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Swimming Cities of Serenissima: Equal parts Burning Man, Kon Tiki and Mad Max

In a colorful case of design performance, a floating metropolis of handmade junk boats cruises into Venice.

Imagine if Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters had reenacted “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” That’s roughly what Tianna Kennedy and her crew pulled off when they led a flotilla of floating scrap sculptures from the coast of Slovenia to the heart of Venice.

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In a talk last Friday at the Conflux Festival in New York, Kennedy described the trip, an art and design project known as the Swimming Cities of Serenissima, as “making and riding beautiful junk from Koper to Venice with many dirty people, putting on a show, and then taking it all apart again.”

Fortunately for Kennedy, she’d already had some experience converting squat house culture into a functioning fleet. Last year she worked in the production crew for an experimental film, The Flood, based on the artist Swoon’s trip down the Hudson River with artists and performers on seven intricately crafted rafts made from garbage and other scavenged material. The group staged performances in towns along the way. The film used the crafts as a backdrop for a story about an escape from economic and ecological collapse.

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A dumpster-diving, freegan crew needs a strong organization to make the 130-mile trip to Venice. And it started when Kennedy (above) and the Swimming Cities Team began pulling wood out of construction site dumpsters on the streets of New York in December 2008. What they couldn’t scavenge they bought from Build It Green, a salvage lumber outlet in Astoria, Queens. They then shipped two 40-foot containers to the Slovenian town of Koper where she assembled the parts into three 20-foot-tall sculptures floating on pontoons. The group crew of 30–plus a few stowaways–navigated across the Adriatic to Venice in time to stage a series of performances at the Biennale. Along the way Kennedy bluffed her way through international maritime law, negotiated Italian insurance forms and argued endlessly with the Italian Coast Guard. When she tried to get a safety certificate from a German engineer, he said, “Oh no. It’s you. I saw you on the news.”

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Swimming Cities was an anarchic crew with more than its share of conflict and mishap. One member broke his neck jumping off a building, and Kennedy found herself contending with storms, arrests and bickering. “The only thing that was sacred was the motors,” Kennedy said. “Nobody could fuck with the motors.”

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The crew had almost no money, and they subsisted on bread, prosecco and beer. “I was miserable for a good 70 percent of the time,” Kennedy said, until they floated victoriously into Venice for two weeks of puppet theater, silent movies and music alongside the Venice gardini in June. “Kids asked me ‘Where’s Peter Pan,” she said. “I felt like Santa Claus.”

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