David Robbins: Either of you guys appropriate anything today?

Andrew Swant: I made pancakes in the shape of Mickey Mouse this morning. Does that count?

Oli Watt: My 8 year old son took a pen to someone’s portrait in the newspaper and did some defacing. I immediately wished I’d done it.
     What about you?

David Robbins, Ice Cream Social installation (detail), Greene Naftali Gallery, NY, 2012

David Robbins, Ice Cream Social installation (detail), Greene Naftali Gallery, NY, 2012. Photograph: John Berens

DR: Just the words I’m using to conduct this conversation. I generally don’t think in terms of appropriation. I’ve done it occasionally over the past thirty years – a kind of Sunday appropriation – but even though such gestures have sometimes involved considerable effort and expense to carry out, I never take appropriation seriously. During the early years of my involvement with art, ‘85, ‘86, I was friendly with Richard Prince, which is comparable to being analyzed by Freud, I suppose, and our dialogue did influence some of the things I made in the those days. But even then I did it in such an oddball way – say, embedding in lucite all the books by horror/sci-fi writer David Robbins, that kind of thing. The look of the entire Ice Cream Social project, which lasted fifteen years, was based on the Baskin-Robbins color scheme and design motif, but that project was hardly “about appropriation.” I used appropriation for the comedy of it, and the weird effects on reality it sometimes produced. I didn’t care anything about the art history arguments that, to many, attach.

OW: From my experience, mostly as a student, appropriation was almost always presented and celebrated in its most serious/heavy form. I imagine your version of appropriation was met with some resistance. As much as I’d like to think of Duchamp’s mustache on the Mona Lisa as an irreverent, almost juvenile gesture, the discussion always moves away from that.

DR: Actually, Oli, my version of appropriation was enjoyed by people. The comedy of it was apparent – I knew what I was doing and why I was doing it, and acts of appropriation were just in the tool kit for the creation of comic coordinates. I was far more interested to contribute to comedy’s history than to art’s.
     Within the context of Mona Lisa, a moustache is amusing, whereas a moustache in the context of, say, Tom Selleck, isn’t. Context is absolutely basic to comedy’s operation. Just consider the way humor operates in a conversation: the thing said by Smith is funny in response to – within the context of – the thing uttered a moment ago by Jones. In the same way, shifting the context of an image, sound, or object can be a comedic gesture rather than a gesture that is in any way concerned with aesthetic matters. Comedy’s claim on using context as a material in this way – for resonant contextual shifts – pre-dates that of the aesthetic realm by thousands of years. Art is late to the appropriation party, so as far as I’m concerned we’re under no obligation to discuss “appropriation” from the aesthetic point of view. Of course we can, if you like.

OW: When I think of Tom Selleck’s mustache, I do feel the need to snicker. That is probably not “comedy” related. But there is some context established that makes me want to laugh. What is the Y factor? But I’m more interested to have you expand on the idea that comedy’s claim on context pre-dates aesthetics’. In terms of comedic gesture, if we shift the context of an image, or material, or authorship does someone or something have to be the butt of the joke? I’m thinking of comedy duos, and the dynamic between the straight man and the buffoon….

DR: Reality is the straight man. Comedy can’t happen in a vacuum, it’s always a response to some aspect or detail of reality – an aggressive response; that cream pie is a missile. Comedy is a critique of reality, so tension is in the DNA of their relationship. That said, reality is hugely complex, faceted, and hard to contain, right? God knows it can’t be reduced to the reality that gets printed in the newspaper. The “reality” that the comedian is addressing may be that enormous and obvious, sure, but it also may be as subtle, ephemeral and “unimportant” as the look you’re giving me now. The merest flick of a moment in time is sufficiently “real” to elicit a comedic response. A comedian’s ability to identify aspects of reality is as extraordinarily supple and flexible as it is because comedy is, ultimately, a sensibility. You either have that sensibility or you don’t. It can’t be taught – unlike the stuff known as “contemporary art”!

Two stills from Night Gallery: The Paintings, David Robbins & Andrew Swant, 2013

Two stills from Night Gallery: The Paintings, David Robbins & Andrew Swant, 2013

OW: In terms of our own production/making, it seems all of us are pretty flexible in identifying and using reality. The “straight man” is often something that has already been left several generations behind. I’m thinking here of your Night Gallery: The Paintings video… The “reality” to which you’re responding is, in this case, a constructed thing, a TV show. A level of tension already exists…

DR: Personally, Night Gallery: The Paintings is a late echo of my early days in New York, early ‘80s, when I had a fondness for silly ideas that involved re-situating existant media works – stuff like projecting both versions of the film Imitation of Life, the 1934 Claudette Colbert version and the 1959 re-make with Lana Turner, one on top of the other, overlapping. That habit of thought eventually faded out, so in a sense Night Gallery: The Paintings is something that I ought to have made in 1986, but back then digital technologies weren’t developed enough to efficiently realize a piece of that nature; it’s the kind of idea one might have had but not acted upon, yes? In truth, though, Night Gallery: The Paintings is an idea that surfaced in conversation with Andy last year, so we made it. Andy has a fresher, more consistent interest in media conventions than I.

AS: I’ve been into various kinds of appropriation my entire life, usually for comic effect – using Silly Putty to lift Sunday comics at age six, tracing characters from comic books and putting them in new situations or environments, later re-editing VHS movies to change the tone or meaning of a scene, for an audience that often consisted of my sister. It wasn’t until art school that I felt like I needed to showcase the act of appropriation, with requisite nods to art history, as part of the thing I was making. Before that, when I was making stuff for “fun,” the appropriation was basically a means to an end. And the context was very different – the appropriated material usually came from the entertainment or advertising industry and left my hands as some sort of comedy. There was no “art” in mind.

Andrew Swant, Doorstop, 2002; wood

Andrew Swant, Doorstop, 2002; wood

DR: RIght, just re-purposing or finding new entertainment possibilities for something you already like – because you like it, not because you’re deconstructing it. To get high sans drugs.

AS: Lately I’ve been really interested in the creativity that’s happening on the Internet. Photoshop or video editing programs are usually the main tools for it, most of the “work” is appropriated from pop culture, comedy is usually the end goal, and even though it’s often some sort of social commentary people are making it for fun! The makers rarely think of themselves as artists, there is usually no money involved, and often the work is done anonymously – no fame!

DR: And without any great concern for visual or material refinement, either. Just comedy refinement.

AS: Plus the context is kind of ambiguous – the original material can come from just about anywhere – entertainment, art, news, advertising – and the finished “piece” can end up just about anywhere – on TV, in a gallery, in the news, in an ad – but most of the time it just floats around the Internet and makes people laugh. You don’t always know who made it, or why, but it’s funny and that’s all that matters.

DR: In the way it emphasizes accessibility it’s akin to street art, with the Internet as the street. Brown Cardigan is, to my mind, the most pleasurable of these sites, delivering consistent hilarity with a misanthropic yet forgiving bent. Brown Cardigan is very wise about people. Whoever’s running that site has a great eye for our alternately beautiful/disturbing ridiculousness.

AS: There’s also something interesting about where this creative work on the Internet is being produced – namely, anywhere. There aren’t big, obvious hubs like NY or LA controlling its creation and distribution, it’s being made all over the place by any goofball with a computer and a whim. The creators might not be trained, or artists, but they’re actively creating visual material that usually revolves around appropriation. That seems like kind of a new, important development, right?

DR: I look at this class of stuff as mulch, laying the groundwork for the next evolutionary stage. We’re grinding up the forms of the last century and personalizing them, drawing them closer, seeing what use we really have for them, beyond their intended function. Also the phenomenon is indication that generations of people have acquired a taste for controlling the effects of the media that aims to control them. The flow isn’t only one-way, as it was back in, say, my parents’ generation. Audience struggle for its own version of control over media began in the 1960s. That was the Warhol revolution, really: the idea that anybody can now seize the means of reproduction – but Warhol wasn’t the only one doing it. Ken Kesey and the Pranksters did their version of it on the West Coast, plus there were the Diggers, the Yippies, John and Yoko – the counter-culture was highly media savvy. When the VCR arrives in the 1970s, the mass audience gains more control over the scheduling, consumption, and use of films and television. Finally the Internet comes along and the audience takes an even bigger leap, becoming prosumers – producer/consumers.

AS: Do you think this new Internet generation of makers takes this history into account when making their work – that they have the potential to control the media that looks to control them?

DR: Some, sure.

AS: Or do you think they’re just making work for ‘fun’?

DR: Most will be unaware of the historical sequence but I think all at least sense the power relationships. If it’s fun to take a fragment of popular media and twist it to make something else, why is it fun, right?, and part of the answer is that this “appropriation” is a game played with the “authors” – individual or corporate – who had the power to deliver those images and sounds to you. By the way, this egalitarian, DIY attitude comes out of Punk. It no longer looks stylistically punk, obviously, but the ethos comes out of Punk. It’s Punk’s lasting legacy.

AS: I think it’s interesting and ironic that we have this vast, open playing field/platform to create anything, but what we’ve chosen to create so far has mainly been appropriated material from mainstream media, past and present. Is it just familiar/comfortable material for people to use, because it’s already loaded with cultural meaning? Is it just an easy target because it’s so readily available?

Duchamp Readymade

Bottle-dryer, 1914

DR: I’d answer that by rewinding to the first “official” appropriation: Duchamp’s Bottlerack, which re-contextualized a manufactured, therefore cultural object. The Bottlerack readymade was an amused response to the initially traumatic abstraction that the Industrial Revolution had imposed on the West a few decades earlier. Nowadays aren’t we still responding to an environment that’s organized around a machine aesthetic of systems and technologies? Sure. That our “Bottlerack” now happens to be found images and sounds doesn’t affect the fundamental transaction of identifying something as “readymade” and then re- or de-contextualizing it. Seems to me.

AS: I agree. And I think it’s interesting that humor is a very common vehicle/convention that’s attached to these pieces. All three of us use it in our work. And humor is what makes most online videos go viral. Is there something about incorporating humor that makes a piece more palatable for the masses? Or does it just increase the word-of-mouth potential?

DR: Good question. Humor is an involuntary response. In that sense humor depends less on learned or specialized languages, so it’s less elitist.

OW: Humor can also be very disarming. Laughter often seems to be an instinctual reflex of being forced into a moment of confusion, anxiety, fear or discomfort. I’m drawn to this confusion. Why did I laugh at that event, object, or moment? Upon reflection, it might not be funny at all.

DR: When you’re appropriating something, Oli, why are you using that strategy? Are you “working on” something in the manner of an “artistic practice” or are you engaging appropriation more as a reflex, i.e. “I like this, it would be funny if I moved it over here…”? What is it about appropriation, as an action, that gives you a charge? I assume that you somehow identify yourself in the gesture…?

Oli Watt, Le Penseur, 2013; neon

Oli Watt, Le Penseur, 2013; neon

OW: Like you, I don’t consistently think in terms of appropriating. I’ve always gravitated toward printed forms, and tend to focus on any printed matter I encounter in real and fictional spaces. My initial interest is probably similar to a painter doing a still life. I examine what the printed thing is, how it’s made, what its attitude seems to be –

DR: Its ego.

OW: –and what the original maker might have been thinking about or not thinking about…. Then I treat it like I’m a band performing a cover song. I recreate it in hopes of internalizing it and better understanding it.

DR: And changing it somehow? 

OW: Usually something happens during the process of remaking. Sometimes the engagement with materials suggests an alteration to the form or the attitude of the original. Other times, I simply make a copy. It’s all usually based on a selfish need to engage the properties of what is ultimately someone else’s creation.

DR: Why is that important to you? Do you know?

OW: I don’t know for sure, but part of the interest is probably born out of jealousy – I wish I had the imagination to invent that thing – and then part of me wants to extend its life by re-presenting it, and possibly broaden its audience.

DR: Are you aware of any sort of power transfer in the act of appropriation, when you adopt it? I’m asking, because on the coasts appropriation has tended to be subversive, combative, and purposeful. Warhol confusing advertising and art, Richard Prince’s games with image-authorship, Sherrie Levine’s attack on masculinist modernism, Paul McCarthy’s perverse Disney stuff – in one way or another all of it slyly confronts power, and transfers power to the artist. Appropriation wasn’t an aesthetic strategy innovated in the heartland, it was made in Manhattan, where people have jobs creating images – for advertising, books and magazines, what have you – intended to play on a national scale; within that context appropriation was a powerful decision. In Milwaukee, its invention wouldn’t have read as powerfully, if at all. The civic and cultural life of the U.S. is still run from and by the coasts. There the sense that specific people hold institutional, cultural, political, or economic power – and what it really means to hold such power – is more acute, so artists and writers living on the coasts have a keener sense of cultural politics, and of using aesthetic strategies to wrest or gain control. In the Midwest the notion of “power” is a much more abstract, quasi-mythical, long-distance force than it is on the coasts, so artists here have a different relation to power. Consequently, acts of appropriation here don’t have as inflamed an anxiety about power, and that allows something else to play out – something less dire, more playful, and more difficult to name. I wonder if you’ve given thought to this…

OW: You mentioned earlier that you appropriate for comedy and weird effects. If there is too much control and concern with power, it would be hard to achieve those results.

DR: Comedy and power are anathema, you’re right. While a powerful figure may conceivably have a sense of humor about himself, the exercise of power is a humorless, sometimes deadly business. And a comedian isn’t interested in accruing power, since to do so is to increase the number of vested interests he’s obligated to protect – an impulse that runs entirely counter to the interests of comedy. Comedy is, at core, anarchic, even if it’s sometimes costumed in finery.

OW: Out of respect for the source material, I’ve always favored a more modest approach. Less editorializing, less aesthetic intervention…

DR: How much aesthetic intervention is, to you, too much?

OW: Using the analogy of the cover song again, too much intervention makes the object point towards me as the maker/artist, and takes focus off of the original idea and the context in which it was created. We often hear the argument that the cover version is better than the original. In some cases, that may be true. But there always exists some quality in the original that prompted the cover artist to adopt it – and I tend to believe that quality is closely related to the context in which it was created.


Oli Watt, Black Jacques, 2000; lithograph, realized after the Bugs Bunny cartoon Bonanza Bunny (Warner Bros., 1959).

DR: I own a delightful piece of yours–a playing card that originally figured in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, which you then re-created in three-dimensional form. Wonderful! Would you say that you consistently identify imagined artifacts in animated cartoons and displace them in this manner? Is that a consistent strategy for you?

OW: It is pretty consistent, yes. I have always considered the time I spend watching cartoons with my kids as my primary “research”. The inventions and conventions of that impossible two-dimensional world are really seductive. Sometimes I see something in the narrative and just know that it can exist in actual space. Then I try to figure out how to make it. I’ve translated objects from other fictions as well. I created sand-blasted wine bottles based on the drinking behavior of characters in John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flats and actualized props (t-shirts and kitsch signs) from Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver. Whenever I’m engaged with a text, I try to pay attention to objects or concepts that help drive the story but might be forgotten as the narrative progresses. Sometimes, it feels very selfish, in that I pick and choose where I point my lens regardless of how the rest of the audience experiences these props. But it’s not that different than other artists engaging their materials.

DR: To realize a narrative prop in three-dimensions – is that in order to substantiate the fictional realm or to fictionalize our own, or…?

OW: I’d say it’s a little bit of both. It used to be clear to me that cartoons, comics, caricature and other stretches of “truths” were really based on something actual. But it seems that this dynamic goes both ways in so many forms of contemporary culture. The cartoons seem to influence, and to some degree, become the reality.

DR: Oli’s take on appropriation involves, at some level, re-creation. He transposes the source material, which is frequently mass media, into another material key – fine art media and venues. To achieve this end, particular skills – let’s call them refinement skills – come into play. In terms of a relation between popular media and fine art media, this is a classical structuring, one could argue – something from outside the art context is brought into the art context. By contrast, the kind of appropriation that Andy is citing – the new, pervasive sort of internet-based appropriation from digital sources – returns these to the distribution venue, the Internet, from which they were sourced. They’re not transposed into another material key, really – except sometimes from one digital form to another, say that of a video excerpt converted into a gif. So if the transformational event of this latter kind of appropriation work isn’t in material terms, what’s the transformational event? What has changed through the act of appropriating it?

AS: I’d say that the the transformational event is usually timing-related and/or humor-related. The maker is watching a movie or TV show, something is seen that triggers a creative spark, they single out that scene or movement or frame, they loop the footage, or reverse it, or add a new audio track, or new subtitles, or juxtapose it with some other footage, and put it on the Internet, usually just to make people laugh. Sometimes you have to be familiar with the source material to get it, sometimes you don’t. But often times people are adding humor where there was none. Or riffing off somebody else’s attempt to do what I just described – either trying to out-do them, or offering a slightly different take on the situation.

OW: What I find most beautiful about the internet-based form of appropriation is that the notion of authorship gets pushed even farther out of the picture. Anyone can participate, and almost everyone does. It’s a highly democratic, almost perverse “everyone’s an artist” version of Joseph Beuys. However, the consequences are very unclear. You fellows, because you are not as concerned about the fine art audience’s response while you are working on projects, probably approach your practice in a less self-conscious manner. This makes me jealous! I should probably just appropriate your methods.

DR: We’ve talked some about strategy but what about subject matter? Either of you have consistent subject matter or at least stuff you’re consistently drawn to?

AS: I tend to use subjects that have already been appropriated to some degree. Some of my early paintings were riffing off paintings by Rauschenberg, Lichtenstein, and Warhol, because I was interested in what they were riffing off of, and the act of riffing itself. Right now I’m working on a film version of Hamlet with Bobby Ciraldo. We picked Hamlet because we read that it was considered by many to be the best narrative of all time, and because it’s been performed and reinterpreted more than any other narrative; Shakespeare based it on a play that was based on a story that was based on a legend. I’m not sure why I’m drawn to that kind of source material, but maybe it has something to do with transparency? Our Hamlet will be a comedy instead of a tragedy. We also bought the remake rights to a low-budget horror film from the early 1980s, but we’re remaking it as a comedy instead of a horror film.

OW: I have a similar approach as Andy: I use material that has already been used and often abused. But I don’t really try to make things funny, as much as I like to look at what is traditionally considered funny, or certain tropes and foundations of jokes. I spend time looking at comic strip panels that are based on repeated situations – the crawling people in the desert who need water, a surrender flag, the conversations of the two shipwreck survivors on a small island with one palm tree, or the conversations of two drunks sitting at a bar. What about you, David?

False Ending 2010 for web

David Robbins, Four False Endings, 2010; acrylic on canvas, four panels

DR: Since I gave up the exhibition model I don’t have any kind of schedule for production, so the art-practice notion that there’s some subject I’m “working on” doesn’t really apply. I just live, and wait to net an idea that seems worth doing. The False Endings seemed to me worth doing because I live in a suburb, I’m interested in going against the dismissive attitude toward the suburb that the avant garde has traditionally adopted–at this stage of the culture it’s far more interesting to do what I do against the backdrop of an American suburb than against the backdrop of Williamsburgh – and that stance translates, sometimes, into an attunement to subjects or situations that read as “suburban.” Driving around the suburbs you encounter a lot of stop signs. They regulate. They maintain order. The State is the author of these signs but who was the design author? How was it decided that these ubiquitous regulating signs should have adopted the look they did? I thought it would be good comedy to make works that respected the visual rules of the stop sign but relaxed those rules enough to become something else – ”false endings.”

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