I recently had a chance to visit the Venice Biennale, and guess what my favorite work there was: The Swimming Cities of Serenissima. This incarnation of The Swimming Cities is Swoon’s third rafting project. In 2006 and 2007, the Miss Rockaway Armada floated down the Mississippi River. Last summer, The Swimming Cities of The Switchback Sea floated the Hudson River. And now the three rafts taking part in The Swimming Cities of Serenissima are docked in Venice.
My dad and I arrived in Venice on Saturday the 6th of June. After eating some lunch (amazingly good pizza), we went to the Arsenale, one of the two main exhibition areas for the Biennale. We got about half way through it that day, and not too much caught my eye. I mean, who really cares about a room full of walking canes?
That evening, we took at water bus to the island of Certosa. That’s where Swoon’s rafts are docked. The rafts and a crew of about 30 artists and performers made it all the way from Slovenia over the course of about 2 weeks.
There was no mistaking these rafts. As soon as we saw the dock, my dad and I could tell that we were in the right place. They look like beautiful floating shanty towns. We took some photos while it was still light, then headed onto the island where Dark Dark Dark (official band of trip) were preparing to play a short set before the main performance.
Dark Dark Dark is the perfect band for this project. I’d only heard their songs on myspace and was pretty intrigued, but the set they played was shockingly good and set the mood perfectly for what we were about to see on the boats, which we headed back to when Dark Dark Dark had finished playing.
While the rest of the crew was eating their dinner. Nona, a member of Dark Dark Dark, let us on board one of the boats and have a look around. Ol’ Hickory, the boat that Swoon and her team built in Slovenia from scraps they found there, was full of weird little things that they crew had found over the last few weeks of building and floating. The attention to detail isn’t immediately evident. There are little designs and papercuts that can’t be seen except if you are standing at one or two specific points on the raft. There’s even one of Swoon’s original linoleum blocks. We were booted off the boat after a few minutes when the crew started to prepare for that night’s performance and we found spots on the dock to watch from.
Swoon’s boat projects have always had a performance aspect, and Venice was no different. Instead of a stage, the show would be performed from the boats, with every single crew member having a role, and instead of seats for the audience, we stood on the dock. The three rafts were all docked right next to each other, and a crowd packed the dock in front of them.
The performance isn’t easy to explain, and there will hopefully be a video of the entire thing at some point so here’s a few photos and a short clip. I will say that Dark Dark Dark (plus crew member Harrison) provide a soundtrack to the show and it takes places across all three rafts. And it is absolutely amazingly beautiful, interesting, and at times funny.
After the show, we stood around for a while talking to the crew and even got the chance to meet Swoon. The we took Stinky, their fishing boat, back to Venice because the water buses weren’t running that late. On the way back, we met a few of the other audience members who had come to Venice to see the show. They were friends of Swoon’s from New York (including the model for this piece), and that seemed pretty typical of the crowd there. That realization about the audience and the fact that they arrived for the Biennale made me think the entire thing was a bit contrived and less organic than the last few boat trips, but nonetheless, it was an amazing journey that the crew were on.
On Sunday, my dad and I once again explored some of the main exhibits at the Biennale, but none compared the last night’s performance (except maybe the sculptures by Miranda July)
Then around 5:30 I checked twitter and saw that the Swimming Cities rafts were at the Arsenale. We got over there as quickly as possible, but it was too late. The exhibit space was closed and they wouldn’t let us to the dock. We wouldn’t have been able to see the rafts anyway because, as Mike and Sarah from Black Rat Press soon told us (they had ridden over to the Arsenale on the rafts), somebody had started shouting at them and cut the ropes tying the rafts to the dock, so they had headed back for Certosa.
Later that night, a large group of us went to Certosa for another performance by the Swimming Cities crew. It was another mesmerizing show, followed by chats with the crew.
Probably most interesting to this blog, I spoke with Imminent Disaster about her upcoming shows at Irvine Contemporary with Swoon, Gaia, Dalek and others (Martin Irvine was there with us enjoying the performance as well) and Ad Hoc Art with Gaia. I’ve had a number of people mention to me how much they loved her work at The Carmichael Gallery recently and I think she’s definitely an artist to keep an eye on.
Then, Mike, Sarah and I all took a midnight ride back to Venice on Ol’ Hickory. It was a completely mind-blowing experience. This raft SHOULD NOT FLOAT, but it does. Before we left the dock, our captain, Greg, said, “Now, this is the most people we’ve ever had on this raft at once, but don’t worry. We have enough life vests for everybody, and we should be fine so long as everybody does what I say.” So thanks to Captain Greg for getting us all back to Venice safely.
Here’s a video I took while we were on the raft of Spy, a crew member on Ol’ Hickory, talking about the trip:
And if this story doesn’t give you an idea of what Swoon is like in person, I don’t know what will: There’s a charity project that she and I might be working on together later in the year, but before Venice we’d only discussed it through intermediaries. I’d heard that she was excited about the project, but we hadn’t even discussed exactly what the project would entail. Then, as I’m getting off of Ol’ Hickory I shout “Hey! We need to talk about *****.” Within two minutes, the project is pretty much planned out. It was that easy, because she is just up for helping people.
So yeah. Amazing experience overall. Weekend of my life.
For more on Swoon and The Swimming Cities of Serenissima, check out these great videos and articles:
- A documentary/interview with Swoon…
- An article in New York Magazine about The Swimming Cities of Serenissima
- A very cool presentation given by Swoon recently at The Influencers conference