For a good six years, the mysterious Swoon has been pasting her evocative and eye-catching cut-outs on walls around town, slowly and steadily establishing herself as one of the more intriguing street artists in the game. The work eventually won her gallery showings at prominent venues like Deitch Projects, where she returns Sunday with a solo show at the gallery's Long Island City satellite. The installation is part of a bigger, collective project called Swimming Cities of Switchback Sea, a flotilla of floating sculptures that set sail from Troy, New York on August 15th.
The show opens on September 7th, and there will be three performances of a play by shipmate (and Gothamist favorite) Lisa D'Amour at the gallery September 11th, 12th, and 13th. (Details here.) Last week we spoke with Swoon about the Swimming Cities, the notion of "selling out," and the origins of her name as she headed back to the city after temporarily parting from the flotilla.
Why are you on a train when the ships are sailing down the Hudson? There are two parts to this project and the second part is in Long Island City being created by me. So I can only really come to the boats for part of the journey.
You’ll be going back before it arrives in New York? Yeah, absolutely, I wouldn’t miss that. It’s so hard tearing myself away. But it just worked out that way. I sort of tried to do too much and that’s what happens. It’s really hard to be away, particularly because this is the third year doing it and it’s a part of my life now.
Why did you decide to do this instead of the Miss Rockaway Armada down the Mississippi? Well, we did that for two years and there’s a lot of beauty but also a lot of limitations when you’re working as collectively as we were working. The Rockaway was really a collective working and living experience. Even at that point I knew I wanted to do something that was more of an artistic project where you could value aesthetics over a comfortable living space. On the Rockaway we were all living on them and so we had to think about all that. Whereas this is just a three week project with a beginning and an end. The Rockaway took many months and there was no real set time when it would end.
I’m from the Capital District so I was really surprised to hear that Troy of all places was the starting point. Yeah, we just looked at a map and said, “This looks like a doable distance in a short amount of time.” And we just decided to do Troy instead of Albany because it was just a little more out of the way, which is what we wanted. And we have friends who are going to school in Troy.
RPI? Right, so we figured it was a good place to start.
So has it been easier than the Mississippi trip? It’s still been intense. We’re doing performances every time we stop in a town. We’re doing a bunch.
Are you on target to arrive in New York September 7th? Yes. We’ll probably arrive a little sooner because we need a good cushion of time to cross the harbor. It’s pretty dangerous and our vessels don’t really take wind very well because they’re sculptures first, and all handmade. So we have to make sure we can cross the harbor when there are no swells. We encountered huge swells on the Mississippi. It was terrifyingly dangerous. So we’re giving ourselves a window in New York.
But it’s been smooth so far? Oh yeah. The Hudson is a tidal estuary so we’re learning a lot of lessons about the current. It changes your travel time and it changes how much fuel you use.
Have you had any visits from the Coast Guard yet? Oh yeah. The funny thing about the boats is that even though they look like floating piles of garbage – or a fantastical sculpture, depending on how you want to look at it – they all have to be registered with the Coast Guard.
Have you been boarded and inspected? Yup. We’ve had really good contacts with the Coast Guard so far. The guy in New York has been really, really nice. We were really worried about it because everything is harder in New York City and we figured it would be less permissive. But since we knew how to do our stuff already we assured them we were on top of it and they’ve been really great.
What time should people show up in Long Island City to see the arrival? They’re going to come around 7 p.m. on September 7th at the 44th Drive dock.
And that’s also where your solo show is going to be? Yes, this is all part of one project. For example, I’ve been talking for two years with the playwright Lisa D’Amour and together we developed this play, which happens in front of the boats. She wrote it; that wasn’t collaborative but I spoke with her about content and different things. We developed this narrative whereby the boats are coming from Troy and these vessels, which are kind of in a state of drift, are heading toward this mythical docking place, which is the exhibit. It’s all one big project.
The boats will be exhibited at the gallery? Yes, the gallery is in Long Island City Queens and it faces the dock. The boats are going to arrive and be kept there.
Do you recall the first piece you put up in New York and where it was? Yes, I do. It was down in Chinatown and I did such a terrible job. I didn’t know how to wheat paste, it was a mess. It only lasted about a day. Eventually somebody who worked with Shepard Fairey showed me how to make wheat paste.
We interviewed Shepard and he talked about his many run-ins with the cops. Have you had that pleasure? Not one that ended that badly. I work in such a way… I think because I’m making things that are really hand-crafted portraits that are not in a permanent medium I think I have a different relationship with them than other people who do graffiti.
Who do you like who’s doing work now? I guess my favorite right now is Booker; you know the guy who writes “Read More Books.” He’s got some really, really dope spots all over. Another one is “You Go Girl.”
Some people have the impression that the street art scene peaked in 2006. Is that true? It’s hard to say. It depends on where you are. I think in different places it does different things. I would say 2005 in Berlin. I don’t know. It depends on where you are and what your relationship to the thing is. There’s always a sense that when something is at it’s height it’s simultaneously going down. Some people think that’s all bullshit and that working publicly and working in the city is always going to be relevant. So whatever the “scene” is doing is sort of nonsense and people will continue working outside.
Now that you’re more prominent with shows in big galleries do you have people accusing you of selling out? Oh yeah, absolutely. For me, I feel like it’s one of those things where, when you’re a teenager and you’re working things, you have a certain perspective on what you’re doing and why. When I was a kid I put so much importance on galleries and museums and I thought they were totally alienating and I hated them. It seemed like the only avenue for artists, and an oppressive system. If you’re just making work to show in a museum it did not seem like a good end.
And then the longer I worked, the more I realized that making work that’s relevant in the world does not depend on galleries and institutions. I felt I could always make the work I was making, be it boats on the river or art on the street, I could create a life of making art that happened in the real world and that happened in people’s daily lives and that wasn’t dependent on museums and institutions. And once I felt that way, those institutions didn’t feel so threatening. It just didn’t feel like something I had to fight all the time. It wasn’t the whole picture; it was a small part of the picture. And if they want to support me sometimes, it’s not really a big deal to me, now that I know who I am and what I’m doing. I think it was very important for me to discover that path outside of these institutions. I guess for me the whole question of “selling out” doesn’t seem as relevant when those things don’t seem as important. Did that make sense? I’m in a cab with an insane amount of rope.
Rope? Yeah, the installation is going to have a tremendous amount of rope that I found and I’m trying to transport it.
Okay, just a couple more questions. Where did the inspiration for your name come from? My boyfriend in college had a dream that I was a graffiti writer and I wrote SWOON. And that was years before I started working outside and it seemed funny to me because it was so alien from what I knew. So when I started working outside and I wanted a name, I remembered it.
Did you go to art school? Yeah. Even though I work outside a lot I do come from a fine art background.
What school did you go to? Pratt.
What do you have next after this installation? There’s an arts-based community center I’m helping to create in a church we’ve taken over outside Pittsburgh. It’s going to be an urban farm and community center. Then I have a residency in Cairo. There’ll be some travel and some more community-based projects. And then we’ll see what happens.
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