Entering the “Department of Reflection,” a new art installation in Miami Beach, feels a little bit like being inside a hidden cave or discovering a secret library. Inside the Rotunda in Collins Park, outside noise fades away and a sense of calm and quiet pervades the dim, circular space. A floor mosaic made from tiles resembling tiny mirrors greets guests at a door bathed in purple light and a collection of potted plants fills an indentation in the wall.
That soothing feeling of escaping from the outside world for a moment was intentional, says the installation’s creator, Misael Soto. “I tried to give it this look and feel of ‘city government meets the UN meets an art exhibition,’” Soto says, “and tried to think of it as a space that can hopefully seduce you in a way, and calm you into some inward and outward reflection.”
Designed to resemble the inside of a government office — complete with a large round meeting table and chairs, a bulletin board, and a water cooler with cups — the idea for the space came to Soto after they began working in the city manager’s office with the Environment and Sustainability Department last summer. As the Art in Public Life Resident, through a partnership between Oolite Arts and the City of Miami Beach, Soto has been researching the climate crisis and sea-level rise, learning more about Miami’s municipal government by working closely with them, and creating public art projects like last fall’s “Sand: Amphitheater, Theater, Arena.”
Misael Soto’s “Department of Reflection” is a symbolic office space that invites visitors inside Soto’s process as an artist, asking them to question what’s “real” and what it means for something to be “official.”
Photo by Suzannah Friscia
“I have this seat at the table, so to speak,” says Soto. “I have the city’s attention, but on the other hand, it’s only a foot in the door and I really have to take advantage of the opportunity. I felt like the quickest and most blunt way to do that was to just kind of declare my own department without actual authority, and fake it until I made it.”
The result is a symbolic office space that invites visitors inside Soto’s process as an artist, asking them to question what’s “real” and what it means for something to be “official.” Upon entering the Department, viewers encounter a variety of ways to interact with the contributions of the artists who collaborated on the project, beginning with mosaic by artist Sebastian Duncan Portuondo.
A piece by Archival Feedback invites guests to sit on a chair made of sandbags and listen to recordings of shoreline sounds through a pair of headphones. Along one part of the wall, six clocks show the time in six different cities, all of which are in coastal areas that sit at low sea level and have already begun to experience the negative effects of rising tides.
Dozens of handwritten notes encircle the concrete walls like a horizon line. It’s part of Laurencia Strauss’ The Bubble Pops, a project in which participants write down their advice for handling adaptive experiences such as immigrating to a new country or surviving a hurricane. Pairs of visitors can rent the Advice Bike, a tandem bike that sits in the Department, and listen to advice via speakers as they ride, practicing working together as one steers and the other pedals.
Clippings and collages inside the installation invite guests to explore the city’s past and present iterations.
Photo by Suzannah Friscia
An area full of clippings and collages of maps invites viewers to explore the city’s past and present iterations. Much of Miami Beach, for instance, used to be swampland. The plants at the entrance are all invasive species that have become ubiquitous in Miami and are increasingly used for landscaping. “I felt like using those plants could help complicate the narrative a little bit more; this question of returning things back to their original, natural cycles or ways of working,” Soto says. “I don’t think it’s ever going to go back. I think learning from past mistakes is important, but also realizing that we’re only moving forward.”
Some of the pieces were first presented as part of Soto’s “Sand” project, but viewers have a chance to engage for a longer term at the Department. Other details, such as the small basketball hoop connected to a mini Bookleggers Library cart, were taken directly from Soto’s experiences in City Hall. (Dan Gelber, the mayor of Miami Beach, is known for his love of basketball.)
Soto playfully draws inspiration from city government while parodying it a bit, too. They built the circular table themselves, purposely making it so large that it would be difficult to have a productive meeting there, because people sitting across from each other would be too far away. “I really wanted to allude to the responsibility to community that is civic engagement,” Soto says, “but also make it too big, to where you have to go back inward and really talk to the person next to you, or just talk to yourself.”
The reception desk at the entrance, too, was intentionally made too tall to serve its typical function. It’s more of a partition, with no one there to greet guests or tell them where to go. “It’s kind of this collapsing of the structures that are supposed to tell us how to interact with one another, and then hopefully creating space that reminds you of your own agency,” Soto says.
The Department is open to the public every Saturday through October 26. Community members are invited to propose programming, or request the space for meetings and events. Soto hopes it will help inspire the next work they do in their role as an artist in residence. They also note that it can serve as a model for Departments of Reflection in other municipalities. For now, the space is a continuous experiment and a work in progress. “Hopefully, by creating my own department, I can affect all of the departments and elected officials from there,” Soto says, “and through this veneer of officiality, try to make everyone see that the climate crisis is everyone’s job.”
Misael Soto’s “Department of Reflection.” Open 2 to 6 p.m. every Saturday through October 26 at the Rotunda at Collins Park, 2100 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; departmentofreflection.org. Admission is free.