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Faculty Highlight: Rob Duarte

Published May 8, 2019

Assistant Professor Rob Duarte

Department of Art

Interview by Victoria Salgado

What mediums were your introduction into art?

It was always sculpture. I was always working with my hands, helping my dad fix cars or whatever it was. And I was enamored with my grandfather’s garage and all the stuff he had in there. Then, someone convinced me at some point that it wasn’t a smart idea to be an artist. My first degree is a business degree—Information Systems—with a minor in Computer Science. CS was always another interest of mine, so it wasn’t totally separate from what I was into.

So, at some point I used that degree, did a bunch of things in that world, and it was great. Then I went back to school for sculpture. This was at the Massachusetts College of Art & Design, and their Foundations program was pretty much exactly like Bauhaus. We had a class called Form Study, taught by an architect. That was really the first time I got excited about sculpture and I had a great set of mentors throughout my whole time there. MassArt is a unique place, where sculpture students and anyone doing anything 3D learns how to work in the wood shop as if they were a fine furniture maker. They really focus on tools, craft, process, and technique. My official set of tools and materials was wood. The wood shop always feels like home to me. But there were lots of other mediums there that I was into, like metal, whether it was casting, fabricating, welding, things like that. That all came together as an undergrad.

You were discouraged from going into art as a profession. What solidified your desire to begin the next chapter of your life as an artist?

Well, I have a short attention span. [laughs] I used to like to think of artists as being good problem solvers, but that might be a little too reductive. But that’s always my thing—to always be learning, to always be moving forward, and doing new things. In that world of technology, it didn’t feel like that was true anymore. I started to feel like I was solving the same problems all the time and it wasn’t as exciting. There’s an infinite set of possibilities once you start working with real physical things and developing your own ideas.

In what ways has your business degree and CS minor informed your art and arts administration career?

Oh, not at all. I was terrible at the business classes. [laughs] It was called Business Information Systems. It is a Bachelor’s of Science, so it didn’t really take place so much in the business school, but my takeaway was actually really great. My experience there was always on the margins, which is how I live now—the artwork that I create feels like it’s always on the margins of contemporary art and something else. The Information Systems majors were all people who would become business people and managers of technology, and the Computer Science people were the nerds. Those groups of people were always in opposition with each other in some ways. It was an interesting experience that art has echoed. For example, there are people who are really interested in the business of being an artist, those who focus on craft and materials and process, others who create artwork that is almost strictly conceptual. They all seem to be different worlds within that same domain. I feel like the only time it’s interesting for me is when I’m able to straddle those worlds and I’m never going to find the spot where I can just settle. If I find that, I’ll probably go to school to be a veterinarian or something. [laughs]

What drew your attention to the political side of technology?

Between my BFA and applying to grad schools, I just worked in my studio. I was lucky because I have technical skills, so I could work a few hours a week and have enough money to pay for rent. This was the time of George W. Bush, the war in Iraq, and lots of things that were frustrating in terms of politics and in the world. Finding ways to make work about technology and its role in all was interesting to me. When I had these ideas about how to talk about the complex relationships between technology and culture, politics, ethics, and morality, it seemed like the way to do that was by using technology as a medium. I essentially taught myself some of the things that I needed to know to make the kind of work that I wanted to make at that time. It was really this frustration and trying to find some way to address political issues, but the work was really direct, meant to be almost manifesto-style instead of subtle. It evolved into bigger conversations about technology and culture. What’s always on my mind is this way of looking at technology that isn’t about the technical stuff, but about how people are subject to technology, how it influences the way that we live, the way we communicate with each other, and all these endless possibilities for looking at how technology is always political. There are things that are timely and that everyone can identify with because we’re all dealing with technology at every moment of every day essentially.

How do you work as an artist? Does the concept or the material come first?

I have to admit that sometimes the material comes first, but it’s not ideal. The ideal situation is having an idea that requires a certain set of materials—of finding the best way to materialize this idea. Since I’m dealing with technology, there are times where I find something and say, “This is interesting. How can I reverse engineer this, and try and pick it apart?” I feel like most technology, in the beginning, feels apolitical and innocuous. To go backwards and uncover the politics embedded in there is an interesting exercise.

Why sculpture and technology, and not mediums like drawing, painting, or ceramics?

It seems to me that the best way to provide a critique of technology is to actually use technology as a medium. In terms of sculpture, it’s interesting because most of the technology that we encounter is not so much physical as it is software, data, and  information. But it’s really a subjective decision—I’m interested in physical stuff. In some ways, making these things physical or paying attention to the physical iterations of technology is a way to bring it back to this connection with people. It’s hard to imagine our connection with data and information. It’s easier to actually have a physical representation of it or actual electronic objects. We have a different relationship with those than we do with the virtual, ethereal parts of technology.

How would you describe the evolution of your art practices?

Every time I give an artist talk, I feel like there’s a new version of that story. I like the idea of having to revisit all of that and connect the dots each time. I show really early work sometimes because it makes sense with that conversation and I like to see a continuum of this conversation I’m always trying to have. Work that I made even before I was thinking about these things have connections to the later works. Most of my work has functioned that way. It’s all coming from the same person, who has the same set of ideas that they’re consumed with, and there’s something in there that connects all the parts. I like the idea of trying to make those connections.

One way my work has evolved recently is teaching within a research institution. For example, I have this parallel practice—the REBOOT Laboratory at FAR. It’s in parallel to everything else that I’m doing, but still involving the same investigation of the political aspects of technology. It’s about taking an object or material—plastic waste, for example—and trying to piece it apart to find all of the political, personal, ethical, and economic aspects of it that are not about its technical makeup. In the case of plastic waste, it’s about looking at consumer culture and capitalism through the lens of that one material, trying to figure out its political entanglements through hands-on experimentation.


That work all stems from something else that happened in undergrad, which is probably one of the most important things I’ve ever done—I worked with this group called Handshouse Studio. These were some of my mentors in undergrad and I’ve worked with them for at least 15 years now. Part of that work was taking some bit of technology, plucking it out of history, and remaking it in a really intense, specific way, trying to pay real attention to all of the details. Through this handwork, we would learn something that’s not possible to get through traditional research. Thor Heyerdahl and this idea of experimental archaeology is their influence. That carried over to my work. Then there’s something called industrial archaeology that also has a part in this long story of my interest in it all. Part of it is being able to take some object, pull it apart, and find all of the stuff that isn’t about the technical.

What would you say is at the heart of your work? Are you focused on aspects of technology that others haven’t really explored?

It would kill me if I was always trying to find a path or an idea that hasn’t been explored before—everything has. My connection with things that people have done in the past is often something that propels my work. I’ll find something that’s happened before and get really excited about it. So, finding something new isn’t really my motivation. Finding a way to extend the conversation is more interesting to me.

For example,

I went to this residency a couple of years ago at the Media Archaeology Lab at UC Boulder. This idea I had been interested in—looking at electronic objects and revealing their built-in political ideology—I realized that there was a parallel conversation in the world of electronic literature and electronic poetry. In the ‘90s, artists, scholars, and writers were thinking about how technology becomes a mediator for the ways that we write, and read poetry and literature. That was really exciting to me and that led directly to some of the work I’m doing now, thinking about electronic objects and poetry, how those two things come together, and, for example, how objects might be intrinsically tied to poetry. Maybe a particular poem could only be written and read using this electronic object that I’ve created. An interesting, weird, conceptual idea that I’ve been working with recently.

How do you know when a work is finished?

I wish I had to make that decision more often because it would mean that I’m working more intuitively and experimentally. I feel like there’s always room to work more experimentally. What often happens with my art is working out the idea and experimenting happens really early on. It’s just always churning in my mind, churning through sketches and crappy models. By the time I make the thing, I’m making something that’s already been thought out, sketched, planned, and experimented with for a long time. In that way, I have a pretty good idea of when it’s done.

What’s your most important artistic tool?

Well, I have a lot of envy for people who have drawing or writing practices. All they need is a pen. There are no tools that they need. They can just create from nothing. I love that idea. In some ways, I feel like that was my attraction to computer programming.

I feel like I’m always trying to pare down. My dream is to sustain a simpler practice and not always be working on really large projects that involve a lot of technology. There’s a lot of overhead to making work like that, in terms of money, space, time and so on. So currently, I’m trying to back away from tools and focus on ways of creating with less. For example, in my office I have a typewriter instead of a computer at my desk and that’s saved me from the overhead of distractions, technical speed bumps—generally, I’m trying to have less mediators between what I come up with in my head and what I create.

What’s your daily routine in the studio?

It’s not ever consistent, but I’m trying to have a set routine of writing, making sound, and drawing. This comes from a workshop many years ago at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts. Somebody said, “OK, we’re gonna pull this exercise out of this book.” It was called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. It consisted of just writing for 30 minutes every day, just pencil on paper. It didn’t matter what you were writing, and you weren’t looking back at it. Doing that for 3 weeks while I was there became a perfect way to start the day of working in the studio.

At another residency, there was an modular synthesizer for making music, noise, or whatever. Every morning, I just jumped on the system for an hour and created something from scratch.

I’ve tried to integrate those kinds of simple exercises, with a set beginning and end time, into my practice. Faculty have several jobs here—being an artist isn’t the only job we do. It can also be a balance to create something small, when it comes to always feeling like you’re working on large, long-term projects. So, when I can be an artist, creating  something immediate sets a different tone.

You’re the co-director of FAR, the director of REBOOT, and the Area Head for Digital Media. What got you interested in the administrative side of art?

It’s not a particular interest of mine; it’s part of the job of faculty here to have an administrative or service aspect to their job. We contribute to keep everything going. But FAR is of interest to me because we had an opportunity to re-figure out what the mission of that facility is. The idea we came up with—that its focus should be on collaboration and community—is interesting to me. That’s the idea behind REBOOT as well. It’s not just me making things in a studio, but it is a way to find opportunities to collaborate with other people and to do things that are maybe larger than what I can do on my own. Given the sometimes-limited amount of time and energy that I am able to dedicate to making artwork, how do I work in a way that’s more effective? Working with other people seems like a way to do that.

How do you get your work out to the public?

That’s the thing I’m worst at. I often make work as opportunities come up. I’ve been fortunate to have lots of great opportunities come up. Often, they come to me, or I seek them out because they feel like a good fit. And then I consider that specific opportunity as part of the structure or context for the project. Unfortunately, I’m not very good at sustaining an interest in a project that’s finished. A lot of times, I’ll show something once and move on to the next thing, which is not necessarily a smart way to work. That’s an area I can definitely get better at because there’s no point in making artwork if people can’t see it.

Is there a piece of art or an exhibition that you’re most proud of?

A couple of years ago, the REBOOT project was part of this festival that happened at the Smithsonian Institute of American History. It was probably outside of the normal way of exhibiting artwork, but that project does not really fit the typical definition of a work of art. It’s not a traditional artwork in that way—it’s an ongoing collaborative experiment with other artists and designers. At that festival, there were like 40,000 people there. An FSU grad student, a collaborating artist from DC, and I all presented the work that we’d been doing together with REBOOT and were talking constantly, having really interesting conversations that probably wouldn’t be possible in the context of a gallery or a museum. That was interesting, surprising, and really productive.

Another one was this exhibition at the Orlando Museum of Art. I showed some of my work and research around turpentine, and all of the politics surrounding it. It materialized as an installation that was larger than anything I would be able to do in most venues. It was just a great place to exhibit.

Another recent project was actually satisfying partly because it involved only writing and drawing. I was part of this collaborative group of about a dozen people. Last year, we made these 2D works that were essentially confronting the idea of tech companies’ patents, specifically Amazon. That work is pretty exciting because it was part of an installation that was shown at the Venice Biennale, the New Institute in Rotterdam, and the V&A Museum for London Design Week. Those were 3 really great venues. I was not there, but I know thousands and thousands of people saw it. It feels good to have work that gets to the world at that scale.

How did you end up at FSU?

There’s an interesting, weird connection between Tallahassee and San Diego. I went to grad school at UCSD and we’ve had several faculty members that have a connection with UCSD or San Diego for whatever reason. I think the idea of being at a research school was compelling, but I was also trying to expand my world and my network. I wasn’t trying to embed myself in one little spot. I grew up in New England. I made a lot of connections in the Midwest and Chicago through residencies and exhibitions. Then, I was on the West Coast. Now, I’m here. I can’t say that I was seeking out anything specific about Tallahassee or FSU but I like it here. Some decisions are a little less calculated and based on just thinking, “This feels like the right place to be right now.”

How would you describe your teaching practices?

When I started teaching, I had a rigid structure for every class meeting. Where I am now is completely different. I’m always trying to get students excited, give them the room to experiment, and essentially do whatever is possible to help them keep experimenting. I’m not typically interested in having them arrive at some really particular goal. We’re not heading toward a critique in which they have some perfectly finished work of art. I think there’s a lot more to be learned from experimenting and failing and working out an idea with our hands through sketching, model making, and so on. My hope is that every class I teach is a lot more experimentation than finishing touches. I think that also sets up a situation where it’s not as hierarchical. I’m not the person who’s lecturing at them—I do that less and less every year. I feel like any way that I’m able to provide the structure and support for them to teach themselves and each other is a better situation.

As a professor and artist, what is the most vital idea or lesson that you want to instill in students?

It feels like I’m always focusing on these ideas of experimenting and failing, and recognizing that ideas get developed through iteration and experimentation. I feel like that’s maybe not been encouraged in most of my students’ schooling, so this is the opportunity to make that happen. Part of that is instilling the idea that working through ideas with our hands serves as a way of learning about the world that really doesn’t have a parallel in other methods of learning.