Davos Agenda

Why did artist Sarah Cameron Sunde stand in the sea for a full tide cycle 9 times on 6 continents?

Some of the works of artist Sarah Cameron Sunde, illustrating sea level rise, on show at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos.

Some of the works of artist Sarah Cameron Sunde, illustrating sea level rise, on show at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos. Image: Sarah Cameron Sunde Studio

Joseph Fowler
Head, Arts and Culture, World Economic Forum
Isabella Gallo
Studio Assistant, Sarah Cameron Sunde Studio
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Davos Agenda

This article is part of: Annual Meeting of the New Champions

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  • Artists contribute greatly to raising awareness about environmental crises and play an important role in articulating a new vision for the future.
  • Interdisciplinary artist Sarah Cameron Sunde offers a way to engage with the climate crisis and sea level rise.
  • Art provides an entryway into topics that appear overwhelming and abstract, spurring conversations and contributing to positive action, this is why the inclusion of artists in dialogues about environmental policy is so important.

As China is facing a crisis of rising seas on a level unseen by any nation in the world, the country has been employing creative policy solutions to combat the issue. Since 2014, the Chinese Government has been working on what it calls a transition to sponge cities. This is a mitigative, engineering-centric policy aimed at making urban areas more resistant to flooding and water-based impacts of climate change, it requires that 80% of all city land be capable of absorbing 70% of rainfall. Thirty cities are now part of the initiative, with 600 expected to join in the next decade.

Policy action focused on climate adaptation is underway as well. Cities on China’s East Coast, specifically Shanghai, are developing systems of drainage tunnels and tidal gates as contingency plans against sea level rise.

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Several village leaders join Sunde in the water as the tide recedes and the sun starts to set during 36.5 / Bodo Inlet (Kenya, 2019, 7th work in the series)
Several village leaders join Sunde in the water as the tide recedes and the sun starts to set during 36.5 / Bodo Inlet (Kenya, 2019, 7th work in the series) Image: Swabir Bazaar for 36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea

When art influences policy

Artists often focus on societal challenges before it becomes mainstream discourse. It is a fact that artists contribute greatly to raising awareness about environmental crises and play an important role in articulating a new vision for the future, but what role can artists play in policymaking?

The link between art and policy change is often indirect and any change it may spur is likely to be incremental. Policymakers often choose to ignore or disregard the subtleties of art and prefer to engage with those who propose more tangible, scientific-based solutions to policy problems. But there is a case to be made for artists and policymakers working in tandem to move the needle more quickly in relation to the climate crisis.

When Nobel Laureate and former US Vice President, Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth came out in 2006, it significantly changed the way the public understood global warming and climate change. Likewise, collaborations between scientists and artists can be effective in articulating and visualising scientific conclusions regarding climate change in a more accessible, comprehensible and engaging manner.

sea level rise. Henk Ovink and other water officials and engineers stand with Sunde during 36.5 / North Sea (The Netherlands, 2015, 5th work in the series)
Henk Ovink and other water officials and engineers stand with Sunde during 36.5 / North Sea (The Netherlands, 2015, 5th work in the series) Image: Florian Braakman for 36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea

Art takes a stand against sea level rise

As the environmental crisis accelerates, contemporary artists have taken up the mantle of addressing the precarious present. Interdisciplinary artist, Sarah Cameron Sunde, offers a way to engage with the climate crisis and sea level rise through her impressive nine-year body of work entitled 36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea, which comprises public participatory performance and video art, socially-engaged conversation and environmental kinship across the globe. She also poses powerful questions about how we connect with our local waters and a future with rising sea levels, what we are doing to address this and how art has the power to activate change.

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The struggle to survive in the face of the climate crisis - for individuals to obtain financial and residential security as the ground beneath their feet sinks and for governments to create adaptive new policies to support their residents in the changing environmental landscape - is at the heart of 36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea.

During the nine years in which nine 36.5 works were created (2013 - 2022), global sea levels rose, on average, 4.62mm each year. This rate is more than double that of the first decade on record (1993-2002), contributing significantly to the over 10cm rise that has occurred since the early 1990s. In China, the sea level has risen at a rate faster than that of the global average, with sea levels on the country’s coastline at the highest level ever recorded - 94mm above 'normal.'

When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in October 2012, leaving destruction on levels never before seen by the city, Sunde understood that our cities and societies are deeply vulnerable to extreme weather events caused by climate change and ultimately sea-level rise.

On August 15, 2013, she created the first 36.5 performance: She walked out into a tidal bay in Bass Harbor, Maine and stood in one spot for a full tide cycle as the water engulfed her body up to her neck and then receded again, leaving her body bare.

36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea, shows our increasing vulnerability in the face of climate change and shows us our best opportunity to act, mitigate and adapt: we can only change course if we take this challenge head-on, embrace its complexity and integrate our collective actions, by innovation, scaled up actions and leaving no one behind,” said Henk WJ Ovink, Special Envoy for International Water Affairs for the Kingdom of the Netherlands, after participating in the project himself.

Sunde's series of nine performances and video artworks were made on six continents in collaboration with communities in Mexico; the Netherlands; Bangladesh; Brazil; Kenya; Aotearoa, New Zealand and Turtle Island, United States. With each new work, the local public joined Sunde standing in the water and the project grew organically and exponentially - in terms of time, participation and meaning. It became an epic journey that incorporates local and global knowledge from people all around the world who are facing real-life challenges due to the climate crisis.

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Sunde’s work illuminates the undeniable power of art to influence policy on environmental issues. While art alone will not solve the world’s mounting environmental crises, it can illustrate, inspire and facilitate change, especially when it is in conversation with world leaders.

We only have a small window of opportunity to make massive changes to stop the worst ecological disasters from happening. Artists have the power to take complex, intangible, distant-seeming issues and turn them into engaging artworks that deepen a person’s understanding, connecting people to the problem they’re grappling with and providing them with a way to consider the issue from a different, more accessible perspective. In this way, art provides an entryway into topics that appear overwhelming and abstract, spurring conversations and contributing to positive action. It is for this reason that the inclusion of artists in dialogues about environmental policy is so important.

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