On the first floor of Chicago’s MDWY Fair, Hui-min and James Barry installed the boat they’d made together for The Mt. Baldy Expedition. The boat was the result of seven years of collaborative work. It was the first time I saw it, though I remember numerous conversations with both Hui-min Tsen and James Barry over the course of its construction. Suddenly it was tangible, out of water, clean, complete and upright. It sat on a large stand in the sparse warehouse room under high-ceilings, its mast still tied up: the ceilings were not high enough.

On The Mt. Baldy Expedition  website, their statement of purpose is as follows:

The Mt. Baldy Expedition is a 21st century voyage of exploration. Inspired by predecessors such as Ferdinand Magellan and Enrique de Malacca, James Barry and Hui-min Tsen have begun a journey of quixotic proportions across the third largest lake of The Great Lakes. Over the course of 2004 to 2006, Mr. Barry and Ms. Tsen are building a sailing dinghy, sailing from Chicago, Illinois, to Mt. Baldy, a sand dune in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore– “the once largest live sand mountain in the world.” Mr. Barry and Ms. Tsen are also conducting a series of educational and performative events throughout 2004 to 2006 culminating in a traveling exhibit and lecture tour to share the findings of the Mt. Baldy Expedition with the world.

And suddenly the boat was real, placed not in a lake or a boat show, but in the middle of an art fair. The project began as a pipe-dream and from its inception, through a countless slog of hours, repetition, collaboration and patience, James and Hui-min managed to—actually—build a functioning boat. To me the project contains in it, the celebtration of amateurs (as lovers), visionaries, and pioneers: traits I see among artists’ biggest contribution. Our world is increasingly and self-knowingly specialized. There are well-trodden roads that define the way things ought to be done. Houses are to be bought, not made. Roads are to be traveled on, not deviated from. Similarly, if you want to be published, you ought to find a publishing house. Under the eaves of those admittedly useful establishments, expectations are defined. It nevertheless useful to remember how things are built, in order to recall how we are in each capable of building our own worlds that can contain their own unique expectations and standards. At least in my artistic community, I am constantly aware of people creating for themselves, building their own communities around spaces and practices—even Bad at Sports, as a site of artistic writing, thought and discussion is a kind of self-generated and generating boat. Very often those projects begin with an amateur’s spirit. The practice of research is integrated with the end result.

I wanted to ask James Barry and Hui-min about this project. This interview will take place in two parts. This first part focuses specifically on the boat and James Barry has answered my questions, about its inception and the course of the project. Next week, I’ll post an interview with Hui-min that pulls back to more abstract questions of exploration.

Caroline Picard: How did the Mt. Baldy Expedition become a project?

James Barry: I started working on the Mt. Baldy expedition in the fall of ’03. I was in my second year of grad school at SAIC.  I had just finished a long term project that summer, and I was still casting around for something new to work on. I had wanted to make something that would fly and made a boomerang. It broke on the the third throw, but it did fly.  I started working on a wearable theater, stuff like that, but nothing was really working. At the time I had lived in Chicago for about 7 years, and I didn’t really get out of town very much. So I asked a friend and teacher of mine who rode the Metra where you could go on it.  He gave me a bunch of suggestions. One of them was Mt. Baldy, and he told me a little about it and Michigan City.  So one weekend I took the train there to see it.

When I got there, there were two train stops. I was trying to get off at the “downtown” by Mt. Baldy and the lake, but the first one seemed too small, so I waited for the second. Wrong choice. I ended up in some residential are. I walked for a couple of hours trying to get to the lake, but it didn’t work. I was lost, and it was getting late. So I ate at a Mexican restaurant and decided to head back to Chicago. On my way to the train station I met up with two Michigan City juvenile delinquents who thought terrorizing a lost Chicagoan was the most entertaining thing to do that night. After about an hour and half of their unwanted company, I finally caught the train home.

Shortly after that I was out with Hui-min and some other friends from school. We were in a bar just joking around talking about projects etc. I told the story about trying to go to Mt. Baldy. At some point, I mentioned that it would be funny to build a little boat and sail it to Mt. Baldy and compare it to Shackleton and people like that. We all laughed, and Hui-min said she could sail it there.

I liked the idea and started to work on it and eventually went back to Michigan City. This time I got off at the correct station, and found a lot of information about the history Mt. Baldy/Hoosier Slide, Michigan City and their relationship to Chicago, tourism etc. at a little museum/historical society there. Everything just fell into place very easily, and it was really interesting to me. Ever since I had come to Chicago, I had missed the Northwest. (I’m originally from Seattle).  This homesickness had translated into a little bit of an obsession about wooden boats and the history of exploration.  Before studying art, I got an English degree.  Reading and writing literary criticism for years had created a huge aversion to literature. For about six years I only read stuff about boats and history, preferably both. Hui-min and I were good friends and would talk about this stuff a lot. We had similar interests. After a couple of months, I asked her if she would like to collaborate on the project for real. She agreed, and we went from there.

CP: How long did you think it would take to build the boat?

JB: Before this project, I had only worked on two boats. One when I was a little kid with my Dad. My job was basically to hand him tools and name the boat. The second time I actually got a CAAP grant to go back to the Northwest and take a boat building workshop at the Northwest School of Wooden Boatbuilding. I had been doing a lot of work that investigated different sorts of social interactions. This was suppose to be research into a boat as a microcosmic social environment and to learn new craftsmanship skills. It was a lot of fun and very challenging. We actually built a Norse Faering in just 12 days. I had also been building case interiors, etc. for museums for quite a while, so I thought we could build the boat and sail it in about 6 months. Totally wrong! First off, we had never built a boat alone. We had also never built this boat. And I had never built a boat with a deck, which seems like a small thing but was a very educational experience for me. We had all sort issues too. Money was a big one. We wanted to build the best boat we could, so we bought the best materials we could, and it took time to earn that money. We also weren’t making a sculpture of a boat, but a real boat, so we really made sure every thing was done right which takes time. And then we still had our lives, jobs etc.  Hui-min was injured at home and had a long recover one year and then later had a prolonged illness. I had a job as an exhibition manager that basically took up all of my spring every year and about every 4 to 6 weeks I’d have at least a week that it prevented me from doing anything else. But we just kept working on it a little at a time.  Knowing that someday we’d get there. It was difficult, but also fun.

CP: What is your impression of the boat as an object now?

JB: My short answer would be, “I see it as a boat.” But I think it is important to realize that in this project we were always having to deal with two related issues. One, it’s a conceptual art project where we play with things/terms from everyday life and history to try to communicate our experience and our take on the world. Two, we are building a boat, and our lives and the lives of anyone else who sails in it depend on this boat functioning. We were novices, but we were informed novices, so we were always very careful to take all the proper safety precautions, and when you think like this it is difficult to not think of it as primarily a boat.

Aside from that, the boat is something I care a great deal about. It was kind of amazing when we had almost finished the boat. We had started out with about 4 huge piles of wood that we built the shop and the boat out of. At the end when I was reorganizing the wood and sorting it looking for pieces for this and that section and thinking damn where did all that wood go and then realize it was sitting right there on the other side of the shop. I fitted almost every single piece of wood on that boat. There are stories about every part. To me that boat is very much alive.

CP: How does that compare with your experience of sitting in it, floating on the water?

JB: When we were putting the boat in the water, I was exhausted. I had quite my job two months before and had been doing nothing but working on the boat. The last two weeks in the shop were a madhouse, very long days, seven days a week. A lot of my former student workers from SAIC had been coming in to help out, my landlord, the neighbors in the building and even the neighbors next door. That was really cool. Most of these people had been hearing about the project for years. So when it came time to actually put it in the water, I was excited but also a little scared. We didn’t have a trailer or anything like that. We had moved the boat to the harbor on my landlord’s former county flatbed truck. It was old, yellow and had a big hazard light on top. The boat looked really interesting tied down to it driving down Roosevelt. We rolled it to the water and down the ramp on a make-shift furniture dolly. There was about six of us moving it including this guy who had just gotten off a boat and just thought wooden boats were cool. He had actually gone to the same wooden boat school I had. I think his name was Dav, not sure. He was a big help. He and a friend of mine from L&L Tavern, Neil, who also just happened to show up really helped us with getting the rigging right and transporting it from the truck to the water. So when we where going down the ramp, I was at the bow. I had the painter in one hand and a line attached to the dolly in the other. The boat kept getting lower and lower, and I was starting to get worried. It’s only suppose to draw four inches of water. There were no waves, so it was hard to tell what was going on. Dav was at the stern, and he told Hui-min to get in it. She did, and I was like, “Oh no, has she bottomed out?” Then I realized Dav was in water up to his thighs. I pulled  the dolly out and got in too. I was just amazed. She floated and wasn’t taking on any water at all. It was a little late in the day, so we had to deal with a lot of drunk people on speed boats coming in. They were not very patient with us at first while we got our sails up and got ready to go, but then some of them asked us, if we had built it. When they found out we did, they stopped complaining.

Being on the water actually sailing after almost seven years of working on this project was just so cool. We weren’t that good on the water, not embarrassing, but we definitely needed some work. We knew that this would be the only time we could sail her, so it was very exciting and fun but also sad. All I wanted to do was keep sailing her everyday.

CP: How did the dynamic of your partnership with Hui-Min develop over time?

JB: Hui-min and I were good friends. We were both just really into this subject, so it was very fun. In the beginning, we just worked on the project all the time. But collaborating is very similar to a relationship. The project started out as this very heady Romantic conceptual art piece, but then we had to deal with these very practical concerns, researching glues, paints, finding wood suppliers, creating budgets and “time lines.” This stuff is all great and also very much informed our work, but you get a little bogged down, and after years of working on the same project, we both wanted to move on to something else. I think we both sort of out grew the project and artistically started to move in different directions. We are very close though. Making art together in a 100% collaborative relationship for 7 years, you get to know each other really well.

CP: Can you separate the boat from the way you two worked together?

JB: Yes, the boat was kind of the center piece to the MTBE, but it wasn’t the only thing we worked on. We also did a lot of writing for text pieces and lectures/performances, shot and edited a lot of photo. Hui-min did a lot of illustration. There are actually a lot of projects that we had started for the MTBE but never finished and made public. I hope we will be able to publish some of this work on our blog, but we will have to just see what happens. We are both doing our own thing now and pretty busy. I’m sure some of it will come out eventually. Concerning the boat though, it is of course very important to both of us, as is the history of our collaboration and our friendship.

Caroline Picard

Caroline Picard is the Executive Director of The Green Lantern Press—a nonprofit publishing house and art organization—and Co-Director of Sector 2337, a hybrid artspace/bar/bookstore in Chicago. Her writing and comics have appeared in publications like ArtForum (critics picks), Everyday Genius, Hyperallergic, Necessary Fiction, and Tupelo Quarterly. In 2014 she was the Curatorial Fellow at La Box, ENSA in France, and became a member of the SYNAPSE International Curators’ Network of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin in 2015. Her first graphic novel, The Chronicles of Fortune, is due out from Radiator Comics in 2017. www.cocopicard.com