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Deep Dive: Artist Hope Ginsburg becomes one with the sea 

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Scott Elmquist

Hope Ginsburg's a-ha moment came while scuba diving in 25 feet of water near Puerto Rico. Admiring sea fans and sea whips swaying on the ocean floor, she realized that their movements echoed her inhalations and exhalations through the scuba regulator.

"I felt like I was breathing with the entire sea floor," she recalls of making the initial connection between meditation and diving in 2013.

When she was awarded a Rauschenberg residency a few years later, the Richmond artist knew it was that connection she wanted to explore. The resulting video, "Land Dive Team: Bay of Fundy" is on display at the Institute for Contemporary Art as part of its initial exhibition, "Declaration."

Obtaining her scuba diving certification in 2011 came from the most natural place for Ginsburg: her love of sea sponges.

From 2010-2016, she'd worked, taught and collaborated at Sponge HQ, an interdisciplinary workshop, classroom and project space tucked away on the top floor of Virginia Commonwealth University's Anderson Gallery.

"It was this muse that has no central nervous system that made me want to learn to dive and see living sponges, rather than dead ones," she says, "which is all you see on land."

During the course of the residency, she gathered three people, dubbed them the Land Dive Team, and taught them to use scuba gear so that they might participate in meditation sessions on land with her.

She soon discovered the benefits of meditating in scuba gear because its warm, constrained and uncomfortable nature distracts from thinking, forcing a focus on breathing.

During the Land Dive Team's first deployment at the Rice Rivers Center wetlands, Ginsburg discovered that the James River has a slight tidal rise and fall. It was enough for her to be inspired to find a more impressive tide for the team to experience as part of its meditation.

Once she learned that Canada's Bay of Fundy boasts the biggest tide shifts in the world — 53 feet per day, or about the height of a three-story building — she knew she'd found her next destination.

On a shoestring budget, the team drove for two days, arriving just before dawn. By the time they suited up, the water was rising dramatically and the sliver of beach was rapidly disappearing. To accommodate the encroaching water, the four divers sat side by side to meditate, maximizing the last of the shoreline before water reclaimed it.

For an hour and a half while the tide rose, the four of them stared ahead, concentrating on nothing more than their breathing and trying to maintain a fixed focal point while the water rose to and eventually past their eyes.

"Meditation becomes more difficult because of the incoming tide," Ginsburg says. "Trying to keep a fixed focal point when the tide was coming up over our eyes was really fascinating, like watching two movies at the same time."

The four meditated through 20 minutes where the water was higher than their eyes. On the other hand, the resulting video lasts a little more than seven minutes.

Musician Josh Quarles, Ginsburg's partner, scored the video, incorporating field recordings and the sounds of the team breathing, seeking to make music that would reflect the somber beauty of the Bay of Fundy and add to the feeling of tension in the piece as the water rises over the divers' heads.

The most challenging part of composing was finding the balance between no music with natural sound and effects and having too much music that could be distracting, Quarles says.

"I also recorded the live sound of the piece, and it was quite challenging to capture the scuba breathing sounds in the midst of a fair amount of wind and waves," he says.

The low rumbling that comes in toward the end of the video is actually the sound of wind blowing across the hydrophone cable, which he lowered in pitch to create subfrequencies.

Ginsburg's intent with "Bay of Fundy" is to raise environmental issues and ultimately ask questions of the viewer about the dangers of climate change.

"The divers are surrogates for all of us," she says. "If the viewers can put themselves in their place and try to reconcile change on an epic scale, then it's doing to what I would want it to do." S

"Land Dive Team: Bay of Fundy" runs through Sept. 9 at Virginia Commonwealth University's Institute for Contemporary Art., 601 W. Broad St., icavcu.org.

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