The city of Salvador in northeast Brazil sits on a peninsula that divides the Atlantic Ocean from the Bay of All Saints. At the foot of a bluff that looks onto the bay is the stony shore of a small cove and the Museu de Arte Moderna (MAM). When New York-based artist Sarah Cameron Sunde walks into the water at low tide on April 2, she’ll stand in the bay for 12 hours while the water rises to her chin, then recedes. “There is true and real suspense in not knowing how it will all unfold,” Sunde tells me, reflecting on her upcoming performance, 36.5 / Bay of All Saints.
The work is part of a series titled 36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea that began in Maine in 2013 and will cover six continents before arriving in New York City in 2020 for the artist’s ninth and final performance. Prompted by Hurricane Sandy, which devastated New York City in 2012, 36.5 is an investigation of individual and collective vulnerability and resilience.
The work is first an image of a figure against a ground: a woman dressed in red facing the horizon. As in a Romantic landscape painting, the human body, dwarfed by its environment, serves as a mirror of nature — a measure of rising tides. But Sunde’s ecological perspective shifts the viewer’s relation to the site from aesthetic to critical contemplation. Walking into the water — and inviting the public to join her — the artist dissolves the one-point perspective of the observer standing outside the frame and addresses the severed connection between landscape and spectator.
Sunde’s work is informed by her background in theater; she is known internationally as Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse’s American translator and director and is the former Deputy Artistic Director of the theater company New Georges. With 36.5 she stages a quiet drama. “The water has the primary action in the performance,” she tells me. “I’m just listening to my partner.”
36.5 / Bay of All Saints also partners the artist with the urban communities of Salvador. “I’m interested in listening to the people I meet to really understand their relationship to the water,” she states. Through performing the work in Mexico, the Netherlands, Bangladesh, and the US, she’s developed a method of working with local institutions and individuals to create a collective encounter with the sea. In Salvador, she’s working with MAM as well as the city’s Chief Resilience Officer and a Brazilian artist and anthropologist Clara Domingas to build relationships with the communities around the site, including members of the Solar do Unhão community. “I don’t ever want to impose myself on any space. It’s really about engaging in an equal collaboration, letting it emerge as a proposal for what can happen when you work together with people in different parts of the world.”
She invites the public to stand with her in the bay for the duration of the piece. To mark the passage of time, those on the shore can participate in a brief movement sequence devised with local artists. “Once an hour, there’s a little burst of activity that occurs on the shore,” she explains. “It’s very spontaneous, and the public can choose to participate in it or not. That bit of spontaneity is tied to my desire to give the audience a little surprise.” There’s always a moment, she says, when those watching the tide take their eyes off the water, get involved in conversations, then look back and feel a jolt at how far the water has risen.
In Salvador, she adds, climate change is not yet widely discussed. “Adriana Campelo, the city’s Chief Resilience Officer, is thinking about how to bring this question into a local space and relate it to daily life. That’s a question that always comes up for me: How do I talk about climate change when people are just trying to survive on a daily basis? But for me, this project is about the parallel between the daily struggle to survive and the wider struggle for survival as a human species.”
Sunde is part of a global community of artists working with water in response to the crisis of climate change. A founding member of the curatorial group Works on Water, she was a lead organizer of the inaugural Works on Water Triennial in New York in 2017. She and others see Water Art as a correlate of Land Art, and the movement has affinities with urban projects by Agnes Denes and Mary Miss. But while the history of Land Art is characterized by frontier machismo, many practitioners of Water Art are women working in cities to engage questions about ecology and temporality in the service of community-building. (Full disclosure: I collaborated with Works on Water and Underwater New York to host an artist residency on Governors Island in 2018.)
At stake for Sunde and her peers is our collective capacity for resilience. Resilience, she proposes, begins with an awareness and acknowledgment of the transformations we’ve wrought in our environment. A readiness to adapt or reconsider our place in the world will, she says, “let us work with nature or our environment, for lack of a better word, instead of protecting ourselves from it or against it. I think the way toward resilience is to collaborate with the elements.”
As Sunde performs at sites around the globe, she hopes to make connections among communities across continents. “I’m gathering stories from really specific spots in the world in order to connect them to a global experience of humanity in relationship to water.” Forging these connections relies in part on the multi-channel video installation she produces from footage of each performance. The video for 36.5 / Bay of All Saints will premiere in Brazil before it tours to other locations: “Showing the video on location is an important element of the work, so that the people who participate can see themselves before we go away.” Shot by local videographers and scored by composer Joshua Dumas, the video installation offers an immersive environment in galleries or museums that encourages sustained viewing.
As 36.5 / Bay of All Saints attends to the slow unfolding of time, it counters monumental or sublime representations of Nature — the violent sea, its power overriding the intellect and senses — with something more subtle: not the ship dashed against the rocks, but the water lapping at your collarbone. This is a radical gesture in itself; by stressing endurance, continuity, and incremental change 36.5 holds out the possibility that there’s still time for meaningful action.