F Logo search & site map      link resources
Features Regulars School News Reviews Calendar Comics


a literary

the next f




saic home



about fnews


Faculty Profile: David Robbins

Department: MFA Writing
Officially Sanctioned SAIC Title: Adjunct Assistant Professor
Teaching at SAIC since: 1996


David Robbins has had 30 solo exhibitions of his work internationally and has recently been included in exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France. He has published four books, including a novella, The Ice Cream Social (1998), and his essays and satires have been published in Artforum, Parkett, Art Issues, and numerous other magazines and catalogs. He received his degree in American Studies from Brown University. He currently lives in Milwaukee.


  • Conceptual Action-students invent real adventures, then write about them

  • Substantiated Fiction-students construct a fiction using objects, costumes, gestures, photographs, texts, etc., instead of establishing a fiction purely through prose (3D fiction)

  • Concrete Comedy-non-fiction, anti-illusionistic comedy (Robbins is currently writing a book on this topic as well)

  • Comic Identity, Models of the Artist, Writing the Cultural Essay


  • Robbins had a solo show in January 2002 at Cubitt in London, England.

  • Scanasonic, a collection of sound pieces formed from scanning photographs of ancient reliefs of Sumerian, Mesopotamian, Greek, and Egyptian musicians, along with a video of the scanning.

  • A volume of his collected writings will be published in September 2002.

David Robbins Scanasonic
(933 W. Washington, www.donaldyoung.com).

Who are the artists you worked with on Scanasonic (an exhibition now at the Donald Young Gallery)?

Chicago artist Paul Dickinson had the fullest presence, since in addition to contributing music he and I collaborated on the Scanasonic video. The other three collaborators - Peter Barrickman, Annie Killelea, Didier Leplae - make pop music, in various Milwaukee-based bands: Competitorr, The Fizz, The Horn Band.
Future Scanasonic projects will involve other collaborators. ... The basic Scanasonic idea - a) using scanners as musical instruments to produce raw notes that subsequently are manipulated to make songs, and b) scanning highly specific sets of images that add to the fun by commenting on the innovation - is very porous and open; I can repeat the gesture while altering both the image set and the collaborator set.

How did you get the original idea for this piece?

By living, and by being a modern person, and by paying attention to the experience of the modern person. There's another way? But there's no question that proximity to Chicago, which has such an active experimental music scene, influenced the gestation of a piece like Scanasonic. The strength of the music scene here helped to expand my thinking away from pictures and objects, and as a result moved me closer to making genuine pop product - closer to the motherland!

How did you choose the photographs? I understand the contrast between the ancient world and modern technology, but was there anything else specific about those pictures that caused you to choose them?

The contrast is plenty. There's enough content in that for a good, deep comedy. I'm interested in producing comedies. It's true, though, that when you stand in the room with Scanasonic, watch the DVD, listen to the music, there is something strangely moving and emotional about the whole thing.

Please talk a little bit about your solo show in London in January.

It was a mini-retrospective, in that I showed old pieces, or updated previous gestures. For instance, I threw an Ice Cream Social, the third one and by far the largest: about 200 people attended! Local artists there made wonderful cakes - depicting the American flag, a clock with "31" at every hour, melting TV color bars, a refrigerator, abstract dot patterns - all of 'em in the old Baskin-Robbins color scheme of pink, brown, and white. The bakers did a first-rate job. Everything got et.

How would you characterize the gesture of your work? You are a writer, a video artist, a manipulator of reality ... do any of these stand out for you as your primary "work?"

But still other audiences identify me as a photographer or an installation artist. I'm not really a "medium-istic" artist. ... I certainly don't think any one medium or discipline is "the answer." Each medium is good for certain uses and inappropriate for others. The challenge is to become good at identifying how best to package your ideas, and then to become sufficiently adept at manipulating or expanding the structural capacities of a given medium to attract and hold an audience's attention. The point is freedom, really. Don't we all want complete access to our own imaginations? I certainly do. I considered that a very natural and desirable pursuit, but to my surprise many people in the art world have a problem with it, since apparently the act of pursuing complete access to one's own imagination "violates" all sorts of institutional and interpretative boundaries. Well, good luck to 'em. I'm not especially concerned about contributing to art history. There are so many other ways to use the imagination - why limit yourself to that narrow read? It appeals to me more to try to contribute to the history of the imagination, and to some degree that desire is thematized in my work, although it's not what my work is "about."

Artists are expected to maintain a certain iconicity: of gesture, content, intent, issue, meaning, medium. This integration and consistency is for the marketplace, primarily. ... Personally, other than being a proponent of a certain sort of non-fiction, anti-illusionist comedy, I don't expend a lot of energy on iconicity maintenance. I do what I want. ... An argument for Freedom, as a strategy and a goal, has become an aspect of my content. It's encoded in my work, and it's part of what I sell in the marketplace.

What artists and writers are you currently interested in?

I'm writing the essay for Pierre Huyghe's catalog of the work he presented at the Venice Biennial this past summer, so I'm thinking about Pierre a lot, which is a pleasure. I'm also enamored of the Fast Show, a British sketch comedy show. And I'm a huge fan of American Analog Set. To be honest, though, at this point I pay more attention to my students' work than to the work of those who already have careers.

What are some of the common pitfalls you see in student work?

Students need to remember that making anything involves a two-part process: the self-expression part and the communication part. Sometimes they mistake self-expression for communication. In those cases I have to help them find ways to bust their work out of its hermeticism and open its private codes. Usually they need a little convincing. They're often resistant because hard work has been involved. ... But why cling to a single version of self-expression?

Also, I'd like to see students get more comfortable with the idea that art needn't serve some a priori identifiable function. Too many students feel a need to justify their work in advance of making it. ... They'd be better off trusting that real innovations create their own, unforeseen function. The idea that you can pre-ordain your work's function often means you want it to function in a therapeutic way: "doing good," correcting some abstract social inequity, etc. Not all art should be about expressing earnest hope for the improvement of the species, though. Ask Baudelaire. Ask Wilde. Anyway, in general I'd say students should concentrate on making real behavioral innovations. Let the audience decide their importance.

What were your early influences and how did they form your artistic sensibility? When did you first realize you wanted to make art, so to speak?

I think the whole world of mass pop culture was an influence, really, as an abstract social condition and also as specific sensate experience. ... In the 1960s the whole pop phenomenon seemed to be discovering itself, and my childhood happened to correspond with that giddy, pure phase. During this period, pop culture expressed a very upbeat notion of life, of the synthetic and the democratic, and about making work that was meant for everyone. My imagination has been imprinted, then, with a very inspiring moment in the evolution of our indigenous culture, and I've tried to stay as close to that feeling of enthusiasm and invention and freedom as I can, even if my own work has involved a more baroque and private response. And then, against this powerful synthetic good, I set an equally powerful but opposite good: nature. I start with the sublime delights of synthetic imprinting but work toward an engagement with animal truth. It's a weird narrative, I guess, but to me it feels natural.
I didn't really understand what it was to make art until I was in my early twenties. ... I'd say I'm more naturally a writer, but I continue making art because I know how to do it and also because art engages the animal self in a way that writing can't. Writing lets the mind speak, and art lets the body speak. Each services a different aspect of personal evolution.

What's your next/current project?

Two books about my work - a picture book, and a book of writings - will be published this year, so I've got to pay attention to those projects. Other than that, I'm having a love affair with the Epson 9500 digital printer. Viva la Service Bureau. There's also the Concrete Comedy book, waiting for me to finish it, mocking me, taunting me. And the script for the movie version of Ice Cream Social.

Anything else you want us to know?

Two weeks ago I spoke at Parsons School of Design, in New York. Students there had invited me, but faculty attended, and four of them ambushed me, derailing my presentation ten minutes into it. It was a bruising exchange, since I'm no shrinking violet, and I'm not unused to defending my ideas against art fundamentalists who are certain they possess knowledge of The Way. ... The whole experience made me grateful for the freedom and flexibility that SAIC has offered me, no strings attached, from the very first semester I've taught here. I'm not just saying that because the bigwigs might read this. I wonder whether students really understand how much creative freedom they're allowed here.

Return to top

Features      Regulars      School News      Reviews      Calendar      Comics

Current Issue      Archives      Home