Imagining Water #4: Floating Start-Up Countries

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

The fourth in a year-long series on artists who are making the topic of water a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances and publications that are popping up in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.


On occasions when artists had been gathered in social settings and were bemoaning the latest actions of politicians or public policy, I’ve often heard one or another of them say, “I wish we had more input in how society is shaped – it would be so much better.” Well, with a memorandum of understanding signed in January of 2017 by French Polynesia to allow for the creation of the first Floating Island start-up “country” within the protected waters of a Tahitian lagoon, a scenario in which artists are active participants in building new societies is now entirely possible.

The Floating Island Project: Seasteading

The Floating Island Project is the brainchild of the Seasteading Institute, a non-profit organization founded in 2008 by activist, software engineer and political economic theorist, Patri Friedman, grandson of the Nobel Prize winning economist, Milton Friedman, and billionaire entrepreneur, Peter Thiel. Its mission is to foster the creation of politically independent seasteading communities or floating cities, which will enable residents to establish new ways of living together under governmental and cultural models of their choice as well as serve as a blueprint for the future survival of existing countries threatened by rising sea levels. The term “seasteading” is a reference to the concept of homesteading, the process of making a home in a new frontier outside the boundaries of developed communities. In this case, the frontier is the entire ocean covering 70% of the earth’s surface.


View of “Artisanopolis,” a design for a potential seasteading community that was awarded First Place in an architectural contest sponsored by the Seasteading Institute. Courtesy of Gabriel Schaeare, Luke Crowley, Lourdes Crowley and Patrick White (Chile) and the Seasteading Institute.

The goal of The Floating Island Project is for seasteading communities to be self-sustaining in water production, wastewater treatment, aquaculture, vertical farming, nanotechnology, wave, wind, solar and marine energy production and other existing or yet-to-be-developed research and technology. As it is envisioned, residents of a floating community could live in modular “pods” that can detach at any time and sail to join another floating city that offers a better form of government or a more compatible cultural environment. As the theory goes, because governments would have to compete for citizens, the best ideas of governance would emerge to accommodate a diverse population.

The French Polynesia Pilot Start-Up

At a cost of $60 million, the Seasteading Institute expects to establish a dozen structures by 2020 on a floating surface about the size of a soccer field just off the coast of French Polynesia in the Pacific Ocean where islands are already sinking below sea level. According to scientific projections, about a third of these islands will be totally submerged by 2100. The first start-up “country” in French Polynesia will contain homes, offices, shops, restaurants and other components of modern life.


A design for a potential seasteading community showing modular bio-domes and other building structures that can be moved within the “country” or to another “country” altogether. Credit: Seasteading Institute.

The floating communities will be built by Blue Frontiers, a company founded in 2017 by Joe Quirk, president of the Seasteading Institute, and other members of the Institute’s executive team. Known affectionately as the movement’s “Seavangelist,” Joe Quirk has outlined in detail how the floating cities of the 21st Century can be laboratories for creativity and innovation in his 2017 book, Seasteading: How Floating Nations Will Restore the Environment, Enrich the Poor, Cure the Sick, and Liberate Humanity from Politicians.

Despite the book’s lofty title, Quirk presents a compelling argument for the establishment of new mini-countries that would enable innovators to “rethink society from the ground up,” a process that might enable us to solve some of our most intransigent social, political and environmental problems. He poses the question, “What would you do with political freedom, limitless energy and nearly half the Earth’s surface?”


In 2009, before the Floating Island Project became a reality and as a working experiment of the seasteading philosophy, the Seasteading Institute sponsored the first week-long, floating festival of self-governance entitled Ephemerisle on the Sacramento River Delta in California. Now independently run, it has become an annual gathering of “thinkers, doers, artists, dreamers, muckrakers, and builders interested in life on the water.” In his book, Joe Quirk describes how Ephemerisle has evolved from that initial festival to an event in which hundreds of participants, including scientists, engineers, artists, entrepreneurs and activists create a series of self-contained “makeshift islands by connecting a variety of boats, platforms, inner tubes, and floating art projects.” Participants naturally self-select islands whose governance, rules and identities most suit their needs and philosophies but migrate among the other islands at will by motorboat “taxis” or connecting docks. Art is an essential component of the Ephemerisle culture.

Ephemerisle 2009.jpg

One of the self-governing islands in Ephemerisle, 2009.

For more information on the Floating Islands Project, including FAQ, a video by Joe Quirk explaining the basics of seasteading, and a sign-up form to receive regular up-dates on the progress of the first start-up country, click here. Artists, are you ready?

(Top image: View of “Artisanopolis,” a design for a potential seasteading community that was awarded First Place in an architectural contest sponsored by the Seasteading Institute. Courtesy of Gabriel Schaeare, Luke Crowley, Lourdes Crowley and Patrick White (Chile) and the Seasteading Institute.)


Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist, writer, and educator whose work has been exhibited in numerous museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Susan’s latest bodies of work focus on the threat of rising tides caused by climate change, the trillions of pieces of plastic in our oceans and the wars that are predicted to occur in the future over access to clean water. Susan is also the co-creator of two interactive public art projects: The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and Home, which calls attention to homelessness and the lack of affordable housing.

About Artists and Climate Change:

Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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