“What Is the Water Trying to Tell Us?:” A Conversation Between Fellows Frank Magilligan (F’20) and Sarah Cameron Sunde (F’21)

Fluvial geographer Frank Magilligan (2020 Fellow in Geography and Environmental Studies) and Sarah Cameron Sunde (2021 Fellow in Drama and Performance Art) may not immediately seem like a natural pair.

Magilligan, the Frank J. Reagan ’09 Chair of Policy Studies at Dartmouth College, is one of the foremost experts on stream channel and watershed responses to environmental change. In particular, he studies how rivers respond and recover from events like floods, dam construction, land use, and climate change. 

Sunde, an interdisciplinary environmental artist, creates work at the intersection of performance, video, and public art. The founder of Works on Water, an organization dedicated to art “made in/on/with bodies of water,” Sunde has been celebrated for works like “36.5 / A Durational Performance with the Sea,” in which she stands in a tidal bay for a full 12-13 hour tidal cycle and invites the public to join her. She has performed this work nine times on six different continents.

Their appreciation for water, of course, is what connects them—and what, they believe, connects all of us.

In August, Sunde and Magilligan connected for a conversation about their work. Sunde was in Norway and Magilligan was in New Hampshire—both areas that dealt with flooding this summer. Magilligan started by asking Sunde about a recent conference she had attended in China.

FM: Sarah, you just got invited to be a speaker in Beijing at a conference that mostly caters to corporate America… How did they find out about you? And what was your experience like, engaging in that setting?

SCS: I actually had a great experience. It was interesting. This is the World Economic Forum that invited me—first to show work at Davos and then subsequently to Speak in Tianjin, China, outside of Beijing. It’s a weird thing, right, being an artist in this setting? I’m usually surrounded by artists or academics, and while there were a lot of academics there, there aren’t a lot of artists. So I felt like a bit of an oddball. But I connected with a lot of people and I spoke at a Nature and Climate dinner, with 80 or so climate leaders. It’s a complicated question, but I do feel like some progress is made, when we ask people to think about how art can influence policy, and how we can engage people.

FM: How did people at the conference see art as engaging with climate solutions?

SCS: Everyone there is thinking about the future, right? And people see that through many lenses—some through an academic lens and some through a cultural- and humanities-based lens. There’s a real necessary effort on behalf of the World Economic Forum to recognize that culture is important. I think a lot of people just don’t know how to integrate it because it’s pushed over to the side. And this is true in life and society, right? Artists are often pushed to the side, and people are not often challenged to think about how art influences our lives. Commercialism has come into so many aspects of art-making, too—people often have to sell work in order for it to have value. I don’t necessarily agree with that, but I am trying to push the conversation about what has value.

I’m in Norway right now and we are experiencing unprecedented flooding. And it makes me think—we have these crises happening. How do we engage people in real, embodied ways so we don’t have to have another crisis before big changes are made?

In my session in Tianjin, I had everyone stand up, watch the video of my “36.5: A Durational Performance with the Sea,” and imagine they were standing in the water and the water was rising slowly. I think it worked—it’s a bit different than having everyone actually participate in my performance with me, but I think if we can engage people’s imaginations, we can accomplish something. I wonder: is there a way for art like mine to truly move important world leaders? For them to feel in their hearts like they can actually be brave and take steps to change? I don’t know. It’s hard.

I wonder: is there a way for art like mine to truly move important world leaders? For them to feel in their hearts like they can actually be brave and take steps to change?

FM: That’s the million-dollar question. How do we move people to make important decisions? I’m thinking of the economists that you were with, Sarah. They’re thinking about the short term but also the long term. Questions of climate change can be presented as an either/or game sometimes. We act now and there’s a cost. But a lot of environmentalists say if we don’t act now, the costs are going to be even more magnified in the future.

I just looked up the Norwegian floods and it’s unbelievable. And they’re thinking of blowing up a dam now for fear of it bursting. And so they want to do a controlled breach, too.

SCS: Yes! I was going to ask you what you think of that, Frank.

FM: I think it would be epic, for one thing. While you were gone, Vermont got ravaged by floods as well—even bigger than Hurricane Irene and approximating the flood maybe of 1927. And so what is always the conundrum, I would say, is that on the one hand when we see this intense precipitation and intense flooding, it’s a wakeup call and people realize that they have to start thinking about the human impacts on the climate system. But then I get all these emails asking, “does this mean we need to build more dams?” It’s always this question of what’s the best way to contend with the future. And so now what constitutes climate adaptation in the future is really also up in the air as well.

I did a bunch of interviews for various papers about the flooding and one of the things that came up is people asking if we should build more dams. Most of the best sites for dam building are already taken. And then, in a place like Vermont, building dams means you’re going to be flooding agricultural fields so you’d have to give up farming. There’s no easy solution.

We have these big events going on in Norway. Beijing was under three feet of water. There’s flooding in Europe as well. And so part of me thinks: this is the tipping point. People now have to be alert to think about climate mitigation. Instead the solution oftentimes is “build more dams.”

SCS: Why do people think that more dams should be built when there’s flooding?

FM: Flood control for flood storage. The Corps of Engineers builds primarily flood control dams, but then there are other dams for hydropower and some that are multipurpose.

SCS: I learned from you last time we met just how important it is that we get rid of dams. I’m trying to understand why people are seeing it from a very different perspective.

FM: 2000 dams have been removed in the United States. And most of these are old, low-head, former mill dams that have outlived their purpose. And people make a false assumption that all dams equal flood control. And that’s just not true. In Vermont, a large dam north of Montpelier got inundated with water from precipitation upstream, and there was a fear that the dam was going to fail, and so they were also thinking of spilling a lot of water. But then, it augments all the other water coming down the river system from all the other tributaries. One of the things that the literature shows is that sometimes these dams build a false sense of security, that you are risk free. And in fact, you’re never risk free. In climatology, there’s always a flood bigger than the previous flood, just from a probability standpoint. And so, not all dams are flood control. A lot of dams are for hydropower and when they get filled up, they may not have the ability to store all that water.

Again, these sorts of acute moments force us to think about moving in one way or moving the other way. This is always the conundrum.

Frank Magilligan conducting fieldwork.
Frank Magilligan conducting fieldwork.

SCS: I was reading today about the Beijing flooding and thinking about what’s happening here in Norway. And sometimes I think, oh, this is so relevant to my work. And it also feels like, in this moment, when there are crises happening, it’s hard to say, “Come, stand in the water with me!” [Laughs] No—people are dealing with whether they’re actually going to have a home or not tomorrow.

I guess that’s all to say, sometimes I have to question how important it is to do this kind of cultural work when we’re dealing with life or death situations. But then I think, art is always about life or death situations. It’s always about finding new ways of thinking through and moving through and finding hope in the darkness, or understanding the darkness. What will happen will happen. We can imagine the future in better ways.

I’ve been sitting with the question: what does it mean to be an artist in this moment? How do we—how do I—take it all in and help? I can help people feel things they may not otherwise be able to feel or be able to process.

FM: I’m not an artist, but I understand that question of making it seem palpable. Like with flooding, how do you get other people in other parts of the country to think about it? If affects them as well, you know. I think people can think, “Oh, Vermont got flooded. It’s a one-off.” And then there was huge flooding in Alaska two days ago… And then there’s the flooding in Norway. Eventually, you realize these things are connected. Maybe from a social perspective or an artistic perspective, you can show those connections.

People talk about “the new normal.” A friend of mine who is a climate scientist says he prefers “the new abnormal.” It’s just getting wetter. The system is primed. It’s not just that the storms are going to be more frequent and more intense, but that it’s so much wetter now that the ground is primed to respond to increased precipitation. Those storms were falling on a landscape that was saturated. The system is all connected.

SCS: What is the water trying to tell us?

FM: I leave that to you!

SCS: I love what you’re saying about recognizing that all of these events are connected. Because I think we live in this world where people think, “Oh, well, that happened over there, but not to me.” And then it does happen to you. I think this is the danger of also relegating art to one side and not integrating it into all aspects of society. All conversations about the future should include art, I believe, because that’s how we find our wisdom and strength.

FM: How would you see us collaborating?

SCS: Last time we met, you were telling me about how communities mourn when they have to get rid of dams. They often have a really hard time because they have emotional attachments to the dams as a site, and that often becomes the biggest obstacle in their removal. So, how do we make communities understand the necessity of getting rid of the dams while acknowledging their attachments and histories? And—how do we make sure that some of the materials from the dams are not just thrown away but are reused in interesting ways. So I feel like I see a future project for us where we go into a community that you’re trying to convince to get rid of their dam and we engage them in sharing their stories and trying to find a way to memorialize the dam with the existing materials.

FM: That would be great. I’m actually part of an informal group called the Vermont Dams Task Force. We have a meeting today—I’ll broach the subject and ask if we can imagine an art project around one of these dams. I think that would be an interesting collaboration.

SCS: Yes! Approaching things from an artistic perspective, you can almost always find solutions for connecting and for people to feel okay about what they’re losing.

FM: Most of my work has always been very scientific and part of the reason I applied for the Guggenheim Fellowship was that I wanted to move into nonscientific directions and to pull in some of the social dimensions of this work. Part of my project proposal was to write a book that provides a birds-eye view of someone who has been doing science for 35 years. But then I had to think: Okay, how do I write a book? That’s the overwhelming task in all of this. Some of the chapters have evolved from what I had initially, and so many ideas have pushed me to think about the intersection of river restoration and environmental justice.

One of the places I’ve been working is in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They’re trying to remove some dams—there are no rapids at Grand Rapids anymore because of dams. So this has been sort of a big push. The dam removal has galvanized a lot of the community. But also, Grand Rapids has a history of being a highly segregated city, with lots of redlining. And the river itself was a border between the African-American community on one side of the river and the Polish Catholic community on the other. And so how do you make a river a focal point of the community at large? A lot of the conversations have centered on this question of: are rivers borders or are rivers connectors?

I probably would have never gone down this road had I not been trying to write this book.

Are rivers borders or are rivers connectors?

SCS: In so many different fields, everyone is recognizing water as a connector. Anything cultural has the ability to connect to people in their everyday lives, and across cultures and across fields. The goal of art, or at least the art I do, is engaging in the public conversation about these important things.

FM: I could see how art could help break down this false binary of the river as border versus connector. I did a lot of interviews with people in Grand Rapids and people said they never thought about the river. It’s an old industrial city, and it’s the back of buildings that face the river. And now, we’re trying to get people to think about the river as something to organize around.

SCS: Yeah, absolutely. What you were just saying is directly connected to one of my upcoming projects working with the South River in Atlanta and really trying to learn from the river’s ways. We as humans have built our society in such a way that we don’t pay attention to water systems on a daily basis, and yet our watersheds and our land and what’s happening with our rivers is so critical to our lives.

On this new project, I’m working with another artist/colleague, Rachel Parrish, to bring the South River—a river that’s been historically neglected in Atlanta—into the public consciousness of the city. And so to kick off the project, Rachel and I will be going on a several hundred-mile research journey from Atlanta all the way out to the Atlantic Ocean to really get to know the river and learn from the river.

And you, Frank, have graciously agreed to be an advisor on the project and help us think through some of complexities. We’ll encounter at least one very big dam that we have to figure out how to move across or around. I’m really curious—we haven’t gotten far into the investigation yet, so I’m curious to find out where things stand with this dam and understand what the community connection is to it.

FM: I think what attracts me to this project is that you’re trying to show the community connection to the water, that the river is a connector. There are opportunities for learning moments, for people to understand that what happens in Atlanta has a negative or positive impact downstream. Water is flowing out to the ocean and it’s connecting Atlanta to the rest of Georgia and to the rest of the southeast as well. For most people, this river is a fixed object, just something they drive over. And what you’re going to help show is that what seems like a localized, place-based issue is connected to a much larger landscape.

Sarah Cameron Sunde performing.
Sarah Cameron Sunde performing her work, “36.5: A Durational Performance.”

SCS: Yeah. I think it’s particularly interesting in Georgia, because in so many places, like New York where I live, the watershed usually starts in a rural place and then flows out towards the city. But in Georgia, the South River starts in a really urban place and then flows through a rural landscape. It is like an interesting moment to connect the rural to the urban through water and see how they affect each other.

I should mention that it’s a participatory journey, so everyone’s welcome to join us for part of the journey or all of it if they want to.

My Guggenheim Project, 36.5 | A Durational Performance, was really the project that got me thinking about water and how it affects us all in multiple ways, even in an urban space when we are not paying attention. It was Hurricane Sandy hitting New York in 2012 that made me realize how vulnerable we were as a species and as an urban place. I just kept thinking about that parallel between the struggle for an individual to survive on a daily basis, and the struggle for humanity to survive in the face of sea level rise and climate crisis. So I found my response through this poetic gesture of standing in the water for a full tidal cycle. I did a series of nine works where I stood in nine bodies of water in Maine, Mexico, San Francisco, the Netherlands, Bangladesh, Brazil, Kenya, and Aotearoa-New Zealand, and then came back home to New York. I would walk into the water at low tide, let the water rise up to my chin, and go back down again over the course of 12 to 13 hours. Six of the works were filmed completely in real time and turned into durational video works. The Guggenheim Foundation supported the final two works that need to be completed, and then the continuation of the project as I try to figure out the big exhibition where all six durational video works can be show together. It looks like there will be some form of a book coming out, too.

FM: I might put you on the spot a little bit, but what’s your thought on the future of climate change? What’s the artistic sense of what the future portends?

SCS:  I think we’re in real trouble. And I don’t think we’re dealing with it enough. I do think there are creative solutions to be found. I am hopeful.

Hurricane Sandy was really the biggest change point for me, where I understood that I had to commit my work to these questions. I have really seen that there has been a very palpable shift in public consciousness over the last ten, eleven years. But I think we’re just moving too slowly. The urgency of the situation really needs to be dealt with somehow. It’s really hard in our lives when there is so much consumerism, so much comfort and convenience. We’re all creatures of comfort and I think that we have a hard time taking in the real consequences of our actions as a society. How do we do that thoughtfully? There are moments when I just can’t handle it. I feel like I should be doing more.

FM: But I’m really impressed with you. You went to Davos, to the World Economic Forum Meeting in China. And just the fact that through your work you’re having an effect on people that make decisions—that’s sort of a turning point.

Just for myself from an academic standpoint, a lot of conversations I have with my colleagues who are working on floods and sea level rise and glaciers melting… I think our students are tired of hearing about what’s wrong. They want action. And so how does the scientific community promote action? We’re at the point right now where we’ve documented that climate change happened, that it’s happening, and we’re hitting all these records. So how do we flip the switch and start thinking more about action?

Part of it is alerting people to the severity of the issue. I think about your Guggenheim project—seeing you and other people standing in the water, I think, makes it palpable. And the question is, how do we get that to the policymakers?

If only every climate scientist engaged with an artist in these questions!

SCS: If only every climate scientist engaged with an artist in these questions! Arts and sciences have always gone together, right? And yet a lot of scientists think, “Oh, I do all the research, and then artists can take what I’ve done and interpret it for the public.” But it doesn’t quite work like that. How do we put artists and scientists on an equal playing field and ask them to collaborate on something that could have a really huge impact on the rest of society.

I do think that’s how you do it: you bring these things together. Interdisciplinary thinking and collaboration is really the way to reach as many people as possible.

As an artist, I always want people to take time, see the work, think about it, take it in, have their own space, but then sometimes the question becomes: how do we get everyone to pay attention?

FM: In other words, how do we mobilize them towards action?

SCS: Yes. It’s a tricky thing for me, and I think a lot of other artists, because we don’t like to be used only as a tool to communicate science. That doesn’t feel right. Art and science are both in search of truth, right? And I think scientists tend to say, “This is my hypothesis on what the truth is.” That’s simpleminded, I know. Whereas artists tend to continue asking questions and then leave things open for the audience or the public to interpret it, feel it, and come to their own conclusions. So there’s a difference in approach, but deep research in both fields and lots of questions and trial and error.

FM: I think sometimes scientists have a hard time grasping how their work would influence art or vice versa.

SCS: This is our second time being in conversation. Your work feels really exciting and I can see how it can influence my explorations. I hope that’s true for you, too.

FM: It is!

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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