by Helen Anne Travis
In 2009, Brooklyn street artist, Swoon and two dozen or so friends crashed the Venice Biennale contemporary art show in hulking rafts made from New York City garbage. Called the Swimming Cities of Serenissima, the boats looked like something out of the 1990s post-apocalyptic movies Tank Girl and Waterworld sprinkled with a bit of swamp water. (Swoon said some of the inspiration came from her childhood in Florida.)
The project was built upon Swoon's previous work exploring the intersection of art and aquatic communal living. In 2006 and 2007, she and her crew floated down the Mississippi River on a homemade flotilla. The next year, they sailed a fleet of DIY rafts down the Hudson.
Global Yodel caught up with Swoon in her Brooklyn studio to chat about the Swimming Cities of Serenissima and learn why this was her final community sail.
The Swimming Cities of Serenissima had a great crew, including a clown, a cellist and a member of the band Dark Dark Dark. How did you decide who came along?
The project picked itself. People would just come up to me and say, "I want to do it!" But then there were people I invited and they were all like, "No, I don't want to drown."
Their loss. I imagine running a floating stage and shelter takes a ton of work. How did you guys divvy up who did what?
It wasn't easy. There was definitely a lot of fighting. We just had to figure it out the same way any community of people has had to figure it out.
Let's talk logistics. Did you have toilets? Running water?
On past projects we had a traditional boat toilet on board. For the Swimming Cities of Serenissima we wanted to develop an alternative system but it was beyond our capacity. So we landed more often, camped, and relied on the bathrooms in locals' homes and restaurants.
Where are the rafts now?
They're on a shipping container in Italy, about to come back to the U.S. and be part of a large scale installation in the Brooklyn Museum.
If the Swimming Cities of Serenissima had a tagline or motto, what might it be?
(laughs) If you had a motto you'd say it. If you could really encapsulate the idea that clearly, you wouldn't have to build this fantastic, ridiculous conglomeration of vessels and make a giant floating community
Fair enough! Finish this sentence. The biggest lesson Swimming Cities taught me...
...Is that wonder is really disarming for people. Their defenses go down and they enter a state of suspended disbelief. You can awaken different ideas of possibility when you create that environment
What one single moment was the highlight of the voyage?
We had to get quite a bit of permission to put this whole thing together, but the one thing we could never get permission to do was navigate Venice's Grand Canal. Venetian maritime law is unlike any other maritime law on the planet.
We decided to just go ahead and cruise it in the middle of the night. Five minutes passed. 20. An hour. We kept waiting to get caught. But the next thing we knew the sun was rising and we had the entire Grand Canal to ourselves. It was such a gift. Afterward, I felt so tired. It's almost like being in a state of wonder and joy for that long is exhausting in its own way.
Venice was your last project with the rafts. Now your team is building sustainable and earthquake-resistant homes in Haiti. What made you switch gears?
The floating swamp life was incredible but it also took up all my energy We put so much time and resources into it. I wanted to see what would happen if this creative community took its energy and focused it on a situation that direly needed it.
Photo credit: Tod Seelie