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The fleet of Swimming Cities of Switchback Sea docked on the Hudson River on its way from Troy, N.Y., to Long Island City
Photographs by Tod Seelie
Scheduled to set sail April 15, Swimming Cities of the Ocean of Blood (the name refers to one form of the Hindu goddess Kali) will depart from Northern India’s Himalayan foothills and continue south along the Ganges to Varanasi, the country’s cultural capital and one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. The crew has spent more than a year preparing, with each of the 20 or so members handling a specific task or tasks. As navigator, Fox has been in charge of researching the river and identifying any potential obstacles, such as a series of footbridges with inflatable pilings too narrowly spaced for any boat wider than 9 feet to fit between. Others explore possible weather conditions and arrange flights and ground transportation to the build site in India. Then there are the everyday concerns: What will crew members eat? Where will they sleep? And what about restroom facilities? (Fox says they hope to build a bio toilet.)

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Artist Spy Emerson during the performance of Swimming Cities of Serenissima in Venice.
Photographs by Tod Seelie
Of course, crew members have also had to construct their vessels. They’ve spent 10 to 20 hours a day at Brooklyn’s Serett Metalworks (a 12,000-square-foot studio space) welding, sanding and painting the metals that have become Ocean of Blood’s five stainless steel catamaran-style pontoons. Each boat measures 19 feet long and 8.5 feet wide, and all feature a ramp that flops down from the front and interlocks with the others to create a 200-square-foot core space for communal activity. Ocean of Blood’s pontoons — foundations for what Fox calls “sculptural watercraft”— are built to sustain multiple journeys. Each modular vessel easily unbolts, disassembles and packs together so that it can be shipped and reassembled with relative ease. But it’s once the vessels begin their journey down the Ganges that the real ingenuity will take place.

“We’re really approaching this voyage with a clean canvas,” says Fox, “and we have no idea what these boats will look like when we reach Varanasi. It’s a work in progress that will slowly evolve every mile that we go down the river, with every person we meet and every cool thing we find by the riverside.”

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Swimming Cities of Serenissima crosses the Adriatic Sea.
Photographs by Tod Seelie
Despite the prior experience of the crew members, the Ganges River is no Hudson: Along with being India’s national river, it’s also one of the world’s dirtiest. According to research gathered by Indian nonprofit Sankat Mochan Foundation, its waters are infiltrated with nearly 1 billion liters of waste daily, most of which is untreated raw sewage; dead livestock and other improperly disposed-of material makes up the rest. In the terraced ghats of Varanasi alone, the river’s muddy waters contain more than 120 times the level of fecal coliform bacteria considered safe for bathing. “There are a lot of variables on Ocean of Blood that didn’t exist in previous years,” says Orien McNeill, 31, the project organizer who also designed the pontoons. “You’re no longer dealing with a first-world country.” To address these conditions, crew members have taken added precautions, like constructing each deck to rest at least 18 inches above the water and planning for screens to deflect the river’s abundant mosquito population, known for carrying dengue fever. And since reduced water levels in April can create up to a mile of distance between the river and nearby villages, four of Ocean of Blood’s five pontoons will be powered by “boater-cycles,” motorcycles attached to a propeller or paddle wheel. This way, whenever they need fresh water, supplies or medicine, a member can simply unlink a motorcycle and ride it into town.

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Swimming Cities of Serenissima artists Monica Canilao and Ben Burke relax on deck.
Photographs by Tod Seelie
Though Ocean of Blood is the first Swimming Cities project that Swoon is not directly involved with, a contingent of recurring crew members, including Fox and McNeill, has taken up the oars and — beginning with the Ganges — is looking toward more remote, adventurous and intense waterways, including Siberia’s Lake Baikal and China’s Grand Canal, for future installations. However, Swoon’s overall intentions and formatting (sculptural sea vessels, collaborative art and performances, and dedication to cultural exchange) remain intact.

Not everyone sees the beauty in Swimming Cities; in fact, some might consider it to be a sort of Burning Man–esque aquatic traveling show. But that’s OK, says Fox, who stresses they’re not out to change the world — they’re just enjoying it in their own way.

“Some people are like, ‘Oh, you’re showing people a better way to live their lives.’ No, we’re not like that. We’re just doing our thing. It’s something different, and it gives people a chance to come down to the waterfront and see something they’ve never seen before. It makes them happy. That’s enough, I think, to validate our time and efforts.”