36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea

Sarah Cameron Sunde

36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea is a series of nine site-specific participatory performances and video artworks, taking place in nine bodies of water around the world from 2013–2021. In each, I stand in a tidal area for a full tidal cycle as water slowly engulfs my body and then recedes; the public participates in all aspects of making the work. Each work in the series consists of a live performance event, a long-form cinematic video work, and varied ephemera. The project examines the temporary nature of all things and our contemporary relationship with water in urban environments — as individuals, as communities, as a civilization, and as a species. 

One week before the scheduled performance/shoot, the 8th work in the series was suspended due to COVID-19. I will discuss this current suspension in time and space in relationship to the waters and people of Aotearoa – New Zealand and New York City. How do we work through issues that are abstract and unfathomable, and translate this into the scale of our bodies?  How can we learn from indigenous wisdom, the water, trees, and other species in this moment?  

Additional Resource: online Māori Dictionary

10 replies on “36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea”

Wow — what an inspiring project! I see so many connections here to Dolly’s discussion of the “speed and scale” of extinction in her presentation, and I love the way that you use a very personal speed and scale to make legible sea level rise around the world. Hearing you talk about how COVID-19 has interrupted your plans in New Zealand and the site-specific lessons that you’re learning from working there makes me think about other species that you see or interact with during each session in the water. How does the site-specific sea life of each region (animals, plants, microorganisms) influence your understanding of sea level rise there, or influence your presentation of that phenomena?

Thanks Erin! Yes, I agree with you making the connection to the scale and speed that Dolly talks about. I immediately started thinking about what could be done to create an experience that would allow us to embody the understanding of extinct species. To answer your question: for me it is all about the serendipitous encounters when working on-site. I try to understand the place before I go, but then when I am there, everything I learn and everyone I encounter (people and species) becomes part of the work. So depending on who I meet and what they share with me, things evolve….I haven’t focused specific energy in researching the sea life in each region, but I have worked with people who have taught me how connect with, for example, the crabs in Kenya, the sting-rays in Mexico, and the sharks in Aotearoa. It would be interesting to go deeper into this inquiry with each place I’ve been.

This is a question that I’ve asked you before, Sarah, and here it builds on what Erin’s asking above, about the specific waters and critters and humans you’re co-creating 36.5 with in each location you realize the project. What does it mean to co-create “a durational performance with the sea” on/with/in specific littorals? How do you yourself toggle back and forth between the local sea and the global ocean? How does the shift between local/global spatial frames work? Are there other geographical frames at work too (I’m wondering about location choices, for example). Thank you so much for your work!

Thank you for inviting me, Bethany! I love your question about toggling back and forth between local sea and the global ocean — this is the constant zooming in and out – I focus on the hyper-local specifics in each location, and then yes, try to connect that with the global experience. The connections usually present themselves through the imagery or something that happens in, for example Kenya, that reminds me of something that happened in Brazil. I have a feeling I’ll keep making these connections for the rest of my life…

I focus on working with the water as my primary scene partner – she is breathing and I am listening. (I started seeing ocean as female ever since working with Yemanja in Salvador, Brazil). In order to enter into any specific spot, I need to connect meaningfully with the people who are stewards of that water/that land/that littoral — in Brazil it was the community of Solar do Unhão, in Bodo it was the elders of Bodo, in Aotearoa it was/is the Māori people of certain iwis.

There is so much to learn in each site, so I give myself the constraint of time (once the performance date is set, there is a limited time in which to make it happen) and, as I mention above in response to Erin, I let the narrative emerge based on who I encounter — it always leads to an exciting journey, even when there are daily challenges.

Locations have been chosen based on continental diversity, sea-level rise statistics, impulse, and again, who I encounter. For example, the reason I went to Kenya was that I met a professor environmental studies at the University of Nairobi who believed that the work could have real impact in Kenya. The reason I went to Aotearoa is that I read an article a long time ago about the drowned continent of Zealandia and it felt important to connect with this space in relationship to deep time.

This is such fascinating work, and I’m a fan of your practice. I want to go back to what you said at the very beginning about “translating climate change into the scale of the body”–and I was wondering if you might elaborate on how you approach the kind of ‘tension’ between the expansive scale of the sea and the hyper-specificity and locality of your physical body? And moreover, if you could think about how your understanding of embodiment responds to, or accounts for this tension? Thank you so much for sharing!!!

Thank you so much for this question, Patricia! In a way, I do think of the performance as an attempt to embody the ocean. Even though much of it becomes about will power, I take it all in and I let it all go. My body collects as much sensory information as possible and trust that my body is collecting this data and will retain this knowledge later when I come out of the water and go about my daily life. I like to think about the drops of water touching my body and how they could end up (or could have been) drops of water in Bangladesh or Brazil at some point in the future (or past). For me this is all about scale and duration. Trying to understand something on a scale larger than my brain can fathom by putting my body the position of creating a time-based image that is harder than what I think I can endure. Time expands and contracts and perceptions inevitably change, and it’s hard for me to put this into words but yes, there is a clear tension between my small, somewhat out-of-shape everyday body (alongside anyone else who stands with me for a portion of the day) and the seven-tenths of the planet that is covered in ocean water. We are so small and our lives are fleeting.

Sarah, you mention briefly that the impacts of the work are ongoing in Kwale and I wonder if you could say more about that — how the intervention is still having rippling effects in that specific locale, but also more generally how, if at all, you might track the afterlives of the project in each place you have visited. Have you done any connecting of your various hosts/interlocutors with one another?

Did you see this piece, Meg? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DLzlWfpPdh4&feature=youtu.be —- It was a made-for-tv piece done by the Mombasa Department of Film Services. There are more journalists in Mombasa writing about climate change than in any other location I’ve been — we planned 700 mangrove seedlings as part of the performance and Wakili (one of my collaborators) is working with them, so we are in touch regularly. I should do a better job of tracking he afterlives of the project more formally – something I need help with!

I have introduced a few people from afar and there is a plan to collaborate again with everyone from afar so that local re-enactments on the date that I do the final performance in NYC. Each time I’ve made a new work in the series, there has been a local scholar/collaborator on the team. The plan has been to bring all the scholar/collaborators to NYC to participate in the final performance and in a conference organized by Una Chaudhuri at NYU. Unfortunately, now all of this is postponed until 2021 due to COVID-19 and I have to cross my fingers that we can still make it happen given all the challenges that will emerge out of this moment.

Sarah, This is brilliant work. One of my areas of interest as a scholar is site specific environmental art. Others in this thread have raised quite interesting questions, so I’ll ask a couple of more technical ones: How did you connect with your initial collaborators in each community and how much time/effort did that take? aAd what were the criteria for the specific locales within each of the coastal areas you focused on? You indicate in the film that you and your filmmaker scouted sites, but I’m curious what the criteria you used for determining which were the best sites. Was it based on visual criteria (if so, what?), the hydraulics of the water, culturally or politically meaningful features (like the juxtaposition of a wooded coastline and the logged off exemplar of settler colonialism), or some other considerations?

Thank you Marsha! I’m glad that the work resonates with you. Each community has been different and there are too many stories to tell (I’m happy to hop on a phone call sometime and share more details if you like!), but ever since Netherlands when the full scope of the work was launched, I have spent somewhere between six months and three years building towards the project with my initial collaborator. I began by focusing on locations that were vulnerable to sea-level rise, but it was so broad, and personal connections has always been what’s made it possible. It always starts with an invitation and someone local who sees the value and wants to join me in the process. I still need to figure out how to map the connections – how one person leads me to the next person who leads me to the next person who becomes an incredibly important collaborator.

Once I’ve narrowed down the approximate location, the selection for the specific site is determined with community input and a mix of practical and visual considerations. I am highly visual, so yes, meaningful features are key. Here are some of my criteria:
1) relatively calm waters so I can manage and the image of the water slowly on my body, 2) depending on the tidal shift, a relatively steep gradient from land to water (a really shallow tidal area doesn’t work because I would have to go out to far to be visible – a lot of beautiful spots in Kenya and Aotearoa did not work for this reason), 3) easy access to the water’s edge with space for an audience to gather and hang out (challenging in NYC!) 4) potential for community engagement with the hyper-local community and local partnerships 5) cleanliness of the water – not too close to sewage outflow if in an urban space, 6) a point of view where I can face the sea and something interesting or iconic is in the shot, 7) the story of the space and the people who live there, will it be meaningful for them to create this with me, and for us to share this story with the world?