Twenty-Three Days At Sea is one of the most innovative residencies that kicked off in 2015. In August, we caught up with Kimberly Phillips, the director and curator of Access Gallery, about sending artists to sail from Vancouver to Shanghai aboard a cargo ship.

China Residencies: First off, this is one of the most exciting new residencies.

Kimberly Phillips: Oh thank you, it's been really profound, and it's been a privilege to put it into place and develop it. We were totally overwhelmed by the response, it clearly struck a nerve with artists from all over the world, whether in Lahore, Sao Paolo or as far away as East Russia. I believe it offers a way to think through something about our contemporary world.

CR: Let's go back to the beginning. You've talked about how Vancouver, where Access Gallery is based, is want for space. Had you thought about creating a residency in a physical urban space before? Were you interested in starting a more traditional residency?

KP: As an artist-run centre with a mandate to support emergent practices, we are always trying to think of ways to offer generative space for the creation and exhibition of new work. But we are a small organization, and we certainly didn’t have the budget to launch a conventional residency (that would offer lodgings and studio space). The condition of not being able to afford a traditional residency space was a motivation to get us thinking about other ways to do things. I would say that the prohibitive cost of real estate in Vancouver is always a prevailing condition for our work in the city, but it wasn’t my intention with this residency program to make a statement about real estate. As the director and curator of the gallery, I've always wanted to curate a program that would allow artists space outside of their regular world – creative space, intellectual space or physical space – to create new ideas and work. As I said, we're specifically committed to working with practitioners at the beginning points of their careers, and these people need space in a very particular way. It's also the most difficult time to find space: you might be just out of school or working two or three jobs. So “enabling space” has been on my mind. 

At the same time, my partner (who is also a visual artist) was dying to take a trip on a cargo ship, so I knew it was possible to book tickets as a civilian. Around the same time (this was a couple years ago now), Amtrak launched a writer's residency on their trains – so the idea stuck with me: a residency traveling through space. And we rarely ever get to experience this particular mode and speed of travel, moving across a vast expanse of sea on a ship. There's also been a number of historical precedents, like the Artist Placement Group in London, which embedded artists in industry, including one named George Levantis on a cargo ship back in the early 70s. I was also thinking of Allan Sekula and his work about the sea and the global shipping industry. Sekula spoke very powerfully about the sea being a forgotten space, and one can certainly see that here in Vancouver. Though the enormous freighters are always visible in the bay, the city’s waterfront has been completely transformed from a space of labour to a space of leisure and privilege. The port, which only one generation ago was very porous and part of everyday urban life, is now a completely inaccessible space secured behind port walls. Significantly, the city’s histories of maritime labour are all but disavowed, which is really problematic, I feel. Twenty-Three Days at Sea was an opportunity to make these spaces visible.

CR: It's been really amazing to witness organizations and people rethink what a residency can be. Shipping containers have also been repurposed for studio space as well at a residency in Kunming. It's so encouraging to see these kinds of creative solutions out of what's already out there.

KP: I also teach the history of modern and contemporary art, and in class we talk a lot about the mythology of “going away” as central to modern artists. One could say that early 20th century avant garde artists were the first cultural tourists, and so I'm aware of the problematics of those issues. We're still contributing to the carbon footprint of the global art world by flying people from Shanghai back to Vancouver, but this kind of residency embeds people in a system in which we're already implicated: we're already making these journeys through most of our commodity objects and resources, they've taken this same trajectory across the Pacific, often in both directions. So in a way we're putting artists on a path that they were already occupying.

CR: How did you go about figuring out the logistics? Did you approach the port or the shipping companies directly?

KP: I started researching shipping companies that take “supercargo,” which are passengers that aren't crew. A few companies have booking agencies, so you can simply book a ticket yourself. We found the NSB out of Bremen in Germany, and they're also a shipping company known for their exemplary labor practices. I actually have a very close friend, Cynthia Brooke, who is a longshoreman at the Port of Vancouver, and she is intimately familiar with all the vessels and their crews, which was very helpful. We ended up approaching NSB as anyone would, I didn't try to strike up a partnership or ask for sponsorship with the shipping company because I wanted us to be accessing this experience as anyone could. I didn't want NSB to be concerned or suspicious about what we were doing on the ships – the intention was never to create some expose of the industry, and we’ve made it clear in the Call for Submissions that the artists were in no way to interfere with the ship, its cargo or the ship's business. Criticality is important, but not sabotage, in this instance! Now that we've booked three tickets with them [for the 2015 residency artists], the booking agent and I are on close terms and he thinks the program is great. The captains and their officers and crew have been wonderful and supportive in all cases. As we're going along, we're building relationships. I deliberately didn't go to the port of Vancouver, as they're very wary of exposés, there's been a number of issues in recent years. My friend the longshoreman is actually an executive in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, and their Local is very interested in finding ways to engage with the community. They're very interested in what we're doing, and so now we're partnered with the Union, to offer in-depth tours of the port itself before the artists depart on the vessels. Now the artists will gain intimate knowledge of and access to the shore-side workings in the port, which are normally completely prohibited to the public. We'll keep working on expanding that partnership. I'm aware and sensitive to the fact that this project encounters and affects real workers and laborers, and I want to be inclusive and respectful of their work and conditions.

CR: That's actually something Elisa [Ferrari] brought up, she mentioned being confronted with this upstairs-downstairs dichotomy with the captain and the crew. She was expected to eat with the captains and officers and the other passengers, but she was much more interested, and felt more comfortable spending time with the crew. Since you're selecting artists who have a curiosity for the reality of this strange global shipping industrial complex that many of us aren't aware of, how did you originally conceive of the role the artists would play in the ship's community as they cross the ocean?

KP: George Levantis wrote a series of letters back to the APG while he was aboard (this was in the 1970s) and these letters all speak about how the other passengers and crew were very confused by his “lack of role” on the ship, as an artist. He was a conceptual artist, and the other passengers were apparently frustrated that he wouldn’t offer them watercolor lessons! This question was on my mind in terms of labor and presence on the ship. I didn't have any preconceptions, since I haven't gone on this journey, of how the artists would function on the ship. It will be fascinating to see how each artist experiences the journey. Nour, the second artist, is on a different ship (MS Hanjin Brussels), so the crew and captain will be different. The captain makes the rules and decides how much access any passenger might have to his/her ship and crew. I'm glad that the circumstances will always be different, each artist will see it through the lens of their own practice. Christopher Boyne, who is going in September, is interested in memory. He builds maquettes and model ships, his experience might be distilled into objects. I've never curated in this way before. We chose artists on the strength of their work, but they all approach their practice with a strong sense of seeking and curiosity. They may keep to their proposals or come up with something totally different, it's very exciting. My role is to choreograph and observe while it unfolds. It's a lot of control to give up as a curator, but it's exhilarating.

CR: Tell me a bit about your background:

KP: I have a PhD in art history, my doctoral research was focused on the city of Berlin in the years immediately following the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was interested in how artists creating ephemeral public installations amongst the regenerating architecture activated debates around memory and identity in that place during that very fraught time. I think through the process of my doctoral and post-doctoral work, thinking about very contemporary art and artists, I realized that my interests were not art historical but curatorial. When I came home to Vancouver from Berlin, I became Head of Interpretation at the Vancouver Art Gallery, and after about four years became really itchy to author my own projects and steward an artist-run centre myself. Artist-run-spaces have a long and important history here in Vancouver: they advocate for fair wages for artists, they exhibit critically engaged and challenging work. This is work that historically would often not find a place in commercial galleries or large public institutions. Access is a full time position but I also maintain an active teaching practice: at Emily Carr University of Art and Design I am Course Leader for the university’s Masters of Applied Arts Low Residency Program. As a curator I am interested in constraints – time, money, resources, of course, are the constraints we always manage – but also in constraints as enabling and creatively generative factors. I'm also interested in artists who are working on the periphery, which suits the peripheral setting of the cargo ship residency. We're also grappling with all of our collective romance about the sea and the Pacific, as well as mythologies about sea travel and trade, and the very real horror of the sea -  tsunamis, the flight of refugees, the plight of sea workers - all sorts of issues are put into circulation. As the curator of this program I feel as though I am like a choreographer, putting into some dance together all these charged sets of ideas, histories, and presumptions about the sea with artists who will think critically about them, and new things will emerge from this that even I cannot foresee.

CR: Along those lines of mysticism and allure of the sea, why did you choose Shanghai, out of all the cities in the world, as a destination?

KP: Two reasons: I wanted a long enough voyage for the artists to really feel unpinned from everyday life: it takes about three weeks to make the passage from Vancouver to Shanghai. The ship also calls at Busan and Tokyo. I've never been, but in future I would have loved to have the artists also disembark in Busan, which has a robust critical art scene.

CR: There's a lot going on in Shanghai as well, a many new independent spaces are opening up each year.

KP: I know! I am looking forward to learning more about this art community through the residency as well.

CR: Tell me about how this residency grew from a one-off initiative to a much bigger program.

KP: When we started, we initially had the budget for one artist. I always envisioned it as a multi-year project, where at the end you could see a collection of responses from different artists who have all had a similar experience. We have to tread carefully at Access, financially speaking, so we partnered with another nonprofit arts organization in town, the Burrard Arts Foundation, who matched our funds so we were able to send two artists. I went to my board and told them I could easily send about twenty artists, the submitted proposals were so incredibly strong! I argued for us to fundraise to send four this year, and then fundraise again to send another three or four next year. So now we're in the midst of this Kickstarter campaign to fundraise for the next four. We also fundraise throughout the year (including an auction and other fundraising events) to support the gallery’s programs and operations, and this residency is really above and beyond our regular costs in many respects. If all this works out, it will be a three year project, ideally sending three to four artists each year, so there will be ten to sixteen artists in total. We've also thought about sending artists on cargo vessels to different cities, like Lima, down the coast to Peru. Also, we could potentially send artists from Montreal to Valencia, Spain. There's many ways we could expand, but it's great to start with three years with a single, simple spatial trajectory. I plan to create a major publication at the end of this program, to include all of the artists’ logs, documentation of work, and a number of commissioned writings.  I would also love to see this as a travelling exhibition, so time will tell.

CR: Is there something that these artists could do that would be disappointing? What would qualify as an unsuccessful residency?

KP: Well, we are really going on faith that the artist can produce something and follow through on their proposal. We have a contractual agreement with the artists that we had vetted by maritime lawyers, so if nothing came of the voyage – which seems highly unlikely – that would be problematic. But the outcome doesn't need to be object-based, it could take any form. We also had a lot of proposals that seemed obvious. Many artists proposed to document and record the journey, we had many photo-based artist apply with proposals for documentaries or photo-essays, which were not as interesting to me as a curator. The most interesting proposals came from artists who understood their own practice very well, and demonstrated a great strength in their past work. Rather than articulate an iron-clad plan, these artists asked a series of questions in their proposal. Amaara Raheem, our fourth resident leaving in April 2016 (the waters are too rough on the North Pacific to make the passage over the winter), is a Sri-lankan artist based in Australia, and she works with choreography, dance and movement, but also is pursuing a PhD in architecture. I was really drawn to her proposal, which queried the notion of bodies as vessels for movement. The successful artists were ones who didn't presume they knew what they would find were the most interesting, or challenging, on the voyage. They did not presume how they would respond. They respected the fact that the experience would be provocative and possibly very challenging. There's nothing wrong with documentary photography, and there were a number of beautiful documentary filmmakers and still photographers who applied. But again, the captain could veto something like that, it's up to them to decide if filming is allowed on board, so we had to make sure that people understood that you have to be very flexible and might have to make your work at home in the months following the voyage.

CR: You've very transparent about all the challenges artist may face at sea, it's fantastic.

KP: Yes. I think that’s important for a residency like this. We even created an FAQ of all the questions we were receiving from potential submitters, and we really had to refine what we meant by visual arts – our funding is predominantly public and our mandate is to support the visual arts. But how do we understand that term visual art? Can dancers come? Can you be a sound artist but not a musician?

CR: How did you and Elisa keep in touch during the residency?

KP: It was interesting, we were prepared to not have any contact at all. Elisa knew she might not be able to, but also said she might not want to communicate with the outside world while aboard the ship. I told her to do what she needed to do, and to send me a message once she arrived safely in Shanghai. But as soon as she got the opportunity, she sent me this beautiful email. They're very short, because the captain limits the amount of bandwidth but also the amount of information that can leave the ship, so you can't upload images. I had updates from her once a week, they were like postcards. It called up a memory of how we used to communicate, like having a pen pal, where you would send off a letter and wait for days or even weeks before you had a response. We've completely forgotten what that means, communications used to be so precious. Even though Elisa was based in Vancouver, I didn't know her and wasn't familiar with her work, but I felt like I knew her so well after this correspondence.

CR: And did you have any contact with the captain or anyone from the crew?

KP: No, but because Elisa had such a wonderful time -- she didn't want to leave the vessel – I asked the booking agent in Bremen if he could pass along a thank you note from me. The captain is actually retiring in August. It would be great to send them the publications and things from the end of the project if they're interested.

CR: And how do you see the transmission of information happening between residents? How much do you want them to participate or influence each other's projects?

KP: I really love working with groups of artists, and we tend to create shared space, reading lists, places to share ideas. I started a Google Drive folder where everyone dropped in things they were reading in preparation for their voyages, so a discussion started to happen before anyone left. But of course as soon as Elisa came back, everyone wanted to know how about her experience! She was quite wary about giving too much away, not wanting to color the trip or give the others any particular expectations about the trip, as the conditions might be totally different with each different crew.

CR: Where do the artists stay when they get to Shanghai?

KP: They each stayed at a little hostel called the Rock and Wood for a few days.

CR: Maybe in the future some of the existing residencies could host the artists if they'd like to stay longer – one week is an incredibly short time.

KP: Of course! We could only afford a short stay, but we told the artists they're welcome to stay as long as they'd like. It would be great to let them know options to continue onto a different residency.

CR: Is there anything else you'd like to add about Twenty-Three Days at Sea?

KP: This residency is a beautiful gift in the sense in that a gift is also a burden that we can bestow upon artists, to experience time and space in a particular way that most of us never be afforded. There's so much to think about in terms of labor and trade and industry, but many of the artists also have deeply poetic ideas about the sea. The residency also creates community in these artists themselves, it creates webs of discussions and conversations that will continue in different ways, and even come back in front of audiences. I like that it's not just something for the artists to experience but that a part of it also is to be shared with the public.

This interview was conducted over Skype by Kira Simon-Kennedy for China Residencies.