With the fourth chapter of “The Voyage, or Three Years at Sea” on view—there are due to be six chapters in all—Canadian Art’s Sam Cotter caught up with Rimmer by phone as she reflected on the project to date and set her gaze forward to its summation.
Sam Cotter: I’d like to start by asking how you approach this as a serial project. What is your philosophy for curation through time?
Cate Rimmer: I guess there are a few things that came into play with formulating the project. One is a constant feeling in curation—that you could have done more, but you simply didn’t have the space or the time to do it. You know the feeling: “I wish I put that piece in” or “If only I had room for that,” that sort of thing. Partially in response to those feelings, I had done a couple of other exhibitions that were in two parts.
When I started to work on this project, I realized that there was a lot of interesting work that was related to the sea. The more I looked, the more pieces made me think, “I’d love to show that.” At first, I was thinking about one exhibition, but I quickly realized that wasn’t going to cut it. Even thinking about it as two parts was still a problem for me. At the same time, I was reading about sea voyages and how, historically, people would make this commitment to the voyage—they would often depart on a voyage or exploration for three to five years.
That interested me. I thought that it would be really nice to approach the exhibitions that way—like going on a voyage. I started thinking, “What duration should it be?” and “How will it function?” Obviously, in a place like this, the Charles H. Scott Gallery, we can’t do every single exhibition on the same thematic element—it would be a problem with the commitments we’ve already made.
So instead, I thought about how I could thread it through our programming as a longer-term time commitment. Three years seemed like a good choice—Moby-Dick was a three-year voyage; three is a recurring number in math and in my readings. That’s kind of how it came about in terms of this prolonged exhibition project. So I like to think about it as this exhibition in multiple parts—it functions like a book, unfolding in chapters.
Curatorially, the thing that I have really loved about this project is the ability to then develop it as it goes along. Things that I’ve researched for one component of the exhibitions can begin to inform another part of it. I can respond to feedback that I’ve gotten from people, even down to the way an exhibition is installed.
As a curator, it’s been incredibly rewarding to take on something like this and really muck with the idea of what an exhibition can be and how you can present that kind of thing.
SC: Yeah. Obviously the scale of the exhibition is very fitting for a subject like the sea, both in terms of the topographical vastness and the web of history, commerce, cultural memory and mythology.
CR: That’s right—there are just so many different kinds of approaches to this quite broad subject. It’s really allowed me to think about addressing different aspects separately, not just jumbling them all together in a mix of representations.
Another part of the project was also to thinking about the gallery—on Granville Island, which used to be an industrial site. I think the gallery used to be a chain factory or something like that. Though Vancouver is a port city, very few people have an understanding of its maritime history. There is a disconnection from the ocean—it has become a recreational place for kayaking and windsurfing, or whatever. I wanted to explore the history of “here” and bring that in as well; hence, I developed the relationship with the Maritime Museum, using their objects to try to bring historical elements into the contemporary exhibition.
SC: I find it interesting, in following the cycle of exhibition, that the first few had a distinctly Atlantic feeling, with the sea as a portal connecting the Old World and the New. But the current incarnation on trade, power, and politics seems to signal a movement toward a more Pacific focus, if not a globalized perspective.
CR: I don’t want thinking about the sea to be a wholly nostalgic thing, so again, it really comes down to playing with the different ways of approaching it. You can’t look at the sea without looking at its business and politics because they are so huge and dominant. Certainly, with an artist like Allan Sekula, you bring issues tied to the West Coast. But Uriel Orlow’s work is about the Middle East—a different component, a global issue I suppose—and the business of shipping.
SC: In terms of your curatorial hand, how do you temper facilitating projects for living artists with culling through the archives and transforming raw materials? You seem to perform several distinct curatorial roles as you weave projects by disparate artists, on only loosely similar subjects, with historical artifacts.
CR: It’s an interesting thing. I believe curating is a very creative process and this exhibition has really allowed me to feel that. On the other hand, in the act of curating I’m constantly questioning myself about what my intentions are.
When I’m presenting a historical object and situating it within this show, I repeatedly ask myself how I am representing it and if I am being true to the way it should be presented. Those questions certainly come up because you can’t just commandeer something and place it next to somebody else’s work, forcing context. I try to be pretty sensitive about that and have them kind of develop a discussion.
I like the idea of having different things weave through all of the exhibitions. If you only come to one, you might not pick up on the references that connect it back to another exhibition, but if you’re following the whole series you begin to see these threads.
In the end, I’m hoping to do a book that would strengthen these connections. For example, the first show had Tacita Dean’s work about Donald Crowhurst, and the second exhibition, on ill-fated voyages, had Slave Piano’s work about Donald Crowhurst and Bas Jan Ader, and that exhibition also had Ader’s work in it.
I like to have these kinds of threads play through all the exhibitions and also hopefully through some of the historical objects.
SC: It certainly seems there are curatorial sleights of hand coming out the project—certain grey zones open up where Slave Piano’s piece shifts back and forth from being an autonomous entity to an extended caption on Bas Jan Ader’s Bulletin.
CR: Exactly. I really like the play, to keep poking. People are like, “Oh my god, you’re doing six exhibitions!” But for me, that’s almost not enough. I’d love to have some of those threads continue through, even beyond this project. It’s really rewarding to play with some of those things, absolutely.
Also, bringing up Slave Piano, we have a pirate radio project on which we broadcast a performance of the Slave Piano piece. And Rodney Graham put together some music for the first broadcast. We’ve also played the radio play The Kraken Wakes. I like all these things to reference back into the exhibition as well.
SC: I was wondering about the flow of the exhibition cycle. Obviously, there are breaks, and it seems to take on a wave-like structure; you’re hit by each wave, which is then followed by a recession before the cycle repeats.
CR: That’s actually a really nice metaphor; those are the kind of things that you wonder, as a curator, if anyone will pick up on. I hope that it comes off like that that, a voyage where there are pauses before it starts again. Something else that is interesting that people are telling me is that when you stand in the exhibition, you become aware of the previous exhibitions. Physically being there in the space—if you’ve seen the other ones—they start to play back in your head. There is a nice idea of the space that comes in, like you said, waves. You become aware of spatial and temporal factors playing in.
SC: Can I ask you to look forward and tell me how you see a three-year voyage coming to an end?
CR: I keep joking that I’m going to be shipwrecked and I’ll never escape; you can use lots of nautical terms for it.
As the shows developed, I ended up so immersed in them—it being so exciting and rewarding. We’ve got two more exhibitions after this and I can see myself somehow continuing it from there. I have this fantasy of going on a trip by freighter—one where it takes months to get anywhere—just locking myself away and writing. Who knows? Maybe I will go to sea and never return, like Bas Jan Ader.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This article was corrected on November 22, 2012. In the original text, Uriel Orlow was referred to as Gabriel Orlow.