Interview with Christopher Robbins


I’m continuing to feature an ongoing series of interviews and studio visits with other makers/artisans/crafters. If you would like to introduce yourself and your work to a growing Deep Craft network, I invite you to visit the PARTICIPATE page of this site. Meanwhile, allow me to introduce you to artist Christopher Robbins.

DC: Describe what you do as a maker/artisan.

CR: I like to make things that work against themselves, to sidle objects, or crafts, or tools with dreams that aren’t good for them – or me – and then try to realize those dreams for them. Really try.

DC: Was there a childhood experience that you believe influenced you later or led you in a particular direction regarding craft or making?

CR: Well. Nothing mechanical ever really seemed to work right in my house growing up. We used a crescent wrench to open and close the kitchen faucet as a ‘temporary’ fix for much of junior high, “until we find the right replacement.” This was an aesthetic decision; it wasn’t poverty-driven.
This left 2 major impacts on what I do today:
1) an inventiveness towards workarounds using whatever materials are at hand
2) a manic insecurity that if something isn’t done now, and completely, it will never get done, which adds an  unnecessarily urgent energy to everything I do. Everything. Even tying my shoes. Or answering this question.

DC: What was the biggest obstacle you had to overcome to gain proficiency with a material or set of skills? Did you have a ‘breakthrough’ moment?

CR: Realizing that every material has a history, a way it’s been used before, and popular stereotypes about how it ‘ought’ to be used, and that these can become its personality, to create a character that I have to deal with. As if I am helping it with its goals, where ‘it’ is an inanimate object I’ve sidled with what I believe are everyone else’s expectations for the thing, or materials, or act.
DC: Do you have any superstitions connected with making?
CR: If you don’t do it all yourself, you are weaker for it. This is a doubly-dehabilitating superstition.


DC: What comes first when you are making – formal constraints, functional parameters, a gesture, etc.?
CR: I start with something I see that I love that I think has gone astray, and I try to save it.

DC: Describe an ideal day in the studio.
CR: At the end of the day I am physically exhausted and vibrating (?)  mentally. I’ve got some new calluses, and some sun or windburn, and the shower water comes off me dirty, and I’m psyched to hop on the computer and draw or animate what I just made.

DC: What attracts you to a certain handmade thing?

CR: Wood. Stout. Round. Worn. You can tell what its been used for, and that its being used for something else now. Or should be.

DC: Do you have a favorite thing?


Christopher’s favorite thing

DC: Do you have a favorite tool? Why?
CR: Sawzall (reciprocating saw). Because it is the closest thing we have to a light sabre.
I don’t use it much, but when  I do: bliss!



DC: What is the favorite thing you’ve ever made? Why?

CR: That would be the sheet of plywood I was left with after I made a tree from plywood, planted it outside, chopped it down, and milled it back into a sheet of plywood. I returned that sheet to Home Depot. All I have is the receipt now.
Why? Cuz I got to make it and destroy it and it still existed! It was gorgeous and an adventure and a trick and fun and hard and I got to use a chainsaw too.



DC: When making something where is your concentration- on the present activity or on its desired result, or something else altogether?
CR: I am indelibly stuck in the moment. But this is not “Zen” at all. It’s probably the opposite of Zen. Whatever I am doing at any point in time, everything I am is fixated on that with a frenetically focused energy, no matter what it is: sanding a piece of wood, pouring frozen yogurt into a cone, trying to drill through metal with a sheetrock screw on a raft balancing against waves on a windy day…

DC: Is there any material, tool or technique that really intrigues you that you’ve never gotten around to learning? What’s interesting to you about this?

CR: I really dig that molded cardboard stuff, with lots of air in it. The stuff they make disposable cupholders at a stadium from, or sometimes strangely shaped packing material. I’d love to make things out of that – but I don’t know what yet. So, I haven’t started. I guess I could set up some sort of residency at a factory that manufactures that stuff. Let the material and equipment drive it, though I’ve never really embraced that ‘let it happen’ approach to making. But the best way to start is to begin, so what am I waiting for?
I like it because it is quotidian but really totally out of this world. It’s a banal material with a pretty shitty rep, so I want to save it.


one horse

DC: Where do you find inspiration? How does this come out in the work?

CR: Things that undo themselves – something that is its own opposite, and still works. Stridently embracing hypocrisy.  Mixing up land and sea. Things that float.  Stuff with holes in it. Stuck in between. A massive snowdrift in a parking lot.
Aha! By Martin Gardner

DC: Where do you see yourself in relation to the current trends towards sustainability, DIY, craft, etc.? How has your relationship to these things changed over time?
CR: I worry about becoming a series of illustrations.
You see, I like when it is clear how something was made, when its workings are essentially exposed. That is a vital part of DIY or sustainability, but I also appreciate it like that Willie Nelson song, “when you see how all the pieces fit, as you watch them fall apart.” Meaning, I see the feebleness in any gesture, when it’s really built for the duration of a show, or simply for documentation, or as an (ugh) example. I guess I want to build habit of use into the things I make, but I consciously chose art as opposed to development to focus my life on, so creating change or setting some example is not what I’m in this for. It’s got to be lived, and real change is a boring, day by day, totally unsexy thing. It’s important, but it’s rarely clever.


DC: Where do you place yourself in relation to a craft tradition or heritage? Could you talk a bit about your primary influences related to craft?
CR: Once I wished I was Nakashima. Then I decided to be Simon Starling. Now I’m an ADDHD Construction worker who’s got Puryear and Mike Kelley stuck in his craw, with Trinh Minh Ha quietly presiding over it all.
<rant begins> I’ve only recently realized that the conceits and paradoxes of international community development have more of a bearing on how I think and work than any material or craft.
That probably sounds totally pompous and misguided, but look at it this way:

Many contemporary generations – from the pottery barn crowd to the received nostalgia for the 80’s gang, to people who watch Ken Burns or listen to Ira Glass – have a misplaced nostalgia for the worn, for remnants. I’m part of this, too. So, I’m in West Africa buying masks that look old but aren’t – it’s bad to buy masks if they’re actually old; that’s like tomb raiding. So, artisans are making fake old for people like me ,  masks that stink of kerosene from their aging process, which’ve been purposefully broken to show their age. I mean, there’s paint in the cracks. So there’s fake old that’s fooling nobody, though we all politely pretend it does for each other’s sake, and that’s exactly what it is supposed to do, so it can sit comfortably within my post colonial conscience.
And then this same Artisan makes stuff for actual rituals taking place today in rural Africa, and they’ve got shards of CD-roms in them, plastic shiny bits: that’s what the Africans are using.
All right, now add to that the fact that my job is to “develop” this community. I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer who literally asked his Director for the National Geographic version of Africa, please.  You know, mud hut, no running water, no electricity. Never mind I had to drive in his air-conditioned Land Rover past pizza places, people selling French versions of Scrabble on the street and driving motorcycles to get there. I got there.
So, I’m there, wanting to live like my image of an African, but there’s a very different reality of what it actually is to be an African. And I’m supposed to “develop” this community I’ve chosen to live in because its not “developed.” And this has to happen without destroying what is so amazing about this place – the fact that it is not American, that life is shared, people take care of each other, know how to do for themselves, process is necessarily transparent.
So, in terms of making, I know the meaning of the material comes from how it was extracted, where it comes from, how it is used, what it can become, and I know that this all changes in different hands and different cultures. And then I’ve got my own roles I play in order to work with different materials or contexts, and its all relative. As a result, I’m an unrepentant relativist – I believe in the opposite of everything I believe, and I know, if it’s the only thing I do know, that I really don’t know what I’m talking about.
So, where does that put me in relation to Puryear’s riffs on traditional African masks in wood or Nakashima working wood so it remains “true” to the tree, or the actual African guy making a different set of masks for the tourists – those are the fake authentic ones, and for locals – the ones with new materials? Basically, it makes me want to avoid craft as a well-made thing that purportedly has a purpose (but is really made for a gallery). It makes me want to turn away from symbolic objects and instead make fucked up tools that show how you’re living, and that affect how you’re living.
Like a stool made from what you’ve got – a traffic cone, a rivet gun, a sawzall. I’d most like to pretend I’m that African Artisan guessing what authenticity means to different people and doing it just wrong enough. Except that I don’t want to make masks. I want to make stools.</rant ends>

6 replies on “Interview with Christopher Robbins”

  1. “Basically, it makes me want to avoid craft as a well-made thing that purportedly has a purpose (but is really made for a gallery). It makes me want to turn away from symbolic objects”

    albatross? seems to be exactly that- did you really think you would drag it all the way to the ocean, or in the back of your mind did you know how it was going to turn out, with the albatross house in a museum?

  2. Spot on re: Albatross House.

    A lot of this rant is a cautionary tale to myself, trying to negotiate the space between a symbolic part of life that’s lived, and a symbolic act that’s acted, and how the objects involved in that part of life can matter after the fact.

    I’d think the Albatross would look great wedged into a tiny white-walled gallery on the west-coast, but I’d want to push it there. Or at least keep trying, accept all kinds of help along the way, but make the story true.

  3. I Guess I’ll start with a couple if questions.

    “Why? Cuz I got to make it and destroy it and it still existed!” At what point do you considered yourself to have “destroyed” this piece, and how for you does it still exist?

    “I see the feebleness in any gesture, when it’s really built for the duration of a show, or simply for documentation, or as an (ugh) example.” What is it for you exactly that is “feeble” in what others might describe as a fleeting?

    Your work, like your rant have a slow and interesting build up to their narratives, they function in a way that exposes those manic qualities you spoke of earlier. It gives them all a wonderful tension that is contagious for the viewer and at times leaves the reality around you and the work in eminent danger of collapse. Then you find a way out, “that I really don’t know what I’m talking about”, the tension fades and we are left holding the bag wondering who is responsible for what just happened. So I ask who is responsible and why? Is this fleeting or feeble?

    What qualifies the nostalgia you speak of as misplaced? What does masks, fake old or truly old, have to do with post-colonialism and are you sure its nostalgia at work in peoples desire for these masks?

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