06 November, 2012

Where Labor Kneels, Gardens Grow:
an Interview with Christy Roberts

Artist and educator, Christy Roberts, creates experiences, interventions, and objects that explore the tension between humans and their physical, social, and psychological environments and power structures. A native of Southern California, and the daughter of retired police officers, Roberts holds Bachelors Degrees in Philosophy and Religion, a BFA in Studio Art, and an MFA from Claremont Graduate University, acquired in 2011.

She has participated and organized at/with The California Poppy Collective, The LA Art Union, Occupy LA, Occupy Riverside, The College Art Association, Pacific Standard Time Performance Festival (with Mark Di Suvero, Leslie Labowitz Starus, and Suzanne Lacy), The Girl Scouts of the USA, The Foundation for Art Resources, The Craft and Folk Art Museum, The Los Angeles Municipal Gallery, For Your Art, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, RAID Projects, Autonomie, Summer Camp's ProjectProject, 18th Street Arts Center, Greene Park Gallery, CSU Long Beach, and Track 16. Roberts has been reviewed by Another Righteous Transfer, Artillery Magazine, and was one of LA Weekly’s “Best of LA People”, 2012. She was also a guest blogger for Art 21 Blog, writing on Occupy and the forming of an art workers' union.

Christy, I’m reaching out to you as one of the artists living in this Los Angeles art environment.  Art and politics are not a crossroads that can be avoided, here.  It’s evident in the streets, on the blogs, and inside (or outside) the exhibition spaces; it’s evident in the art of Occupy LA, the “Chalk Massacre” at the Downtown LA Art Walk, and the work of such artists as Suzanne Lacey and Olga Koumoundouros.  Describe your role in the LA art community.

  As far as my role in the community, I feel like I’m an observer and advocate.  I feel that I best serve the community by trying to be a better me and that includes making art.  I don’t claim my work to have any kind of transformative power other than for me.  If I become part of the solution, that’s something.  I do, however, know for a fact that art is powerful and does possess transgressive and transformative properties.  There is immense power in the absurd.  The “Gnome Strike” in Poland, also known as the “Orange Alternative,” is a great example.

I was disappointed by the initial backlash Occupy LA
received for the first Chalk Walk.  What people didn’t realize is that it was always meant to be peaceful.  There were children participating too.  The police honestly did escalate things by using excessive force with a tired crowd that had been pushed to the limits with the previous chalk arrests.

Tell us more about that . . .

CR:  My parents are both retired police officers.  Whenever the subject of police conduct is brought up, I’m the first to try to look at the situation from all angles because I’m intimately familiar with the human side of policing.  However, everything I know about law enforcement has been changed.  They are not leaving avenues for escape, the way they treat people—once in custody (especially after the OLA eviction)—is questionable, and with what happened in Anaheim and Fullerton . . . for the first time in my (obviously privileged and slightly removed) life I’m afraid of what seems like vigilante mob actions performed in the name of public safety.

And we haven’t even gotten to MOCA and the problems with the ever so celebrated Pacific Standard Time Festival and its attempt to commodify the ephemeral.

Right.  I plan to interview a few more artists from LA so don’t feel the need to address it all at once!

CR:   . . . some of it started to feel “Hard Performance Café.”  The next step would be you could order some chicken alfredo and eat under a photo of Abramovic performances and every 15 minutes there’s a reenactment of Chris Burden’s “Shoot.”  Some of the most powerful art has to be experienced in-person and so much of performance is about presence.  It’s just about being there and immediate; being immediately accessible to the moment.  A performance document is not necessarily the same as a finished art object.  One of the things that I love about performance art is that as a community we ache for it—we, in turn, decide what is seen.  Commodifying performance takes away from the act itself in addition to creating a market conversation; oftentimes the market determines what is seen and I don’t want to see that happen to performance.

Besides, performance is more alive in the mythology of storytelling about “what happened” than it is in a document.  I’m glad the LA art community had the chance to celebrate its own history, and I even participated in some of the projects, but we have to “be careful with the present [we] create because it should look like the future [we] dream."

"Make-In" at Autonomie Gallery, 2011
Artists and guests made blankets for people living in the Occupy camps in anticipation of the winter nights.

Is there some way that art communities from across the nation can help?
CR:  If the art communities and/or activist communities in other locations want to “help” LA, I’m sure they are all already aware that the best strategy (be it cliché or not) is always to think globally, act locally.  Orange County Law Enforcement and LAPD, the CCA (the agency responsible for the gentrification of Downtown LA and the media backlash against the Chalk Walk), MOCA, etc. are not regional problems.  I think we have to continue to demand accountability from ourselves, our communities, our elected and non-elected representatives, and the institutions that were created to serve us.  Demand accountability and organize and never doubt the power of process.  As they say, Utopia is a journey, not a destination.

I think that is such valuable advice as art communities across the nation continue to struggle.  Artists are such an ambiguous yet eclectic demographic that solidarity can easily be confused for nepotism, trending, or just glomming along for another show.  The bottom line is that the degree of resistance to—and devaluation of—the arts in this country is relentless on so many fronts: economic, cultural, social, ecological.  Am I off-base?  Can the deep-seeded traditions of capitalism and self-interest in the arts be transgressed?

CR:  Well, art is older than capitalism so I’m going to say “yes.”  Anarchism is a belief that values the individual and holds the individual accountable for their role in the community.  I believe in multiple intelligences, people enacting within their own distinct way of life.  I think it’s unethical to expect the same contribution from everyone, but it’s just as unethical to give no contribution.

I first became familiar with your work through your writings (see “Occupy a Living Wage” on the Art21 Blog) and features such as LA Weekly’s “Christy Roberts, The Guerilla Johnny Apple Seed - Best ofLA People” and on Carol Cheh’s “Another Righteous Transfer.”  How is it that online publications are playing out to be viable forums for contemporary artists?

CR:  A huge component of contemporary culture, and thus contemporary art, is interface.  A lot of important discussions happen in facebook groups and google groups (resulting from posted articles) and those discussions can often provide the momentum for panels, exhibitions, critical essays and even movements.  Of course the interpersonal connections made in the physical vs. over social networking is complicated and thus they are supplemental, not substitutional.  Online forums are important for me, personally, because I don’t live in the city and can’t be physically present at every event.

I don’t think information that we get from blogs/online publications vs. information from printed publications is better or worse, but the interface for the online publication is just so accessible and often free.
 It’s difficult to decipher credible information sometimes (I see so many brilliant people surprisingly mistaking an opinion piece for objective “just the facts” journalism), but that skill can be partially developed through reading what kind of ads the publication targets its readers with.  Are they selling you gold and survival kits and claiming that Obama is a Socialist?  Then the agenda of the whole site is obviously questionable.

What I think is most valuable about the progression of online publications is that it shows how competition for accountability and legitimacy is just as mobilizing as competition for economic gain.
 I think that interface and process are so integral for humans and obviously I think it’s good for artists to have a presence in the interface and process of the digital machine.

"Deforested, Defrosted" 2-hour performance for Irrational Exhibits 8, curated by Deborah Oliver for Track 16 Gallery, 2011

Help us understand your art practice.  You’re a self-proclaimed conceptual artist—do you have experience with traditional media, as well?

  Well, on facebook I’m a “conceptual artist.”  I think that alludes to the humor in trying to quantify or qualify one’s practice.  I think just “Artist” is most appropriate, although I don’t mind when I’m described as and artist and activist.

“You’re a Conceptual Artist, not a painter,” is also what a previous art professor told me in my second crit.
 While it is clearly a slightly antiquated and compartmentalized term, I do think it describes my process: I start with an idea and use whatever will best serve the idea . . . except a painting (but no promises.)

Around 1993 I started to make really bad paintings and that continued until I received an art education and became free of the parameters my middle class upbringing had set upon “art.”
 The first critique of my paintings was enough to make me reconsider the medium.  I threw myself into mediums I excelled at: drawing, sculpture, installation.  After a trip to New York in 2008 exposed me to a wider conversation than I had known before, I became interested in video and performance.  By the time I was entering grad school I was heavily committed to everything but painting.  Now I would say that I’m committed to all art mediums, but not to using them, myself.

Art schools have fairly strong, on-going debates about including traditional media in their curriculum.  As a 2011 grad, what's your take?

CR:  I don’t paint.  But some paintings are really great.  Some sculpture is really great.  Some of everything is really great.  I think we need more, not less.  Meaning that I think more schools should include post-studio education.  As I was saying earlier, interface is crucial to our culture.  Post-studio and New Genres practices often encourage the kind of critical thinking that helps navigate interfaces.  I don’t think traditional media education should diminish, but I do think that if New Genres and post-studio were as widely taught as traditional media, you’d have mechanical engineers who not only like Kandinksy, but who think like video editors and are familiar with the Situationists and that just seems like the more holistic pedagogical approach.

How is it that colored chalk has become such a volatile medium (as exemplified by art activists in LA?)

  I think the chalk is interesting.  I don’t want to limit anyone’s free speech, but certain messages and expletives . . . I think that parents have the right to walk down the street without their kid reading “fuck police, fuck state, fuck this/that” all over.  And logically, I think that may be the reason for the initial chalk arrests.  On the other hand, I think parents having to do a little bit of “parenting” in exchange for free speech is crucial for our civil liberties.  The legal precedents for chalk show that it is not considered vandalism to use the chalk.  The LAPD themselves seemed unclear of the charges whenever they responded in the media.  The most recent “Chalk Walk” saw peace and fun and no arrests for chalking.  I don’t know what the future of the chalk issue holds.  It looks like it’s being diffused through the de-escalation of enforcement, but I can tell you why it was potentially powerful.

Absurdity has a tremendous amount of power to inspire direct action.
 “The Gnome Strike” (a.k.a. “Orange Alternative”) in Poland was a gathering of students, marching in gnome outfits for gnome rights, that prompted the beginning of the Polish Revolution.  In the words of Waldemar Fydrych:              

             The Western World will find out much more about the situation in Poland from
   hearing that I was sent to jail for handing out sanitary pads to women, than
   from reading books and articles written by other members of the opposition.
  Can you treat a police officer seriously, when he is asking you: "Why did
  you participate in an illegal meeting of dwarfs?"

The chalk is absurd. It’s something that people buy for children to play with. The absurdity that a “toy” could bring on riot police is a powerful statement about the current climate of free speech regulation.

Sequence from Christy's untitled performance for USSSA's "artist-organized rally" in Pershing Square, 2012

. . . and so you chose to perform with chalk for the USSSA rally in Pershing Square.  How did you muster the emotional resolve to take that risk?

CR:  First of all I had spoken to my family about what I was and was not willing to be arrested for and talked to them about my investment in the movement because with my investment there’s something additional: it may become my parents baggage more than it might be for the average parents, due to that fact that they are both retired cops. It’s really because I love and care about them and they often see the idea of being a dissident as hurtful and offensive and I needed them to understand what I was willing to risk; our freedoms are not about a “smash the state” mentality—our basic freedom of expression was up for debate and it had just gone too far. 

When I stood up there it was almost like I had their blessing, if you will.  I know that sounds ridiculous to care about your parents’ blessing.  I would’ve done it without their blessing, but knowing they understood and supported my conviction gave me a little more courage.

Tell us about the “LA Art Union” [UptheArtUnion.tumblr.com] and your role within the group and its activities.

CR:  Last November the infamous MOCA had it’s annual gala.  The “entertainment” for the evening was Marina Abramovic and Debbie Harry.  What ensued was a giant labor/class/gender/race/generational mess that prompted essays, publications, panels, and protests.  After the protest of the gala itself, a group of artists got together and began discussing unionizing.  The conversation spilled onto the google group and facebook group for AAAAAA (a loose affiliation of LA-based artists and culture workers interested in Occupy).  A meeting was desired and I decided to attend the first one, which was held at Human Resources.  We’ve met monthly (and sometimes bi-monthly) since.  We’re currently working with other LA labor groups, conducting design workshops in solidarity, and we’re looking forward to a possible campaign on unpaid internships this fall.

The “LA Art World” is a very different beast than in other locations.
 We are breaking new ground here, so it’s a complicated process, but I think we’re doing it right for us.  Right now, we’re focusing on solidarity, information, and mutual aid.

Was there a single moment that prompted you to become “an activist”?

  I suppose “struggle” was engrained in me through my mother, who was the first female police officer to be granted the use of a gun in our area.  She faced all of the misogyny and gender discrimination one would face as a pioneering female in her field (combined with anti-Semitism, which she talked about less) and I think I began absorbing the Labor and Womyn’s Movement in the womb.

Subsequently, when the first Rio conference was happening in '92 my class did a lesson on the rainforest.
 I wrote to President Bush Sr., urging him to sign the treaty and in reply I received a letter telling me not to do drugs and to stay in school.  I promptly subscribed to Greenpeace’s kids program.  Later, in 8th grade, I was sent to a summer camp called Sierra Service Project.  My counselors were human rights lobbyists and activists.
 It just kind of grew from there, watered by the usual—suburbia, punk rock, authoritarian household, etc.

Poppies seem to have a steady presence in your life, writing, and art works.  How did that transpire?

  Quite mundanely, considering how much room they take up in my life.  The Poppy Project is really about the loss and reclamation of the commons.  My father was diagnosed with pretty advanced bladder cancer a few weeks before I started grad school.  A lot of major things in my life were changing and I was trying to deal with what felt like tremendous loss and vacancy.  I started noticing vacant lots around my house and that developed into a project of documenting the lots.  I grew so fond of them that I felt like I had to save them from the inevitable development that would occur as the economy picked up.  I was causally talking to a good friend about guerilla gardening and how I didn’t like the idea that the garden would be vulnerable.  It just clicked somehow, rather quickly, that it is illegal to pick California Poppies in California because it’s the State Flower.  As a child they teach you never to pick them.

I began researching the legalities of the poppies and decided they would be the perfect tool to wage an environmental and aesthetic reframing of property and potential, which in turn resulted in the “California Poppy Collective.”  Since then, they have had a dominant presence in my art practice and my personal life.

Please tell us about any political events (less art-based) that you have organized, prior to 2012.

  I’ve worked both inside and outside the system.  I started organizing in middle school and high school, was Vice President of Advocacy in undergrad (and worked with PETA, Sierra Club, Blood Bank, time banking, Amnesty International, and Oxfam) and participated with various political organizations since.  After graduating with a Philosophy and Religion degree in 2005 I, believe it or not, worked as an events coordinator for a local chamber of commerce while looking at law schools to apply to.  It was a nightmare for my political integrity.  That experience was enough to prompt me to go in the absolute opposite direction.

After that and prior to starting grad school, I work with a homeless advocacy organization, setting up donations at Warped Tour.

Do you have any “words of wisdom” for artists looking for work?

  I think everyone has different limitations.  I don’t know if I have anything universal to offer.  I’ve learned to be aggressive.  I send CV’s and cover letters to places I want to work at, regardless of whether or not they have posted openings.  As far as teaching is concerned (I love teaching, personally, and really want to teach), there are a lot of private schools and community colleges that don’t post available positions.  Get to know the communities you want to work with.  Unfortunately, it’s still a lot of who you know.

DON’T work for free.
 I repeat, DO NOT work for free.  There is always something available to trade, whether that’s resources, access, or economic compensation.  When you work for free you affect everyone by saturating institutions with free labor.  We’re all in this together.  GET COMPENSATED. 

What are you currently reading?

  Failure, edited by Lisa Lefeuvre about the concept of . . . (surprise!) failure in contemporary art.  I hate to be a cliché, but I am very much dealing with feeling like I am not where I wanted to be by this age.  I’m still very much dependent on the help of others (namely, my parents) and while I feel exceedingly capable in some areas, I seem to have epic fails with everyday tasks.  A new series is developing as a result.

I’m also reading
No Trespassing by Anders Corr for research on squatting for the Poppy Project.

Well then!  Tell us more . . . do you have any upcoming shows that we can attend?  Art projects that we can follow?

CR:  I’m included in a really exciting group exhibition at the Begovich Gallery at Cal State Fullerton, entitled Interstice: New Economies for Creative Communities, which opens November 10th.  It focuses on socially engaged work that has politically radical undertones.  Also on Election Day, November 6th, I participated in the Eternal Telethon, sponsored by BESHT at the Pomona College Museum of Art.  The Eternal Telethon is an online, artist-run telethon whose goal is to raise funds to build a convalescent home for retired artists located at the Salton Sea.

Early in this interview we spoke about the merit of online resources: what are your favorite ways to keep informed of what’s current in LA art and politics?

  Some great blogs/outlets are:

My friend, Cliff just started writing for http://www.laimyours.com/contributors/
LA Weekly has great Art writers:

Thank you for such personal and vigorous responses.  You are definitely an artist to watch!

More about Christy Roberts can be found here:

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