I recently had the privilege to sit down and have a coffee and conversation with Flux Projects’ Executive Director Anne Dennington and Flux Exchange Artist Sarah Cameron Sunde following her livestream of 36.5: A Durational Performance with the Sea. On September 14, 2022, a large LCD screen at Underground Atlanta featured a video of Sunde with hundreds of volunteers as they stood in the ocean on the shores of New York City, part of a global livestream event activating spaces from Kenya and Mexico to the Netherlands.
“The series began in 2013 in response to hurricane Sandy hitting New York and the East Coast,” explained Sunde. “I had this realization in my body, it hit me in my gut that we were so vulnerable in the city. I realized that New York could disappear in my lifetime.” While on a trip in Maine she considered the effects of rising sea levels and the implications that climate change would have on the city she calls home. An idea struck and only a few days later she positioned a camera on the shore and stepped into the cold waters where she would stand for 12 hours and 39 minutes. This act, this solitary performance between Sunde and the waters that rose and fell on her body with the tides, launched what would become a project spanning nine years and countries all around the globe.
“Now I can’t even believe that I did that,” said Sunde with a laugh. “I’m a wimp and that water was really cold but I felt like I had to do this so I did it. In that process of those 12 hours and 39 minutes out there in the very cold water I had another kind of bodily understanding of just how connected we all are around the world. I felt that I understood it in a different way by being in the water: realizing that the water that was touching me then could have been off the coast of Kenya. I made myself a promise that if I made it through the 12 hours and 39 minutes that I would have to make this a collaboration.”
For Sunde, her background in theater informs everything she does. She has lived in New York City for 22 years, most of her life. After graduating from UCLA and following a stint in England where she started a theater company with a friend she found her way back to NYC where she felt the most at home. After ten years spent working as a theater director, translator, and appraiser, among other roles in the theater, she began to shift to visual arts and performance. “The theater background frames everything that I do. I think of it as working at the intersection of performance art, video art, and public art with a particular focus on environmental issues.”
So, after seeing this performance on the tails of Emergence by Rachel Parish, I had to wonder if there was a greater reason for Flux’s emphasis on the intersection of water and art. And as it turns out, yes there is. Anne Dennington, the Executive Director of Flux Projects, explained that Flux has launched a two year exploration of Atlanta’s relationship with water. When Flux initially approached Sunde about participating in the exchange the connection to water was not a requirement, however the 36.5 performance suited Flux’s greater mission perfectly.
“The waterways are connected,” said Dennington. “The creeks and streams and rivers that run from Atlanta go to the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico… We like when the Flux Exchange program is open ended; if it’s open ended it leaves room for our city and community to come and be an integral part of the development.”
Flux has long been a conduit for local arts and immersive activations since its inception in 2010. The organization aims to provide outlets for transformative experiences that connect and inspire people, foster empathy, and elevate the story of Atlanta’s creatives on a larger scale. Today, they are also broaching challenging topics such as environmental crises and the disconnect between modern society and the resources of the land that sustain us.
“Climate change is a huge issue and in thinking about a young artist, your work is [that of] one person,” said Dennington to Sunde as she sat across the coffee table. “The fact that one person acting individually was able to mount a global project, the crux of this project is that one person stands in water.” While often artists might think they need something big with a lot of marketing and advertising, the work of Sunde is a reminder that one person with a powerful messaged a pointed vision, a really clear vision, can create something much larger than themselves. “It really just started with artistic vision and perseverance. And committing to the long term, for me that was very important.”
Dennington explained that this is the first multiyear series produced by Flux Projects, pointing out that it often takes a long time to get attention for projects or topics. They also hope that it will showcase just how long the artistic process can be, from conception to completion. They hope to give support both logistically and financially throughout their programming. Dennington has indicated that this endeavor will be cumulative, with each project, installation, and exhibition building upon the last. Not all projects will be about creeks and rivers, either. The work of Hannah Palmer will focus on public swimming, for example. The central uniting feature is all about water as a substance and the variety of ways that we engage with it.
36.5 offered a uniquely compelling perspective on our relationship with water. By activating space at Underground in downtown Atlanta, Flux encouraged the public to view and engage with art in ways that they might otherwise have never encountered. Dennington recalled seeing a group of teenagers who had been sitting nearby, watching intently for quite some time. The performance and screening had that kind of attraction: it was captivating in a way that surprised some. “People told me they couldn’t stop watching,” continued Dennington. “It was so compelling. When I tell people about it they have this image in their head, and the concept works because people have an immediate empathy, they can imagine themselves in that.”