Susan Robb’s Big Idea for Spring: Crap Power

Her work is unrecognizable, except for the fertile mind behind it.

The artist-as-mad-scientist lives in a rent-controlled studio in Pioneer Square. On a recent afternoon, shafts of dusty winter sunlight fall from three tall windows on the street side, bathing a community of houseplants that have sprawled antennae-like over her coffee table. Her eyes are cornflower blue, and when she speaks, it seems a thousand ideas are competing for dominance in her head. Words spring from her mouth like a loose coil. "Where are we in nature?" Susan Robb asks. This was her response when I asked her to tell me about her upcoming April 24 installation at Lawrimore Project. Robb is seated on a low-slung, cream-colored couch in jeans, tennis shoes, and a thick fisherman's sweater, black hair piled high on her head. She is an easy conversationalist. Questions about her art spill over into cyclical talk about evolution, climate change, and the mapping of human DNA. And the way she countered my question with another question could be considered the essence of Robb's work. The clarity and assuredness with which she talks about this installation is proof she's spent countless hours mapping out every last detail in her head. You'd be forgiven for assuming it was finished. Why does she have nothing to show? "None of it's made yet," she says. To be fair, having finished work to show isn't entirely necessary with conceptual art like Robb's. In addition to the upcoming Lawrimore installation, she has two other projects in the works, only one of which can be put on display. This last one is called "Warmth, Giant Black Toobs, no. 3," and it is a cluster of tubes made of recycled black garbage bags that fill up with air on breezy, sunny days. The effect, which she tested out last July in Volunteer Park, is that of giant ominous worms emerging from the ground (some have also interpreted them as penises, baseball bats, and sausages). "Warmth" is in storage at Lawrimore until this summer, when she'll take it on a national tour. Her other major work, "Project Sea-Ice Lifeboat," exists in concept only. When completed, "Project Sea-Ice" will be a collection of Hummer-shaped floating islands that she hopes will serve as temporary housing for polar bears, effectively saving them from drowning as the Arctic melts under their feet. The yet-to-be-titled installation at Lawrimore will consist of a robotic tree branch, a mini-garden, a neon sign boasting the phrase "Poetic License," as well as some previous works of photography, video sculpture, and sound. If all goes as planned, the whole will be an ecosystem powered by biogas, otherwise known as the mixture of methane and carbon dioxide derived from the fermentation of shit. A "compact digester" will transform gallery owner Scott Lawrimore's own excrement into the energy powering those aforementioned pieces. The intention, Robb says, is to "address the artist/gallerist relationship as a kind of ecosystem, while pointing to the dynamics of natural systems already at play in nature." All this will pose a question: "Where are we in nature?" For more than a decade now, Robb has been making art like this—art that's rooted in scientific research and the subsequent string of questioning it provokes. As such, her work is not so easily categorized, which has led to the common criticism that it contains no linearity. "In other words," she says. "You can't look at my work and right away say: 'That's a Susan Robb!'" True, even as she points to two separate pieces, hanging on opposite walls of her studio, that look nothing alike—one an installation called Fossils, the other a 6-foot-tall photograph from her "Sometimes the Only Thing Left Is Dust" series. As Lawrimore suggests, our mentality toward receiving art is to first connect with a painter's brush stroke, or a photographer's sensitivity to light; we search for the common theme of the work later. To understand Robb, however, you have to approach her work from the other end: Research and ideas are her brush strokes; the various mediums are just the necessary means to bring the ideas to life. Her past work has manifested itself in photographs, installations, sculpture, Dada-esque participatory art, videography, and sound manipulation, among other things. Any lesser artist would be dubbed fickle, a genre-hopper, but from the beginning it was obvious her work was possessed by a singular vision. "I think she has all these things she's read and researched spinning around in her head," says Lawrimore. "But the trick is figuring out what's the best way to get the message across." A recurrent theme of her work is how we, as natural-but-all-too-curious-and-selfish creatures, interact with our planet. And the three new pieces are exemplary for how artist and theme can mature with one another. Robb started out as a photographer, but standing over her darkroom sink in 1998, rinsing out the toxic chemicals required in making pictures, it dawned on her that she was part of the problem. Since then, she's been determined to make more sustainable poetic gestures. Like so many other Seattle transplants, Robb was brought here by pop music. The band she was in, Incredible Force of Junior, even signed to Up Records, releasing one 7-inch in 1995 and a full-length, Let the World Fall Apart, in 1996. After the band fell apart, she went on to pursue an MFA in photography from UW, worked at a dot-com that soared and crashed, and owned and operated 2nd Ave. Pizza in Belltown, an experience that ended on a sour note, but ultimately proved enlightening. "By that time," she says, "I realized I wanted to just make art." There is a lesson in everything, and Robb admits that building 2nd Ave. Pizza from scratch inadvertently prepared her to tackle the larger-scale conceptual projects. If one is to build floating islands for polar bears, for instance, it helps to know what materials polar bears will willingly stand on, how the things will float, how large they should be, and most important, where the money to build them might come from. (Robb was recently turned down for this project by Creative Capital, a New York City–based nonprofit that's previously given grants to Trimpin and SuttonBeresCuller.) She's been talking with staff at the Woodland Park Zoo to find out what materials they use to fabricate glacial terrain, and has studied the history of discarded oil drums for flotation and housing. And just when she thought this was the wildest idea she could've imagined, she received an e-mail from an environmental blogger who suggested she get in touch with a group called UK Environment Agency. His e-mail explained that the agency's list of "50 things that will save the planet" included a concept for artificial reflective ice floes, which would cool the water while simultaneously providing housing for polar bears. "So many artists working in the vein she does are all so heavy-handed," says Lawrimore. "Their work has this very documentary style to it, saying, 'Look at it. This is what we've done.'" Robb certainly makes statements, but the playfulness of her work steers them from overt preachiness. Unlike the work of, say, Edward Burtynsky, whose photographs of industrial waste are blunt denunciations of human impact, Robb's work is a conversation, a stimulating back-and-forth discussion of what we've done to this place we inhabit and what we can do for it from here on out. The conversation begins with the same question, every time; one she posed to me almost immediately, from her studio: Where are we in nature? It's like a Zen riddle. It's a question for which the only answer is another question. And another. And another. And another...

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