Miss Rockaway Armada – experience the dream at the Art Alliance

Miss Rockaway Armada shines once more upon a shipwrecked shore. On view at The Art Alliance, her rambling installation takes over the Wetherill Rittenhouse mansion until December 30. The original videos for the two magical flotilla nights along the Schuylkill greet you in the foyer. Look down to notice you are stepping on a blue and green bubble wrap river of dreams, which sails into the first room to the left. The converted armada brings you to your knees this time to completely transform the experience of the fruit crate cave—formerly the flotilla’s walk through wave.

Miss Rockaway Armada installation at the Philadelphia Art Alliance – once a wave, now a cave. Photo by Tod Seelie.

My old favorite sculpture seems to have sunk into the plastic wrap waters. I crawl inside and look out once more. Instead of swinging lanterns, a stream of chandelier light diffused through a waterfall of multi-colored glass bottles drips into the cave through the slats.


The first stop in the new Miss Rockaway experience at the PAA delivers on the collective’s commitment to work “within the material reality of a specific urban landscape,” says Melissa Caldwell, Director of Exhibitions. Springing out of the plastic water like geysers or horns from a monster beneath the deep, a “tornado” forest of repurposed Philly electric pole signs surrounds the cave. Reading “We Buy HoCash For CarVerFresh” further roots the Philly audience’s personal experience of a transformed dream or fantasy of our specific material reality.

Let me tell you about a dream I had steals our hearts once more before skipping town to trade them for playing cards and whiskey somewhere down the Schuylkill that doesn’t quite exist.

As we move into the familiar “Amfibitheater” room, look up at the billowing silk parachute and around the corner for the familiar fish no worse for wear out of water.

Amfibitheater photo by Tod Seelie

Spilling down from above a grand staircase, multicolored nautical ropes pool at your feet like the still connected pieces of a broken chandelier. Music cranks out “songs for people slipping into the sea” as the lights and sounds and smells pull you in a million directions.

Various beautifully arranged piles of refuse seem to break through the walls and fireplaces of the old Wetherill mansion like the house in Jumanji, except nothing is trying to kill you. The building takes on a new life, breathing and belching Miss Rockaway’s sea shanties and allowing her pieces to sink and rise like in the water. The mounds and varying heights of installations create a sea-sunk quality, fitting into the Armada narrative.

“amplified interactive sound sculpture made from the guts of a piano and an organ” photo by Tod Seelie

The installation is seamless and avoids the “see what I made” tradition of artistic display, a tradition Caldwell said the group was concerned about. Their mission is to interact directly with viewers and they succeeded. Miss Rockaway’s romantic vision of trash as treasure and freedom through art asks viewers not to “see what I made” but instead be a part of what the group made. The participatory flotilla, parades, and shows in Kensington, Clark Park, and Rittenhouse are “communal events…unmediated by the art world or institutional influence…[that] reinforced Miss Rockaway’s continual interest in a non-hierarchical exchange of information,” the group stated.


Down on the Schuylkill last month, children’s shrieks from the bicycle Ferris wheel, among other exclamations—some less delightful when (Spoiler Alert!) dangling crabs surprise you with sight and smell inches from your face—attest to Miss Rockaway’s adherence to her playful, anti-intellectual mission.

So much celebrated interactive art currently involves digital components—the common modes many of us interact through. Miss Rockaway smashes your iphone and re-invokes the carnival. She reminds us how art also interacts with audiences through sensory modes of escape and transportation. Her artists express the freedom of escape from material possessions and modern society with their shrine in loving memory of real life Huck Finn counterpart Poppa Neutrino. On the second floor of the mansion, Miss Rockaway honors the lovable wanderer whose generous acts read like those of a vagabond Santa Claus. Close by, the dark mystery room filled with Kensington crabs stink up the place and are ready to pinch you in the face as you stumble in. Just as Poppa Neutrino’s life inspired these artists, Momma Rockaway’s recycled art palace shows us what art and the urban experience could be.

Debris and refuse at Miss Rockaway Armada

“Miss Rockaway Armada doesn’t actually exist,” Caldwell states. With recent attention in the media to movements, the art community in Philadelphia has paid attention not only to Occupy Philly but also, in lending their spaces and members to Miss Rockaway. Space 1026 and FLUX space, among others, have, according to Caldwell, thought more about what is involved when organizing around an idea and event than to a location. The anonymity of Miss Rockaway (the members are not named; all the credit goes to the group) also speaks to their politics and hints at some of the reasons they were hesitant to bring their work inside an institution. Miss Rockaway, after all, is no Rittenhouse dinner party kinda gal (did I mention the crabs?). However, through the interactive techniques employed and use of salvaged materials from RAIR and The Resource Exchange, she sticks to her guns.

The Art Alliance’s new direction as Philadelphia’s site for Art, Craft, and Design harkens back to the Arts and Craft movement’s push for craft economies and social reform and serves as the perfect site to display the “radical potential of the DIY movement.” Caldwell aims to expand upon “the idea of ‘craft’ as a verb,” as process and experience, unafraid to admit that it works toward a utopian ideal.

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“reflective light sculpture made of discarded wood and clear glass bottles” photo by Tod Seelie

Though the exhibition operates as “partial remnant” to the Miss Rockaway event, the installation experience and accompanying programming serve as rich events in and of themselves. Thanks, Miss Rockaway, for allowing us to linger on your shores admiring your flotsam and jetsam, the touch of driftwood, and the smell of bonfire smoke and moonshine.