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The Ocean Spirit Inside: Talking With Sarah Cameron Sunde

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 A detail of Sarah Cameron Sunde's installation '36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea' at Te Uru. Photo: Sam Hartnett  A detail of Sarah Cameron Sunde's installation '36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea' at Te Uru. Photo: Sam Hartnett A detail of Sarah Cameron Sunde's installation '36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea' at Te Uru.  A detail of Sarah Cameron Sunde's installation '36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea' at Te Uru.  A detail of Sarah Cameron Sunde's installation '36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea' at Te Uru.  A detail of Sarah Cameron Sunde's installation '36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea' at Te Uru.  A detail of Sarah Cameron Sunde's installation '36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea' at Te Uru.  A detail of Sarah Cameron Sunde's installation '36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea' at Te Uru.  A detail of Sarah Cameron Sunde's installation '36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea' at Te Uru.  A detail of Sarah Cameron Sunde's installation '36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea' at Te Uru.  A detail of Sarah Cameron Sunde's installation '36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea' at Te Uru.  A detail of Sarah Cameron Sunde's installation '36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea' at Te Uru.

My practice revolves around individual and collective experience, and fluctuates between those two things. I've tried in a few different instances in my work to create situations that are more collective, with varying degrees of success. I have struggled with this. When I got out of college after studying theatre, I was a director, leading things. That felt like the right place for me, but then I realised that as you lead things, there are always going to be rebellions, so I feel like my work in a way has always been an attempt to have deep collaboration.

EyeContact Interview #3

There is one thing our bodies cannot live without for very long. It comprises 60 percent of us, binding us to all other beings throughout the world, as we all need it to nourish us from within. It surrounds us too, lapping onto the shores of whatever country we may be in, joining each land mass together, so that when we view our earth from above, we see its blue more than anything else. Without it, nothing on this earth can grow.

But as much as water has the ability to nurture, it can consume too; tsunamis and floods can cause calamity, and with our climates reddening hot in anger, rising waters are causing the lands we reside on to sink, telling us that we are upsetting some kind of balance, pleading with us, that as it changes, so must we.

Through the visuals created by her performance work, and the performance itself, artist Sarah Cameron Sunde reminds us of our own necessary balance with the water of our earth, how we must surrender to the ocean’s changing tides, yet at the same time anchor our resilience within it by taking care of it.

Sunde does this standing in bodies of water throughout the world for a full tidal cycle, the water rising and receding from her toes to her neck, and collaborating with local communities, showing us how each body of water envelops within it the history, the culture and politics of the people who draw from it, swim in it, pray to it, nurture it and destroy it.

By March of this year, Sarah had completed 36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea in waters as varying as Maine, the Netherlands, Bangladesh, Brazil and Kenya, and most recently was in Tāmaki Makaurau, Aotearoa / Auckland, New Zealand, where she was preparing to do her second to last performance before the culmination and celebration of all of her performances, in her hometown of New York. But then an unseen virus began to brush against the lives of each of us, and her performance was postponed due to social distancing restrictions in New Zealand in the wake of this rising COVID-19 pandemic. One week after flying back to New York, we spoke to her about these strange times, how elements of the pandemic’s effects are prevalent in her work, and how more than ever, we need those qualities water teaches us: surrender, and resilience.

SC / While I was researching your work again, I kept coming back to your original iteration of 36.5 in Maine, and your first immersion in the full tidal cycle. I remember you saying last time we spoke, that it was this act of vulnerability and surrender to the ocean and the ocean’s power in the wake of Hurricane Sandy and the devastation that you felt in New York. Keeping that in mind, I want to fast forward to what would’ve been your latest iteration in Tāmaki Makaurau, and it being postponed because of this pandemic that’s flushing the world. It’s amid another very different event. How were you feeling about facing the water, and if you were going into the water during this time, what was the act going to mean to you, or how has it changed what this means?

SCS / At first, when we thought we were going to be able to do the performance as planned, while knowing that the COVID outbreak was happening around the world, I kept on thinking and talking to people about how in a way, it’s a perfect project for the time. Because it is about vulnerability and resilience on an individual scale and on a collective humanity scale.

I was thinking about how on a practical level, we were doing it outdoors, so it wasn’t people being confined in an indoor space together, but you could have an event and have people six feet apart. We were already planning on live streaming it around the world, and everyone wanted to live stream as soon as COVID hit. I felt like the project had these things in place already. And then thematically, these questions that recognise how small we are in the scheme of things, and how we have gotten out of control. This little virus is bigger than us, just like the water, and it’s putting us in our place and we have to respect that, as terrifying and scary as it is.

I think this is a reckoning and one that we haven’t seen in our lifetimes or ever, really on this kind of global scale. Then there’s the relationship to climate change too, that aeroplanes and travel has had to stop, the emissions going down and the fact that animals and the dolphins are coming back into Venice. I think there’s a lot of connections between the pandemic and climate change.

I’m interested to see how that plays out, and how we can reconfigure our lives during this time. A lot of people are going back to, ‘OK, let’s plant our own food, let’s pay attention to the land’. One of my collaborators over there, Amiria (Puia-Taylor), we kept talking about how her family who has always lived off the land, and the Māori people who have retained that knowledge, they’re going to be fine.

What I love about 36.5 is that despite it being a simple act—even though the actual act of doing it is difficult—you’ve done it in these different iterations all over the world. I feel like there is so much you get to see and learn about the local communities that you perform in; the people that you connect with, and all the research that you do, with the physical landscape of the place and the culture and the history embedded in the people of that place. So, tell me what this was like for you in Auckland? How did it differ and how was is similar to other places you’ve performed in?

One of the first things that really struck me that I was thinking about a lot before I left New York, in my conversations and exchanges with Janine (Randerson) and Andrew (Clifford), was the language. I was just so struck that everyone was integrating the Māori language into their everyday, because that’s not something that we do here in the U.S.

I was really moved by this and wondering, what if in New York we started integrating Lenape into our emails. There’s an evolving trend here, especially in cultural spaces, to do land acknowledgements, and I think that that is a great thing. But if you can actually integrate the native language into our everyday and not have it as a sidenote, maybe reparations can happen in a more profound way.

I remember you saying, when I asked you what your favourite sound was during the performance, that it’s the conversations of the people on the shore. How at the beginning you tried to listen to those conversations, and then you realised that you’re not meant to listen. With this, you kind of have done the perfect collaboration and independent co-existence project. This great interplay of you doing this independent performance, but with the people around you in the background supporting you and at the same time doing their own thing.

I wonder if these questions have been present in the work and they’re coming to light in a new way because of what we’re experiencing right now, and also because of what I’m learning from Māori culture. Through a friend of a friend, I connected with Nettie (Norman). When I told her about the plan for the performance, she had all these visions of conch playing and people singing and dancing. We had a six or seven hour day together at Ambury Regional Park (one of the prospective venues) and she said, ‘You have to meet my friend Amiria, she’s my go-to with the mana whenua in this area, because she has bloodlines with a few different iwis around Tāmaki Makaurau’.

Later that day Amiria arrived, and she also felt deeply connected with the project. She got so excited. She had been out in the water when Nettie contacted her and she is deeply connected to the Manukau Harbour. She decided she wanted to stand with me for the full duration. Nobody’s wanted to do that before!

So, from there on out, it was, ‘We’re doing this together’ and it’s not going to be all about me. And it’s funny before Amiria had shown up, Nettie had been saying, ‘Ok, so, we’re going to play the conch and sing and it’s going to be all about supporting you through this journey’ and I said, ‘Can we make it not about me?’. I was thinking, ‘I love that you want to do this, and it’s amazing and important, but I also don’t want to be a westerner who’s coming in and asking you guys to support me’. And she said, ‘But that’s what we do. We have to support you in this journey’, so I said, ‘Let’s figure out a way that it can be about supporting all of us’. Let’s turn it into a ‘we’ because I felt deeply uncomfortable that there would be this spectacle created all about supporting me.

And so, it was perfect that Amiria wanted to stand with me the whole time, because then it really could be about us, getting through it together. She’s incredible, she’s an artist/activist who I was truly blown away by. For the last few years, she’s been running the 312 Hub, which supports the community youth, and she is re-focusing on her artistic practice now.

The generosity was astounding. Because the minute that she and Nettie decided they would do this with me, they were all in. Which is one of the things that is hard with the pause. It was perfect timing. But now everyone is reeling, and I just hope and pray that we can keep the connection going and go deeper during this year and have it not feel like it falls off or it not being the right time later on.

How did you end up choosing Kaitarakihi as your site?

The artist Mark Harvey had taken me to Kaitarakihi a few days before I met Nettie and Amiria, and it felt important to see this spot together. Amiria felt a deep connection to Kaitarakihi, because she could see her homeland on the other side. She could look across and see where she comes from and say, ‘that’s our land’.

For me, the image was very powerful when I first saw that space, because it directly connects to open water, which is always a goal if I can make it happen with the image. I want to be able to feel the vastness and feel the connection to the sea. But also, the two headlands at the mouth of the Manukau show a visual and symbolic contrast; on the north side, the west shore is bush, it’s really wild; they’ve let it come back. And then on the south side, it’s still very manicured. Mark pointed this out, that you can see colonialism in the headlands because the bush has been taken away; it’s been set up as farmland and sheep are roaming. So with the bush on one side and the farmland on the other side, we can acknowledge the trauma of colonialism in the image.

I was also letting Amiria guide me at this point. If she had said ‘We can’t do it here, the ancestors don’t want it here’, I would’ve said, ‘OK’. But she did a lot of karakia and asked permission. We had this amazing moment where we were walking along the water’s edge and there was this incredible cave that is revealed at low tide. She did a karakia and then we all went around to touch the edges of the cave to ask the ancestors to protect us, and while we were there, we asked them permission to be there, and she said, ‘Yup, they say they want us here!’.

I understand that feeling, because I’m a first generation New Zealander, but my parents are third generation Fijian-Indian and I’m kind of thrice displaced. But when I went to India to the particular land that I thought my ancestors came from, because that information has been lost, I learned a classical Indian dance there. So, to have that moment to sing songs and say mantras and dance on the land in the region where I felt like I had connection, I understand that deep history that can be rooted in a place generation after generation. We asked permission too, before we danced—there’s a special prayer/movement that we do—and we asked permission from the land for letting us beat it with our feet. To let us dance upon it. Those similarities between everyday rituals and the connection with land in indigenous cultures, it is so embedded. It’s a shame that in some ways we’ve lost that.

I’m so moved by that practice of prayer and singing every day, there’s so much discipline that I don’t have in myself. I want to have it, and I try to learn, but it’s just so profound, that deep spirituality and connection. The karakia I heard and the blessings, I just feel really lucky to have witnessed them and be part of these moments. Early in my time over there Matua Jeff Takua took me to Onehunga and did a karakia while I entered the waters of Manukau Harbour for the first time. He was asking permission for me to be in these waters, and it was one of the most profound things I’ve ever experienced.

It makes me think about how maybe this is the practice that we all need to get back to. We all need to learn from indigenous wisdom. Because if you’re asking permission there’s a respect that’s being paid. I realised how important it is to ask permission while doing something physical; the movement and the song that has to do with your body in relation to the land. I noticed for myself, that I had these moments when I was listening to the karakia, and I wanted to involve my body in a deeper way. I felt involved, but I also felt that I was watching and witnessing, so I usually just ended up just closing my eyes and breathing with it. I learned that when I am either singing or vocalising something or putting my body in a position of really listening to the land or the water it’s so potent.

I think, like you said, indigenous cultures know that the environment changes, and they move with it, which is something that I think you do in your immersion. You don’t try to control, which I think a lot of western perspectives tend to do. They try to control nature as opposed to co-operate with it. That’s exactly what you do in your immersion, you breathe with the water and are just being with it.

I got a book while I was in New Zealand about the Polynesian sea-faring navigation systems, which is also so amazing to me. I was just reading about the theories of how they’d just wait, and wait for the water to tell them it was OK to go. It’s incredible. The fact that I was meeting people that could trace their heritage a thousand years back to which waka canoe they were on. To me, that is just so beautiful and so profound.

My practice revolves around individual and collective experience, and fluctuates between those two things. I’ve tried in a few different instances in my work to create situations that are more collective, with varying degrees of success. I have struggled with this. When I got out of college after studying theatre, I was a director, leading things. That felt like the right place for me, but then I realised that as you lead things, there are always going to be rebellions, so I feel like my work in a way has always been an attempt to have deep collaboration.

This project is the first time I’ve ever created something, where I’m technically the individual creator of this series of works. And yet, in each location, I am relying on so many other people to help me do it. I can’t do it by myself, there’s no possible way, so it is a local collective work. I’m interested in this collective theory and how do we re-jig our thinking?

Shana Chandra

36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea is being presented at Te Uru from 22 February - 5 July 2020. It includes the Manukau component, 36.5 / Te Manukanukatanga ō Hoturoa, Tāmaki Makaurau, Aotearoa New Zealand.

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