A Patent Leather Life: Interview with Rob Roth
Rob Roth is a multidisciplinary artist and director based in New York City. He works in a variety of media including theater, video, sculpture and performance. Roth received his BFA from Pratt Institute and has exhibited work at a variety of venues including the New Museum for Contemporary Art, Performance Space122, Abrons Art Center, Galapagos Art Space, Museum of Arts and Design and Deitch Projects as well as the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Roth’s work draws from underground theater and culture and has its early fertilization in NYC nightlife as one of the founding members of the spectacle ‘Click + Drag’.
The talented Mister Roth took time out of his busy schedule to chat with Platinum Cheese about imagination, gender hacking and the city he calls home.
As I was doing my research, I found that you are described as a multidisciplinary artist, donning many chapeaus throughout your career - director, performer and visual artist, to name a few. With such a varied background, what initially drew you to the creative side?
It’s been there as long as I can remember. I can’t recall a moment where I was ‘drawn’ to it.
Did you then (or do you now) have a favorite medium or do you find one informs the other?
I have always went from one medium to another, none of which I can say is a favorite until its current. I started as a painter so I think I approach each medium with that eye. At the moment it would be film/video, but only recently I would have said performance because that has been the focus in the last year or two. It’s all what I’m doing in the moment.
Each one informs the other for sure; I mix them up. My theory is that different mediums can carry the message like music styles. You can have one song and do it in several different styles, country, classical, opera, rock, but the lyrics and melody is still there. I like to mix theater with film and photography or think in sculptural ways through video. Really, what I try to do is think in more poetic ways within each medium, or at least that is the intention. I don’t use video in a performance just for the sake of having video; it has to play a role, almost like a character. At this point in time all lines are blurred; you do not have to be so confined to one thing.
Were there any artists you admired growing up/in your formative years?
As a child I loved any painting I saw, even terrible ones in the dentist’s office. I would stare at whatever image it was and make up stories about the subject. If I stared at it long enough it would start to move, I loved when that happened. As I grew older I think old black and white movies played a big influence. I do remember discovering Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa in a book when I was very young; it was the dramatic that seemed to intrigue me the most. Human tragedy. I remember being very moved by (Edvard) Munch’s The Scream too. I still am in fact.
And what is your aim as an artist?
To try to live a poetic life. It’s the never ending challenge.
As your work was very much tied in with nightlife, when did you first start going out yourself?
As soon as I could get away with it. I think I started using fake ID’s when I was 18 or 19 and would try to get in. Then when I went to art school, well, that’s when it became a lifestyle I suppose which then lead me to start creating and contributing to it as my art later.
I first became aware of your work through the great ads you designed for Click + Drag, the Saturday-night weekly at the experimental club Mother. Can you explain the genesis of the party and what your role was?
Click + Drag was born out of work I had been doing in the Nineties at Jackie 60 (the legendary Tuesday night) with Chi Chi Valenti and Kitty Boots. I created videos and projections for ‘futuristic and cybersexual’ themes. When Chi Chi and Johnny Dynell took over the space and turned it into MOTHER nightclub, we started a Saturday night that would blend the futuristic/computer with a classic fetish night. It had a different theme every week and a very strict dress code. My role was co-producer and Art Director. I created video projections, animations, installations, also photography for some of the flyers with Kitty as stylist. Sometimes I would MC or go-go too. It was a super creative and really wild time in my life. It’s all a bit of a blur, but I’m happy to have contributed to a great moment in NYC nightlife history.
You’re someone who truly witnessed the evolution (or devolution depending on who you ask) of NYC and its art/nightlife scenes as the Nineties gave way to the new millennium. What are your thoughts on that?
I recently did an interview about this subject with Michael Musto for a book being published by The Museum of Art and Design that will be out this spring. Basically New York City is in a constant state of flux. It’s a port city, an international destination so it’s always been this way. I think this is why it’s special, but it goes up and down. Obviously the city has always catered to a certain tax bracket but there was also sections that were for artists, musicians, writers etc. usually in parts of the city no one wanted to live in, and that keeps disappearing, so the more creative nights where culture is actually made and not just reproduced, can’t happen. That’s not to say it’s not happening here, it’s just harder I think. Nightlife has always had its ups and downs it’s like a stock market in a way, things affect the focus. Finance, politics, real estate, terrorism, the list goes on. But there are some great things happening, I have some favorite parties and fun venues that I go to; it’s all there if you are open to finding it.
In conjunction with The Mill, you art directed and animated the “Life on Mars Revisited” video installation which traveled the world with The Creators Project from Paris to Sao Paolo. How did that come about?
The director Barney Clay approached The Mill to work on an installation for Vice and The Creators Project using the original footage from the Mick Rock “Life on Mars” music video shoot. I had been freelancing there as an Art Director / Designer and they brought me on to work on it. They knew I had a lot of experience with live video installations and theater so I helped shape the idea. They scanned the original film spools that were just sitting around in Mick Rock garage or basement. The film was color corrected to its original form and there was also extra black and white footage and more outtakes. It was re-edited to a new soundtrack and projected on 4 walls in a cube structure you entered. A lot of the best talent from The Mill worked on it. 3D, Flame, Design and Editorial all worked on it. It was really an amazing result. With each city it traveled to it changed a bit. It was a great project to be involved with. I hope it shows again in the future.
You brought your multimedia touch again to a live rock show creating content for Devo and Blondie’s Whip It to Shreds tour last year. How did that project come about and what served as inspiration for the song visuals? Were there any challenges you or your team faced?
Debbie (Harry) approached me about visuals for the tour since there was going to be a big LED video wall backdrop. I’ve made many visuals for Blondie starting with the No Exit album in 1999 and also some of Debbie’s solo projects. I approached The Mill with the project and they jumped at it. I got to do some concepts I had been thinking of for many years (Death Disco Mirrorball being one) and a bunch of new concepts that came out of brainstorming while listening to some of the new Blondie music and older back catalogue. There were many challenges, time being one, and as with any technology how to avoid ‘glitches’. We did pretty well considering. There were a few rough patches, but it all came together in a real rock and roll way and I think it was one of their best tours actually. The LA show at The Greek Theater was an amazing night.
In addition to your design work, you and writer/performer Michael Cavadias collaborated on “The Mystery of the Claywoman” which blended live performance and film and featured many of your friends and notable names as characters. Tell us a little about the show and your role as Claywoman’s canine musical traveling companion 'Craig'.
Claywoman was a character that Michael Cavadias created for the Blacklips performance troupe in the ‘90s. She was a 500 million year old woman from another planet. Then years later in 2008 he was asked to do it again for Deitch Projects at an opening. So we started working on a mockumentary that included all these weird characters who were ‘believers’ or ‘skeptics’ toward the subject of Claywoman. It featured some really great performers like Alan Cumming, Justin Vivian Bond, Amy Poehler, Ruth Maleczech, Debbie Harry and Edgar Oliver playing these over the top characters. The show was structured like a screening and lecture series so the film would screen before Claywoman (played by Cavadias) arrived to give her live lecture. As we developed the show and presented it at several venues and festivals including The New Museum, The Howl Festival, even opening for Antony and the Johnsons at Town Hall it would change each time. At one point I thought she needed a sidekick to play off of so that’s how ‘Craig’ was born. He was initially just a hair creature that crawled around the stage grunting and was very Neanderthal looking. I had been developing my own wolf/cat character that eventually morphed into the ‘Craig’ character and he would communicate through song to Claywoman, but only ‘80s new wave songs. So I took on that role and we did a final version at Abrons Art Center that had a two week run and was well received.
Are there any plans for future stagings?
Not at the moment, but ‘Craig’ has been performing a lot lately. I did a few shows at House of Yes in Brooklyn as well as a really strange benefit at The Irondale Center that was like something out of a David Lynch film. I really would like for David Lynch to see Craig perform someday. I think he would like him as a pet. ha... :)
How do you balance commissioned, more mainstream work for an established firm such as The Mill with your personal work? Is your approach different?
I’ve been doing that balancing act for so long I’m just used to it. Sometimes it’s harder when the two worlds are overlapping, but I tend to make it work somehow.
There’s been a lot of debate but I think you are proof that one can still be creative and push the boundaries in this city. What do you attribute that to? Do you think the bohemian dream of decades past is one that is no longer achievable in 2013?
I’m not sure the word ‘bohemian’ even exists anymore accept in a fashion spread. That idea has been marketed like everything else. But I think anything is achievable here if you want it bad enough. There is always a way but you must adapt. It’s still an epicenter where all these worlds collide, and that is special.
In addition to working with legendary musicians, you’ve also befriended artists and performers like avant-garde anti-hero Genesis P-Orridge, who very much keeps the counter culture spirit alive. What have you learned from these artists? Do any of their philosophies seep into your own process or work?
Gen is amazing. The stories... I could listen to them for hours. I’ve been lucky to have met some of the artists who I really admire and look up to for inspiration. Diamanda Galas is another that I had a chance to get to know a bit too and it’s wonderful when you get the encouragement and approval from these artists. I think I meet certain people at moments that are crucial, moments when I may feel like giving up or have been very lost about what I was doing. I think what I’ve gotten from all of them is the reminder that you have no choice but to continue. I think that is the most generous gift an artist can give to another artist, the faith to keep going.
When I think of artists like Warhol, Ginsberg, Burroughs, the first thing that comes to mind isn’t their sexuality. As an artist who has worked within the LGBT community I’m curious as to what your thoughts are on having the label “queer artist” assigned to one’s name?
Labels are tricky. Queer artist is something that I don’t mind so much because it describes a sensibility or approach that does not necessarily have to do with just sexuality. It goes more toward identity that is based on belief systems, politics, alternative communities or more radical ways of thinking. It’s being a true outsider, which I think most artists are. I have known hetero-identified people who were more radical and queer than some gay people I’ve met. I look forward to the day when ones sexuality is so unimportant that you have to base your identity on what you believe in - not who you fuck.
Looking back, what are you most proud of?
I guess not killing someone, including myself. Ha!
What are some upcoming projects you have lined up?
I just finished directing a short film called Junkie Doctors so I will be submitting that to festivals. Also I was recently the recipient of the HARP Residency at Here Theater with comedienne/chanteuse Lady Rizo. I will be creating and developing a show for her that will premiere at Here in the next few years. I also have another idea for a web series with Michael Cavadias and will continue with the Craig character on stage and film, which keeps evolving. Most of these projects are at the very beginnings so it’s the most fun part... imagination.
Interview conducted by Daniel Alonso. Images courtesy of the artist.