Barging In to Venice

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.

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.

Inside, graffiti like NO WORK, NO MONEY and LIVE FREE lines the walls, and the ceiling has collapsed onto the floor. There are hundreds of floppy-disk boxes, reams of dot-matrix paper, crushed faxes, old telephones, and small plastic boxes (“We could sell weed in these,” one guy jokes). Some aerosol cans lie on the ground; a few in the crew pierce them quickly, adding their tags to the walls. A guy holds up a bunch of corks: “I can use these to plug up my bike ends,” he says, stuffing them into his pocket. They pop a skylight out of its frame and take a knife to some herringbone flooring, then cut through a heavy wire fence to the street, so they can move out their winnings. Just then, Blossom sets off an alarm—they’ve been spotted by construction workers in the next building. Within minutes, the cops are outside, but they slip out a side exit, blending back into the street.

It’s a stroke of good luck, but they can’t go back to Swoon empty-handed. They pull into an open field, with a ravine piled high with rusting cars (“Is that our car from the future?” Orien McNeill asks, pointing at a crushed blue van). Then they spot them: two flawless four-by-eight planks, worth at least $200 in Slovenian Home Depot. They tie them quickly to the top of the van, along with a rotting surfboard, and are about to rush off when a young Slovenian couple appears. In broken English, the wife explains that this is the field they use for training dogs and that’s their plywood. Eventually, Swoon’s crew undoes the twine from the top of the car. “Callie wouldn’t have wanted us to take it,” McNeill says.

In the car, though, they growl about their bad fortune. She was probably lying, and why did they have to give it back, anyway? Finders keepers, that’s their motto. It’s not like Swoon is selling her boats: This is just art they’re using to float on the sea, and after Venice, it will be garbage, once again.

Alice on the Adriatic, heading for Venice.

All photographs by Tod Seelie

Crew meeting.

Caledonia Curry, a.k.a. Swoon, considering her next move.

The mock-up of Old Hickory.

Old Hickory still under construction.

Interior view of Old Hickory.

Monica Canilao relaxes after dinner on the canal.

The crew relaxing on and off the bow of Maria.

Monica on the swing of Maria.

Conrad Carlson naps on Old Hickory.

“Voltroning” for a swim dance party on the Adriatic Sea.

Spy practicing her bugle on Old Hickory.

An impromptu performance put on for the town of Marano, Italy.

The rafts at night.

Barging In to Venice