Riitta Ikonen has taken on winter swimming as artistic practice on Rockaway Beach in New York, inviting others to join her at a shore near them at the same time every week – 2pm, Sunday’s, local time.
With the project continuing till May, she invites OSS swimmers everywhere to join her. ‘The weekly workshops are an opportunity to collaborate with gravitational flows of this planet and to build courage through cold water immersion,’ says Ikonen. ‘So far people have participated in this global project in Belgium, Canada, Finland, France, Mexico, Norway, Senegal, Scotland, Sweden, Tasmania and the US.”
Until three years ago winter swimming was something unthinkable without a sauna. On one prosecco-filled night in Trondheim, Norway I made a pact to swim with my friend’s father every Friday: He would swim in Trondheim and I would swim in Rockaway Beach, New York. We would meet on the edges of the Atlantic. In 2020 this pact became a series of global workshops where this simple exercise of winter swimming, along with the natural adrenalin high and good company, hopes to bring about a profound transformation. A sea change. Participants can be emboldened to be a part of nature and more attuned to the movements that propel us all through life.
week by week we are building our knowledge of our neighbour, the sea. It is like visiting a super exciting new friend who always has something interesting to say
My job for the past 13 years has been to journey around the world investigating human’s relationship to nature. When COVID arrived, I found a new kind of journeying within the city limits. When the Swedish participatory art platform ‘Flock’ approached me for a workshop, the idea of harnessing my winter practice of swimming as a collaborative ritual felt nicely challenging. I invite individuals worldwide to swim at the shores of the same water. Such mental and physical training is conceived as a way to connect with one another, beach creatures and the weather. Even though our artwork of jumping in the ocean is a little on the loud side on Sundays, I think week by week we are building our knowledge of our neighbour, the sea. It is like visiting a super exciting new friend who always has something interesting to say. Our collaborators on the Eyes as Big as Plates series often say: the most exciting part is just being there, looking at a familiar landscape like you’ve never seen it before. Letting the surroundings wash over you.
There is something about winter swimming that reminded me of a conversation I had during a residency at the Triangle Arts Association, about the act of making art that puts us in our place. Once you get in the waves and take a few breaths, it is crystal clear that the ‘place’ you have arrived at is more about unity in movement. I don’t think this is about being cold. For me, it’s about being present and sticking to a rhythm. It takes effort to listen and to just be. Setting up a pattern with something permeable, and then jumping into that current at fixed intervals is like checking your pulse.
My sister and I begged for our parents to dip us in the ice hole (a Finnish tradition) over and over again when we were kids. I enjoy a good challenge, especially if it is not competitive, and you can’t compete with the sea so it’s a perfect match. Is a collaboration the opposite of competition? I lean heavily into serendipity in my practice, trusting everything will turn out ok. We can all collaborate, whether it is with the post office or your neighbours or the waves. Knowing you’re part of a larger mass in motion is soothing, comforting, invigorating and will make you stronger.
I don’t celebrate birthdays, but I can easily get behind celebrating every swim day, understanding the passing of time, punctuating the slur of this pause with an exercise of being in the moment.
Living in a flood zone makes you respect the elements. If I was a smaller creature, I could easily swim in the flooded streets even after a regular rain event. Our weekly swims are not a raindance, but they are a nod acknowledging ‘sea the collaborator’, possibly our most important neighbour. Residents of this peninsula are well familiar with the summer language of these shores and I am excited to see us all learning to speak winter together. I don’t celebrate birthdays, but I can easily get behind celebrating every swim day, understanding the passing of time, punctuating the slur of this pause with an exercise of being in the moment.
My wife used to say ‘you know, you don’t have to do this’ as I headed to the beach on Fridays. Now she swims with me. Not too many people swam with me until this project started last November. New York has many rules and one of them forbids swimming without lifeguards. I keep thinking that surely there is nothing as simple as ‘no’? Wiggling around the ‘no’, is like navigating around the idea of ‘cold’ and what that should mean to you. Seagulls can hang out on the beach in February, why shouldn’t my neighbours and I?
There is now even a gentleman who ceremoniously blows into a seashell to send us into the waves.
These days I have company in the water. The local papers have run stories on the project and we have swimmers come over by bike and boat from Manhattan and Brooklyn. There is now even a gentleman who ceremoniously blows into a seashell to send us into the waves. I am in awe with the community that has embraced the opportunity to come together in a socially distanced way. Sunday swimmers have joined the project for many reasons: They want to try something new, see friends, wear their performance costumes in lieu of stage, mellow out menopause symptoms, sleep better, share amazing pots of hot dahl soup, enjoy making a fire on the beach and sit around with new and old friends way past bedtime and gather for a soulful purpose after a year of social isolation.
I am so proud and grateful for my neighbours for having built the project into something way more multifaceted and meaningful than I ever anticipated.
Join artist Riitta Ikonen as she takes on winter swimming as artistic practice.
The weekly workshops are an opportunity to collaborate with gravitational flows of this planet and to build courage through cold water immersion. So far people have participated in this global project in Belgium, Canada, Finland, France, Mexico, Norway, Senegal, Scotland, Sweden, Tasmania and the US.