Have you ever wanted to stand up from your desk, scream "screw this shit," go build a boat from scraps of wood and debris, then blow up a car as part of a loosely knit group of guerilla artists? It's a dream that we've have all had before, I'm sure. When we see those dirty crust punks drinking out of paper bags on the street, we always feel a twinge of jealousy for their nomadic, free-wheeling lifestyle, because they're l-i-v-i-n, man, while the rest of us push pens and pay the rent on the first.
New York City photographer Tod Seelie has spent the last decade and a half alongside a bunch of nomads who run and play and party and set things on fire and build crazy watercraft, along the way documenting a lifestyle that's a cross between street art and high seas piracy. The result is his new book, Bright Nights: Photographs of Another New York, I sat down with him to talk about how he got these amazing pictures and what this world was like.
VICE: This book is full of viscerally thrilling imagery. How did you find all this stuff?
Tod Seelie: Well, really it’s been by being a part of a community of artists for the last 15 years, both as an observer and a participant. The book looks at the NYC part of it, but we’ve travelled a lot too. As a participant, I experience things and help make things happen that are amazing and inspiring, for ourselves and hopefully for others. As an observer, I get to document the unique narratives of all these amazing people who are driven instinctively to create, people who say, “Hey, let’s do this crazy thing” and then do it.
It’s a Dionysian world.
It really comes from a strong impulse to follow your creative drive, whether that means building giant rafts with found objects and setting sail down a river, or staging wild parties in abandoned theatres, or replacing malt liquor billboards with children's drawings, or blowing up junk cars. It’s groups of people flocking to decaying and neglected spaces in the city where they can go to make things and make things happen.
I love that. Do you think this movement is a backlash to the digital native experience, where so much of life is lived virtually—like a longing to radically reconnect to our bodies and each other?
There is nothing virtual that can compare to the feeling of climbing a huge bridge with a bunch of people while the wind is tugging at your clothes and there's a slight chance you might die.
Is that the craziest thing you’ve done?
That's a tough question. I've been a bit too close to an exploding car, climbed up bridges and down tunnels and driven a half-sinking boat at the same time I was shooting pictures while dodging ferries and aggressive water traffic in pretty decent chop as we rounded the southern tip of Manhattan.
But one of my most memorable experiences was when a bunch of us cruised down the Grand Canal in Venice on our junk rafts. We had been denied permission to enter the canal six times, so we did it anyway under the cover of darkness in the middle of the night, risking jail. This was one of the fleets of rafts that we made out of found materials, designed and masterminded by Swoon, and they had furniture that we lit from the inside so it glowed. The band Dark Dark Dark was playing live on the top of one of the rafts, so there was this spooky soundtrack to our voyage down the middle of an ancient piece of history. It was a bit like stepping outside of ourselves and realizing, Oh wow, magical realism is actually real.
Is there a survivalist element to the art as well?
Patti Smith recently said that artists should leave New York, that the city’s crushing rents and gentrification is too hostile an environment for creating art. While there is a huge amount of truth to that, a lot of the people I know aren't ready to give up yet. We continue to form and reform all kinds of communities for special projects that make living in New York worthwhile for us, and hopefully for other people as well. Years ago, some of us started Grub, a dumpster-sourced feast that is free for everyone. Twice a month we gather food from the trash of the better supermarkets, take it home, wash and inspect it, and then cook it up to serve whoever shows up. It’s a great way to build and maintain community and also get fed if you're a starving artist. A recent project has been a drive-in theatre in Flushing Meadows, called Empire Drive-In. It was built with salvaged materials and wrecked cars from the junk yard. They are all lined up so people can come climb on them and watch movies, often with live bands. It’s really fun.
We’ve also taken our efforts to Haiti with another collective, called Konbit Shelter. We’ve been raising money to help build homes, create jobs, and introduce the "earth dome" style building technique, which is well suited to that area due to the building materials and because it's more stable than a lot of the current styles of building in Haiti. We are working on bringing in people who can introduce various things, like composting toilets and rocket stoves. We’re also working to create a solar powered internet station so the village can connect to the information and education available online, even out in the foothills and mango groves.
Well, since we aren’t doctors, we wanted to figure out how, as artists, we could use the skills we have to help in a sustained way.
Tod Seelie’s Bright Nights is out on Prestel this October. Catch wind of his North American book tour via his blog blog.todseelie.com. For more about the author, check out http://www.rightfootcreative.com/.