CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Before you even enter the building, there are boats.
One hangs from the outside of Le Corbusier’s curved ramp, looking satisfyingly out of context among trees and with buses stopping in the background. Another swings over an inner courtyard. Inside, in the upper level Sert Gallery, they are stacked three high against a window, and a foot-powered paddle boat sits perkily in front of a wall-sized halftone print of its own inspiration: a vessel used by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret for jaunts on Sukhna Lake in Chandigarh, India, circa 1951–70.
The exhibition documenting art collective Mare Liberum’s residency at Harvard University’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts is likely the only one in Boston this year that you will walk away from with instructions for making your own useable vehicle.
If you grab one of the two free flyers available in broadsheet and booklet form, respectively, and make a modest investment in plywood and paint, you can run away from home in a small punt, just like you always dreamed you would as a child. The point is the instrumentality of the project: from even the supplementary materials, it’s clear that Mare Liberum wants you to stay in the gallery for as little time as possible. What they really want you to do is head out the door and get on the water. Now.
“As one takes to the water and paddles down the river, one might reflect on the sensual experience of building a boat with newly acquired knowledge of materials, and glide across the water’s glassy surface with only human energy and muscle powering the watercraft,” writes the exhibition’s curator, James Voorhies. “In a digital age when we are utterly removed from the knowledge of how anything actually works, this direct awareness of the analog can be surprisingly fantastic, potentially providing a bit of understanding and reflection to the physical world.”
Though of course there are many among us who still perform analog labor, it’s often compartmentalized. We are very rarely involved in all stages of a thing’s making and use. It does indeed breed an unexpected level of awareness of context to build your own boat and then ride in it.
Mare Liberum’s agenda is always site specific. Their work as boat-building, writer-activist, waterway-explorer lay-historians is general in the sense that water is general, but specific in the sense that water adapts to specific shorelines and temperatures and pollutants.
In Boston, the project originated in the Carpenter Center’s Le Corbusier building (especially the underappreciated ramp that weaves through the structure and the upper-level terrace outside of the Sert Gallery). This is where lunchtime talks with academics and boatbuilding sessions with the public took place during the collective’s week-and-a-half-long residency (September 1–11).
“The Carpenter Center is mostly a ramp that leads people through the Carpenter Center more than inside of it,” the collective explained to me over email. “Le Corbusier famously intended the building to exist as a ‘landscape within a landscape.’ As we learned from Silvia Benedito at one of our lunchtime research talks, Le Corbusier built the ramp around a tree, so the shape was given by an already existing feature. … It’s not so far off to imagine Le Corbusier’s intent for the ramp was that you would pass through it, much as students would pass through their visual arts education, and come out the other side, in the world. Perhaps that is just our reading of the ramp — that it leads not into the gallery but past the gallery and out the other side — which is how we like to think of our work … ”
The “public” (which, on the 90-plus-degree day that I visited, consisted entirely of writers and photographers covering the residency) rolls up their sleeves and gets painty and sweaty and nailgunny with Mare Liberum on the terrace. It’s the kind of labor that not only teaches you how something is made, but forces you to share risk/trust with strangers: the boats require at least two people when they are turned, and people must rely on one another to avoid injury (or at least to avoid getting paint all over themselves).
Working this way, sweating and grunting every now and then, immediately removes the usual distinctions between “visiting artists” and “audience.” You are builders, side by side, transitioning from being refined and academic to being laborers.
And then you launch.
The boats get lowered over the side of Le Corbusier’s ramp and driven to the Mystic River in order to fulfill their destinies, while Mare Liberum guides the public through the portal of the Carpenter Center, out to the environment of the water with fresh eyes.
On the Mystic, Harvard recedes into the background and local Mare Liberum collaborators glide into the foreground. Several are featured in the video documentation of the September 12 flotilla on display at the Carpenter Center, but the video is no substitute for the hubbub of the real-life experience, which involves a leaking boat and rescue (more on this in a moment.) The journey away from the institutional setting and into the muck of the Mystic is also an opportunity for the Brooklyn-based Mare Liberum artists to really connect to Boston, despite the brevity of their residency.
“We spent one evening with the Public Lab on the Mystic testing their Thermal Fishing Bobs and then made a day-long voyage from the top of the Mystic River to Boston Harbor,” they explain. “The environmental and community groups we worked with to plan and orchestrate the voyage helped by inviting us in and working with us, connecting us to ‘their Mystic.’ So, Becky from Clean Water Action, Patrick and Beth from Mystic River Watershed Association, Sara and Catherine from Public Lab, and Andi and Jane from Plotform extended their knowledge of the site to us, and in the end clearly brought us into a closer relationship with the Mystic than we could have had on our own given the limited amount of time in Boston.”
Perhaps because of its interest in bringing historical objects and practices into the present, or just because of its closeness to water, Mare Liberum has activism in its chemical makeup. The group’s enthusiasm for its local, environmentally engaged partners is only exceeded by its relish for the actual adventure of casting away from shore in plywood boats with a motley crew.
“There’s something about being on a river you’ve never seen before. It’s always an eye-opener, and you’re never sure exactly where you are — that alone is something to crave in our GPS-mapped lives,” Mare Liberum tells me. “We only sunk one boat along the way, and it was just before our last stop-off. Everyone got out OK. It wasn’t actually sunk, just got swamped by a passing speedboat’s wake, and the force opened up a poorly fitted seam. The other boats fared much better, and our emergency rescue came off without a hitch.”
This image of the speedboat flooding the little handmade punt, and strangers collaborating to rescue one another while out exploring their waterways via methods as diverse as science and poetry, synthesizes what all the pieces of Mare Liberum’s work add up to, in their unique, amorphous way.
“The amazing thing about embodied research is that it requires one to remain open to the influence of and connected to the multiple vectors that shape our environment, and our perception of this environment, on a short-term and long-term timescale. Everyone we work with becomes part of the collective for a day or a week, or in some cases permanently,” says Mare Liberum.
But, the collective insists, it is not research or labor or adventure that holds all of these intersecting pieces together; it is the water itself.
“The work itself, Mare Liberum, is intentionally open enough that the unknowns are allowed to become a part of it, a central part. … Actually being on the water, especially an urban waterway, and coming into contact with what these often neglected sites have to say always outpaces your expectations. There is some kind of magic in the physical experience of these sites.”
And it is water that ultimately gave rise to the exhibition’s title — Mare Liberum: or, The Other Island — via a subtle installation element entitled “Fountain.”
“‘Fountain’ runs along the outside of the building and pumps water through Le Corbusier’s irrigation and drainage system,” the group says. “Le Corbusier had this idea that the concrete would continue to strengthen if there was water running through it, so he had water literally running through the walls. Our intervention, to activate these internal features which you would only notice on a rainy day, references the show’s title, which is pulled from Tournier’s Friday, or, The Other Island, a retelling of Defoe’s Crusoe, in that the system that was constructed feels a lot like what Crusoe’s own attempts at irrigation might have looked like. Le Corbusier intended for the terraces at the Center to be seeded naturally by passing birds, and his irrigation system is infrastructure without an intention of culture — the culture was intended to be whatever chose (or was chosen … by seed-curator birds?) to grow naturally on the site.”
The through line of this clean, unembellished (ship-shape?) installation at the Carpenter Center was Mare Liberum’s mission for its short residency here: to gather the forces of historical inspiration and institutional attention in order to orient Bostonians back in the direction of their own natural environment.
Mare Liberum: or, The Other Island continues at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts (Harvard University, 24 Quincy Street, Cambridge, MA) through September 27.