By Patricia C. Phillips


When we go down to the low-tide line, we enter a world that is as old as the earth itself—the primeval meeting place of the elements of earth and water, a place of compromise and conflict and eternal change. For us as living creatures it has special meaning as an area in or near which some entity that could be distinguished as Life first drifted in shallow waters—reproducing, evolving, yielding that endlessly varied stream of living things that has surged through time and space to occupy the earth. 

—Rachel Carson, The Edge of the Sea, 19551  


Rachel Carson identifies three predominant types of seashores: coral reefs, sandy beaches, and rugged rocky shores. For The Edge of the Sea, she focused her observations and experiences on the Atlantic Ocean coastline where examples of these coastal typologies all exist. While the Atlantic was her long, sinewy site, her findings and readings insistently connect to the other oceans and many shores of the world. Her deep observations and searching insights contract in exquisite detail and dilate to summon expansive, often urgent themes of humankind’s intricate connections to the ocean and the perilous fragility of the “blue planet.”2 

Deborah Wing-Sproul’s evolving, moving, and independent project, Tidal Culture, is staged at selected sites of the Atlantic coast. In what Carson characterizes as the “marginal world” between sea and land, high and low tides, Wing-Sproul contemplates and collects both inchoate observations and physical evidence, through a subtly constructed network of ideas, reflections, activities, and making, in an unfolding, perpatetic odyssey.  In 2004, not long after the artist and her family moved to southern Maine, Wing-Sproul began to develop a conceptual map and loose itinerary for Tidal Culture that would begin in Maine and arc north to Newfoundland, Greenland, and Iceland, then toward the Arctic Circle to the Faroe Islands, the Outer Hebrides, and, finally, east to her ancestral homes of Ireland and northern Europe. While there is the notion of return and a desire to witness the conditions and cultures that influenced her identity, the work cannot be characterized so narrowly and specifically. In fact, this final destination is only part of her path and, only incidentally, its conclusion.  

The work emerges from prolonged observations of natural conditions, changing environments and ecologies, as well as the expected and unprompted incidents that travel releases.  The work—what it is and what it may become—is formed through anticipated experiences and encounters, as well as those moments of accidental and serendipitous discovery. Seeking serene and tempestuous, often austere yet strikingly animated characteristics in the sites she visits, Tidal Culture is unambiguously focused, yet flexibly open. Like the sea and shoreline, it is formed and formless, enduring and ephemeral.  


In late autumn of 2002, a year after the haunting devastation of September 11, 2001, Marina Abramovic performed The House with the Ocean View at the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York. For twelve days, the artist lived in the gallery on a series of three linked spaces suspended more than six feet above the gallery floor. Ladders with knife blades as rungs were vivid disincentives of access or egress. For almost two weeks, Abramovic lived, slept, bathed, walked, stood, and sat. She did not eat, speak, read, or write. Visitors watched, generally in silence, from the floor or sought more probing views with a telescope stationed at the back of the gallery. In an adjacent gallery, there was a continuously running video of the artist’s face at the edge of the ocean with sounds of lapping waves. 

Peggy Phelan writes: “On the cover of Artist Body you are on a beach, holding a beach ball, looking seductive. But my eye is drawn to the sea beyond you. The place where humans tie themselves to the sea’s beautiful promise is called The Marina….In New York, you called your piece The House with the Ocean View. We met there on the island and we each watched the other.”3 

At a moment when nothing would ever be the same, relentlessly exposed to the searching gaze of an audience, Abramovic engaged in a prolonged performance seeking to change the condition of energy in the space and, arguably, in the world outside. “On the last day of the performance, Abramovic came down from the stage and told the gathered crowd that she wanted to come to New York to give the busy island time. Time to heal, time to think, time to love, and time to live, despite death, with death.”4 


Wing-Sproul grew up in an old house in the snowbelt region of central New York. She recalls being cold and generally content to be alone. She spent time as a child hiking and camping, sailing and paddling, fishing and smelting with her father.  She learned to be resourceful in the woods and to read navigational maps. She went on to study dance, performance, film, and video. I first met her when she was an MFA student in Printmaking where she passionately experimented and inventively expanded, if never fully departing from, the medium. Art historian and critic Rosalind Krauss cites this way of working as a “differential specificity” characterized by artists who avoid the seductions of intermedia work, as well as the familiar retreat of traditional medium-based practices.5  In Tidal Culture, viewers encounter qualities of different disciplinary traditions that she both preserves and modulates. The itinerant, transforming project is never a single thing, but a sensitive, humming orchestration of performance, video, photographs, and sculpture. 

If not as vividly searing as the calamitous events of 9/11, the ocean is the site of a ceaseless struggle of life and death, viability and imminent catastrophe. Without simplifying a kinship between Abramovic’s The House with the Ocean View and Wing-Sproul’s Tidal Culture, they share and invoke the tissue of silence, the tangibility of time, and vulnerability and exposure as the challenging resources of reflective rejuvenation. In her durational performance, Abramovic often faced her audience from her elevated “house”, sometimes engaging in prolonged periods of eye contact. Wing-Sproul addresses a prospective audience indirectly and belatedly. In each of the unfolding chapters of Tidal Culture (Maine, Newfoundland, Greenland, and Iceland), she sits for one hour without shelter, with her back to the land—and viewers—facing the ocean. A video documents, without interruption, this silent soliloquy. Viewers watch the artist’s performance, as well as the intimate and extended view she beholds, in unembellished “real time”.  The ocean’s rolling waves at the shore and its expansive horizon place viewers with the artist in a common, if deferred, experience of passage. Companion photographs of Wing-Sproul’s seated performances render singular moments that, paradoxically, distend time and imagination. The artist’s body, her steady gaze, the site, and the moment congeal to represent how a performative gesture connects to an expansive and unstable conceptual, experiential, biological, and environmental web of endless interactions, exchanges, mysteries, and material and temporal transgressions. 

Wing-Sproul engages in another kind of thinking and knowing through harvested collections of algae, unique to each coastal area, that she makes into fragile, resourcefully improvisational objects. Spoons, cups, bowls, bags, vests, and blankets created from algae, if functionally tenuous, bear witness to the discovery that occurs through a painstaking, highly vulnerable process of living and making. These artifacts, fashioned from plant materials washed ashore, and now dead and brittle, are distinctive evidence from an ocean site that signify a more connective, comprehensive sense of dynamic ocean cultures.  

Algae and seaweed frequently are the “canaries in the mine” of ocean ecology. Algae blooms often signal distress from effluents and pollutants. Large expanses of seaweed communities can indicate a diminishing diversity as the spread of monocultures overwhelm other species. The algae which Wing-Sproul collects has washed up on the beach, possibly having traveled enormous distances with currents, tides, and storms. Found in a place at a moment, algae is an errant, fortuitous, and tactile sign of the shared fluid potential of world oceans that may be provisionally claimed (defensively or opportunistically by nations and countries), but conditionally disregard boundaries, borders, and nationalities. 


In the mid-20th century, a loose confederation of artists and theorists sought ways to transgress the calcification and regulatory conditions of modern cities. The Situationists developed tactical interventions to soften hardening joints and discover the panoramic psychogeographical effects of urban environments. Derive—drift and drifting—were forms of constructive behaviors that shed the usual motives and habits of movement for open-ended transit that followed other contours and less expected dimensions of cities. Never based solely on chance, smart, stealth-like actions released calculated possibilities. Derive, or drift, often traced to geographies and ecologies that transcended or transgressed urban culture. As the Situationists demonstrated, if drift did not have an explicit goal, it was never purposeless. Their serious work and strategic play exposed the differential ambiences of site and space. 


With an elegant and spare precision, a particular genealogy of drift is both the modality and the content of Tidal Culture. Wing-Sproul pursues a sequence of sites on the Atlantic coastline to witness a striking range of ecological and experiential effects. The sites are identified, the hour-long vigils are consistent in form and character, and the pursuit of a peripatetic, provisional cottage industry of seaweed-based, “useful” artifacts are the dependable lineaments of this work. The variables of travel and pilgrimage, however, give Tidal Culture both its gravitas, as well as its remarkable generativity. Everything from the observation and accumulation of algae, seaweed, and kelp, to the vast formlessness of the ocean, with a governability and predictability of its currents and tides, produce a poetic schema of the fluid conditions of contemporary cultures. Tidal Culture is a liminal state or an enactment of an unstable “liquid modernity”.6      

Wing-Sproul sits alert and silent, watching and waiting by the ocean. Both productively contemplative and fruitlessly industrious, she produces another narrative of how the body, mind, and activity of the artist defines and bestows a gift of time to drift and think. We sit and watch and travel with her in search of some meaning—at least for now—in the conditional and accidental.  

“Our lives, whether we know it or not and whether we relish the fact or bewail it, are works of art. To live our lives as the art of living demands, we must—just as artists must—set ourselves challenges that are difficult to confront up close, targets that are well beyond our reach…Uncertainty is the natural habitat of human life—
although it is the hope of escaping uncertainty that is the engine of human pursuits.”7        


Patricia C. Phillips is an independent writer on art, design, landscape, and contemporary culture.  Formerly at Cornell University, she recently moved to the Rhode Island School of Design where she is Dean of Graduate Studies.



1 Rachel Carson. The Edge of the Sea. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1955. pp. vii. 

2 Andrew Byatt, Alastair Fothergill, and Martha Holmes. The Blue Planet: A Natural History of the Oceans. New York: DK Publishing, Inc. 2001. Note: Oceans constitute 70% of the earth’s surface. 

3 Marina Abramovic. The House with the Ocean View. Milan: Charta, 2003. 

4 Peggy Phelan, “On Seeing the Invisible: Marina Abramovic’s The House with the Ocean View” p. 173. 

5 Phelan, p. 179. 

6 Rosalind Krauss. A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition. London, Thames & Hudson, 1999. p. 56. 

7 Zygmunt Bauman. Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers? Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008. Bauman, p. 17-18.

© 2009, Patricia C. Phillips