But their impromptu society of 30 artists and activists from San Francisco, Seattle and New York does feel "superfun like a party." The group has been in town for a few weeks, building the functional and whimsical elements of their armada -- from barrel rafts to be powered by VW engines run on biodiesel to a custom-painted sound-system by the Barnstormers art collective, a sail made from discarded umbrella fabric to decorative panels by NYC street artist (and project cofounder) Swoon. Their goal: to float down the Mississippi from Minneapolis to St. Louis -- and, for some, New Orleans -- stopping to camp, give performances and demonstrations, meet people, and raise awareness of alternative ways of living and powering our lives.
Here's what Santiago, a Trinidadian New Yorker, had to tell me about the project and its participants:
What we are is urban, anarcho-environmentalist evangelists. We’re spreading the word of this new different way of life. It’s fair and even and vaguely ungendered — or less gendered than regular society. It’s sustainable to the extent we can be. It’s full of energy and exciting and DIY, and, yeah, we like to do things that seem impossible… It’s not political in the traditional sense of the word, but it’s political in the larger sense, in that we’re trying to create a social landscape here that’s unique from that of the norm.But it's far from typical. Participants have come from various art collectives, from the activist art groups the Madagascar Institute and Visual Resistance to the radical marching bands Infernal Noise Brigade and Rude Mechanicals Orchestra, and backgrounds (Kevin works in an after-school program at an elementary school in New York, while Rebecca is studying public-interest law at CUNY).
Art critic Jerry Saltz says this great thing, something to do with the moment of awe in the history of art, where-by in the very beginning, when people were god-fearing for the most part, they made images of the gods and painted them in their chapels and churches, and they were looking up. After a couple of hundred years, people realized that the land existed and that the land was powerful. Shipping began and commerce began, and they discovered indies. They started looking outwards, they started looking at the land, and that was the reason for making art — looking out and seeing that. But it’s sort of come to this place now where it’s personal, and the moment of awe in art and in life, like this, is the interdependent relations between people. That’s what our time of history is defined by…. [River rafting] is the prototypical American thing to do, and as much as we disagree with the politics of the government that’s in power — I’m not saying we all do, but we disagree with certain aspects of the society we live in — but the thing we’re doing is as American as cars, apple pie, grandmothers…
What they all seem to share: a sense of community, fun, radical politics, and a degree of cultural autonomy. Kevin, whose bare torso is shaved to reveal an appropriately anchor-shaped patch of fur, says he was drawn to the project both through his affiliation with Visual Resistance and the Toyshop Collective and out of a desire to see parts of the country he's unfamiliar with via a new mode of transit.
“I’ve traveled in so many ways. I used to hop freights for years, I’ve hitchhiked. I’m used to subsisting on a very low income, and traveling by water is a new thing I haven’t done," he says.
But as I notice several flags flying above the boathouse at their host site -- one NASCAR, one Dale Earnhart, an American flag and the Minnesota state seal -- he adds, "I’m not particularly interested in going with the assumption that there’s an average mainstream culture, that people are just watching TV and not interacting with their surroundings, because I think that would be incredibly presumptuous. I want to go into it with an attitude of openness… People are people, and I’m sure there’s a lot of culture of self-subsistence along the river. And I always go into situations with a perspective that there’s something I can learn from it.”
That spirt of openness is held by just about everyone I met. As is a spirit of ingenuity.
Crew member Nick explains the personal appeal of the project: "I build a lot of weird, strange things for theater and for opera and the fashion industry, and I saw this project and saw the model, and I thought, this is completely impossible, and I want to be a part of it. I want to see how far this can actually go. I’m constantly amazed at the leaps and bounds forward."
True, the series of "15,000 steps" they've taken -- from a hugely successful art auction/fundraiser to modifying technologies for boat engines and last night's successful test of a just-for-fun bicycle ferris wheel that'll float behind the armada -- is pretty amazing. For a bunchy of "ragamuffins" (as Santiago jokingly calls the group), they're definitely organized.
Gillian sees links between her work with the band Infernal Noise Brigade and her involvement with Miss Rockaway: "I think it’s good to prove that people with radical politics can still be really organized. We have really tight uniforms and we march well and our songs are really good and we’re really organized, but we still have radical politics… I respect the way [armada participants] look at art and the world and that relationship, and how resources are used and reused and preserved, and the general idea of fun and celebration being a political statement, as well."
The ultimate inspiration is the pirate utopias of the Barbary Coast, as well as the voyages of The Floating Neutrinos, who famously sailed across the Atlantic in a scrap raft. Going the length of the Mississippi should be a comparatively easier ride -- one I wouldn't mind taking myself. To follow the progress of this "Floating Temporary Autonomous Zone" (as Kevin calls it), stay tuned here or visit the Miss Rockaway blog.
Images [top to bottom]: Santiago, umbrella sail, Kevin, detail of Swoon's art, Nick with Sharpie tattoo, bicycle ferris wheel.