Robbie Conal interview at his loft in Santa Monica, CA September 30, 1991
WALKER. Did you think you would have to become such a spokesman for your work when you started all of this? That you couldn't do it anonymously, that you would have to be on national television shows and stuff like that and iron out the edges?
CONAL. I never thought anybody would be that interested, ha, ha, to tell you the truth. I think, I didn't have to do all of that stuff, I think it is complicity on my part, but I (phone) just went and did it and uh...
STEPHANIE TAYLOR (upstairs) Robbie Conal's studio, Stephanie speaking.
WALKER. Do you think that Hollywood, that you wouldn't have had the same kind of success in New York? That Los Angeles has kind of turned you into kind of a movie type of character that they embrace by projecting onto you, like when the press goes out with you, they seem to consistently create the same kind of image...
CONAL. I don't think that...
WALKER. ...that New York might not have given you?
CONAL. Well, the only difference I really think is that uh, is in my own uh, process, you know, thinking somehow just the creative elbow room that Los Angeles provided me and uh, it's so much easier to live here day to day, like it's a lot easier to go out and get a quart of milk here than it is in New York, you know, certainly where I would be living in New York. And that you know for the kind of work I do, you really need all the optimism you can muster so, a nice sunny day, you now a good fresh cup of coffee, um, you know, some chicken for me and Tyrone to eat with the sun streaming in, all helps uh, me just have the kind of optimism and confidence to, that I could go out and make this ugly are and put it up all over the place.
And in New York, probably would have done the same thing, but it would have been harder for me to generate initially. I mean, you know, scraping the six hundred bucks together and getting it up to go ask people how to make posters, which, like I didn't know shit from shineola about, and thinking that uh, it would really look cool and getting it done, was I think a little easier in Los Angeles, uh, than it might have been in New York.
But other than that, I think in term of the arena of reception and the the media response, probably would have been quite similar,
(Stephanie drags some posters upstairs)
It's uh, I've got big rats, big rats...
But I really, you know, in terms of this business of going out and fronting my work, I think that's really, um, was my choice, it wasn't something that I had to do and I take full responsibility for it, ha, ha, for better or for worse. And there, it is a trade-off, you know, there is good parts of that and there is bad parts of that, but it's part of understanding that if you are going to participate, if you are going to uh, have your work enter discourse at all, um, that you kind of have to um, just go along with it and um, (noise) is the only game in town, you know I mean if I want to play, uh, there is only one game I've got to play it, so I think there is you know, a downside to my relationship, to my work's reception, by the public when I become more of a celebrity or more, the author, my authorship is more in evidence, but uh, there is also an upside to it in the sense that I can reach a lot more people by uh, postering on the street and doing, quote, unquote, media postering you know.
But, and also there is the business of it, you know, I mean, I've got to figure out ways to keep it going financially, and I think right now, although I am hoping to change this. that uh, you know, I have to come to understand that the media attention translates directly into uh, cash flow and without it, I can't do the projects uh, the way I want to do them and I, I can't live the way I'd like to live to.
CONAL. The other thing is that you know, with all this, uh, most of it is my responsibility and I take it and I am complicit in my celebrity, whatever, such as it is and the relationship between my work and uh, a public audience and how I get in the way, ha, ha. And I think a large part of my work and my, what I have learned from this is, to have a sense of humor about it all and just enjoy it and go with it (noise), that includes all the contradictions, you know, that are built in. Um.
WALKER. Do you think that people expect you to go after every important issue that is going on right now, like with Robert Gates and Clarence Thomas?
WALKER. In terms of the Dan Quayle poster, it might look like you're going more for the glory than the issues.
CONAL. Well, the reason I really did the Dan Quayle poster, the personal reason was that uh, I had just done Daryl Gates and DOUBLESPEAK as a billboard and they are so grim, I mean they are not really funny "ha ha" type of things and uh,...
You know, I was getting depressed, so I wanted to do a clown painting and just lighten up a little bit. Um, and you know there was nothing to it, quite literally, like there is very little to Dan, you know. Um, but, I don't know, there is one thing else I wanted to say and I can't remember what it is.
WALKER. You were on a streak with the Gates' poster, that was such a, you ruffled so many feathers with that, if the next thing was even heavier than that.
CONAL. No, that's not it, I mean, I don't, I mean I do have to, you have to understand that what I do is politics. I mean everything is political, but the way I balance and uh, angle my, my art in terms of how it's presented in public or private or whatever is a political act, activity and I am very sensitive to that, you know to playing politics and learning. The Daryl Gates I learned about local politics, and not just because I was addressing Daryl but because I got involved.
And then, also you know, doing something with the city was kind of uh, uh, my civics lesson in uh, city politics and you know I've got some funny stories about that. But, one thing I wanted to say was that uh, you know, with, if I start, it's starting to be a little bit of a a problem uh, in terms of my non-sanctioned public address, that my personality and my presence is getting in the way of direct perception by an audience of what I am doing.
And if I could just take may ego and lift it off my head and put it away (dramatically said,) there is an obvious you know, solution to the problem and that is to change my signature style, to get away from it and do non-sanctioned public art that doesn't look like me and you know, I've got to do that and also I am getting a bit bored. I'd bore myself to death, another head, another word or two, I mean, how long can I keep that up?
There are other things I want do do, that's why I am so excited about Rock and Doris and Rosemary Woods, and starting to address the propaganda of popular culture and getting a little torque between say, uh, the um, dominant culture's propaganda about sexual intimacy like "Pillow Talk" or something and um, personal intimacy and what was really going on in government at the time which was totally invasive of privacy and intimacy.
So, I am looking forward to stretching out a little bit to other issues of power and not just politicians and not just talking heads or whatever. So, I've gotta push myself that way and also, I am excited to and also I am excited to just become a chameleon and disguise my production by changing my style.
WALKER. Do you worry about the fact that people are at a complete loss with the billboard? The current billboard.
CONAL. What do you mean, they are at a complete loss?
WALKER. People are stopping me on the street and saying, "when is that coming on T.V., really?" and I say "this?" [my camera] and they say, "no, that." [DOUBLESPEAK]
CONAL. Ha, ha, ha! Well, I think that is a really good question, ha, ha. I mean, I always, one thing about that...
(noise from above)
sounds good Stephanie, for being quiet that's pretty good.
CONAL. I mean one of the things I was worried about with that billboard uh, was that it looked like an ad for a miniseries or something and then I said, "well, what if it is an ad for a miniseries?" You know, it would be an interesting miniseries, maybe it should be a miniseries. So, maybe it's almost like it mimics the advertisements for a mimiseries, mimiseries, or miniseries, and uh, maybe that would be another way, that's a good idea, you know, to make it look like an ad and people start thinking about "oh that's gonna..." but probably no, ha, ha, ha.
WALKER. What if they don't get the Robert Gates' connection on that because they're at a complete, even that paper said that you did a billboard of Oliver Stone, so even the press is at a complete loss.
CONAL. Yeah, ha, ha, ha! I think you know, there is always, that that's a more elliptical arch that I have ever done in public before. You know, that particular um, pair of images, and that's going to happen, you know, I mean, I guess it is just another way of going about it, it's artier or something. You know, and certainly it's meant to be a more contemplative piece, you now. Like a little bit of a meditation on history repeating (saw sounds) itself and problems um, in our governmental structure that are gonna keep cropping up, uh, the undemocratic uh, structure of our democracy and um, it's a little tougher read. So, I guess that's just another part of my artistic personality, you know and um, maybe, maybe less appropriate for public address. I'm not sure.
WALKER. What about doing, I mean this is me saying, "why don't you do this," but what about something directly on Robert Gates if you want to make a point about Robert Gates?
CONAL. Well, see, people, I mean, that's not the way that billboard happened. I could do art about anybody and so could anybody else, but the interesting thing to me about this billboard is the, that the process was so different and uh, was an experiment, you know, in cooperating with a city agency. Did it stop?
WALKER. No, go ahead.
CONAL. I mean, it was an experiment in uh, in doing uh, a piece with a city agency and understanding that when you receive money from uh, any organization, that there are going to be strings attached and that, it's every situation has its own specific politics and this one certainly, you know, was very complicated and involved uh, accommodation and compromises that I was interested in trying just to see how it would work.
You know, I mean I made the application and I picked um, the subject that I thought the city could live with and I think it has you know, redeeming critical value, ha, ha and uh, but I know that it is going to operate differently in a sanction space, first of all, and because it's uh, got a different uh, pictorial and conceptual structure from the posters, I don't expect it to be the same, that would be boring myself to death again, I am just trying something else. And, um, we'll see how it works, you know and see what adjustments I make about that.
But I am amazed that it went up, you know what I mean, ha, ha. To me, to see it up um, in the city is startling enough and also we got to use this great uh, you know, computer paint process that I was really interested in. It's kind of like research for the next generation of paintings that are gonna come out of the studio.
WALKER. You won't have to lift a paintbrush again?
CONAL. No, it's in combination with paintbrushing but uh, trying to add another process and riff off of that... Would you get some lunch? But would you to get me some lunch? And also that Arden check. The seventy five dollars is the Arden Austrander check.
WALKER. Is that what you got paid?
CONAL. No, I got paid five hundred and seventy bucks for that.
WALKER. That's almost as much as we got.
CONAL. Yeah, that was fun.
WALKER. Did you enjoy that?
CONAL. I hated it.
WALKER. Would you do it again?
CONAL. No, that's one of my lessons. That's what I am going to talk to you about right now. We'll wait until...
WALKER. Miss Stephanie.
STEPHANIE. I'm leaving, really.
CONAL. Would you get me? Where are you going?
STEPHANIE. What do you want? I can go to Gelson's.
CONAL. Yeah, go to Gelson's and get me a chicken with no salt.
STEPHANIE. Barbecue with no salt?
CONAL. Yeah and just take all of this. Got this part? See, this is the real stuff, Robbie signs his checks, ha, ha. This is for me.
STEPHANIE. Do you want me to drop that off to him? I am going to mail center. It's Susan Grode, Digital Magic and another person for Debbie, Steve, Scott. And uh, the is for Robert, at her office, Robert Vega.
CONAL. Oh, what is he getting?
STEPHANIE. He's getting an ARTIFICIAL ART OFFICIAL signed.
CONAL. I am going to give John Singleton posters tomorrow. I'm gonna say "hi" for Clay. Oh and mocha mix. Chicken and mocha mix, my faves...
CONAL. Well, I mean, I fuck up all the time so, ha, ha. But lately I have been especially good at it. I figured that I screwed up the publicity for um, DOUBLESPEAK DOUBLESPEAK by talking to Chuck Phillips too soon and I should have know better and um, it kind of jeopardized the project because the article came out in the front page of the Calendar um, like ten days before the billboard actually went up or something, and that was stupid. I should understand that I can by now, let them come to me and um, if were gonna do something maybe it'll gonna be a little more about the issues that I am addressing rather than me as an issue, ha, ha. If I do it that way, so I felt really chastised about that and that's good for me to learn.
And then I went and did the Ron Reagan Jr. Show which was, you know, a total debacle as far as I am concerned because the level of discourse of that program is like a shouting match between extremes and as spectacle and that's really not what I do. Um, again a matter of media greed as far as I am concerned, so I'm kind of learning um, to be a little cooler about that and since Debbie is giving me so much shit about it, I've got this little birdie on my shoulder telling me to be cool and I think that's helping.
It's hard for me to really get a sense that, you know, in terms of public awareness and media awareness, uh, I've reached a level now where I don't have to do it anymore. You always think it is going to go away and you want, especially with, with my work, because it's public and I want it to be public and I want to be received by as large an audience as possible. Um, it's hard to get in my head that the media is just going to be there now and not give me my fifteen minutes and go away. Just like when I go somewhere, you know, around the artworld in town, these days, I forget, my public persona and I get reminded, you know.
WALKER. Do you think you have created an image that you have to live up to now for the media? That you have to give them the "show"?
CONAL. Well, no, that's, the thing is that I am starting to understand now that I don't have to. That I have a little more control than I thought and I know pretty much what my relationship with them is if I think about it more than two minutes, and which I have to remember to do, you know, usually when I finish something, I get pretty excited and sometimes I forget that, um, in terms of the way the thing is gonna play and the way I'm going um, to present it, um, that I can be cooler than before.
You know, I mean, it's interesting, I mean, the stretch between total anonymity and putting it out there and it's having that kind of mystery and a kind of low level conscious, media consciousness and celebrity, um, is really different and now to the point where, you know, I'm getting in my own way, so, ha, ha, I have to, I mean that's one of the things that I am learning, you know, that I am a screw up about most of these things and I don't really know what I'm doing so I better think about it a little bit.
WALKER. You should say that last line again.
CONAL. That I am a screw up and ha, ha, I better think about it a little bit.
WALKER. Are you getting this noise of this camera because it seems very noisy to me?
CONAL. ...that I really don't know what I am doing. I think that is important. Okay?
CONAL. One of the things that I continually have to understand is that I don't know what I am doing and I have to relax about that and also remember to learn form it, so um, I think that's one of the great adventures of doing art and doing this kind of art is (phone rings) to have the phone ring when you are talking. (phone again)
CONAL. The other thing is for me to always understand that this stuff that I do is not that important, you know, ha, ha, so that it just really is my little counter...
WALKER. But people seem to put a great deal of importance on it.
CONAL. I don't, yeah, I guess, you know, people like to think that it's meaningful on levels that I really have to understand it isn't, you know. And uh, if they thought about it for more than two minutes and got out of the moment, they would understand to that it is just wishful thinking, ha, ha that it would be important.
I mean the most important thing to the city about my work is that it is vandalism, you know, ha! That's what's really important for them. The issues, they could care less about and,um. Even like the way I enter popular culture about these issues is uh, just, you know, like a little flea popping around or something, you know, a giant animal. It's really like a mosquito or something, I mean, that's about as important (phone) as my work is, except for my fantastic phone life, you know. (phone)
WALKER. In this fine day and age, can you make a living as a professional painter?
CONAL. So called career? I never expected this to actually be a career but, ha, yeah, I think, you know, this, a living can be made, however modest, um, making and selling pictures, you know. I think so. I don't think it's uh, the greatest idea in the world to try, but it can happen to you.
I mean, you know, art and uh, you know, the political economy of art, I mean, you know, we're talking about big business. We're talking about a business that is quite ephemeral however. It's not really selling the thing that you have made, it's selling the idea of the thing you've made and it, it um, it's very abstract in the sense that when you get into the art business, doesn't matter whether it's a beer can, you know, or a toilet bowl or a picture of an ugly old white man in a suit and tie um, that you are selling, it's more selling the idea of art and uh, the buzz that's created around the object, more than the object itself.
WALKER. Do you think you are playing off from their fashion sense when we see you with a gallery owner, of what they think is a "hot" item?
CONAL. Well, I think it is a very complex relationship, you know, and what, one, what, one of the things I'm interested in is people actually seeing the paintings, it's not that there isn't that, I mean, you know, I do want people to come into the gallery and look at the pictures and have some kind of intercourse with the pictures but as opposed to with the posters on the street.
But, in terms of the business of art and what's actually the transaction that's being made, you know, the exchange value of the art experience uh, is more, has more to do with um, the effluvia that is created around the thing than the actual art object itself, what it is or whether it's good or bad or whatever, uh, it doesn't have as much to do with that as it has to do with many other things and that has to do with being hot, with being, you know, the kind of narcotic effluvia of fashion and celebrity and what people think they are participating in. How hip they think they are being, you know. I mean, you know, one thing that art world would hate is to be left out of anything cool, you know, so...
WALKER. Are you playing off of that or are you succumbing to it?
CONAL. Well, there is an element of that. I mean, I 'm ambivalent about this whole thing, ha, ha, you know. I mean I like to play and I like to play politics and I am interested in it and um, I'm definitely interested in people buying my art for as much money as I can get for it. I need the money and besides it's kind of Un-American, you know, uh, not to make a profit on your products, so and I am a red blooded American boy, so, um, but, um, I...
WALKER. Did you every have any long-term sense of all of this or are you a candle with a short fuse?
CONAL. I think you never know about that stuff, I mean, that, that's almost beyond my reach. You know I can vouch for the art and say, you know, "this one's pretty good and this one isn't" and I could be totally wrong about that too but I can say that "I did as well as I could with his and I like this one and this one is interesting to me" but other than that, you know, in terms of how valuable it is going to be quantitively, you know, in terms of money or anything like that, it's very complex and very ephemeral type of thing and I mean
WALKER. But with New York, that seems like it's gonna be your greatest moment so far in terms of recognition.
CONAL. I don't really think it's, well, I mean my greatest moment is when I make a good picture, you know, ha, ha, um, and when Debbie like it, you know, or something like that, um. Or when I put something out and I know that people on the street are responding to it but uh. In terms of my so called career, you know, having the show in New York is very important and also it just has a lot of meaning to me, I grew up there, you know, not that there's anybody there from my past who I want to impress anything but just personally it means something to me.
Aside from that, in terms of the art biz, it's important to expand my client base and a lot of people have no idea that I make paintings or that there is anything to sell at all or buy so, in hard terms, in business terms, uh, it's very important to let my virgin markets know that there is a product but other than that I really don't give a shit, I mean, that's not, I don't care about that in the sense that it doesn't have a lot to do with my art.
(downstairs in front of HEAR)
CONAL. Okay, quite on the set!
WALKER. It's the same thing. (plane) So why hasn't the city come after you from the Gates' poster, specifically Public Works. They know who you are. You're in every magazine, every T.V. show, um, why don't they just put their foot down on your head?
CONAL. Well, I really think they did understand something you know, from our little confrontation over IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE and um, you know I feel sorry for Public Works in a way, those guys basically just, you know, low level bureaucrats doing their job, you know, with their uh, nose to the grindstone and um, you know heads down, ears closed (film crunches) ha, ha. ears closed...
CONAL. Now what are you up to? What is this for now now? This is for Pittsburgh?
STEPHANIE. For um,
CONAL. Tim Robbins?
STEPHANIE. Right, Forrest
CONAL. I don't like this.
CONAL. Richard Hoover?
STEPHANIE. Richard Hoover.
CONAL. To Richard, to Tim. Okay so we'll send, I'll have Typecraft send a hundred to Hartford, to Will Wilkins to Real Art Ways, 500 to Jayne Baum, at uh, in New York and um, we'll talk to Jason Grode in Philadelphia and maybe send him a hundred. Although he'll be in New York postering too.
STEPHANIE. He will?
CONAL. But we should talk to him and maybe what we'll do is we'll send 600 to New York and maybe he can take a hundred down with him or a couple hundred down with him to Philly
STEPHANIE. Or when you and Patti go, if you go.
CONAL. Well, I'd rather not carry them on the train. Depending on what Jason's up to, he can do that. And then we'll just figure out all the other places later. But Typecraft can handle all of that. They can bill us for it and um, now that we're so wealthy, we can afford it. But I, they can always use more than we think they can because people take, every poster is going to take, every guerilla is going to take one for themselves uh, at least, then they just kind of give them away, things happen as well.
STEPHANIE. And you have a talk up there as well, so
CONAL. Actually that's true. Actually we should sent like 700 to Jayne because I'll take posters up to Hartfield and N.Y.U. to sell after the talk and to stores. But I'll let you know
WALKER. Public Works.
CONAL. What about Public Works?
WALKER. With the IT CAN'T HAPPEN HERE poster when you first out, did they call you, did they
WALKER. did they call your lawyer, when the fined you?
CONAL. You don't have any of that?
WALKER. We do, but let's talk about it again.
CONAL. They sent me a, Public Works, sent me a certified letter requesting, uh, my company at an administrative hearing about um, my posters being on public property and uh, so, course I went and we had a little chat and they basically asked me to cease and assist and to take down all the posters that I had put up and I politely said, "no" and um, they asked me to sign a statement. So I asked them for a copy of the statement and I took it to my lawyer and we went over it and she quickly realized that they're asking me to stay off private property, was outside of their jurisdiction. So we asked them to re-word it to exclude that part of it and they did and um, they told me that if I didn't sign this statement that they could recommend prosecution by the City Attorney's office. And I politely declined to sign it and they never did prosecute me so.
I think that uh, you know basically or have basically too many times? How basic can you get. I feel sorry for you know, the low level bureaucrats at Public Works, because they are just working away, you know, head and nose to the grindstone um, and they only look up when someone slips something between their nose and the grindstone and in this case, I think that it was uh, the fact that I was getting so much publicity about the postering that was obviously within their jurisdiction and I was embarrassing them.
I think there was an article in the L.A. Times that had a photo of me and Patti putting a CONTRA COCAINE poster on a traffic light switching box and uh, that's to them. That was red flag, you know, it was embarrassing to them so they felt they had to do something about it. They didn't really consider, nor did they think it's their job to consider the context of the activity. That, their focus is very limited and as far as they're concerned and as far as this little city ordinance is concerned, any posting without a permit on city property is a violation of their code and whether it's a lost puppy notice or a garage band advertising a show, or uh, a big movie company paying some mafia based company to put up one sheets up all over the city or me making my measly little protest about public officials abusing their power um, it's all the same to them.
WALKER. So why do you think they haven't come after you again because you've done five posters since that one? They know who you are.
CONAL. I think that they came to understand through our interaction that um, whatever they would do to me, uh, I really wouldn't stop and it would just blow up into a David versus Goliath situation and the more they tried to stop me, the more of a folk hero they would, they themselves would turn me into. Whereas if, they just ignored me it was the best and most politic thing they could do. I mean, I'm just like a little mosquito. I mean. They should have other things to do that are more important, you know. I think that they also came to understand that they would be making a lot of bad press, you know, for Public Works and it was a no win situation for them even though technically, um, you know I was breaking the law. That um, in maybe in a larger sense, in the spirit of the law, um, that there wasn't that much that they could do that would be worth it to them. So,
WALKER. Do you think that the content of your work may outweigh the difficulty it places on the city to clean it up?
CONAL. Well, personally I think that the law um, is blindly written and I think that they have other avenues of redress, you know, rather than to go after me like that. And sure the content, as far as I'm concerned, and the urgency of the issues involved is worth it to me, to practice some minor civil disobedience but I think the, you know, if the city was really using it's toucous, you know, that it could come up with a tactic that would wipe me clean and that would be just to make designated public areas for this kind of expression and then if I went outside of it, and used something else, they would have a really good case. Um, to go after me.
You know, I think that this kind of expression of public concern, um, is something that the city could actually encourage and turn into a plus, in terms of it being a lively, multi-cultural uh, democratic, place to live. And, um, any smart politician should be able to figure that out and do something about it. Ha, ha. Al Nodal is pretty smart about that stuff. I think that's the tact[ic] he's gonna take.
WALKER. Do you think that if they gave you public space that that would put an end to it? I don't think it would. I think that would defeat itself quickly.
CONAL. Well, I think it would be a brilliant, not brilliant, I think it would be an efficacious political tactic to do that. I think it would be very smart to do that or put, me and the kind of wild postering that I do now, in an awkward position, you know, I mean, It's not really part of my program to go around and break the law. That's not what this is all about. Um, it's really about distribution.
WALKER. So why not go up with the Dan Quayle poster right now. Why are you kind of leaving town to do that?
CONAL. Well, there are, there are a couple, three or four reasons why. First of all, I've got a lot to do and I'm pretty stressed out in organizing the posterings um is quite, you know, is quite a busying activity and I don't take it likely and I like to take care of all the people who are going out there and I really don't have the time and energy to do it right, right now because I've got the show coming up and I'm going up to the Bay area and it's just too close. It would be too squeaky to do that. So, rather than do a shoddy job of it, I can wait awhile and come back with it.
The other is just tactically I think um, to give my relationship with the city a little time to cool is a good idea, you know, in terms of my own guerilla tactics so, I don't want to embarrass any of the people who have been good allies. And uh, make them look bad or foolish. So, I've already gone to the extent, gone in their direction of the extent of you know, telling the guerilla posterers in terms of guerilla etiquette, not to put on traffic light switching (film crunches) boxes. That's it. Okay.
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