Out at Sea: On Taking a Year off and Building a Boat
“I don’t know, I just stand here.”
Those words spilled out of my mouth when I was introduced to the new Principal Curator of the Auckland Art Gallery. She’d just asked me what my role was in the gallery I was working at. My answer was a total professional fail and a symptom of my ongoing depression. Over the previous four months I’d spent hours after work crying on the sofa, on my bed, in my partner’s arms, about how I didn’t want to be doing what I was doing anymore. The feeling of a mismatch between what I was doing and what I wanted to be doing kept growing bigger and all my efforts towards finding something new kept failing. Each time I tried and failed I came less and less capable of trying again, creating a seemingly unstoppable cycle of ever growing depression. I became more and more withdrawn, less and less capable of participating in the social interactions of the workplace and profession and so, in small increments grew my feelings of isolation and alienation until they were bigger than I’d thought ever possible.
Underlying my feeling of mismatch was a bigger abyss, a crisis of faith in the very field of activity that my whole world was built around: art. I’d spent the greater proportion of my time for 20 years (if you count art school) making, researching, writing about, curating and administering art and right then this endeavour felt pointless, without substance. It’s hard to communicate a crisis of self or crisis of faith in your field of practice to people when from the outside what you’re doing looks great. I mean, I was working with excellent people, on interesting projects, with a large amount of autonomy and a manager who encouraged me to propose and realise ideas, supporting often quite politically radical projects.
Participating in the professionalised field of contemporary art entails a commitment to an entire philosophy and ideology about something whose value and impact is quite intangible. On the one hand you need to accept the base conceptual abstraction of the field, that any action, gesture or assemblage of items can be an artwork given the right intentionality or framework. You need to believe in the effect of art - its power to touch or talk to people in specific ways, to move them, if only subtly. However, on the other hand there is an underlying assumption in the field about the specific place of the artist and arts professional as expert, of art creation as a professional field of endeavour, and of success being based on merit. These assumptions embed all kinds of hierarchies, of art forms and of social relationships, into the arts. They also act to implicitly dismiss the creative capacities of the non-professional, the amateur, those who haven’t been professionalised through education, ironically at the same time as more and more artworks are created through social exchange between the professional artist and a community.
So, when Zara Stanhope asked me that simple question, ‘what do you do here?’, I truly no longer knew. I was just standing there staring at the abyss, immobilised by my crisis. Her question was too close to mine: ‘what am I doing here?’
Four months later I decided that it was easier to stop than to keep going, easier to step outside of the institution that was triggering my crisis than to try to work through it. That I was able to make this decision, to step outside of paid employment, for even a short time, is a result of a confluence of factors, a lack of dependents, a willingness to live frugally, and the generosity of my family. I had a small amount of money, a gift from my grandparents via my mother. Enough for a house deposit in Auckland if it had been 1993, or enough to take a risk.
I chose to think of the money as a windfall that was just enough, if I lived carefully, to give me a year. A year to rediscover my balance. A sabbatical, understood both in the academic sense of a year to pursue the projects that were closest to your heart and the Hebraic sense of a Sabbath or year of rest to renew the terrain. And then, having made that decision, I effectively closed my eyes and jumped out the window. I quit my job not knowing if I’d get another one in the arts at the end of my year, not knowing if I even wanted another one. Maybe another person would have negotiated a leave of absence, but for me, after eight months of what seemed like endless evenings crying and days just standing there I’d had enough.
In the end, my way out, in fact my entire career, is a reflection of the unconscious privilege I carry around with me every day. A child of middle-class white professionals, with an ease of access to education. A grandchild to successful farmers who could endow their descendents with assets. This composition of race and class makes specific options available to me which are unavailable to others. My privilege manifests itself in multiple ways, from my perception that I have both a right and a place to speak from to my ability pass easily through the bureaucracy of government departments and my expectation that I will not be harassed by police on the street. Writing this text I have wondered if I’m just creating another piece of ‘priv lit’ about how I took a year to ‘discover’ myself. It most definitely isn’t advocating cultural and spiritual consumption as the route to happiness. But it is talking about an option - taking time out from undertaking or seeking paid employment - that isn’t commonly available despite the many people who are in desperate need of it.
I didn’t go anywhere on my year. I stayed in Auckland and in the main kept on doing what I’d been doing: thinking, researching and creating. That I kept doing art-related activity told me one thing - it was the industry of art, not the acts of creating and thinking, that was making me unhappy. However, I have to ask myself: was it the industry, or my perception that it wasn’t validating me that was the problem? Would I have questioned its structures and hierarchies if I’d had a smooth trajectory from undergraduate degree to exhibiting artist, or doctoral degree to employed academic? Or would my ideas still have moved with my exposure to critical analyses of capitalism, the cultural industry, gender and constructions of intellectual property and community?
I don’t know the answer to this, just as I don’t know that I’m significantly happier than before the year off, and I can’t say for sure that I’ve resolved my crisis with my field of endeavour or if its just settled down into an uneasy ambiguity. These are all still questions I’m grappling with, but I do know that I got some great things out of my year for myself. I worked on my research about public art, performance and ethics, started making a documentary, volunteered for Auckland Action Against Poverty, joined a maker space and built a boat.
The germ of the idea, that I might build a boat, was triggered by Auckland Libraries’ book trail. Made up of withdrawn books laid in a path, it guided people between the Central Library and the Cosplay night hosted by ST PAUL St Gallery on White Night 2013. I’d rescued 10 Easy Built Boat Plans from it on a whim, attracted by its 1960s aesthetic and its DIY promises: “any handyman can build ‘Rowboat’ for less than £30”, “use of low-pressure aircraft tyres eliminate the need for springs in a light trailer”, “build this kayak out of hand tools and G-clamps.” Acquired by the library on 18 December 1962, the book had obviously seen some hard use before being relegated to the stack and then the street.
The plans were simple, and the possibility of building a boat crept into my mind. Once there, the idea began to grow. I could build a boat, but was this the right boat? If I was building a boat, why not a better boat? I downloaded scans from old boating magazines, issued books from the library, and weighed the aesthetic merits of various design. Before I knew it I’d gone from a simple weekend project to something infinitely more complex. More books were needed. I discovered that the North Shore libraries held the best selection of boat-building books and ordered them brought over. Thick books filled with boat plans for the experienced builders and the novices, coffee table books showing beautiful boats, books filled with discussions of the merits of solid wood and ply, stitch and tape versus the more old-fashioned chines and nails. Among these volumes appearing on the hold shelf for me was a slim publication by Harold ‘Dynamite’ Payson, a boat builder in Maine who’d written a step-by-step book about how to build the Gloucester Light Dory designed by Philip Bolger.
Published 22 years after 10 Easy Built Boat Plans, Payson’s 1982 How to build the Gloucester Light Dory described how to build a row boat with beautiful sweeping lines and excellent stability out of ply, oak and fibreglass. A far cry from the stubby dinghy I’d first considered. Aside from the look of the boat there was another factor, the quality of the instructions. The greater number of books I looked at had one to three pages of instructions per boat plan. Payson’s book had 22 pages of instructions with photos for one boat. As he put it in the introduction “The reason I’m writing this is to put something in the hands of prospective builders that will answer any question they may have. I have carried on hour-long conversations with purchasers of these dory plans. Some of these dialogues reveal abysmal ignorance of what are to me, as a professional, such self-evident concepts that I need never consciously think of them … What bothers me is the realisation that somewhere out there in would-be-boatbuilder-land there must be dozens, maybe hundreds of people who have the same questions but don’t track me down for answers.”
Abysmally ignorant of boat building would easily describe me still. But back then I couldn’t make head nor tail of standard diagram annotations like 1,10,6+. I mean 1 was obviously feet, 10 therefore inches, but 6+? My understanding of the imperial system in building, learnt for an exhibition in Canada ten years earlier had taught me how to divide an inch by twelve but all the numbers stopped at 8. After what seemed an enormous amount of searching effort on the internet to try and understand the diagrams I’d been downloading, I was relieved to be able to read in Payson’s text that boat building operates in eighths and sixteenths. 6+ therefore is thirteen sixteenths, or six eights plus one sixteenth. That knowledge and a handy tape measure that operated in imperial saw me through the whole building process.
We don’t often get to have demonstrated to us what we unconsciously know and others don’t know. Even when teaching you assume a particular base of knowledge and/or capacity in your students and as a student admitting to lacking that base knowledge can be challenging and anxiety-inducing, particularly in such an unequal relationship. Similarly, ringing up complete strangers for advice isn’t as simple as picking up the phone and dialling. On the positive I now live in a time and place where I can access more information than ever before about how to do things - blog posts, online videos, instructables and their kin – and so making is more and more accessible, but we’re not building making into daily life. We’re reducing funding for subjects such as music, art, woodwork and food technology for primary school students, meaning that the unconscious confidence that you can make, build, cook, and problem solve is being eroded.
The book, with Payson’s generous descriptions of how to do small simple tasks as well as big complicated ones, travelled with me from home to the workshop and back again everyday I was building the boat. Some days, halfway to the bus stop I would realise that it was still lying on the table beside my empty coffee cup, and have to turn back. It sat on the workbench and later, as the boat grew, inside its hull for ease of consultation. When I finished the boat I reluctantly let it go, returning it to the library in worse condition than I borrowed it (and for that I’m sorry, Auckland Libraries). It’s still available from the Takapuna stack so they must have succeeded in repairing it.
“Starting from scratch as you will be doing, by the time you build your jig, take your side patterns off that, and make one-off versions of all the parts I prefabricate and stockpile in advance, you can bet on a month between the day you gather your material and the day you lug your dory out of the shop.”
What if it takes more than a month?
When a Tangleball member asked me that during the meeting where I negotiated permission to build something so big in their small community maker space I tried hard to see the reasonableness of his question. Really I wanted him to stop finding impediments and for them all to just say yes. Leaving my job had also meant giving up access to a large and professionally provisioned set of workshops and equipment for loan. Universities are not solely sources of income and status for their staff, they also provide a level of access to equipment and expertise that it is hard to source outside of the system. It is partly this access to space and equipment that is driving people into creative postgraduate study, alongside the growth in credentialism. In David Graeber’s recent book The Utopia of Rules he argues that “Almost every endeavour that used to be considered an art (best learned through doing) now requires formal professional training and a certificate of completion. … While these measures are touted - as are all bureaucratic measures - as a way of creating fair, impersonal mechanisms in fields previously dominated by insider knowledge and social connections the effect is opposite.” Qualifications (and funding to achieve them) are easier to access if your family has already acquired education and resources.
My then partner’s solution to me being cut off from the university’s resources was Tangleball.
He’d been trying to encourage me to join this maker space for a few years already, and while I had been happy to drop by, I’d always stayed at arms length from it. Embedded in a world of experts, peer review and ‘quality-assurance’ rhetoric, I’d not entirely bonded with the ethos of the movement which prioritised non-hierarchical relationships both in running the space and between different forms and experiences of making. However, as my discomfort with the art world had grown, so had my alignment shifted from experts to amateurs, and from intellectual property to the commons, from closed to open-access.
The conception of what a maker space is ranges from open, not-for-profit community-created and run spaces to collaborative studios organised by closed groups, and more recently a form of service provision ranging from the pay-to-use by-the-hour workshop to the library maker space formed around a 3D printer. Its definition is hotly contested, particularly given the clash between the early anti-capitalist communitarian ideology and the later embrace of the idea of a maker space by social entrepreneurs who seek to leverage economic gain out of simulating social relationships and providing services for transitory communities. Additionally, where some definitions of a maker space emphasise the provision of a workshop to make in, and the technology to make with, other definitions place primary importance on the sustained creation of community, where the tools and technology are a mechanism to bring people together. When thought of in this way, the greatest making project of a maker space is the co-creation of community by the people involved in it.
For me, Tangleball currently sits firmly within the not-for-profit community-created and organised understanding of the maker space movement, and I’ll fight to keep it there. While indeed a workshop, many of its defining characteristics are found in its organisational structure rather than the specific tools it houses. It runs in as flat and non-hierarchical a manner as possible, discussing and changing itself every Tuesday meeting. However, these aren’t utopic evenings of fun and conviviality. They are frequently contentious, sometimes deeply tedious, and always revealing of the different political and social perspectives of the members and what they think a maker space is. Belonging to Tangleball can be hard work. As Rob Horning wrote for The New Inquiry:
“belonging to communities is hard. It is inefficient. It does not scale. It doesn’t respond predictably to incentives. It takes more work the more you feel you belong. It requires material sacrifice and compromise. It requires a faith in other people that exceeds their commercial reliability. It entails caring about people for no reason, with no promise of gain. In short, being a part of community is a total hassle but totally mandatory (like aging and dying)”
Our communal emotional, physical and intellectual investment in the maker space, however hard, inefficient and aggravating it is, is integral to its being.
The experience of building the boat in Tangleball was significantly different to any other creative act I’d undertaken, performed more publically, and read not as an artwork but a boat. People were invested in its creation. The Tangleball community, having decided to support me, provided advice (some very useful), assistance, and commentary. Given that I built it most days with the roller doors wide open facing onto a street that was popular with pedestrians, cyclists and car drivers alike looking to bypass the lights at the intersection of K’rd, Great North Rd, Ponsonby Rd and Newton Gully other people chimed in once the boat began to take form. They’d slow down as they drove by, sometimes parking up and coming in to talk to me about boats. The fact that I was constructing one acted as an immediate icebreaker.
These were the kind of conversations you have when someone is really enthusiastic about the thing they do, and want to talk about it to someone who is doing the same thing, real amateurs, impassioned about their activity. One guy popped in for over an hour to tell me about the boats he had built, the best saw to use for fine cutting (a Japanese push saw), substitute materials to save money, and colour schemes. He advocated that I paint the bottom of my boat Fluorescent Orange, telling me that the base colour is a safety feature to ensure visibility should I ever overturn. Another person pulled up with his disassembled mast in the back seat of his car to bond over owning small boats and photography. Someone else shared their secret wood oil recipe with me. I spent a lot of these conversations learning things, as I’d leapt into boat building with blithe ignorance and was leaning heavily on my book and earlier lessons in woodworking.
Boat stories came from everywhere. I’d tell someone I was building a boat and it would trigger tales of other boats built or at least begun, often tales of their father’s attempts at building boats. One friend relayed the story of the boat her father built in the living room, so large they had to take the side of the house off to get it out. My father and his brothers tried to remember the name of the fibreglass boat my great uncle, and latterly my uncle, had manufactured since the 1940s. It was a cold pressed fibreglass dinghy named the Walnut. At my Grandfather’s funeral, catching up with relatives I’d not seen for years, my cousin recalled his unfinished boat. Begun at high school, the shell still languished on his other grandfather’s land. UK migrants immediately referenced the Mirror Dinghy, the DIY boat plans published by the UK newspaper the Mirror, that launched more than one family into sailing. Perhaps predictably, all these stories were about men forming a narrative that matched masculinity with a type of competency, self sufficiency, problem solving and physical being in the world that building and sailing your own boat signals.
While I enjoyed the way my building of a boat subtly upset this narrative, I was also negotiating the gender imbalance of the maker movement.
It was something the other members of Tangleball were struggling with too: a recognition that their (our) community membership was predominantly male. Women were not remaining members, or becoming members in the first place. This is a pervasive issue across the entire maker space movement reflecting both general cultural assumptions around types of making and who performs them, but also the way in which the individual social culture of a group can privilege certain ways of interacting or signal types of belonging. As Georgia Guthrie argued in her 2014 article Where are the Women in Maker Spaces, it doesn’t have to be this way, but transforming the imbalance takes work from everyone.
"You begin with the baseline … the imaginary spine of the boat – the axis of its universe, if you will"
I constructed the form around which the boat was shaped from gifted MDF, centring and spacing trapezoid shapes along the imaginary spine of the boat and anchoring them to the floor. At the head of the form I attached the stem, shaped out of solid oak. At the other end I angled the tombstone transom that would form the boat’s stern. Preparing all that, plus pre-cutting the sides took almost a week and I began to worry I wouldn’t get it all done. But then, in a rush of activity, I bent the two 9mm marine ply side shapes around the form, inserted the chines and put the base on over two days and it was ready to be taken off the form and turned over. At the end of a Tuesday meeting eight of us clustered around its sides mentally prepared to lift a heavy weight. Only the boat popped up off the form with surprising ease due to the lightness of the Gabon ply I’d built it out of. As we turned it over it felt like it was spinning itself, and suddenly there it was, utterly incomplete but indisputably a boat.
The whole building process was like that, slow progress on small things and then sudden big changes. I could spend hours planing down the ply to sit flush with the oak and sanding back the surfaces to get them smooth, but when sealing the base it would only take fifteen minutes to work a coat of epoxy into my fibreglass cloth. Working out how to cut and fit a seat would take easily forty-five minutes, what with reading and re-reading the instructions, measuring and re-measuring the widths, trying to calculate compound angles and set up the table saw to do them, yet the actual cut itself would be swift and difficult to take back. Then there were all the aesthetic decisions to be made, how to finish it, what colours I’d use on the outside, whether I’d varnish or oil the inside. Again, I’d agonise for hours and once the decision was made spend seconds transferring the funds to the paint store.
At the end of five weeks, one more than promised, I loaded my carefully wrapped boat into a truck and drove onto to the motorway heading down to Wellington with my mother while my father and brother went out for coffee and cake. Once there the gallery staff and I lifted it over a shed roof and in the first floor windows of Enjoy Gallery with the help of some passing students. There’s a photo on Facebook of the boat in midair, balancing on the edge of the roof. I’ve just let go and my body language says totally freaked out, someone’s arms are still up in case it falls as the gallery staff pull it towards them and the expression on woman in the foreground’s face tells us its craziest thing she’s done today. Eight weeks later back up in Auckland I threw a party to formally christen the boat The Question Put and launch it into the Panmure Basin. It was a clear, warm, spring day and we, my family, the Tangleball community and some other friends, celebrated with a BBQ and took turns rowing it around the Basin.
When I look back on my motivations for building the boat they turn out to be more complex than I thought when I began. At the time of making, the first purpose was as an artwork. A conscious response to the recent passing of the 2013 Immigration Amendment Act, or the Mass Arrival Act, which allowed immigration officials to apply for a warrant of commitment to detain Asylum Seekers for six months, with the option to renew, if they arrive in a group of 30 or more on an unscheduled transport. Its purpose was described by the Immigration Minister Michael Woodhouse to be a deterrent to asylum seekers, and specifically linked the passing of the legislation to the spectre of the imminent arrival of boat-loads of people. This rhetoric, ‘the boats are coming’, was previously used to justify New Zealand’s poll tax legislation at the beginning of the 20th century and an earlier form of mandatory detention of asylum seekers in 1999 and is generally mobilised without any acknowledgement of the specific histories of the colonisation of New Zealand.
Passing mandatory detention legislation is not about adequately preparing for a probable event. It is about endorsing the legal and political position of countries like Australia. An endorsement that I believe is untenable, particularly as their mandatory detention and off-shore processing practices have been resoundingly condemned for breaching of numerous international conventions including the Human Rights Convention, Refugee Convention, Convention on the Rights of a Child and the Convention against Torture. The boat was a vessel to carry my shame in New Zealand, my sorrow that we would think of treating vulnerable people this way, my anger at the way our politician’s easily fall back on security theatre, implementing legislation whose only effect is to make them appear to be defending New Zealand from a danger they imagined in the first place.
However, I didn’t build a representation of a boat, I built a functional boat, one that I could launch and would take me across the water. I ignored my brother’s reasonable suggestion that I buy and restore a dinghy. I went to the extent of fibre-glassing the base to ensure water resistance and putting in oar-locks. Now, when I think about it the boat, which started so simply with a book picked up from the sidewalk, I realise it became a multivalent vessel: a life metaphor, a political statement, a mechanism for rescuing my drowning self, an assertion of my competency and self sufficiency, an adjustment of my thinking from professional to amateur, a projection forward to a life I wanted to have and the world I wanted to live in, a way of building myself into a community.
I’m repairing my boat as I write this text. It got picked up in a storm and flung against a rock. There is a rip in the ply and fibreglass base. This happened the week I moved house, two months after my partner left me. For a long time the damage felt like a slightly belaboured metaphor for the rip my break-up left in my world. My repairing of this rip now seems to represent my transition back into a life which is more joy than sorrow. When I reflect on the last two years, knowing how debilitating depression is, I wonder how I even managed to function when it had me in its grip.
Taking a sabbatical was key to my ability to recover, to consider and reconnect with what was important to me. Stepping out of paid employment was a way of calling into question the economic and cultural norms that surround adulthood in our society. This complex mix of our own and others’ expectations, dependencies, debts and obligations traps us in a Sisyphean cycle of working to live, where working becomes living. A sabbatical is a form of stopping, and while stopping may destabilise the precarious balance of our lives, it also allows us room to pause and rebalance. I know I'm not the only person to confront their inability to continue in workplaces and careers that no longer sustain them even as they provide essential income. There are a multiplicity of responses out there that people have tried and shared. However, given my experience, I think if we lived in a society where anyone was able to take a sabbatical to rebalance and redirect as an ordinary part of life rather than extra-ordinary act or privilege we would see amazing and transformative things happen in our communities.
Its about 18 months since I made the first cut in the wood that would be my boat. I’ve remained a member of Tangleball and I’m still deeply concerned about the question the boat was built to put, our mass arrival legislation and how we discuss refugees. I’m still in the arts, and I’m still ambiguous about it. However, I acknowledge my ambiguity regularly and try to find ways to work outside of the value structures of art and academia while still engaging creatively and intellectually with the world. My self funded sabbatical year finished 8 months ago but it took me another 4 months find steady work. Slowly I’m constructing a portfolio of employment for myself again, working as the Whau Community Arts Broker, doing advocacy and facilitation for Creative Commons Aotearoa in the Auckland region, and writing, talking about ideas and creating things for myself and other people.
On sunny days I’ve been re-sanding the boat, fitting strengthening boards, and epoxying a new square of glass cloth over the base. I’m about to repaint the bottom, keeping it the dark red I initially chose, not fluorescent orange. Economically my life is precarious, but emotionally I feel like I’m heading into the harbour, not lost out at sea.
The two books referred to are:
Michael Roberts (ed) 10 Easy Built Boat Plans A publication of Australian Seacraft Magazine, 1960, (North Lidcombe: Fawcett Publications Inc.)
Harold ‘Dynamite’ Payson, How to build the Gloucester light dory : a classic in plywood, 1986 printing, c1982. (Brooklin, Me. : WoodenBoat Books)