This artist gets up to her neck in water to spread awareness of climate change Sarah Cameron Sunde brings her tidal cycle performance to New York City to cap off a nine-year global tour to spread awareness of sea level rise.

This artist gets up to her neck in water to spread awareness of climate change

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The world's oceans are expected to rise three feet or more by the end of the century because of climate change. To bring more attention to this, an artist has created a work based on the way sea levels rise every day - the tides. NPR's Matthew Schuerman visited the preparations for her final performance in New York City next week.

MATTHEW SCHUERMAN, BYLINE: Sarah Cameron Sunde came up with the idea one day on the beach when she saw the waves come up and down the shore.

SARAH CAMERON SUNDE: The tides are this amazing metaphor. Every day, they change. They come and go. And the environment changes drastically if you watch it.

SCHUERMAN: After some thought and planning, Sunde returned at low tide, stood at the edge of the water and kept standing as the tide came in and rose on her body all the way up to her neck and then back down again - a complete tidal period, nearly 13 hours, representing the rise of sea levels.

SUNDE: I had a moment where I was feeling the vastness of the water. I was feeling - you know, it sounds a little bit cheesy to say, but I was feeling really connected to people on the other side of the planet.

SCHUERMAN: That was in 2013, less than a year after Hurricane Sandy hit New York City. And she was still getting over the devastation the storm wreaked on her adopted hometown.

SUNDE: And I said to myself, like, if I may get through these 12 hours and 48 minutes, this will be a series, and I will have to do it in collaboration with communities around the world.

SCHUERMAN: She did make it through that day, and she has done a bunch of performances - eight of them, in fact - in Brazil, New Zealand, Bangladesh. One thing she's learned - it takes months of preparation and a lot of helpers to pull these performances off.

SUNDE: OK. And so what are we at right now?

SCHUERMAN: She's now prepping for her final appearance in New York City. It'll take place next week on a small strip of sand along the East River in Queens.

BELLA GALLO: This is 19 north.

SCHUERMAN: An assistant, Bella Gallo, is helping Sunde find the right place to stand so that the spectators, both those at the site and those who'll watch the video, will see the Manhattan skyline in the background while she, with her back turned towards them and wearing a red dress, slowly gets submerged but not entirely.

SUNDE: We don't want it going past my chin (laughter).

SCHUERMAN: Behind us, a man is standing on the sidewalk trying to figure out what's going on.

TAVEL BENN: Hey, how you doing?

SUNDE: Hi. I know. I was like, I can feel your energy.

SCHUERMAN: His name is Tavel Benn, and he works as a security guard nearby. Within minutes, he's agreed to come on September 14 and help out.

SUNDE: You could be a project ambassador. We're looking for more project ambassadors.

BENN: Project ambassador.

SUNDE: Yeah.

SCHUERMAN: Sunde always tries to get people who live and work nearby involved. Some stand in the water with her. In Kenya three years ago, she did her performance in a small coastal village that was entirely dependent on the ocean. Kimingichi Wabende, a professor at the University of Nairobi, helped her.

KIMINGICHI WABENDE: When we introduced the idea to the community, they were excited, in a way. First of all, because anything to do with the ocean had almost some religious interpretation to it.

SCHUERMAN: The village had a town crier, as well as a ceremonial drum, both of which were used to publicize the event. And that morning, the villagers followed Sunde, singing, on her way down to the shore.

WABENDE: As much as they are used to the ocean, they were equally amazed, excited and anxious to see how she was going to survive.

SCHUERMAN: After each hour she was in the water, the drummer would beat the drum, which would attract even more spectators. By nightfall, nearly 100 people had turned out.

WABENDE: Even the villagers were saying, like, I've never looked at the ocean for this long.

SCHUERMAN: And they said they never thought anyone else cared about the ocean as much as they did. Sunde had planned to perform in New York in 2020 but postponed it because of the pandemic. Grants from foundations have paid her bills, and she's also preparing physically...

SUNDE: I'm trying to do yoga every day now just to, like, make sure I'm stretching my hips.

SCHUERMAN: ...And spending lots of time in the water.

SUNDE: OK. Are you guys ready? We're entering our moment of silence now.

SCHUERMAN: Matthew Schuerman, NPR News, New York.

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