What do you call a group of characters building a float or two or six in a lot on South Broad Street, on which they plan to parade and then perform with brass and string?
Um, Mummers? Yes?
No, though the group - after having the Mummers concept explained to them - briefly considered inviting a feathered brigade to join their enterprise.
But this being July and not a feather in sight, what we have here, ensconced on the lot between Spruce and Pine, is the Miss Rockaway Armada, a loosely defined collective of artists, do-it-yourselfers, dumpster aficionados, and trash repurposers that is bringing its Huck Finn-meets-Brooklyn DIY floating aesthetic to a river near you.
"It's totally Philly," said Gabe Meyers, 29, a builder/musician/Miss R. veteran one recent day, surveying the lot filled with stuff that will be sculpted into an archipelago of floating islands. "A lot of architectural salvage, off curbs, Craigslist, construction sites, junk from people who amassed it for 60 years.
"Hopefully, it will reveal something to local people they didn't think possible," he said. "Rivers are one of our last remaining free spaces."
Rockaway achieved some fame and critical benediction in 2006, when its members built funky castaway islands of sculpture from found materials, and lived collectively and sustainably while floating down the Mississippi for the better part of two years, stopping in towns to perform and be gawked at.
This latest incarnation comes with a bit of an establishment imprimatur: a commission from the Art Alliance, a "mom-curator" in Art Alliance exhibits director Melissa Caldwell, and a grant of $169,273 from the Pew Center for the Arts & Heritage's Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative. Not to mention the convenience of a Southwest Philadelphia rowhouse in which to reside, reality-TV style.
Unlike the Mississippi, where they just kind of took off, in Philadelphia they had to run a gantlet of permits and approvals from entities ranging from the city's Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy to the police to the Coast Guard.
"The challenge has been the permit process," said the Art Alliance's Caldwell. The alliance has changed its mission to focus on craft, which inspired her to pursue the Miss Rockaway folks, who hadn't been together in three years. "Philadelphia is unique in its ability to impede any creative impulse. It's been a long and hard road getting people to sign off on it."
But sign off on it they have, allowing the multi-platform, multidimensional, multidiscipline, amphibious Miss Rockaway Armada (the name's origins are obscure) to pursue an ambitious agenda in town. After the islands are built, the flotilla will proceed to the Delaware River, then be towed around to Bartram's Garden on the Schuylkill sometime in the next week or so. (This part required much assurance, as it traverses a path near the site of the duck boat tragedy.)
Then the gang will proceed to the Walnut Street docks near 30th Street, where they'll perform Aug. 20 and 21 - music, shadow puppets, lectures on the militarization of civilian life as manifested through flag culture, etc. Subsequently, there will be a variety show in Clark Park on Sept. 3 and at Kensington's Flux Space on Sept. 10, each preceded by a bicycle-powered street parade.
Finally, on Sept. 30, the creations themselves will be transformed into an exhibition at the Art Alliance titled "Let Me Tell You About a Dream I Had," which will be on view through Jan. 8.
For Caldwell, the process has been "like curating backwards."
"I loved the idea of doing something outside the building," she said, "with people who live off the grid, set aside their life to do something completely alternative. Visually, by the time they're done, it's aesthetically beautiful."
In the context of Philly, the group seems like an offshoot of the Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby that has taken its rolling sculptural oddness to sea. The two dozen or so members include veterans and some newcomers - it seems that if you declare yourself a member of the Miss Rockaway Armada, you are one. They seem pleased, if a bit stunned, to have been plucked from their quotidian lives to bring the thing back to life.
"There's never been a sense of closure," said Ian Page, 26, a Pittsburgh artist/contractor/flag lecturer who wears a signature cap on which he has affixed a little metal pineapple. "It's a flowing organism. There are not a lot of public spaces that people are allowed to be in. The waterways - anyone is still allowed on them. You can literally build your own house, it's very free that way."
In Philly, the armadists got floating-junk gold from a collector of old movie sets, who gave them the nicely curved skeleton of a yurt used in a famous local director's latest movie (they asked that it not be specified). On the South Broad lot, there is plenty of lumber, frames, a big load of foam that will float, red barrels that are being used as the base of the islands.
The biggest haul came from a single person, the late Antoinette Gentile, a University of Pennsylvania art professor whose South Philly home supplied a piano, window frames, a cherub cookie tin, and an ancient bottle of Sambuca liqueur - all gratefully accepted by the Armada people through a Craigslist connection. (The Sambuca was sampled on a recent barbecue-cum-test float.)
Todd Seelie, 33, a Brooklyn photographer and veteran of the Mississippi journey, says the current venture eased the pressure to build livable floating structures.
"This project is more about reinterpreting the water space in Philadelphia. . . . The experience of breaking the shore-to-water barrier and actually being in the water has a lot more implications than you might think."
Gabe Meyers (left) talks about building the flotilla at http://philly.com/rockawayarmadaEndText