Transit Antenna: Giving Convention A Wide Berth
Bob at the wheel of Big Walter. Image courtesy of Transit Antenna
Transit Antenna is the name given to a project that has defined the existence of its architects for the last two years. Traveling the country in a retired city transit bus that they converted into an RV using recycled materials, modified to run on waste vegetable oil, and named Big Walter, the five individuals and a dog – loosely referred to amongst themselves as ‘Trantennas’ – have committed to the reality of a nomadic, art-focused lifestyle. Despite demanding perseverance, the separation from the convenience of an established studio and the extravagance of domesticity surprisingly affords many pleasures, not least of which is diversity.
“We like to eat organic when we can, but most of our shopping is done at big box stores like Wal-Mart or Costco. Feeding so many people on our budget is unfeasible otherwise. They also make great free layover parking spots.”
Transit Antenna is a continuation of a long-time collaboration that began when Bob Snead and Seth Gadsden founded and ran Redux Contemporary Art Center from 2002 to 2005. Having produced work for Jeffrey Deitch’s SoHo Art Parade in ‘06 and ’07, Bob and Seth, together with their wives Dawn Snead and Jamie Self, and Bob and Dawn’s ten-year-old son Taylor bought, with some help from Jeffrey Deitch, a number of buses from a Pennsylvania based repo man named Animal. After many trials and tribulations during which their suspicions concerning Animal’s integrity were confirmed, they managed to get one of the buses working with help from the Yahoo RTS bus nuts group. And so began their life on the road, traveling from place to place, making art and documenting their experiences. Periodically, satellite Trantennas – most notably Josef and Amy Kristofoletti who for the most part traveled in a separate gas powered RV – have joined the project, however, for the most part they have remained relatively autonomous.
“We’ve had several tag-a-longs, but after the honeymoons we were quickly ready for divorces. We are hippies in spirit, but actual hippies drive us nuts.”
Consisting of writers, filmmakers, painters, chefs, and musicians, the Trantennas busy themselves with on-site collaborative efforts, ongoing individual projects and odd jobs that provide the meager 100 – 150 USD per month per head necessary to live in the manner to which they have become accustomed; all the while responding to invitations and their ever-changing environment.
“Collaborating leads us to work beyond our individual interests and to inhabit roles not readily available to us as graduate students or careerists in our fields.”
The website, www.transitantenna.com, which all members use to chronicles their journeys, aside from functioning as a charming indie tour guide, provides regular updates on their projects and fascinating instructionals allied to nomadic life such as ‘how to make a hot water heater’ and ‘how to fix an ibook g4 power cord with a tampon.’ Though often trivial and largely unrelated to artistic practice or civilian life, one imbibes from such stories not only an invigorating sense of ones own wanderlust, but also an understanding of how radical changes to routine and the promise of terra incognita can effect the many variables associated with creative practice. Ultimately for the Trantennas it’s about experience, and for the rest of us, marooned in some gluey, amorphous eddy of modern agriculturalism, it’s about curiosity, vicariousness and imagining.
“While we may seem like we’re on permanent vacation, taking these liberties means forfeiting securities such as having a steady income, saving for a home, or receiving health insurance–all investments in a stable future.” States the group’s website. “This is research and development, not career advancement.”
For this week’s feature we contacted the Trantennas, who, during a radiator leak on route to Regent, North Dakota, where they are building a replica moon lander to celebrate the anniversary of the (supposed) first moon walk, somehow found time to talk. Here follows the conversation.
Image courtesy of Transit Antenna.
How many of you are currently traveling?
Bob: There are 6 creatures on our bus currently. Seth Gadsden (28) and Jamie Self (28) are married and sleep in the same bed. Myself, Bob Snead (29), and my wife Dawn Snead(28) are also married and also sleep in the same bed. Taylor Snead (10) is our son and typically sleeps on a bunk at our feet. Right now, however, he’s enjoying the wide open space of the couch, which is typically occupied by Josef and Amy Kristofoletti who are currently working on a mural project for the Cern Particle Accelerator in Switzerland – we don’t know when they will be joining back up with us. And lastly our dog Kentridge (approx 6). He has his own bed, but often he sneaks into anyone else’s. We’ve also had two couch surfers when Joe and Amy were on their honeymoon (they got married last September). The first was a random guy, Steve-O, we found on craigslist who paid us for a ride and ended up staying on the bus for several months. The second was a photographer, Wheat Wurtzburger, whom we met in Orlando.
Jamie: We are 5 people and a dog. The dog, Kentridge, is named after South African artist William Kentridge.
Mural in Odessa. Image courtesy of Transit Antenna.
What is the mission of the project?
Bob: Exploration and Experimentation.
Jamie: The mission in the beginning was to have no specific mission other than to live on the road for at least two years, sustain ourselves through odd jobs found along the way, visit all of the continental US, Canada and Mexico, and do projects, some collaboratively with people or organizations we encounter. As for our creative endeavors, we threw out the idea that we would have a central concept guiding a series of projects.
We spent the first year learning how to live on the road: how to find, filter, store, and run on veggie oil; how to find free places to park nearby the places we want to visit; how to see enjoy our time without spending money; how to plan projects when we’ve just arrived somewhere; and how to live with others in such close quarters. Now that we have a hold on all of these things, we’ve changed our mission somewhat for the next year, wanting to plan more projects in advance. Our change of heart comes from a desire just to get more done and to take full advantage of this next year for us, which is also our last year together on the road.
Seth: Other than living on the roads of North America for two years with hardly any money and no financial backing except what we earn along the way, our mission varies from day to day. Two years is a long time, and we have given ourselves the freedom to be spontaneous and allow ourselves to adapt to what the road brings. We want to collaborate with people, communities, and landscapes. We want to learn from the people and places that we find along the way especially the ones who are living and adapting like we are. We look to produce ideas and interesting projects everywhere with the excess that we find around us. Specifically how we go about all of this varies through time as we are constantly evolving as individuals and as a group. Learning about ourselves via the ever changing landscape is inherent in the mission.
Seth outfitting Big Walter. Image courtesy of Transit Antenna.
How are you funded?
Bob: We have a wide range of things we do for funding. Initially we started with funds from graduate school loans. This was seed money we used to purchase our bus and our video camera. Then Deitch Projects in NYC gave a large gift which went to the initial bus mechanics, vegetable oil system, and outfitting the interior living space. Just before hitting the road we did a fundraiser in our hometown Charleston, SC, where we sold nearly every piece of art we made in graduate school. All of those funds ran out about seven months into our project. Now we still occasionally sell things we make or get funding for some of our smaller projects, but the majority of our living expenses are funded by odd jobs. If we’re out of money, we’ll scour papers and the internet (mainly craigslist) to find anything that’s temporary and decent pay. We’ve worked for the DNC during the Obama Campaign, built a ramp for a pot belly pig, installed photos in the San Jose Federal Court House, built or repaired several porches, fixed drywall, painted walls, and painted murals all for a bit of cash to keep us going.
Jamie: We’ve received some support funding for this project. Bob received a small grant from Deitch, which helped start major repairs on the bus, but it was soon spent. We raised a little more at a fundraiser in Charleston, SC, at which Bob, Seth, and Joe auctioned off much of their artwork from graduate school. That money helped us live for a about six months on the road. We received a grant for $700 from the Puffin Foundation. But most of our funding comes from our own savings and earnings.
When we’re broke, we have been able to find some work. In Portland, we found several jobs through craigslist with surprising ease–craigslist has not been a viable source of employment in any of the other cities we’ve looked, which include New Orleans, Houston, San Antonio, San Francisco, LA, and Denver, just to name a few. Finding work has been really hard most of the time. In Portland, Bob built a ramp for a pot-bellied pig, helped a guy repair his bus for Burning Man, and helped a couple put drywall up in their home. Dawn basically became a wedding planner and general handy person for a couple. And Seth and Jamie found a full-time job canvassing for the DNC. We all got paid fairly well in Portland. Most of our work, though, pays only a fraction of what a professional would get for doing the same work, but we do this work for friends and family, and we’re just happy to have work, and they’re happy to have a way to help us out.
For example, in Bombay Beach we met some folks who were really into our project and they gave us some work building a new porch and painting the trim of their house. They also let us stay in their beach house in Rosarito, Mexico, on the Pacific side of Baja–you can’t beat that. Relatives have also employed us with odd jobs around their homes: stripping and repainting a porch, reroofing a shed, remodeling a bathroom, etc. For our first year on the road we got paid $100 a month to write a short article detailing some experience we’ve had on the road, which at the very least, contributed to groceries. That pretty much sums up the work we’ve been paid for, but we don’t need much to get along.
Interior in progress. Image courtesy of Transit Antenna.
Nomadic lifestyles, while not exactly commonplace in western culture, are well documented so what makes what you are doing a “mobile living experiment”?
Bob: More than any other Nomadic group, we’re often compared to the Merry Pranksters because there are many who can still vividly (or maybe not so vividly) remember the summer of 1964 when Ken Kesey and 13 pranksters set sail on their psychedelically painted school bus “Furthur”. Amongst their chaos, they had an agenda of opening people’s minds with the use of LSD. I think this is where we stray from them, not because we disagree with thier mission, but simply because we set out specifically with no agenda. Our only goal was to live on the road. Every other variable was up in the air. What, when, and where were all unanswered questions.
I personally feel we are more akin to the Mars Rovers than to Kesey and the Pranksters. When the Rovers set out for Mars, the scientist had a ton of information about the planet from photos, telescopes, and satellites. All their preparations told them they could last three months. Now surprisingly they have spent five years on the Martian surface moving more than 10 miles (originally they were only designed to move 1 mile) with no end in sight. We are out to explore North America in a similar way. We had a general idea of some of the places we’ve been, from books, photos, or pop culture, but we never witnessed those places in person. And in some places we certainly feel like we’ve landed on an alien planet and we are there to collect samples and observe. Other times it feels like we’re home. I will say that there are just certain experiences you could only have by being in a place, particularly when it comes to smell. Chicago smells like hot dogs, Houston smells like motor oil, and if the wind is just right Ohio smells like shit.
I guess the main reason we defined the project as a mobile living experiment was because we were attempting to wrap every aspect of our existence – life, work, and art – into this one thing. We really saw it as an experiment with the way we live, and though we had a good idea of what had been done in other Nomadic groups before us we didn’t necessarily feel an affinity to many of the ideals of those groups. So through much trial and error we’ve come to some understanding of how we need to live and work on the road. But the project is always changing shape, from the way we work on a piece of art to the way we have to collect vegetable oil. So we have to experiment to adapt. Often we screw up.
Bob, Jamie and one big mess. Image courtesy of Transit Antenna.
Jamie: Tough question. I think the phrase first arose out of a sense of the craziness we thought it would be to live and work creatively on the road with virtually no privacy and so few financial resources going into the project. It certainly has been difficult, but not in an insurmountable way.
I’m trying to think of the forms nomadic projects take today. Many people develop specific conceptual ideas that drive projects that tour the country, and if well funded, they can go on and on with little trouble. We’ve met people doing this kind of thing, and overwhelmingly they’ve responded that they wish they had more freedom since they just travel from place to place doing basically the same thing. And people without money and without purpose can get along, whether they’re selling artwork or crafts or things they find along the way, or panhandling, or stealing, or finding jobs, or whatever else comes to mind.
But for us to accomplish everything we want–to move on a whim, and to allow the places we visit to reveal to us our purpose there–this feels experimental. And it is also the most difficult concept for everyone we know to fathom. What will we do without any goals? Our coolest experiences–sailing the Salton Sea; meeting Arvo, a sustainability guru and living (with only a Raven as companion) in the mountains of New Mexico; and what comes next: collaborating with a folk artist in a small town of Regent, ND, and then engaging the community in a performance/celebration marking the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11–would have never happened had we committed to predetermining where we’d go and why ahead of time. Our brains aren’t interesting enough to predetermine everything. The process and the moment are where it all happens. Of course, we’ve had some duds of experiences where we just couldn’t make anything happen, but those we learn from, too.
Another way we are experimental–and we’ve researched this ourselves and have found no one like us in this respect–is in our veggie system. Not that our setup is unique, but most people running on veggie have space and time to process oil: fifty-five gallon drums in their garages where they let the oil settle out for days or weeks before filtering it and de-watering it using sophisticated (expensive) equipment. We don’t have the space to store that much oil on board, and we don’t have time to wait. We’ve spent a lot of time in forums trying to figure out the best way to process oil and were learning as we went. We’d only run the engine on WVO once before hitting the road. The folks in the forums told us that we were heading toward “catastrophic failure” by not giving our oil enough time to settle out, and then not dewatering it. Here we are, twenty thousand miles later. The folks who are traveling a lot like us and using a lot of oil – like the Big Green Bus – have space on their vehicles to store oil because they aren’t living on it. Maybe they’re sleeping like sardines just for the few weeks they’re zipping around the country, visiting communities and informing them about the veggie oil movement. But that’s their goal. We couldn’t live comfortably sleeping like sardines on the floor for two years. Plus, where would be keep all our stuff? Where would we cook or house our hitchhikers?
So, my point I guess is that we haven’t found anyone processing large amounts of oil very quickly (like us) who is also living like us without space and time for processing oil in the way that “experts” say it should be processed. We also don’t have money to buy and replace expensive filters. All of our equipment can be bought at Home Depot or auto parts stores for cheap.
We have developed a system of de-watering and filtering our oil that works for us. It involves tapping into our coolant lines to heat the oil and using the vibrations from the moving bus to help release water that’s in solution. Then we use water filters to get the gunk out. Our best secret, though, is where we get our oil: only from the best places, where it’s clean and pure. This cuts out a lot of time and energy purifying the oil. To this date, the only near catastrophes we’ve had on the bus aren’t related to the veggie oil system.
Big Walter being mounted. Image courtesy of Transit Antenna.
Dawn: With every experiment there are controls and variables. Aside from finding vegetable oil, almost every other aspect of our experience is a variable. We do not travel through a network of connections and host locations. From one stop to the next we do not know who we will meet, how long we will stay, what resources may be available for projects that are have not been predetermined, or where we may end up next. This is a mobile living experiment because we do not know the outcome of the project on a day-to-day level or from the beginning to the end of the project. We have worked really hard at being self-sustained. We could do our entire trip without ever interacting with the people, although we choose not to. It would be interesting to explore the notion of total dependence upon interaction with the community to enable our movement.
Big Walter’s new paint job, Spartanburg, S.C. Image courtesy of Transit Antenna.
Seth: Maybe well documented in a romantic sense. You will be hard-pressed to find a guidebook on vegetable oil systems for a 1981 RTS bus, or how to convert the passenger seat pulled out of a 4 door sedan installed in a bus into a pedal-power system made from bicycle parts so after being parked in the desert for two weeks with no solar panel you can turn on a light bulb, or how to take a hot shower in the dead of winter on a cloudy day with dead batteries on a bus, or where to park in Los Angeles at 3 in the morning driving by yourself with everyone asleep in the back of the bus, or how to turn your bus into a pirate radio station that can broadcast 3 miles in all directions as you drive down the interstate. The list can go on and on.
Everything above is an experimental scientific approach to living on the road, problems we constantly face. On the purely creative side we are always searching for a place that inspires action via landscape and material. Often times we work in areas that unlike galleries, parks, centers, the people or the surrounding area have no expectation or there is no precedence for what may possibly take place. It is in these places that we are most excited about interacting and creating experience, object, and story. Because we never know what the next stop will bring, maintaining a tabula rasa allows us to approach each place openly so that we may create a genuine experience and not something that we experience from outside. Rather than swoop in and out of communities, doing projects as though casting spells, we prefer to integrate ourselves as much as possible into them so that we might invite them to collaborate on projects.
Displaying work on Big Walter for Art Walk in Spartanburg, S.C.
This year’s end of year destination is Alaska with a host of stops planned along the way. How are your routes decided and what factors take precedence in such decisions?
Bob: Alaska almost seems like an unspoken bet or dare between all of us. Like we’re saying to each other “I dare you to take the bus there.” But I think it originally came about when we sailed the Salton Sea. We hung out in this small town of about 200 called Bombay Beach located on the Sea, and became friends with many of the locals. One of them had just returned home for the holidays from Alaska and said we should come visit him in Fairbanks. So we said what the hell. And that’s actually how much of our first year went, we would depend on others to guide our trek.
Jamie: Well, we haven’t seen some parts of the country yet (all of the mid-West, parts of California we’d like to return to, Utah, Washington state, and the northeast), so we have planned generally when we think we can make it to those places, estimating the months we anticipate arriving in each region. Then as we get closer to those times, we’ll revise our plan and look for more specific organizations and people to work with on projects and other places we just want to visit. We try to consider everyone’s desires. We don’t do projects everywhere. Sometimes we’re just visiting a national park or sight seeing, and sometimes we want to do a collaborative project.
Dawn: We usually have a general discussion of which cardinal direction we would like to progress, depending alot on the seasons and climate. Our bus runs the best in mild climate, and we sleep the best when not too hot or too cold. Looking at a map we discuss national parks and cities that each member of the group may personally be interested in. We then start considering any contacts that someone may have in different locations along the general route. And of course, we consult our website for any suggestions made by people on the site. We also do general interest searches online for contemporary art centers and residency programs, outsider and folk art meccas, and wierd and wacky roadside stops.
We started our 2nd year from Charleston, SC and decided on a northwest route, knowing that we would need to end up in Montana to cross the border into Canada and then catch the Alaskan highway. We had an offer for a job in upstate SC and also received an email from HubBub art center to check out their facilities on our way out of town. And that sort of started the wheels of motion for the direction of travel. Once in a location, we look to the people that we meet for suggestions of places to go and possibly connections for future locations. Being that our main control in this experiment is that we need vegetable oil, we do searches for restaurants within cities and towns and along the roadways connecting the cities and towns. Stopping at one oil bin and the next, we hopscotch our way across America.
Heading out of S.C. we stopped in Asheville, NC, Knoxville, TN, Lexington, KY, Cincinnati, OH, Hicksville, OH, Chicago, IL, Madison, WS, and from there we headed due west. We are hiking in the Badlands and checking out Mt. Rushmore at the moment. We are planning to spend a couple of weeks in Regent, ND, to work on a project for the 4oth anniversary of the moonlander, and from there we will continue our way northwest ultimately making it to Alaska. Our general route once exiting Alaska is Washington and south, southeast to stop in NB, KS, OK, and then maybe northeast to go through New England. We would also like to see more of the great lakes on our route back east. Of course, anything could happen or change by dinnertime.
The road ahead. Image courtesy of Transit Antenna and Amy McBrine.
How have your individual practices responded to working within the symbiotic model of the group?
Bob: When I think of a symbiotic relationship, I think of two things coexisting in harmony and I certainly wouldn’t describe our group and individual practices as such. They are often in conflict. We all want to retain an individual voice while also producing work within the group, which I think creates a certain amount of dysfunction. I may be really enthusiastic about a project, while others are not and vice versa. Sometimes that means we may not do the idea, or that idea may change shape drastically from the original concept, or that the person who came up with the idea may do it without the group altogether.
Jamie: Everyone has different strengths and habits. We oscillate between perfect harmony and complete malfunction. I’ve had few relationships with anyone, except maybe my mom, where I could avoid uncomfortable confrontations at one point or another. We’re not a homogeneous group, nor should we be, so we have some issues sometimes. I have to say that it’s been a work in progress, but as long as we’re communicating, even if that means confronting each other, then we are able to get to a place where we can move on and feel good about it. We all love each other dearly. I’m sure of that. But sometimes we need to check in with one another to make sure our actions and words demonstrate that love and not some underlying frustration that is building for a host of reasons, including poor communication.
I think most of us have struggled to maintain a sense of individual creative practice on the bus. Because we’re not simply traveling for the sake of traveling, we’ve signed ourselves up for a host of additional responsibilities including website maintenance, producing continuous content, documenting what we’re doing in writing, film, and photography, making sure our planned projects come to fruition, bus mechanics, finding oil, domestic responsibilities, and home-schooling Taylor. These are just our shared responsibilities. We all have other stuff we want to be working on–animations, videos, crazy pirate radio broadcasts, performances, paintings, short stories, sewing, new website ideas, etc.–but these things taunt us from a place of seeming impossibility given the time and energy consumed by what we must do. Maybe we misunderestimated the amount of work just living would be, but it’s still all well worth it I think. (Like right now, we’re sitting on the largest stash of oil we’ve ever had–enough to get us down the Alaskan Highway without burning diesel. That’s exciting, even though it took us several days to amass it.) Occasionally we find ourselves staying put somewhere, like when we went to Rosarito, and it’s these moments when we can focus on ourselves for a little while before all the places we haven’t been call us back to the road.
Dawn: Before this trip, I never considered myself an artist, and am still not sure if I do. I was very uneasy about the notion of traveling around from place to place to do art projects. I just wanted to see the country. I have learned that art can be many different things and a lot of times our projects are more about working together than creating a beautiful piece of art. Also, through group encouragement, I have realized that often I have something to bring to the table as well. However I have found that the work I am interested in the most, whether in the kitchen, on the sewing machine, or home-schooling my son, requires a lot of space, tools and materials, energy, and heat, which can be burdensome.
Kentridge. Image courtesy of Transit Antenna.
On a personal level, what have you gained from this experience so far?
Jamie: So much. I’ve gained a greater appreciation for time and space and a greater understanding of what I need to get work done. A new kind of resourcefulness on so many levels. I also know a little better what I want to do with my life, since before the trip I was teaching freshman composition classes with a Masters in Literature which I no longer intended on turning into a PhD. I’ve also really enjoyed helping to conceptualize our art projects and learning from everyone, including Taylor, the only kid I’ve ever lived with.
Dawn: I feel that I have maybe just begun to gain a sense of independence, while still being a part of the group. Sometimes it’s easy in a group to always lean on someone else or know that if you don’t take care of something, someone else will. Or even in a marriage, you look to your significant other to have all the answers that you don’t have. But in order to be a healthy functioning group, the other members need to know that they can lean on you in the same way. They want to know that you’re not afraid to talk to corporate restaurant types, that your not afraid to get your hands dirty and oily, that your not afraid that your ideas are not worth hearing, and that you’re not afraid to ask the questions that seem to obvious to ask. That’s not to say that we are not sometimes a bit dysfunctional.
A night in Roswell, New Mexico. Image courtesy of Transit Antenna.
On a personal level, what have you found to be the most significant thing that those you meet on route take away from the project?
Bob: I think many people feel stuck where they are, either physically or mentally. I hope we can make people see that you can do whatever they want regardless of their situation.
Jamie: Everyone we meet is always excited about our project and sometimes envious, but all too often we hear someone say, “It’s great what you guys are doing, but I could never do it.” I hope that more people take away the idea that they can do it, whatever form “doing it” would take for them.
Dawn: I think that people take away from our experience a sense that the only limitations on your life and how you live it are the limitations that you put upon yourself. Anyone can do what we are doing, and we tell everyone that. Sure, you have to take a leap and leave your system of safety nets, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done and it won’t be scary at times [.]
For more information please visit: www.transitantenna.com
This post was contributed by Thomas Hollingworth.