If you've been wandering the streets of London this weekend, and looking up, you might have spotted blue haloes looped over three monuments in the centre of town. A blue hoop over the Seven Dials sundial pillar. A blue hoop over the column in Paternoster Square. And a blue hoop over the Duke of York’s column. What are they for? Why are they here? And will they change your behaviour?
It'sart, that's what it is. An artwork called Plunge, which imagines what the capital might look like if climate change accelerates and our landmarks drown. The blue hoops represent a potential new sea level, 28 metres higher than today. Look up and imagine a submerged London, the North Sea lapping over your head, and each stone monument rising defiantly from the waves. Now look back at today's city, as yet undamaged, still going about its relentless carbon-guzzling ways. It's not too late to make a change.
28 metres has been chosen because it's the height sea level might reach in 1000 years time. According to the artist, Michael Pinsky, it's "an extreme illustration of what could happen if we continue with a ‘business as usual’ emissions scenario". He's taken the very worst figures pumped out by the most negative climatologists - a 180cm rise by 2100 - and extrapolated that change over a millennium to come up with a very big number. This 28 metre height is entirely fictional, with no firm basis in scientific truth, but hell this is art so any old symbolic number will do.
At Seven Dials in Covent Garden, the blue hoop fits over a six-sided sundial that looks old, but is in fact a 1980s reconstruction. The hoop's not closely attached, it sticks out, supported by struts beneath and below like a crouching spider. It's not straight-forward making a hoop up a sundial glow, so a black cable has been strung out across the road linking to a box on a nearby lamppost. This doesn't look especially magic in daylight but, if the official press pictures are to be believed, a very special effect is created after dark.
At Paternoster Square, in the shadow of St Paul's, the hoop gives off a similar glow without the need for a hanging wire. This ought to look highly impressive, strung part-way up the Corinthian column at one end of the piazza, but there's a competing artwork here which overshadows all. The entire square, bar a few narrow passageways, has been packed with a labyrinth of metal crowd control barriers, placed here to dissuade protesters from the nearby Occupy London camp from extending their tented village into the environs of the London Stock Exchange. The resulting transformation makes this urban courtyard look like a sheep market in a rural market town, only without the smell. It's hardly the hip vibe that the bars and restaurants hereabouts would like, and can't be doing anything for business, but that's what happens when you trade from private land with a passionate fear of inbound squatters. Even though it's not in the news so much these days, the tented village outside St Paul's survives. A curved swathe of tents runs round from Paternoster Square's barriered entrance to the Queen Anne statue outside the cathedral's front steps. Everyone's still very angry about bankers, from the students at Tent City University to the security guard in a V for Vendetta mask and a hi-vis jacket. It must have been damned cold living here over the past week - there's still snow on some of the canvas flaps. Outside one tent, weighed down with rocks, a cardboard sign (and a bunch of white roses) announce "Just Married" to the broad smiles of passers-by. The camp's still here, it's still changing lives, but whether it'll change our financial system has yet to be seen.
The third Plunge hoop is up the Duke of York's column, at the foot of Waterloo Place. This one's not illuminated, or at least it wasn't yesterday afternoon. But it is the best fitting of the three, appearing to hover like some kind of electric halo halfway up the stonework. I'd argue it's also the most thought-provoking of the three because of where the column is positioned. It stands at the top of a deep flight of steps leading down to The Mall, and it's sanguine to imagine everything down below - St James' Park, Westminster, Buckingham Palace and all - entirely underwater.
Because that's the thing. These blue hoops aren't positioned 28 metres off the ground, they're positioned 28 metres above sea level. That's just as well, because the Paternoster Square pillar is only 23 metres tall, with the extra altitude provided by the height differential between St Paul's and the Thames. Indeed, it turns out that most of Central London from the Strand northwards is fairly unlikely to flood, even in your great-great-grandchildren's lifetime, because the northern riverbank slopes upwards in a steep protective manner.
It would have been far scarier had Michael placed his Plunge hoops closer to the Thames, for example on Cleopatra's Needle, where by my calculations 28 metres would have placed it almost exactly at the very top. Or in vulnerable South London, perhaps on the obelisk at St George's Circus, except that would be completely submerged by a 28 metre rise in sea level so there'd be nowhere to hang a hoop. I'd venture that the artwork's in the wrong place, as well as at an unproven height, and therefore intrinsically meaningless. But it's pretty after dark, and if Plunge jolts even one person into behaving more sustainably, it'll have been worth the effort.