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Artist Profile

by Eileen Jeng

mt baldy boatThe duo behind the Mt. Baldy Expedition enjoy walking the fine line between art and, well, shipbuilding. They are currently building a 12-foot boat in their Pilsen workshop and intend to sail 50 miles from Chicago to Mt. Baldy in the Indiana Dunes of Michigan City this summer. The leaders of the expedition are two alums of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s MFA photography program—Jim Barry ’04 and Hui-min Tsen ’05.

Three years ago, Barry and Tsen discovered their common interest in sailing and “in the stories of exploration and history.” Tsen was working on cartography and Barry was involved in what he describes as “a lot of everyday performance.” Tsen’s sailing experience and Barry’s experience in wood-working as a former student of Jay Smith, a Pacific Northwest shipwright of traditional Nordic boats, made for a natural collaboration. On March 6, 2004, at the Dogmatic Gallery, they announced their expedition to a crowd. In between Barry and Tsen’s busy lives as students and professionals, they assembled a board of advisors to aid in the careful construction of their boat. Barry admitted that “sailing this 12-foot dinghy from here to Michigan City is actually a little bit of a feat. It’s not insanely a feat. It’s not like a going around the world feat. But, it’s actually a dangerous feat.”

mt. baldyAlong with building the boat, they do smaller side projects, such as knot tying workshops where they give away “a knot tying kit and an instruction booklet on how to tie our favorite nautical knots. We like to include people in the process as much as we can,” says Tsen. Barry explains that they take these older ideas of “exploration and navigation, and try to contemporize it.” These smaller, group projects also serve as documentation of their research. “We take something that a parent and child would do together, like build a boat and go sailing for a day. We compare ourselves to Magellan and things like that.”

Barry and Tsen both consider their boat and all phases of preparation for the expedition a work of art. But, Tsen proposes, “There’s another element that you have explore. In an age where the whole world can basically explore, you have to be so specialized in your field in order to do any real exploration. So how does the common individual explore?” For the Mt. Baldy team, the answer is clear enough. “For us going 30 miles or 50 miles,” Tsen says, “exploration is this sense of discovering the world. We don’t have to go around the world to do it.” Barry added, “A lot of it is about celebrating the disparate common individual and the heroism involved and just those simple things.”

Naturally, the expedition’s credibility as artwork has come into question, and Tsen is prepared to respond. “I think part of the role of art is to help frame the concept of life, to make sense of it, to make it understandable by drawing attention to certain aspects that connect, and that’s what separates us. It’s really like any type of art making, I think, where you have an activity, a certain aspect of creating something; you’re always drawing on certain aspects of your life and activities that you’ve done to create what you’re doing. [In] that way, making the boat is very fitting with any other kind of art process…the everyday life that we’re drawing attention to, we’re presenting it to people, and we’re talking about it along a critical line.” It’s not that building a boat has to be art, she says, “But, I think it’s about the intention and how you present it.”

“Walking the line is fun for us,” says Barry. “What is art? What isn’t art? And where do you draw that line?” Since Barry and Tsen both come from photography backgrounds, they draw upon that experience of editing to help frame the expedition. “It’s about making choices in constructing and [how it’s] thought out,” Barry continues. “And I think it’s the same thing here with everyday life performance. We’re performing ourselves. And a lot of [our] projects are about communicating wonder in the common place and when we talk to people, and they laugh, humor is a tool to break down the barrier.”

In the context of the art world, Tsen thinks of the boat as sculpture, of “the object as an object” that “relates to the history of exploration, where often the boat is memorialized and turned into a museum where people go and visit it and all the artifacts.”

If the expedition is in fact, art, how does the Mt. Baldy duo exhibit their adventure in an art context? “Well,” Barry says, “the gallery spaces we’re in typically deal with goofy art projects to begin with. In a non-art museum, then it’s just more power to it. In a regular art museum, that’s great. But, it’s definitely going to change the perception—the way people interact with it as opposed to the people knowing us as the silly people who are taking the 12-foot boat across the lake. But, yeah, it kind of reinforces the things that we’re trying to do because we do consider it art. We’re not explorers. That would be absurd.” Barry joked, “We would like our career to be that.”

In the beginning stages of organizing the expedition and assembling their Board of Advisors, which includes a medical advisor and meteorologist Scott DiMaio from the local Fox News affiliate, people wondered, according to Barry, “Why did we have to make the boat, and why do we have to sail it?” Aside from the uncertainty, unpredictability and the excitement of sailing along Lake Michigan, Barry believes that “in the process of making something, doing anything, you have to construct; things happen, things change, the unexpected [occurs], and you learn things you never would have learned before and that changes the process a lot and shocks when you need it—that has made us change many things.”

“I think with non-artists one of things we got the most respect for is sincerity and perseverance, because a lot of people have, this thing that they want to do, something they want to do and don’t put in multi years doing it, and they respect us [for] following through,” believes Tsen.

So, given the right water temperature, air temperature, and weather, the Mt. Baldy Expedition will set sail this summer. Once they return from the dunes of Indiana, they plan to do a traveling exhibit and “some mini projects for people who have been following us through this.”

As for what’s next? Barry says, “I guess we both have to learn how to not work collaboratively. It’s going to be kind of a shock.” Tsen adds that it all depends on “where we wind up.”

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