Michelle Grabner with David Robbins

5.5 / Slapstick and the Sublime

Michelle Grabner with David Robbins

By Michelle Grabner July 9, 2014

Michelle Grabner: As you know, I am frequently visiting university art departments and art schools. In the past two years, it has become routine for me to find a copy of your book, Concrete Comedy: An Alternative History of Twentieth-Century Comedy, in the miscellany of resource material that compose many students’ studio libraries. Why do you think that developing artists gravitate to this history?

David Robbins: I speculate it’s because they’re in the material-culture business, and likely they welcome another way to think about material culture. Some want to better understand their comedic instincts, and it’s a happy affirmation to learn there’s a tradition to those instincts. Others suspect that thinking in the terms laid out by the visual-art context may not be, for them, the right path. All would be seeking the invigoration that any secret or invisible history provides. At this point, both the art and the comedy systems are awfully [predetermined] and careerist whereas my book charts a course of inventive behavior for which no career path has been identified. Concrete Comedy suggests that wiggle room is still available. Wiggle room is always attractive.

MG: I chose to start this conversation in my neck of the woods, in the academy. Although you have stepped in and out of teaching over the years, recently you have made a resolute decision to turn down teaching invitations. Is that because in practicing what you call an independent imagination, your independence really does count? Or are institutions of higher learning just not pliable enough structures for this imagination to flourish?

DR: Academe's basic stance is that we're good. That assumption is the clay academe builds with. But are we good? Are we really so sure? And should artists handicap their exploration of what it means to be human in order to conform to academe's value system? No, we shouldn't. Academe tends to assign a use to everything—witness all the tiresome socially therapeutic art that’s come along since the academy got its mitts on contemporary art—and that principle represents another danger for artists. Applied without skepticism, it will limit your access to your own mind. I mean, how do you measure the quote unquote use of something as glorious as wit? And why would you want to? I'm a natural explainer and I'm certainly interested in why we have the culture we do, but the academy doesn't know how to value imaginations like mine. I wrote two books while in academe—Concrete Comedy and High Entertainment—and once they were written, I moved on.

Look, I’m a cultural mutation; this status requires that I rearrange the cultural landscape in order to have a place in it. As a mutation, I’m necessarily interested in projects that somehow, from some angle, create new arrangements since the existing arrangements don’t benefit me. Over time these kinds of projects have become my métier. The pioneering instinct is always in charge of my decisions. It’s what gets me out of bed in the mornings, rubbing my palms together in anticipation.

David Robbins. TV commercial for the Suburban gallery, Oak Park, Illinois, 2010. Courtesy of the Artist.

MG: Let’s unpack your pioneering instinct. First of all, what provisions are most useful as you navigate the cultural frontier? And how has technology assisted you in your trailblazing?

DR: How to use time: I always come back to that question. After you’ve arranged for your survival, that’s the main question of adulthood: How to freely explore time. You might write an alternative history of twentieth-century comedy, say, or design a bookcase for that volume, or make TV commercials for art exhibitions, or update the ice-cream social, or produce a “Theme Song For An Exhibition” and then engage a dozen art museums to release it at the same time, or go fishing on Loch Ness—each of these has been a way I’ve chosen to explore time. I don’t have a practice or style. The deciding criterion is whether an idea will make good comedy. After every project, I find myself returning to the ground zero of time use because it’s so wide open and full of possibility. From that starting point, you can go in any direction. Art isn’t the only possible destination!

David Robbins. Open-Air Writing Desk (Italian Version), 2012; Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Raucci/Santamaria, Naples

The idea that as an artist you discover the form of the thing as you go and build your discovery into the form: that’s the great takeaway from modern art. The final form communicates, literally, the artist’s discovery of it! Brilliant! But why not take it a step farther? A goal is just another form, isn’t it? Sure, a goal is the form that an aspiration takes. Once you let yourself see goals this way, the goal will become part of what you’re discovering, on a case-by-case basis. If I don’t find art as interesting as I once did, it’s because there the goal—to be art—comes pre-identified. No matter the form or material or content, the result will be more art, and to me that’s not the freest possible exploration of time. Free exploration of time accommodates the possibility of discovering other categories of imaginative endeavor—in effect, other goals.

Technology, digital-communication technology, reinforces this principle of goal discovery. It does so by liberating us from the two dominant communication systems, broadly described as art and entertainment. To create works in popular-culture formats today, we’re no longer required to engage the entertainment production system, and whatever it is we do make doesn’t have to be run by the interpretive system of the art context. On the one hand, we don’t need to get permission, and on the other, we don’t need to seek approval. Both Mommy and Daddy have been relieved of their roles, so to speak. We’re free to chart a course of exploration and production independent of both systems, to be what I’ve taken to calling an independent imagination. Balancing the experimental ethos of art with the accessibility of entertainment, an approach I’ve dubbed High Entertainment: that’s the future I want to explore and reinforce.

David Robbins. Public Service Announcement (Independent Imagination), 2013; 00:01:20. Courtesy of the Artist.

We’re evolving away from the era of passive entertainment, which began with the introduction of the phonograph in the 1870s, and toward the creation of active entertainment. In a sense, we’re returning to the era when everybody had a piano in the parlor and learned to play it for the amusement of family and friends, only now the piano is a MIDI keyboard that controls software.

MG: TV commercials for art exhibitions seem a logical form to connect art to the mainstream. Yet television has never been successfully employed as an outlet for developing visual-art audiences. Is TV still a frontier? And when the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) commissioned you to create a video for its website, did you immediately understand how you would approach this institutional platform? 

DR: Art and TV are competing sorts of economies; that’s why, to date, TV commercials for art haven’t been the usual fare. The art world sells expensive, often unique objects to a comparatively small number of people while TV aims to sells huge numbers of identical units at small prices—two seemingly incompatible economies. No one is going to buy a million-dollar painting from seeing it on a TV commercial, or so the thinking goes. However, as far as the public’s growing acceptance of contemporary art is concerned—as a form of information that reads against the backdrop of our information society—art and TV have no quarrel. Congealed assumptions remain in place, though, on both sides. The art world thinks TV commercials are vulgar while the TV world wrinkles its nose at art’s specialized language. One of the reasons that I make TV commercials for art is to destabilize assumptions on both sides. The avant-garde is so uptight! Is TV a frontier? To the art context, very much so.

David Robbins. Concrete Comedy; 00:08:51. Courtsey of the Artist and MOCAtv.

By the way, I find it tiresome when, in response to my commercials, people chirp up with, “Chris Burden made a TV commercial back in the ’70s.” They’re completely missing the point. Chris Burden made one commercial-length video artwork and bought TV time to show it. My TV commercials advertise other people’s art. They’re real commercials—huge difference. 

The MOCA commission, “Introduction to Concrete Comedy,” involved making what is essentially an educational video for their “Art + Comedy” channel on MOCAtv. I’ve occasionally considered doing a nonfiction film version of my Concrete Comedy book—people today watch films instead of reading books—and the MOCAtv project was a way of exploring what that undertaking might involve. I’d rather the comedy world support concrete comedy. Concrete comedy is just as authentic a form of comedy as stand-up. Unfortunately the comedy world is completely clueless when it comes to material culture’s comic tradition. It hasn’t the terms or the knowledge. A visit to the Splitsider website, which covers the comedy world from the perspective of Hollywood and New York, is all it takes to remind you that mainstream comedy remains fully invested in storytelling and performing. The comedy of objects and actions isn’t on its radar. All the support for concrete comedy has come from the material culture side,  the art context. Given that concrete comedy proposes a radically different interpretation of some of the objects housed in art museums, this has surprised me somewhat, but really it shouldn’t have: I started in the art context, and I’m known there. And the art world is a very generous and tolerant place. Up to a point, it’s willing to examine its assumptions—does it on a regular basis, up to a point.

MG: So now let’s cut to the chase. You write books, make television, and make comic objects and sometimes art objects. What exactly is your cultural location? And what do you think you are doing if you are not rigidly locating your production within the parameters of art? You are a creator of—what?

David Robbins. Public Service Announcement (Independent Imagination), 2013 (still); 00:01:20. Courtesy of the Artist.

DR: I’ve managed to create a new synthesis. Any good artist does this: you take your influences and combine them into something new. The difference here is that I’ve given as much due to entertainment forms and influences as to art forms and influences. I’m not privileging art forms over entertainment forms. Consequently my synthesis forges a cultural location as well as the things made from that location. My synthesis isn’t a new kind of art to put into art galleries; my stuff can play on television, on the web, in bookstores, and in art museums too. It’s programmed with a different value system. Elvis combined country and R & B into a new abstraction. I’m not as gifted as Elvis, I’m not a genius, but I’m doing something similar and similarly intuitive, using the art and entertainment contexts. I passed through art, took from it what I could use, passed through a comedic attitude towards material culture—concrete comedy—and came away with what I could use. All the time, I was writing as well, and now I’ve folded all of that experience together with the communication opportunities afforded us by the digital revolution to create new coordinates within entertainment culture. The result resembles a modest, one-man-entertainment-production operation. As a lot of people in entertainment do, I spend every day making things, frequently on the computer. I’m always on the lookout for ideas that are funny or fun or novel, and I sometimes hire talent to execute them. My only distinction is that what I identify as fun or worth doing happens to be informed by conceptual art rather than by a performing or storytelling background. Coming from a conceptual art background, I’m interested in the forms things take and in form invention. Through long practice, I acquired the skills to apply form discovery, a principle derived from modern art, to mainstream forms. Not only am I comfortable with previously unknown or mutated forms, I’m not happy until I’ve experimented my way into one.

Every artist of any merit has to figure out a way to take the culture where they want it to go.

I don’t believe in fitting oneself to existing formats. That’s not my game. I can’t get interested in the version of success that involves conquering an existing system. Consequently what I make doesn’t play by the academy’s rules or by the market’s either. I don’t make so-called good art since art results from the artist addressing what art is or might be, and I don’t really address art. I do something else. I make mutations. I had the impression that the art world was a space for free action, but that’s not correct; it’s only a place to freely make art. Genuine independence of thought makes the art world nervous because independent thought may not buy into the value system on which the art world is based. Art is faith-based, in that it requires you to believe in it to make it work—without that belief, the circuit isn’t completed, and it’s just an arrangement of pigments and materials—whereas the independent mind prefers to choose its beliefs. But I didn’t go to art school; I had a liberal arts education, so I think another way about culture production and art’s place in it. Every artist of any merit has to figure out a way to take the culture where they want it to go. Providing visually sophisticated, personal, conceptually ambitious entertainment to a cultural ecosystem that is entertainment-based is plenty! I’m still an artist, in that I’m still inventing communication that sells nothing but its own existence, but I’m now negotiating a space of opportunity that the art context neither generates nor controls—my idea of fun! I vastly prefer the model of the artist I’ve invented to the model of the artist I inherited. In a sense, I’ve merely done what, when I started thirty years ago, I thought any artist was supposed to do: invent how to be an artist. Take the culture where you want it to go, don’t ask permission, and accept the consequences. Whatever I say from these coordinates will be less important than the cultural location I’ve invented to say it. That’s the real creation to explore and build on.

MG: How does this cultural location you’ve invented position art?

DR: Well, art is certainly the underwriting idea, in that I’m still basing what I do on art being the widest cultural aperture. The artist may use film or use literature once and then move on to other forms and remain an artist, right? So, art actually involves the invention of behavior, and artworks follow from that. I’m still participating in that tradition; I just do it from a cultural location that treats art forms on a par with communication forms drawn from a competing value system—entertainment forms. It’s an evolutionary step. It’s foolish to expect systems to recognize evolutionary steps of this nature. As I used to tell my students, “Don’t expect the next Duchamp to be Duchampian!”

David Robbins. Public Service Announcement (Independent Imagination), 2013 (still); 00:01:20. Courtesy of the Artist.

Not too many decades ago, the information form known as contemporary art was a fragile thing, produced by a handful of practitioners in a handful of places: downtown New York, Cologne, London. Today the supply of contemporary art is guaranteed. There’s a constant flow of it. With the supply guaranteed, control of art moves up the supply line, from the artist to, instead, the people who control and direct the flow—dealers, curators, and collectors. Artists are no longer in control of the art world; they’re replaceable workers. So I wanted to look for another way to be an artist that was less dependent on the kind of art that could be controlled by layers of nonartists. The fact that the supply of contemporary art is now a sure thing frees some of us to look for another way forward. And I found one.

About David Robbins

For three decades, in artworks and writing, David Robbins has spearheaded the unapologetic recognition of the contemporary overlap between the art and entertainment contexts. His work Talent (1986) is widely credited with announcing the age of the celebrity artist, and The Ice Cream Social (1993 - 2008), a multi-platform project which included a TV pilot for the Sundance Channel, a novella, installations, ceramics, and performance has been cited by Hans Ulrich Obrist as pioneering “the expanded exhibition.” Gradually evolving away from the prevailing model of the professional contemporary artist, he has identified, promoted, and demonstrated other categories of imaginative endeavor, preferring the term “independent imagination” to “artist.” Among his six books are The Velvet Grind: Selected Essays, Interview, Satires 1983 -2005 (2006), the online High Entertainment (2009), and the seminal Concrete Comedy: An Alternative History of Twentieth-Century Comedy (2011). His videos and furniture were featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial.

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