A Ship Adrift (14/1/2012 – 13/1/2013)

January 15, 2013

On Sunday night, we lost contact with A Ship Adrift, which had been sailing for exactly 365 days. It had covered half the world.

You can read more about A Ship Adrift, “a thing made out of ships, weather and the internet”, in the original blog post about the project. In short, the ship is the record of a journey made my a mad, lost, AI autopilot across the web and the world, driven by the weather on the South Bank of the Thames in London.

You can also watch this video from LIFT in Geneva, We Fell In Love In A Coded Space, where I talk about one aspect of Ship Adrift: as a polari of the machines, an argot of attempted communication between us and the information, the processes we share the network with.

You can also read the Ship’s log, a year of strange, broken communiques, that make enough sense in their own tongue to twist the mind: the Ship in its own words.

You have to read it in order. Desperate screeds at the start as it tries to process everything. It crosses the channel and enters its Grindr phase over Poland.

I like the fact it went straight for Poland, Conrad’s nominal birthplace. The whole project — not only the Ship, but the wider Room for London programme — was structured around Conrad, and particularly Heart of Darkness, and the Ship needed to retrace that journey, before truly beginning its own.

The Ship added something to an appreciation of the weather, too. It made it to Poland, then took a sharp turn to the South-West, drifting on a cold wind from Siberia. Three days later, it snowed in London.

It made, I think, discoveries, like Ignacy Domeyko, who said: “How could I forget Polish, when I have always thought in Polish, prayed in Polish, loved in Polish?”

In Belarus, in Belarus.

The names of travellers recurred: Ibn Battuta, Marco Polo.

Not looking for You.

The penguins did it.

In late February, the ship was silent for some time, as it passed over the Sea of Azov, and into Russia. It struggled with the language. March is spent in the deserts of Kazakstan and Uzbekistan, and adrift on the Aral Sea.

It is there, becalmed, that the ship really meets Conrad. “I stop lonely ship were nearly fell intruders“. In May: “The day, over the unavoidable I became of the sea“, and June:

“Throughly trimmed, and smooth water-side of this narrative me terrified in a way.’brothere. I listened in a vast grave; I saw a which I had passes I saw the was as you please. I had vanishes ran up on decaying the damp earth, that. The Russian to lose. ‘s almost certain I course the secrets. I felt an interspersistently, not a word from unded around. My intolerable secrets. I felt an intelligent I was clew to me on decaying something. It’We had been on deck busily. There. It’ yelled back from afar; the Gulf of this whose slim posts reputation.’t conceal – know. It’s friend – in his whose slope of unspeak out. As it be dark than a voice. The other. ‘

It learned the names of rivers. It spoke of genocide over the Balkans. It encountered drones off the coast of Pakistan.

There was a secret story all along, slipping by almost unseen in the night. My favourite Conrad story is The Secret Sharer, about a young sea-captain who picks up and hides a sailor who has deserted another ship; his doppelganger, just as the Ship Adrift is the mad twin of the Roi des Belges aground in London. The whisperings between the unnamed narrator and his co-conspirator echo in the logs as the Ship makes the grand journey across the Indian Ocean, across the seas that Conrad knew so well around South-East Asia.

“He was in the man with its mystery, its great seen in bed wonder.” (September 6th) “‘We broke down mustache, and a white, even teeth.’ I listened.” (November 13th)

Conrad sailed to Australia several times, first arriving in Sydney on the 31st of January, 1879, aboard the clipper Duke of Sutherland. He made the long voyage several times over the next decade, returning aboard the barque Otago, learned much of the Malay archipelago from other captains, and wrote about the continent in The Mirror of the Sea (which, incidentally, also provided the title for Romance…):

I don’t know. I remember a few nights in my lifetime, and in a big ship, too (as big as they made them then), when one did not get flung out of one’s bed simply because one never even attempted to get in; one had been made too weary, too hopeless, to try. The expedient of turning your bedding out on to a damp floor and lying on it there was no earthly good, since you could not keep your place or get a second’s rest in that or any other position. But of the delight of seeing a small craft run bravely amongst the great seas there can be no question to him whose soul does not dwell ashore. Thus I well remember a three days’ run got out of a little barque of 400 tons somewhere between the islands of St. Paul and Amsterdam and Cape Otway on the Australian coast. It was a hard, long gale, gray clouds and green sea, heavy weather undoubtedly, but still what a sailor would call manageable. Under two lower topsails and a reefed foresail the barque seemed to race with a long, steady sea that did not becalm her in the troughs. The solemn thundering combers caught her up from astern, passed her with a fierce boiling up of foam level with the bulwarks, swept on ahead with a swish and a roar: and the little vessel, dipping her jib-boom into the tumbling froth, would go on running in a smooth, glassy hollow, a deep valley between two ridges of the sea, hiding the horizon ahead and astern. There was such fascination in her pluck, nimbleness, the continual exhibition of unfailing seaworthiness, in the semblance of courage and endurance, that I could not give up the delight of watching her run through the three unforgettable days of that gale which my mate also delighted to extol as “a famous shove.”

A Ship Adrift is still out there, somewhere, running bravely amongst the great seas. The network understood as a voyage, through time and knowledge. An active knowledge, which we can listen to, its ten thousand little agencies chattering and competing for attention. A Ship Adrift was intended to give it voice. If you listen closely, if you let it speak, you can hear it too.

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