Tod Seelie’s stunning photographs chronicle the wild lives and raw vistas of the international DIY counterculture. On his must-read weblog Sucka Pants, he adds cryptic comments about his travels and other observations about life as a starving-artist Brooklyn cycling photog. Seelie has been spending the first part of his summer with the Miss Rockaway Armada, a collective of artists, dreamers and misfits who, for the second year running, build and sail a group of vessels down the Mississippi River. We recently spoke with Seelie from the trip about how the adventure has gone so far.
Your work is now on view at Spencer Brownstone Gallery through Aug 18 as part of a group show about people who embark on crazy adventures on the water. Your photos depict last year's Miss Rockaway Armada, right?
Yeah, some of my favorite photos from last year. Although I never really got to see everything that I shot last year. The night I returned to Brooklyn my hard drive was erased after I had finished copying and cleaning all the photos from the trip off of my memory cards.
Ouch; that's got to hurt. So how is this year’s trip different so far?
Well, for one thing, this year is different in that "armada" is a more accurate term. Last year we only had one large ship and with all the tow rafts and everything it was about 110 feet long. And we had a crew that alternated between 18 and 30 people. This year we have four rafts, so moving as a group is more complicated, and the crew is split up and shifts around from boat to boat. The crew is also comprised of a lot of new people, so the dynamics and skill sets are very different as well. The rafts are The Miss Rockaway, The Garden of Bling, Giraft, and I Left My Heart In Kirksville. The Garden of Bling looks kind of like a crazy junk pirate ship.
Yeah, I saw the photo of that and it reminds me of this TV show I loved as a kid called Outerscope on the Vegetable Soup show. It’s about a group of kids who build a spaceship out of spare parts.
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s a very interesting design. The foundation of it is quite solid; it’s a very solid sort of catamaran take-off. But then the superstructure above the deck is completely haphazard and usually falling apart. For example the second story cabin doesn’t have a door; you have to kind of climb up and around through a window because they kind of forgot about the door.
Still banging your head on the front section of the raft?
[Laughs] Unfortunately, yes. Which is a bit strange considering that the front and back raft structures were completely redone this year, expressly to make them more liveable. But somehow I’m still able to find a piece of protruding plywood near where I store my gear to knock into. I hit my head less, but draw blood on occasion. I’ve also found a hanging produce net in the galley that I seem to like walking into as well.
How much time did you spend preparing the ship before you set sail?
I was there from the beginning of June, and we set out on the river in mid-July, so one and a half months. Some members had been there since May though. The length of prep time was mainly due to building the three other rafts this year.
How long will you be traveling down the river?
That’s a good question. In theory, we would like to get far enough south so that when it gets cold in October it won’t be so cold that we have to stop, which is basically what happened last year. But there’s a lot of concern on the crew-members’ parts – as well as people we meet who have more experience – that once we get to St. Louis the river will simply be too much for us to handle. I’m going to be taking a break from the raft for a bit in August. I need to work a bit and visit my family, but I plan to return as soon as I can.
How is the armada powered?
The Miss Rockaway runs on biodiesel, with progress already made on converting to used vegetable grease. The Garden of Bling and Giraft run on gasoline, although Bling hopes to move to a diesel engine and then biodiesel/grease as well. I Left My Heart In Kirksville runs on a combination of a gas-powered outboard motor and a bicycle-powered paddle wheel. The Story Boat has twin electronic trolling motors that are solar-powered as well as a gas engine when needed.
Last weekend you dropped anchor in Muscatine. Where is Muscatine and what happened there?
Muscatine is a beautiful river town in Iowa. There’s a lot of big corporations based around there like Mansanto. So there’s been a lot of investment in maintaining and restoring the waterfront. The people there were staggeringly friendly to us. We did our usual set when we come to a town, you know, a crazy parade through the streets, art and DIY workshops, and then a children’s play. These all happen over a couple of days, and usually the local newspaper is very helpful and will publish a small article with the list of events, times and locations. Even though we were asked to leave on our third day there by the local authorities, it is still high on our favorite places list.
Are you on the water right now?
No, I’m in town in Burlington running errands with some of the other crew members.
According to the Miss Rockaway blog the crew weathered two fierce storms on the Mississippi so far. What was that like?
It was very intense. Last year, due to an incomplete and inadequate rain-tarp system, we’d almost always get pretty wet when it rained. This year a top priority was a system that would keep the boat and our gear dry. The new tarp system works very well, but the storms provided a pretty tough challenge. The scariest was the first storm; we found out it was part of a tornado that had touched down about thirty miles away. The winds were 60 miles per hour and tore some of the lesser tarps from their moorings, but aside from a few things getting blown or washed away we did fine. The second storm was less intense, but when I woke up in the morning the water level had risen drastically and there were waves lapping at my tent.
Do you have life-preservers on board? Definitely. We’re completely on top of all safety requirements. Last year we went through a very thorough training on what was required and we’ve got all the proper posted notices, fire extinguishers, flares, etc.
Any encounters with The Coast Guard?
Not yet, but we’re expecting it. Last year just past St. Paul they paid us a visit. We were inspected and passed with flying colors. The quote that I think summed up their opinion of our raft was "I wouldn't be caught dead on that thing…that doesn't mean it wouldn't be a lot of fun." We also had some fans on a local AM talk radio station who had been following our progress and they were very surprised when we were allowed to proceed downriver.
What have some of the reactions from people been?
Between this year and last year it has pretty much run the gamut. Everything from a woman saying to her kids "Don't look at them, they are bad people!" to several people who have been so happy that something like this is happening that they've gotten a little teary-eyed. The one thing I will say is that I’ve been floored by how generous some people’s reactions have been. They’ll see the boat, wander over, ask a few questions, wave goodbye, and come back a couple hours later with a truck load of fresh produce for us. This project wouldn’t survive if it wasn’t for the kindness of strangers.
Anyone hurt, sick or taken to the hospital yet?
Yeah, we've had a few visits to the ER so far this year, mostly for wounds requiring stitches. Our most serious injury was a crew member who fell while trying to steer The Garden of Bling. Their steering system had broken, so the only way to drive was for someone to stand in the back and kick the engine to move it from side to side based on directions yelled to them by another person on the edge of the raft who could see in front of the boat. Unfortunately one crew member who was handling steering slipped and fell and was cut several times by the motor. He’s fine now after receiving immediate medical attention from our onboard medic.
What happened to make you spend an entire night evading police K9 units?
[Laughs] It’s probably not wise for me to get into detail on that. Yeah… After those kids getting arrested for putting stuff on their Myspace pages, I think I'll have to pass on this one. It wasn’t a big deal, everything was fine and I’m glad I got away.
Okay, fair enough. While working on the ship before setting off, how did you survive? What did you do for money?
The group holds fundraisers in the off-season to fund the project. This past year we did an art exhibit at Ad Hoc Art in Brooklyn, as well as throw a party at Club Europa in Greenpoint. This money goes toward all building, transport, and supply costs as well as food and fuel. I personally worked my ass off all winter to save up money for this trip and a few others. We don't actually spend too much of our personal money on the river, mostly just for snacks, drinks, eating out, and replacement clothing. The building process this year took place at a biker bar on the river called Ducky's Lagoon in Andalusia, IL. They were amazingly generous, providing dock space, electricity, water, allowing us to sleep on their land and in a hanger... all for free. If it wasn't for their help we would have been in much more dire straits.
Have people really yelled at you for taking garbage?
You mean when we’ve been dumpstering?
Yeah, we’ve had a few run-ins with people who have objected, but none of them were more than a harsh scolding.
The photos on your blog depict a crew member [Brody] with broken glasses and bloody eye after a run-in with one of the cooks [Santiago]. What happened?
That was one of the incidents that sent someone in for stitches. Friends of mine from Brooklyn, the band Parts & Labor, stopped by on tour and played a small solo set by Dan Friel for the crew. Everyone was dancing and jumping around, and some people held up one of those inflatable tubes - the kind you tow behind a powerboat - for people to bounce off of. Santiago did a vertical belly flop into the tube and accidentally smacked Brodie in the face, breaking the lens of the sunglasses he was wearing. Brodie was fine with some minor cuts around the eye, but Santiago had to get stitches for the deep cut on his wrist.
You also wrote on your blog that you've been censored from the Miss Rockaway Armada website. What did you do to get censored?
Um… I'd rather not get into it. Let's just say excessive editorial execution.
Okay. What kind of camera do you use?
On this trip I’m using actually three cameras. One is my medium format Hasselblad, which because it’s film I won't have any photos from for a while, but when I do they will be on OfQuiet.com. The other two are digital: a Canon 5D and a Ricoh GX100, which is a point-n-shoot.
Where's your favorite place to hear live music in New York these days? Good question… I guess Glasslands, actually, in Williamsburg. Oh, and Uncle Paulie's.
Do you ever eat out and if so what's your favorite restaurant right now?
Yeah, I don’t eat out much because I can't really afford it, but I usually end up at Life Cafe in Bushwick. Not because the food’s good but because it's convenient. Or Loco Burrito for the 2 tacos = 2 dollars. If someone else is paying I would probably go to Union Picnic in Williamsburg. A heart-attack on a plate never tasted so good.
How about your favorite bike shop?
The Times Up space is definitely my favorite bike place because you can go in and use their tools for free. The people there are so nice and helpful and they have most of the tools you would need. When I do go to a shop I either go to Bicycle Station on Vanderbilt, or the place on Graham Avenue near Montrose in Brooklyn.
What’s one of your wildest New York experiences?
On occasion friends of mine will have eviction parties which basically means that either A) they’re actually getting evicted or B) they’re being kicked out of a house that’s about to be demolished for condos. And so they’ll have eviction parties where everyone gets totally wasted and completely destroys the house. They’ll show up with hammers, crowbars, tools and just kind of go completely insane. I remember one I went to there was a clawfoot bathtub on the third floor and by the time it was over people were riding it down the stairs as water cascaded down and the claws from the tub were kind of tearing up the stairs.
There was one in particular where I had gotten an invitation to an eviction party in Greenpoint; supposedly the house was going to be completely gutted. So my friends and I show up and we don’t actually seem to know anyone there. So we hang out for a bit and after a while my friends produce their tools and start to go to work in the living room, hammering the walls and tearing stuff out. Everyone at the party had gathered around cheering. This goes on for about ten minutes before some guy runs out of nowhere, grabs one of my friends and screams, “What are you doing!?” As it turns out, this wasn’t a true “Eviction Party”, that was just a cute name they decided to give the party because one of the roommates had decided to move out. And in ten minutes a good amount of damage had been done to the room. I guess the moral of the story is that you’ve got to be really careful when you use the term “Eviction Party” in an invite because some people have a different idea about what that is.
Where did you come up with the name for your main weblog, Sucka Pants?
Sucka Pants originated from my old fotolog account. That was a precursor to flickr. I kind of got bored with how nice and lame everyone's comments were, so I created a fake account to try and stir up some reactions. And I wanted to pick a name that was ridiculous and couldn't be taken seriously, so Sucka Pants seemed to fit. Eventually fotolog started to suffer from technical problems and heavy-handed censorship, so I moved to Blogger where I could do what I want. I started to add MP3s to my posts and writing more, and a few years later I have a real site. And a silly name.
All photographs copyright Tod Seelie.