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Swimming Cities, From Spy’s Perspective

Juxtapoz // Monday, 21 Dec 2009
Swoon’s “Swimming Cities” project ranks for us as one of the most impressive art installations of the year, arguably the decade. An adventure like this [Swoon and her crew essentially constructed a vessels out of trash and hit the open sea] has an equally intriguing back-story.


In coordination with the closing of “Pankabestia: Punk Beasts of the Swimming Cities of Serenisssima”, which is a retrospective exhibition about the crew-members and the individual artists that supported Swoon’s “Swimming Cities” projects, Artist Spy Emerson tells us about her own personal experience as a crew member of the “Swimming Cities of the Switchback Sea” and of the “Swimming Cities of Serenissima”.
In her words:


“Both daunting projects were based on Swoon’s giant multimedia floating sculptures, beautiful rafts built from trash.  As a group, we made these great, impossible situations happen. For Serenissima, we built junk boats in Slovenia and floated them all the way to Venice, Italy --and right into the Arsenal, with the band playing a haunting soundtrack, reverberating off the brick walls. We shook the art elite. Jerry Saltz, a critic, said seeing us was the most moving moment he had at the Biennale. He also referred to the crew as “Swoon’s Gypsy friends”, a discounted explanation of us. What we were was living art.

I was offered the opportunity to produce an exhibition about the crew with the Anonymous Gallery at Collective Hardware. I worked for 4 months crafting and preparing the show. It was important that we be seen. Tod Seelie’s portraits of us would visually present each character, and a piece work from each crew member would be incorporated into a large sculptural installation reminiscent of the raft Old Hickory, built by myself and Moses Grubb.
Being in California, I began materials-raising for the show in Bryn Athyn, Penn., Moses’s family hometown. In September I published a plea for old, wooden junk in the Bryn Athyn Post. The first person to respond to the ad was the principal of a girl's school who offered a very old wallpaper table. Her donation was the glimmer of hope that my plan for the sculpture would work. After weeks of preparation, we blew through town in one day collecting trash with much fanfare.
On the following day, we arrived at the gallery with a 17’ truck full of junk, the same day, as it happened, Mrs. Nemitz was killed crossing the street. As in Bryn Athyn  grieved, I worked round the clock on the structure. Unknowing the tragedy, I embellished the front of the sculpture with two pieces of wood connected by a rusted nut and screw, an accidental wooden cross broken from the wallpaper table of Mrs. Nemitz.


I worked 5 19-hour days and nights, and went into some otherworld state to translate human emotion into a representation, using ladders and chair legs and wooden spoons. Moses and I built this giant, heavy, complicated, detailed, beautiful gorgeous thing together, and when we were done we decided to split. Our partnership flourished and then wilted on the Swimming Cities, and we broke apart while building “Pankabestia.”





For me, the Switchback was an ethereal experience; I carried away nothing but memories and love. From the Serenissima I tried to hold something good, and I dragged home giant heavy boxes of collected bits of the trip that made for a traumatic reentry.  “Pankabestia” currently stands at the Anonymous Gallery until January 1st --and after that I’m not sure what will happen to the structure.  I had hoped the show would travel to another gallery, ideally back to Venice, but wherever it went, I just imagined it would happen naturally.


At this point, with two weeks till the show closes and nowhere for it to go, it looks as if the sculptures will return to the dump. My carefully crafted show will revert from transcendent visual communication, to a pile of trash, again. At least I can enjoy the irony.
The Swimming Cities project provided pure, raw emotional material to work with in creating “Pankabestia.”


The two trips were very different and equally inspiring.
The “Swimming Cities of the Switchback Sea” was so dreamy I barely touched ground. I was working with Kinetic Steam Works as an artistic collaborator, performer, and a steam engineer. We were hired to join the Switchback Sea project. They were employing alternative propulsion systems, and wanted a steam engine. For the project we rebuilt a paddlewheel boat, and modified a steam engine to run on bio-diesel fuel.


We worked for 9 months to prepared for the 6-week operation, and fell into our rolls naturally. I would be operating the firebox of our boat  “Althea”.


Life along the Hudson River was incredibly light and playful, and most unreal. Every day of the float was an adventure. We climbed the turreted castle walls of an old armory; we jumped from the rooftops of buildings flooded in a quarry. Moses and I took acid and had sex on a trampoline, laughing and bouncing for hours. The story climaxed when we reached Manhattan after 3 weeks on the water, and in one day, Ben went to jail for graffiti, Chicken went in the hospital with a near amputation, Mandy was admitted into a sanitarium, and as KSW partied in our boat docked around the corner from the final destination, the Deitch Projects, a gun was pointed at my head.
It was a cop; she asked if we were “a bunch of fuckin’ pirates?”


I believe, if that bullet had been fired, it would have gone right through me without a trace. The whole thing was like a dream. I was completely unafraid. I was laughing as a gun was pointed directly at my face by a pissed off lady cop in queens NY. Stephen, the head engineer, was standing next to me with his hands in the air, wearing nothing but ladies panties. And his balls were hanging out the side. He calmly explained who we were, what we were doing… and that we were far from being pirates. Apparently we had illegally docked in front of an armored car warehouse and were lucky to not have been shot by a security guard already. Forced off the boats with nowhere to go, and a hurricane on our tail, we were stashed in the secret studio in Chelsea. From the fire escape I watched the fabulous bustle below. It was fashion week in New York City, and I was wearing a pillowcase with a belt. I was so free.
The Switchback Sea was a happenstance fantasy amid chaos.  It was the unexpected fun. It was the best party in the end. The Serenissima was different; in the end I had a dead fish in my luggage, and a spider bite on my ass. Where the Switchback Sea was open, the Swimming Cities of Serenissima was a determined chronicle. We were going to crash the Venice biennale with outsider art. It was serious from the start.


I joined the project with intentions-- I planned to extract from the situation every inspiration and advantage. There is no separation between art and life for me. This project was an epic opportunity, and I had no mind for the playful abandon of the Switchback Sea.  Althea had been returned to California. Moses and I were the only KSW members of the Serenissima crew able to commit the two months in Europe.
Without my people, or a steam engine to fire, I was displaced. On the fortnight of my leave, I was given a badly dented Boy Scout bugle from 1929, responding to the gift with the promise I would learn to play it.  To the chagrin of the other crewmembers, I did, by practicing for hours on the open waters. I filled the job of bugler, and announced the rafts’ arrivals and departures. I used my bugle to communicate with other vessels in the water and the people on the shore.
The bugle was a mask, something to hide behind. I was emotionally strained. My partnership was suffocating. I felt disconnected from the crew. So I played bugle and I worked. I wrote a manifesto with my typewriter, sewed an elaborate costume for the show, collected junk along the shoreline and made sculptures. I worked in multiple mediums making art and used all the time on the rafts to translate my experience tangibly. I felt locked into my body, my experiences were heavy, and my work and mood were dark.  I don’t remember laughing much, but when I did it was sadistic. I laughed when our kite got hit by a truck, and reached a rolling hysteria watching the crew fight over the body of a dead and bloated cat (this story alone inspired several of my new works).


Venice was incredible as we paraded our illegal art on the Grand Canal, supernatural --but overall, something was off, enough to be palpable.  In Seelie’s lofty lush portrait series capturing the breezy boldness of each Serenissima crewmember, Moses and I stand stiffly against a brick wall, smiling, dishonestly.


There were 32 crewmembers on the “Swimming Cities of Serenissima.” Each of us has a story; this one is mine. The show is my ghostly mind-image, a persistence of vision, my experiences made tangible. “Pankabestia: Punk Beasts of the Swimming Cities of Serenissima” is a unique story of art and adventure, expressing emotions understood and shared by the collective human experience.”

--Spy Emerson


Photos from swimmingcities' Flickr page.


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