What do frogs, trash cans, and Punks have in common? They’ve all been burned and elevated by one artist so committed to the social and cultural power of art that he’s influenced the very meaning of what it means to be infamous. One of the most wide-ranging and influential artists in the world of crypto art, ROBNESS has been a part of this ever-growing community since its early days and has made significant contributions that have shaped the scene into what it is today. From his experimental digital art pieces to his infamous ’64 gallon toter’ that challenged artistic boundaries in a decentralized network, ROBNESS has been at the forefront of defining what art can accomplish when paired with blockchain technology.
But one of the biggest challenges for artists, especially those that approach or achieve critical acclaim, is balancing reputation with experimentation. For “The Golden Age” exhibition, ROBNESS revealed a new style of art that bridges the tactile and the digital. Using digital tools to add creases, rips, and fade, his artwork “MA’MORTE AND CHILD” looks like one that has been crumpled up, perhaps thrown into the garbage bin, and found anew by a lucky passerby.
In this interview, we dive deep into his journey as an artist in the crypto world and gain insight into his creative process and experiences creating art in a new and untested terrain.
VIRGINIA VALENZUELA: A lot of people are familiar with your digital artworks, from Pepes to toters to glitch. What kind of work were you making before you got into digital art?
ROBNESS: AS FAR AS PHYSICAL WORK? MOSTLY IT WAS ATTACKING CANVASES AND DOING ABSTRACT TYPE OF WORKS IN BETWEEN BAND PRACTICES IN A STUDIO I USED TO RENT OUT. I HAVE BEEN DOING DIGITAL ART OFF/ON SINCE I WAS 7 YEARS AND UP. I ALWAYS JOKE THAT MY FIRST FORAY INTO DIGITAL ART WAS USING AN ANCIENT MICROTEK SCANNER AND TRYING TO EDIT MAGIC CARDS TO SEE IF I COULD COUNTERFEIT THEM. I DIDN’T GET INTO CANVAS STYLE WORK UNTIL MUCH LATER, EVEN ACTUALLY AFTER I GOT INTO MUSIC AS WELL.
VIRGINIA VALENZUELA: I know that music, and specifically album covers, were an entry point for you as a young person getting interested in art. How does music fit into your artistic practice today?
ROBNESS: MUSIC GOES COMPLETELY HAND IN HAND IN MY PROCESS. MAINLY, IT’S ALWAYS ON WHEN I’M WORKING. I HAVE A WEIRD CONNECTION WHERE I ALMOST PICK CERTAIN GENRES OF MUSIC I FEEL AT THE TIME FIT THE VIBE I’M GOING FOR. FEEL LIKE IT GIVES ME A RHYTHM IN THE WORKFLOW. SOMETIMES I’LL PUT ON SOME 90’S ELECTRONICA, BEBOP JAZZ, VAPORWAVE, CLASSIC ROCK, FUNK…..ANYTHING THAT AESTHETICALLY FITS THE OVERALL FEELING AT THE MOMENT WHILE I’M WORKING VISUALLY.
VIRGINIA VALENZUELA: There is a lot of humor in your work, both in the feelings you conjure up for the viewer and the titles you play with for the pieces. Yet, some of the topics of your work are extremely serious, like censorship and the financial system. How do you strike a balance between making statements with your work and at the same time keeping it rather joyful?
ROBNESS: IT’S FUNNY YOU MENTION THE HILARITY ASPECT. PERHAPS IT’S MY INNER SKEPTIC OF MOST THINGS AND I NATURALLY HAVE TO POINT OUT THE ABSURDITY OF WHAT I PERCEIVE. IT’S ALSO A COMPLIMENT AS WELL, PRIMARILY BECAUSE IT SEEMS LIKE IT’S A TRADITION OF ALL ARTISTS FROM THE PAST TO IMBUE THE WORK WITH COMEDIC ELEMENTS, ENSURING THAT WE DON’T TAKE LIFE TOO SERIOUSLY. MAYBE THAT’S PERHAPS WHY THAT PENCHANT EXISTS FOR MANY? AS FAR AS BALANCE IS CONCERNED IT’S ALWAYS A CHALLENGE, REALLY DEPENDS ON THE CONTEXT OF THE WORK. SOMETIMES YOU CAN BE ABSOLUTELY AND GROTESQUELY BLATANT, OTHER TIMES YOU MIGHT HAVE TO REALLY BURY IT INSIDE THE WORK FOR IT TO NOT TURN YOUR PIECE INTO SOME FUTURE ROTTEN MAC & CHEESE, YOU KNOW….THE PIECES THAT ARE JUST TOO ‘ON THE NOSE.’
VIRGINIA VALENZUELA: Everyone knows about the SR/Toter chapter of your career, so I won’t bore you with an easy question on that. Something I’d love to know is: Why was it so important to you to stress test the NFT community at that time?
ROBNESS: TRUTH BE TOLD, I WASN’T REALLY LOOKING FOR IT. PERHAPS MY PENCHANT FOR A FREE AND OPEN PLACE TO CREATE ART BEYOND ANY CENSORSHIP BOUNDARIES SLIPPED INTO DOING LITERALLY EVERYTHING WRONG ON THE SUPERRARE PLATFORM. HOWEVER, WHEN THE IDEOLOGICAL ROADBLOCKS BEGAN AND JUDGEMENTS FROM THE COMMUNITY ON MY SPECIFIC STYLE OF ART EMERGED, MY INNER JOHN LYDON I GUESS CAME OUT AND JUST SAID ‘F IT, I’M GONNA TRASH THIS PLACE.’ AT FIRST THE JOKE DIDN’T GET ACROSS….OR MAYBE IT DID I DON’T KNOW. BUT I MADE SURE MY STATEMENT WAS MADE WITH THE 64 GALLON TOTER BEING A BLUNT DIGITAL MESSAGE. SO YEAH, IT WASN’T REALLY INTENTIONAL….NOW THAT I LOOK BACK ON IT IT FEELS LIKE A NATURAL COURSE OF EVENTS FOR THE SPACE TO GROW.
VIRGINIA VALENZUELA: You have been called a “disrupter” by many writers both inside and outside the NFT art space. I think of you as being more open-ended, like a question with an infinite amount of answers. How would you describe yourself?
ROBNESS: MERCURIAL. I REALLY DON’T CONSIDER MYSELF A ‘DISRUPTER,’ PRIMARILY BECAUSE IT SETS ME ON A COURSE WHERE I’LL HAVE TO KEEP DELIVERING THAT SET OF EXPECTATIONS THROUGH MY FUTURE WORKS. IF I FEEL I HAVE TO MAKE SOME WORK IN A CONCEPTUAL/DISRUPTIVE WAY I’LL DO IT, SOMETIMES I JUST WANT TO CREATE BEAUTY OR PERHAPS A ZEN ELEMENT TO THE WORK. AS OF LATE I’VE REALLY BEEN GRAPPLING WITH THIS AND NOT TRYING TO BE A BROKEN RECORD, ALWAYS TRYING TO STRIVE FOR SOMETHING NEW. IF PEOPLE EXPECT ME TO BURN AN NFT FOR INSTANCE, I PROBABLY WON’T DO IT JUST BECAUSE I’LL FEEL IT’S JUST TOO PREDICTABLE.
VIRGINIA VALENZUELA: I can tell from previous interviews that you have some fond memories of the earlier days of cryptoart, like finding the Fake Rare community or artworks minted on Rarible circa 2018-2020. What did you like about that time?
ROBNESS: QUITE SIMPLY, THE SLOW GROWTH OF FRIENDS I’VE MADE OVER THE ENTIRE PLANET. SOMETIMES I’LL BE WORKING AND I JUST THINK THERE’S NO TIME IN ART HISTORY WHERE REALLY THIS TYPE OF MOVEMENT COULD GROW LIKE THIS. THE SPEED OF INFORMATION TRANSMISSION, COMBINED WITH CRYPTOART JUST CREATED THIS VAPOROUS SCENE ACROSS THE WORLD AND IT’S PROBABLY ONE OF THE GREATEST HIGHLIGHTS OF MY LIFE.
VIRGINIA VALENZUELA: A lot of people are leaving the NFT community now that there are fewer eye-popping sales and less money in the space overall. Do you think that this shift will affect the way people create? If so, how?
ROBNESS: IT’LL SHIFT FOR THOSE WHO WEREN’T REALLY IN HERE FOR THE RIGHT REASONS, AND I CAN SEE IT CLEAR RIGHT NOW. A LOT OF ARTISTS THAT ARE REALLY IN THIS THING HAVEN’T FALTERED AND REMAIN CONSISTENT. SOME OF THE MORE SUCCESSFUL ONES (DISAPPOINTINGLY ENOUGH) HAVE SLOWED THEIR PRODUCTION. IT SEEMS LIKE THEY MIGHT BE AFRAID TO REDUCE THEIR PRICE POINTS ON THEIR ART DURING THE BEAR MARKET PHASE, WHICH I THINK IS KIND OF LAME BUT TO EACH ITS OWN.
VIRGINIA VALENZUELA: I read that you were actually living in your car before you got into crypto, and long before you found a way to make your art a source of sustainable income. What did you learn from that experience that you hold on to to this day?
ROBNESS: FAITH. FAITH, AND MORE FAITH. IN MY DARKEST PERIODS OF HOPELESSNESS, I’D DRAG MYSELF OUT OF THE CAR, GRAB MY RUNNING SHOES IN THE TRUNK AND GO RUNNING ON THE BEACH BEFORE EVERYONE ELSE AROUND WOULD WAKE UP. I’M A GOD FEARING MAN BUT NEVER WENT THE ROUTE OF THE CHURCH AND ALL THAT. I WOULD PUT ON GOSPEL CHOIRS AS I RAN IN THAT 5:30-6:00 AM MORNING, TO THIS DAY I’M NOT SURE WHY. IT GAVE ME STRENGTH, TRULY DID. THE SMELL OF THE OCEAN AIR CLEARED MY LUNGS, AND THE MUSIC CLEANED MY SOUL, IN A WAY. AN ODD BONUS WAS I GOT TO FINALLY SEE WHAT GAVE ELVIS THAT SPECIAL GIFT OF ROCK N ROLL. IT ALL STARTED FROM GOSPEL MUSIC….