Robert McKenzie I want to begin at the very beginning. Can you tell me where you grew up and how you came to live in New York?
Robert Bittenbender So I mainly grew up in this quasi-Rust Belt area of Pennsylvania that had transitioned from heavy manufacturing to these incredibly insipid light industries, like regional distribution centers for all the Walgreens in the BosWash corridor and plants that package Deer Park spring water onto pallets for sale at Sam’s Club and things like that. I always say that the spirit of the place is summed up by this casino that opened fairly recently in the old Bethlehem Steel plant, which was the second largest steel company in the United States. It’s a casino and outlet mall that has a lazily-conceived factory theme, like the lights hanging from the ceiling are made to resemble molten rods of steel and there’s a bar called “Coil” with some kind of giant industrial decoration. Some of the staff but particularly the clientele are the kind of blue collar guys whose fathers or grandfathers could’ve conceivably worked in the building while it was an actual factory but now have some less lucrative and emasculated job in an office park or are blackjack dealers or whatever. So the place has a feeling of a kind of hazy metaphorical compression of downward mobility in the neoliberal age which is a little surreal if you’re thinking about those types of things but is totally mediocre and boring otherwise. It’s extremely white and moderately religious and conservative which is as stifling as you’d imagine. I was hassled a lot for being an effeminate child but in retrospect it’s not Mississippi. My family went through this bizarre period of extreme devout Christianity when I lived with them, which has had some residual effects like this kind of superstitious, anti-intellectual anxiety. I hated it and everyone there, and would take the bus into New York all the time. I was very aware of it becoming increasingly expensive and wanted to get in before I was priced out. I was obsessed with gentrification and really into “Old New York.” I moved here three years after I graduated high school to attend a free college that isn’t free anymore and I lived alone and frightened in this kind of trashed beautiful spacious railroad apartment in Bushwick that I found on Craigslist that my landlord let me pay $500 a month for because I seemed like a nice young man and he would keep some boxes in the middle bedroom. I only mention the living situation because it really afforded me a lot of free time without that much financial pressure which is obviously not how most young people who aren’t independently wealthy experience the city. It really made me acutely aware of how work is at best a waste of time and sometimes evil, gave me a sense of this boho life that was very precarious. I felt very defensive against interests of capital that seemed to threaten my own lifestyle, I would literally lash out and yell at people who seemed symptomatic of those interests or more adjusted to the expectations those systems place on a person, which I’m obviously complicit in. I walked around with this victimized self-understanding.
McKenzie Your description oscillates between realism and romanticism. The tension, which you describe in your relationship to the city, also exists in your artwork. Can you discuss how this affects the art that you make? And has your perspective changed at all?
Bittenbender Well, that makes me think about how I’m often “out in the streets” like I was writing you from the Apple Store earlier, and now I’m sitting in a gay bar during happy hour next to a man trying to explain what an Art History adjunct is and discussing the new Whitney with a fashion goth who made an unsolicited pass at him. I hope that offers an excuse for this response’s scatteredness and suggests a reason for my exasperation in general. I guess the inclination to be wandering around or lazily running errands or hanging out has shaped the pace and means through which I gather materials. Using urban trash obviously has a lot of historical associations, but it’s not solely about garbage’s relationship to a commodity or about making art out of life or whatever, it’s really about access i.e. what’s been financially accessible to me thus far. That said, I guess this way of working is a form of appropriation, referencing an historical style that has been associated with New York and simultaneously stylistically gentrified and assisted in the gentrification of cities across the globe ie a funky East Village garbage aesthetic that makes urban squalor seem tolerable or even desirable or an industrial loft aesthetic. I think in the current freakish stage of redevelopment it would make intuitive sense to be using luxury bathroom fixtures or a Maclaren stroller or whatever but I guess I’m more interested in the historical construction of the romantic idea of urban life that allowed the middle class to reappropriate cities and how art is complicit in that process i.e. Rauschenberg enabled RENT and Cats on Broadway. I think some of my impulses are sepia-toned or “distressed,” I guess that kind of allows me to deal with these feelings that are very visceral but obviously dubious and a product of self-interest.
McKenzie You are well aware of the art historical allusions at stake in your work, for instance you mention Robert Rauschenberg. I also think of your work in relation to the junk bohemian sculptures of Bruce Connor or the pop-assemblage works of Lee Bontecou, I would even include the sculptural works of David Wojnarowicz, where he painted on found pieces of wood or made sculptures from the skulls of animals. This list is very American and except for Bruce Connor, even specific to New York and the North-East. To me it is not a coincidence that I also think of you as a very American artist.
Bittenbender I mean all of those artists were dealing with I think an initial problem with access, i.e. financial access which is a gross overgeneralization, although they all had access to more affordable rents and more space than we do right now. I feel like they share an urgency that doesn’t feel like it comes solely from trying to engage with an art audience. I guess the common ground between all of those artists was that they were trying to compress all of these aspects of their emotional life and environment into something discrete. David Wojnarowicz was an activist but he was also just profoundly and rightfully angry and angsty, and there’s this art therapy element to his work which is not meant to diminish it. Robert Rauschenberg had maybe a more formalized idea of that, literally trying to collapse art and life, which is obviously trying to key into some avant-garde trajectory, but I feel like some of the references are really moving, like the allusive and symbolic references to Jasper Johns, both his relationship with him and with his work. It’s maybe cliché to say that the way he made work evolved out of gay secrecy and coding, but that has to do with a lack of access as well, lack of access to a dominant language, disenfranchisement that isn’t solely financial.
Lee Bontecou is the one closest to my heart. Using that brutal industrial material speaks so much to this post-industrial decay which she was working in and which is now like the most haute bourgeois aesthetic, like raw loft, but the patina in her work really established a paradigm in which that aesthetic could be gentrified. She recreates cities in that early work, it’s like this miniature map of some Blade Runner city or it’s an architectural detail from Hell’s City Hall or it’s some futuristic paddy wagon or some avant-garde garbage disposal. She’s walking around the city collecting all this shit and dragging it back to her loft and envisioning some unpleasant future that she is helping create by shaping this aesthetic sensibility. It’s really this kind of beautiful conceptual gesture that collapses on itself, her subjectivity, particularly as a woman is simultaneously absent and present in that they’re so mute and feel like appropriations, but you can’t remove yourself as a viewer from this image of her shaping them or whatever. It feels like it has all the associations and emotions and histories of Joseph Cornell, but it’s far more mute. What do you think the American connection is Rob? Kind of hard for me to theorize, though I could say it’s an unstable culture, there’s a very thin social safety net really, and it’s a working culture, people in America really believe in meritocracy, though that I feel is changing, people are being worn down. Also, America is really feral, people really are ignorant and sheltered, some of them may be lovely people but they’re truly misguided which can be terrifying, so to escape to a place with like-minded people is one option or isolating yourself is another, the options feel very polar and harsh.
McKenzie From my perspective America sort of invented waste, uselessness and the discarded, and the system here really allows that to become part of the economy… it’s more profitable not to use something and instead to buy something new. What I think as being extremely American about your work is the casualness with which you accept this phenomenon. Its not exotic to you, it simply exists as your reality. It reminds me how Pop Art never really worked in France or Italy, where Marisol made it too fashionable and chic and Schifano made it too quaint or pretty. This is one aspect that makes me think of your work as being very American.
I wanted to ask you about your peer group. You have often shown with friends from New York and in large group exhibitions. Do you feel certain affinities to the other young artists around you or do you understand your work more in the context of other artists not personally familiar to you?
Bittenbender Oh, that’s interesting. It makes me think of how that readiness to discard extends beyond a discussion about Wal-Mart, and into how that relationship to commodities shapes more abstract behavior like compulsions. Like I really associate addiction, or more specifically addiction recovery culture with America. Of course there are junkies in Tehran and Bowery bums in Oslo and everywhere else in the world, and I really don’t know how the rates compare, but it seems like there’s this ingrained conditioning to mirror this rapid consumption and simultaneously it’s in this culture that’s inhospitable to things that hinder being effective and supportive to the system. And of course submitting to sobriety is just a transference of salvation, giving your soul to Jesus. And compulsive behavior and addiction has this like black celebration in media and popular culture obviously, but it’s set aside for exceptional people, for normal people its transgressive status is rejected by the conditions that form it. I don’t really relate to Thomas Hirschorn or Bjarne Melgaard’s respective relationships to waste culture or whatever, I feel like they have kinda cartoonish relationships to it, so yeah maybe I agree with you about American junk.
As far as my peers, I mean it’s always more complicated when something is being produced under the same conditions that you’re experiencing. I think a lot of personal insecurities cloud opinions of contemporary work. Like it’s easy for me to love Lee Bontecou and rave about her work and talk about it in this abstract way because she made it in a completely different world that has a few physical vestiges remaining, like old people, she’s still alive, and buildings, possibly the buildings she made her work in. So my reception of her work, and my thoughts on it, and how it influences what I do, is much less prejudiced and therefore less icky feeling than responding to contemporary work. I care about a lot of things other than contemporary art and I’m not like a dedicated superfan of it anyway, so sometimes it’s hard to engage with people’s work unless you know them and their thoughts and intentions personally. So yes I can definitely understand what I’m doing as existing within a shared set of conditions and am influenced by the people around me who I love and respect, but it’s hard to compare that level of influence to maybe some more distant things that one cares about. It’s also maybe sometimes I’m more apt to think about music or a book I like as some kind of standard. I’m blown away by some of the things people around me are doing but I’m not interested in conforming whatever it is that I’m doing to some call and response dialogue. Like really particular things or pieces of things that are around me affect me greatly. I guess I’m worried about sounding mean now, which isn’t my intention, I’m just trying to reiterate that it’s one of many things I’m interested in, and I try to like not let one area of interest deplete my interest in another, I guess it’s an attempt to retain perspective.
McKenzie I think of your work as being quite intuitive, informed by a sensibility or by feelings rather than a specific conceptual rationale. Your work avoids many of the tropes of conceptual and neo-conceptual art. Was that a conscious choice?
Bittenbender Not really consciously avoiding them, but that you’re even referring to them as tropes makes me think of that set of references as being aestheticized in a kind of polluted way or just completely reified. Like I was trying to say earlier, the lineage of junk sculpture or assemblage is one means of connecting the work to things I’m interested in, that I guess primarily exist intellectually. Maybe I’m interested in understanding this kind of gentrified, very mediated social and physical environment we’re currently inhabiting and understanding what freedoms or possibilities for experiences have been lost, which is inherently a little sentimental. So maybe that kind of contemplation isn’t well suited for a more direct kind of didactic, neo-conceptual form.
I also think I have a different relationship to objects, like my tendency isn’t really to understand an object as autonomous and having this set of associations that I can work with, that is I don’t really think of things in this classically appropriation dialogue, or maybe I do a little bit but it’s always tempered by other affinities. So I guess it makes sense to kind of overload what I’m making with competing signifiers.
There’s also a lot of artifice in certain decisions, for example I sometimes use these rubber tubes that are most obviously recognized as tourniquets for junkies. I guess I’m interested in that association, this kind of degraded negative Romanticism that I’m buying at Canal Rubber, but I also like them because they have this fleshy quality. There are multiple things like that going on, but I’m not that interested in like tying one of those tourniquets to a duct in the ceiling and discussing the white washing of junkie aesthetics in contemporary urban life. Maybe that overloading is connected to me having a sort of disgust towards these epiphanies I have regarding materials, them being small or trite or incorrect. But those ideas eventually come out, there’s a tendency for anything that I consider “finished” to have a representational quality, like they’re not abstract compositions, they’re a representation of a body or some kind of interior architecture or maybe something a little more nebulous, but they always have this reciprocal relationship with the materials ie some kind of body made out of those aforementioned tourniquets. I guess that resembles some kind of traditional way of understanding a work of art as being aligned with ways of processing conceptual art, I think there’s an accumulation of interests that doesn’t lend itself to a very clear mode of presentation.
McKenzie I think you articulated very well something that I had sort of felt in your work. It is this very appealing balance between intellect and intuition where both are working together and not in conflict. It’s refreshing and makes me very optimistic about the possibility for contemporary art!
When I visited your studio there were objects and materials and old photographs in piles scattered around everywhere and on the floor even. You also leave pieces seemingly half finished for months while working on something else, waiting for the moment you are excited about it again. Is there a method here? And is there something that you are particularly captivated by in the studio at the moment?
Bittenbender I mean I have this slovenly tendency to be honest, which is like a personal aside but maybe relevant. Like my mother is messy, not dirty at all, but she’s disorganized and hates tidying up. When I was a little boy I would clean the house all day in this nurturing little gay boy way. Looking back I think it’s interesting because she never worked that much ever, not in like a rich housewife way, more that she hated working, almost to a financially ruinous point and there’s this tradition of lower middle class stay-at-home moms that persists that justified her opting out of the workforce. So my father is very neat, which I think is related to him coming from a very poor background, not to make a heavy-handed psychological postulation but his father was a janitor and I think he just doesn’t feel entitled to leave a mess. But he didn’t really clean either since he worked all the time, so it was either me cleaning, or when they could afford it this low-rent cleaning service called Merry Maids, or my mother doing it begrudgingly. So my childhood had periods of borderline squalor, and maybe I subconsciously return to that.
I guess it’s related to what you were saying earlier about America being a culture that necessitates waste. That kind of squalor is about too many possessions, it’s not inherently dirty but definitely dusty. There’s this hoarding impulse, like “maybe I’ll have a need for this one day.” The intention is rooted in not being wasteful, preparing for scarcity. Having that much shit is a huge psychological burden, you have to try to keep an inventory in your head of everything you own. Periodically I feel so crazy because I’m thinking of the shambles my living quarters are in, and I clean it up and feel soothed. As far as my work space being squalid, I suppose I allow that in a performative way. I think you’re being very generous, mentioning the found photographs on the floor and not the empty beer cans or empty plastic bags. On another level, I’m actually just messy, there’s actual garbage rooting about. The fact that it just exists in a pile has a homogenizing effect that has been helpful. Sometimes I pull something out that was discarded by me, and I end up having some use for it. So there is some recycling element or, even better, upcycling.