Caledonia Curry, also known as Swoon, is one of the most recognized street artists in the world. She has brought her art from the streets to galleries and museums. Among her recent projects include creating musical houses in New Orleans, a ceramic tile factory in Pennsylvania, a floating city on rafts in the Mississippi River, and rebuilding a community in Haiti post-earthquake.
Laura Flanders: Hi, I'm Laura Flanders. This week on the show, out of the galleries and into the streets. This week on the program I talk with one of the most recognized street artist in the world. Her name is Swoon.
How we use our public is fiercely contested. We can hold a ticker tape parade for a winning sports team or shut down a city for security but meet, occupy, disrupt with art? That's not always so easy as our next guest well knows. Caledonia Curry, also known as Swoon, is one the most recognized street artist in the world. She's brought her art from the streets to the galleries, to projects like musical houses in New Orleans, a ceramic tile factory in Pennsylvania, a floating city on rafts and a rebuilding community in Haiti. I'm very happy to have Swoon here with us on the show. Hi Swoon, welcome to the program.
Swoon: Hi, how are you? Thank you.
Laura Flanders:Street art, did you start in the street, did you start in the gallery, which?
Swoon: I started in the street more or less, although I have a fine arts background, but very immediately upon moving to New York and beginning to study I realized that I needed to make something which was more deeply involved in my life and that was my first answer.
Laura Flanders: When did that all begin, and how?
Swoon: That began about 1999/2000. I was still in school at the time and I had a breakdown around painting and around the kind of channels of fine arts and the role of art in our lives in that way. I started to create projects that would function differently. The first one was a series of posters that happened outside in the street. It became a total obsession from there.
Laura Flanders: What upset you about this normal, run of the mill art business world?
Swoon: Yeah. I think that there's this feeling that what you're going to make is a square that's for investment, that goes over a couch and that that's the whole of its life cycle. For me, I was like, "No, creativity is everything to me. I need to make something that is my life, that's part of my life, that intersects with the city, how we live our life, how we perceive ourselves, how we occupy our spaces." I wanted to get creative in a way that would turn the wheel of how I understood my own life. For me it's been a process of answering that question in about a thousand different ways.
Laura Flanders: How does it go from, I've seen you put up your work on the street and then I've also seen you work with entire communities of people, how does that part happen? Is it just automatically, people come up, they want to take part?
Swoon: I think that as an artist I have a few different personalities. One of them needs a very much alone time and needs to be creating something in the studio, very detailed and intensive, a kind of work of art.
Laura Flanders: The artist in the garret.
Swoon: There you go. But after a while I start going, "Oh my god there's this other part of me, I need to engage with people. I need to be around people.” I need to be working together with people because I feel like that's one of our deepest human needs, is working together on things.
Laura Flanders: Then what happens to the artistic vision?
Swoon: Well, then there's the struggle. You bring that into a community and all of a sudden it's this whole other process and you have to really be willing to let go of a lot of things, to understand that your ideas are definitely not always the best ideas, and to be fed by the ideas of others and be brave enough to share your ideas, all of things. Then often times after a few months of that I'm like, "Oh my god, I need to go back in the studio and just do my own thing for a little while." For me it's a cycle.
Laura Flanders: Tell us a little bit about the Haiti project, which sounds amazing.
Swoon: The project in Haiti started 5 years, in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. The moment that I had was that I had been working on the floating rafts that you talked about, and it was a thing that I had done with a huge group of people and we essentially had moved mountains in order to make this really ridiculous wonderful thing happen. The whole time I was like, "This is amazing, but what would happen if we used this much creative resourcefulness and brought it to a situation of crisis or need." Could we do as unlikely of things?
Laura Flanders: Artists as problem solvers.
Swoon: Basically yeah, and as kind of human being communicators. I got together with a small group of friends right after the quake and we said, "Okay, let's put our minds to this problem." We connected with a small village who were farmers, who were organizing themselves in an organization called the Mango Growers Association. They were just outside the epicenter of the quake. They were a little bit out of the pathway of a lot of aid. We connected with them directly. I soon found that there was a real magic in being a small group of human beings connecting directly with another small group of human beings and just saying, "Hey, let's work together," and reaching for resources from my own creative community in New York and bringing them to this situation of rebuilding after the earthquake.
The first project that we did was actually beginning with the community center. Then we did some rebuilding two homes and now we're working with the farmers who want to start a bamboo project, around trying to see how that fits in architecturally, and also doing some kind of after school programming and different things. Because I started a bit naively and quickly realized that what we were building was a very long term relationship with a place.
The thing that we heard a lot after the earthquake was that earthquakes of this magnitude had happened in a lot of other places but weren't nearly as devastating. What we saw when we got here was that that was basically a result of a economic situation, that everything is imported. All the building materials are really expensive. People can't afford to use enough of the right material. You have all of these cinder block building after cinder block building that's just pancaked.
KT: Our solution to the problem that we really saw there was to go with an earthbag style of building. The actual shape of it is very strong and it uses less material per square footage than say a square house would. The structural integrity, the shape of a dome, the shape of a circle, both have the property of distributing any exterior force throughout the whole shape, rather than with a square or rectangular building, which only takes the force at one point.
Swoon: What I think really meant a lot to people was that we came back, because people were like, "You didn't just show up, do one thing, not even finish it and then leave."
Duckens: Yes, before the project we didn't know that much about this type of building. But now we have a lot of experience.
KT: The greatest thing about earthbag building is with some healthy hard work you can build your own house rather than paying someone else to build your house for you.
A third of our budget goes directly to employing local laborers and cooks and skilled masons and craftspeople.
Swoon: The creation of jobs was really, really every bit as important as the creation of the structure. We've learned a lot in the first two buildings and now we are trying to create something, which we've had a few community meetings. We've asked what's working, what's not working about these structures. We want to create something that continues to evolve in a way that's in direct reciprocity with what we're receiving as feedback.
We were sharing ideas with each other.
I'd like them to do a professional school at Konbit. Computer school, mechanic, plumbing.
People came from all over Leogane and Port-au-Prince and saw the work and congratulated us. I prayed for them, and the money I made from working was quite welcome.
Laura Flanders: What would be your advice to people who are working for all those non-profits that got so criticized for collecting so much money and using so much of it themselves?
Swoon: Right. I don't believe that I really have a huge structural answer because some of the problems really are huge structural problems, but in my own experience the kind of small human scale was very effective. I would just say to not forget that, to not underestimate what one group of people can do when they reach out directly to another group of people.
Laura Flanders: That gets to the question of the value of art, in a way. I know you were doing more than art in Haiti, but in the introduction I talked about how contested public space is and how difficult it is to get partly legislative and police department buy-in to disruptions that aren't for sports or winning a war or I don't know what else. What case do you make to funders, to communities, to say, "You know what? Let's do this today. Let's put up this piece of street art. Let's work together on this piece of art." You can't eat it necessarily, it's not going to feed people, it's going to do something else. What do you say?
Swoon: I guess I have quite a few different answers to that.
Laura: Yeah, I bet you do.
Swoon: The first one that pops to my mind just has to do with people's sense of what happens when people get to be a hands on part of creating their community. I think that so many of us are born into systems that are already in place. There's a sense of alienation from those systems and from the physical world. I think that when we are creatively able to set our hands on something, and able to be a part of the small and creative decisions of making our place, we feel at home, we care about our home, or we feel that it represents us and that we are able to feel more invested in it and take care of it in a different way. I think that giving people creative outlet to be a part of having a say in what their city looks like is part of a healthy community in my opinion.
Laura Flanders: How does it intersect with the discussion around gentrification? Because everything I'm hearing you say is about bringing people out to express their creativity, but you're still going in and in some places the artist arriving is an alarm bell that the neighborhood's about to price them out.
Swoon: Mm-hmm. It's interesting because when I very first started working on the street the discussion around public space was completely different than it is now.
Laura Flanders:How so?
Swoon: Because, I think it was in that post-September 11th era where everyone was thinking about the corporate takeover of public spaces and there wasn't yet as much of an alarm that the artist coming into space and being creative is an alarm bell, which it is now and I absolutely see that. That's been really interesting me to watch and be a part of. I would say that some of the ways that I think about it are going from the temporary action to the long term action. When I started wheatpasting on the street I was like, put up a poster, leave. Then the project, for example, that I have working on in Braddock is you have a group of artists who are working on-
Laura Flanders: Is this the ceramic tile factory?
Swoon: The ceramic tile factory, exactly. We're working on a church and working to save this church from demolition, but in doing so we're working on creating jobs for people locally to be a part of the recreation of this space. The direct answer to gentrification, of being like, the actions aren't about pushing people out, the actions are about actually providing more opportunity and really digging in deeply to who's here, what opportunities are needed, how can we answer those needs and how can we do it creatively.
Laura Flanders: What kind of skills are people coming away with?
Swoon: In this instance it will be about tile making. It will be about the ceramic tile making of all different kinds, from the very simple press molds to silk screening and designing and the more artisanal.
Laura Flanders: There's some video of the Braddock project, let's take a look.
Swoon: Hi, welcome to North Braddock. I'm here with the Heliotrope Foundation and we are opening an art space community center. We want you to learn more about the Braddock tiles project and hopefully to be a part of it. The Braddock tiles project started many years ago when we were introduced to this building. I remember the moment of looking up into the cavernous space and I had these really powerful visions of people being in this space and working in this space and using this space in so many different ways.
Jawuan: I go to school in Woodland Hills High School. I would just come up after school, a little after school activity. I think of it like a good opportunity to learn how to build stuff and how to communicate with other people. It's all about learning new stuff.
Alyssa: I'm interested in the relationship of a building that gets built for people, that's built by people that are inhabiting it that will nurture it and help build the community around it.
Swoon: There's some ways in which we're leaving the true life of the buildings open so that people in the neighborhood are really forming what happens within the building.
Ryan: The funds that we're able to raise are going to towards setting up the ceramics workshop in the church basement, buying kilns, supplies, mixers, all the things that you need to make professional grade roofing tiles. That's the first step in rebuilding the building as a whole. It will give us a new roof that's beautiful, that's sustainable, that lasts 75 years. If we're able to raise enough, towards salaries for our first year of the practices. This is a town that knows how to make stuff and we're just offering a space for people to make beautiful things by hand.
Yeah, that's really good.
Swoon: For the tiles studio it's going to take the skill set of ceramicists like KT and people like Harmony who are showing us these different methods of working with ceramic tiles and different methods of working really creatively, both using these really ancient old techniques from the 1600s and using these new techniques that people are developing right now. The pieces that I feel really excited to bring to that puzzle are things that are inspired by the work that we're doing in Haiti for example with the kind of experiential learning center that we have started, or some of the really wonder-based activities in the project in New Orleans with musical architecture and different kinds of experimentation and learning and a community resource that are all happening in the same place at the same time. For me it feels really exciting, the idea of being able to really create a structure, an anchor in this community.
Laura Flanders: You've also done work in New Orleans. I think this episode's going to be broadcasting during Mardi Gras.
Swoon: Oh yeah.
Laura Flanders: Tell us a little bit about that work.
Swoon: The project in New Orleans strangely enough it actually did start in a kind of a way post-Katrina. It's had a really long arc. I had a friend who was living in the Bywater post-Katrina and who was watching communities all over New Orleans get bust out. People were leaving for Texas, people weren't coming back. He was afraid of the corporatization of the culture in the wake of so much of New Orleans culture leaving. He had this thought of being like, let's not only bring in people who are doing it themselves but also connect them with people locally and try to have this celebration of New Orleans culture, which is happening internationally and locally.
He asked me to work on this house that was about to fall down next to his house. I was thinking about music and architecture and wonder and how those two aspects of New Orleans culture are so key. I started of a playable musical installation that would be incorporated in this house somehow. Between the dream and the realization that original house actually fell down, but we had already built up a lot of enthusiasm around it. The group that I worked with, New Orleans Airlift, said, "Okay, let's keep going with this."
We reinvented that original idea into building new structures that would incorporate musicality. Thinking about once you create these really unlikely moving structures and when they pop up in different places in the city and people are allowed to interact with them, I don't really know quite how to describe it but there's the very strange joy that's born out of the unlikeliness of those moments. We've been going ever since of continuing to experiment and collaborate with people locally and people from all over and bringing together this traditional and experimental art form.
Laura Flanders: Properties, houses with musicality, there's a video, can you set it up for us? What are we going to see?
Swoon: What we're going to see is a video from the City Park. We have been working on this roving musical village. One of its iterations was this summer in City Park. It was a village of musical houses with hundreds of collaborators and beautiful performances. That's what you're going to be taking a look at.
Laura Flanders: All right, take a look. [video plays]
We had Molly Crabapple, the graphic journalist, on the show not so long ago. She talked about the strangeness of having one of her protest poster gathered in the permanent collection of the Museum Of Modern Art.
Laura Flanders: Would you like to see your street art peeled of the wall and put in in a gallery?
Swoon: Here's the thing, I think when I make pieces for the street I really do consider them just for that place. But actually when I was still waitressing in New York, I got a call from the Museum Of Modern Art and they were like, "Can you come here and bring some things." I was so confused. I came and I brought a bunch of stuff and laid it out on the table. They actually acquired a couple pieces for their collection.
Laura Flanders: So you know exactly what this feels like.
Swoon: I do. It was really mind blowing. I realized very quickly, I had a lot of trepidation at first about what it would mean to be a part of an institution after I had already built so much of my life outside of intuitions. And I just realized that it's not mutually exclusive, that institutions represent one kind of container for creativity, it's just that for me they can't be the only container.
Laura Flanders: Yeah. Well talking about containers, you were part of a video not so long ago lending your support to the cultural boycott of Israel, part of BDS, Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign. Why was that an important thing for you to do?
Swoon: I think that at the moment I have spent a very, very little bit of time in Palestine and thought a lot about the issue of human interconnectedness and compassion and how we can learn to tolerate each other in struggle. At the moment of thinking about the cultural boycott I was talking it over with a friend of mine, Josh MacPhee who's an old and very well respected political activist in my world. He said, "This is one of those moments where a very specific group of people is calling to the world for a specific set of actions." It's not that we have to invent necessarily what to do, it's a response of, we hear what is being asked and we become part of that conversation. For me I think that moment was about trying to look at the history of cultural boycott, how it functioned in South Africa, how it could function now and lending my voice to that larger conversation.
Laura Flanders: We started talking about public space and I'd love to end there. There's a term that comes up a lot in New York these days, privately-owned public space, I was like, "Come on! You can't pervert our language that far." But the argument is made, public spaces are under attack, they're shrinking, they're poorly maintained, why not let a corporation own the plaza? They'll still let you come in.
Swoon: Right, until ... Right? For me the thing that pops into my mind is the cabaret laws, that it was like, "Who cares about these laws, they're just on the books. They're from the '20s, it's not a big deal. Why are we so worried about them?" Then it was like, "We're worried about them because when somebody wants to use them for a specific end they will." We saw that happening in New York when there was this huge crackdown, they were citing this archaic law, "Of course you can still use these public spaces," until this particular corporation doesn't agree with this agenda and then all of a sudden it's not open to you. I think it's so important to really have truth about what is public and what is civic and what is participatory.
Laura Flanders: Public art in public places. Thank you so much.
Swoon: Thank you.
Laura: Swoon's work continues, we have some videos at our website, take a look. Thanks for coming the program.
Swoon: Thank you.