• Image about Paul Schmelzer
Swimming Cities of Serenissima sails through the Grand Canal of Venice at dawn.
Photographs by Tod Seelie

If you happen to spot a sculptural flotilla of random junk making its way down a river near you, don’t panic. It’s an art project known as Swimming Cities. And the artists are just floating to spread some cheer.


In the summer of 2006, Paul Schmelzer, 39, learned of a couple dozen artists and activists temporarily inhabiting a stretch of rocky beach near his home in Minneapolis. They were building a fleet of sustainably powered boats, he was told, to sail down the Mississippi River. Arriving at their riverfront site, Schmelzer found it bustling: local bike messengers working alongside men wearing bandannas and sporting Sharpie anchor tattoos, women pushing pontoon-boat frames down toward the shore, and a small group testing a pedal-powered Ferris wheel directly above the water. Schmelzer was enthralled. “I loved the autonomous spirit of what they were doing,” he says. “Unsponsored, creative, a bitrough around the edges. … It was refreshing to see.”

Schmelzer eventually learned he was witnessing the inaugural launch of the Miss Rockaway Armada, but he had no idea it would become the impetus for a larger movement known as Swimming Cities. Now, nearly five years later, the art collective is about to embark on yet another ambitious expedition: a 400-mile, monthlong journey along India’s Ganges River, beginning mid-April. Their reason for doing so? Quite simply, because they can.

While easy to describe (a floating carnival, mobile utopia, waterborne community of beautiful junk sculptures), Swimming Cities is somewhat harder to define. Recently sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts, the not-for-profit consists of a constantly evolving collaborative of artists and crafts people coming together to build large-scale floating projects, and then navigate them along different bodies of water worldwide. “To see a project through from start to finish and have a tangible object at the end of all that work is simply fantastic,” says travel writer and editor Porter Fox, 38, a Swimming Cities crew member since 2007. Fox is just one of the dozens of artists, musicians, designers, photographers, performers, carpenters, engineers and friends who have contributed their labor and ideas to Swimming Cities over the last half decade. Mostly in their 20s and 30s, members hail from small towns and cities across the U.S., though many have since re-established themselves in artistic hubs like Brooklyn, N.Y., and the San Francisco Bay Area. Despite a penchant for building with salvaged materials, Swimming Cities’ crew members don’t consider themselves environmentalists — and they’re not on a humanitarian mission, though they frequently engage in cultural exchange.

  • Image about Paul Schmelzer
The band Dark Dark Dark performs as Swimming Cities of Serenissima glides through the Arsenal in Venice.
Photographs by Tod Seelie
The idea behind Swimming Cities first came to Caledonia “Callie” Curry, a Pratt Institute graduate and a New York street artist better known as Swoon, in 2005. With little money and even less in the way of nautical skills, Swoon grew inspired to build something completely implausible from nothing and launch it in open water, where it might arouse ideas, incite dialogue and create surprise. Together with fellow New York–based artist Jeff Stark, she organized a collective of artists to help construct three rafts in Brooklyn and then drive with them to Minneapolis. Once there, the group spent the next few weeks testing and adorning the handcrafted boats. Finally, in late July 2006, the Miss Rockaway Armada set sail.

Over the next two summers, Swoon and her motley crew of 30 boarded their DIY flotilla built entirely from salvaged materials, including wood retrieved from trash bins, foam blocks (for buoyancy), bedsheets, rope, car parts and donated hardware — basically, anything that could float — and traveled roughly 800 miles down the Mississippi River, from Minneapolis to St. Louis. Partially propelled by converted Volkswagen diesel engines running on biodiesel, the crew spent the evenings cavorting with each other and their afternoons creating art, collecting beer cans and partial window frames to incorporate into their vessels, and preparing silk-screening workshops and performances for the residents of towns where they docked (Wabasha, Minn.; Burlington, Iowa; and Hannibal, Mo., Mark Twain’s boyhood home). Communities greeted crew members with complimentary coffee and donuts, the occasional barbecue, and randomly supplied socks, tomatoes, watermelon and warm showers in return.

  • Image about Paul Schmelzer
Artist Carolyn Ryder Cooley plays the saw during a performance on the deck of Swimming Cities of Switchback Sea.
Photographs by Tod Seelie
Miss Rockaway Armada’s somewhat surprising success — here was a crew of mostly green seafarers battling occasional 60-mile-per-hour winds and five-foot swells on a bed of garbage — eventually opened the gates for even larger, more elaborate adventures. Under the name Swimming Cities (a name Swoon created in 2008 to unify the overall project), members went to work building impressive new boats and sailing them down assorted waterways, each of which came with its own set of logistics.

In 2008, they debuted the Swimming Cities of Switchback Sea, where 70 crew members sailed seven vessels from Troy, N.Y., to Long Island City, in Queens, where they then docked as part of a larger exhibit of Swoon’s work at Deitch Studios. The following summer, Swimming Cities of Serenissima traveled to the coast of Slovenia, where crew members navigated across the open waters of the Adriatic Sea and into the Litoranea Veneta inland waterway, arriving unannounced at the Venice Biennale arts festival one month later. Along the way, they gave performances, traded stories with local fishermen and were the recipients of copious amounts of red wine, prosecco and food (“It just kept coming and coming,” says Fox). For Swimming Cities’ Ganges River trip, the crew plans to collaborate with local artists and to encourage a few to accompany them on parts of their journey, hopefully sharing their own creations and ideas.