A thought provoking art exhibition

23 June 2015

Last month I stumbled across a captivating exhibition on Facebook that my friend Margaret Woodward was holding in Melbourne. She was offering homemade cakes and cups of tea to anyone who attended but it was her target audience - men who spend their working lives at sea - that had me wanting to find out more.

Margaret’s exhibition, The Sea is All Around Us, was held at Dome Gallery, which is part of the Mission to Seafarers complex. The  mission looks after the welfare of seafarers by providing number of really practical free services to make their short time on land easier, beginning with transportation from the Port of Melbourne - where their ships dock - to the CBD by mini-bus.

For two weeks, Margaret used the gallery to extend a special welcome to international seafarers who called into the mission. Homemade lamingtons and cups of tea were on offer, as well as specially designed souvenirs. There were postcards, bright orange camp cups and exhibition catalogues to choose from and the gifts invited the recipients to take part in a broader project that would map the movement of the souvenirs using a QR code that was stamped on each item.

A few weeks after her show wrapped up, I chatted to Margaret about how the project came about, how it evolved and where the men and their souvenirs are now.

How did you become interested in seafarers and come to build an exhibition around them?

The Mission to Seafarers in Melbourne has an exhibition program and they encourage projects that fit with the theme of seafaring, maritime history or what they call the sea and humanity, which is quite a nice way to put their concerns together. 

This sea and humanity theme triggered an interest in me but it was also visiting the space itself. The exhibition space is a dome, so it's like a James Turrell artwork, you're in this glorious space with light coming in. I was completely entranced by the space and then the mission itself, which is a working mission - looking after people and being concerned for their welfare. All of that made my eyes just pop out because I had this project at the back of my mind that I'd been wanting to work on for awhile, which is about tracking the mobile life of souvenirs.

I thought here's a great opportunity - there's this wonderful space, there's an exhibition program, there's a captive audience if you like of people who are going places - seafarers - and there's also a captive audience who need to be welcomed in a caring way to Melbourne, given that they're here for a very short space of time. 

Do most seafarers that come to Melbourne end up visiting the Mission? And how long are they on land for?

They're often in port for only 24 hours and some of that time they're working. They'll be on the ship at night, so they'll probably be off the ship for maybe six to seven hours. I only know this because I was lucky enough to board a ship. 

Where the seafarers get left is in the Port of Melbourne, which is actually quite a long way from the CBD. It's all secure, there's fences and cameras and there's no way they can find their way to the city after the get off the ship. So that's where the mission gets special access to pick them up and deliver them to the mission in the first instance because there they can do some of those practical things like change money and get a map. It's also got this lovely social atmosphere in there. It's like a time-capsule, like something from The Grand Budapest Hotel, just the characters there. There are amazing characters who volunteer in the mission and then the seafarers themselves.

I’d love to get a sense of how the seafarers interacted with your exhibition. Did they discover the space on their own? And what was a typical interaction like?

When I planned it, I was imagining a much more leisurely participation but I got the sense really early on from the volunteers that the seafarers are here and they're in a hurry. The volunteers were great in that they brought them straight into my space. 

I guess what I'd set up was a ritual welcome and so for the mission that was nice to have somebody greeting them and taking an interest. It was finding out where they're from, where they're going and asking them things like what role they had on the ship, how long they'd been at sea. Some of them would reveal more than others and that would very much depend on what role they had.

Mostly they were really happy to be there, really proud to have their photos taken and really wanted to be part of the project, which also totally overwhelmed me because I'm used to people being quite circumspect about things.

Did that level of interaction change how you perceived the project? 

Absolutely. Before I started, I was seeing it very much as a mapping project of recording destinations, making paths - it was very much a technical project if you like. What happened in the process of being there was this real human connection with these delightful seafarers. 

One guy I met told me how he's just working to support his mother. He's an only child, his mother lives back in the Philippines, she's elderly and he's just totally devoted to supporting her. I get goosebumps even recalling that conversation. The more I know about the welfare side of it, which was informed by the mission, the more passionate I am about taking the project in further directions.

What has happened since then with the souvenirs the seafarers took with them? Are they part of the project simply by having an item or do they have to actively engage and report back to you? 

The mug's got this QR code on the bottom and they scan that with a QR scanning app. If you print out the catalogue the QR code is on there so you can scan it and see the interface that they'll get to, it's just a page that can only be accessed by that code. It just asks them - where are they now, whether they've got a mug or a catalogue or a postcard, what number it is and tell me something about your journey. Because it's a university ethics projects, there are limits to how much personal identity can be revealed through that website, so it's been set up particularly anonymously.

On my website I can see the cup number and when they've scanned it -  this last person has a mug, it’s mug number 38, he’s in the Port of Suva in Fiji and he’s saying - ‘It’s getting hot now.’ Other comments from other people - ‘I'm about to fly home and I'm so excited to see my loved ones’ and ‘I'm signing off here in Malaysia, tomorrow I'll fly home to the Philippines.’ 

They're fairly minimal comments but  having gone through this, which I also see as a bit of a test run, I would in another iteration of it set it up so that there could be a little bit more of that personal commentary coming through. Also I think it's really important, and I realise this in retrospect, for the seafarers themselves to see where the other cups are.

How many people have scanned their items since they left the gallery and Melbourne?

I have 48 responses so far and a few of them are double ups, so let's say I've had 40.

That's pretty exciting, you must just wake up and want to check in to see where they are.

I do keep checking it and I've had to adjust to the pace of the ship because they can't communicate when they're on the ship. I think from the captain or manager's point of view, they don't want seafarers in constant contact with their families in case there is trouble or issues at home and then the seafarers are stuck at sea, not able to do anything about it.

I had no idea. I thought that when they had off time they could Skype or have a mobile - so it's all port related?

By and large the majority of them can only communicate when they're in ports so therefore as far as my project goes, they can only communicate when the get to the next destination and I’m thinking - come on, come on. Then I go to my live shipping website - I've become this real shipping addict - and go, well where is that ship? I can actually see where it is so I can realistically go, well nobody's going to be scanning anything until they get to the next port. 

That's a really good realisation because part of this is about uncovering how this is an invisible world. We take so much for granted - the things that arrive - we don't think, how did they get here? And we certainly, I mean I don't, think about the timeframes that people are away. 

I wanted to ask you about the chalk drawings you did on the floor of the exhibition space that physically documented the journeys of the seafarers. Were you drawing when the seafarers were there? 

The drawing of the destinations and the ships happened live with them there but the other more reflective writing happened afterwards. There wasn't a constant stream of seafarers, so in between I was drawing and I had this beautiful book from the 1950's that actually belonged to my Dad called Decorative Maps. There were all sorts of conventions from that that I could use as ornamental devices, which for me getting back to my graphic design, mapping and drawing was deeply satisfying, as well as having relevance to the seafarers.

It was a really nice moment when seafarers came in and I'd already drawn their ship on the floor because a few from their ship had come earlier. When they came in I'd say, ‘Oh, you're from the Forum Pacific and I know you're going to Fiji next.’ The volunteers and the manager of the mission say that nobody takes an interest in them anymore so just to know what ship they're from and where they're going is like 100 per cent interest in terms of what normally occurs.

What the mission does is fantastic as far as just giving the seafarers some orientation. Another big side of things is giving them counselling and support in a practical way, it might be medical help. I think the real shame of all this is that it relies on the goodwill of the mission to do this. It's because the seafarers are not Australian citizens, they're from this international community that nobody wants to give that concern or that extend that welfare to them.

Thank you Margaret and you can stay up to date with the project through her blog and check out earlier exhibitions and creative projects via her website

As we talked, Margaret and I realised that the difficult conditions under which seafarers work had become quite topical of late. If you're interested, you might like to check out this radio documentary series, this 4 Corners investigation and Blue Angel, a creative storytelling project by Big Hart.

Photos by Margaret Woodward and Justy Phillips.

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