In the traditional sense of a collective, the Miss Rockaway Armada does not actually exist. The typical characteristics that describe such a joint venture—a specific locality, a single cohesive interest or mission, or a specific membership—do not apply. Formed in the summer months of 2006 and 2007, they converged in Minneapolis to construct a flotilla of rafts that journeyed down the Mississippi River. They continued to exhibit large-scale projects at several venues in the United States and in Europe including Exit Art in New York, Mass MoCA in North Adams, and most recently, the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, The Netherlands. In each of these cases, different artists were involved and the context of where they were creating changed the vision of the collective. It is the convergence of different artists, reinventing themselves over and over again, that makes their existence unclassifiable and of-the-moment.
Although the planning process for this project originally began in 2009, the group remained loosely connected, mainly in the form of a virtual chat room for over a year. When beginning to really contemplate what the project would encompass—an undertaking involving the river, parades to neighborhoods outside of the community surrounding the Art Alliance, and a site-specific installation in the galleries themselves—they soon discovered that the intervening years spent apart had dimmed their common vision. Thus began a process of rediscovery and reconnection. Would their individual interests inform their work as a whole?
When the group, distanced by time and location, is reconstituted by a convening location unfamiliar to almost every participant (as none are native to Philadelphia), a process naturally evolves that has a certain level of non-determination, which became imperative to their working process. It was only once they were living and working in the city that they saw the potential that the natives do not; neglected neighborhoods, untapped resources, and even the surrounding waterways that its inhabitants ignore.
As with all of their projects, the process began with the discovery and selection of materials. Roaming the city for discarded wares (and working with local artist resource organizations) grew into an enthralling scavenger hunt for bric-a-brac, architectural debris, clothing, and furniture. This first step served as the basis for their somewhat unplanned, organically built creations. At the build site, one first observed three, then six and finally eleven floating structures destined to become a city of floating islands during their time on the Schuylkill River. What became apparent during this intense building phase was the act of imbuing objects that were considered useless with a value and significance; a powerful statement in and of itself that is profoundly political, reflecting their overall distaste for mass market consumerism and corporate culture.
Not only did the internal constituency of the group form their collective “doing” within the material reality of a specific urban landscape, but an equal influence were the local individuals and communities they encountered along the way. Throughout the four months in which the project evolved, impromptu performance nights, potluck dinners, and band practices for their events were joined with more planned community “craft nights” and other activities with local artists and collectives such as Space 1026 and FLUX Space. These communal events, unmediated by the art world or institutional influence, involved direct communication and engagement with the residents of Philadelphia that reinforced Miss Rockaway’s continual interest in a non-hierarchical exchange of information.
As part of The Miss Rockaway Armada’s public projects—on the street, the river, or in a park—animating their sculptures through performance is an extension of these planned activities. From theatrical skits and shadow puppetry to circus acts and large brass band performances, their work throughout this project was inherently participatory. Singing, storytelling, and allowing viewers to experience and realize the sculptural works as spaces to be embodied rather than admired, underpins the experiential rather than the passive “see what I made” tradition of artistic display. In essence, their handmade creations, energized through social interaction, defy categorization as performance art, sculpture, or as functional objects.
In the larger context of artistic and craft-based practices, the focus of the collective certainly refutes the traditional studio model of the finished end-product created through a specific set of skills mastered and polished over time. There is no end game here. It is the activity, rather than resulting objects, that creates the potential to disturb a fixed process that one often finds in the formal setting of a museum. From the practice of collecting salvage, to building seemingly implausible flotillas capable of transforming into anything from bike sculptures to parade floats, the Armada’s focus remained on the performative in the artistic process outside the confines of an institutional setting. In the art gallery context, it was imperative to preserve the original framework of its creation. Ultimately, the exhibition is but a partial remnant of the activities that preceded it.
Throughout the galleries are echoes of the past use of various materials from the Armada’s public projects. On the first floor, twisted piles of vegetable crates are joined with swirling tornadoes of housing signs, a telling commentary on the current economic crisis and a call toward independent living. To its side, a waterfall of discarded glass references the birth of the project on the banks of Schuylkill River. In the adjacent gallery, a “mash-up” of several of the floating sculptures fills the entire space, inviting viewers to enter and enjoy from within. What was called on the water the “Amfibitheater” is reimagined and recombined with the structure known as the “Bower of Sounds.” A canopy of hand silk-screened fabric along with a fish made of window treatments and dinner plates explode from the structure; all originally created for the waterfront.
On the landing, one encounters a canoe-shrine brimming with found objects and artifacts collected throughout the course of the summer; something of an homage to the days of scrapping and collecting that occurred in the earliest phases of the project. Reaching the second floor, reverberations of the “Flagship” provide entry into a series of galleries filled with individual and collective projects. Barrels, which were the means of flotation along the river, have been collected, collapsed, and stacked as totems—for the artist, a symbol of entropy. Further on, a preciously built structure adorned with carefully balanced glasses and plates as well as birdcages is held together solely by fabric.
Within the central gallery, what was once a floating pyramid becomes the focal point of the space with several smaller projects surrounding it, including lightboxes containing backlit photographs of members of the collective and a shrine to the recently deceased Poppa Neutrino, one of the first to build his own home out of discarded materials and live free on public waterways. In yet another gallery, an enclosed space displaying a short film is also adorned with sheaths of wallpaper, butterflies, and women’s shoes. An amplified interactive sound sculpture made from the guts of a piano and an organ is positioned next to a reflective light sculpture made of discarded wood and clear glass bottles.
Overall, the emphasis of the installation as an interactive environment refutes any notion of the refined, completed, or functional object, typically labeled and lighted, allowing for a meaningful reconsideration of the ways in which we experience art. By deconstructing the materials over and over again and reinterpreting them as a response to the Philadelphia Art Alliance building, one encounters these materials in a new light—unlocking the limitless potential of their original source material, breathing new life once again into what was ostensibly trash.
Utopian is an often-used word to describe the ethos of Miss Rockaway. As the artists described during their formation in 2006, “[I]n our travels we intend to share stories and to solicit dialogue around subversive and constructive ways of living. We are a group of intrepids who believe in a hands-on, live-by-example approach to creating change within our culture. …We want to be a living, kicking model of an entirely different world.” The world they have created in Philadelphia certainly lives up those expectations; and while Miss Rockaway may vanish for awhile, waiting to once again be reinvented, one hopes their utopian vision, made manifest, will have an impact on the city for quite some time.
Melissa Caldwell, Director of Exhibitions