen Ideas: Climate because you've been selected as one of 250 young leaders from across the world.

Think you may be on the younger end of that spectrum of leaders and look at you, look at what you're accomplished. They also know that you have a team working with you on the Greenzine.

I just think that's brilliant, the ability for you to try to lift the voices of others and to, to advance their work and to showcase their creativity is really, really wonderful and generous of you. I just want to thank you for doing that!

Thank you both!

Of course, I'll echo what he says quickly, and just thank you for your work. I'll also say for us, it's always inspiring to have people you know, really get it, you know what I mean? And really be enthusiastic about it and, you know, be appreciative as you have, shown us.

Like you, you care and I think we all inspire each other in this process. So, I guess a final word, just we'll you know, we'll just plug our website if anybody wants to learn more about what we're doing is where they can find it or @cortadafoundation on social media.

Thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it!

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