A Los Angeles-based artist, Cole Sternberg works in a range of formats including painting, installation, video and writing. His work combines social commentary with activism, the environment, media and modern content overload. Sternberg has exhibited nationally and internationally, and recently organized a journey between Japan and the US on a shipping vessel, which served as a platform for art-making inspired by the ocean crossing. The Nature of Breathing in Salt is his collection of paintings created on this voyage. It opens at MAMA Gallery in Los Angeles from January 30 to April 7, 2016. Explore his work here.

Joe McKee is a London-born singer-songwriter and composer raised in Western Australia. In 2003, McKee formed the band Snowman, which released three albums through Dot Dash Recordings. At 23, McKee relocated to London where he began writing songs for his 2012 debut solo album, Burning Boy. McKee is currently based in Los Angeles, and recently finished a trans-Pacific voyage with artist Cole Sternberg during which he wrote and recorded music with environmental sounds from the ship and sea. Listen to Burning Boy here.

In October of 2015 I had the pleasure of boarding the Ultra Letizia cargo vessel in Hiroshima for it’s maiden voyage. Alongside visual artist Cole Sternberg as well as a cinematographer, a journalist and 30 merchant marine crew members (mainly of Filipino and Eastern European backgrounds) we drifted across the North Pacific Ocean and down the Columbia River to Vancouver, Washington, our final destination. My task was to compose music made entirely from the sounds of the journey, while Cole would create visual works informed by the environment and voyage. All of this madness was captured on film, soon to be stitched together to form some kind of narrative about the whole process.

Watching Cole’s work gradually unfurl was a marvel to me. He painted out in the open air on the main deck, canvasses strung up to various metal beams, looking like flags of Atlantis being battered by the wind. He dipped each piece into the Pacific ocean by rope and anchor, dragging them alongside the mammoth vessel as if they were giant squid, the near freezing salt water stressing and decaying their faces and ageing their appearance. The 18 paintings that were birthed from that process are almost biblical in nature, each shroud encapsulating the movement and harshness of the open ocean.

Meanwhile, I was collecting the various grunts and groans of the ship: the pistons in the heart of the engine room pumping out polyrhythms, the Pacific wind blowing through scaffolding pipes outside the captain’s bridge (making sounds not unlike a bamboo flute) and recording the peace songs of Japanese school children in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. All of these sounds (and hundreds more) I’m now arranging and manipulating into various compositions to be included in the aforementioned documentary film.

The journey took a few weeks, during which time we had no phone signal or internet connection to communicate with the outside world. In fact, we didn’t see another ship for the majority of the journey. Did I mention that we were being tossed around at 30 degree angles by the brutal swells and gale force winds? It was like living with a poltergeist, watching cutlery flying across the dining room. Our shared experience, I can safely say, covered the full spectrum of emotions. It was mundane yet undeniably profound and despite our isolation, I felt an immense connectivity to something greater than us all. Something universal.

However, the inevitability of being back on land means that we’ve been sucked back into the whirlpool of endless distractions and the hyperactive pace of city life, so I thought it apt that we conduct this interview via text message rather than in person. Besides, I’m sure Cole is sick of seeing my ugly mug after sharing such confined space for a month.

Joe McKee: So Cole, tell me, how did this trip come to fruition?

Cole Sternberg: This was a project that was in my mind for years. I wanted to deal with the micro existence of life aboard a shipping vessel within the macro context of the vastness of the Pacific Ocean and explore what that meant to me and my practice. It came to fruition when a group of supporters of the arts provided the access and funding to turn the dream into a reality. How did you end up on a shipping vessel staring at the horizon?

JM: Well, I probably wouldn’t have ever ended up on a cargo vessel making music from the sounds of the ship if you hadn’t asked me. I was immediately excited about the opportunity for a number of reasons. The isolation and disconnection was probably the most appealing aspect of this project. I wanted to bask in the solitude a little and see how my thoughts could gestate without distraction. Inevitably, the horizon became my closest friend and worst enemy—all encompassing and omnipresent at all times.

Environment seems to be a strong concern in your work, so how did this new and seemingly alien seascape affect your practice?

“It felt like an exploration of inner space
via outer space out there on the high seas.”
— Joe McKee

CS: I didn’t expect it, but the environment strangely mirrored my conceptual desires of the journey. There was the massive, glorious, freeing environment of creating on the deck, exposed to the elements, with the best view of the horizon on the planet versus the constrained, maddening dizziness of a tiny interior studio, lacking windows, crunched, trying to work it all out while still breathing.

What’s the first sound you recall that made you smile on the journey and how did that sound come about?

JM: Well, as you know, the first day onboard the vessel I was running around like a kid with ADHD in a candy store. Whacking things and scraping the metallic skin of the ship, trying to extract as wide a variety of sounds as possible. I think within the first ten minutes of doing this, I discovered that the ship was littered with a number of bollards that, when struck, sound like Indonesian gamelan. All of the bollards were microtones and semitones apart, so I had an entire percussive musical scale right there at my disposal. It was a relief to find them so soon because they became a foundation for me to build the rest of the music upon.

It felt like an exploration of inner space via outer space out there on the high seas. Gravity and time behave very strangely. Did you find that this skewed perspective helped you to see your work in a new light? Or was it more about battling to retain some sense of normality on board the ship to get work done?

CS: Well, the outer-space reference itself is an interesting and appropriate one—you really feel like your existence has become completely separated from the rest of humankind, as it would in space. You also have a strange physical reaction to the continuous movement of the sea and ship, similar in some way to the anti-gravity of space… But, in terms of dealing with time and the normalcy of life, I think the ship (as is likely in space) simply helped me be vastly more focused and effective with the day. I didn’t search for the normalcy of home much because I was too engaged from the early morning until bed on the projects at hand. These projects became so exciting and engaging for me that the isolation just pushed them forward at a rapid pace.

For the readers, I think it would be interesting if you gave a rundown of a typical day for you on the ship. What were you up to?