A bright orange parking ticket floats in front of artist Sarah Cameron Sound as she stands silently deep in the East River at Hallet’s Cove in Queens. A group of geese descend on a small piece of beach north of the Socrates Sculpture Park in Astoria, where many fishermen cast their lines with cages at the ends of the high seawall that surrounds the beach.
From the other side of the sea wall, passers-by stare at the fully clothed woman with long curiosity as the water slowly rises on her back. Some sit and watch, but everyone is invited to stand with her in the water.
This scene was one of the final rehearsals for Sound’s nine-year art project, “36.5/A Durational Performance With the Sea.” On Wednesday morning, Sunde began wrapping up the nine-part series, which aims to spark dialogue and reflection on sea level rise. I took it to six continents – where it stood in the water for full tidal cycles. New York City represents the project’s final stop and performance, but also a return to its origins.
This performance is a reaction and a capitulation to the devastation of Hurricane Sandy and human exposure to rising oceans in the coming decades. The ritual will also be performed in conjunction with partners in Bangladesh, Brazil, Kenya, the Netherlands and New Zealand. The full duration will be filmed and turned into a video installation for the audience shortly after the Queen’s Final.
Sund, a resident of Sugar Hills in Harlem, saw the devastation of rising waters and the flooding that can occur in a crowded city like New York City. Her house was unaffected, but when she ventured out after Sandy, she saw water everywhere.
“It was just so awful—just cars floating in the water, subway stations full of water, tunnels full of water, houses, basements, streets full of water,” Sundy said. “One of the reasons why I wanted this place [Hallet’s Cove]It was due to being submerged in water [during Hurricane Sandy]. “
Concluding Wednesday on the East River, the full tidal cycle will last 12 hours and 39 minutes. This means that Sunde will be in the water from low tide at 7:27 a.m. to the last high tide, which occurs at 1:54 p.m., when the water is just over 5 feet high and up to her chin. She won’t come out until the water has completely receded from her body at 8:06 p.m.
“By getting into the water, by creating this image of people unprepared for the height of the water, I try to create an image of a city, an urban population that is drowning,” said Sund. “But feeling the water rise on your body just gives you a different perspective on time and space.”
The first time Sunde did this work in 2013, she was completely alone. I stood for 12 hours and 48 minutes in Bass Harbor, Maine near Acadia National Park. Since then, the work has grown to include hundreds of collaborators scattered around the world – culminating in what’s called “Homecoming” in Queens, where I entered the East River more than 50 times in preparation. Gothamist joined her last Saturday in the East River as the tide rose.
“I invite everyone to come and stand with me in the water,” said Sund. “I know from experience that when people join me in the water, that’s when they have a profound experience, because they’ve never stood with a group of people in water like this before.”
After her first dive in Maine, Sund’s next stop was Mexico’s Akumal Bay – which was followed by her native waters in the Pacific Ocean off San Francisco. Further afield, it stood in the North Sea off Amsterdam, the Bay of Bengal, the Bay of All Saints in Brazil, Bodo Inlet in Kenya, and the waters off New Zealand.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I was very committed to doing it somehow,” Sund said of the experience of standing in the water for extended periods of time.
It chose the places most affected by sea-level rise, including New York City, where the population is at risk of flooding Could double to close to half a million by 2080. In the Bay of Bengal, sea level rise is among the highest in the world. Her collaborators in Bangladesh had been experiencing a relentless rain in the days leading up to the final.
Sund spent weeks at each location, working with local groups to create performances at each location. On Wednesday, these groups joined her in standing at sea for a full tide cycle, including for two hours when they all stood in unison, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. EST.
“Sandy made me think about and feel the climate crisis in my body, and how extreme weather events and sea level rise will inevitably affect New York City in the future,” said Sund.
Within 10 days of the final performance, continuous film created from various locations will be released to the public – either by “guerrilla means” such as projecting on the seawall at Hallet’s Cove or through a community partner such as a local museum, gallery or public space.
By creating this conceptual art, she hopes to spark public awareness and conversations about sea level rise and the human relationship with water. Through the use of live interactive public presentations, video, and local community participation, Sunde also delivers a call to action for policy and equity in the climate crisis that will only get worse in the coming years.
I realized for the first time how vulnerable we are as a city surrounded by water; At any time really, we could witness devastation,” said Sund. “And it was entirely possible in my life—and it might very soon be—that New York would disappear or we would have to abandon the city because of sea level rise.”