Sarah Cameron Sunde is an interdisciplinary artist working at the intersection of visual art and climate activism. Best known for masterminding 36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea, she works with scale and duration to explore the profound connections between humans and the natural world.
The climate crisis and its impact on rising sea levels pose significant threats to coastal communities, ecosystems, and infrastructure worldwide. To raise awareness about this pressing issue, climate art has emerged as a powerful way to engage audiences, provoke dialogue, and inspire collective action.
In this episode of The Founder Spirit, we feature Sarah Cameron Sunde, an interdisciplinary artist working at the intersection of visual art and climate activism. Best known for masterminding 36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea, a series of performances and video artwork spanning nine years and six continents, where she stands in water for over 12 hours, a full tide cycle, as a metaphor for the rise in sea level, Sarah works with scale and duration to explore the profound connections between humans and the natural world.
TUNE IN to uncover Sarah’s artistic journey from a theater maker to a visual artist and activist, what inspired her to connect art with environmental challenges and lessons she learned from working with indigenous communities around the world.
Sarah Cameron Sunde is an interdisciplinary artist working at the intersection of performance, video, and public art. Based in New York, she works with scale and duration in order to investigate deep time, the more-than-human-world and the environmental crisis.
Sarah is best known for masterminding 36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea, a series of site-specific participatory performances and video artworks spanning 9 years and 6 continents, where she stands as the water engulfs her and then recedes for over 12 hours, a full tide cycle, as a metaphor for the rise in sea level. With time and water as her primary focus and subject, Sarah is committed to amplifying the work of indigenous leaders and supporting the growing movement rights of rivers and forests, while testing duration in order to heighten individual and collective sensory experiences.
Her work has been exhibited across museums in the United States, New Zealand, Kenya, Brazil, Bangladesh and the Netherlands, as well as featured in academic journals and major press outlets internationally. Sarah’s current practice is informed by 18 years of directing theater and an emerging field of art that is made on, in, and with bodies of water in response to ecological change.
She is also the Co-Founder of Works on Water, a non-profit organization and triennial exhibition that explores diverse artistic investigation of water in the urban environment, and Oslo Elsewhere, a non-profit theater company.
Among many honors, Sarah is the recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Princess Grace Award, and ongoing support from Invoking the Pause. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in Digital and Interdisciplinary Art Practice from The City College of New York and a Bachelor of Arts in Theater from UCLA.
(Photo by Jeremy Dennis -@jeremynative)
[00:04] Jennifer Wu: Hi everyone, thanks for listening to the Founder Spirit podcast. I'm your host, Jennifer Wu. In this podcast series, I interview exceptional individuals from all over the world with the Founder Spirit, ranging from social entrepreneurs, tech founders to philanthropists, elite athletes and more. Together, we'll uncover not only how they manage to succeed in face of multiple challenges, but also who they are as people and their human story.
You can find us on Apple, Spotify and Google Podcasts, as well as social media and our website at TheFounderSpirit.com.
“The hardest thing you ever do is also the most meaningful. So it was definitely the hardest thing I've ever done, but I felt so alive. There was a moment when I was out there and I understood how we really are all connected through the water. It sounds kind of cheesy, and it's something that we know intellectually, but I felt it in my body and I understood that I am connected to the people and all the species on the planet.”
Our guest today is the tenacious Sarah Cameron Sunde, an interdisciplinary artist working at the intersection of performance, video and public art. Based in New York, she works with scale and duration in order to investigate deep time, the more than human world, and the environmental crisis. Sarah is best known for masterminding 36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea, a series of performances and video artwork spanning nine years and six continents, where she stands as the water engulfs her and then recedes for over 12 hours a full tide cycle as a metaphor for the rise in sea level.
Her work has been exhibited across (institutions and) museums in the United States, New Zealand, Kenya, Brazil, Bangladesh and the Netherlands, as well as featured in academic journals and major press outlets internationally. Sarah's current practice is informed by 18 years of directing theater and an emerging field of art that is made on, in and with bodies of water in response to ecological change. She is also the Co-Founder of Works on Water, a nonprofit organization and triennial exhibition that explores artistic investigation of water in the urban environment and Oslo Elsewhere, a non-for-profit theater company.
Among many honors, Sarah is the recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Princess Grace Award, and ongoing support from Invoking the Pause. She holds a Master of Fine Arts from the City College of New York and a Bachelor in theater from UCLA.
Hi, Sarah, welcome to the Founder Spirit podcast. It's really wonderful to have you with us today, and thank you for taking the time.
[02:56] Sarah: Thank you so much for having me.
[02:59] Jennifer: Growing up in the Bay Area, what were some of your formative experiences?
[03:04] Sarah: I went to an alternative school called Ohlone, it was an elementary school. And it was just a really creative place - we were encouraged to call our teachers by their first names; there was a farm. We were given assignments and requested to think creatively about how we approached them, so it wasn't a lot of testing.
I remember my third-grade teacher playing guitar as we all ran around to clean up the room because we would want to get to that circle and be able to sing together. And so it was a really formative experience. And so I think creativity was always woven into the way I was built, and my parents really encouraged risk-taking and thinking outside the box.
Also, my dad is Norwegian, and my brother had been sent to Norway for a six-week adventure when he was twelve, and so I was like, I'm going to go too. I ended up spending a little over six months living in Norway with my cousins and going to school there.
I didn't speak the language, I had to learn really fast - I was an outsider, but I was lucky to be welcomed in by the community and I learned a new language and I got an international perspective that I don't think you can have without living in another country. It was really critical in terms of the way that I like to work internationally and seeing the world as a whole.
[04:30] Jennifer: You were a theater major at UCLA, and you felt very much drawn towards directing. Do you recall the first play that you had ever directed? And what was that like?
[04:44] Sarah: I went to UCLA to study theater, and I was thinking I would be an actor. I went abroad for my junior year; I went to the University of Exeter, and that is where my mind really opened up.
In England, there's a tradition of devising theater, of creating from scratch, and you can make a piece of theater out of this pencil if you want to. And that really blew my mind; And this idea of creating experience out of any moment and any place, site specifically, was really important for me. And I remember I had this great directing teacher with small classes, Leslie Sole, and there were only a few of us in the class, and it was a year-long directing course, and we did so much stuff.
And I remember the first play I created, and we used Dario Fo and Franca Rame's version of Medea, but it was site-specific working with two performers, and we were out in the field, and I remember having this moment of, oh, I'm not supposed to be performing, I'm actually supposed to be inspiring other people to perform. It felt right; I understood in my body that that was what I was supposed to be doing because I loved performing, but I was never the best at it. And I was like, oh, I'm good at this, I could feel it. And I was like, this is what I'm going to do.
I think I live for those ‘aha’ moments when you're in the zone and I can count them on my hand. There's only a few of them, but they're really important when you feel like you're in the right place, right time.
[06:16] Jennifer: In 2000, you moved to New York and you initially landed at the Cherry Lane Theater, which is the oldest continuous- running off-Broadway theater. What was life like as an aspiring director in your early twenties?
[06:32] Sarah: Well, I was very gutsy. I thought, okay, I've got a couple of $100 saved up, I had a place to land. It was a room that was 6ft by 8ft, but it was in the Village and it was an amazing place to land in New York.
I decided that I was just going to learn for two months, and I would try to volunteer and usher for lots of shows and learn the theater scene because I didn't know anything. I was like, I can always get some form of job so I'm not going to worry about money for a couple of months. And it was the smartest thing I did because I invested in learning.
I ended up calling someone who led me to this initial job at the Cherry Lane Theater and I met Susan who became my boss for many years. And so it was the hustle, kind of a game for me to try to figure out how to live in New York and do it well.
I think when you open yourself up to those unknown possibilities, magical things happen. So then after those two months, I just kept going, I kept meeting people. The first ten years of my career really were dedicated to theater and New York is amazing in that the arts community is small enough so you always know somebody, but there's always new people who are doing amazing things to meet. I think so much of it was just about following the impulses, following the opportunities, trying to learn and understand what was out there.
I also remember people always mistook me for a teenager when I was in my 20s. And I said to myself, okay, no one is going to take me seriously as a director until I'm 30, so anything I do up until when I'm 30, it's all education. And I also think that was really important for me to feel free, to not feel the pressure to create the best thing in the world, but to just do it, just try.
Everyone said you got to just be doing it - just make theater, direct the shows, find ways to make it happen. And that's what I did. And looking back, I'm proud of myself for that. Of course, there were hard moments and things were challenging and struggle is real. But overall, I have a positive feeling of running around the city and trying to learn what it means to be an artist here.
[08:48] Jennifer: I think many of us, when we're starting out, we are striving to accomplish things, even at a very young age. I remember I didn't have the patience to take a pause and to take in everything that I was learning. To have that perspective when you start your career, it's about building the foundation of who you become later on in life, I think is really important.
Overall, you collaborated with New Georges for over 16 years. What lessons did you learn as a theatermaker and a director?
[09:23] Sarah: So I was very lucky to have met Susan Bernfield in the first week when I was in New York. I heard her talk on a panel and I wanted to introduce myself. And I was feeling sort of shy, and so I was like, okay, I'm going to go to the bathroom, and if I come out and she's still there, I have to introduce myself.
And I came out of the bathroom and she was right there in line. And so I had to introduce myself, and she invited me in for a meeting, and I ended up interning there. And then that led to a job when there was money to hire someone. And I love that story, so much of it is giving myself little challenges and then sticking with it, making these little games for myself in terms of what will happen.
At New Georges, I learned how to lead, I learned how something goes from an idea into a full-on production. I was really lucky to learn from Susan; she's been running this company for many years, but then I came on, and I think my energy really helped solidify a place for the company in the world.
We were small but scrappy, but proud, and we were really dedicated to supporting theater artists who are women, there's lots of thought behind the feminism there. And I learned a lot about how to make something happen, how to produce something, how to create something bigger than what you first imagine, and how to trust in the people you're working with.
There are definitely moments in my directing career where I remember sitting there in the technical rehearsals right before you open and thinking, wow, this is bigger than anything I can handle. But luckily, my lighting designer knows what they're doing, my sound designer knows what they're doing, actors know what they're doing, and everyone's got this.
Everyone's got their own part in it, and I'm at the helm, and I just have to trust that everyone's doing their job. And that's really a powerful thing, to feel like it's bigger than anything you could do on your own. I love that.
[11:30] Jennifer: Sarah, internationally, you're also known as the translator and director of the Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse's work. For those who don't know, Jon Fosse is a highly regarded Norwegian writer known for his unique style and significant contribution to contemporary theater.
What captivated you about his work, and why were you so determined to bring his work to the American audience?
[11:57] Sarah: Yeah, well, this is another one of those aha moments for me.
I was in Norway, and we were going to see a show that night in the National Theater. And it was by this writer, Jon Fosse, who had been translated into over 40 languages and produced all over the world, but we had never heard about him in the US. I read the play beforehand and I just remember seeing this text and reading this play and thinking, oh, my goodness, I've never read anything like this before.
This was 2003, I had been in New York for a few years and working with writers, and I knew how hard it was to write something new and interesting. I was blown away, and I went to the show that night, and the production was great too. I remember sitting at my aunt's kitchen table and being like, I'm going to bring it to New York because nobody knows that this exists.
I felt like I had means to figure out how to do that. It's probably learning from Susan for a couple of years and having been in theater scene in New York and trying to figure out, okay, how do I make something that will have impact that can really be meaningful, and then finding this Norwegian writer. It was these things converging into I understand what my trajectory is for the next few years.
And I really love his work. He uses everyday language, but it's very poetic. So it's this heightened sensibility because of the repetition and the way that it's functioning on the page. It's very sparse, so it leaves a lot of space to work with. it was really empowering for me as a director, I found my voice as a director because I was able to play with the visual world in exciting ways. So, yeah, really important part of my trajectory.
[13:50] Jennifer: I was going to mention one of the things that he's known for is his style of writing. It's characterized by simplicity, the poetic language, as you mentioned, and then this repetitive motive. And also because his dialogues were sparse, leaving much unsaid, it allows for multiple interpretations and probably deep exploration of the character's emotional state.
The other thing that Fosse is known for is delving into the depths of human psychology. So he explores themes such as identity, loneliness, mortality, and the search for meaning. How did directing and translating his work prompt your own introspection and existential reflections?
[14:40] Sarah: I just connected to it, I think we're all on a journey. His work allowed me to go into a space of really thinking about what it means to be alive and in this place, in this time. And that's why it spoke to me, that’s why I loved it. It allowed me to think about these existential questions of what are we doing? Why are we here? And at the same time, what is my everyday existence and how do I move through the world on a daily basis?
And I think that looking at scale, zooming into the hyper-local, the immediate experience, and then looking at something from an existential global perspective is something that has really stayed with me. And when I think about it now, all these formative experiences, they lead up to where you are now.
So sometimes I think about my career trajectory as being so wild. But the through line is there when you look for it. And that zooming in and zooming out is something I got from Fosse.
[15:44] Jennifer: Something that you mentioned earlier about theater-making being challenging, especially when it comes to bringing a foreign playwright into the US. For starters, you had to look for money and investors. What was the journey like for you in terms of bringing a foreign playwright to the US and doing five premier productions of his work?
[16:10] Sarah: The journey started with this impulse of I'm going to figure out how to make it happen and do whatever it takes to make it happen. And my experiences told me I could figure out how to do it on whatever size budget. I was going to raise as much money as I could, but I was going to make it happen for whatever I could raise.
Thinking about how people maybe didn't always connect because it was an international writer, there was something different, but I thought that's what made it unique and that's why it was important to do.
The journey was beautiful, there was something really freeing about working with this master playwright's text and knowing the words are set, and then I'm going to figure out everything else. And Fosse really trusted me; we were in touch throughout and he inspired me to trust my impulses too. It became a beautiful collaboration, and I was able to learn and grow as an artist; And of course, with tons of support from people.
In the art world and especially the theater world, you can't do anything alone. It just always takes a village; many people dedicated many hours and much labor and worked for small amounts of money - I'm so grateful for all of the people.
Doing something together is a beautiful thing, but it's hard, and we can't always do it forever, and you put your energy where you can. And I had a lot of people supporting this vision; super lucky to have had that.
[17:36] Jennifer: You received wide recognition and multiple awards for your work as a theatermaker and director, including NewYorkTheater.com Person of the Year in 2009.
Yet in 2010, after several large off-Broadway productions, you wanted to find a new way of devising performance-based work. What was the motivation behind your desire to recalibrate as an artist?
[18:04] Sarah: I had a few experiences in the industry that were hard, and this always happens. You always have things that are going to go a little bit differently than you think.
After working on a couple different things, not the Fosse stuff, but some new productions, I realized that as a director, the industry wasn't necessarily thinking of me as a generative artist. I was working in this very specific niche of new play theater, and the tendency was to think of the writer as the artist, the genius, the person who has made it.
And because of my training in England, I had this moment of I've been working in this niche for ten years, and this isn't where I'm quite supposed to be. And so all of a sudden, I realized that I love text. I'd become a little bit too dependent on the text. So I was like, okay, I'm going to put the text aside, what can I make from that pen or pencil or how do I go back to making theater from scratch, which was how I first fell in love with directing and devising and creating.
It was a long transition, now that I think about it. But I thought, how do I experiment with form and content in a different way? How do I get in a room with people and make something that is live art, that is performance, but doesn't come from words written on a page? And it was really hard, but it was also really important to do that.
I started looking at a lot of visual art, I was really inspired by that. I had always been a visual person in the productions I would create. I discovered that there were ways of engaging in work that were connected to what I was doing, but that were different. And I just thought, reimagine where we are and try to find a new way of making.
[19:52] Jennifer: These days, time is your primary material both in content and form. Where did this idea of working with time, or duration, as you call it, come from?
[20:03] Sarah: During that recalibration, I started this collective called Lydian Junction and we were experimenting with form. It was an actor, a dancer, a video artist and a composer and me, we would get in a room and we would make stuff and it was pretty magical.
And as part of that journey, I started to think about time in different ways because whenever I was making anything, I was a little obsessed with this idea of time expanding and contracting in performance as you create a moment. Or even in our everyday lives as we go about our lives, there are moments that feel like they take a really long time and there's moments that feel like they go by so quickly, and I was always trying to bring that into performance.
I also have a tricky relationship with time and I always think I can accomplish much more in a small amount of time. So I'm really interested in my own psychology of time and how time functions in the world and this idea of the human clock as a construct.
[21:04] Jennifer: I was told in your own experimentation with duration, you wrote the subway for 24 hours (chuckles). What was that experience all about?
[21:15] Sarah: That was 2011, and I love the subway - it's an amazing place where people of all different types are gathered together in a room at the same time. I was playing with time, and I did it on my birthday. I was like, I don't want to celebrate my birthday this year, I'm going to do a 24-hour performance.
I decided to start at 4:40 in the morning because that was the time I was born. When we got to the next night, I realized that I had this connection with a couple of the other people who were houseless on the train. And we made eye contact, and there was a moment of realization of this person thinks that I also don't have a home. It was really humbling in terms of understanding what it is to not have a place to go and not have shelter. It really moved me, in terms of thinking about the homeless population in New York and that everyday survival. It started as this fun artistic experiment and became something that was much more powerful and potent and deep.
This episode is brought to you by NIANCE, Deeper than Beauty. NIANCE is a science-based Swiss luxury skincare and nutritional supplement brand focused on activating the body's natural ability to rejuvenate and regenerate for more vital, useful, and energetic appearance. Powered by groundbreaking furnace biotechnology, its award-winning formulas, with the exclusive Swiss Glacier complex, combine over a hundred powerful natural active ingredients with leading clinical research.
One of my favorite products from NIANCE is the Collagen-Hyaluron Beauty Booster which is a nutritional supplement that I've been taking for the last three years. As its name suggests, it contains high concentrations of marine collagen, and Hyaluronic acid as well as multiple essential vitamins, and minerals. It comes in a powdery mix, and I drink a sachet of it every morning with water. For me, this is the super easy beauty ritual that helps to boost not only my skin, and hair but also my bones, nails, and joints. It's 100% made in Switzerland, free from gluten, lactose, and sugar. I hope you'll give it a try. You can find NIANCE online at www.NIANCE.com. That is N-I-A-N-C-E.com.
As listeners of my podcast, you can benefit from 15% discount by using the promo code “TheFounderSpirit15” on niance.com, again that is N-I-A-N-C-E.com
[24:00] Jennifer: Your breakout work is a significant piece called 36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea. Can you tell us what it is and what inspired you to perform with the sea?
[24:12] Sarah: In 2012, we had Hurricane Sandy and that hurricane coming into New York really changed everything for me. 50 square miles of the city were flooded, billions of dollars infrastructure lost, lives lost.
And for me it just hit me in the gut, this idea that our city was so vulnerable and that the water was all-powerful and that we were surrounded by water and we weren't necessarily paying attention to the water. All of a sudden, I understood that New York could disappear in my lifetime. With the climate crisis, with extreme weather events and with sea level rise, we might have to abandon the city if more things like this happen. And so that event changed everything.
At the time I was working with Lydian Junction on this piece called Born for Nothing and it was about the struggle of an artist to survive in the city. I kept on imagining this little artist running around the city trying to make ends meet and the city is sinking beneath her feet. And that image was playing in my mind. I was obsessed with this parallel between the struggle to survive for any individual on a daily basis and the struggle for humanity to survive in the face of climate change.
And then I'm up in Maine, nine months after Hurricane Sandy, and it's the first time I've ever really stayed in a place where the tidal shift is so drastic. It was about 10.5 feet, and I was blown away by what the tides looked like. At low tide, it was a mudflat, and at high tide, it was this beautiful blue bay of water. And I couldn't stop watching it; it was so wild how the visuals out my window changed every time I looked.
So one day I'm sitting there and watching this rock slowly get swallowed whole by the water. And I thought, that's the image. I imagined a person standing in the water where the rock was for a full tidal cycle as the water rises and then falls.
It was a Monday, I'm going to do this on Thursday because Thursday was my half birthday, so this is the aha moment for 36.5. There was a lot of thought and marinating on ideas, and then all of a sudden it hits you, and you're like, oh, this is what I have to do.
So that's how it began. So that was in Maine in 2013 - 12 hours, 48 minutes. I walk out into the water; the water rises up to my chin, and it goes back down again. And I really didn't know if I would be able to do it, I just thought I'm going to try.
I was at this artist residency, so the only audience was the people who were there; but they all really encouraged me. Every five minutes, somebody would take a photo, and that's all that remains from that first performance, these little bits of documentation on our phones and stuff. But that was a game changer for me.
The hardest thing you ever do is also the most meaningful. So it was definitely the hardest thing I've ever done, but I felt so alive. There was a moment when I was out there and I understood how we really are all connected through the water. It sounds kind of cheesy, and it's something that we know intellectually, but I felt it in my body and I understood that I am connected to the people and all the species on the planet.
I kept on thinking about these people everywhere around the world where we are facing this climate crisis. And if I'm this little artist from New York who's thinking about these things, what are people, on the other side of the planet, in the global south especially, thinking and dealing with in terms of sea level rise and climate change already, and how can we learn from them?
And so I made this promise to myself that if I made it through those 12 hours and 48 minutes, I would have to turn this into a series, and I would have to create this work in collaboration with communities around the world. And I imagined people joining me and standing with me, and it becoming a really big thing.
[28:24] Jennifer: Sounds like you had a very strong spiritual experience because you felt it in your body and you had this vision of how it was going to play out while you were standing in water for the first time.
Although I have to say, I'm not surprised that you didn't find anyone that would want to stand in there for a full tide cycle except for yourself. This is when the director has to also be the sole actor in the performance.
What began as a response to Hurricane Sandy's impact on New York City has now spanned nine years, nine locations and six continents, and it's come to define your work. You initially did it in Maine in 2013, and Mexico and San Francisco the next year; and then the Netherlands, Bangladesh, Brazil, Kenya, New Zealand and New York as your last performance.
How did you select the different locations for 36.5?
[29:29] Sarah: After that moment, it really became a balance of research and connecting to people. And everything was really organic because I wouldn't go anywhere without an invitation. It took long periods of time to develop these relationships, to have the conversations, to figure out where to go.
In some ways, Mexico and San Francisco were part of what I call the development year, I was developing the concept. And I was invited to another residency in Mexico, and then I'm from the Bay Area, so San Francisco was easy because I was with my family and friends there.
But then when I launched on a global scale in the Netherlands, that's when things got a little trickier and everything turned into a bigger production. I started working with a local filmmaker to film the whole thing in real-time. My husband is Dutch, so I was able to connect with arts organizations.
Bangladesh, it was a friend of a friend who connected me to the right people. Brazil was interesting, I was exploring many different possibilities down there. Until Bel Borba, who's a street artist down in Salvador, who said, come to Salvador, you must come here, Yemenja (water goddess) is waiting for you. I'm not doing his accent right, but he was incredible.
And then Kenya, I met Professor Martin Morani from the University of Nairobi, he introduced me to Kimingichi who became my core collaborator. Aotearoa (New Zealand) was, again, an academic connection, and then New York is my home. So each location evolved really in different ways, there's a million stories about how it actually came to be exactly what it was.
It's been an adventure to see how things played out, because I had this vision, but I had no idea how it would actually take shape. And so just letting those serendipitous connections lead to things is really so much of the process, so much of the art of the work. That's where it lies.
[31:29] Jennifer: There's the art to preparing for each performance as well, which leads me to my next question, how do you mentally and physically prepare yourself to stand in water for over 12 hours?
For those people who haven't seen your video online, you're literally standing in the water with your back to the shore. You're not moving, you're not talking, you're just looking straight onto the water as it rises up to your neck and then back down to your feet. So how do you prepare yourself mentally and physically to do something like that?
[32:03] Sarah: The biggest preparation for me is about getting to know this water, getting to know this site. And that includes the shore, the species on the shore, the humans who live nearby who know this place.
So much of my preparation is about trying to refocus, to invite everyone to reimagine our relationship with water. I try to embody that in everything that I do to prepare, put a bigger focus on the water than I ever have before and pay attention and listen.
So the preparation would involve being with the water and doing some test stands and engaging. I would always spend at least several weeks on the ground before doing the performance, and then sometimes years because of COVID, New York became a very long process. But that act of gathering community around the water and together preparing for this event and paying deep attention that we sometimes forget to pay, that's my deepest preparation.
And then, of course, there are things like food, would always take the advice of whatever the community thought I should eat in preparation for the performance. That's what I would eat. Listening is the key; and then, of course, nourish my body in a way that is in line with what that site requires and what those waters want of us as humans.
[33:30] Jennifer: And while you're standing in water, what thoughts are going through your mind for that period of 12 hours?
[33:37] Sarah: This is probably the question I get asked the most, everyone wants to know what happens during that time. There's so much that happens.
People are always like, are you bored? And I'm like, no, I'm not bored. The world is vast, there is so much to pay attention to. And so what always has happened for me is that I've fluctuated between being really actively engaged in the sensory experience. I don't speak, I don't eat while I'm out there. So I'm really in this zone of trying to work through my senses.
Like, what am I seeing? What am I hearing? What am I tasting? What am I smelling? What am I feeling? And that's the big one. How am I feeling this water rise on my body over all this time? How do I feel time passing as a sensory experience? And what does that say about the future? And how do I get through this moment? How do I live through the struggle?
There's a lot of pain that occurs when you do anything like this. And there's always moments where I think I'm not going to make it. Each time I did the performance, there was a reason why I might fail. But that persistence or that trying to just be in that struggle and understand what does that mean as humans that we are in this little daily struggle, but what is the struggle that we are going to face and how are we going to adapt with the climate crisis? How are we going to live our lives?
So I fluctuate between this deep engagement, sensing and thinking and feeling, and then sometimes just letting it go and just being because it's hard to be that actively engaged for all those hours. And I think it's interesting to fluctuate between taking it all in and letting it all go and play with that balance.
[35:28] Jennifer: It must be a huge contrast to your life in New York, which is always hustle bustle. And then all of a sudden you have 12 hours, where you’re just standing in water, not talking, not interacting with anyone except for just with the water, with nature.
How do you feel when you're surrounded by the water, both physically and also emotionally?
[35:52] Sara: Yeah, it's intense. Physically, it's always hard. I did it nine times, I learned and knew what to expect in terms of the physical challenge. But there are always things that would surprise me, and so I'm always prepared for it to be a struggle physically. But that's part of the point, I'm interested in that struggle.
And emotionally, I would say with each of the works, there was a moment where I had a big emotional reaction that came on usually, surprisingly, I don't always remember what it was in response to. Sometimes I'm reflecting on the world and where we are as humans in the world. And some of that has to do with people that I've lost in the year.
And in Brazil, I learned that when people die, the belief is that they become vast, like the ocean. And that was a beautiful thing. We had lost my father-in-law right before I did that work, and so that was a really present thing for me during that piece. But that was a beautiful way to connect with him, in a way.
So there's my own personal emotions and journey that I'm having, and then I'm really thinking about humanity as a whole and where we will be in the future and how do we rethink how we're doing things. And this project is really this small act of trying to give people an experience that they hold with them, and that shifts perspective in some small way so that we can do better.
I think the climate crisis is so hard because there's a lot of facts and numbers, and we all feel like we're so small and like we can't do anything to change things, but we can all do something. And I think we need all of us to be doing whatever we can that's within our capacity and our talents to take this on, because we have to come together as a global humanity in order for us to survive. I really believe that.
[37:56] Jennifer: I want to talk about your collaboration with the indigenous communities at these different locations. What lessons did you learn from your interactions with these local communities?
[38:12] Sarah: Through the nine years of making 36.5, the indigenous communities around the world are really the most important people for us to be listening to in the climate crisis. I really believe that we must uplift those voices, those leaders, because there's an inherent system of respect for the natural world that is embedded in the knowledge and the ways of living that I think the rest of the Western world really needs to learn from.
So I've been very lucky to be connected with folks around the world. In Brazil, my collaborator Clara taught me so much from the indigenous perspective there and also the melding with Candomblé. In Kenya, I was working in this little village in Bodo, and they don't pay attention to tidal charts, but they know in their bodies what that tide is going to be two weeks from now. So just learning so much about what it is to have this knowledge embedded in your body as you're a kid, as you're being raised, as understanding the water from the get go.
And then in Aotearoa-New Zealand, I was really lucky to work with some wonderful Maori artists, activists, educators. And their practices of asking permissions before doing something, of having constant gratitude for the gifts that we receive from the natural world, and of reciprocity, making sure that if you're taking something, you're giving something back.
These lessons are embedded in the everyday and every interaction, and that had a real impact on me. I learned so much from collaborating with them and was so lucky to be working with them along the way.
[40:03] Jennifer: There's a lot of community engagement that you do as a result of your work in the preparation and also during the performance, many of the local volunteers come to join you in the water, right? Maybe not for the full duration, but they do stay with you for some time.
In Kenya, they had planted mangroves after you had left. What do you think your impact is on the community after you've done your performance?
[40:30] Sarah: It's a great question. I like to think that the project stays, that experience stays embedded in the bodies of everyone who has encountered it and that it has shifted something for them in terms of just how it's brought people together or something that they learned themselves that day.
In Kenya, the mangrove planting that we did during the performance, that continues. Kimingichi keeps going with his students, and they now have done two re-enactments, so it's almost become a ritual that they have taken on for themselves.
Each work in the series was very different because I was taking my cues from all the people there and what they thought we should do. So the only thing that really remains the same throughout each work is that this frame of I walk out into the water at low tide, I stay there for the full time, water rises, water goes down, and I walk out.
Everything else that happens on the shore, all the celebrations, all the interventions, the human clock element to mark the passing of each hour. And that could be singing, it could be dancing or some sort of movement. In Brazil, it was poetry; in Aotearoa, it was Kapahaka; in Kenya, it was singing and dancing and drumming and music every hour.
It's all a very different thing, but the participation is really the key, and that's what I've been trying to create this whole time - an experience for the people who I'm making the work with and hoping that it lives on and that it gives them something to come back to and to feel grounded with the water in new ways, new perspectives.
[42:17] Jennifer: As someone who's watching the video art installation that you're putting together, what are you hoping that the audience would take away from it?
[42:27] Sarah: Yeah, I hope that they really reconsider their own relationship with the water, as individuals, as a community, as a global humanity, and as a species - really de-centering the human is part of the work, and recognizing that the water is powerful and that how can we be grateful? How can we listen to the water? How can we care for the water?
In New York, the site was a cove that is somewhat neglected. And the question that I kept coming back to with the community there was, what does the cove want and what does the cove need? And how do we as a community put that first?
The project began with this really simple, impulsive, poetic gesture that was in relationship to sea level rise and extreme weather events. But the complexity of it is way beyond what I ever could have imagined. But I really want people to take away their own sense of things and to carry that with them on a daily basis.
And there's so many people, so many artists, so many scientists, who are working on the climate crisis. We need all of us to be doing this work. And hopefully it accumulates and we can shift. I have seen public consciousness shift in the time that I've been doing this project.
I'm in touch with all of my core collaborators, and I anticipate going back at some point. I have a dream of bringing all the video works and exhibition form back to all of the different locations.
And during the final performance in New York, we had all five international locations where I'd done the duration works. They were all doing re-enactment performances on location, and we connected that into the live stream. So that was incredibly powerful, that moment where I was standing in the New York water. And we have my friends in Kenya and Brazil and Bangladesh and Aotearoa and the Netherlands all standing at the same time - that was really important.
And Kenya, that village is incredible, and they've taken it on in a big way, which I hope will continue. So the work continues even though the performances are done.
[44:43] Jennifer: So that's a good segue because I wanted to ask you, as the work continues, what's next for you, Sarah? What is going to be your next piece of work after 36.5?
[44:51] Sarah: I'm definitely still in 36.5, working on the exhibition and the book and other formats for it and the connections with the communities. I'm returning to other series that I've started throughout the years. One is called my Lot series, which is hyper-local, right in my neighborhood in Harlem. And then returning to my Peaks series, which I had started with a collaborator, Joshua Dumas, and now reimagining another chapter for that.
And then I have a commission with my friend and collaborator, Rachel Parrish, down in Atlanta. We're working with the South River as a body of water that has traditionally been neglected. Atlanta is really interesting because it's where a lot of the water start. It's not on the coast, but then the South River actually travels all the way out to the Atlantic Ocean. So we're doing lots of research and we'll be coming up with an exciting project over the course of the next few years.
So there's lots going on and my commitment to water and to these questions of the environment stays strong; I really believe artists have an important role to play in these conversations right now, so that's what I'm trying to do.
[46:09] Jennifer: And speaking of artists and entrepreneurs struggling to survive this downturn, what advice would you give them?
[46:17] Sarah: I would say to reconsider your relationship with time in some way, to give yourself space to be in the natural world, take a walk, get out on the water and let the world help guide you.
And try to find ways of enjoying or finding learning in the struggle - that’s the key to these moments. Struggle is part of life, and so my advice is always just to find joy or meaning in that and see where it takes you.
[46:52] Jennifer: We're soon coming to the end of our episode, tell us what your favorite books are over the years.
[46:57] Sarah: The book I want to highlight today is Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. She is an indigenous person from the United States and aka Turtle Island, and she's also a scientist, and she really weaves together this indigenous knowledge with the science in a way that is just so powerful and beautiful.
An Indigenous People's History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz was also really incredible for me in the last couple of years because we really have to face up to the reality of the history of what's happened.
[47:33] Jennifer: Great, I'll add that to my summer reading list this year. And where can people find you, 36.5 and Works on Water?
[47:44] Sarah: 36.5's website is just 36pt5.org, so the numbers 36 and then letters PT number 5.org. My personal artistic website is sarahcameronsunde.com; and then Works on Water is worksonwater.org.
[48:04] Jennifer: Last but not least, what does the Founder Spirit mean to you?
[48:08] Sarah: I think the Founder Spirit means really trusting that aha moment when it comes into you, having that clear vision, and then trusting that vision to guide you through these challenging moments and to really be in the struggle, find ways to enjoy and get something out of that moment.
The hardest moments are always where you find the gem. And so trusting that and not being afraid of it, but moving towards it. I think that's the Founder Spirit to me.
[48:40] Jennifer: We're now coming to the end of our interview, and as you know, we end every episode with a quote. And for this episode, we have a Maori proverb,
“Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au. I am the water and the water is me.”
Sarah, I want to thank you for coming on the podcast today and allowing us to further contemplate on our interconnectedness with the natural world.
[49:07] Sarah: Thank you so much for having me, it’s really been a joy.
You can find us on Apple, Spotify and Google Podcasts, as well as our website at theFounderSpirit.com.
[49:19] END OF AUDIO
(02:59) Sarah’s Formative Experiences Growing Up in the Bay Area
(04:44) Recalling the First Play She Directed
(06:32) Life as an Aspiring Theater Director in New York City
(09:23) The Lessons She Learned as a Theater Maker and Director
(11:57) A Challenging Process of Translating and Directing Jon Fosse’s Work
(14:40) How Did Fosse’s Work Prompt Her Introspection and Existential Reflections?
(16:10) Challenges and Journey of Bringing a Foreign Playwright to the US
(18:04) Her Motivation to Recalibrate as an Artist
(20:03) Working With Time and Duration in Performance
(21:15) Why Did She Ride the Subway in 24 Hours?
(24:12) What Inspires Her to do 36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea?
(32:03) Mental and Physical Preparation to Stand in Water for over 12 Hours
(38:12) Lessons from Her Collaboration with Indigenous Communities
(42:27) What She Hopes the Audience will Take Away
(46:17) Advice to Struggling Artists and Entrepreneurs
Social Media Links:
Sarah’s Favorite Book:
- Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer
- An Indigenous People's History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz