Venice was settled originally by refugees fleeing the barbarian hordes—who, apparently, didn’t like water. But that was then. This week, Swoon, a 31-year-old Brooklyn artist whose name is Caledonia “Callie” Curry, is leading a waterborne invasion of the Venice Biennale (she didn’t bother to try to get in officially) with a crew of 30 artists, musicians, and miscreants in tow. Though they have raised some $150,000 for this crash party, the money won’t show in the boats they’ll travel in, because the boats are made of trash—a symbol of the freedom that comes with radical self-reliance, and one that is meant to effect change. “Throughout history, pranksters have been looking at fences and then pushing them aside,” Swoon has said (the name came to an ex-boyfriend in a dream, in which he imagined her future as a graffiti artist long before her career began). “Through action, you can move the perception. It’s almost like a magic trick.”
Swoon and her group are emissaries from a specific underground culture: the bike-riding, Dumpster-diving, anarchist street-art movement that has flourished in Bushwick, Greenpoint, and areas near the Gowanus Canal over the past decade. On this trip, she’s joined by a few artists from the Black Label Bike Club, an anarchist bicycle-art group, including Greg Henderson and Ryan Doyle, a six-foot-six sculptor who builds machines that crush cars for rock festivals like Coachella and Amsterdam’s Robodock gathering. There are also some gearheads from San Francisco, including “Chicken” John Rinaldi, the original guitarist for GG Allin’s band and, more recently, co-sponsor of a (failed) proposition to rename a Bay Area sewage-treatment plant after George W. Bush. For them, scrounging is a kind of religion, and the boats are an embodiment of that aesthetic. They’re not interested in expensive green technologies or recycling programs—the point is reuse, to breathe new life into the city’s detritus and build a new, separate world from those remains. “We’re not perfect,” Swoon says. “How much jet fuel was used to fly all of us here? But we’re not going to let being imperfect stop us. If you are too rigid in your ethics, you undo positive action.”
So, about two months ago, they begin to gather on the coast of Slovenia, about 60 miles from Venice, preparing to unload their 40-foot containers from New York—except that the containers, sent on a tax-free artist’s visa, are being held at customs. Slovenian officials aren’t sure that they’re not just full of trash, rather than trash that is about to be turned into art. Almost all of the stuff in there is New York junk: discarded olive barrels from a factory in Queens; scraps from brownstone-renovation Dumpsters; cast-off crates used to cover skyscrapers’ HVAC units, found in a dump in Greenpoint; materials salvaged by Build It Green; and dozens of sheets of plywood from a new condo building under construction at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge in Dumbo, fork-lifted by an accommodating foreman. “In most condos, construction workers lay a sheet of plywood down to form cement, but once it’s set, they just throw it away,” says Swoon, smiling. “I asked nicely.”
When constructed, the boats will be about twenty feet high and just as wide, powered by Mercedes car motors that run on biofuel; the trash materials for two of them are in the containers, but a third, named Old Hickory and inspired by Swoon’s recent motorcycle trip through India, has to be built from “found materials” here in Slovenia, though they’re finding that the country is oddly devoid of discarded plywood, and that’s a problem. New York, on the other hand, is a trash town: We are weak, we are profligate, and this Brooklyn tribe has reaped our rewards. “New York’s the top of the world, in trash,” exclaims Swoon, taking a seat at the dinner table in the crew’s rented house, where they sleep four or five to a room. (Later, when they run out of money, they will move into their shipping containers.)
“There’s no trust-fund babies here,” snorts one of the crew, who then covertly disses Dash Snow, the art world’s enfant terrible of just a few years ago. “No grandmother on the Upper East Side.”
“Manhattan,” says Iris Lasson, a sculptor. “The strange place across the water.”
“I don’t like going there unless I have to pick up a check,” says Doyle.
Arielle Bier stirs a pot of soup. “I go to Manhattan, and money falls out of my pockets,” she says.
Playing nice has always been Swoon’s secret: She’s like a sweetheart in a John Hughes movie, with a dimpled smile and a mess of curly red hair. She punctuates most conversations with unexpected squeals and giggles. The boat project first came to her in a dream: She was jumping trains around the U.S. when, one night, she saw dogs pulling boats that looked like a crazy, indecipherable city. “I was like, What is that?” she says. “I thought to myself, God, I have to build that thing, so I can see it for myself.”