Danny Zuko’s Lament
It all started with Sandy. Manhattan has been the backdrop of abundant apocalyptic scenes in feature films (and, sadly, in reality on 9/11). A big ape, a whole range of aliens, and even a tsunami (in Deep Impact, 1998) have inflicted major damage on a future version of New York City. But not many people would have imagined that the flooding following the 2012 hurricane could bring the city almost completely to a standstill. Not even artist and theater director Sarah Cameron Sunde, whose husband, a Dutch water engineer, told her with astonishment how unprepared Manhattan was (a peninsula after all) for circumstances such as these. Hurricane Sandy awakened her conscience to one of the biggest themes of our time: are humans able to cope with the effects of the changes in the ecosystem we ourselves have caused, upon entering a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene? Will scientific progress continue to simultaneously spoil and improve? Of course we are aware, but do we really relate to this issue with our bodies and minds on a personal level? Do we invest time in it? Sarah decided she would.
I am from Amsterdam, where I curate contemporary public art projects at TAAK, a cooperative of art advisors and producers. One could describe the Netherlands as one big, densely populated river delta in which we have built hundreds of dikes to keep the water out. It’s a country that consists to a large extent of so-called polders: areas (both rural and residential) which have to be pumped dry forever with the high-tech successor of our famous windmills. The rising sea level is a real threat that is already taken into consideration in every spatial planning process. We are prepared. So we should be aware as well, right? Yet, somehow, we aren’t. Perhaps it’s our very preparedness that makes us assume everything will just be taken care of, that every situation will have a built-in solution (without, that is, having to abandon some cities below sea level).
Which is exactly what makes it so exciting to collaborate with Sarah on the Dutch iteration of her project 36.5 / a durational performance with the sea. A long term project which Sarah started during an artist residency in Maine in 2013, 36.5 has already had iterations in San Francisco and Mexico and will proceed on every continent at locations which are facing water problems. Bangladesh is already scheduled for 2016. The series will be completed in 2020 in New York. In every iteration, Sarah stands in a tidal bay for a full tidal cycle, approximately 12 – 13 hours, as the water engulfs her and then recedes. She has to face the cold, the burning sun, wind, sand, ocean currents, and undertow, and, eventually, darkness. The performance reveals the dangers that are hidden below a calm water surface and challenges her physical and mental endurance. Sarah does not take a watch with her and therefore has to come to a different understanding of time, of the permanent changing and passing of things.
I not only admire this achievement, but also the clarity of the concept and the strong visual image it produces. I find it particularly interesting how she tries to relate to the situational specificity of each iteration, geographically, socially/politically, artistically, and in Amsterdam even historically. She does that not only by selecting a location that is safe and aesthetically interesting (sublime, even) but also by interconnecting all the relevant stakeholders and by engaging local artists to turn her performance into a public event. The endurance isn’t just in the performance, it’s part of the preparations, too.
The Sand Engine
Context is key to the meaning of a public art project; with every change of plans there is a shift of content to consider. This makes every iteration of 36.5 an artwork in itself, a multi-layered one, which is also the case in Amsterdam this summer. Actually, the performance is not taking place in Amsterdam itself. The city has a rich maritime past, but it has lost its direct connection to the sea that still existed during its Golden Age in the 17th century. Ever since the “Zuiderzee” lagoon was closed off from the open sea in the 30s, the city’s still sizable harbor can only be reached through large sea locks and canals. This means no more tide, no more smells of salty water, and no more sounds of crashing waves that make the encounter with the water such a natural and multisensory experience.
In helping Sarah to situate her performance in the Netherlands, our aim was to find a spot that would represent the Dutch relationship to the sea in a contemporary way. And we did find the perfect location, the latest invention in coastal protection worldwide, which anticipates the era to come. In front of the coast of The Hague (actually the Kijkduin resort, also the home of American artist James Turrell’s Celestial Vault) engineers have used complex algorithmic calculations to shape an immense body of sand that has been constructed in the sea. This body of sand, called the “Zandmotor” or “Sand Engine” (“Sandy” would have been nice, too) is a dynamical one. In the coming decades, the wind and the currents will move the sand along the Dutch coast line and strengthen it where it is most urgently needed. It is a perfect example of working with nature instead of against it and therefore symbolizes the Anthropocene era that Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen has predicted in its techno-optimistic version. Interestingly enough, although it’s hard to overlook, the Sand Engine is unknown to most of the inhabitants of The Hague, not to mention the rest of the Dutch.
It will be interesting to let the audience think about this piece of engineering as a cultural act and a manifestation of our time. Art is one of the best strategies to come to terms with complex issues which are too large, long-term, and complex to incorporate into everyday life. Sarah will also develop her Dutch performance in close collaboration with Satellietgroep in The Hague, an artist-run residency program that focuses on issues connected to the coast on a global and local level. The audience will be invited to participate by joining Sarah in the water, or to take part in the artistic interventions that articulate the time passing. The hope is that many people will do so, even if they had only planned a lazy beach day in the sun.
SAIL Amsterdam 2015
Still, this iteration of the 36.5 series is connected to Amsterdam. The performance in the sea will be filmed and streamed. This footage will be combined with, amongst other imagery, shots from the cameras that scientists have placed on the Sand Engine to monitor its development. A film will be produced that can be shown on urban screens during the large-scale event SAIL Amsterdam 2015 at the end of August, when a large fleet of historic Tall Ships will moor in the city center’s former docks to be admired by approximately 1.5 million visitors. The film, a piece of long form video art, will be projected on continuous loop on and in a number of buildings surrounding the festival area, sometimes creating a hub with large-scale projections where viewers can chill and experience the work at a slower pace, other times popping up unexpectedly on smaller screens around the event.
The Tall Ships appear as in a Romantic simulation. As a provocative counterpart, the film brings in the natural reality of the sea. It makes one aware of time passing—in every encounter with the work one will notice the change of the tide and light. But the real vividness comes in the contrast between a spectacular nostalgic event which accommodates the passive “tourist gaze,” and an art work which showcases a single individual, with whom one might identify, facing physical and mental challenges.
Additional layers will emerge in the connotations added to the project with every screening location. The film will be shown in the medieval Oude Kerk, which lodges a few chapels dedicated to the city’s sailors, and the most important hub will be created at Marineterrein, an army base that the Royal Navy has recently vacated, leaving it open to the public for the first time in more than 400 years. The film version has also been recognized by the organization of SAIL, which decided to include it in their official cultural program.
Of course all exposure is nice, but everything depends on the artistic quality of the project and the way Sarah will be able to create a powerful image and immersive event. Coming from a theater background, she knows how to stage things and to direct complex production processes. But there has always been a strand in her durational work that seems to relate even more to the realm of visual art. Marina Abramovic’s performance The Artist is Present at MoMA may be too obvious a reference. But I think the difficulty in achieving real presence in the moment and place might help to describe what real awareness is in societal issues. Real awareness means to feel the subject you engage with in every fiber of your own body. It means acknowledging the dark sides of life instead of rationalizing them away. As the Sand Engine does with the coast, and as Sarah does with the sea, people should learn to empathize with what is opposing them, to understand its principles and to move along with them without sacrificing their own convictions. As NYU psychology professor Martin L. Hoffman holds, without empathy there would be no moral development (in children, in Hoffman’s case). The present revival of performance art such as Sarah Cameron Sunde’s, crossing and blurring the boundaries as it does between theater and visual art, in or outside of the white cube or black box, could be an answer to a call for more empathy in the world, by the living and lifeless (actors, Bruno Latour calls them) alike.
Sarah Cameron Sunde’s 36.5 / a durational performance with the sea will occur in the Netherlands on August 10, 2015, and will be viewable worldwide via Livestream. The artist encourages everyone to stand in water wherever they are; she is also working to create participation in locations where she has formerly had iterations of 36.5 as well as future locations of Bangladesh and New York City. The public exhibition of 36.5 will occur in the Netherlands, August 19 – 23, 2015. Stay tuned for 36.5 in New York City in 2020! Visit www.365waterproject.org or www.sarahcameronsunde.com.
ContributorNils Van Beek
NILS VAN BEEK is an art historian and partner/curator at TAAK, Amsterdam. www.taak.me.