Below Sea Level, the latest body of work from photographer and multi-media artist Michel Varisco, imagines a metaphorical future for New Orleans and its residents after global sea levels have risen to overtake the land. Louisiana is home to America’s first refugees of climate change and the threat of water has never felt more present and inescapable, as a warming Gulf of Mexico spawns more and more powerful hurricanes, the protective wetlands steadily erode, and infrastructure repeatedly fails. Throughout history, the people of New Orleans have adapted to their surroundings, no matter how difficult circumstances have been. Varisco’s Below Sea Level embodies a poetic response to the predicted fate of rising waters, in which we struggle, adapt and endure to create a new world beneath the water’s surface.
Unconventionally shot while submerged underwater, Below Sea Level also functions as a performative collaboration; Varisco gets in the water with a diverse group of residents, gently coaching them away from playful swimming toward a somber state of acceptance, guiding them to be versus perform. As a result, the subjects of these images have surrendered to their subaqueous state, with no air tanks or breathing masks to support them – they release air like alligators, efficiently and ever so slowly. These photographs establish a profound connection between the viewer, the subject, and the artist herself – all of whom float silently together in this strange oceanic world. Below Sea Level explores the intimate and complex experience of life in an endangered community, where citizens feel such a powerful connection to their home that they would rather reinvent themselves than abandon it.
Varisco received a Bachelor of Arts from Loyola University, her MFA from Tulane University, studied in France and Italy, and is an artist/mentor at NOCCA|Riverfront in New Orleans. Her work is included in public, private and corporate collections including the National Library of Paris, The Ogden Museum of Southern Art, and the Surdna Foundation collection. Her exhibition history includes galleries and museums worldwide. Varisco was honored most recently with a commission from the City of New Orleans “Percent for Art” program and the Arts Council of New Orleans, which led to the public sculpture Turning: prayer wheels for the Mississippi River, a permanent installation that was featured in this year’s Prospect.4 Biennial. Below Sea Level is shown in conjunction with New Orleans’ premier photography festival, PhotoNOLA.