Aspen Mays, "Ships That Pass in the Night" (2013) at COR&P (all images courtesy of the artist)

Aspen Mays, “Ships That Pass in the Night” (2013) at COR&P (all images courtesy of the artist)

CHICAGO — Ohio. It’s not all cornfields, protesters, and lost highways. From Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s song “O-H-I-O” about the 1970 shooting of Kent State students to fascinating and devastating cities like Elyria, a once-thriving steel town, Ohio is an example of American economic and cultural production and destruction.

Artist Aspen Mays must have known this when she took a job as Assistant Professor of Art at Ohio State University in Columbus. Splitting her time between Los Angeles and Columbus, Mays’s work — which probes humanity’s desire to understand the infinite, unknown universe and those awe-inspiring mysteries of outer space — seems to fit in perfectly amongst these open starry skies.

Her latest project, Ships That Pass in the Night, is both an actualization of the limitations of a landlocked location and a technologically inspired leap into vast bodies of water and the neverending internet. True to the title of the project, Mays pinpoints when ships pass each other in the night. The project acts as a metaphor for those moments of synchronicity that, unbeknownst to us, are happening everywhere. Mays worked with Ry Wharton, the director of the Center for Ongoing Projects and Research (COR&P) in Columbus, to create custom software that tracked the moments when ships passed each other. When these momentous driftings occurred, a light panel located inside COR&P would glow bright, and a printer would record the ship name and its exact location. Mays and I synched up to talk about her project.

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Alicia Eler: So, Columbus, Ohio … that’s cornfield central, and I say that in a most loving way. I know those cornfields from my days at Oberlin College! But really, how has working in Ohio affected your work? Or, do you see a correlation between Ohio and LA’s landscapes?

Aspen Mays: Los Angeles and Columbus feel like very disparate places — the light, the landscape, the pace, the people … and perhaps what I’ve noticed the most is a relationship to the landscape. I moved to Ohio to teach photography at Ohio State and I speak with my students often about the way that they approach the landscape. There is a fondness that comes with familiarity in the way they photograph Ohio. It is present, as the background but there isn’t this reverence, this mythological elevation of the landscape that there is in the West. Ohio has its own mythology about the landscape of course, but it’s more lived in, like a favorite shirt. All of this is to say that yes, living and working in Ohio is affecting my work I’m sure. I’m just not totally sure how yet! I think Ships Passing in the Night very much speaks to my experience of being so far from the ocean and spending so much time between spaces.

Aspen Mays, "Ships That Pass in the Night" (2013) at COR&P

Aspen Mays, “Ships That Pass in the Night” (2013) at COR&P

AE: I love the way you took the literal idea of “ships passing in the night” and found out when this actually happens using custom software. Can you tell me a bit about the programs you used, the software, you know — the techy end of things?

AM: Part of what was interesting for me about working on this piece was trying to take this metaphorical idea from poetry and make it completely literal. I wanted an all-knowing way to record these occasions of ships passing in the night. Of course, it turns out that a simple record is not so easy to procure!

So here’s what happened: I approached a maritime ship tracking company called Port Vision based in Houston. They provide clients with real time data about their fleets. I have a family friend who works there, and they were extremely helpful. Most of the data they provide is about ship activity close to land — ports, etc., but they also have satellite data about the open ocean. I want to collect data that wasn’t from shipping lanes or places with obvious traffic (like islands). They generously worked with me and set up a data feed for the open Atlantic and open Pacific. This is where Ry Wharton, the director of the Center for Ongoing Projects and Research (COR&P), who hosted the project, came in. Ry is an artist and talented programmer and he was able to write the code needed to clean up this data feed and define the parameters of what is considered an “event” — i.e. two ships passing each other in the night.

Jason Tieman at Port Vision was instrumental in shaping this part of the piece. He is an active coast guard and I think he connected to the experience of being on the ocean for long periods of time without passing another ship. We spoke about that sensation of seeing another ship on the horizon and feeling both a profound sense of relief and hope as well as suspicion. Through those conversations, I set a parameter of three miles — the rough distance limit in which you would be able to visually see a ship on the horizon (this distance is an average because it also depends on the height of the ship and the weather conditions). Having decided this limit, Ry developed the software that would let us record events. It took a lot of tinkering on his part, weeding out extra information and making sure we eliminated data around islands, etc. He also had to take into account global nightfall — because I only wanted it to qualify as a “passing” if it was nighttime when it occurred.

We then synced this real time data feed to a dot matrix printer in the space and a panel of lights that filled the windows and faced out to the street of the small COR&P space. When two ships would pass each other in the night (wherever it was night), both the light panel would light up and the printer would record the ship names and coordinates. This is the layman’s tech explanation — Ry made all the tech stuff talk to each other and play nice.

Aspen Mays, "Ships That Pass in the Night" (2013) at COR&P

Aspen Mays, “Ships That Pass in the Night” (2013) at COR&P

AE: Ships passing in the night makes me think of daytime landlocked Craigslist missed connections. Here I am thinking about the way technology has changed the way we experience chance encounters. What do you think?

AM: Yes, the idea of missed connections was certainly part of the conception of this piece. I love how the phrase “ships passing in the night” has that cultural connotation as well as a sense of people moving in similar but perhaps parallel orbits without ever intersecting. There is a feeling that technology can solve that missed encounter, and using the satellite data was a way to tap into that idea of an all-knowing perspective — we can track this, we can “see” it, we can find it. But there lingers a bittersweet reality and the real possibility of course that some encounters will always remain a “what if.” Maybe this is all the more poignantly felt now because it feels that nothing should be able to slip away, everything and everyone has a virtual, online presence.

AE: Columbus is landlocked, as you note in the description of your piece. This makes me think about how Chicago is lovingly referred to as NOCOAST. There was an artist collective here called NOCOAST, which used to exist in Pilsen. Now it is online only at — it still retains a virtual presence. How does this idea of “no coast” relate to landlocked Ohio and, I suppose, the greater idea of the Midwest, or “the Middle” as I like to call it?

AM: I didn’t know about NOCOAST — I love it, though. I’ve heard of Chicago being referred to as the “Third Coast” — have you? “The Middle” is also nice. It certainly has its own reality and perception of itself.  It is certainly part of my interest and challenge as an artist, to try and understand why and how the middle is different from the edges. Columbus is not on Lake Erie either so of all the places I’ve lived, it does feel the most landlocked. For someone who grew up at the beach (Charleston, South Carolina), it feels profoundly different. Even when I was little, I think it was already part of my world view that something is on the other side of all that water. So it was an imaginative space. Maybe that’s what I meant earlier by saying the land in Ohio (and by projection, the Midwest) is loved because it can be so thoroughly known, so familiar in a way that the sea feels like it always defies a complete understanding.

AE: How many ships passed during the time you ran this project at COR&P?  

AM: Oh gosh, at the time of writing these responses to you, I realize I don’t know the exact total! I have to ask Ry. We averaged 3–5 ships per day. That’s it! Sometimes we didn’t have any at all. So over the total, roughly two-month run of this piece, I’d say the total was around 100–120 or so. When we first got it all running, this number really surprised me. It felt so low but then it started to feel remarkable that even this many occur in the vastness of the ocean! At the opening we had a nice barbecue because we knew there was a pretty high chance that nothing was going to happen and we wanted folks to relax and just wait for a good long while. We had actually finally started to pack up to go — there were maybe 15 people left and all of sudden the light came on! It was surprisingly emotional — I think partially  people were relieved that my art wasn’t broken. Ha! And that their waiting was rewarded but it also felt like it was more than that. People were jumping up and down, hugging, it was a moment of synchronicity. I’ve never used a ham radio but maybe that’s a little bit what it is like? You set up, you try to make contact and you are a little shocked and certainly mesmerized when you get a response that isn’t your own echo.

AE: So, when the ships passed each other, the structure lit up like a beacon — or perhaps a lighthouse — which makes me think of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse. Any relationship to literary references? 

AM: The title of the piece comes from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Tales of a Wayside Inn,” a passage that really speaks about a sort of cosmic loneliness – or something more existential than a missed connection I think. The lighthouse or a the beacon is a comforting image but also a warning in some ways — I’m here but don’t come too close. The small structure where it was set up is very unremarkable. Its in a parking lot, in a more industrial part of town. There is traffic during the day and becomes less so overnight. So unlike a lighthouse, whose beam is steady, you could really happen across this building and see the light and not know why it came on (it only stays lit for 30 seconds). I wanted to it feel like if you caught it, you would feel as though you witnessed something special, something mysterious. Something maybe slightly like seeing a ship appear on the horizon when you thought you were alone.

Aspen Mays, "Ships That Pass in the Night" (2013) at COR&P

Aspen Mays, “Ships That Pass in the Night” (2013) at COR&P

AE: Did Ohio’s lack of an ocean or sea cause you to dream up this project, or was it that the project came as a result of missing the ocean? 

AM: Both. I had first dreamed up the project in Chile during my Fulbright Fellowship when I was up at the astronomical observatories in the desert. That alone is already an isolating experience and the sky feels so immense, so overwhelming that I remember feeling total disbelief that we are able to see anything at all, find anything that we’re looking for. The night sky appears fixed and we’re trying to figure out which direction to look and for how long. On the ocean of course the ships move across this vast background but I thought there was a metaphorical connection. I’d never seriously tried to make the piece because I didn’t really know how to. I needed a lot of help. It felt like being able to watch all these ships was one thing, but the other part, the ability to do something with that data (if it existed in a usable way) was beyond my grasp. When I got back from Chile and moved to LA, the piece faded into back of my mind, perhaps because I was living on such a spectacular coast … but it started to come back with urgency when I moved to landlocked Ohio. The ocean and all that it implies does feel far away, an imagined space, a projected space. With the resources at Ohio State and Ry’s help, it suddenly felt possible and much more relevant at the same time.

Ships That Pass in the Night ran at the Center for Ongoing Research and Projects (990 1/2 West 3rd Avenue, Columbus, Ohio) April 27–June 28, 2013.

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED Magazine and the Chicago...

2 replies on “Ships Passing in Ohio’s Night”

  1. It’s funny, when you live on the “north coast” of Ohio, along the 300+ miles of land along Lake Erie, Ohio doesn’t feel so landlocked. I understand that this piece has a Columbus base, but the characterization of the entire state seems like it’s trying a bit too hard to reinforce a stereotypical representation of the monolithic “middle.”

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