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Faced with a Rising Tide, Artist Lets It Wash Over Her

Sarah Cameron Sunde,  research documentation of "36.5 / a durational performance with the sea" (2015) (photo by Jonas de Witte, courtesy the artist)
Sarah Cameron Sunde, research documentation of “36.5 / a durational performance with the sea” (2015) in the Netherlands (photo by Jonas de Witte, all courtesy the artist)

For 12 to 13 hours, New York City–based artist Sarah Cameron Sunde stands stock-still in the sea, surrendering herself to nature’s forces, from the rocking of waves to extreme temperatures. Walking into the water at low tide, she remains by the shore until the next low tide, confronting the gradual rising and ebbing of a full tidal cycle. Her efforts are for “36.5 / a durational performance with the sea,” an ongoing project she has previously brought to the coasts of Maine, Mexico, and San Francisco to draw awareness to and illustrate the acceleration of sea-level rise. Today marked the end of its most recent iteration, which Sunde performed about 10 miles north of the Hague at the Oude Rijn river in Katwijk, and she is planning future performances with the goal of covering all six livable continents.

“36.5 / a durational performance with the sea” draws its name from a number of geothermal- and biothermal-related statistics: 36.5 inches falls within projected estimates of global sea level rise by 2100; 36.5˚F refers to the average temperature in July in parts of Greenland, where ice sheets are melting fast; 36.5˚C is just below normal body temperature; and 36.5 cubic meters refers to the volume of water every individual requires daily to meet basic needs. Sunde first conceived of the performance series in October 2012 when Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, realizing for the first time the full extent and not-so-distant threat of rising sea levels.

“Time and the power of water suddenly came into focus for me, and there was a sharp parallel between questions of sustainability of an individual artist and sustainability of a civilization, as humans who have built our cities right by the sea,” she told Hyperallergic.

Sarah Cameron Sunde,  research documentation of "36.5 / a durational performance with the sea" (2015)  in New York City (photo by Marie Lorenz, courtesy the artist)
Sarah Cameron Sunde, research documentation of “36.5 / a durational performance with the sea” (2015) in New York City (photo by Marie Lorenz) (click to enlarge)

The gesture is simple in concept, but it makes visible the effects of climate change and emphasizes the threat of rising sea levels: as the tide mounts, Sunde is increasingly immersed in water, which reaches her neck at high tide before eventually receding. The performance is gentle at its start, with Sunde standing ankle-deep, but the tension evoked increases as the water level creeps upwards to potentially engulf her. No matter the intensity of the sea, she remains frozen in place; the only movement that occurs is conducted by additional performers on land who carry out a series of choreographed, coded gestures that point out the passing of time despite the seemingly still and stable water levels. Sunde’s transformation of the body into a living tide gauge thus reminds us that the greatest threats may also be the ones that are the slowest and most difficult to perceive until far too late.

“For me, it’s also about sensation,” Sunde said. “The act of tracking time on my body in a way that I can feel it, in a way that others can viscerally connect to it, and living through an event that is extremely hard.”

She also invites the public to join her during performances so while she is at times alone, viewers from the shore have often dipped into the sea to stand next to her. The tableau of bodies frozen in water is reminiscent of a silent protest and elevates the performance to a gathering that actively engages the local community in a global issue. Sunde also chooses the locations of her performances based not only on personal connections to the sites but also to the country’s relationship to water. The Netherlands, for example, is actively engineering coastal experiments such as Zandmotor that prepare its coast for rising sea levels.

Over the next five years, Sunde will perform around the world, and next year’s she will travel to Bangladesh and then continue on her global journey until concluding in New York City in 2020. Her ultimate aim is to perform on all six continents while highlighting the universal threat — and largely unseen — of rising sea levels.

San Francisco with people - photo by Gus Ford and Irina Patkanian
Performing “36.5 / a durational performance with the sea” in San Francisco in 2014 (photo by Irina Patkanian and Gus Ford)
Zandmotor closer - photo by Jonas de Witte
Sarah Cameron Sunde, research documentation of “36.5 / a durational performance with the sea” (2015) in the Netherlands (photo by Jonas de Witte)
Mexico curated 2 - photo by Scott Brown
Performance in Akumal, Mexico in 2014 (photo by Scott Brown)
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