On August 15th, performance artist Sarah Cameron Sunde will stand in the San Francisco Bay for a tidal cycle of over thirteen hours. At high tide, she’ll be covered up to her neck. This is the third iteration of her 36.5 water project, which dramatizes the challenge of rising seas.
Climate change is driving up sea levels around the globe at an accelerating rate. Tidal gauges show that San Francisco Bay has already risen by 8 inches since 1900. Scientists estimate a further 16-inch rise by 2050, and 55 inches by 2100. The Bay Conservation and Development Commission has used these numbers to project land loss of 281 and 333 square miles, respectively, including residential developments, schools and health care centers, roads and airports.
These numbers are personal for Sunde, who grew up in the Bay Area. But it was the destruction Hurricane Sandy wrought on her current home of New York in 2012 that planted the seeds of the 36.5 water project. “All of a sudden I understood in a bigger way that everything is ephemeral,” she says. “In a hundred years from now, or even in my lifetime, it’s very possible that people will have to leave, that the city won’t be able to survive the change.”
She took these thoughts with her to an artist residency in Maine, where she spent time on the coast, watching the tide come in. “After seeing a rock getting swallowed, I imagined a body out there in the water, and how beautiful an image that would be.” As a director, she immediately began to wonder who she could cast, then realized, “That’s insane; no one is going to do this for me. Three days later I was in the water.”
What Is Your Relationship With the Water?
After standing through an enormous ten and a half foot tidal fluctuation in Maine, Sunde’s second performance could seem anticlimactic. In Akumal, Mexico, for another residency, she stood patiently for twelve hours through a tidal shift of just one foot.
But while Maine had been a private performance for her fellow artists, she sought to involve the local community in Akumal. She interviewed locals before her performance, asking: what is your relationship with the water? “Everyone had such a different response, but such a powerful response.”
Akumal is on the Yucatán in the Caribbean, a region highly dependent on coastal tourism and therefore highly vulnerable to sea level rise. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “Relative to the size of the economy, the Caribbean is the world’s most tourism-dependent region. If climate change makes this region less appealing to tourists because hotels have diminishing beaches, or because resorts experience flooding, the region could suffer serious economic losses and growing poverty.” Forty inches of sea level rise, for example, would flood hundreds of miles of roads and a third of all Caribbean airports. The Mexican government has attempted to rebuild beaches that are already eroding, but such projects are hugely expensive and only postpone the inevitable.
During the last hour of Sunde’s Akumal performance, a member of the audience walked out to join her, then another and another, until seven people stood together in the sea. “It was totally spontaneous and it really moved me,” she says. So in San Francisco, she’s explicitly inviting the public to join her in the water. “What I’m imaging is that people will show up whenever they can, and they’ll come and stand with me for half an hour, or as long as they want to, and then they’ll leave.”
She doesn’t expect anyone to stay through the entire 13-hour, 5-foot tidal cycle, during which she will eat nothing. She will drink water, either brought by kayak or worn in a backpack. “I want it to be hard, but I don’t want to get hypothermia and die,” she says. She plans to wear a wetsuit, or possibly a drysuit—although I’m afraid your humble correspondent may have discouraged her from the warmer course of action. “In a drysuit, you couldn’t pee, could you?” said Sunde after I pointed out that particular drawback. “My God, I didn’t really think about that.”
Thinking Globally, Yet Intimately
After San Francisco, Sunde will move her project around the world. The next stop will be Europe, where she plans to stand through a tidal cycle in one of the cities most intimately aware of rising seas: Amsterdam.
The Netherlands was fighting to stay dry centuries before the Industrial Revolution heralded anthropogenic climate change. The country is at once uniquely vulnerable, and uniquely prepared to cope. The Dutch have been keeping the sea at bay with an ever-increasingly sophisticated system of dikes, floodgates, and sea walls. But now they’ve begun to work with the water rather than against it, lowering certain dikes to allow flooding and reduce the pressure in other parts of the system. They’re even experimenting with floating housing developments.
Sunde’s husband grew up in the Netherlands, making this a very personal destination for the artist. In fact, she is choosing all of her sites based on intimate connections with her own life. This is art in extremely mixed media: a single human, the world ocean.
Sunde hopes her performance will grow with each iteration. Locals will join her in the water, and friends and colleagues around the world will stand with her in spirit. “There’s got to be a way to encourage collective thinking. I believe in that. If we all put our minds on something, good can happen.”
If you show up at Aquatic Park on August 15th between 9:26am and 10:31pm, you’ll see Sunde and her video crew. You can sit and watch from a variety of vantage points, and you can wade out and join her for a time. At 4:09 pm, high tide, the water will be at her neck.
Another eight-inch rise in sea level would cover her head.