They're like Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, except there's no psychedelic Kool-Aid, like a 19th century Medicine Show, but they're not selling anything. They are The Miss Rockaway Armada, and they're sailing the entire length of Old Man River to New Orleans on a flotilla made of junk. Along the way, they've met a woodlands ninja, a pirate and hundreds of awed heartland Americans. They've encountered a toad island and had a fourth of the vessel torn off by the river's current. Perhaps strangest of all, they've passed Coast Guard inspections.
This coalition of painters, musicians, actors and performance artists convened in Minneapolis in August and set up in a riverside junkyard. There they completed construction of an armada of connected and festooned pontoon boats with rubbish salvaged by crewmembers from dumpsters all over the country. Their goal: to float the length of the Mississippi River to New Orleans on their "scrap boat," doing art exhibitions, performances and workshops along the way.
Why? "We grew up in small towns. We remember the bookmobile and the punk rock band that seeded little pieces of something else," said an open call for volunteers sent to art collectives nationwide in May. "And now, even though we have moved to big cities and found people like us, we still live in a country that fights wars so people can consume more. We are taking the urge to flee and heading for the center. We want to meet people that aren't like us. ... We want to be a living, kicking model of an entirely different world -- one that in this case happens to float."
The idea spawned in the summer of 2005, when Swoon -- a New York-based street artist -- was hitchhiking with fellow artist and fire-breather Harrison. One driver that picked them up was a boat enthusiast, and before their highway conversation was over, they were drawing up sketches of the floating art gallery and spectacle that would become Miss Rockaway. They hooked up with Jeff Stark, progenitor of New York's Idiotarod (an annual shopping cart race across the Brooklyn Bridge) and started meeting weekly last spring, collecting wood, screws, foam and junk, stockpiling nonperishable food and adding to their ranks.
They hoped to succeed, guided by the elusive ideals of "sustainable living," an eco-friendly philosophy that argues that humans can sustain life without sapping the Earth of its resources. To that end, they converted two Volkswagen Rabbit engines to operate on vegetable oil, built wind turbines and resolved to compost all the trash and human waste the armada would create. "The eco aspect was absolutely experimental," said A'yen Tran, a New York-based member. "We were horrified at (the thought of) burning gas the whole way, so we burned bio-diesel. We had the capability to use vegetable oil, the wind turbine, bicycle power. It was all an experiment in learning about how to do these things. So not all of it worked, but the effort was an achievement in itself."
They ended up with a 120-foot armada of linked boats. It includes frivolous high arches in shining lacquer paint, a swing fashioned from salvaged metal piping, a sail made of discarded umbrellas, a raft made of old doors and a vessel with a hammock for solitary star-gazing dubbed "The Temple of Solitude." There's a bicycle-powered raft, and a pedal-powered washing machine. And it's all constructed in the shape of a fish.
The group of 30 includes members of the Infernal Noise Brigade (a punk rock marching band from Seattle), the Floating Neutrinos (a collective that has previously floated a scrap boat to Cuba), The Toy Shop Collective (a street art cooperative that has gained notoriety for absurdist takeovers of public spaces in New York) and adventurous independent artists from all over America. "With each stop we would get more and more costumed," Tran says. Thrift store finds and homemade wares like top hats, wigs, capes and hot pants were a must. Nudity was popular while piloting the river. In the nautical spirit, one member shaved his chest hair into the shape of an anchor.
The improbable craft and its enthusiastic crew set sail during the second week of August. "In Minneapolis, as we set out, a whole bunch of people from town had come out to see us off," remembered Spark North, a shadow puppeteer who also serves as the crew medic. "It was amazing. As we started sailing they all ran along the shore waving and wishing us well. One of the men who pushed us off fell in the river and came out laughing. It was a real celebration."
The first stop was Wabasha, where armada members performed their outdoor post-modern vaudeville variety show for the first time. Any trepidation about how locals would receive them was quickly relieved as the Minnesotans cheered them on and brought them blankets and breakfast on the morning of their departure.
"The people the whole way were so friendly, so excited to welcome us -- just gushing," Tran says. "Our 'message' was unclear, which is what endeared us to the locals. Had we been serious eco-engineers it would have been like an eco-friendly workshop, like 'Here's our Sustainable Living Boat and here's how we did it!' Sure, that would have been neat. But because none of us had any skill or experience whatsoever in sailing or engineering -- because everything was so rough around the edges -- it became instead about silliness, about an explosion of creativity and unpretentiousness and sharing that with everyone we met along the way on our punk rock circus scrap boat."
Media has flocked to Miss Rockaway, much to the group's dismay. They've turned down television shoots with Fox News and CBS. "TV is hyper-reductive," says Tran. "And we're not interested in being some cable news piece like 'Look at this floating circus freak show' and that's it. We're more complex than that."
Curious barge pilots and speedboaters often sidle up too closely, driving waves over their craft and flooding it. At one notoriously rough part of the river, rapids even pulled 35 feet of the raft off. They lost it for two days but found it in a stump field and reattached it. Members brag that Miss Rockaway has never sunk or crashed. They dubbed one stop "Apocalypse Island" because it was covered with thousands of toads. In Dubuque, Iowa, they pulled off an art show and performance as a thunderstorm rolled in.
"There were these huge black clouds rolling over us super fast," remembered Spark North, "so we got a bunch of our fire-breathers performing. Very ominous."
They had no money and few skills, but they have sustained themselves with bulk food they collected in the spring along with greens and berries picked from the banks of the river and "amazing amounts of great cuisine from dumpsters." Occasionally they sing for their supper in rivertown restaurants.
In Winona, Minn., they met Steve the Polish Pirate -- a local who dresses in full pirate regalia every day -- and a man named Mike who built a cabin in a cave on the bank of the river. In La Crosse, Wis., some Rockaway crew members went foraging for edible greens on shore in the early morning and returned with breakfast and a man in a full ninja suit drinking a bottle of malt liquor. The ninja, it turned out, was a bouncer at a local bar. (He fell in love with a member of the Rockaway crew and recently boarded a plane for the first time to visit his beloved in New York.)
Cultural exchange became a priority as the armada rolled down the upper Mississippi. At each port of call, these scrap boat ambassadors to America's heartland set up a Story Booth, where they recorded local oral histories. Of course, caveman Mike and Steve the Polish Pirate contributed their stories, but so did fishermen, farmers and schoolchildren. The artist-sailors may have represented a different way of life, but they weren't evangelizing. And, perhaps more important to the residents of the towns they invaded, they weren't as threatening as they first appeared. In fact, they did silk-screening and songwriting workshops with local children as well as face-painting. "There was a ton of creativity and cultural exchange going on, but we didn't want it to ring of cultural imperialism," says Tran. "We wanted to learn from all the people in these towns -- and we did."
Finally, after three months on the river, they dry-docked for the winter in Andalusia, Ill. "We wanted to make it closer to New Orleans, but the winter weather caught up with us," says Tran. Roughly 1,500 miles from their final destination in southern Louisiana, the vessel is now housed at Ducky's Lagoon, a riverside bar that offered them space for the season.
So has the Miss Rockaway Armada been a success thus far? "Absolutely," says Tran. "We were having the most amazing interactions with people in these towns, so we chose not to race to New Orleans as fast as we could. Our success is in the things we've learned and the people we've met so far. And that we got to embody what we wanted to be from the start: a free space where we could be who we wanted to be, and do what we wanted to do, without it being dictated by jobs or school or whatever else."
Keep your eyes on the river. If all goes as planned, The Miss Rockaway Armada will land in New Orleans this summer. "From the start in Minnesota, when curious barge pilots asked where we were going, we always screamed 'New Orleans!'" A'yen Tran recalls. "They couldn't believe it, but we'll get there."