Bill Daniel: Off the grid
Photographer and filmmaker Bill Daniel followed the American urge for freedom among train jumpers in his 2005 experimental documentary Who is Bozo Texino? In the multimedia exhibition Sunset Scavenger, opening March 28, at Castleberry Hill's Get This! Gallery, Daniel documents a subculture of hippie boaters.
Sunset Scavenger is about people who have dropped off the grid and out of the mainstream. Can you describe the project?
Sunset Scavenger is really a series of projects: photography, film and video, sculpture, boat building, custom vanning. My working method seems to be that I become absorbed by ideas about different ways of living, different ways of defining economy and domesticity, survival. Then I try to work from within that scene. It's inspired by people who are improvising, like veggie-oil diesel runners. The show at Get This! will be a combination of black-and-white photography and collected ephemera, a big collage about people living in vehicles and boats, living on the low-down in the face of desertification and floods – you know, life on an angry planet.
There is a whole movement of punk-rock types who take to boats the way others take to railroad cars. Are we entering a new phase of low-budget adventurism?
My thesis is that the real avant-garde is these punks, anarchists, radical environmentalists and hippies, although those terms do a poor job of describing people these days. Our culture is not being led by thinkers and artists at the high end of the spectrum. Some of the most meaningful innovation is going to come from poor people.
You see contemporary "counterculture" embracing the essence of the American character: self-reliance, independence, a love of the American landscape, whether it's from a freight rolling through the Rockies or a raft floating down the Mississippi.
Bozo Texino and many of your photos are in black and white. Are you generally drawn to an old-fashioned aesthetic?
It has something to do with issues of nostalgia – aesthetically and technically. I want to make work that is in dialogue with the history of documentary photography as well as with social history. Black and white allows the work to blend easily with the past and itself, to be seen maybe as not so time-specific. I'm not trying to make things out of historical context, but I want the viewer to easily drift away to the past or future.
Is freedom becoming hard to find in America?
Everyone knows that's true. Come on. The crucial question we face as Americans is how we have allowed our freedoms to be stolen by so-called freedom-loving conservatives. These flag-waving Republicans have led the assault on our liberties (not like the Dems are much better, but it is the Left that today actually stands for individual liberty; let's all admit that right now). And so how are we going to win our freedoms back? Well, for one, we need a political revolution, and on the other hand we need individual revolutions. Each citizen must get off his/her ass and speak up and live like it matters. The issue of freedom in America is a major subtext to most of my art.
Is there a sub-subculture of artists within the subculture of train jumping and hippie boating?
The subculture of "hoboing" has always been evolving and that evolution has always had a two-way influence with pop culture – literature, film, music, oral culture. So it's never been a "pure" culture, no such thing. The big change with the birth of the punk/crustie freight-rider culture is actually in perfect harmony with the history of hoboing. The raft punk thing is a natural next.
Get This! Gallery recently had a show with another photographer, Mike Brodie, who has documented contemporary train jumpers. Have your paths crossed riding the rails?
You bet. I know and love Brodie and his photography. We did a wild photo show together in Pensacola last year that ended up around a campfire all night on the beach with people naked, playing fiddles, drinking Sparks and swimming. There is a remarkable kind of interconnectedness among this tribe and its sister tribes. It's a big North America, but a relatively small family of freaks. And I mean freaks in the most respected way. Among them are the artists I admire the most.
How does your work fit into the Mission School New Folk lowbrow movement?
I was living and working in the Mission from 1988 through 2001, and corny as it sounds, there was a zeitgeist at work in that half-square mile. There were lots of different miniscenes – film, painting, murals, music, all of it – involved in some way with activism. I think due to the smallness of the community there was a shared set of values, political and optimistic. I think something that my work had in common with what was going on was that it was all based on a peer-to-peer scene. We were working for each other, not for curators or the market. That's my feeling about it. Graffiti was a big part of it. Graffiti is a common space that everyone lives within.
You made your film Who is Bozo Texino? as an experimental film when straight documentary often seems the rage. Tell me why you took that approach, and also about shooting it using Super 8 and a 16 mm Bolex.__
The hobo graffiti film was the result of a tragically huge labor of love. I just fell completely in love with traditional boxcar graffiti from the moment I first saw it in 1983. I believe in the power and value of graffiti, all kinds. What I wanted to do in this film was make a connection between a folk art practiced for 100 years by anonymous oldsters and kids today. I see the two cultures of hoboing and graffiti as equivalents, and I hope the film manages to demonstrate that.
The film focuses on the old style, but the cross-generational kinship and continuity with street culture today is striking. Jack Kerouac, Robert Frank, Helen Levitt, Danny Lyons all set the stage for me for a way of looking at American life. I suppose my work does lean toward the experimental; however, I'm also rooted in social documentary. I love both kinds of work, but I only have one life so I guess I've got to do both at the same time.
What are you working on now? You have a book on hobo graffiti coming out?
Yep, a follow-up book to the hobo movie will be out in May. It's called Mostly True. I'm still heavily working on the Sunset Scavenger project. I'll be touring with that a bunch in the next year or two.
Sunset Scavengers. Through April 19. Artist talk Fri., March 28, 6:30-7 p.m. Get This! Gallery, 322 Peters St. Thurs.-Sat., noon-5 p.m. 678-596-4451. www.getthisgallery.com.
Who is Bozo Texino? screening. Free. Thurs., March 27. 8:30 p.m. Lenny's Bar, 486 Decatur St. 404-577-7721. www.lennysbar.com.