If all goes well this week, a huge, scrappy flotilla of homemade rafts—crafted out of junk scavenged from the streets of New York City, powered by biodiesel fuel and fry grease, and packed with artists, performers, and assorted crazy people—will be set free in Minnesota from the banks of the Mississippi. Grandly titled the Miss Rockaway Armada, the project was initially conceived by New York street artist Swoon and fleshed out by a dedicated volunteer team of about 25 people, many of them veterans of art collectives with names like Visual Resistance, the Floating Neutrinos, the Infernal Noise Brigade, and the Madagascar Institute. Several of these raft-builders hail from New York, but they are heading for distant shores, knowing full well that their project wouldn’t last long on the Hudson or the East River. Plus, as Swoon notes, “there’s something so American about this myth of the Mississippi—it’s totally in our imaginations. There’s not very much explaining to do. You just say the words ‘Mississippi raft . . . ‘ ”
Jeff Stark, local authority on all things odd and madcap mastermind of New York’s Idiotarod shopping-cart race, is among the die-hard recruits. “I’m always attracted to crazy projects, and this is firmly a crazy project, so of course I’d want to do it,” he says. Stark has made several sacrifices for the project already, including a heroic fall into the filthy Gowanus Canal during a test run with a raft that suddenly capsized.
Despite several setbacks, the group remains undaunted, with plans to travel an approximate 700 miles down the river from Minneapolis to St. Louis over the next month. Along the way, they plan on stopping at various towns to host vaudeville theater, music performances, and arts workshops. “We are taking cues from Johnny Appleseed, traveling medicine shows, nomadic jewel box theater, and of course that old radical Mark Twain,” they write on their website—a manifesto of punk-rock possibility fused with New York ambition.
The rafts are built almost entirely from garbage—disused plywood, bits of rope, foam rescued from dumpsters, donated nails. “We want this to be an experiment from a totally nonexpert level on sustainable technology,” says Swoon. The engines to power the propeller, custom-built by a team operating in San Francisco, are two vintage Volkswagen Rabbit diesel engines souped up to run on waste veggie oil. The group envisions several satellite rafts surrounding the main one—a bicycle-powered raft, a raft holding a zine library, a raft with a garden, and perhaps even a raft with a skate ramp, according to A’yen Tran, one of the team members. The project seems intentionally and almost absurdly convoluted, in contrast to, say, the notorious “boat punks” known as Evan and Dave, who travel down the Mississippi each year using far simpler methods. “There’s definitely a New York–ness to the way we’re doing things,” laughs Swoon. “We’re just stressed out! We’re stressy people, like, ‘Aaaah! We have to arrange this! What are we going to do?’ The fact that we have a fucking website, for chrissakes.”
To the capital-A art world, Swoon is a rising star with two pieces in MOMA’s “Printmaking Now” exhibition and a successful solo show at Deitch Projects last year. Several other members of the project have equally impressive résumés. But Miss Rockaway has operated almost entirely underneath the radar of the capital-A art world. The group raised almost $50,000 by throwing benefits and rock shows, tending bar at parties, and quickly organizing an auction, hosted in Holasek-Weir Projects in Chelsea, of art donated by high-profile friends and comrades, such as the U.K. provocateur Banksy, who sent over a big package of work, gratis, by himself and other artists in his collective Pictures on Walls. “It was kind of shocking how many artists, within a 48-hour period, all stepped up to the plate and offered to give their work,” enthused Tran.
Will they succeed in mastering the Mississippi? “There’s a terrific chance of failure, but that’s what’s so thrilling about it,” says Stark. “That’s why you sign up. You don’t sign up because it’s a sure win.”