Robyn is a multi-faceted artist whose work spans photography, installation, printmaking, sculpture and the streets. She employs obsolete technology and pre-industrial practices, juxtaposing fine craftsmanship and the unpredictability of these outdated methods.
1. How long have you been at Pioneer Works and what brought you here?
I’ve been teaching at Pioneer Works since summer of 2013, and became a resident in March 2014. I met Gabe, the Director of Operations, when he took my Introduction to Tintype class at 3rd Ward. He mentioned that Dustin had a few antique cameras that he’d like to refurbish to use as equipment for the Pioneer Works photography program. I started refurbishing the cameras, teaching tintype courses, and eventually I started using the cameras I had refurbished. This led organically to my residency at Pioneer.
2. What current motifs are you exploring in your work?
My practice deals with cycles of crisis, revolution and transcendence. Particularly, how these are processed inwardly, and become manifestations of emotional landscapes and social structures in the physical world. My current body of work at Pioneer deals a lot with sexuality through the precarious balance of empowerment and vulnerability. I think this is coming from my own internal process of dealing with my father’s death, who was a lifelong sexual abuser. I am trying to present something that disassembles that baggage, and hones in on an aspect of our sexuality that is pure and free, the element that is neither a victim nor a predator, that wants to connect to others through the body in a totally essential manner.
3. You use obsolete and labor intensive technology to take a lot of your pictures (i.e. the portraits hanging to the left), why is this important to you?
I think the struggle against the material world is part of the artistic process that really excites me. I like that the chemistry is always slightly beyond control, and that it can surprise you no matter how well you know your technique. The labor-intensive aspect appeals to me because it is impractical and inefficient, and therefore is difficult to assimilate into a world of mass-production and commerce. These are one-of-a-kind images that cannot be reproduced, and they are objects with a distinct physical presence. It is a mode of producing imagery that exists in refreshing opposition to the digital process.
4. In addition to using out of date cameras, can you talk about the ways you’re exploring photography as projections, sculpture, and altering how lighting techniques can change the way we perceive images?
Now that I have a pretty strong body of work at Pioneer, I’m starting to explore the physicality of the images, their existence as objects in the world. The Ambrotypes—images made with silver on glass—- are very strange in the sense that they are both extremely ephemeral and extremely physical. If you hold them over a white wall, the image practically disappears. You can project them on the wall using a lens and a clip light. They can be stacked and produce a kind of layered “multiple exposure” effect. They have a dimensionality more like sculpture than photographic prints. I want to push the object quality of these images because it highlights the basis of photography in simple physics and chemistry. It’s a process that directly captures light in a chemical substrate. It almost feels like witchcraft.
5. What photography projects do you have in the pipeline?
I’ve been thinking about the way the collodion process can dramatically shift skin-tone, a project that documents New-Orleans 10 years after Katrina, photographing Native-American reservations, taking the Collodion rig to Antarctica. Some of these might be more pipedreams.
6. Your work extends far beyond the studio; you are part of the Miss Rockaway Armada Collective. Can you tell us how you got involved in the project and what the experience of traveling down the Mississippi for 1,000 miles by raft is like?
I got involved with the MRA by complete serendipity. It’s a thing that maybe happens once in a NYC lifetime. I was doing 3 different things separately, and all of a sudden the separate people and projects became connected. I answered the call of lady fortune and ended up on a greyhound out to Minnesota to catch up with the raft. My first stay was short, but I was utterly awed. I was involved from the beginning the second year, and spent 4 months building in the backyard of a biker bar, traveling down the river putting on vaudeville-esuqe variety shows with the crew, and crash landing in St. Louis. A typical day might go like this: wake up to rafts beached in 2 feet of mud, spend 1 hour prying them off with poles, cook lunch for crew of 30 while underway, motor for 6 hours going 15 miles downriver to a new town, fill up water barrels with buckets that have to be carried 100 yards and over gangplanks, dumpster food, give tours to curious passerby, make flyer for the show, cook dinner and sing songs, wake up in the middle of the night to torrential rain, lower tarps and secure lines so we don’t float away. It was completely insane and amazing. It also really exposed me to radical culture in a way that continues to inform my way of life and art practice. DIY culture, autonomous zones, alternative social systems and economies, all continue to overlay my work and how I engage with the art world.
7. You have also undertaken work on the streets, murals and wheat pasting – how does this work differ from your studio practice/or how is it similar?
There’s a common thread of altruistic belief in the ability of art to move people, and therefore the capacity of art for social change. I think this was one of the reasons I started to do street art and public art. I liked the democratic nature of the street, and bringing art into a more accessible zone outside of institutions. It was a little bit about reclaiming the streets for the individual as well, in a world where advertising and commerce controls the imagery we see on the street. I think these ideas still inform my practice, I’m just experimenting with different media, and exploring aspects of the capacity of art to produce social change that are more intimate and emotional.
8. Tell us about the collective/space you are planning to build in the Rockaways this spring?
I’m working on a project called Stilt City, which will be an art and community space rebuilt in a vacant bungalow in Rockaway Park that was flooded by Superstorm Sandy. It’s an ambitious project, and I’ve had a lot of support so far, especially from my collaborators, Jaklitsch / Gardner Architects. They have created a design that maintains the bungalow character, makes the space more versatile to diverse artistic uses, opens the space architecturally to be more inviting to public participation, and redesigns the structure to make it more resilient to future floods. The idea is to run the bungalow as an artist residency and gathering/exhibition space that will develop programming around some of the issues the Rockaways are facing post-Sandy. We are launching a kickstarter campaign on November 20th with a fundraising goal of $100,000, about half of the construction costs. If you’d like to know more or support the project, you can go to the project website at
9. What has been the most rewarding part of your time at Pioneer Works so far?
Developing relationships with a community of talented artists who both challenge and support my work has been an incredibly rewarding experience. Being able to create my own work and teach the process on-site is also a very unique aspect of working at Pioneer Works. I also appreciate the open-studio layout, which allows the people passing through to give feedback on in-progress work, an experience you can’t have in a private studio.