- Bob Snead, Jamie Self, and Seth Gadsden along with a kid, a dog, and a couple other people plan to get on the bus and stay on the bus for a multi-city, multi-year art project entitled transit antenna
Artists Bob Snead and Seth Gadsden are best known in Charleston as the founding fathers of Redux Contemporary Art Gallery. Snead has twinkling blue eyes and a near-constant serious expression on his youthful face, which is obscured by a Nordic red-brown beard. The dark rings under his eyes make him seem glummer than he really is. Gadsden is ganglier, with a quieter beard and a slightly louder personality.
They're both laid-back and humble, despite their prodigious artistic talents, their MFAs, and their hard-won roles in the Lowcountry community. They've been friends for a long time, watched each other get a little older, start families, lose a bit of hair. But over the next couple of years that friendship will be tested like never before.
In January 2008 they'll embark on their maiden Transit Antenna voyage, venturing into unknown territory, traveling across the country in a 26-year-old Philadelphia metro bus that runs on a vegetable oil fuel system. It's an artistic experiment in mobile living and a touring studio/exhibition/outreach project that will take them to small towns and cities in every mainland state. They'll spend some time in each place, collaborating with artists that they meet and creating installations, performances, and documentaries about their adventures.
They're in for the long haul, with an ETA of 2010 for the project's completion. They'll take their partners, Bob's young son Taylor, artists Amy McBrine and Josef Kristofoletti, and hopefully Ketridge the family dog, too.
- The crew has been retrofitting an old transit bus to run on biofuel
Their mode of transport is a modified GMC transit bus called "Big Walter," named for Seth's bus-driving grandfather, Walter Alexander. The vehicle's a 40-foot municipal workhorse bought in Pennsylvania from a repo man named Animal. The artists plan to collect their vegetable oil fuel from Chinese restaurants as they go. WiFi internet will be picked up, hopefully, with an antenna made from a Pringles tin.
"We'll probably adapt what we have to do," says Snead. "We won't plan everything before we get there." This adaptability is the key to Snead and Gadsden's creative process. "It's healthy for an artist to be doing new things," says Gadsden. "We have to keep learning, otherwise we're spinning the same bottle around over and over again. So we're constantly challenging ourselves."
They don't have a lot of funding, their itinerary is scattershot, and their fuel resources will be dependent on friendly neighborhood restaurants giving them some oil. What could possibly go wrong?
The artists are optimistic. Sure, there'll be mechanical screw-ups and wrong turns on the road, but they thrive on frustrating challenges and unlikely outcomes.
- The interior is being gutted and redone to accommodate seven people
Failure to Launch
August 15, 2007: Jeffrey Deitch is a man of average build in an impeccable blue Italian suit and glasses. As the head of Deitch Projects, he's a top-flight contemporary art gallery owner with a flair for performance art and public events. Before that he was a vice president of Citibank, co-developing and co-managing the bank's art finance and art advisory businesses.
On this day, though, he isn't in a bank or an art gallery. He's strapped into a harness with an abundance of ropes tethering him to 3,200 balloons. He's about to be lifted high above the New York skyline. Snead and Gadsden have spent 16 hours inflating the helium balloons, and they hold tight to ropes that will prevent Deitch from floating off to Jersey.
The art project/stunt is an important opportunity for Snead and Gadsden to raise their profiles in the Big Apple art world. So they're bummed when, instead of heading for the stratosphere, Deitch jumps up and down like a baby in a doorway bouncer before sinking back to earth. The red and white balloons clump together like sclerotic blood cells. There are just too many of them and not enough helium per square inch to lift a human being very high.
Once the no-show's over, Snead and Gadsden pop the balloons. Hanging from their strings, the burst latex resembles a cluster of desperate dishrags. The artists have failed miserably. That's happened before and they know it will probably happen again, but this blow represents a real career low.
But that August day in New York wasn't the first time Snead and Gadsden had faced a seemingly insurmountable challenge. In 2002, they were College of Charleston art students looking for a place to show their work and establish studio spaces for other artists. They hooked up with Print Studio South in July 2002 when Snead got a job there as director of its studio facilities, exhibit space, and classes. Out of that opportunity came Redux Contemporary Art Center on St. Philip Street, which absorbed PSS in March 2003 and steadily continued to grow. But setting up Redux wasn't easy. Once they'd signed a lease agreement for their Contemporary Art Center building, Snead and Gadsden had to rely heavily on studio rentals to pay the bills. Yet they survived through word of mouth, inventive shows like Loren Schwerd's Flock installation, and art auctions; for example, July 2003's Hot Artists Take It Off helped pay for the air conditioning.
Within a couple of years, the founders — with like-minded artists such as Schwerd, Krist Mills, Erik Johnson, and Max Miller — had beaten the odds and established a feasible studio system for artists to rent space and show work. Although Snead and Gadsden soon moved on to attend graduate art programs at Yale and Boston University respectively, they'd launched an institute that has grown more successful than they could possibly have hoped. It's now in a position not just to obtain grants, but to give them. And one of the recipients of its funding is Transit Antenna. The project name refers to the transit bus they're using, and their process of communicating via wireless internet and their Pringles "cantenna."
After a few years living in New Haven and Boston, respectively, Snead and Gadsden are happy to let someone else be the boss at Redux. "We didn't expect it to still be here," says Snead.
"We're surprised it's still standing," Gadsden agrees. At the moment it's thriving under the aegis of Executive Director Seth Curcio and a growing roster of staff. The funding Redux provides will help the project make it across the country. "It will create awareness for Redux programs, especially for people who might not come to Charleston otherwise. Along with general community awareness, it will also give us the opportunity to connect Redux with artists who might not normally know about it. A lot of the stuff we're going to do is going to end up being in some kind of arts community, so it'll be interesting not just to stick around the same art groups — we'll be exploring."
While the Contemporary Art Center's profile has risen through its international calls for entries and progressive shows, Transit Antenna will help spread the word about Redux to the smaller communities that Snead and Gadsden pass through. There's a strong sense that the artists want to give something back to the contemporary art community that supported them when they started Redux. But despite the PR wet dream that an alternative-fuel, cutting-edge art bus could be, they say that collaboration with a wide variety of artists is their real impetus.
"We see it as research and development, an adventure, and a crash course in video editing and mural work," Snead explains. "And a chance for people to hear the Redux name more. But it's not so much about getting ourselves out there as working with others." And despite all the tribulations, he feels like he's slowly but surely achieving his own goals. "We're getting our ideas done."
April 29, 2007: Bob and Seth are shopping for a bus. They follow Animal's no-frills classic Hurst/Olds into a white and blue maze of used vehicles. Animal (a.k.a. Pat) has purchased a fleet of buses, and he has one available in the artists' $1,000 price range. Animal is soft spoken for a salesman, with a knotted ponytail dangling down to his butt and a genuine interest in helping his customers save some money on the road.
As Animal demonstrates the bus' air brakes, rumbling engine, and dashboard buttons — Snead likes the cool buttons — the wheeler-dealer seems to know his stuff. There are a few signs of wear and tear on the bus, but they seem cosmetic; one window has a crack in it. There are other issues that the buyers will have to deal with on their long haul — for example, there's no gas gauge. Big city buses have no need for one in their daily work. So a "gas checkin' stick," feet longer than an oil dipstick, will have to be used in the meantime.
Snead and Gadsden buy the bus and leave Animal's labyrinth, black smoke chugging from their exhaust. Five miles down the road, they break down. The accelerator dies completely.
Over the next week and a half, the artists realize they've bought more of a beater than they first thought — there are structural problems like a big crack in the floor, the body's tatty, the tires droop, the air system leaks, and the power generator has good and bad days. Even if they do manage to convert the engine to run on alternate fuel, they'll get only seven miles to the gallon and their tanks will hold just enough for a 600-mile drive. A thousand bucks in the red, a project that began as an enjoyable challenge is starting to look totally unfeasible.
"It's been a little bit of a learning curve," says Gadsden, who's recently found out more about interlock systems, rear differentials and the Pennsylvania DMV than he ever thought it possible to know, thanks in part to the RTS-Bus-Nuts Yahoo forum. "We always knew we were trying the impossible. Seemingly every step of way, Transit Antenna's been impossible. Redux was kind of the same way too. There have been points during this whole process when Bob and I wanted to kill each other."
The artists have coped by jumping one small hurdle at a time. "We don't look too far ahead," says Gadsden's writer/musician wife Jamie Self. "There's always been a lot of excitement but doubt about pulling this off. Every task we undertake with the bus makes the trip easier. I'm not going to say all our experiences have been just peaches — we share goals and ideas, but we're also different people. Sometimes we have conflicts, but we've done well to push through and be honest about how we feel. It's nice to have a little creative tension. It makes things exciting."
While trying to back a 40-foot bus out of a gas station might not be everyone's idea of excitement, the Transit Antenna participants have made headway. Help with their duff purchase came in the unlikely form of Animal, who directed them to the Bus-Nuts group and eventually sold them a more expensive replacement with a rebuilt engine and a lot less wrong with it. With a shinier bus that actually runs and stops when they want it to, the artists have been able to convert to vegetable oil fuel tanks.
Over the past few years, a few singers and bands (Pearl Jam, Jack Johnson, Gomez) have switched their tour buses to biodiesel. Most recently, a "Big Green Bus" took a group of students to the Bonnaroo festival. But a cross-country drive on veggie oil hand-outs is a far more daunting undertaking, especially without a big record label or major funding organization standing by to give Big Walter a jump start along the way. The upside is that Snead and Gadsden have no tight tour schedule to adhere to. Right now, they don't have much of a schedule at all.
"We haven't set out a complete itinerary," says Self. "That's intentional. We consciously haven't nailed it down because if we did, we might miss something — a place that could bring good material, interesting people, or an organization like Redux that people don't know about."
"In my artwork, when I try to plan everything it always falls flat," adds Gadsden. "You only see later on what works and what doesn't."
That process of adapting to circumstances ties in with the team's ethos of looking at a challenge as an artistic catalyst. By dreaming the impossible dream or simply losing their way down a back road, the artists may come across something new or inspirational.
"Oftentimes we've spoken of the trip as research and development, seeing everything we can and recording everything we can," says Gadsden. Nevertheless the lack of a precise route is going to make refueling a hairy process. Their stops will be dictated in part by the availability of oil from local restaurants.
"Chinese restaurants are the best," Snead has decided. "They're the cleanest and easiest to get fuel from. Fast food places are tougher. Burger King won't give vegetable oil to individuals."
Help is at hand from visitors to the TransitAntenna.com website. In a nifty bit of interactivity, friends are invited to suggest places for the team to visit. They can pin their recommendations on a wikimap and chart the bus' progress — however slow it may be.
"We're expecting days when we're in the middle of nowhere and the bus breaks down," Self admits. "Things might become difficult, but we'll roll with the punches."
There are more personal concerns, too — five people will be packed into Big Walter, with no warm shower and no place for individual quiet time. Any storage space will be filled with art and supplies for the two-year trip, as well as a talking ATM that will spiel a stand-up comedy routine in clubs and galleries across the country. The machine shows still images on its monitor to accompany sprightly-written, prerecorded gags told from its perverse POV (sample joke: like Martha Washington, he's had George inside him).
Preparations for the journey are intense. The body of the bus has been painstakingly stripped, cleaned, and sanded down. Its fiberglass sections will make a workable canvas (or canvases) for the trip, and the panels can be removed at the end of the trip for an exhibition.
Inside will be a chaotic patchwork of colors and fabrics that the passengers have been saving up for some time. The front half of the vehicle will retain its old look, while the back will be partitioned into living quarters with a bathroom, bedrooms, and furniture. For fresh air and me-time, the artists will be able to go on top of the bus, where a deck is being built and a tent can be pitched. More tents will go beside the bus when it hits festivals. "The living space is much bigger than the apartment I had in Boston," says Gadsden.
After lots of cutting, grinding, welding, and drilling, two 50-gallon vegetable oil tanks have been installed and the filtering system checked; there's room for a third tank, so that unfiltered oil can be stored for long stretches of the journey. More storage space has been created under the bus near the air tanks. At the same time they've developed their website, illustrating their learning process with comments and videos, and encouraging visitors to add their names to the site and become part of the adventure. The wikimap is just the beginning of the interactive process.
"It's a new forum for my work and a public forum for our accountability," explains Self. But the artists will need more than website ad revenue and ATM stand-up gigs to pay their way. Fortunately, they're all painters and they hope to pick up some cash on their stops, whether through selling art at the festivals they visit or offering to repaint small town signs. As with their route, Gadsden is prepared to adapt: "When we need it, we'll figure out a way to get it."
The Transit crew have already received lots of creative input via the site, plus a sprinkling of bus maintenance hints. Some teaching tips are sure to follow, as Snead's wife Dawn has been homeschooling their son Taylor, getting him ready for two years away from a regular school environment. By starting before the trip, Dawn aims to give him a smooth transition. The rest of the passengers will pitch in with the fourth grade education. "He's a bright kid," says Self, who taught writing to Boston University freshmen before joining Gadsden down south. "Bob and Dawn include him in everything."
Taylor has certainly learned patience over the year it's taken to set up Transit Antenna. The monetary aid from Redux has certainly helped get the project moving.
"We've been in these systems and organizations for a long time," Gadsden sighs, "as undergraduates, at Redux, then at grad school, with all these people to answer to. We wanted to stay as far away from any organizations as possible, so we didn't apply for a lot of grants." That way they figured they wouldn't spend all their time jumping through hoops to satisfy funding bodies. "But Redux is really flexible." So the Center is helping to ease the financial burden of their money-pit metro bus while leaving the artists free to plan their own ideal outreach program.
With a Bang
September 8, 2007: With the balloon fiasco far behind them, Snead and Gadsden participate in Deitch Projects' third annual NYC Art Parade, a popular procession of artists, performers, and designers with floats, placards, sculptures, kites, and street performances. They've created nine stick-of-dynamite costumes to hurry from West Broadway and Houston down the streets of SoHo in a Looney Tunes version of Mardi Gras.
Snead and Gadsden call their section of the parade the Washington Generals Versus Nine Sticks of Dynamite; they present the Generals as the "losingest" professional basketball team in history, beaten thousands of times by the Harlem Globetrotters in exhibition games. The Generals' unlucky streak continues — the sticks beat them in a foot race.
At the crowded finish line on Wooster Street, the artists bravely attempt their balloon stunt again. This time, fewer balloons are used — but with more helium — and a giddy female volunteer is hoisted into the heavens by a cluster of red, white, green and yellow orbs. It's a bittersweet moment for the flight attendants.
Two months later, Gadsden reflects on the experience. "It felt good when she went up so easily," he says, "but the easiness took a bit of steam out of it. It only took four hours to blow up the balloons." He sounds disappointed. "The mystique was taken away from it." Now that he's figured out the math and the challenge has been met, there are no artistic breakthroughs forthcoming. But his fascination with balloons continues — recently 2,000 of them were incorporated into a Redux mini-parade to celebrate the Center's anniversary, and next month, he and Snead will contribute work to a show that will help raise funds for Redux and its artist in residence program.
After years in the comfort zone of academe and grants-aided art projects, Snead and Gadsden are in for a rude awakening. As their ideas for using alternative energy and art outreach projects become a reality, they'll continue to adapt to the demands of living on the road. If all goes as (un)planned, as new challenges arise, challenging new art will form as well.