Elisa Ferrari is the very first artist to complete the Twenty-Three Days At Sea residency aboard a cargo ship sailing from Vancouver to Shanghai. 

China Residencies: How did you first year hear about Twenty-Three Days At Sea?

Elisa Ferrari: I work as exhibition manager and curator at VIVO Media Arts Centre and Vancouver artists-run centres are somehow all connected. When I read the 23 Days At Sea open call on Access Gallery’s website, I decided to apply. I saw it as an opportunity to take a break from administrative and curatorial work and think more about my art practice. The call and the route of the vessel (Vancouver-Shanghai) really resonated with me because in 2008, I spent six months in Shanghai as employee of the company my family runs (which includes a factory in Brescia that manufactures cast iron items for the building sector). I was there to monitor the quality of the goods sent on shipping containers destined for my hometown in Italy.

CR: You've been back for about a month, what's it like being back on land?

EF: I still feel as if I'm not completely back. I recorded a lot of images and sounds on the vessel but I haven't started to process the experience yet. I need to spend time with the recordings to understand what are the relationship between them and how/whether they can be combined and why. I am always interested in retracing routes/experiences and overlaying narratives belonging to chronologically disparate times.

CR: After you were accepted, how did you go about preparing for the trip?

EF: I found out I was accepted in early March. I started gathering books and music - somehow related to the experience I was going to live through. I thought I would have had a lot of idle time. But In the end, when I was on the vessel I was always alert and wanted to be part of all the daily operations and witness work dynamics between crew members. It's a very hierarchical system, I realized very soon that some of my previous ideas about being at sea - the romanticism involved with it – were not very accurate.

CR: How many people were on the boat?

EF: 21. From Vancouver to Tokyo, there were also two Swedish passengers, a couple on their honeymoon.

CR: So civilians can go?

EF: Yes, as long as you are in good health. I believe it's around $3,000 for the trip.

CR: What were the accommodations like?

EF: I was given the super cargo cabin on the deck E. There was a small bathroom, a table and a small couch, a monitor with a DVD player, a bed, a desk and a closet. It was a fairly big cabin, with two portholes. I could see containers and a little bit of the sea. Most of the workers’ cabins were much smaller than mine and their view was completely blocked by the cargo.

CR: Do you know what was in the containers? Or was it a bit of everything?

EF: I asked the captain but he said “nobody knows, it's a secret” then added ironically “all those things you find in a supermarket!” The person who knows most about the cargo is the chief officer - the 2nd in command after the captain. He is notified if there are dangerous and/or inflammable materials aboard. Did you hear about the explosion that happened in the Tianjin port? Unfortunately fires and explosions are very common both in ports and at sea.

CR: What was the sensation on the boat? Did it feel like you were in the ocean? What was the weather like?

EF: The weather was good. In June and July the ocean is more likely to be calm. There were four days of fog and it felt like being nowhere. Everything was white. Then, close to Tokyo, the vessel was rolling a bit for a couple of days, but it wasn't too bad. Apparently in winter it can tilt at up to 30 degrees, which is really scary to think about.

CR: What was the food like?

EF: The food in the officer's area was mostly European (German), in the crew's mess mostly Filipino. In general I would say they serve many meat dishes. After the first couple days eating the officers’ mess, I had most of my meals in the crew’s mess. I don’t quite like having food served to me, and I wanted to get to know everybody. I was always aware to be in very privileged position, whether I ate with the crew or with the officers.

CR: Where was most of the crew from?

EF: They were all from the Philippines; except for the captain, one of the engineers, and the ship mechanic, who were German; and the chief engineer who was Polish. We were sailing on a German flag boat which means there needs to be at least four or five crew members from Germany.

CR: What languages were spoken on the boat?

EF: English was the working language, then Tagalog and German were also spoken.

CR: And how did the crew respond to you while you were there?

EF: Most of the people were curious and wanted to know what brought me there and why I was recording. As soon as we started eating together, going to the gym, watching movies or playing video games, my presence felt very natural.

CR: What was your day to day experience? How did you decide on how to spend your time?

EF: The first week, I was mostly walking around and getting oriented. I asked for people’s schedule so I knew when everyone was working. When at sea, they work from 8 till 10 then there is a coffee break, then they work from 10 to noon, then an hour for lunch, then from one till three, then a break, and then they work again until five. At night, some of them go up to the naval bridge and help the officer on duty. They check the radar to make sure everything is alright and there are no other vessels or hazards crossing the route. If there are fishing boats, they need to signal with lights because container ships can't stop very easily. The more time passed the more people would let me know what they were doing next, almost as if they knew what I would be interested in.

CR: Is there any free time in the schedule?

EF: Not much. After 5 pm, most of them go to the gym and then have dinner. The people I met were healthy, and cared about their health because they need to be very strong to do those jobs. As per their contracts they work a number of overtime hours/week, which is good for them because they can earn more over the time they spend aboard. If you're there for 24 hours, there's not much else you can do, except for reading watching movies and waiting. There's some drinking involved, but really not that much.

CR: And were all the crew men?

EF: Yes. It's rare but sometimes there are women among the crew, they are usually officers. It's still a mostly male environment.

CR: Do the captain and the crew ever interact socially, or is there a strict hierarchical divide?

EF: They do, but the captain is the captain. They are not “friends”, there is definitely a clear divide especially as far as the captain is concerned! He has the most authority and power and he also has the most responsible in case something happens.

CR: And in terms of your own project, did you have a specific process in mind before you got there or did you just let things happen?

EF: I knew the way I wanted to record the experience and I knew what materials I already had from my journey to China in 2008. I mostly was open to see what would have happened. I think that now it is important for me to find the right “structure” to present the narrative trajectories embedded in the materials I recorded.

CR: Did you feel like 23 days was short or long?

EF: Short! At first, I thought it would be very long, but by the end, I wanted to stay longer. I felt at ease and we were all ready to share more stories and spend more time together, but then I had to leave. Disembarking alone in Shanghai was abrupt and a bit shocking, especially after 21 days spent in a very close and “protective” environment like the one of the ship.

CR: Tell me more about your arrival in China.

EF: I had my visa, but I had to go through an agent at the port who took care of everything. The departure from the vessel was rushed. They put me in a taxi, and I had the address of the place where I was going to stay, a hostel in Huangpu. But once you leave the port - which seemed as big as another city - you're right there in the city, a very populated and frenzied city!

CR: Did they arrange for you to meet people in Shanghai within the art community?

EF: There was that intention, but I received the information when I was on the vessel and wasn't really able to organize anything or start those relationships over email. I tried to meet some of the people but it didn't end up working out. It was too late. We should have started the conversations earlier. It was fine in the end, because for me it was also about being there alone and trying to process my previous Shanghai experience. I was in contact with one of the businessmen I worked with in 2008. His company is based in Ningbo, so I was able to go there and visit the factory. From being a tourist, I ended being an ex-business woman. It was interesting and full of contradictions. I also visited the recently built China Port Museum in Ningbo - mostly a museum about the Chinese maritime history and contemporary shipping industry.

CR: It seems like this residency is in the process of becoming something bigger, with a group exhibition at the end with a publication and also this ongoing Kickstarter [successfully funded in September]. Did you know about all this going into it? And how do you feel about these additional aspects?

EF: When I applied, I didn't know, but when they selected four of us and Kimberly is pursuing a bigger curatorial project than she initially thought. It's going to be interesting to see how it all develops. I felt like I was "a prototype” and I liked it. I also like the idea that it's not just about my own work but about how different perspectives/experiences will manifest themselves in the same space. This approach makes sense to me, since it's a project about making remote things more visible.

CR: In general, would you recommend this experience to other artists?

EF: I would, depending on the work they do. It might not be best fit for everyone.

CR: What was the most unexpected difficulty, and the most rewarding aspect?

EF: The most rewarding was the relationship with people. I feel like we'll be connected for a long time. The most difficult was leaving the vessel and the process of separation, always!

CR: Had you had much exposure to China's art scene while you were living there?

EF: I never got a chance to really explore the underground Shanghai art scene. When I lived in Venice, I worked at the Chinese Pavilion at the Biennale which was curated by Hou Hanru in 2003 and Cai Guoqiang in 2001 and I started then to be exposed to contemporary Chinese art. But I still need to  discover the less official side of things, the artists that aren't going to the international biennials .

This interview was conducted over Skype & emails by Kira Simon-Kennedy for China Residencies. All images courtesy of the artist & Twenty Three Days At Sea.