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Sea level is rising around the world: art is putting it in the spotlight

Artist Sarah Cameron Sunde's 36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea is a series of nine site-specific performances and video art works where the artist immerses herself in water, feeling the tide rise and fall, and locals can participate or observe from shore.

Artist Sarah Cameron Sunde's 36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea is a series of nine site-specific performances and video art works where the artist immerses herself in water, feeling the tide rise and fall, and locals can participate or observe from shore. Image: Sarah Cameron Sunde

Gemma Parkes
Communications Manager, Nature Pillar, World Economic Forum
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Up to 1 billion people could be at risk from rising sea levels and many island nations may disappear altogether if drastic actions aren't taken.
  • Artists like Sarah Cameron Sunde are bringing attention to this existential threat through visual art performances.
  • Her work, 36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea, will be screened in a special video installation in a central gallery in Davos and excerpts can be viewed online.

The phenomenon of rising sea levels is not new to us. It is frequently reeled off in the alarming but by now familiar litany of the most striking impacts of the climate crisis. But we cannot become inured to this devastating anomaly of Earth system functioning. Sea level rise brings with it grave risks and potentially catastrophic consequences – especially for the many millions of people who live along coastlines and in low-lying areas, from island nations like Fiji and the Maldives to the urban conurbations of the Netherlands and cities like New York.

The knock-on effects of destroyed homes and infrastructure – especially in places of dense coastal populations – are likely to include unemployment, displacement and forced migration, homelessness, hunger, poverty, and ultimately grave and intractable inequity. Nature, too, would be ravaged – fragile coastal ecosystems like mangroves, salt marshes and coral reefs may struggle to adapt but are likely to expire through insufficient sunlight, flooding and warmer seas. This, in turn, will denude countless marine species of their habitats and food chains; looping back to impact small-scale fisheries and rob coastal communities of vital food and jobs.

Rising seas

The projections are not encouraging. Recent research shows that globally up to 630 million people live on land below projected annual flood levels, at risk of rising sea levels by 2100 – compared to roughly 250 million at present. Up to a billion people now occupy land less than 10 metres above current high tide lines, including 230 million below one metre. That’s not a hypothetical scenario for some future tomorrow – that is here and now in real life. The mass economic burden and forced migration likely to be caused by rising sea levels are no less unsettling.

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Sea level rise is a result of anthropogenic climate change – from the global warming created by excessive greenhouse gas emissions, which in turn leads to large-scale polar ice melt and the heating of the ocean around the world. What seems equally logical is the imperative of those in positions of power – our global leaders who find themselves with this crisis happening on their watch – needing to take decisions and actions that will slash emissions and slow global warming, and direct investment to adaptation measures to protect the most vulnerable people in both insular and mainland trapped contexts. And there is hope – in plenty of cases and places, a movement is growing to make the necessary adaptations and changes. But politics takes time, and large-scale finance is tricky to redirect.

Dramatic measures are being taken to draw attention to the plight of those who are already directly experiencing the effects of sea level rise. The Pacific archipelago of Tuvalu, goaded by the prediction that it will be entirely swamped by rising seas by the end of this century based on current trends, declared itself the world’s ‘first digital nation’ at COP27 in Egypt in November 2022, from inside the metaverse. But will this be enough to wake the global community up?

Sea level rise would not usually be something experienced in Davos, high up in the mountains of landlocked Switzerland. But participants at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting, taking place there on 16-20 January 2023, will have the chance to get a virtual but still visceral sense of what it really means.

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What's the World Economic Forum doing about the ocean?

The work of Sarah Cameron Sunde

As part of the event’s cultural programme, the World Economic Forum has invited interdisciplinary visual performance artist Sarah Cameron Sunde to bring an installation of a unique artwork that she was inspired to create after experiencing Hurricane Sandy herself first-hand, in her hometown of New York City.

Sarah’s artwork, called ‘36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea’, consists of her standing for an entire tide cycle in seawater, feeling the water rise and fall on her body. The full tide cycle takes up to 13 hours, and the seawater comes up as far as Sarah’s neck. In preparing the performance, she collaborates deeply with a fully local team for the preceding weeks and months, sometimes years – thereby fostering a real engagement and connection with each place. She also invites local people to join her for some or all of the experience, or to observe from the shore.

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Spanning across almost a decade, Sarah has taken this work through six continents – from Mexico and Bangladesh to Kenya and Aotearoa-New Zealand, culminating in a final performance on the East River in New York in September 2022. These ethereal, symbolic performances have been filmed, and a video version will be screened in a central gallery in Davos, with an accompanying exhibition of still images and other visuals. The idea is for participants of the Forum’s Annual Meeting to view, witness and ponder – and perhaps even feel for a moment the vulnerability of being caught in rising sea levels.

I got the chance to meet with Sarah Cameron Sunde on a video call recently to learn more about her work and her motivation for using art as a way of connecting people with critical issues in this way.

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“In the performance, the water rises slowly on my body – and on the bodies of those who participate with me. The tides function as a metaphor for sea level rise. For viewers of the video artwork, they are invited to witness this slow shift. My hope is that by slowing down and tracking time on our bodies, listening to the water, thinking about the past, present and future, and acknowledging our vulnerability, we will be able to reconsider our own relationship with water in positive, more equitable ways,” said Sunde.

I’ve not yet had an opportunity to experience Sunde’s artwork live, but I’ve watched the videos online – and even in this way, with the distance of cyberspace and my computer screen acting as buffers, her art did not fail to move me. I got a tangible sense of the fragility but also the resilience of life; I felt the ebb and flow of the tides – and the beauty and interconnectedness that links us all with one another across the global community.

Discover

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

Action and advocacy

To turn the tide on sea level rise, ambitious and concerted action is needed across a complex web of stakeholders, sectors and geographies. We need decision-makers to make the right choices that will lead to the curbing of greenhouse gas emissions, stop polar ice melt, fast-track alternative energy and infrastructure solutions that use up less of the Earth’s precious finite resources, and support those communities most vulnerable to the consequences of sea level rise. These decisions need to be firmly rooted in science – and, critically, bolstered by the finance needed to bring about concrete change.

A quote has been swimming in the back of my mind from Leonardo Da Vinci, who said: “Study the science of art; study the art of science. Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.” And this expresses to me a sense that while science informs and guides us, art can inspire and goad us to turn thoughts into actions to tackle the most critical challenges we face.

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  • How to follow Davos 2023

Perhaps during a coffee break or between sessions in Davos, and online through virtual browsing, the hearts and minds of leaders from across the business world, public sector, civil society, media and academia will be touched, opened and inspired by Sarah Cameron Sunde’s art – moving them to witness and acknowledge the high stakes of sea level rise, and the imperative that weighs on their shoulders to drive forward the enabling environment for the changes we must all make.

After all, everything is connected.

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