action with concrete ship & compass
an unrealized project
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Framed by the act of witnessing in darkness, True North investigates the problem of magnetic north versus geographical north: the fact that, at this very moment, magnetic north is erratically wandering from Arctic Canada towards Siberia at human speeds, on average 7 meters per hour and at most 80 km per day, while geographical north is fixed at the center of a cradle of geometric lines, the gridded legacy of human empire and knowledge. Magnetic observatories use the terms ‘magnetically quiet’ and ‘magnetically disturbed’ to describe magnetic north’s behavior, much as if it were a person subject to mental instability. Ironically, magnetic north, the very point of supposed stability we count on to tell us where we are, leads us astray from geographical north. That invisible force that guides migrating birds and compasses, even it is compelled to wander off. In such a world, which north is more real? Which north is true?
The ship Good Enough is particular in that it is made of concrete molded over an iron structure and thus has a history of confused compasses due to its magnetized hull. And so, this vessel embodies the dilemma of True North. In the action, the ship with the artist and audience will be sailed out to open sea in Denmark (Øresund), and the ship will be allowed to follow its ‘inner north’ (i.e. whatever direction its compass believes to be north). This journey will take place within the frame of a midsummer night: Once darkness sets in, Good Enough will be set free, the captains guided only by its inner north, the audience blindfolded by the air and left to witness the action in the space of introversion carved out by the night. As twilight returns, the captains will begin to take the boat back to its resting spot at Copenhagen’s opera house.
The darkness provides both a time frame and a device for the internalization of visuality by the viewer. Eyes turned inward, viewers can engage their own inner norths within the void: This work is not concerned with secondary document, but primary embodied experience. How do we engage with movement without the references of landscape, and how does this question extend to notions of the self with societal landmarks removed? In such a situation, are we lost or found?
The concept for True North was developed over the course of summer 2013, while I was in Denmark on a DIVA residency funded by the Danish Arts Council and hosted by TOVES (then Toves Galleri), researching and collaborating with Funen Art Academy (research workshop), the Karen Blixen Museum (performative-reading), and Statens Værksteder for Kunst (studio residency).
GOOD ENOUGH, A CONCRETE SHIP
Once it is sailed out to sea, the ship is set adrift, unanchored from satellite signals, released from the big invisible hand of GPS. Although in the water, the ship is now earthbound with no ethereal signals beaming down from the heavens. It is wholly dependent on the material relations of metal and magnetism; its iron fittings dictate its direction while its concrete meat counter-intuitively gives it buoyancy. A substance more familiar as static architecture and infrastructure, this concrete in the form of a boat is now sovereign stone material, deterritorialized, defying asphaltation and legacy.
From country to country, structure to structure, the narrative of concrete – while the material itself either stays or decays – shifts between significations of modernity, Modernism, empire, poverty, wealth, decadence, erosion, accessibility, mobility, industry. Especially loaded is the association of iron and concrete with physical walls of the state, such as the Berlin Wall, or those that are more figurative, like the Iron Curtain.
Architectural historians use the term ‘iconographical drift’ to describe the endless reinterpretation of design that constantly shifts depending on where it’s used, who’s using it, and what purpose they’re using it for. I would propose the term iconomaterial drift to describe concrete’s transnational fluidity as signifier. This iconomaterial drift is manifested literally in Good Enough. The mobility granted to iron and concrete by the form of this boat places it in a narrative space parallel to that of other land-locked structures of the same materials, and even that of landforms themselves: forms simply defined, as is concrete, by boundaries of sand, water, and air. The boat becomes one more of an existing tribe of temporal geographies, such as the coastlines of newborn islands, fleeting puddles (micro-seas), wandering sand dunes, and nomadic deserts traveling on the wind from the Sahara to the Arctic (macro-desertification). And of course, the flux of these landscapes/forms acts as a mirror to our own human potential for vulnerability, transformation, disappearance, or liberation. Considered as a geo-ontological object, Good Enough operates within many macro and micro narratives.
In one letter from my series Letters to a Building Marked for Demolition (2009), I wrote about a night I spent sleeping at the bottom of a Russian ferry boat (although it more resembled a Soviet-era war ship) while traveling between Sakhalin Island and mainland Eastern Russia. Like Russian nesting dolls, my emptied mind was encased within the pitch-black cabin, which was scooped up by the void of the sea. These superimposed walls and voids, both psychological and physical, felt simultaneously protective, incarcerating, and horrifically permeable.
Similarly, the boat’s release into the global telecommunication void puts notions of freedom and vulnerability into tension. In the societal picture, passengers mill around the deck, and the ride feels more or less normal; they’re heading ‘north’. But perhaps while our human tendency is to go about our daily lives as if everything is normal – under a shared illusion that the world will be guided out of rough waters, will be put back on course, by a big invisible hand – the boat imperceptibly forges ahead at the whims of its temperamental inner compass. It is a compass that would normally act (poorly) as a backup if the GPS of Good Enough were to malfunction, but here, GPS navigation is willfully cut by the captains. The journey is handed over to the unreliable compass while the passengers are made vulnerable to the drive of this now autonomous vessel.
Meanwhile, a dialectic between recklessness and romantic individualism emerges from the situation. From the psychological perspective of the individual couched in a social fabric of behavioral order, the boat, like a human being, is liberated from the tyrannically gridded cartographic surface and signal-laden ether. Its inner compass, at one time rejected as ‘magnetically disturbed’, is no longer considered wrong. It, in fact, cannot be wrong, for it is the only guidance available here at open sea and is free from comparison to superlative technologies. It is, at least for this night, good enough. The passengers engage in their movements, conversations, thoughts and desires as if on land, accepting this vessel as a stable parcel of earth, surrendering to its material instinct.
Perhaps, through this temporary situation of concrete-in-rebellion and suspension of navigational obedience, a heterotopia can materialize. After all, Foucault describes a heterotopia as a single real space where otherwise incompatible multiple spaces may co-exist. To him, the boat ‘is a floating piece of space, a place without a place, that exists by itself, that is closed in on itself and at the same time is given over to the infinity of the sea... [It] is the heterotopia par excellence.’ And isn’t this really the only truth that can be spoken of our many norths, whether it be the north of the world, the north of the earth or the north of the self? For this ship, the pursuit of north exists as a passage without arrival at a singularity.
Foucault goes on: ‘In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.’