Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Swooned by Swoon

Written by Julie Fishkin
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In 2006 and 2007, New York City street artist, Swoon, engaged in two experiments of communal life as it intersects with mobile art. Throughout art school and afterward, she had been contemplating the idea of a traveling art project until 2006 when, in collaboration with some friends, she created The Miss Rockaway Armada, with hand-built rafts that sailed the Mississippi River; she embarked on this trip again the following year.

 
In 2006 and 2007, New York City street artist, Swoon, engaged in two experiments of communal life as it intersects with mobile art. Throughout art school and afterward, she had been contemplating the idea of a traveling art project until 2006 when, in collaboration with some friends, she created The Miss Rockaway Armada, with hand-built rafts that sailed the Mississippi River; she embarked on this trip again the following year. And then, this past summer with the Swimming Cities of Switchback Sea, she sailed a flotilla of handcrafted rafts and boats. They sailed down the Hudson River from Troy, a small city in upstate New York, to New York City. Conceptualized by Swoon, the Swimming Cities of Switchback Sea was part art, part experiment in sustainable living.

I love the idea of a traveling band of people who roam the country and create happenings along the way—visual, musical, carnivalesque, or anywhere in between. I see Swoon’s projects as a harmonious mix of Huck Finn-like romantic idealism and Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters’ perfect love trips. 

And yet, art is a very contained premise. It exists for others to view, to praise its author, and represent an idea that, while vast and expansive, still confines the viewer to a singular position in space, time, and thought. In taking art to the street and mobilizing its premise and execution, the work becomes public. It’s no longer proprietary nor confined, which means viewers are at once forced into it and free to ignore it with no impositions or constraints. Swoon’s art experiments redefine art making, art viewing, and living through art for a spectacular journey in this way. Documentation of these kinds of events probably does not do justice to their original creative vision, but still, it’s so damn cool to see and read about them.

When Swoon first took her art to the streets, she knew she wanted a different medium and mode of reception for her work. As a painting student at Pratt, she wanted to take her art outside where social conventions of art making and art viewing can be reconfigured. The now-famous graffiti artist whose elaborate wheat pastes have graced walls, doorways, corners, and city nooks for a few years, decided to experiment with art and the different creative forces that come together through communal living. When Swoon and I recently spoke, we discussed her adventures with mobile art projects, as well as dreams she’s had, her male—old or dead—role models, and being a commercially successful female artist with serious street cred.

Julie: So tell me how the mobile boat projects came to be.

Swoon: The first project was a slow evolving concept. It was the kind of thing where I had been kicking around ideas for a bunch of years. And people would contribute their input to this thought.

Julie: Did you decide on a seafaring adventure for any particular reason?

Swoon: We were just thinking of creating independent spaces and then also creating a cultural project so you can have a way of making something you loved and created without being restricted. I wanted to make something that would be able to work through different tasks that it passed through. A boat seemed like a natural way. I was pretty inspired by other work, such as the bookmobile.

At first I was thinking about one boat, making plans for it, envisioning what would be on it. I talked a lot about it, and no one really believed me. I [didn't] know about boating. I'm a painter. I just sort of kept talking about it and kept talking about it, and the vision would grow and change, and people would start to hear about it more and more and make suggestions. Eventually, [when talking to] a very close friend and traveling partner, the conversation went from one boat to a flotilla of rafts. That's when it seemed apparent that this could actually be. We opened it up to people who would bring a different kind of vision and knowledge to it. And we opened it up more to the point of hoping to create a traveling community.

Julie: You were volleying ideas back and forth?

Swoon: A little bit. I was like, ‘Hey, raft.’ And he was like, “Hey, totally!” So we drew what this thing would be out on a napkin, and we started rounding people up. The first person I called, the most important person, was Jeff Stark. I called him up and was like, ‘What are you doing?’ And he was like, “I don’t know; I’m kind of depressed, I don’t have anything impossible to work on.” And I was like, ‘Oh yeah, what about this!’

And once Jeff was into it, it was a lot easier to talk other people into it because Jeff is a reliable pragmatic force. So we called up all our friends and family. We talked about building this community focused on sustainability and bringing all these people together and [combining] different practices that we know.

Julie: Was the experiment in sustainability the most important part?

Swoon: That was definitely the driving force. It's basically just a thing of [rounding up] a bunch of different people who have different projects and inviting them to work together. We created a show together. It was a different sort of thing. We wanted to have workshops, and different people bring the things they were good at and cared about, whether they were instruments or art.

Julie: So you got all these people on board and you guys took off?

Swoon: We started building our rafts in New York, and we got them to Minneapolis, and then we took off from Minneapolis. It was really [laborious], crazy, intense, hard work. We had to make decisions and raise money. It was awesome, but it was tons of hard work from tons of people.

Julie: Both years?

Swoon: We reused the raft, but actually it wasn't less work because we [added] a couple of new rafts.

Julie: Tell me more about this experiment in collectively organized living and creating. Was there a leader? Were you the leader? Was it self-governing?

Swoon: Certainly. We weren't into having a leader, but of course different personalities emerge from that kind of scenario, and at the end of the day, we had to get to the next town. And all the kind of intense river navigating had to happen, [there were] different sorts of obstacles, [we had to] repair different things, get the resources that we need[ed], get all the food and supplies…

Julie: Where did you get all the different food and supplies? It was all donated, right?

Swoon: The food—no, not all of it. A lot of people—particularly on the Mississippi—people would give us a lot.

Julie: So you guys would dock in a given town and spread the word that you were there and [you would go and] do shows?

Swoon: Different music, different music making, even simple stuff like face painting and silk-screening [would go down]. Most of it simply came from people asking us what the hell we were doing, [and] who we were. People would be like, “Oh my God, who are you? How did you do this? What are you doing?”

Julie: Were they happy to see you?

Swoon: Oh yeah, totally. Particularly along the Mississippi, people were totally flipped out.

Julie: Any specific instances?
 
Swoon: There were so many. Actually someone just told me about one that I forgot, last year where this eight-year-old girl came and just watched us the entire day, and as we were pulling away, she just burst into tears. And we were like, “What's wrong?” And she said it was the most perfect thing she'd ever seen in her entire life and now we're leaving.

Julie: Awwwww.

Swoon: All these people were so grateful and happy.

Julie: So the first two years was this group mentality. Did you prefer one year to the other?

Swoon: They were different but still equally awesome.

Julie: And Swimming Cities of Switchback Sea?

Swoon: When you work with a group of people, and you're trying to do constructive things, and you're [also] trying to make a living situation and make all these decisions together, [it] sets a lot of limitations on what can happen in the project. I decided pretty early on that I would want to do another project where I could think of decisions just aesthetically.

When you're trying to make a mobile house for forty people, if somebody is hitting their head on something all the time, you have to take it down. Logistics are of primary importance. All those things set strict parameters on what the thing would look like. And me, as a visual artist, I really wanted to make this floating traveling vessel that could feature the aesthetic, and that narrative could be the driving force, not just the traveling community. I wanted to do something where we lost some of the creative input, but I was able to guide the thing more closely.

Julie: What were the guiding principles for the aesthetics of the boats specifically?

Swoon: There was a lot of talk about calling it the Swimming Cities of Switchback Seas because I thought a lot about how they were part sea and part living structures that broke off and headed home or made this journey down the river. Kind of like part city, part nature.

Julie: I really wanted to get on the rafts.

Swoon: I always intended for people to be able to get on them, but there was so much tension with the guy we leased the dock from that we just had to give in. They weren't even near the water anymore.

Julie: What's going to happen with them after the show?

Swoon: We're taking them apart because we want to go to Venice.

Julie: Is that in the works?

Swoon: Yep, it's in the works.

Julie: Is it through Deitch?

Swoon: Yep.

Julie: Is that a secret?

Swoon: No, it's not a secret. In fact [laughs], you should publish it to put pressure on them to do it. I think that Jeffery, he's pretty good, but he didn't say 100 percent that we're doing it, but he said, let's try to do it.

Julie: That would be brilliant. Part of the brilliance is that it's such a SHOW, such a spectacle of these over the top yachts and people.

Swoon: Some of the thinking for creating these boats as floating cities that are broken up had a lot to do with Venice because I always love how it looks like a city growing out of the ocean. It really touches this part of fantastical mind in a way that no other place has, which is why I really want to go there.

Julie: And where are you from?

Swoon: I’m from Florida.

Julie: Were you always on the water? Is it nostalgic?

Swoon: In some ways.

Julie: As a woman working in the arts today, what are some of the challenges of bringing your projects to fruition, and what would you tell younger girls in terms of sticking to their guns?

Swoon: Well, I came up through a scene that's very male dominated—street art—and truth be told, everyone was always very supportive of me. For the most part, I feel like people are really excited to see other people grow and just fucking show each other what's possible and step outside of the norms, and when you're coming at it, people can feel it and want to be a part of it and support you. There's a goodness and energy that attracts other goodness and energy. I just feel like it's really possible in this way now. When I grew up, I feel like I didn't understand things. I have a lot of support for women who are just doing their own thing, especially in a way that's unexpected.

Julie: Did you look up to artists? Kathleen Hanna types?

Swoon: When I was younger, I didn't really know [of] Kathleen Hanna. I kind of grew up in a cheerleader school, in that kind of environment, and there just wasn't a lot in the way of female role models. So most of the people I was looking up to were old, male, or dead. I loved Tina Modotti, artists, and musicians for sure. This was when I was a teenager. And then in art school, Jenny Holzer was a big person [that influenced me]. I was thinking of working outside [then].

Julie: Did you always want to work in the streets, showing art in your own guerrilla way? Was it about the street element and art for public viewing?

Swoon: I was pretty interested in the public sphere, and it definitely works for me because I have this classical background, and it's very much about the work, but also the medium. And I think in the same way as the boats, I'm very concerned with the concept, but it's also very interesting to grapple with the medium. On the streets, it was like the wall is a public space, and it's within the context of the city. And on the boats, it was the river and nature.

Julie: What was it like to go into the gallery from the street? Did it make you reconfigure your ideas about your art's reception?

Swoon: Definitely. The first couple of times I did shows inside, I was pretty freaked out. I didn't even do installations. I was trying to do more group and collective projects that were related to the streets. And then slowly, I realized that I did have these ideas that could benefit from a really protected environment. And I realized that I was working in the city, and that's beautiful, and that's one way of working. And I also realized that I just had these dreams overlapping over different sorts of cityscapes, and I thought, what if I try to create these immersing environments in the way that I’m imagining them. It seemed like a good opportunity to explore these things in my head and to not let myself be limited.

When I was figuring out my stuff, it seemed really important to me as a young woman and a young artist just to figure out a way to create something that didn't rely on acceptance of support from institutions, so it felt like I was forging my own path.

Julie: What did you show at crits in school?

Swoon: Documentation.

Julie: What are you doing now?

Swoon: Right now, I'm completely burnt out. More than I've ever been in my life. I'm just sort of brain-dead in this astonishing way. I'm taking a huge break. I'm going to India for a few months. I just need to travel and think a little. I'm also going to Cairo for a residency. I just have a couple of months before Venice.

Julie: What about a museum show for Swimming Cities of Switchback Sea?

Swoon: No, I don't think so. It's just not the kind of thing that would lend itself.

Do you remember during the play how they were talking about the sisters and how they had this dream of going to the docking place? I worked with this playwright Lisa D’Amour, and we involved this story, so the installation was a product of the three past years and all related to this dream I had about this woman, this giant woman with these huge tall long skirts. I woke up from this dream and that became part of this narrative, that central image of this woman at the docking place. That sculpture, which was in the center of the installation, became part of the story, which was about these two sisters who had these skirts and ropes that were tying the boats in.

I called her and asked if she wanted to work with me. She and I worked similarly in this very intuitive, talking, dreaming, thinking sort of way. So we just talked for a long time about these images that were on our minds and slowly she weaved it into this play.

Julie: So, are you glad it's over or are you sad?

Swoon: I’m pretty glad and sad at the same time. Like, this is kind of a stupid reminder, but this one time on the boats, we all painted each others’ toe nails, and a part of it still hasn't come off yet, and I look down at my toes and remember this awesome day and all the crazy magic that happens every day.

Julie: I heard there was a baby that took its first step on board.

Swoon: There was a baby who was conceived on the MI two years ago, then he rode with us on the Hudson, and then he took his first steps on the Hudson, and he said his first word, and [it was] “Wow!”

Julie: Ultimate best reminder.

Swoon: He's an amazing kid.

Julie: So how did you come up with the name Swoon?

Swoon: That name came to me because my ex-boyfriend had a dream that I was a graffiti writer, and I wrote “Swoon.” That was before I was doing anything outside. And the following year when I started doing things outside, I remembered it.

Julie: Wow, dreams are a huge part of your work.

Swoon: Yeah, definitely. I have really lucid dreams.

*A very special thank you to Tod Seelie for a wealth of information! You can check out his work at: todseelie.com, suckapants.com, everydayilive.com, and ofquiet.com.*

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