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PANKABESTIA: Memories and Inspirations

PANKABESTIA: Punk Beasts of the Swimming Cities of Serenissima
Anonymous Gallery @ Collective Hardware
169 Bowery (off Delancey), New York
November 20, 2009 - January 1, 2010
curated by Spy Emerson

“Pankabestia: Punk Beasts of the Swimming Cities of Serenissima” is an exhibition about the crew members, the individual artists that supported Swoon’s “Swimming Cities” projects, and it is about my own personal experience as a crew member of the “Swimming Cities of the Switchback Sea” and the “Swimming Cities of Serenissima.”

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 the Karst region of Slovenia and floated them all the way to Venice, Italy, right into the Arsenale, with the band playing a haunting soundtrack, reverberating off the brick walls. We shook up the art elite. Jerry Saltz 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 somewhat dismissive label. What we were was living art.

“Pankabestia!” is what the Italian villagers called us when we floated into town on our junk rafts. It translates to "punk beasts", and by all accounts we were: magical, grubby, unruly creatures carrying out an enchanted mythical scene, looking every bit like disintegrated drifting dreams.

When we floated into the rural canals on the outskirts of Venice the townspeople were apprehensive. They locked their doors and windows when we stopped and they watched. The beauty of the rafts was captivating however, the poetic pilings and forced perspectives, stairs spiraling upward into the sky, the tiny pagodas with twinkling corrugated reflections. First the brave came to look, then the curious, and before long all the locals were welcoming us with gifts and food. In a remote fishing village a woman told me in broken English that we "kissed a breath of life" into her old home and that we will not soon be forgotten.

The Swimming Cities of Serenissima was Living Art, designed by Swoon, and executed by 30 individual artists known for their abilities to make unreal things happen. What we constructed was a reality without right angles. Standard rules did not apply. The rafts - "Alice", "Maria", and "Old Hickory" - were the protagonists of our story, our traveling homes. Living on the rafts, the crew became a visual part of the larger moving sculptures and participants in the mad drama flourishing in turbulence, primal urges, euphoria and fear.

In retrospect, I see that we were punk beasts. We raided dumpsters, slept on the ground, shat in the woods and laughed in the rain. We let loose our social restraints and were free to create and experience something profound, to drag our fingertips along the undersides of bridges and jump the fences of the Venice Biennale.

I was offered the opportunity to produce an exhibition with the Anonymous Gallery at Collective Hardware. I worked for four months crafting and preparing the show. It was important that we be seen. Tod Seelie’s photographic portraits would visually present each character, and a piece of work from each crew member would also be incorporated into a large sculptural installation, built by myself and Moses Grubb, and reminiscent of the raft "Old Hickory".

I began raising materials for the show in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, the Grubb family's 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 Mrs. Nemitz, the principal of a girl's school, who offered a very old wallpapered table. Her donation was an initial glimmer of hope that my plan for the sculpture would actually work. After weeks of preparation, we blew through town in one day collecting trash with much fanfare.

The following day, we arrived in NYC at the gallery with a 17 foot truck full of junk. On the same day, as it happened, Mrs. Nemitz was hit by a car and killed while crossing the street. As the town of Bryn Athyn grieved, I worked round the clock on the structure, unaware of the tragedy. But some psychic connection was at work: I embellished the front of the sculpture with two pieces of wood joined with a rusted nut and screw, an accidental wooden cross composed from pieces of her wallpapered table.

I worked five 19 hour days and nights and passed into some otherworldly 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 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.”

from the opening in NY (or view in separate window)

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 that trip that made for a traumatic reentry.

“Pankabestia” currently stands at the Anonymous Gallery until January 1, and after that I’m not sure what will happen to the structure. I had hoped the show would travel to another gallery, or ideally back to Venice, but wherever it went, I imagined it would happen naturally. At this point, with two weeks until the show closes, it looks as if the sculptures will return to the dump. My carefully crafted show will revert from transcendent visual communication back to a pile of trash. 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 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 nine months to prepare for the six week performance, and fell into our roles 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 three weeks on the water, and all in one day great changes came. Ben went to jail for graffiti. Chicken went to the hospital with a near amputation. Mandy was admitted into a sanitarium. And as Kinetic Steam Works partied in our boat docked around the corner from its final destination at Deitch Projects in Long Island City, a gun was pointed at my head.

It was a cop. She asked if we were “a bunch of fucking pirates”?

Had that bullet been fired, I believe 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 in my face by a pissed off lady cop in Queens. 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 have not already been shot by a security guard. Forced off the boats with nowhere to go and a hurricane on our tail, we were stashed in a 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 of fantasy amid chaos. It was unexpected fun and turned out to be the best party ever. The Serenissima was different: at 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 quite serious from the start.

slideshow from Venice (or view in separate window)

I joined the project with great expectations. I planned to extract every inspiration and advantage. For me there is no separation between art and life. This project was an epic opportunity, and I had no mind for the playful abandon of the Switchback Sea. The "Althea" had been returned to California. Moses and I were the only original Kinetic Steam Works members able to commit to 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 that I would learn to play it. To the chagrin of the other crew members I did, 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 with 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 the bugle and worked.

I wrote a manifesto on my typewriter, sewed an elaborate costume for the show, collected junk along the shoreline and made sculptures. I worked in multiple media 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, but overall something was missing, enough to be palpable. In Seelie’s lofty lush portrait series capturing the breezy boldness of each Serenissima crew member, Moses and I stand stiffly against a brick wall, smiling dishonestly.

There were 32 crew members 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, of experiences made tangible. It is a unique story of art and adventure, expressing emotions understood and shared in a collective human experience.

More is More

A remarkably similar text (and some cool pics) appeared in Juxtapoz: