Late August 2016, Irminger Basin > Southampton, UK
The scientific events – instrument deployment and sample collection – took over a week of around the clock working to complete. Once done, we left the Irminger Basin area and headed back towards Southampton, signalling a different phase in the journey; science equipment was packed away leaving the deck freer for the crew to prepare it for dock and the scientists could exhale ever so slightly as their shifts returned to normal day time hours. For myself, there was a sense of growing urgency as I realised my time on the Discovery and for collecting material was limited.
When I arrived on the ship I had ideas, intentions and projections about what I might be interested in but mostly I had an open mind. At the start of the journey I was engaged in what felt like a crash course in oceanography, learning basic terms and theories to enable me to grasp the research and its approaches. I absorbed information from a wide range of sources without judgement or anticipation for where it would lead, lest it be limiting in the long run.
This led to some wonderful experiences. A chance conversation with a member of the crew led to them cracking a joke and suggesting that since I was an artist maybe I could help out by doing some painting below deck. As it goes, the idea of ‘painting the ship’ in actuality rather than a representation was very appealing. So, with a leap of faith, Duncan took me below deck, showing me the waste disposal systems, water tanks, engine room, propellers and thrusters along the way, and shared with me his painting techniques.
Our task was to paint hazard lines; new regulations insist they need to be painted rather than using an old school style of tape. It was impossible for me not to connect the sharp masking taped edges, shiny gloss paint and the geometric design to an aesthetic of hard edge abstraction; masquerading health and safety legislation as a site-specific artwork.
I’ve been thinking about the ship as a highly efficient organism whose interdependent systems are both frighteningly complex yet provide the stability and comfort that makes the ship so habitable. The water storage systems and circulation of water on board was of particular interest, not least because it connects to the research into ocean current circulation that is the focus of the cruise. The types of water in circulation on the ship include black water – which is water from the toilets, sewage essentially – which is stored in a tank and treated with bacteria, and grey water, which is used water from the bathroom taps, showers and the galley and includes all the cleaning potions and bodily detritus like dead skin, hair and toenails. Apparently, grey water is the most pungent smelling of the water tanks, even more so than black water.
One of the challenges and excitements of the journey was learning about the research. It was like learning a new language; every question I asked led to a labyrinth of other questions that needed answering before we could return to the original question. I spent time listening and watching the scientists work and observing the equipment in action. To deepen my understanding I got more involved with the data that was being collected and began to mimic some of the scientific processes, this included collecting my own data sets (of water temperature and salinity) live from the CTD computer screen whilst the instruments moved from the sea floor to the sea surface. Also, collecting my own water samples from the CTD, which collects water from depths ranging from 10 metres below the surface to around 6000 meters down, just above the seabed.
I was excited by the transience and inaccessibility of the seawater at these depths, for me it suggested an almost mythical quality; like a piece of rock from the moon, only more rare and infinitely less tangible. The properties of the water (its temperature and salinity) change very quickly once brought to the surface; whilst it still holds symbolic potential it ceases to be the thing it was. I wanted to find a way to somehow ‘capture’ it immediately and rather than storing it in a bottle (which I couldn’t help connect to Duchamp’s ‘Paris Air’) I began using the seawater from the different depths to paint with, using watercolour. I designed a colour key to indicate the depth, temperature and salinity of the water and plotted the data to build a visual stratification of the information. My data-plot was obviously much less precise than those created by the scientists, however it did visualise the different kinds of water passing through the area, from which the origin of the water and its current could be identified.
I also spent a lot of time taking photographs and moving images. In the middle of the North Atlantic from one day to the next, without land in sight, the view tends not to change dramatically and I have many seemingly repetitious photographs of the horizon line, weather, sunsets and wildlife. The lack of dramatic change however perhaps builds a greater sensitivity to the small changes in the environment; shifts in the swell or bird life or a sighting of another ship on the horizon. Other subtle differences included indescribably beautiful sunrises and sunsets and in particular, whale sightings, which would dominate attention. In many of my photographs the blue, grey and green of the seascape is interrupted by the ship’s colourful architecture or science equipment, suggesting human presence but also bringing a sense of scale to the otherwise expansive wilderness.
I was expecting to feel a sense of loneliness at sea, however I didn’t. For me it was a very a social experience, perhaps because I was trying to learn, meet people and be present when things were happening. Listening to people’s stories was a particularly joyful aspect of the experience and fed into my thoughts about storytelling about the sea in literature, such as Moby Dick (Melville), ‘The Rime of The Ancient Mariner’ (Coleridge), ‘Maelstrom’ (Poe). Some of the stories that were told by crew and scientists have made their way into becoming audio recordings, which I am now (having returned) starting to transcribe.
One of the unusual and yet invaluable parts of the experience was being able to work in the lab alongside the science team. Whilst I was drawing, painting or writing, the scientists around me were studying data, calibrating, making plots and preparing for science events. It was fantastically immersive and allowed me to absorb a huge amount of information; from knowing what was going on in terms of science events and data results, to seeing data interpreted in real time on the monitor screens. My proximity to the action embedded this new language more concretely in my understanding. It also meant that what I was doing, incongruous and out of place as it may seem, was visible and accessible.
After three weeks at sea we docked and disembarked in Southampton. The sun was shining and as we got closer to land I was hit by the smell of warm earth and rock and flowers and other things that I hadn’t realised I’d missed. The smell was powerful in its unfamiliarity, more so than the view of the approaching coastline. Back on land my legs did wobble (everyone asks) as my body physically re-acclimatised to solid ground but it’s taking longer for my head, which seems to still want to be out at sea. Luckily in some sense it still can be, as the next stage for me will be to start processing, editing, reviewing, assimilating and developing the material.