Alex Israel Interviews David Robbins About Working for Andy Warhol, Making Art, and His Location in the Culture Industry
Given the difficulty of engaging the production economies of the mainstream popular culture, not to mention the lowish aspirations for humankind often conveyed in the wares offered by the aggressively Accessible mass culture, anyone’s decision to enlist in the smaller and more specialized realm of art is understandable.
–David Robbins, High Entertainment (1991)
I first heard about David Robbins through my friend Alex Israel while Alex was still a student at the USC Roski School of Fine Art. His professor at that time, Charlie White, had sent him a link to Robbins’ essay High Entertainment, which Alex forwarded on to me.
In fact, I still have my copy of the essay that I printed out, heavily underlined, and drew stars on, and which Robbins signed when he came to Los Angeles in February for a talk at the Hammer Museum.
In the essay Robbins offers ideas on separating from traditional models of art and entertainment, the contest between refinement and accessibility, and the identifying characteristics of an emergent middle ground between the two. His analysis of the mainstream and his idea about creative “platforming” were particularly impactful for me, and his advocacy of a model of independent thought has been a constant influence in my life ever since then. In a 2006 essay for Artforum, Hans Ulrich Obrist summed up Robbins’ approach, “The goal is to make art engage a more varied production, a broader context, a life cycle all its own.”
In August, Robbins will release his sixth book, Concrete Comedy: An Alternative History of Twentieth-Century Comedy (2011, Pork Salad Press).
David Robbins, Talent, 1986. Courtesy of the artist
Alex Israel: You didn’t go to art school. How did you enter into art making?
David Robbins: I went to work. After graduation from college I went to New York and lucked into a job with Andy Warhol, and that’s where I got my introduction to the art world.
Israel: How did you land a job with Warhol?
Robbins: A socially connected friend who was then working as a receptionist at Interview magazine left to get married, and she suggested that they hire me. New York is a great place for chance. I worked for Andy Warhol Enterprises during 1980 and 1981.
Israel: How did working for him affect your concept of being an artist?
Robbins: I could observe what being the king of the art world involved– the standards, the hard work, the perks. Today Richard Gere and Debbie Harry come for lunch, later this afternoon William Burroughs is stopping by, tomorrow Bruno Bischofberger visits…. At the Factory I saw art world kingship up close, and of course it was exciting but it also liberated me in the sense that I didn’t have to pursue that model myself. Not everyone would have had that response, I understand, but that was mine. It wasn’t that I felt critical toward what I saw. Not at all. Warhol had earned his authority through very hard work, and obviously he was an incredible cultural force. Imagine the demands of being Andy Warhol! Not many people could handle it. From working for him I came away respecting him more, not less. Still, Andy’s model was a response to a specific phase of history. So at the same time that my Factory stint reinforced my natural multi-disciplinary leanings, which became apparent after I began making things, working there also freed me to risk something else, another model.
While I was at the Factory I had started doing interviews with other artists to educate myself, because I hadn’t had a formal art education. I had a good instinct for interview subjects, and of course the magazine’s name gave me entree. Chris Burden was my first interview.
Israel: For Interview magazine?
Robbins: Yes, but they didn’t publish it because it was too heady for those pages. They were right, I was green. I then interviewed the SITE Architects, and the magazine did run that. The opportunity which the Factory gave me got me started asking questions, and that’s how I learned about art. I interviewed Jenny Holzer very early in her career, 1980 or ’81, and wrote an essay about her for Real Life, Tom Lawson and Susan Morgan’s magazine, and became a regular contributor there. I interviewed William Wegman, Keith Haring, Richard Prince when he was still just a downtown figure, curator Diego Cortez… I was a good interlocutor and the interview form was an efficient way to make contact with people I admired. Among the interviews I did was one with the directors of Gallery Nature Morte, an East Village neo-conceptual gallery that showed Cady Noland, Steven Parrino, Jennifer Bolande, and Joel Otterson when they were starting out. And I fell in with that group.
Israel: Peter Nagy and Alan Belcher ran the gallery?
Robbins: Right. They were artists as well. As an artist-run gallery Nature Morte had a more relaxed attitude than a straight commercial gallery. It was our clubhouse! We’d hang out there for hours on end, smoke pot, bat ideas around. These people were my peers, in terms of their responses to material or visual culture. We were drawn mostly to cool, pop conceptual stuff. By then I’d started making small things on the kitchen table of my apartment, so that work had begun, but my value to Nature Morte was more as a third spokesman, behind Peter and Alan. I was a writer—by that time I was working as George Plimpton’s assistant, a day job that focused my literary side–so I was able to explain in non-art-school ways what it was that we were up to. In short, I made myself useful.
Probably that’s why Peter and Alan offered me a show. Their invitation was sort of along the lines of, “We don’t have a lot of faith in your art but you’re a friend of ours and we think you’re kind of interesting, so let’s see what you come up with.” When young artists inquire how to get a show, I answer “Don’t ask me, I came at the whole thing from a really odd angle!” I didn’t approach being an artist with a career-path mentality.
David Robbins, Four False Endings, 2010. Courtesy Feature Inc., New York
Israel: So you had a solo show with them before you had shown work anywhere else? Was that unsettling?
Robbins: I really had no idea what I was doing but I had a basic confidence, possibly delusional, in my ability to identify and do things that would be interesting to other people. Without that basic ego strength you can’t create anything! Because I didn’t have any developed studio practice, to make the exhibition I was thrown back on my authentic, unschooled responses to American culture and the acknowledgment that entertainment culture is my imprinting. Art is just a veneer on my deeper imprinting. Anyway, in a state of semi-panic I somehow zeroed in on exactly those attitudinal coordinates and used them as material.
That first exhibition at Nature Morte was called The David Robbins Show, and it was divided into two different kinds of work. Half the show comprised works that used either my image or my name as a central aspect—y’know, me, me, me, the artist as existential actor, a character in a public narrative—while the other half were collaborations with other artists, such as Richard Prince and Jenny Bolande, in which my identity was subsumed into their aesthetic. So there was identity inflation and identity erasure going on in the same show, all of it framed using showbiz language—“The David Robbins Show”!
The means were modest, mostly just small photographs and such. Even so, the exhibition distinctly announced a different attitude. For one thing, no artist had yet displaced the showbiz language into an exhibition whole in that way. Art exhibitions normally relied on the language of art presentation exclusively, but this show imported an outside language. The exhibition grammar became polluted—Marcel Broodthaers’ treatment of the exhibition as a whole, cut with American showbiz. And while the Pictures artists had kept showbiz at arm’s length, I embraced my showbiz imprinting in an unapologetic way. Some people hated the effect, of course. “The last resort of the dog artist!” was one memorable comment left in the guest book.
Faced with having to make a show, I pulled a rabbit out of what had appeared a very empty hat. I publicly constructed a public image and included the construction process as part of the show. It was honest, so the show had the energy that honesty has, even if the news that history passes through a suburban smart-ass too was not at all news welcomed by the downtown New York art world. And in the process I’d hit on using the role of the artist as a material, which has remained my only consistent material over the years. The David Robbins Show was also sort of radical for 1986 in that you had to buy the entire exhibition, which believe it or not someone did do.
David Robbins, The Off Target, 1994. Courtesy of the artist.
Israel: You’ve talked about how your work, particularly your most well-known piece, the entertainers’ headshot photographs of contemporary artists called Talent, reduces the distance between art and entertainment. Do you feel like you’ve ever made anything that’s pure entertainment?
Robbins: I think of everything I make in those terms, Alex! That’s how I’m wired: just because I operate in the art context doesn’t mean I’m not doing entertainment, I’m just making entertainment that’s tailored to the grammars of the art context–beauty-based entertainment. And since the art context accesses upper register thought, I’m allowed to produce upper register entertainment. No car chases, in other words. Or only car chases, if you prefer. If you read what I do from the perspective of art, it’s reasonably good art, although nothing spectacular, but if you read it from the perspective of entertainment, it’s extremely sophisticated entertainment. And that’s how I read it. To my mind I’m re-making entertainment, on the personal scale typical of an artist. I work from a cultural location, more than from an artistic location. I never base a decision to make something on whether it contributes to art history but, instead, on whether introducing that made thing or gesture into reality constitutes good entertainment, most usually good comedy. I trust what I call the entertainment vibration—does an idea, however ridiculous or delicate or insupportable, produce that tingle of potential?–and that trust gives me a lot of room to move, because the entertainment vibration can be transmitted to people in a lot of ways–books, movies, artworks, music, fashion, comic objects, whatever.
My job is to introduce good experiences into reality by synthetic means. Why limit the means to the terms of the visual art context only? At this point in history don’t we all accept that a good TV sitcom is just as valid an achievement as a good painting? That’s a truth of our time, and the model I’ve tried for integrates a recognition of that. We should be free to respect any good idea that the mind comes up with, and to act on it. The marketplace argues otherwise, but market mechanisms only know how to value specialization. The marketplace distorts natural human processes, it’s an artifice. What gets my vote are the natural human responses–but by nature I’m not a type who’s ever looked to conquer some existing context. Have you expanded the set of human possibility? That’s success, in my view. So, although a given idea might be lousy art, it might be a great something else. You have to be open to your own mind. My job isn’t to say “no” to a good idea! Claiming the degree of freedom that I do, though, I have a responsibility to structure what I’m doing, to package ideas appropriately and place them in the right context. The value that I represent to people is, I’m reasonably sure, this structuring, more than it is any particular thing I might make.
Israel: Did you think of all your work in terms of entertainment, even then?
Robbins: Twenty-five years ago I was working instinctively and only beginning to understand my imprinting. But it was pretty clear even from the title of the first exhibition that, however crudely, I was indicating a cultural location rather than making art per se. My stuff was made with a different psychology and a different cultural intent. I was a man of theater, working in objects. That was apparent from the start.
Israel: So at what point do you consider yourself an artist, or not?
Robbins: Well, there are differing models of authorship, and not all aspire to the designation “artist.” But that’s another conversation. Let’s just say that no matter how various your forms or strategies, or how apparently disharmonious or incongruous the elements you choose to combine, or how many contexts you engage, a personal, invented cultural location that is transmitted through communication forms is, in the end, art of a kind, and the person who has established that cultural location is an artist. That may sound as though I’m contradicting what I said earlier about thinking of myself as an entertainer, but when I say that I accept that I’m an artist I’m not referring to how that role is defined within the visual art context but, rather, to a location within the broader culture. Andy Kaufman is an artist as much as Andy Warhol is an artist. I’m not saying this is what I’m doing, but wouldn’t a combination of Andy Kaufman and Andy Warhol be an artist too? What you’re doing and why you’re doing it matter more than what form it takes and where it appears. So I accept that I’m an artist, even if I use an interest in the entertainment vibration to get my work done. Part of my art just happens to involve non-art-context activities such as writing books or making television shows. Because I work with the role of the artist, stretching and expanding that, what I do can encompass ways of working that don’t involve the formats of the art context, such as exhibitions.
David Robbins, Ice Cream Social (video still), 2002. Courtesy Greene Naftali, New York
Israel: I’m interested in this phrase you use to describe your practice, “independent imagination.” Can you trace the development from being an artist to being an “independent imagination?”
Robbins: I can. From the beginning I had demanded full access to my own imagination, as a basic right, regardless of how any one context needed me to produce for market reasons, and eventually the digital revolution made it possible to realize a multi-intentioned production efficiently. Attitude preceded implementation, in other words, by more than a decade, but with advances in technology implementation eventually caught up. But of course there were many steps in between…
By 1989, just three years into making and exhibiting art, I had figured out that I didn’t believe in art. Art is a faith-based enterprise—you have to “believe in” those marks on that canvas in order to get the work to “go,” and if you don’t believe then those marks are only marks—and I had discovered that I was naturally a skeptic, a heretic. Art is a kind of surrogate church—c’mon, displaced icons of transcendence presented in hushed cathedrals of white?—and, as with any religion, if you agree to believe then you’ll receive plentiful rewards. When I listened to and participated in artists’ conversations, intellectually I could grasp what they were saying but I didn’t believe in it. I respected the ambitions but I hadn’t the belief, I just hadn’t the icon-maker’s faith. Whenever I made icons I tended to build my skepticism toward icon-making into them as well. Talent is a good example of that. It has the iconic language down but the satiric element—the theater of it–is a counterweight.
I realized that I would never be a believer, but still I liked making things, and since I was already somewhat invested in thinking in material terms, beginning in 1990 I transposed production into another key. I shifted from making art objects to making comic objects—refined objects created with comedic rather than aesthetic intent. The objects I made became more consciously proplike, presented in the “theater” of the gallery or museum. Exploring the comic object occupied me all during the ‘90s, and it led into my writing an alternative history of twentieth-century comedy, Concrete Comedy–the comedy of doing rather than saying–which has just been published. It also led into the comedy of the Ice Cream Social project, which began in ’93 when for comedic purposes I hung an abstract painting based on the old Baskin-Robbins design motif—pink and brown dots on a white field—in an actual Baskin-Robbins parlor for a night and had an ice cream social. The ICS project subsequently developed over a nearly twenty-year period by expanding away from the art context to include a novella, a TV pilot for the Sundance Channel, a theme song, a movie script, performances, installations, cake designs, and so on. Hans Ulrich Obrist characterized that project as innovating an “expanded exhibition model,” and he’s not wrong, but for me the Ice Cream Social proved to be a bridge away from thinking in terms of exhibitions at all. At a time when I should have been ramping up my production for the market, I was scaling it back, progressively abandoning the art object, the exhibition format, and ending all affiliations with art galleries! I withdrew from the art context because I wanted to see what would happen if I stopped programming my imagination to produce exhibitions. Turned out that I wrote books and made television shows—two of the formats favored by the pop mother-tongue. Occasionally I’d still have an object made or make one myself, but only when an idea demanded it.
Factor in the digital environment, and now you’re in the present tense. The digital revolution, bless its binary heart, allows an imagination to efficiently and economically produce communication product without concern for either the production systems of the entertainment context or the evaluative systems of the art context. This is marvelous, not just because of all the new production possibilities but because the web has created new distribution possibilities too. Isn’t distribution the real change the digital thing has wrought? After all, people could make their own movies inexpensively way back in the ‘50s, no? To be able to distribute your own work yourself, via globalized means–that’s what is revolutionary. It underwrites why some of us who prefer to produce this way can consider ourselves “independent imaginations.”
Israel: As a man of theater, do you consider your practice performative? Do you consider your day-to-day life an extension of your work, or even the central axis of your work?
Robbins: I’m a man of theater in the sense that deciding to do something comes down to whether it’s good comedy, not whether it’s good art. The perceived moment of theater, so to speak, comes first, then I work out the aesthetic packaging that will convey it. I’m completely sincere about what I’m doing, it just doesn’t happen to be centered in the grammars by which visual artists tend to advance their production. I don’t proceed by making something in a studio or by basing thing B on what thing A suggests. I don’t work that way. I prefer that each project arrive at its own aesthetic language. Which is part of the reason why my projects tend to take years to do–I’m always starting from zero.
But to answer your question, what does fascinate me is the combination of experiment and everydayness. Wake up every day and experiment. Do it again the next day, and the day after that. To experiment with one’s life, making adventure routine–not many people get to live this way. It’s a privilege, and I have an obligation to that privilege. I work hard, every day.
David Robbins, Ice Cream Social (detail), 1993-2011. Courtesy Greene Naftali, New York. Photograph: John Berens
Israel: You’ve articulated new models to describe what you do and make—one of them you’ve named “high entertainment.” Its name alone provides a distancing mechanism for its practitioners, a way to separate themselves from the traditional models of art and entertainment.
But, could one interpret the decision to consciously separate from the art context as an act of art in itself? The more one pushes away from art, the more all of the pushing just becomes part of the performance?
Robbins: To me that sounds like a modernist line of argument. I think its outmoded, frankly, because technologies have established a fresh set of opportunities for creative action, and new models follow from that. A quote unquote artist might make paintings, sculpture, drawings, ceramics, installations, yes?, but all of that production is assigned to a single context—the art context. Today, courtesy the digital revolution, the independent imagination can not only produce in a variety of communication forms but have them play efficiently in a variety of contexts, including but not limited to the art context. If Author A is making paintings and TV shows, what is the cultural location of Author A? Is Author A an artist who makes television or an entertainer who produces objects? Also, is Author A endeavoring to produce a unified body of work, or is Author A making differently intended things for different contexts? Are you an artist if all of your invention is assigned to, say, YouTube, which isn’t controlled by the interpretative and display mechanism of the art context? There are authorship models currently active that produce self-reflective cultural artifacts without engaging the apparatus of the art context at all, in other words. Whether or not something is “art” then depends less on whether what you make resembles art than on how personal your production is and the degree that form-discovery—shorthand for when a thing’s form is discovered in the process of its creation, which attribute defines art in our time—is an active principle in your work. Long story short, today we can re-position art production as one kind of communication production among many engaged by the independent imagination.
If today we can communicate in many forms and contexts, what now is the place of art? That’s what I ask myself. Can I locate art’s authentic, present-day coordinates in this expanded field of production only by making more art? I don’t believe so. My job is to indicate the contours of a contemporary model in writing and also to embody it in gesture, in my decisions and actions. That’s how I’ve thought of my job for the last twenty-years. Make prototypes. Establish a behavioral model over time. That’s the real work. The artifacts are secondary, they’re indicators of the model. Clear a little bit of path, and the next person can go a little farther…. It’s the model that is carried forward, if you’ve done it right. We’ll see! I can’t worry too much about it, since it’s not for me to decide what my usefulness has been!
David Robbins, Ice Cream Social, 1993-2011. Courtesy Greene Naftali, New York. Photograph: John Berens
Israel: And what if the art world colonizes high entertainment? What’s to prevent the new model from being absorbed by the forces it aims to reject?
Robbins: Let’s be clear: High entertainment rejects only the specialized language of art. High entertainment retains art’s experimentalism, and combines it with entertainment’s accessibility. The idea of high entertainment is very clearly stated: apply to mass media entertainment formats the experimentalism which we associate with art.
High entertainment isn’t only emergent in the work of imaginations who operate in the art context, it’s also being formed by imaginations who are based in the entertainment context–and for that matter, by laymen aplenty, on YouTube and Vimeo. It’s not a form that relies on the art context’s systems of display, preservation, and valuation, therefore the art context can’t co-opt it entirely.
Israel: Is there the potential for a museum of high entertainment, so that it may be understood on its own terms?
Robbins: Before it can be “understood on its own terms” it first has to exist! The aim is to take entertainment formats and make them more culturally ambitious. We are talking about producing something that has the potential to be better for the health of the culture, not in some therapeutic way but as a made thing that embodies our best qualities and reinforces them. We love entertainment formats but we want more from them. We want them infused with a greater sense of discovery rather than inertia and complacency. My take is idealistic, sure, but it’s also doable. We’re already doing it! We don’t look to an industry to carry it out–there are too many inertias operative within systems. It’s up to the independent imagination to establish another model. And there’s nothing to prevent that.
David Robbins, Ice Cream Social, 1993-2011. Installation view: Entertainment, Greene Naftali, 2011. Courtesy Greene Naftali, New York. Photograph: John Berens
Israel: High entertainment would seem to occupy a territory free of criticism. How does it get evaluated?
Robbins: A new value system emerges along with it. It has to, no?, to keep up with the changes in what is being evaluated… The aim is, first, to have what is being evaluated be smarter and more honest than it has been, and in that sense more ambitious for the culture, to raise the culture up. So that the audience’s intelligence is respected more than it is. So that people don’t hate their own culture, and are not embarrassed by it, or don’t feel that it’s harming them. I prefer to think that my life is not playing out on the Titanic, you know? I don’t want to undercut life in that way. So one aim of high entertainment is to counter the Titanic toxins that are active in this culture, by taking the very formats responsible for some of the toxins, treating them in a different way, and having them produce a different effect. First you do it for yourself, for your own health, and secondly for whatever audience takes an interest. The process is sponsored by the digital revolution, which allows people to create independent of not only the production systems of entertainment but also the evaluative systems of the art world.
Israel: But many will still beg the age-old question: how do you measure the success of the work?
Robbins: Can’t each of us decide that for ourselves? Do we need the Guggenheim to identify what’s “artistic” on YouTube? People seem to want some stable, objective interpretative system that will help them decide the value of artifacts in the new cultural phase, but I don’t have that anxiety. It IS a new cultural phase. We’ve only gotten as far as the “t” in template! I’m comfortable with the unknown. It’s been a good friend to me. Isn’t the point of experimentation to open things up in ways that we haven’t yet experienced? It seems to me counter-productive to require the results of experiments to behave in ways that we already know. That seems to me a very odd need to have. I trust the spirit of experiment. Considered for itself, the spirit of experiment is a positive force, and I try to stay within that pocket.
What I’m articulating in the High Entertainment essay and in its expanded online book version is something that is going on– and that everybody knows is going on. I just wrote it down. I don’t know any more about how the sensibility will play out, where it will take us, than you do. I merely identified it as a real moment of cultural evolution and wanted to make a record of that, to help people understand what they’re going through and perceiving in the culture. I think things can be understood. As George Trow used to put it, “Work can continue.”
David Robbins, Situation Comedy #22, 1994
Israel: So would you say that in your practice, you are a sometime practitioner of pure entertainment?
Robbins: I’d answer this way: I make entertainment television shows but I also make TV commercials advertising art exhibitions as well as videos that are intended to be shown in galleries and museums.
Israel: Other times you make concrete comedy, high entertainment, and sometimes you even make art?
Robbins: Of course. People should have full access to their own imaginations. Production and distribution possibiliities have caught up to the way that our minds work. In turn cultural systems will find a way to catch up with that reality.
Israel: When you are making art, are you a believer?
Robbins: Having done the work to expand my production vocabulary so that I’m not always confined to “thinking through art,” i.e. with art-making as the goal, I now value anew and without irony the specific experience that is created by placing refined artifacts together in a room. I don’t have to worry any more about feeling suffocated within the church of art because I’ve created lots of oxygenating conditions for myself.
Israel: So sometimes the imagination might imagine something in the art context?
David Robbins, Five Instances of Concrete Comedy In the Form of Signs, 1993. Courtesy Greene Naftali, New York. Photograph: John Berens
Robbins: An exhibition is just a format, right? It’s one way to format your imagination, and after you’ve done it enough you understand that that’s what it is: an attractive format which achieves certain effects. I like exhibitions very much, I just don’t like the idea that I am required to think only in those terms. Look, the freedoms I am giving myself are really just the contemporary freedoms that anyone informed by the digital revolution feels naturally. My writing is just about articulating those freedoms.
I don’t have to solve art’s problems. To be honest, I’m not interested in art’s problems. Personally speaking, all of that was a long time ago. I just have to solve communication problems for myself, and for me part of the solution involves the art context.
I solved the exhibition problem for myself. I make videos that can play in various contexts, and from some of these I have paintings made of stills taken from the videos. Some images that are created in the videos I want to slow down to the speed of a painting, right? And that way I produce the same work in two competing cultural formats. That’s the game I enjoy now. The videos can go on TV and have that life while the paintings go on to have the life of paintings. And when I’m not producing visually I write books. Writing books is hard evidence that you’re in a different authorial location than a visual artist. Anyway, I’ve covered as many bases as I understand! When I run into a roadblock, professionally, I just switch tracks and keep going. I’ve purposely devised a way of working that doesn’t depend on the approval of any single context.
Israel: What makes someone wired to be an entertainer rather than an artist?
Robbins: Who knows? But isn’t the art context the site where we figure out our response to material culture and visual phenomena, while mass entertainment is more narrative driven? Movies, TV shows, and pop songs tell stories. That’s one distinction. And of course people will have different relationships to time. People who become artists are comfortable with and outright court the slow response of history, while people who become entertainers seem in greater need of an immediate response to what they are doing. So these contexts are shaped by different personality types. Just as political parties are.
Israel: Is high entertainment a way to reconcile your patience and your need for instant gratification?
Robbins: Yes, it’s a way to satisfy both markets—and both impulses. I’m greedy! To get the immediacy of entertainment, and the appreciation that one gets for that, and at the same time to make things that slow down the reception mechanism… The idea of making something that performs in both ways comes out of our imprinting, which is suburban.
Israel: You’ve articulated the idea that suburban life—growing up not in the city, and not in a rural environment, what you refer to as “a landscape of trees ‘n traffic”—is the reason why we are so attracted to hybridized forms of culture. Is that something that was apparent to you or did you look at hybridized culture and then imagine how that came to be?
Robbins: That idea came from trying to identify and understand how my own response is configured: what it is that I want to make and why it is that I want to make it that way. I proceeded from the viewpoint that I wasn’t wrong to make what I wanted to make—I mean, I was sincere, and I wasn’t hurting anyone–so if there was a problem with its reception then the problem must lay in our understanding of how we expect things to perform. From there it was a short hop to wondering why it was that the pure product of a single context, like “art” or “entertainment” per se, no longer seemed satisfying. Something had happened to our sense of satisfaction, something had changed, but what? Pondering it led me to consider our imprinting.
We receive imprinting from two landscapes: the actual, physical landscape, and the synthetic, cultural landscape. The physical landscape that many of us born after 1945 are imprinted with is suburbia, which is a hybridized landscape—trees ‘n traffic, as I’ve written. That’s our imprinting, so when we grow up what feels most authentic to us? Cultural artifacts or positions that communicate a hybridized condition of some kind. We bend the culture in a “suburbanized” direction when, for example, we cross-pollinate contexts, making art more like entertainment and entertainment more like art. Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Ryan Trecartin, Jorge Pardo–all are, to my mind, examples of the hybridized, “suburban” imagination at work in the culture. Every generation bends the culture towards the truth of its own imprinting. Why should ours be any exception? The rise of the “suburbanized” imagination, millions and millions of imaginations so imprinted and at maturation actively producing culture, accounts for our culture’s broad move toward artifacts that deliver impure, neither-nor, in-between experience. Can I prove it? Of course not! But I can be it, and that’s better than proof.
Israel: It’s interesting; I grew up in a suburban landscape and I don’t think of it as a hybridized situation.
Robbins: Well, its effects are subtle. The suburbanized imagination has nothing to do with making something that looks “suburban.” Not at all. “Suburbanization” is manifested as a way of structuring outlook, and how an outlook so structured plays in the culture. As another example, consider how the differences between kinds of landscapes used to be more accentuated: you had the country, which included the small rural town, and you had the city. The differences between environments back then was more extreme, and the culture reflected the competition between these landscapes as wide swings, say from Abstract Expressionism to Pop. But we don’t have those kinds of swings anymore. That’s not how cultural change is structured today. Instead we have lots of things going on at once, and at any one moment some style may be briefly in the foreground while other styles remain active in the background. One reason for this change is that the suburban imagination came to the fore. To the suburban imagination formed by “trees ‘n traffic,” those wide swings felt false.
David Robbins, TV Commercial for The Suburban gallery (video still), 2009. Courtesy of the artist.
Israel: I imagine that anyone has to be careful not to commit too fully to any single way of thinking or working, even if it happens to be hybridized. You wouldn’t want to eliminate the possibilities in using other structures that might also be part of who you are. Like you said, sometimes you’re a high entertainer, an independent imagination, sometimes you’re a concrete comedian, and sometimes you’re an artist.
Robbins: The main thing is to just keep working. New discoveries come through working. New models are suggested routinely. It never gets boring!
One thing I’m certain of, Alex, is that I don’t wake up everyday and need attention. I don’t suffer from what I term “Condé Nast syndrome”–mass media’s assumption that you are doing what you do in order to be noticed by mass media. That’s not what my identity, my self-validation depends on. A Jeff Koons will use attention, he uses publicity, he’s good at it. But I am not that kind of person. I don’t need to be paid attention to. I really don’t. I live in a suburb of Milwaukee, dude. That says a lot about my need for attention! I do what I do because that’s what I do! Incidentally, the fact that you’re having this conversation with a guy who lives in a suburb of Milwaukee speaks volumes about how the internet is changing this country for the better. In 1979 I had to move to New York City to get the information that was produced there. Now I don’t have to. Granted, I don’t have all the information that people who live in the centers have access to, but now I can get 70% of it, and that’s enough. And there are lots of people now who make the same decision–which is making all the places that are outside the centers more interesting and more able to sustain people like us. What it means for the culture is unpredictable, but the technology that’s underwriting the change guarantees one thing: this country will never return to the way things were.
Israel: Are you a believer when it comes to not believing? Or do you simply reject all belief systems?
Robbins: You mean do I fetishize skepticism? No, that’s just another trap. I’d describe myself as pro-imagination. I am not pro-art per se, but I am pro-imagination. I don’t think that there’s anything intrinsically sacred about being an artist or about the art context. A good entertainer contributes more than a mediocre artist.
Israel: Is imagination sacred?
Robbins: It is. Without it you’re in real trouble, life-wise. Consequently you have a responsibility to prioritize the health of your relationship to your own imagination. Any system, or habit of mind, or person that threatens to poison the health of your relationship with your own imagination has to be identified, and prevented from continuing to do so.
The prevailing model of the contemporary artist, reinforced from within and without, was that thing for me. In the process of trying to shape myself to its contours I discovered that there were too many unexamined or unquestioned habits of mind operative at the core of it. Too many for me, anyway. So I had to find another way forward.
Israel: What do you consider to be your most important work?
David Robbins, The County Line (video still), 2011. Courtesy of the artist.