The daughter of redneck hippies who gave her the middle name Dance, she moved to Borough Park at 19, to attend Pratt. In school, she studied Renaissance-style portraiture, among other forms, but found herself caught up in the late-nineties rush of post-aerosol street art: stickers, culture-jamming, covering ads with art, “thinking about public space, how we can make our city our own while real-estate developers suck up the coasts,” she explains. She became quite rigid in her own ethics: She joined groups like Grub, which provides free Dumpster-dived dinners in Brooklyn, and founded the Toyshop collective, known for instigating outrageous happenings like marching through the Lower East Side with 50 people playing instruments made out of junk.
In 2002, she started making elegant life-size portraits in her apartment with wood-block prints, then wheat-pasted a series of them on corners throughout Dumbo and Bushwick. What she was trying to achieve was “the momentary intersection of the paste-up on the wall and the pedestrian whose eye it catches,” she has said, “a moment of recognition, a wink from another human presence which is there but not there, like a little reflection of self embedded in the wall.” Though she still works on the street, she’s never been arrested. “I think because I do portraits, and because I’m all about it, people realize that I’m only trying to bring something beautiful to their neighborhood and leave me alone,” she says, giggling. “Also, it helps to be a woman.”
By 2005, MoMA was collecting her work, and Jeffrey Deitch started representing her. “There are artists who are products of Yale, with nice studios, fancy materials, and assistants, and I respect that, but really, all you need is your determination and your spirit,” says Deitch. “A lot of her friends are freegans! I said, ‘What?’ They live without money: You can always get free secondhand clothes, hitchhike, find a place to crash.” In the art world, Swoon is considered a gifted technician but also a leader. “Callie is the Pied Piper, a folk hero,” says Marsea Goldberg, owner of New Image Art, Swoon’s West Coast gallery. Says Jeff Stark, a collaborator on the vessels and editor of a Happenings newsletter, Nonsense NYC, of Swoon’s rise to prominence: “We told Callie that now we could get her cabinetmakers. Now the boats can be perfect, the way she wants them to look, without any right angles, like they’re held together by gossamer and unicorn snot. And she said, ‘No, I want them to look the way they’ve always looked and make them with all of us.’ ”
“New York’s the top of the world, in trash,” says Swoon.
This crew is Swoon’s big punk-rock family, and even though they’ll likely be broke after this project, they’ll take care of each other. “The culture of eating and building out of Dumpsters is not an endpoint, not what any of us wants to be doing,” Swoon says. “It’s about living off a bad culture that we wish didn’t exist and making the resources that contribute to that situation no longer available to you.” She curls a lock of hair around her finger. “You start to build something like these boats, and you can’t believe it yourself, but enthusiasm has a way of sparking other people,” she says. “What this project has shown me is that there is no place for pessimistic disbelief in the world; it’s just not useful. Once you’ve decided to be on the side of audacious wonder, beauty, and joy, you can’t go back.”
There are many unromantic aspects to planning a 30-person boat trip for two weeks, which is about the time it will take them to sail to Venice from Slovenia, but Swoon lets her tireless project manager, Tianna Kennedy, worry about that. The boats need to be registered and insured; the people need to be fed (onboard, there’s a “sack of potatoes” rule, which means any stowaway who wants to jump on must bring that much sustenance). There are bridges that may be too low for one of the boats to pass beneath, so the top is designed to flip down quickly. There’s a great deal of concern about Venice’s giant rats.
Even in the anarchist world, there is a bit of a hierarchy to the crew, which is divided largely in two—the skilled and unskilled, much as life will be if, or when, the Earth is flooded and everyone must fend for themselves. Most mornings, the lightly callused set off early in their hot-wired blue bus to scavenge for materials for Old Hickory, the third boat. (Swoon is considering bringing this boat to a climate-change conference in Denmark this winter: “We could pull it over the Alps, right, guys?” she says, giggling.) Today, they circle a few piles of junk on street corners before driving to an abandoned warehouse in Koper, a border town with Italy. They jump a broken window like professionals, in heavy gloves and work boots, one with a bolt-cutter and another with a hammer, an art handler from New York named Kera Blossom quickly tying a kerchief over her face.