“Cooler than a museum, smarter than a theme park, and weirder than a carnival:” An Interview with Crab Devil Collective

For the 63/64 issue, we spoke to members of Crab Devil, an art collective based in Tampa, FL. Art Editor Leslie Vega’s interview is reproduced here:

The Peninsularium is an immersive interactive art attraction that will undoubtedly draw the crowds. Crab Devil is adamant about bringing a sense of wonder and excitement to both locals and visitors when the Peninsularium finally opens its doors. In my discussion with two principal members of the Crab Devil collective, Janine Awai and Devon Brady, we talk about the importance of conveying a sense of place and the necessity of supporting and promoting area artists in the service of local enrichment. Our extensive focus on Tampa as a distinctive city is not surprising. Tampa Bay is experiencing massive economic and population growth, and keeping Tampa weird is a priority.

The Peninsularium is not just a tourist lure, a quirky roadside stop, or even a gallery of art; it’s a marker that Tampa is growing into its potential as a cultural destination.

Skunk ape housed at The Peninsularium. Photo by Leslie Vega.

Leslie Vega: Let’s begin with the origins of Crab Devil and the collective. Are all the members from Tampa, and did the art collective sort of evolve in parallel with The Peninsularium project?

Devon Brady: Yes, all of the members are at least long-term Tampa residents. Twenty years or more. There are three Tampa natives. Myself, Tracy, and Gianna. Jan’s been here since college.

Janine Awai: And everybody else has been here since their college days. There’s nine of us total. We are all entrenched.

LV: I asked that because, at least among the people I know, so many of us are transplants, and it’s hard to get a sense of place. I feel like the theme of The Peninsularium is, of course, Tampa.

JA: It’s a little broader… it’s Florida—

DB: —But very Tampa centric, right. And, you know, when we talk to people about it, and talk to investors about it, we’re always pitching that idea in different ways. You know, there’s people that want to see Tampa recognized as a cultural destination, and there are people that want to see Tampa recognized for its food, its music. There’re other ways to approach it; some people have an inferiority complex that comes along with being from Tampa. It’s interesting to kind of play into that in a way to get people on board and to say, even if you’re not 100% interested in what it is specifically that we’re doing, what we’re trying to do here is raise the tide for all the boats so that if you have other projects that are poised to benefit off of an increased interest in Tampa as a cultural destination, that’s a reason for you to get involved with us too. To just kind of jumpstart everything that’s going on here.

LV: Yeah, the more the merrier, right.

JA: And I think that one of our objectives is to elevate all the things that people take for granted here in Tampa—they’re pretty awesome, pretty unique things. Really unique history. And also, there are a lot of reasons that people move here. There are things that are attractive about this area. Even if you just look at the flora, fauna, you know, those are things that we gloss over all the time, but it’s still Florida, it’s still a part of our everyday psyche.

LV: Yeah, so I kind of want to lean into the weird Florida aspects [of the Peninsularium], and in particular, Tampa, as opposed to St. Pete, because I think of them more as boroughs. But other people are like, “Oh, that’s a different city.” And of course, St. Pete has historically always had more of the art scene. I’m really interested and excited to see Tampa tap into all the beautiful weird stuff that’s here, and I just wanted to get your take and understand more about the uniqueness of what’s here.

DB: Well, first, I would say that the idea that St. Pete is more of an arts destination is to me, after forty-seven years here, that’s kind of a relatively new idea. When I was in high school, and even going through art school at USF (The University of South Florida), that wasn’t really a thing. St. Pete, in the last twenty years or so, has done a good job of branding itself that way and encouraging very visible things like murals, you know. St. Pete had a lot more murals than Tampa ever had or still does have, and to a lot of people’s minds that makes it a destination for the arts. I’m kind of like, famously cantankerous about murals, but that’s just my thing.

LV: [laughs] How come?

DB: Well, first of all, I love shitty old industrial buildings. And I like it when they’re shitty, old, and industrial. I don’t like it when somebody paints a big mural on the side of one of them…. It’s always kind of saying, like, don’t look at this thing. Imagine that it’s something else, you know. I’m always interested in architecture and spaces, and so the murals that I really dislike are murals that employ things like force perspective where they’re trying to create an illusion of depth on a flat surface. That was a beautiful, flat surface before somebody came and painted a horrible mural, you know. There’s a lot of bad murals out there.


JA: I’m not opposed to them. But there are so many badly rendered murals. When I think of murals, I think of WPA, right. Like Diego Rivera. Beautiful—

DB: —But also, when you look at the Diego Rivera murals in Rockefeller Center—those were prepared spaces to take murals, you know. They built these walls with these proscenium arches and prepared these flat spaces to accept a mural. They didn’t come and paint over a building with this image that’s drawing your attention away from the building.

JA: But for me, you can do that sort of thing on a building and have it work well.

LV: Have you guys been to Philadelphia? They have a whole funded Mural Arts Project and people take tours of the murals around the city: they have these in a lot of other cities too. And, I’m laughing because, yeah, there’s a lot of bad ones. But it’s also a big tourist draw.

DB and JA: Right. Right.

DB: But I think that it’s a good distinction between Tampa and St. Pete, because Tampa has always had an art scene, as has St. Pete. And St. Pete’s has always been a little different than Tampa’s. And they nurtured and grew what they had there. And that’s all great. But I’m more partial to what Tampa has and has always had because it’s a different scene. It’s more conceptually based. It’s grittier. It’s a little harder to digest. Yeah, a lot of that is because of the academic influence of USF, because USF is a very conceptually based art program. St. Pete has always had a strong emphasis on craft, which is great.

[This is to] draw a distinction between what you will see from us and what you see from Fairgrounds (an immersive art space in St. Pete) over there. Their work is more poppy with brighter colors, with cleaner lines that is in keeping with a more St. Pete aesthetic, you know, and if you look around here, it’s like, there’s no straight lines. It’s all organic. Things have moss growing on them, so it’s a different approach. Fairgrounds has been great with us—we talked openly from the beginning about making some differentiation between us and them. The ultimate goal is that you can buy a two-day ticket to visit both places. Having more of this sort of thing is just better.

JA: The moss growing on things reflects our approach to Florida because if you stand still too long, the moss is gonna grow on you. [laughs]

LV: Oh, yeah. It’s so much about decay, right?

JA: It’s about decay, it’s about swamps. It’s about this little atmosphere that we live in. And I think that instead of trying to ignore that and sweep it out of your house, you know, we’re letting it in, because that’s a part of what makes Florida Florida. It’s about the uncomfortable things.

LV: That’s what makes it way more interesting to me personally. I think you both articulated a lot of my thoughts that I’ve had about Tampa over the years. When we first moved here, we thought we should live in St. Pete; it’s so much nicer, you can walk down the main street. Tampa is more exciting because it’s growing. There’s an opportunity here to sculpt and shape your neighborhood. And it’s grittier, definitely.

DB: This is why I got into a project like this because I’ve always been a booster for this area. I have plenty of friends as artists who finished up at USF and moved to New York to pursue their career in New York, which anyone who was thinking logically about how to have a career as an artist would and should do, you know, go to the place where the thing is happening. If you’re an actor, you don’t stay in Branson, Missouri, you go to fucking LA and start trying to get jobs. And eventually you will, if you work hard enough, you will—that’s the way that it works. But what I always said to people was like, in Tampa, if you stay here, if something cool happens, either you did it yourself, or you know the person who did it—here’s only that many degrees of separation….Here we have to do it all ourselves and suffer all of the pains that go along with that, so it’s only for a certain type of person.

JA: For sure, it’s difficult, it has been difficult to convince the people that they want to see the show.

LV: It’s interesting to see the reality of how this stuff can come to be. Are you going to charge admission?

DB and JA: Yes. Yeah.

JA: We were going for the idea that The Peninsularium is a ticketed, admission-based attraction with art installations. People are going to go through, and at the end there will be some kind of identification so that they can know which artists were involved. Tempus Projects (a local non-profit art gallery) will be on site, and so hopefully they will also then be able to go to a more traditional art venue, and see some of those artists’ work in Tempus, and we can help push them towards maybe acquiring and collecting the art. Building a collector community, our community in Tampa, is important to elevate the whole art culture here. I mean, that’s what New York has.

LV: Sure. And there is money here, of course.

DB: Yeah, you have to be able to make a living as an artist in order for there to be a real art scene here. And that’s the nut that hasn’t yet been cracked. And you see all these efforts, which are great, you know—we need to have affordable housing for artists, and we need to have an arts district. All of that stuff is good. But nobody buys art from an artist—that’s the third leg of the stool that has to be there. And so, in order to make that happen, this is the project: you have to sell the validity of Tampa as a place to buy art from, and that its artists have their own perspective and viewpoint on their own terms.

JA: We’re viewing The Peninsularium as a bridge to that summit, a way to make art more accessible and more approachable to the general community.

DB: And that’s something that hasn’t really happened in these other places…. This is a pathway in for people to experience art in a way that they haven’t experienced it, and then walk out from this experience and go into a traditional gallery setting and see the name on the wall and go, oh, that person made the thing that I just saw in there…

JA: That’s really, really important.

DB: … and now I could take home a piece for not a whole lot of money, and then the wheels start turning about how this all works.

JA: We definitely want to promote the artists who are involved, all of them, so that they get something out of this and their names are definitely associated with their work. And that’s something that I think a lot of immersive art installation places have not done so well.

DB: Yeah, I don’t think it’s something that they do intentionally, but I think they struggle with how to highlight the individual artists and show whose work is whose without breaking the fourth wall of the experience.

LV: It becomes like an Epcot Center sort of thing, where people aren’t specifically thinking about who’s actually making the stuff. It’s just kind of turns into all one thing.

JA: Yeah. And that’s great, you know, for the whole experience. You don’t want to pull people out of it, but at some point in time you have to give the right attribution, make sure those people who are participating in this are getting something out of it. You can send visitors to these artists’ spaces and show them we have their work over here. Get to know these people. A lot of them are local artists. These are the artists in our community.

LV: People won’t have to pay to go to Tempus. That will still be a separate thing, right?

JA: Yes, Tempus is a non-profit. And so, they’re not a part of The Peninsularium.

LV: They will just be attached in the same space.

JA: Right, just like Deviant Libation brewery will be a separate entity: they are tenants.

DB: But the idea here was that we could create this kind of symbiosis. We [The Peninsularium] could hopefully attract a few 100,000 visitors a year, some percentage of which make their way through Tempus, which is a few 1,000 more people a year than they have typically seen, so we increase their exposure by a huge amount. And then in returning the favor, Tempus has already this established roster of artists and contacts and people that they work with and a respected name and a visiting artists residency program that’s been up and running for years.

JA: They are a traditional contemporary art gallery, yes.

DB: So that’ll help us to attract artists, larger names, and more mid-career artists. We’re still looking at a lot of local artists and non-established artists, but it also helps to have some of those bigger name people here, and Tempus has those contacts…. But now that we’re kind of working together, we can have somebody come down, do a project for Tempus, we can consult with them about building out a larger environment for Crab Devil, which might be, you know, a $15,000 or $20,000 or $25,000 commission for them. So now you’re talking about a real serious project that could be a person’s half of their year producing something like that. So, there’s a draw for them to come and work with Tempus and be able to work closely with us and see what we’re doing. And we can kind of tap into their network of contacts, bringing people here and then doing the same thing with the brewery (Deviant Libation). We bring people through there because they’re there already. They’ve got beer to be sold. People like to hang out and drink beer! It’s good for everybody.

JA: It gets their attention!

DB: And it helps with our customer retention.

LV: Bolstering each other up. That’s super exciting! That leads me to my question of what’s with the Bait Shop.

DB: Well, it came from a bunch of different directions. I’ve always had kind of an obsession with what are the last few vestiges of mom-and-pop businesses that have not been franchised and corporatized and sanitized. And when you think about it, there’s only like a few. There are barber shops, tattoo parlors, nail salons, and bait shops would be another one. There was never a Blockbuster Video of bait shops. They’re all their own weird little thing. And in Florida especially, we’re surrounded by water. So that’s just one of those things that, growing up in Florida as a kid, it was one of those environments that you’re going to where there’s little objects of fascination all around, like the rubber worms that smelled like that weird oil they put on them and they had sparkly glitter in them, you know, and lead weights, and all kinds of weird little hardware and stuff that you don’t see elsewhere, you know, so it was always kind of like a place of intrigue as a kid.

Tracy and Sarah came to us with that idea. We were kind of casting about for, like, what is the first experience that introduces you to this whole thing?

JA: Something very Florida. Something also kind of in keeping with this roadside attraction concept.

DB: Yeah, DIY, and that’s kind of the whole narrative that we talked about, making it known that these things are made by human hands. We call it the artifacts of artifice; we never cover over the mechanism.

What I like to see the most is young children, especially young girls experiencing art because I think they aren’t encouraged to investigate mechanical things. They walk up from a distance with a big smile on their face, and they’re like, look at this big crazy trippy thing, and they walk up underneath it, and they’re looking up at it and just enjoying it for the illusion that it is. And then a minute goes by, and you see them looking closer at it, and then making their way around to where the motor and the gears and everything are. And then you can see the wheels in their heads turning— “Oh, that spins that way, and it turns this gear, which spins in the opposite direction, and now these two shafts are moving in opposite directions, and they’re two oppositely oriented spirals, and they’re spiraling into each other, and that’s what creates the illusion.” And you see the moment when they figure it out. And then they go back to it and they’re like, it’s still cool!

LV: It doesn’t take away from the magic.

DB: Magic, to me, is the understanding that it’s of human hands and minds. And we create it; we’re the ones that make the magic and that’s the whole message. We did this out of our own brains.

LV: With these big immersive installation experiences like The Peninsularium, how do you foresee people interacting with the space? Will people be able to touch things?

DB: They’ll be able to touch, and they’ll be able to move through and investigate the spaces. There are a lot of kinetic elements. And like I said, it’s all that kind of old school mechanical stuff—

LV: —Sort of circus-y.

DB: Yeah, there’s a lot of those kinds of elements. There are also narrative elements to be discovered through audio and through text and through ephemera. So, there’s that whole kind of aspect to things as well. And yeah, I think, people will experience it in different ways…. We’ve been calling it an all-ages show in a punk rock sense, you know. It’s an all-ages show, might not be for everybody and you’re all welcome to come, but there’s not going to be, like, overtly sexual content, at least not to be viewed by the eyes of the children.

We’re working on an audio element in the vein of a silent disco kind of thing where you have a headset that you can switch between channels…. So when you give a kid a headset, that headset only gets two of the three channels, so you can all be standing in the space, experiencing the same thing. But mom and dad might be listening to something different than what the kids are listening to.

JA: And then just physically navigating through this space, the mere fact that it’s in shipping containers, as opposed to, you know, a bowling alley, in comparison, it’s going to make the experience a lot different, because of the dimensions of the space. So our intention is to have people lose their way, and then find that there’s the potential for more discovery.

DB: Another difference here is that there’s going to be a lot of these transitions from interior to exterior spaces. The way these containers go together is this kind of grid to create all these little courtyard spaces between them. So a lot of times you don’t move straight from container to container, you step outside and then back in.

JA: And there’s going to be programming in all those spaces.

DB: We can landscape and do things in those spaces, which I think really differentiates us from any other immersive experience that I’ve seen, because I haven’t seen anything that has really involved the landscape.

JA: And that is another place where Florida steps in—the outdoors. That’s a huge part of being in Florida. I think that that is going to be an added experience for us.

LV: That’s wonderful…. You mentioned ephemera. So where do you think archives fit into all this? I’m sure you have pictures of Old Florida and memorabilia, and you’re collecting all this stuff.

JA: And we’ll be creating some things, some things that are printed, photographs. And then some of those things will possibly be available to investigate more closely or even purchase. There’s going to be a bus at the end, outside of [The Peninsularium] experience by the gift shop, which is going to be a place where there’ll be a lot of printed matter—

DB: —Pamphlets and literature and takeaways and things like that. But also, in the way that we’re approaching things, we’re kind of always trying to keep it up in the air as to where the reality stops and the fantasy starts. So we want to tell actual, historical stories about the area. And those things get weird enough that you’re not sure you know where the line is. It’s a trick because you also don’t want to have it filtered too much the other way in that people take fantasy as reality and go telling a story that’s not true. There are all these cool stories and history here that people don’t know about and that people will get excited for; it’s really about creating an identity. When you tell someone you are from Tampa, they will have a sense of exactly what that means.

The Peninsularium will open in 2023.

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