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Sunday, September 7, 2008

Boat People

Liz Armstrong is moved...

A floating Gypsy-like caravan carrying four precarious pyramids of junk reecently docked on the Hudson for our viewing pleasure. Piles and piles of beautiful refuse—ornate wooden curlicues, ferris-wheel spokes, colorful swings—slowly drifted up to the 70th Street riverfront, linked together by ropes and pirate planks.

A grizzled seafarer hopped from boat to boat with a lantern as his guide, rousing sleeping inhabitants curled up on decks and tucked in improbable nooks. They ascended stairs and ramps to the top of their boats. I counted at least 33 of them, in particular a cutie in 70's gym shorts (not the ones from American Apparel, but the thrift kind, most likely previously worn by a pervert), her perfect ass peeking out. Underneath them she'd layered shredded tights, a low-cut teal leotard with one shoulder dangling off, lumberjack suspenders, plus combat boots. You want to see style, here it is. They were all dressed ridiculously to some extent, and they looked fantastic—the most beautiful people I've seen in a long time.

“There’s no place for you,” the seafarer cried from a podium made of rusted scraps of metal. “I’m terribly sorry, but there’s no place for you.” Then he waxed lyrical for a while about the urge to head for the sea, the causality for which is starved, scorched and overcrowded land with zero opportunity for refertilization. When he finished, others took the podium with equally poetic, partially real soliloquies about the boats and their origins, how long they’ve been on the water and how they pass the time. Back on the dock, where we'd all gathered to watch the spectacle, Dark Dark Dark, a New York/Minneapolis band that sounds as if it came from yonder back in time, provided musical accompaniment suitable for a Venetian cantina or Parisian speakeasy.

The whole thing was masterminded by New York-based artist Swoon, who, among other projects promoting self-sustainability and interaction with one's immediate environment, headed a flotilla of barges made from found stuff down the Mississippi for two consecutive summers. Called Miss Rockaway, the migration started in Minnesota and was supposed to make it to New Orleans, but right around St. Louis the river began to branch in an erratic and volatile way, so most of the captains decided the expedition should end there.

Swoon regrouped those crews and others to assemble four boats, all powered with engines that leave minimal damage in their wake, all elaborately and entirely constructed from reclaimed materials, to cruise around the upper New York area. Unlike Miss Rockaway, Switchback Sea, as this project is named, exists mainly as a vehicle for performance.

A suave-looking gent in a silver suit rolled up in a little speedboat. He was welcomed aboard, given a grubby T-shirt in exchange for his jacket and handed a hunk of bread. The allegories delivered from the podium resumed, building upon their self-created mythology. Are they descendants from criminals? Or free thinkers with no place left to go? Regardless, it was clear they care a great deal about one another, as they sort of picked at one another like monkeys, teased, gathered in small circles to chat, smoked cigs and stared out at the water, curling up together. And they care just as much for their vessels, breaking into frequent pantomime to shine and repair them.

Suddenly everyone went bananas. The suit did something wrong, the trust was broken and a madcap chase involving a hula-hoop ensued. They captured the man, marched him to the highest point of all the ships, stripped him of his shirt, and decorated him with war paint and a headdress. He rolled up the legs of his pants, revealing mismatched socks and red-laced boots. Aha! An anarchist. Now transformed, he’s gone to Croatan, too.

Then the scholar of the boat delivered his speech, a bone-dry pontification about joining the river crew as an intellectual pursuit, going into great detail about his extensive note-taking and theories about who comprises the crew. Meanwhile, the crew—who’d been nothing less than absolutely attentive and respectful of all the other speakers—became restless, braying like donkeys, razzing him. It's obvious his character is there to comment on the nature of cold observation—how dull and clueless it can be, how overintellectualization of art drains its potential for beauty and surprise. I realized I was taking notes as he was talking; I was playing the same role he was. Shamed, I put my notepad and camera away. It was time to just watch instead of drawing conclusions.

Without my recording devices at hand, the rest of the performance took on special importance. This existed just for me (and, okay, everyone else watching, but my memory of it would be my own) and for that reason I’m not going to recount some of the best parts here. Some things really shouldn’t be documented; they should be experienced. So go for yourself, or don't. There’s a party for the project at the new Deitch outpost at 4-40 44th Drive in Long Island City, from 6 to 9 pm tonight.

Midway through I’d made a pact—yes, a serious one—with myself to only pursue joy from this point on. By the time the boats went dark I was openly crying. As if cosmically cued to make the moment more cinematic, a bushy-browed old man waddled up next to me and grumbled, “To me, this is irresponsible and pointless, even if it's fun. Do I see myself doing it? No. But I'm envious that they are.” Why be envious? These people made a choice, the same choice available to anyone on that dock, to create their own homes out of nothing and shape reality for themselves. That’s actually the most responsible, meaningful thing you could ever do with your life. At the beginning of the performance the band encouraged the audience to not only turn off our cell phones, but to throw them in the river. If it weren’t for the polluting aspect, I would have.

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