A bright orange city parking ticket floats past artist Sarah Cameron Sunde as she silently stands chest deep in the East River at Hallet’s Cove in Queens. A score of geese descends on the small sliver of beach just north of the Socrates Sculpture Garden in Astoria as several fishermen cast their lines with cages on the ends over the high sea wall that encloses the beach.
From the other side of the sea wall, passersby stare at the fully clothed woman with prolonged curiosity as the water slowly inches up 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 Sunde’s nine-year art project, “36.5/A Durational Performance With the Sea.” On Wednesday morning, Sunde began the conclusion of the nine-part series, which aims to provoke dialogue and meditation on sea level rise. It took her to six continents — where she stood in the water for full tidal cycles. New York City represents the project's last stop and final performance — but also a return to its origins.
This performance is both a reaction and a surrender to Hurricane Sandy’s devastation and the human vulnerability to rising oceans in decades to come. The ritual will also be done concurrently with partners in Bangladesh, Brazil, Kenya, the Netherlands, and New Zealand. The full duration will be filmed and transformed into a video installation for public viewing soon after the Queens finale.
Sunde, a resident of Harlem's Sugar Hill, has seen the devastation rising waters and floods are capable of in a buzzing metropolis like New York City firsthand. Her own home wasn’t affected, but when she ventured out after Sandy, she saw water everywhere.
“It was so terrible – just cars floating in water, subway stations filled with water, tunnels filled with water, houses, basements, streets filled with water,” Sunde said. “One of the reasons I wanted this spot [Hallet’s Cove], was because it was inundated with water [during Hurricane Sandy].”
For Wednesday’s finale on the East River, the full tidal cycle will last 12 hours and 39 minutes. That means Sunde will be in the water from low tide at 7:27 a.m. to past high tide, which occurs at 1:54 p.m., when the water is just over 5 feet higher and comes to her chin. She won’t exit until the water completely recedes from her body at 8:06 p.m.
“By stepping into the water, by creating this image of people who are unprepared for the water to rise, I'm trying to create an image of a city, urban people who are sinking,” Sunde said. “But to feel the water rise on your body just gives you a different perspective on time and space.”
The first time Sunde performed this work in 2013, she was completely alone. She 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 worldwide – culminating in what is called a “homecoming” in Queens, where she has 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 stand in the water with me,” Sunde said. “I know from experience that when people join me in the water, that is when they have a profound experience, because they have never stood with a group of people in the water like this before.”
After her first dip in Maine, Sunde's next stop was Akumal Bay, Mexico — which was followed by her native waters of the Pacific Ocean off San Francisco. Beyond that, she has stood in the North Sea off Amsterdam, the Bay of Bengal, Brazil's Bay of All Saints, Kenya’s Bodo Inlet, and the waters off New Zealand.
“It was the hardest thing I've ever done, but I was somehow deeply committed to doing it,” Sunde said about the experience of standing in the water for long periods.
She chose places that are most seriously affected by sea level rise, including New York City, where the number of residents threatened by flooding could more than double to close to a half-million by 2080. In the Bay of Bengal, the sea level rise is among the highest in the world. Her collaborators in Bangladesh have been struggling with unceasing rain in the days leading up to the finale.
Sunde spent weeks in each location, working with local groups to create the performance in each location. On Wednesday, these groups joined her in standing in the sea for a full tidal cycle, including for a two-hour stretch when they all stood in unison, from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. EST.
“Sandy made me think about, and feel in my body, the climate crisis, and how extreme weather events and sea level rise will inevitably affect New York City in the future,” Sunde said.
Within 10 days of the final performance, the durational film that is created from the different locations will be released to the public — either by “guerilla means” such as projecting it on the sea wall at Hallet’s Cove or through a community partner such as a local museum, gallery, or public space.
In creating this conceptual art, she hopes to provoke public awareness and conversations around sea level rise and the human relationship with water. By using the live public-interactive performances, video, and local community engagement, Sunde is also making a call to action for policy and equity in the climate crisis that will worsen in the years to come.
“I understood for the first time how vulnerable we are as a city that is surrounded by water; that at any time really, we could experience devastation,” Sunde said. “And that it was entirely possible that in my lifetime — and it could be very soon — that New York could disappear or that we would have to abandon the city because of sea level rise.”