WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A 20-SOMETHING ILLUSTRATOR CALLS TO INTERVIEW A REBELLIOUS POSTER ARTIST WHO ALSO HAPPENS TO BE A DRAWING TEACHER AT USC? WELL, YOU GET SOMETHING SORTA LIKE THE FOLLOWING 2,000-PLUS LINES OF TEXT. FEEL THE FLOW AS DEBBIE GETS POLITICAL ON THE PHONE WITH A MAN WHOSE LAST IDEA OF FUN IS SITTING BACK AND ACCEPTING THINGS AS THEY ARE,.. ROBBIE CONAL.
(As soon as Robbie answers the phone, he kicks into a conversation about what's happening around Los Angeles. This, of course, sends Debbie sprawling to start the tape recorder.)
Robbie: --the actual voting day. But, of course, it's being appealed. And they have a week to get another decision, so all these 135 candidates who are expecting to have people go to the polls on October 7th have months more of campaigning to do, unless it gets reversed this coming week.
R: Tomorrow I'm printing another Arnold Schwarzenegger poster.
D: A new one?
R: Also, I'm leaving on a book tour Friday to go to Austin. Yeah, so it's like, "Woo-woo!"
D: It's a whirlwind.
R: Not only that, but CSI: Miami-- the TV show-- is filming on my street today. And they have the aftermath of a hurricane set up on the street. So it looks like Halloween gone bad out there.
R: So, welcome to L.A., Debbie.
D: Well, that's Los Angeles for ya. Never a dull moment.
R: That's right. Very exciting. That's why we're here. Wouldn't want to be bored.
D: Exactly. Well, I have to tell you, by law, that I'm recording you.
R: Have you already started?
D: Yeah. You started talking, so I figured I should catch whatever you say.
R: Yeah! You might miss some gem.
D: What's up with this emergency Arnold Schwarzenegger meeting you had last week? The one that postponed this interview?
R: That was about the poster. Until yesterday, the election was going to be held on October 7th, which is really soon. I had pulled a couple all-nighters to do a drawing of Arnold since-- pardon the expression-- he's the poster boy for everything that's wrong with the American Dream,.. the American Nightmare. He's a power-mad, Austrian body builder.
D: Well, he only looked up to dictators. He's just a body builder.
R: That's the poster. The poster says "Achtung, Baby!" And the secondary text is, "I was always dreaming of very powerful people, dictators and things like that." Which is, you know, a quote from him in Pumping Iron.
D: That's some frightening stuff right there.
R: Yeah. And I drew him with laser beams for eyes, and a big shit-eating grin. But he is the poster boy for everything that's gone wrong with the American Nightmare, so that's a good quote. He drives me to draw. We had to do the poster fast for a couple of reasons. One, because I was so pissed off. And two, because I'm going on this book tour. I'm not gonna be around. I'm not gonna be in my studio. I'm gonna be like a turtle out of its shell, ya know?
D: Yup. It's kinda hard to make posters on the road.
R: Exactly. Usually, I just go from the kitchen and my cup of coffee into the studio and go, "Ahhh."
D: (laughing) I know what you mean.
R: Actually, I'm going to be out of the shell for a couple of months.
D: The book tour is going on for a few months?
R: The book tour lasts for a couple of months. At least, this phase of the book tour, yeah. It's gonna go up the West Coast. First, I'm going to Austin on Friday for Cinema Texas 2003. We did a little ten-minute film. My assistant, Boom Boom--
D: "Boom Boom"?
R: Yeah. My glittery Macedonian gypsy assistant, Boom Boom-- from Belgrade-- did a little film. We do these guerrilla posterings in Los Angeles. We gather the regular troops in Los Angeles at Canter's Deli on Fairfax. That's a 24-hour delicatessen. If there is a center to Los Angeles, that's it. I give a little guerrilla etiquette talk.
D: Like on your video.
R: Yeah. You saw the three-minute video?
D: Yeah. The one on your website.
R: Yeah. That's what I'm talking about. What you saw was an excerpt from the short film. We just extended it to a whole ten-minutes. So that film is being shown at Cinema Texas. I don't know why. I guess it's because it's a short film festival. It's nutty. But anyway, you know what they say: "Any excuse to visit Austin,..." So I'm gonna go and give a talk and do a book signing down there over the weekend.
D: And are you gonna rally up some troops for some Texas postering?
R: Oh yeah. They're there. We have peeps down there.
D: (laughing) Peeps! Word!
R: (laughs) They are there. I won't bring the Arnold poster down there. But I'll bring "Oops! I Did It Again!", the die cut flower poster. It's Bush and the boys who were around for "Bomb The Shit Out Of Iraq: Part One".
D: Now they're back for "Part Two".
R: Yeah. They're all in for the sequel.
D: I'm sure we'll get a prequel in a couple years. (laughs)
R: (laughs) Yeah. In Austin, the alternative film crowd, the alternative music crowd, and the slackers-- since Bush was governor in Austin-- they all have a special relationship with him.
D: Oh yeah. A little family history.
R: Exactly. They can dig it. So, yes, we're gonna poster Austin. I'm gonna be there two days and two nights. Then I'm gonna come back here for a day, then go up the West Coast. I'll go up to Santa Barbara, the Bay Area, Portland, Seattle, Bellingham, then back to Seattle.
D: How far east do you ever get?
R: All the way. I go to New York and Washington, D.C. all of the time.
D: So, you're used to all of this travelling. You make it seem like you're not used to getting out that much.
R: Well, that's only like four times a year. Like once every season or something. This is gonna be like-- (pauses)
D: --Like THE monster tour?
R: (laughing) Yeah. Take the monster out for a ride.
D: Well, I figure you're gonna be busy from now up until next November.
R: I'm sure that's true. Election years are big years for the likes of me. The book is a cool thing because, instead of trying to explain yourself to people who are like, "What exactly is it you do, man?", you can just go, "Here!" (laughs)
D: Here's what I do.
R: (laughing) "Here! Now listen!"
D: And you're talking about the Artburn book, right?
R: Yeah. It's the best of six years worth of these almost-monthly mini-posters I did for LA Weekly.
D: And you've been doing those for them over the past six years, but the posters--
R: The posters I've been doing since '86. It started with "Men With No Lips".
D: The whole "no lips" thing and the melting skin-- that's your interpretation of how the abuse of power by the people you draw mutates and deforms them, right?
R: Something like that, yeah. Their ambition and greed and corruption is sort of reflected in the corrugation of their flesh. But, ya know, I don't really have to do much to them, Deb. The hardest thing is getting them to come in and sit for the portrait.
D: (laughs) I'm sure Arnold was a good model, though.
R: Well, he loves it.
D: I'm sure you're postering like mad out there. Do you ever get calls from Arnold's office in response to what you're saying with the "Achtung, Baby!" poster?
R: Well, we haven't done Arnold, yet. We'll see what happens. He's kinda petty about things like that, so we might get a little action from him. But, usually, I'm not on speaking terms with my subjects.
D: I figured as much. But do you ever hear from their lawyers or public relations people?
R: Ya know, they would be very smart just to ignore me. Um,.. can you hold on a minute?
[ROBBIE TAKES A CALL ON THE OTHER LINE]
R: Hey, man, are you there?
D: Yeah. What's going on? Has the hurricane started up again?
R: (laughing) Yeah. The hurricane never stops.
[SUDDENLY, THE PHONE STARTS BEEPING]
R: What's that beeping? Is that my phone going bad, or is that your phone?
D: I think that's your phone.
R: Uh-oh. That's not a good thing. Well, let's keep going. Ask me whatever you wanna ask me.
D: Okay, cool. I was just sorta letting you roll. The way this interview works, I'm just gonna transcribe it as is.
R: Alright. I thought you might have a subject you wanted to get to.
D: Not really. Let's talk about what you feel like talking about right now.
R: The thing that I'm most interested in-- the subject of my public work-- is democracy with a small "d". You know,.. the hypocrisy of the American so-called representative democracy, which really isn't. I'm just concerned with abuses of power by bureaucrats and public officials. I like that with Artburn-- with the Weekly stuff-- I get into other subjects. I get into popular culture with people like Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura, Charlton Heston, and John Rocker.
D: That makes me think of the "Not In Our Name" concert with--
R: Yeah, yeah!
D: --with the musicians and people saying, basically, "Don't go waging war and conquering other countries and act like you're looking out for the best interest of the American public."
R: Yeah. You know, we did a "Not In Our Name" concert in L.A. that was really cool. A bunch of people and I contributed some art to it. It was Ozomatli, Blackalicious, The Coup, Jerry Quickly-- who's a great slam poet-- the African People's Orchestra,.. we had a great show out at The Palace in Hollywood. It was like the first anti-war music and art event around, and it was really cool. There was a great, sweet feeling in the house. I don't know. It was like,.. (laughing) ferociously joyous resistance to the war.
R: And it was really nice to work with other people. You know, as an artist you stay in your room and play with your crayons. The coolest thing about running around in the middle of the night postering is that you get to make mischief with a bunch of people.
D: Yeah. And you get to interact with the world and see how many people are about what you're about.
R: And it's also a little bit cathartic. You get to throw your angst out there. It's not like you're gonna try to change people's minds about stuff. But at least you get to express yourself in public.
D: You're all about getting people to think and see.
R: Yeah. Just to get them thinking along with us about stuff-- kinda tickle them into thinking along with us-- by making some sort of ironic joke about it. Cut these jokers down to size.
D: Well, every culture has people that like to poke fun at their leaders.
R: Yes. I think that, in every culture, there is a jester or monkey character, or coyote-clown-whatever-mischief maker. It's not rocket science. It's not profound. It's "nanner-nanner-nanner" type stuff.
D: (laughs) It's so bizarre. Watching Bush speak or watching the gubernatorial race in California-- it's very scary and frustrating. But, at the same time, it's so hilarious.
R: Well, not only that, but the stuff in California is more democratic than any process we've had going. I mean, two parties is not enough for democracy. A lot of my friends don't like it when I say this, but, if you put all the Republicans in Congress and all the Democrats in Congress together, they don't represent the majority of the people who are actually in America.
R: And considering the ones that aren't even counted-- who are unofficially here-- it gets even more bizarre. This California situation is an exercise in, maybe, "primitive work democracy" or something. It's wild, and it allows a lot more voices into the discussion, which is terrific. It's unruly and messy and so "Cali". I actually relish it. Not just for the humor, either.
D: Well, it's like you said, seeing stuff like this is what fuels your fire to draw. It's feeding you ideas for new artwork, seeing people like Arnold stepping up to be your governor.
R: Yeah. Help me.
D: Have you seen his commercials with the room full of "concerned citizens" who are all paid actors? Oh, wait. You live in California. Of course you've seen those. (laughs)
R: (laughing) Can I get away from it?
D: (laughing) I guess you could just turn off the TV, but they'd still find a way to get their message to you.
R: I'm a total TV junkie. I love TV. I have the TV on when I'm working in my studio. It's my friend.
D: (laughs) See, I'm all about music when I work. When I do watch TV, I watch horrible shit, like Texas Justice and Performing As.... It's that stuff, or PBS.
R: Hey, try having them both on at the same time. Turn off the sound on the TV and blast the music, so you've got images and sounds that don't necessarily go together, except for in the middle of your brain. Watch baseball on TV and listen to Ozomatli.
D: Good idea. Now, what you said about this failed democracy we live in, it reminded me of what some of my friends are saying-- about this current form of government being obsolete. The times have changed, and it's past its time.
R: Well it's past its time, but it's also so incredibly powerful and controlling that they don't want to let go. I would say proportional representation is a good idea and an advance in the evolutionary scale-- a representative government compared to a two party system. But it's not like they're just going to let go of power.
D: Well, it's so ingrained in our society. There are people who are die-hard Republicans, and people who are die-hard Democrats.
R: And those guys represent powerful corporate interests and big money. We're talking about a capitalist democracy. Please, quote me on that. It's not just like democracy. It's a capitalist democracy based on private profit. So it's not like they're just going to give you anything. That's not the Zeitgeist we're working with here. (laughs)
D: That's why people need to keep protesting and making themselves be heard.
R: Yeah. Just go do something about it. FUCKING do something about it! (laughs) Anything. That's the fun part.
D: Is that the pinnacle for your work with the posters? Actually putting them up on the streets?
R: Yeah. It's just me throwing my two-cents into the mix and into a public arena of reception. You know, get out on the streets and let it fly.
D: Fuckin' A. Let it fly and let someone see it. And what happens when you're postering? Will people walk by and be like, "Ooo! I want one!"
R: Yeah. People come by and like it, hate it, they're curious about it, they wanna know what the hell we think we're doing, and that's all great. All of it. If everybody liked it, I'd be depressed.
D: (laughing) So, people walk by and see you postering and they're like, "Hey! Fuck you!"
R: (laughing) That makes me feel good. I'm doing my job.
D: Riling people up,.. making people think.
R: Yeah. I'll tell them, "Go make your own fucking poster!"
D: Right. Well, they don't have to. The TV has already made it for them.
R: Yeah. But if you're one-on-one with a person at the, uh,.. point of attack or whatever, and they're saying they disagree with you, you're not gonna stop and argue with anybody in the middle of the night in one of the most dangerous urban areas in the universe. You might say a few words for a minute or two. But the bottom line is, "Hey, make your own poster." This is America. It's wonderful. Express yourself in public and, please, contradict me.
D: Now that's taking the whole idea of democracy and making it into a real thing again.
R: Yeah. Peace, my brother. (laughs)
R: "Here's a space right next to my poster for yours."
D: Now, what happens when the police catch you postering?
R: Different things happen. That's where guerrilla etiquette comes in. If they ask you, "What the hell you think you're doing?", it's impolite not to answer them. So you have to answer them and play the game with them. I mean, it is illegal. It's a minor form of civil disobedience, and there's no getting around that. It's not like you're gonna cut and run. It didn't work for Rodney King. It's not gonna work for us. And that's not the point. It just depends at the point of enforcement-- who the cop is as a person, really. Also, the political atmosphere of the moment. This is art as politics, not just art about politics. Here, you get down to actually doing it.
R: You know, most of the time, they'll look at me and say, "Why don't you just go home and pay your taxes?" or something like that. But with kids with dreads or kids of color who are out there, it can get a little dicey, because it's a race and class issue. They just have to be polite. And things can happen. They'll write you up in Los Angeles,.. give you a notice to appear before a judge. Or they'll take you away. Like, I got busted in New York for putting up Gandhi, The Dalai Lama, and Martin Luther King, Jr., terrorists that they are-- or were. And my buddy, Shepard Fairey, just got busted in New York on top of a building in Chinatown and got beat up by the cops.
D: He got beat up?
R: He got beat up by the cops, and charged with burglary and felonious assault.
D: But he's, like, 4'9" or something!
R: (laughs) You must be a tall guy.
D: No, I'm not. It's just that-- there's nothing menacing or threatening about him, ya know?
R: No, there's nothing like that about him. It's a whole other thing. But what I'm saying is, it depends on their attitude and your attitude at the point of enforcement. I mean, it's illegal. And that's part of the charm of it. It's a double-edged sword.
D: You and Shepard are two of the only postering/graffiti/infotainment--
D: --people I know of who have this message to spread, yet are very respectful of the people you're trying to communicate with through your work. I mean, on your site, you've got the guerrilla etiquette notes about, "Don't poster on store windows, walls, surfaces,.." because you don't want to alienate your audience.
R: Yeah. Well, that's so deflecting. That's not the idea. We're not trying to attack merchants. Our perpetrator is The Secretary of Offense,.. you know, Colin Powell, who's really like Darth Vader Light. Guys like that. Not the guy who owns the local convenience store. We're not trying to rile them up about vandalism. We're trying to rile them up about democracy.
D: You don't want to fuck those people. You want to help them see who they're being fucked by.
R: Or get them to think about it. So think about that. Don't think about us messing up your property. And that's the way it goes. Anyway, I gotta go in a couple minutes. I can talk to you later if you'd like.
D: Actually, let me transcribe what I've already got here.
R: See if there are any holes or anything you haven't gotten to.
D: Well, honestly, I'm just glad I got to talk to you.
R: I'm glad to talk to you.
D: As soon as I found out about your work and heard your work be referred to as "infotainment", I thought of artists like Jenny Holzer with her Truisms.
R: (laughs) That's fantastic. Her and Barbara Kruger have been great inspirations.
D: Sweet! Do you know about Micah Wright and the Propaganda Remix Project?
R: Oh sure. I know Micah Wright.
D: Okay. Well, this is my last question, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the interview. But it's something we ask of everyone. In your personal opinion, do dogs have lips?
R: Do dogs have lips? Of course. What a silly question.
D: It's just something we--
R: (laughing) It's okay. Fish have lips, too, by the way.
D: They do?
R: Absolutely. Lovely lips. Put that in for me, please. I don't wanna leave fish out of this. Fish have lovely lips as well.
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