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Using Language Against Itself: An Interview with Robbie Conal, ArtBurn

Scott Thill

You've seen them. Garish black and white caricatures of Real Important white guys (OK, sometimes a couple black ones) in their suits, smart-ass wordplay posted above their head like death sentences. There's Kenneth Starr, the "Starr Fucker," and George W. Bush, "The Fossil Fool." The humor is palpable, but the art is about as in-your-face as art with nothing else but faces can get. Such are the strange loopholes that populate the guerilla street art of Robbie Conal. A self-described "stone cold hippie" that's been plastering his brash slams on corrupt politicians, greedy rich assholes, and compromised figureheads for at least a couple decades now, Robbie Conal has attracted the attention of fellow homies like The Coup and Pearl Jam as quickly as he has the wine-and-cheese art crowd and deep thinkers like Howard Zinn. But it's not going to his head, especially now that the conscientious punkers at Akashic Books have released a compilation of his L.A. Weekly work, called ArtBurn. After all, he's gotta keep his eyes on the free expression and social change prize, and rubbing elbows with People of Importance isn't going to accomplish that. Gluing hilarious pictures to the sides of banks, government buildings and freeway overpasses will do fine, thank you.

PopMatters: So which ArtBurns do you like the most?
Robbie Conal: I really like "Enronergizer Bunny," which is Dick Cheney with bunny ears. My favorite! And then there's a double one of Al Gore and George W. from the 2000 election called "Tastes Like Chicken" and "The Other White Meat."

PM: Bush looks just like Alfred E. Neuman in that one.
RC: He does. "What, me worry," right? But then there are subjects I wouldn't get to in the guerilla street posters, like the one of Charlton Heston called "Guns and Moses." Or the John Rocker poster that says, "Eat More Possum." I don't really know what that means but it seems appropriate.

PM: You're one of the brave souls that dared to make fun of Attorney General John Ashcroft. Do you think people are scared of him?
RC: I think people are scared of Ashcroft, and rightly so. A couple of my guerrillas were arrested in Santa Monica a month ago. When we were having a meeting with a national guild of lawyers that had volunteered to help us, there was this 25-year-old woman who had just graduated from the Annenberg School of Communication who was nervous, because she had never been busted for anything and she was thinking this might jeopardize her career. I was trying to calm her down, telling her, "You can't be afraid of you country's justice system." But then one of the lawyers said, "I'm an attorney and I'm afraid!" That didn't really help.

PM: Thanks for the backup!
RC: Yeah, thanks for covering my back! With a knife.

PM: Does you ever envision a day where people finally say, "Fuck all these guys in suits"? RC: You said it! You could quote me using your words. But you have to be an optimist to do this. Even though it's a satirical form -- and most of it is ironically nasty when it's working the best -- you have to be an optimist. I don't think it's a result of anything I do, but the American public is a lot hipper than the political establishment thinks. If we just keep expressing how we feel in public, then things will change.

PM: Do you think, at least in art circles, that poster art or animation isn't given the respect it deserves?
RC: I don't really care about that. I have one foot in the art world and one foot way outside of it, so I'm kinda doing the splits. I'm assuming the position! And I've got a lot of people with me, so thinking about getting respect from the art world for comics or my kind of street art or graffiti is being unclear on the concept. I think all of this stuff is more powerful in a populist way, and the underground is bubbling.

It's like hip-hop -- it's there whether the dominant power structure wants it to be or not. The guys in N.W.A. never got played on the radio; they sold tapes rights out of their cars. When I moved to L.A., I thought I'd get along great with independent filmmakers, that maybe the posters would make great set decorations for movies, but I get along much better with anybody in hip-hop, whether it's Boots from The Coup or Ozomatli or Blackalicious. Or Pearl Jam, for that matter. I have a great relationship with them; we understand each other immediately. There's just something about this kind of expression that's more direct. There's a hierarchy that you have to go through to get a movie made.

PM: Like N.W.A., it's right there in your face. And it's visceral.
RC: Yeah, I think so. I aspire to be Chuck D; I can only hope to get that hip and profound! I mean, I don't think of my stuff as profound, I think of it as spewing�

PM: Well, that's what people used to say Chuck did.
RC: And I'm down with that. Whether it's System of a Down, Ozomatli or what, we really understand each other. And I don't think the art world understands that. You're right though -- there is this split between the art establishment and non-sanctioned forms of expression. But one thing about the art world -- if they think something's hip and they're missing it, they're gonna come sniffing around. That's what the fashion industry guys do, walk the streets of Silverlake or something, see what the kids have put together from thrift shops, and then go design something that looks like it.

PM: Have you ever encountered that with your work?
RC: Oh yeah, that happens. Make me an offer I can't refuse! But I've done posters for Planned Parenthood, Heal the Bay, the ACLU, organizations I believe in. One was for the Abbie Hoffman film, Steal This Movie, because I identify with him. I'll do stuff for projects that I'm down with, but I don't see myself doing anything for Absolut vodka anytime soon.

PM: Speaking of Hoffman, I was talking to Greg Palast about this, and he said the one thing the left needs to do is keep is their sense of humor.
RC: Yeah, well that's probably my one contribution -- a sense of humor about grim subjects. And also the language; colloquial American English, the language spoken on the streets, is probably the most subversive form of communication on the planet. And I'm totally digging that, that's how I work. For example, you take an official phrase like "internal affairs" and apply that to Clinton, and you've got an affair with an intern in there, don't you?

PM: Exactly. Far from being just visual, you're work gets very clever with language.
RC: I try to be smart about it. It's an amazingly flexible language. Again, same with hip-hop artists; in a way, we use language against itself, against the way it's used by George Bush's speechwriters. I think that's the best thing about his administration -- first they taught him to read, then they taught him to read his speechwriters' words.

PM: The problem is the memorization.
RC: Yeah, if you get him off the teleprompter, he's in big trouble.

PM: How does the art experience in L.A. differ from your childhood experience with art in New York?
RC: People say coming up in New York is tough, but it's a great place to grow up. And people say, "Oh, New York is better than L.A." but I love them both. I think they're the same; they just look different. I love L.A. -- it's the United Nations! Everybody is here; the only thing is you gotta go visit them. So you need a car that works so you can drive thirty miles to see them. If you want to see Koreans, no problem. If you want a suburb of Hong Kong, it's in L.A. Little India? Who do you want to visit? I mean, how many pupuserias are there? There are probably as many Salvadorans here as there are in the capital of El Salvador.

PM: You just need gas money.
RC: Exactly. You need gas money and a car that works. Of course, my preference is to do it in the middle of the night! Leave them little presents, you know what I'm saying? Like the Easter bunny.

PM: It's funny to see your stuff in the rich suburbs, like Brentwood, because people with black markers try to blot out the picture.
RC: Well, it's a participatory art form! Some people make improvements on them; I welcome that.

PM: Yes! So you have some Arnold posters in the works already?
RC: Oh yeah! Definitely. He's a present from the satire gods, I swear. But talk about L.A. and politics -- the recall is it. Total recall! Isn't that an Arnold movie? We can work something up.

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