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Like any seafaring classic, from The Odyssey to Patrick O’Brian’s 20-novel Aubrey-Maturin series, the best-known contemporary artwork involving a boat is both epic and heroic. In 1975, Dutch artist Bas Jan Ader set out to cross the Atlantic alone in a modest 13-foot sailboat. After leaving Cape Cod en route to England, however, Ader was never heard from again—except in art history, where he has become a figurehead for boat-minded artists and an archetype of the artist who risks everything for art.
Alexander Dumbadze, an art historian who has written a monograph on Ader, which will be published next year, sees similarities in Ader’s voyage, titled In Search of the Miraculous, to works by Hamish Fulton and Richard Long, whose epic walks through remote landscapes exemplified postconceptual ’70s art practice—but also the postrevolutionary ’60s impulse to escape society or drop out.
Recent and current art-boat projects reflect a different cultural moment. They tend to be more urban, communal, and engaged with the politics of the water. This might include environmental and ecological concerns, but also ideas about usage, gentrification, and the staging of “encounters” or curated experiences out on the water.
One of the early local boat artists, Bob Braine started exploring the Bronx River in the mid-’90s in a homemade boat and revived a sort of preindustrial trapper’s or Indian’s existence on the water. In some ways, Braine’s solo exploring bridges the gap between Ader and younger artists, who favor collective ventures. (Similar local small-boat explorations have also been done as artworks by English artist Simon Starling and Austrian Hans Schabus.) Last year, Braine’s Harlem River Duck Boat, a kayak he’d taken out on the water and camouflaged with collected trash, appeared in an exhibition called “Free River Zone” on a barge in Hamburg, Germany.
Marie Lorenz, another artist who started working on the water in the ’90s, just finished her eighth year of Tide and Current Taxi, a project in which she studies local tidal charts and takes people out in a handmade rowboat. Carried by natural forces, Lorenz photographs and records the journeys on a weblog (tideandcurrenttaxi.org). She describes New York’s waterways as an overlooked zone, but one that could be approached more proactively, with a kind of “use it or lose it” mentality.
In her work, Lorenz generally avoids shipping lanes and security zones, but Duke Riley, whom one artist fondly calls “a pirate” (Riley’s website says “artist + patriot”), achieved a sort of fame/notoriety for doing the opposite: getting arrested in 2007 for navigating a homemade Revolutionary War–era wooden submarine too close to the Queen Mary 2. Riley, who has just completed a series of nautical-inspired glass windscreens for the subway station at Beach 98th Street in the Rockaways, says that, even before his arrest, cruising around in other boats he was stopped by the harbor police and the Coast Guard, who would ask what he was doing out on the water, until he pointed out that it was legal to be there.
“The idea of waterfront access in New York means creating a nice park where you can push a baby in a stroller, but it doesn’t mean making the water accessible,” Riley argues. “In Brooklyn alone, there are many people from places in the world that have access to the water—but not here, where it’s right in front of their face.”
Access, usage, and a gentrifying neighborhood’s proximity to the water are central concerns for Mare Liberum (“Free Seas”), a Gowanus-based collective named after a 17th-century Dutch treaty that established maritime law and the concept of oceans as free zones, past certain national boundaries. Responding to rampant, “top down” development in the area—some of it laden with weird utopian overtones advertising Gowanus as the “Venice of Brooklyn,” despite the canal’s infamous toxicity—Mare Liberum started in late 2007 to offer boat-building templates through its website, as well as instructional workshops.
Using cast-off construction materials from local building sites—like the plywood for pouring concrete, which can only be used once—it has helped people make kayaks and dories to take out on the water. A member describes its boats as a kind of social sculpture but also cites CUNY professor and Occupy guru David Harvey’s essay “The Right to the City” (2008, New Left Review) as important to its thinking. One of Mare Liberum’s boats, made with recycled paper from the publishing wing of the project, will be on view at the South Street Seaport Museum this fall.
A’yen Tran echoes Mare Liberum’s concerns with urban development and water access. “The water is a place that doesn’t have landlords,” she argues. “If you have a boat, you have a home—and we may have to take to the water when there’s no land left we can afford.” Tran was involved in Occupy Wall Street—but before that, she was a member of Swimming Cities, a boat collective gathered around the artist Swoon. Over the past decade, Swimming Cities created a Mississippi River barge made of trash, a motorcycle-powered paddleboat in New York, a flotilla at the 2009 Venice Biennale, and another flotilla that drifted down the Ganges last year. Tran’s participatory work The Boat for Singing Together (weregonnasing.com) starts on July 28 and involves a raft-like boat anchored in Jamaica Bay, where the liberating sense of being on the water is joined with group singing, a common ingredient in both religious gatherings and political movements.
In a similar utopian vein, Mary Mattingly, who founded The Waterpod, a kind of eco-barge living experiment that floated around New York for two months in 2009, has created Flock Houses this summer: a group of “self-contained migrating ecosystems” made with collected recycled materials. Two of them, fastened to 55-gallon drums, will be launched on the Bronx River and float down to Snug Harbor on Staten Island, where people can visit.
The paradox, because most of these artists cite issues vital to political movements of the past year—specifically shrinking access to shared resources, or “the commons”—is the lack of aquatic engagement among Occupy activists themselves. (The West Coast port occupations and Oakland port shutdown are exceptions.) The point most of these artists stress is that water is what connects us, both locally and globally, but it’s often ignored—or seen as a forbidden zone, available only for commercial or “official” usage. Activists concerned with space and resources might look to artists working with boats for how to creatively occupy this primordial collective realm.