The Earth glows between a sake bar and a 99-cent pizza shop in New York City. It was put there by Sebastian Errazuriz, a designer, artist, and activist who built the 20-foot-high LED structure with sponsorship from Fontem Ventures, the company that owns the vape brand blu. On a gray morning in March, the clouds on the “blu Marble” swirled as passersby in the Lower East Side caught a satellite’s-eye view of home.
“The artist wanted to create a shock moment when people are walking between buildings,” explained Raoul Rodriguez-Chung, a turtlenecked security guard tasked with defending the planet.
On tenement-dense Ludlow Street, the livestream of the Americas from NASA’s Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) 16 stopped a young couple visiting from London.
“It’s nice,” said Olivier, who is French. His partner, Julia, who had just taken his photo from across the street, agreed. But when she learned that blu was an e-vapor company, her tone soured. “I’m very anti-vaping,” she told me in a crisp British accent; both her parents had cancer. Of Errazuriz’s work as an activist: “Ironic, isn’t it?”
Errazuriz is a Chilean-born, New York-based artist best known for his cross-disciplinary public works. His 2015 installation filled the massive video screens of Times Square with a three-minute, black-and-white video of himself yawning. It was called “A Pause in the City that Never Sleeps.” Now, he is using screens to simulate the “overview effect,” the mental shift experienced by astronauts when they see Earth from space, for people strolling through downtown New York.
“I had done a lecture on public art in Silicon Valley and was approached by blu after my talk, who asked if I had a project that I had not been able to realize yet and needed help,” Errazuriz explained to Inverse in an email. “I told them about my dream to stream direct footage of Earth from space to offer everyone who sees it the overview effect that astronauts speak about.” The work was produced as part of the “Pledge World by blu” campaign, sort of a Make-a-Wish Foundation for adults, minus the critical illnesses, that launched in February.
NASA astronaut Mike Massimino once told Inverse that looking at Earth from space made him think, “This is what heaven must look like.” He said the same thing at the crowded unveiling of “blu Marble” at the Richard Taittinger Gallery on March 13.
Errazuriz says that he has not received any criticism for partnering with an e-vapor brand. “I asked that they first send me all the scientific data,” he says. “[I reviewed] all their studies and after seeing that its effects are proportionally very small compared to cigarettes, I felt tranquil working with them. I’d much prefer if my friends and family that smokes vaped instead.”
Back on Ludlow Street, a ConEd employee in a beanie and headphones stopped to take a photo of a sign accompanying the “blu Marble” as a rat scuttled beneath its scaffolding. Discovering that blu referred to the vape company — the sign includes a nicotine warning — he declared, “That’s crazy.”
In 2018, the then-Food and Drug Administration chief Scott Gottlieb declared teen vaping an “epidemic,” and the growing amount of research around vaping has linked it to wheezing, heart problems, depression, and anxiety. National survey data shows that the number of American adults who think vaping is safer than smoking has dropped significantly since 2012.
A woman paused in front of the installation, carrying a McDonald’s coffee and a bike helmet on her way to a volunteer job. “You feel very small,” she said, gazing up at the still-dark West Coast. “How little are we? What a fuss about little things!”
As the machinery behind the digital artwork whirred, the woman, named Rose, originally from the Netherlands, commented that the installation must be using a lot of energy. Puzzled by its relationship to vaping, she asked, “What’s the connection?” Over Colombia and Venezuela, a thick white cloud hovered.
The piece is a homage to the iconic “Blue Marble” photo taken by the Apollo 17 crew in 1972, enlarged and brought to life to fit modern tastes. “We are in a moment of huge political and international tension,” says Errazuriz. “Any small contribution to remind us we are all together on the same Little Rock can help.”
From the other side of a rolled-down SUV window, Rodriguez-Chung, the security guard, reflected under the glow of “blu Marble” about the workers who bring their lunches to eat in front of it.
He’s nonplussed about the art’s relationship to a vaping company. “I smoke cigars,” he tells me. “People know it’s bad for them, but they still do it.”
He exhaled a long white puff, which drifted toward the clouds over Buenos Aires.
“blu Marble” is on display at 159 Ludlow Street in New York City until April 14.