A British artist is stranded on a boat in the open Pacific

Rebecca Moss is stuck onboard the Hanjin Geneva, a bankrupt cargo ship left indefinitely adrift on the high seas

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Rebecca Moss
Rebecca Moss onboard the Hanjin GenevaCourtesy Rebecca Moss

On a cargo ship somewhere near the coast of Japan, artist Rebecca Moss and the crew onboard the Hanjin Geneva are stranded in limbo. Barred from ports around the world, the 68,000-tonne container ship is floating without a destination for its cargo. Moss, a 25-year-old Royal College of Art MA student, is travelling on the vessel as part of a three-week artist residency organised by the Vancouver-based Access Gallery – an artist residency that’s becoming increasingly surreal since Hanjin Shipping company declared bankruptcy more than a week and a half ago.

Moss' work is darkly humorous. Based in London, she primarily makes video performance works that are tense and absurdist. Pulling from the comedic theory of Henri Bergson and the video work of Bas Jan Ader, Moss sets up constructed scenarios or stunts where her body often acts as one of the objects in a system. In a way, her performances and videos are perfectly matched for the unfolding of the capitalist story aboard the Hanjin Geneva.

A week into the journey between Vancouver and Shanghai, the Hanjin Geneva received the news that the South Korean company had filed for court receivership – a sort of first step in the bankruptcy process. With a fleet of 90 ships, the company’s workers are in a precarious position. Hanjin is swamped in debt, and ports are refusing to take their ships in due to complications from the bankruptcy and fear that the company won’t be able to pay to have their ships unloaded. The boat was scheduled to dock on September 15, but that now seems unlikely.

The vast global shipping network that carries products to shop shelves is, for the most part, invisible. Crews work day and night to bring massive anonymous shipping containers from one side of the world to the other. Stranded in the Pacific Ocean, the Hanjin Geneva floats, waiting for the forces of capitalism to blow in its direction. Moss has been in contact with Access Gallery’s partners in Asia, and there are arrangements being made to get her ashore safely. Until then, Moss is anchored in the open Pacific, and continues to produce work onboard the container ship. We spoke to Moss by email to talk about the residency and how it’s affecting her artwork.

What interested you about this residency in the first place?

Rebecca Moss: This residency seemed like it would produce some very interesting results. It chimed with a lot of the main concerns of my art practise, such as humanity's dynamic with the natural world, but also, I was really intrigued to witness first hand how all of this stuff flows across the Pacific. The hidden systems that underpin consumerism and capitalism.

How has day-to-day travel been aboard the ship?

Rebecca Moss: The thing that immediately struck me is that there is a clearly delineated hierarchy on the ship, and the day is ordered around three meal times. Myself and the two other passengers are completely incongruous – it was a running joke in the first week that as we have no functional purpose we could only be here as light entertainment for the workers.

Have you been able to get any sense of what this situation means for the crew onboard?

Rebecca Moss: This situation is not unusual. Everybody here is controlled by large global corporations that sit hundreds or thousands of miles away. The crew on board seem surprisingly unphased by it, which in itself reveals a lot.

“I am finding it psychologically difficult. I am essentially stuck here, without a choice to leave – to go for a simple walk down the street” – Rebecca Moss

What has that experience of drifting without a destination been like?

Rebecca Moss: I am finding it psychologically difficult. I am essentially stuck here, without a choice to leave – to go for a simple walk down the street. I have been throwing myself into work, and researching the context around this crisis – reading Bloomberg and Forbes to understand the circumstances that led to this. Any sense of purpose, no matter how minor, is better than boredom.

You work mainly as a video artist, documenting events and experiments as they unfold - what has your thought process been like while filming onboard?

Rebecca Moss: The process of 'making a scene' is important in my work. I construct scenarios where I am trying to figure something out - to push something to a point of crisis to make it tip one way or another. Before the news of Hanjin's bankruptcy, I had to be more active to find interesting things to frame in my scenarios, whereas now, it feels like the scenario is readymade, and I am unpicking it rather than constructing it.

How has this event changed the way you perceive the sea?

Rebecca Moss: Before I left, I expected to perceive the ocean as vast and overwhelming, and to understand that the planet is a far bigger place than I could ever conceive. The opposite has happened – I feel the world has now become a smaller, global space, that is in part down to the free market, but also the Internet. I currently write this while anchored 13 miles off of the coast of Japan. I can talk to any friends or family members in real time whenever I wish. This perception is strangely disappointing, and potentially dangerous in terms of humanity's belief in its transcendent position in relation to the rest of the planet.

The ship you’re travelling on is going westward from North America to Asia – do you have any idea whether the goods on the cargo ship are North American products destined primarily for Asian markets? Are you able to get any sense of what role the ship you’re on is playing in the larger flow of things?

Rebecca Moss: Unfortunately, every attempt I have made to understand what is in the containers has been futile, except for the frozen containers, which I know at least contain frozen french fries (the owner contacted me directly on Facebook to see if I had any news). One of the containers is leaking a foul smelling brown liquid – I'm told it is from animal skins. In a way this blindness – the sheer randomness of everything on board – adds to the absurdity.

In what ways has this situation changed the way you think about your own practice as an artist?

Rebecca Moss: I have come to realise that I don't think I have a studio-based practise. I really value being out here, in the world, in a difficult situation that has helped me understand how these systems really work.

See more of Rebecca’s work on her official website

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