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Issue 134

Mare Liberum Interviewed by Katherine McLeod
by Katherine McLeod

Mare Liberum is a collective of visual artists, designers and writers who formed around a shared engagement with New York’s waterways in 2007. As part of a mobile, interdisciplinary and pedagogical practice, the collective has designed and built boats; published broadsides, essays and books; invented water-related art and educational forums; and collaborated with diverse institutions to produce public talks, collaborative exhibitions, participatory works and voyages. Mare Liberum (ML) is made up of Jean Barberis, Dylan Gauthier, Ben Cohen, Stephan von Muehlen, Sunita Prasad and Kendra Sullivan.

ML’s work bridges dialogues in art, activism and science by remapping landscapes, reclaiming local ecologies and observing and recording the overlaps of nature, industry and the polis. The collective’s projects connect divergent constituencies with shared environmental concerns, create waterfront narratives ranging from the industrial to the personal and catalyze the creation of engaged publics. Employing the methodologies of civic hacking, participation, open source, social sculpture and temporary occupations, the collective extrapolates Henri Lefebvre’s and David Harvey’s “right to the city” to include its neglected waterways.



KATHERINE MCLEOD: On the eve of the last election in the United States, I received an email from Kendra, an invitation to watch the election results together at the Sunview Luncheonette, a collective space in Brooklyn. In it, she wrote of water, islands and boats in a way that expressed an urgency, a feeling, a way of living with water as a physical place and as metaphor, as a response to destructive politics, economies and behaviours, and a way of coming together. These words stuck with me.

Here is an excerpt of that email:

Come if you have nowhere to go which is our motto. That and stay forever, we like you that much. Another motto is we don’t care who you are we will hold you while you weep but only if you want it. And when at last the “gift of tears” transforms the landscape beyond recognition, we can lower the boats from the ceiling and set out for another island only there is no other island. Last motto! Let us transform what there is into what we need.” I want to talk with you about poetry, history, time and activism; and the above passage brings this together for me. Mare Liberum feels like a response to social and environmental needs. Would you agree?

KENDRA SULLIVAN: The Sunview is a micro-venue in a stopped-in-time diner we started with friends in 2012, and like Mare Liberum, it emerged partially in response to gentrification, displacement and unnatural disaster (precipitated by Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, respectively). It might be worth noting that some of our boats are actually hanging from the ceiling in the Sunview, which gives you a picture of how our lives and projects are layered up due to lack of space – temporal, physical, mental, you name it!

For me, Mare Liberum is about being with people and being with water. We seed relationships with and between people and the specific bodies of water that shape their lives. If this sounds simple, trust that things get complicated very quickly. In part, this is because “relationship” immediately inspires – read: demands – response to and responsibility for collective needs, both social and environmental. But who determines collective needs? And where does the collective body begin and end when working in broadly contingent and interlocking ecosystems?

DYLAN GAUTHIER: We started the collective to activate a vast but largely inaccessible public space in New York City – its waterways. At the outset, the collective included myself, Stephan von Muehlen and Ben Cohen, who were both trained as industrial designers. We built boats out of plywood construction fences that had been set up to enclose lots on the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn as part of an area-wide redevelopment and rezoning plan. This was a couple of years before the entire neighbourhood was designated a Superfund site, and our focus was on getting people in the community to look more closely at the canal.

KS: Our art/activist practice can only exist because of the history of what is problematically termed First and Third World environmental movements, as well as art historical movements ranging from land and offshore art to social sculpture, street theatre and happenings. These movements teach us the power of interruption, pageantry, encampment and blockades. But more, these movements teach us that human impact on the environment is differentially weighted depending upon a number of factors, including social and subject position and national identity. For instance, the destruction wrought by the elite few benefitting most from global resource extraction, settler colonialism and racial capitalism far outweighs the impact of historically colonized people, people of colour, women and the poor on the environment; but the latter populations are disproportionately affected by everything from deforestation to fossil infrastructure to ocean acidification.

DG: In the beginning, we were responding to the absurdity of the planned condo development. How could developers propose the building of million-dollar condos on the banks of what is effectively a two-mile-long open sewer? We thought that building boats out of the detritus of these active construction sites, and taking these boats out for tours and recreation on the canal was a way to make the absurdity legible. That said, once the EPA Superfunding was in place and the pace of the condo construction slowed – at least momentarily – we turned our attention to the conditions within society that had allowed for such a contradiction to exist in the first place, and to the water itself.

KS: Now we are facing historic rollbacks in EPA regulations, and we’ll be responding to new urgencies with new strategies as they arise.

KM: The collective’s name brings us back to the 1600s, as a reference to Hugo Grotius’ treatise of the same name on the legality of international waters. Mare Liberum’s publications bring together fictional narratives, boat-building instructions and historic context. How do you use history in your practice?

DG: We’re often looking at intersections between overlooked or forgotten regional histories (such as water-squatter culture and maritime trades) and material histories (such as tracing the genesis of a regional, improvised boat design from the 1600s). The name Mare Liberum, or “the free seas,” was important to us as we turned toward open waterways to escape the increasingly foreclosed-upon cityscape, circa late 2000s. We were thinking about the water as a shared space that connects rather than separates people and land, and Grotius’ treatise proposed we should all be free to travel and trade with one another without restriction. But it is also – unfortunately – the foundation of free market global capitalism.

KS: The materials in our practice have both a concrete identity and a sort of metaphorical use-value. Like water, history is [an] unstable substrate from which fluid truths emerge and sink. We skim along its surface. Trying not to reproduce it… the landscapes we study are all contested sites, and historical theft, trauma and inequity are ever-present.

KM: In one of your projects you proclaim, “The waters of this world cannot be contained, we all live downstream.” Why are poetry and imagination important in figuring out how to live and build towards more egalitarian ways of being?

DG: This quote is from a month-long advocacy voyage down the Hudson River from Troy to New York City on a fleet of 16 paper canoes. Called Sea Change: We all live Downstream, the journey was organized by ML in collaboration with 350.org and ended with a circumnavigation of the city in the lead-up to the Climate March in 2014. We organized talks and workshops all along its banks, and these enabled us to think about the connections between communities along the Hudson River Valley and the extractive industries that are poised to ruin the place. Resistance is very strong and storied in that region, but new fossil infrastructure is being proposed and potentially built. Water is a linked system, so each pipeline threatens not just the local supply, but the entire watershed.

KS: A voyage is also an act of publication, circulating ideas about how we shape and are shaped by terraqueous landscapes through reflexive thought and collective action. Michael Warner writes that, “a public is a poetic world making.” In order to convince others to follow a new path, you have to imagine – and, more importantly, help others imagine – a meaningful lifeworld that will provide for and inspire people who join you in it. Our public voyages are – in their ideal form – an act of “poetic world making.”

More directly, and because I am a poet, the poetics of Kamau Brathwaite, M. NourbeSe Philip and Caroline Bergvall, are important to my way of thinking about water and its subtle – and not so subtle – impacts on the formation of worldviews and lifeworlds; flows of travel, trade, the commodification of human life, exile and settlement. But the poetry of the voyage is also pre-modern. In Drift, Bergvall connects the contemporary reader to an Anglo-Saxon poet’s “seabound” sensibility that leaves him “lost at sea,” or lost in the sea’s opacity. She writes, “They call it hafville, sea wilderness, sea wildering.” In Chaucer’s first poem, a dream vision about the brevity of life and the finality of death, he falls asleep reading Ovid’s account of the metamorphoses of Ceyx and Alcyone into birds after Alcyone is lost at sea during a storm. In Medieval literature, women especially wake up from a sleep induced by magic or malice to find themselves adrift on a rudderless boat, transported by a self-propelled vessel toward their destiny – be that exile, pilgrimage or adventure.

DG: Rachel Carson and others write that you’re only seeing the surface of the water, only seeing to a certain depth or distance, even when you’re in it.

KS: That reminds me of Robert Ashley in Atalanta (Acts of God), that talks about how bodies of water simultaneously cover over and communicate present and historical social, economic and political realities.

This ability to conceal and reveal is related to the structure of the river. It is understood as both a surface and a depth in a way that land is not – except to those working in or affected firsthand by the extractive industries, for instance. But when we titrate between a surface and a depth, we are forced to take account of the impact of both the things we can see and the things we can’t see. Questions about water are always about this titration. For instance, in the popular imaginary, climate change is abundantly depicted as melting ice and rising oceans covering over coastal towns, but it is more difficult to talk about shrinking water tables that negatively impact peasant farming, forcing families of intergenerational farmers into urban centres where they might live alongside a toxic canal.

Ashley writes, “When the people of the area speak about the river their attention is always inevitably focused on the mystery of the place in the river where something strange happened – where there is evidence of a more mysterious kind of work, a complex structure hidden and closed now, closed perhaps forever or perhaps waiting only in a large plan of time.”

KM: Whenever I end up on a boat, one of the most striking things to me is leaving or returning to the dock, seeing the city from a different point of view. How important is this perspective change to your work?

DG: It is precisely how Mare Liberum’s practice, as a collective, became environmental – which is to say concerned with the built and not-built environment. On the water, it’s hard to gauge the space between you and where you’re trying to go. While you can make out your destination at a distance, you can’t always figure out how long it will take you to get there. There are many competing forces at work – winds, tides, currents, your own strength. Riding on the surface of the water, a small wave can feel enormous. You are constantly at risk of feeling swept under, even if you’re not actually at risk. Likewise, in human-powered boats, where you’re riding at the water line, you have a perspectival shift in seeing the land and the city towering above you. And the city looks incredibly strange from that vantage point.

KM: The collective has done a lot of work in and around large cities. Can you talk about the time the collective has spent in more rural areas?

KS: We focus on public waters in mostly urban areas, because those waters often represent the largest unscripted public spaces in cities. Cultural geographer Don Mitchell states that there is no political revolt without public space. In the increasingly privatized arena of global cities, such an expanse of public space is vital to political dissent and environmental activism. This is echoing the work of many – Setha Low, Neil Smith and David Harvey, Henri Lefebvre.

DG: We made a project in Boston in 2013 when we travelled down the Charles River from its headwaters in rural/suburban Massachusetts into Boston, looking for any kind of demarcation where a “rural” river became “urban.” It turned out it happened all at once, at a dam in Natick. But it’s really an illusion – it’s just that Natick was the first sizeable town that you hit when you’re coming down the river. Otherwise you’re running behind people’s backyards and nature preserves and you have this false sense of “nature” and “rural.” I was also looking into ways that wilderness might be depicted and/or potentially preserved using online mapping tools, or virtual presence tools such as Google Maps. We exhibited a video that was made from screen recordings of every place where Google Street View encountered the edge of a wilderness preserve in the area around the Charles River. Generally, these were either street ends or bridges, and for us the “wilderness” started wherever the pixel count started to break down – when you were zooming in beyond the data that had been recorded for any of these sites.

KM: What do you think gives the ocean the ability to be seen as free, from Grotius’ treatise to the existence of international waters today? What kind of free are you talking about?

KS: The concept of a “free seas” is problematic. In our early practice, we conceived of the water as a liberatory commons and the boat as a platform for social change. And it many ways, it has acted as such in our lives and the lives of those of have invested their time and energy in our work and travels. An activist project like Women on Waves, who take advantage of the fact that Dutch ships are governed by Dutch laws to practice safe and legal abortion just off-shore from nation-states where women’s reproductive rights have been curtailed, powerfully exemplifies the way in which plurinational seas might provide certain freedoms not afforded to those on uninational land. There is also a historical legacy of off-shore artists and counter-cultural icons – including Chris Burden, Bas Jan Ader and Poppa Neutrino – whose work reminds us that adventure, escapism and rejection of societal norms and nationalistic identity are also at play on the water. Ongoing work by Marie Lorenz, Mary Mattingly and Swoon offers glimpses of a more egalitarian society founded on co-operativism and feminism. Their work is also important because it implicitly critiques the trope of discovery, as well as the patriarchal, expansionist undertones present in so much land and offshore art.

DG: Starting the project from a design direction, we were asking, “What is the minimal effort required to build a viable boat?” We found ourselves looking at watercraft that was built out of necessity, using poor materials but often with a huge amount of vernacular knowledge that may have been passed down from generation to generation. Another practice that inspired our work –and I know this is true for Swoon and someone like Constance Hockaday, who also makes water voyages and work about the water – was the crew and family around Poppa Neutrino, who built a raft from trash they collected in New York City and successfully sailed (or drifted, really) across the Atlantic to Europe. They did this as a protest against paying rent, basically, so there was this liberatory sense that Kendra mentions.

KS: But as a counter to all of that, you see the flows of forced migration and exile on the ocean – people in open boats crossing the sea in dangerous conditions to escape even more dangerous conditions caused by war, famine and the deleterious effects of climate change at home. The boat is also an implement of colonial invasion, genocide and the slave trade. How can we talk about the boat and not talk about what Christina Sharpe has termed “the wake,” in her recent work In the Wake: On Blackness and Being? In response to the ongoing and continually-unfolding-in-the-present trauma of chattel slavery and the Middle Passage, Sharpe discusses modes of “wake work,” by which care and recuperation might breathe life back into enslaved peoples who died in the holds while also providing radical care for the living. Her work has changed how we understand the metaphor of the boat as operating in different publics.

KM: What is Mare Liberum working on now?

DG: This year the collective turns 10. We were invited to participate in the exhibition Traversées, curated by Géraldine Gomez who curated Hors Pistes in the Centre Pompidou in Paris this past February. This spring and fall, we’re co-organizing, with the Cape Cod Modern House Trust, an artist-scientist residency collaboration with NPS visiting scientists in Cape Cod National Seashore, and we’re participating in a triennial of water-based art called Works on Water, which opens in June here in New York, curated by Nancy Nowacek, Eve Mosher and Sarah Cameron Sunde. Each of the collective’s members [also] has their own individual art practices, but Kendra’s and my practice crosses over a lot with the collective and with each other.

KM: How does teaching work with the collaborative methods of Mare Liberum, and why is this important to what you do?

KS: Building a boat lends the builder a sense of personal agency and efficacy that cannot be duplicated. Unless perhaps you build an airplane. We have never built one of those. Dylan did just turn his attention to kites, though.

DG: I guess if we did, it might look something like Chris Burden’s The Flying Kayak (1983)… We talked about this a bit earlier but the workshops are as much a performance, as a platform for collaboration, as a way to get from Point A (no boats) to Point B (the voyage).

KS: Somewhere, Hannah Arendt talks about the “public” in a functioning democracy being something like the kitchen table. We gather people around the idea of boat – not yet built – with paper, epoxy and power tools. They distract our hands in ways that make it easier for intimacy to develop between strangers who will very soon come to need and rely on each other. More broadly, the boat is the object that allows us to bring together citizens, non-citizens, scientists, activists and craftspeople to think about how to build something much bigger than a boat together– a more equitable and sustainable society.

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