Launch of the Massicot | Credit: Kendra Sullivan
Consisting of a current roster of seven members, Mare Liberum is a self-described “freeform publishing, boatbuilding and waterfront art collective based in the Gowanus, Brooklyn.” Jean Barberis, Ben Cohen, Dylan Gauthier, Anna Larson, Arthur Poisson, Kendra Sullivan and Stephan von Muehlen make up the collaborative-crew, who have been actively adventuring around New York City – and beyond – in a variety of boats made from free or cheap materials. While the members of Mare Liberum are typically described as artists, they are in fact a much more diverse group; among them – yes – artists, non-profit administrators, a poet, an industrial designer and an elementary school teacher. We recently had a round-robin discussion, including their thoughts on polyvalent art practice, the emergent dialog between waterborne artists and building a paper boat.
Tell me a little bit about the name “Mare Liberum.” Where does that come from?
Dylan Gauthier: We borrowed the name Mare Liberum – which is latin for Freedom of the Seas – from a 17th century commentary which championed the natural rights of maritime trade and navigation and forms the basis of modern maritime law. Penned by the Dutchman Hugo Grotius in 1609, Mare Liberum sought to resolve a political debate between, on the one side, Spain and Portugal – who had been awarded halves of the earth by the Pope – and on the other, the Dutch – who had recently broken away from the Spanish Monarchy and were claiming their right to freely travel and engage in trade.
In taking the name we oriented the collective toward a study of past relationships with the water as well as to the present environmental threat to the sea through global warming but also the exploitation of oil resources and other risky undertakings that threaten the health and stability of this water-commons. For us Mare Liberum is also a bit tongue-in-cheek, since we were interested in getting out on the water for as little cost as possible, hence our translation and our website “thefreeseas.org”
Mare Liberum is known for building a small and humble boat called a dory, and more recently, canoes and kayaks. What attracted you to these particular kinds of watercrafts?
Stephan von Muehlen: For Dylan and I, coming out of the Empty Vessel Project, getting access to the water in NYC meant lowering the barrier to entry for everyone. Having a small, inexpensive boat makes it a lot easier than maintaining and keeping a big boat. They also each have their own histories that we tapped into for inspiration and historical context. The move from dories to kayaks to rowing skiffs to canoes charts a progression towards simpler lighter-weight boats that make it easier and easier to get out on the water.
Dylan: We were looking through a book of boat designs by the late John Gardner, who had been a socialist educator and labor organizer in the 1930s, but is better known as a writer of DIY boatbuilding guides and the head of the education department at Mystic. We were looking through some of his boats, which were already broken down into steps that the novice boatbuilder could build, and the Dory seemed just the right size for our first boat. It also had this long history of being a cheap and throw-about kind of thing that could be stacked on the decks of larger fishing boats and let out into the water in a hurry. We liked that.
ML Dorys on the Gowanus | Credit: Mare Liberum
In the past, you’ve offered instructional workshops on boatbuilding, and you also offer templates and broadsheets with instructions describing how to build a Mare Liberum dory on your website. What are you hoping potential boat builders will do with their vessels? Are there practical – or impractical – results you hope to achieve?
Ben Cohen: I hope that potential boat builders will get out on the water! I think these boats are not quite practical, but good at breaking the mystique surrounding boatbuilding and boating. Getting over that hurdle I think puts people in a position to take a more serious approach to how to use the waterways here.
Dylan: The main thing for us was getting out on the water, exploring this open expanse around the hemmed in city, and as we figured out how to do this, we hoped to make this knowledge attainable by others. We’ve lent a lot of our boats out – and also given instruction and hands-on advice – to artists, but we’re not only thinking of our boats as art or as platforms for artistic inquiry. We really want people to be inspired to build their own crafts and explore the water around them. So even if people aren’t building our boats we think we’re contributing to a dialogue about the uses of this public resource here in the city, and that connects with ideas about urban planning and design as well as with economic and environmental justice – so, who gets to live here, who gets to enjoy the city’s wealth of resources, who gets locked out of the equation, etc.
Mare Liberum also maintains a publishing arm and produces broadsheets of the collective’s boat constructions. To what extent is your publishing activity part of an effort to reach a wider public? Are you also thinking of your prints as creative documentation?
Stephan: I once told Dylan that without the publishing arm that places what we do in an art and historical context and serves to share what we have learned with other people, we would run the risk of being a bunch of dudes in a garage making boats for ourselves. Although that can be good too–and I might happily end up there one day–it wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting or fun.
Broadsheet 7: On Paper Boat Construction (Le Massicot or the PAPERei Canoe) | Credit: Mare Liberum
Are you interested in defining Mare Liberum as art, activism or something in between? Do these distinctions matter?
Arthur Poisson: The difference between art and activism doesn’t matter. The most important thing is to do what we want, what we think is of significance, and to stay involved in it. To distinguish it as art, publications, or work in the kitchen is missing the point.
Jean Barberis: I’m not interested in defining it. I like the inbetweenness. The boats as objects are never meant to be seen as pieces of art, even though they’ve been shown in museums and generally get a good response from the art crowd. I guess because it’s a very hybrid and multifaceted project it touches a lot of people.
Ben: Looking from one side of this distinction to the other is the interesting part for me. It seems like people experience our project as a portal from one field to another; either they are a builder or activist and see through us to the art-world, or they are an artist and see through us to an activist or craft idea. When you see through the project you experience something you’re not used to and your ideas about what craft can be or what art can be should change.
Dylan: I think the distinctions do matter, and also the distinctions don’t matter. We go pretty easily between these at-times exclusionary “worlds.” We also have this other connection which is to the historic boatbuilding community, which is generally not primarily interested in either the art or the activism but is still interested in our project and gets excited about our use of materials, etc.
While at its core, Mare Liberum deals seriously with issues like reclaiming access to NYC waterways as viable public space, there is something undeniably playful about your project. It feels close to childhood adventure fantasies – a creative circumstance in which a new and self-directed set of rules and conventions can be enacted.
Jean: Absolutely. My collaborations with the collective have resulted in some of the most amazing adventures: Exploring a boat graveyard with Marie Lorenz as part of Flux Factory’s going places doing stuff, racing kayaks around Maumau Island with Swimming Cities, and of course rowing a paper skiff 180 miles from Clayton, NY to Montreal. Honestly my childhood fantasies weren’t nearly as wilds as these journeys turned out to be.
Kendra Sullivan: The actualization of a childhood fantasy is a bizarre and mind-bending experience. Nothing is what you expected. For one thing, it’s a lot harder. For another, it’s a lot more beautiful. I think that’s because it’s no longer about escape from reality, but an extreme engagement with reality at its most elemental – the weather, the water, your friends. Building your own vehicle to enter that altered sphere makes you feel like one among a crew of architects authoring a shared dream. It’s lovely.
Stephan: There is definitely something about the water that can capture the imagination and that we all read about as children and some of us still do as adults. The rules are different and you really do see the world from the outside when you are out there. There are no fences or roads or private property. The elements have a lot of say about what you can and can’t do, but not so much the regular set of laws and players. It can be scary and risky. We make ‘best efforts’ to make sure we don’t hurt ourselves or encourage others to the same, but you definitely can set the stage for an adventure when you go out in water in a small boat, and it’s not an adventure until something goes wrong…
There are a handful of artists building junk rafts, boats and other kinds of floats in NYC right now. Immediately, I can think of Constance Hockaday, Marie Lorenz, A’yen Tran, Swoon, Mary Mattingly… How do you see the dialog produced by this particular network of artists evolving?
Stephan: We are friends and help each other out. I am inspired by everyone you listed. We have shown work together, been on panels, and built boats with each other. We all have our own projects and draw inspiration from the same people that did similar things before us (Poppa Neutrino, for instance). I think we all started our projects for different reasons at different times, but the Sea Worthy exhibition (co-organized by EFA Project Space, Flux Factory and The Gowanus Studio Space) and the show at the Antique Boat Museum (in Clayton, NY) put us all in the same room together. It makes sense.
Dylan: I think it’s great how much work is being made around the water in the city right now, and there’s a lot of really interesting interactions happening there, all the more-so as people are responding to the changing floodlines post-Sandy, etc. But all of our work has crossed paths on numerous occasions and I know that we’re all learning from each others’ projects and adventures and experiences. There’s also a handful of other artists that we have not had the pleasure to work with directly but who are building boats and grounding some part of their practice in human, ecological or economic relationships of maritime culture or the symbolism of the water – so Hans Schabus and Simon Starling and Julien Berthier and Nari Ward and Mark Dion come to mind. So it’s a very rich and diverse, um, what is it… something between “scene” and “meme”… “scmeme?” to be a part of.
Arthur: Again, I’m not sure if the term “artist” is important, the most important, to describe the water building community. A dialog exists, separate of the art community, but there is no interest in it. The water context is larger than the art dialog, and, for example, the fishermen on the Marina 59 (where Constance Hockaday’s Boatel project was docked) are a huge part of the community, and without them, nothing can exist in this place. The “dialog” that you’re referring to only holds meaning for the art world, and projects of this kind can’t hold real meaning or value for a local community if only artists act or are involved.
Jean: I think this waterborne arts scene is in full expansion. It’s especially strong in New York with the people you’ve named and collectives like Swimming Cities and events like Sea Worthy, which really helped federate everybody. The Boatel came out of that and it’s been a real focal point for the whole community. Swimming Cities has organized this amazing event called the Battle for Maumau Island for the last two summers, Chicken John out on the west coast has an event called Camp Tipsy which is also bringing tons of people together. Then there’s also a lot of artists in Europe doing somewhat similar projects though they might more isolated: Fergal McCarthy, Filip Jonker, Julien Berthier, Simon Starling, Peter Callesen…
Kendra: I am interested to see how the hurricane changes the way we approach making art in/around/about the water. I also think that how gender plays out on the water is a topic worth delving into a bit further.
Mare Liberum Crew Charts a 160 Mile Route Along the St. Lawrence River, 2012 | Credit: Arthur Poisson
In the summer of 2012, you floated a paper skiff called the “Massicot” down the St. Lawrence River after a residency at the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton, NY. What prompted this experiment?
Jean: The original idea was to take advantage of the Museum’s resources and create a replica of one of their pieces, though we weren’t sure of how to do it in two weeks, then Dylan started telling us about Nathaniel Bishop, a 19th century writer and adventurer who journeyed from Troy, NY to the Gulf of Mexico on a paper canoe. We all read his book and got really excited by the prospect of resurrecting this lost boat building technique. We did a lot of research and read everything we could on the subject then started experimenting with various Kraft papers, adhesives and varnishes and we got to work on this beautiful early 20th Century Peterborough Lake Ontario Skiff. We built an exact replica of the hull, using the original as a mold, then copied the wooden structure. We got a lot of advice from the staff of the Museum, which was amazing. Of course everyone was a bit skeptical that we would pull this off. I mean, there you have these seasoned boat builders, masters of their craft who are used to spending years on a restoration, and a bunch of artists from Brooklyn show up claiming they’re going to build a 17-foot skiff in less than two weeks… But once we got to work and they saw the Massicot come together they were really behind the project.
As it happened my visa was about to run out and I had to be out of the country by a certain date, so we decided to go to Montreal. We crossed the border two days after the launch and rowed for five days before getting to Montreal. The Saint Lawrence is one of the most amazing bodies of water in North America, especially around the Thousand Islands. We camped on a different island every night. I never felt so free in my life.
Mare Liberum Crew Charts a 160 Mile Route Along the St. Lawrence River, 2012 | Credit: Jean Barberis
Does Mare Liberum have further plans to look beyond local, NYC water-related issues? It might be an extreme suggestion, but would you ever consider a Neutrino-style ocean expedition?
Stephan: That would be crazy.
Dylan: I have watched a few too many YouTube videos on “Rogue Waves” to ever attempt such a crossing. That said, circumnavigations and long-distance river routes interest me a great deal, as do shorter routes in hastily built local boatshapes… What’s interesting to me in the ocean mainly happens on the coasts of civilizations, and river travel is like watching a movie plot unfold before your eyes at 6 mph. Someday I’d also like to raft what retired yachtsmen call the “Great Loop“ (a 5,000 mile loop through the East Coast’s intercoastal and canalized waterways). There’s this weird culture of self-described “Loopers” to research and develop a broadsheet on/for as well.
Ben: Are you sending us out to sea? We respond to art-world deadlines mostly, doing little on our own without an outlet to focus on. Our focus on the waterways makes a lot more sense in a city than in say, the St. Lawrence River. Up there we stepped back from access (since everyone already has it) and focused on performance and craft and active engagement. When invited somewhere it’s better for us to make plans in the setting than to think about what the project ‘could be’ in a vacuum. I would be terrified to go out in the ocean in anything I made myself.
Mare Liberum Crew Charts a 160 Mile Route Along the St. Lawrence River, 2012 | Credit: Arthur Poisson