On November 14, Proteus Gowanus hosted a talk by artist Duke Riley. This Migration event was held in conjunction with Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice program. For these two groups of interest, Duke chose to speak in depth about the research and process of two of recent works, “Reclaiming the Lost Kingdom of Laird” and “An Invitation to Lubberland”. Each takes a look at a migratory/marginalized community and involved the artist in personally transgressing property boundaries.
Duke recounted that while surveying the Delaware River for an upcoming project in Philadelphia, he became interested in a tiny piece of land known as Petty’s Island. Subsequent research into its history formed the basis for his work on “Reclaiming the Lost Kingdom of Laird”. The back-story goes something like this: Petty’s island was once in fact the tiny dominion of its own self-proclaimed king: an Irish immigrant and pig farmer named Ralston Laird. Laird, his offspring, and a number of other immigrants he had welcomed to the island were forced out in the early part of the 20th century to make room for a shipbuilding yard. Years later the island was obtained by the Venezuelan oil giant Citgo for use as a storage facility. Duke’s artistic activities (later displayed at the Philadelphia Historical Society) centered on preserving the legacy of Laird’s territory and included illegal kayak based crossings to retrieve artifacts and the creation of a large mural on top of one of the Citgo containers. He also researched the lineage of King Ralston, contacted surviving parties, and made a series of commemorative plates representing them. Finally he drafted an open letter to Hugo Chavez to demand a monument to the king and educational programming for the city’s deaf (four of Laird’s daughters were deaf) on the island.
For “Invitation to Lubberland”, Duke examined the lives of Cleveland’s historical itinerant population, using John McCook “hobo census” conducted at the end of the 19th century as a starting point. In an effort to connect the vestiges of this culture back to the present day he hopped freight trains and kayaked the underground path of a river long since subsumed by the expanding city’s sewage system. The museum show that came out of these activities included art related to hobo crafts and anti-government demonstrations of the era. It even included a cigarette tree mosaic (made from real cigarettes) inspired by Harry McClintock’s classic American bum lifestyle song “Big Rock Candy Mountain”. This tune– being based on an old sea chanty– also became a way to connect the landlocked study to Riley’s love for the nautical experience.
Listen to Harry McClintock’s Big Rock Candy Mountain
The historical claims to personal sovereignty by the socially liminal are at the center of both of these works. “Reclaiming the Lost Kingdom of Laird” begins with the individual’s story. The island form has the clearest of borders. And a small island, that resists the formation of internal boundary lines, is perhaps the most conceptually bite-sized of parcels. It is “individual”, and it can be equated with the individual person (“no man is an island” but we are all “islands in the stream”). The small piece of land and its unfortunate exiled king raise questions then about how land rights are conceived, how they are enforced through eminent domain and ultimately how they are pictured within the context of human rights in general. Even the small and dirty Petty’s Island is framed as a contest and nexus of private, state, city, and national interest.
The cultural nomads of “Lubberland” extend these concerns and point to a way of never becoming attached to the land. During the Great Depression of the ‘30s a full 30% of the population were itinerant and more hobos than ever gathered in niches of Cleveland. This portrait is not tied to a miscellaneous case of errantry or squatting, but an entirely alternative approach to the land-ownership-based social system. The Rock Candy Mountain portrayed in McClintock’s song presents an array of shared signs framed as lucky circumstances (a couple of free soft boiled eggs, a lack of snow…). It is ironic in that the mountain is a static goal, but what it promises is an easy way to keep going!
Duke refers to himself as a patriot, and this may be related to his statement at the gathering that– by making a practice of illegal crossings– he attempts to put pressure on the existing rules and codes (perhaps even to expand a concept of democracy). If nomads can be posed as complementary to the sedentary (the bringers of ideas, exchange, organic communications) one wonders what the next social nomad movement of the American landscape could look like…
-Dillon de Give, artist and Proteus collaborator