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The Artists' Residency That Would Not End

On board a container ship that could not dock, artist Rebecca Moss found herself adrift in globalized waters.

Artist Rebecca Moss is in an art residency that will not end.

Participating in Access Gallery's 23 Days at Sea residency, in the last week of August Moss set out to spend three weeks aboard a container ship. On September 1, while in the middle of the Pacific, the crew and passengers aboard the Hanjin Geneva were informed that Hanjin, the South Korea-based shipping company, had gone into bankruptcy. Concerned that ships and cargoes might be seized and the company might not be able to pay docking fees, ports have refused to allow the vessels to dock. Most of the company's 150 container ships are now anchored offshore from various global ports, waiting for the purgatory of international finance to decide their fate. When The Creators Project spoke to Moss via satellite email, her ship, Hanjin Geneva, was anchored off the coast of Japan (you can track the current location of the ship via AIS transponder by clicking here). She was kind enough to answer my questions about what happens when an artist is informed that her residency has now become interminable.

[Ed. note: this interview was conducted while Rebecca Moss was stuck aboard the Hanjin Geneva. On September 17, the ship was allowed to dock, and Moss to disembark, in Tokyo.]

The Creators Project: I suppose I might ask first, how do you approach art residencies?

Rebecca Moss: I think a residency is an opportunity to push work into unknown territories—usually the context is vastly different from where the artist is based, so it is refreshing. There is a big difference between a residency with a show at the end, and one that is more for research and development; in the former there is the pressure of developing a strategy to organize time in order to produce something. It is usually a space—mental and physical—that is sectioned off from the pressures of everyday life. This makes it both highly valuable, and a rare opportunity to have undivided focus, but also often an artificial, contrived situation.

What were you looking for with this art residency, in particular? What were you thinking the day before you set out?

This art residency appealed to me because it connected to so many central themes within my interests—human relationships to the natural world, the potential to evoke heroic, romantic, adventurous figures and demonstrate them to be ridiculous, to understand the systems that enable this endless stream of global capital, and perhaps to connect all of this together. The writing of the director, Kimberly Phillips, is intelligent and eloquent, and I found the prospect of working with her very appealing. On the day I set out, I imagined I would have just over three weeks at sea, so I didn't put pressure on myself from day one to start making things, but just to explore the architecture of the boat and the people.

Satellite image of what could potentially be the Hanjin Geneva at sea, circa September 7, 2016. Image via @vruba on Twitter

The idea of an art residency on board a ship is certainly unique, although there are programs like "23 Days at Sea" in existence. It's an art residency on board a working ship, which is a place few ever go. I imagine it is, in some respects, like doing an art residency inside a factory—not just for the industrial environment, but because it is an industry different than the industry of art, and these industries are forced into a sort of temporary overlap. How did you find this arrangement, as you set out?

On the ship there are clearly demarcated hierarchies, and from day one I was the incongruous one, which I enjoyed. I do not really see myself as an artist who only operates within an art world context, and because of this open nature of my practise, it was not a problem to fit myself somehow into this good-humoured group of people.

How have the crew and other passengers engaged with your work on board the ship (before the news of the company's insolvency was known)?

I am very restricted in terms of who I may video or photograph, as NSB Reiseboro (who provides the crew) and their marketing department, are very anxious about the way people are perceived on social media. I have not wanted to get anybody in trouble, so my work has operated around this obstacle and I have mainly worked independently.

I'm curious if the engagement (or lack thereof) between what you are up to and the others on the ship has changed, and in what ways?

I have felt a compulsion to document absolutely everything since the news broke, as I am aware that I am currently living in highly unusual circumstances, and that it might be extraordinary to watch it back even if it is boring to live through. The crew have also thrown themselves into work with enthusiasm—there is nothing worse than boredom.

Of course, I imagine that this turn of events will alter the eventual work you produce from the residency. But is it changing your day to day process? Other than fielding questions from curious journalists, are you going about the residency process differently now, than you were before? Do you have the sense that you have, potentially, a lot more time to work? Or perhaps less time, if rapidly changing situations mean that you will end up leaving the ship before you planned?

I feel clueless as to when this residency will end, therefore I am unable to build a strategy to make work. This lack of structure means I am in more of a 'document now, make later' frame of mind.

The container ship Hanjin Helsinki, photographed in 2007 by Ana Ulin, via Wikimedia

There is a sense in which everyone and everything on board the ship is caught up in an overwhelming system. Kind of like being stuck in an airplane delayed on the tarmac, but on a different scale. One reason, I feel, that people are interested in art residencies that attempt to put artists in the middle of the supply chain, is because there is a sense that art can maybe do something about this state of affairs. Not necessarily change it, but speak to it, or speak from it. How do you feel about this? Does art give you any particular tools or skills to deal with such a situation? Or are you just another working human caught in the gyre, so to speak?

Making art is often seen as an absurd activity, and it often is, but I would argue the flow of this endless stream of stuff is no less absurd. Coming at it from the philosophical and analytical perspective that my art practise has enabled me to develop, means I am in a position to draw attention to, and to articulate these invisible forces, but also invisible people. I have no worries about job security in the shipping industry, so I can talk uncensored about inequalities, unethical practices and why I think global capitalist ideologies and systems are dangerous.

Rebecca Moss was on the Hanjin Geneva from August 24 to September 17, 2016. Click here to visit Rebecca Moss' website, and here to follow the artist on Instagram. 

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