A young artist is stuck at sea, and it might be the best thing that's ever happened to her

Rebecca Moss is a British artist taking part in a Vancouver-based residency program called 23 Days at Sea — but she'll be on the ocean longer than that.

She was supposed to spend 23 days at sea. Now, no one knows when the ship will dock

The Hanjin Geneva, currently anchored off the coast of Japan. (Instagram/@_rebecca.moss)

For the last 13 days, a UK artist has been stuck on a boat off the coast of Japan.

Her name is Rebecca Moss, and she's a 25-year-old filmmaker and graduate student. On August 23, she hopped aboard a shipping vessel in Vancouver, the Hanjin Geneva, joining a 20-person crew, two American tourists and a few thousand shipping containers for a voyage to Shanghai.

British artist Rebecca Moss on board the Hanjin Geneva. Moss is taking part in a Vancouver-based residency program called 23 Days at Sea, but she'll be on the ocean longer than that. When the company that owned the ship went bankrupt, the boat dropped anchor off the coast of Japan, and it's unclear when they'll be able to reach land. (Facebook/Rebecca Moss)

A week later, they were ordered to stop. The Hanjin Shipping Company — one of the largest cargo carriers in the world and the owner of the vessel — filed for bankruptcy and the ship dropped anchor. Now the Geneva, and dozens of other Hanjin boats, can't go to port. The ports themselves won't let the boats dock; they fear they won't get paid. And the company doesn't want the boats to head for land, either — vessels would likely be seized by creditors upon arrival.

And so, the boat's stuck. Stuck and waiting for further instruction.

They have food and water, though the Vancouver Sun reports that they're conserving supplies. They have Internet. They can see land from where they're anchored — and, should you be so inclined, you can track their exact location through the magic of technology. They don't know when they'll be leaving, though — but as Moss tells CBC Arts, it could be worse.

Actually, for her, this might be the best thing that could happen.

Stuck, not stranded

A portrait of the artist... eight days after Hanjin announced its bankruptcy. (Instagram/@_rebecca.moss)

On Monday, Moss posted an update on Facebook to make that clear.

"I felt compelled to write a statement, as I feel the opportunities this predicament can bring are being sidelined for a sensationalist 'stranded at sea' angle in the media," she writes.

"For those familiar with my art practice, and with my sense of humour, this situation is oddly suited to me and I am sure will inform my work for years to come."

Moss, for those unfamiliar, is a big fan of the absurd. Instagram posts like this one might give you a sense of that.

As for her art, one of the more popular examples is "Frog" — a film where she plays a frog on a pogo stick.

"In my work I devise slapstick scenarios that seek to understand a dynamic between humanity and a landscape by pushing situations to a point of crisis," she writes on Facebook. "Surely, we can all agree that this turn of events has enormous potential, and is strangely tailored to my interests?"

In essence, the absurdity of the situation is not lost on Moss. And she is taking full advantage of it.

Whereas before I was trying hard to extract absurdity, now it hits me in the face wherever I look.- Rebecca Moss, artist

She's surrounded by containers teeming with mystery merchandise — sweatpants? Frozen pizzas? — goods that travelled across the sea, only to never be delivered. Crew members work tirelessly to maintain the ship, even though their jobs are in question, and the boat itself might be seized when it reaches land.

"Whereas before I was trying hard to extract absurdity, now it hits me in the face wherever I look," Moss tells CBC Arts, answering our questions via e-mail.

The pros and cons of being stuck in the middle of the ocean

Since her trip began, Moss says she's been documenting life at sea, paying attention to the landscape, the boat itself and the people — a crew of men and women, with whom she says she gets on well. She describes them as extraordinarily hardworking, despite the uncertainty of their whole situation.

She admits she has some concerns, though. There are plenty of questions that don't have answers. "When are we going to get into a port? Will I ever get to Shanghai? Will Hanjin, NSB Reiseboro and Conti consider the people that work very hard for them, who are currently trapped on their vessels in this situation?"

And, she writes: "I worry about getting back to London, and starting my next year at the Royal College of Art."

As far as the downside goes, that's all she shares, and she writes largely about how the situation has been a win — conceptually speaking, at least.

"Whatever I made prior to this predicament is now dramatically contextualized within this new situation," she says. "This expands the scope of everything I have made and will continue to make."

23+ days at sea

The whole reason she hopped the boat in the first place takes us back to Vancouver.

In 2014, the city's Access Gallery launched an unusual project. It's called 23 Days at Sea, and entails just that: 23 days on a shipping vessel, one that sails from Vancouver to China.

According to Kimberly Phillips, the director and curator at Access Gallery, 1,001 people applied for this year's edition. Moss is one of just four residents selected for this year's program.

As long as she's safe, it's one of the most amazing things. It sounds really galling, but it's true.-Kimberly Phillips, Curator/Director Access Gallery

Phillips says she's in regular contact with Moss, and they connect every other day via e-mail. British emergency services and the British Consulate in Vancouver are aware of the artist's situation, she says, but because there's no immediate danger, there's no action being taken to remove her.

Says Phillips: "As long as she's safe, it's one of the most amazing things. It sounds really galling, but it's true."

"The residency is meant to provoke thought about what might constitute creative space. How does boredom and tedium, as Rebecca is no doubt experiencing, become a catalyst for ideas?" she says. "In our contemporary lives, we seemed to have devised every possible means to avoid feeling bored! There's always an e-mail to check, a place to rush to, etc. But being in a situation which deprives you of that seeming momentum can be incredibly generative."

Christopher Boyne is among the few artists to have done the same residency as Moss, and he shared some highlights of his trip with CBC Arts earlier this year.

When he heard what happened to Moss, he was shocked. Well, sort of.

Boyne's boat sat at anchor for three days before reaching Shanghai, he explains. The port wasn't ready for them, and they could have waited much longer. When you travel by shipping vessel, he says, "You're always hyper-aware that things could change." Still, he says being in Moss's situation would have been an extreme example of that particular fact.

"It's incredible that it happened for her, of anyone who's going," Boyne says. "I felt a little bit of concern, but also a lot of excitement for her, because it is, in a way, a dream conclusion to the residency."

"I also felt a lot of jealousy," he laughs. "I enjoyed the experience so much that I didn't want to get off the ship."

"I think the biggest thing she's facing is probably just the boredom."

Embracing the absurdity of the situation

For Moss's part, she says she's keeping busy. "I feel a compulsion to document everything, as I feel that while this may be quite taxing to live through, it will be extraordinary to watch back."

And she writes about some of her favourite moments of the trip so far: "When we were sailing past Alaska, I saw some of the most beautiful sights of my life. There was a volcano on an island covered in snow and ice. There were dolphins and whales and birds. It was totally silent, and a thick fog descended around us, which gave the odd impression that the boat was flying."

The ship was originally scheduled to reach Shanghai by September 15, but it's unclear where it will ultimately arrive — never mind when.

For those familiar with my art practice, and with my sense of humour, this situation is oddly suited to me and I am sure will inform my work for years to come.- Rebecca Moss, artist

When it reaches land, though, one of the residency's overseas partners will ensure Moss is taken care of. Someone will greet her when she arrives, Phillips says. Accommodation and further travel arrangements will also be seen to.

An exhibition, one featuring the work of this year's four residents, is in development. It'll be the follow-up to last year's inaugural edition — a show that is now touring the country, arriving at the Niagara Artists Centre in St. Catharines, Ont. this October. Phillips says it's too early to say whether Moss's unusual experience will affect how the new exhibition is curated.

That said, her overall plans for the 23 Days at Sea program remain unchanged. The next resident, she says, is scheduled to sail on October 4.

Track the whereabouts of Moss's ship, the Hanjin Geneva, in real time.


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