Across the dam, passersby stare at the fully clothed woman with prolonged curiosity as the water slowly rises up her back. Some of her sit and watch, but everyone is invited to be with her in the water.
This scene was one of the final rehearsals of 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 rising sea levels. She took her to six continents, where she remained in the water for complete tidal cycles. New York City represents the last stage and the final performance of the project, but also a return to origins.
This performance is both a reaction and a surrender to the devastation of Hurricane Sandy and human vulnerability to rising oceans in the decades to come. The ritual will also be performed concurrently with partners in Bangladesh, Brazil, Kenya, the Netherlands and New Zealand. The entire duration will be filmed and made into a video installation for public viewing right after the Queens finale.
Sunde, a resident of Harlem’s Sugar Hill, has witnessed firsthand the devastation that the waters rise and floods are capable of in a bustling metropolis like New York City. Her own home wasn’t hit, but when she ventured after Sandy, she saw water everywhere.
“It was so terrible: just cars floating in the 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 place [Hallet’s Cove]it was because it was flooded with water [during Hurricane Sandy]. ”
For Wednesday’s finale on the East River, the entire tidal cycle will last 12 hours and 39 minutes. This means that Sunde will be in the water from low tide at 7:27 until past high tide, which occurs at 13:54, when the water is just over 5 feet high and reaches her chin. He will not come out until the water has completely receded from his body at 8:06 pm
“By going into the water, creating this image of people unprepared for rising water, I am trying to create an image of a city, of urban people who are sinking,” Sunde said. “But feeling the water rising 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. 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 from around the world, 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 in the water with me,” Sunde said. “I know from experience that when people join me in the water, that’s when they have a profound experience, because they’ve never been with a group of people in the water like this before.”
After its first dive in Maine, Sunde’s next stop was Akumal Bay, Mexico, followed by its native Pacific Ocean waters off San Francisco. In addition, it has been found in the North Sea off the coast of Amsterdam, the Bay of Bengal, the Bay of All Saints in Brazil, Bodo Bay in Kenya and in the waters off New Zealand.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but somehow I was deeply committed to it,” Sunde said of the experience of being in the water for long periods.
It has chosen the places most severely affected by sea level rise, including New York City, where the number of residents threatened by flooding could more than double to nearly half a million by 2080. In the Bay of Bengal, the Sea level rise is among the highest in the world. Her collaborators in Bangladesh struggled with the incessant rain in the days leading up to the finale.
Sunde spent weeks in each location, working with local groups to create the show in each location. On Wednesday, these groups joined her standing in the sea for a full tidal cycle, including a two-hour period where they all stood in unison, 11am to 1pm EST.
“Sandy made me think 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,” Sunde said.
Within 10 days of the final performance, the long-running film that is created from the different locations will be released to the public, either by “guerrilla means” such as showing it on the Hallet’s Cove Dam or through a community partner such as a local museum, gallery or public space.
In creating this conceptual art, he hopes to provoke public awareness and conversations about sea level rise and the human relationship with water. Using interactive live performances, videos and local community involvement, Sunde is also launching a call for action for policy and equity in the climate crisis that will worsen in the years to come.
“I realized for the first time how vulnerable we are as a city surrounded by water; that at any moment we could really experience devastation, “Sunde said.” And that it was entirely possible that during my lifetime – and it could be very soon – that New York could disappear or that we would have to leave the city because of sea level rise “.