Q&A With Gabriel Dean Roberts

Superworld Artist-In-Residence:

Gabriel was kind enough to take a few minutes from his schedule to speak with SuperWorld from his studio in Brooklyn, and talk to us a bit about his artistic vision, NFTs, and of course, the OMEGA project.

“OMEGA” at the Louvre in SuperWorld

SW: I feel like you’ve done so much for the NFT community and crypto art space (and for SuperWorld!) in such a short amount of time, I’m curious if it took you a while to be convinced of the potential in crypto and NFT art, or did you know immediately that it was a platform you were going to explore?

GDR: For a while I’ve been playing with supporting other artists in projects that involved NFT’s but until very recently I was still pretty ignorant of how it all worked. Though the idea of a smart contract certainly was the real sticking point. Even as a somewhat tech savvy person, I didn’t really know how to create an NFT. It very much felt like I blinked my eyes and all of the sudden, several platforms had sprung up and had hundreds of incredible artists onboard. It felt like going from feeling ahead of the curve to missing the boat in a flash. Thankfully, that FOMO was temporary and I’ve been brought up to speed! In terms of timelines, I first heard of NFT’s a year ago and got started as an artist just over a month ago.

SW: As a writer, one of the things I love so much about your work is the way you manage to incorporate a narrative within a still frame without the viewer feeling manipulated.   I’m thinking in particular of pieces like “Saint Gregory” and “Narcissus.” There is so much more happening than what is happening, which can cause a kind of organic unease, or like an anxiety of incidence. I suppose my question is, do you find stories in photographs, or do the stories in the photographs find you?

Saint Gregory,” by Gabriel Dean Roberts

GDR: I think it’s a bit of both. I really love shooting with people when there’s an opportunity for a clear thematic narrative. By keeping it open this way, I tap into Hemingway’s hard line approach that after a work is created, the viewer, or reader actually takes the story from its creator. The secret, in that sense, is different for every viewer. I do that on purpose, for sure and in my own way I weaponize the imagination of my viewers and they give the image more meaning than it originally holds; it’s my way of making the viewer a temporary collaborator with me.

SW: You’ve done work in film and branding and animation and of course photography. I imagine that coordinating your material is infinitely harder than many of us perceive, and while I promise I won’t ask about your “process,” I am interested in your learning process. Do you set out to learn something about your subjects before you create a work?

GDR:  The French post-structuralist philosopher, Michel Foucault devoted his life to deconstructing societal structures and exposing their flaws in order to allow space to rebuild something better. It also just so happened that everything he deconstructed at one point of his life or another was deeply personal and had been a point of real struggle for him. I believe many of us share that undercurrent, oftentimes without even realizing it. For me, there is this idea I have that most disagreements are actually just a matter of not framing the explanation well enough, so when I approach any given subject, be it a model, a flower, or a refugee I try to look through that lens, taking on the idea that if all were perfected and all could be understood perfectly, what they say, how they look, whatever words spill, they are resplendent and impossible to ignore. Using this as a device, I believe has allowed me to dig deeper than taking a picture of a flower like a tourist, or misusing the gift of shooting with another person in any capacity.

SW: Is there any sphere you don’t feel comfortable in? And how do you reconcile all the different media? Do they inform one another?  

GDR: I don’t see a separation between any of the arts, only limitations in my skill to express. There is a song I can’t quite sing, a picture in my head I can’t quite get to yet, but it’s a matter of refining my skill. Overall, I see every art in layers; stacks of images colored, blended, blurred, cut and exposed; and just the same for video and music with their elements blending and dancing in clear layers that with deft hands become seamless. One of my great joys is when I feel myself in that holy space where the brush stroke becomes singular and my effort in that moment becomes effortless; that’s where pure bliss hides.​​

Narcissus,” by Garbriel Dean Roberts

SW: Let’s talk gear. What kind of equipment do you use, and with the advent of AR and digital art, what kind of evolution have you experienced in terms of what you worked with in, say, the 90s (or before) with what you use now? Any analog holdovers that you just can’t part with in the digital age? 

GDR: My photography was established well into the digital age, and so I’ve only recently made use of film. My first camera was a Sony A6300, which I made my entire documentary, We Are Nameless with, but when I used it for photos, something felt off. I bought a used Fuji XT1 and felt much more at ease with the look it produced. Over time I made my way to Leica, using grad school funds to get a Leica Q, and in a lean time, I sold it to make rent. It was the saddest day of my life! By the time I started making NFT’s, I had saved up enough to get a Leica X2 camera from 2012, which in camera years is ancient. I’ve used almost every modern brand of camera and I always had this loving conflict between the silken nature of Fujifilm and the bludgeoning grit of Leica. So right now my main workhorse is a Fujifilm XE4 with a Leica Summicron R 50mm Lens from 1978. I have not found another lens that makes magic like Leica, so I don’t stray too far. If it were up to me I’d be rocking a Leica Q2, which is actually all I would really need for the next 5 years. For analog I have a Leica R3 that I purchased with the aforementioned Summicron. 

SW: Part of me doesn’t even want to ask this question, but considering the fact that I think you’ll have an interesting answer, I’ll ask it: Why flowers? 

GDR: I was living in Seattle and didn’t have much to shoot except for whatever I came across while walking around and flowers were always doing something interesting. I’ve come to realize that they are the perfect models with a vast array of personalities, so in one regard they help me practice for shooting with people and they also hold a timelessness that virtually no other subject can compete with. Flowers have so many different shapes and folds, and wild levels of translucence, and they hold still, so they make for great teachers when it comes to paying attention to the light. I really like the idea of creating art that will still hold its beauty hundreds of years from now, and flowers are definitely a subject that will retain interest.

SW: As far as NFTs and digital art goes, how long did it take you to come to grips with the notion that technology and art could do more than just co-exist; that indeed they could enhance one another? (I’m assuming you believe this, only b/c I can’t really see how an artist could disagree unless he/she/they were just a fuddy-duddy.

GDR:  I have a pretty psychedelic mind, and with that I do my best to embrace “the messiness of the mystery” as Terence McKenna once said. So it hasn’t taken me any time at all to accept this cohabitation, but I do enjoy seeing this technological progression as a very natural, living thing we are within; one that we cannot fully understand, but can enjoy if we are able to hold it lightly in our hands.

SW: Many of your pieces seem so technically intricate without compromising what’s meant as, I think, a contemplative space. How much of your personal aesthetic features into your creations? I’m curious if you ever find yourself torn between your idea of a provocative image or theme and what your audience might consider a compelling installation. In short, are you ever at odds with your own vision?

GDR: My parents were pack rats who filled every corner and covered  every surface with something random, without purpose, or lacking in substantial meaning. I think because of this I’ve become somewhat minimalist. This has served me in a couple of ways. First, it allows me to keep a tight focus on the primary subject of the image. Secondly, I want there to be some kind of emotional exchange with the image, so the feeling is sometimes more important than the image that gives it. I think feelings are like flavors of wine in their endless bloom of variation and allure. When it comes to subject matter, most of the time I’m doing work that I know I’m fully capable of doing, but with a little more financial breathing room I think people will see more of the variety I have to offer. In terms of every feeling out of step with my own vision, I’ve never been confused about that; it’s always felt somewhat meant to be.

SW: In addition to your photography and AR installations (including, of course, the first NFT in Central Park, and Times Square, you’ve had a lot of success in other realms, too.  Can you talk a little about your experience with film and branding? Has the advent and popularity of NFTs broadened your idea of what can be done with NFTs in those media?

GDR: Film is incredibly sacred to me in that I believe it should become a part of the person after they’ve experienced it. It’s a hard art, because there are so many moving parts. Traditionally you need to be born rich, or privileged in some other capacity to have a chance at exposure enough to have your own vision make it all the way into something full length. I’m really excited about releasing We Are Nameless as an NFT because it will be the first time people will have a real chance to say that they felt what I was trying to make them feel. NFT’s will become ubiquitous in every creative form. 

In terms of branding, I think the ideas behind them are latent within any advanced form of art. Branding is just a way of refining how you look, sound, and come-off to anyone who encounters it. Branding is paying attention to what you are doing. Combing your hair is branding. When you think on that level, you’ll produce better art, and ultimately NFT’s!

SW: When did you first sense that NFT or “cryptoart” was a viable platform for you? Did it take some convincing?

GDR: I’d maybe sold $3K worth of art in 3 years prior to NFT’s and I made that in my first week with NFT’s. One week was exactly how long it took me to realize this was not just a way forward for art in all forms, but THE way forward.

SW: As an artist, you’d be in the minority if you hadn’t had at least one loathsome, awful job in your life. What’s the worst job you ever had (and, if possible, was it to sustain your art? Or just bad luck)?

GDR: I was a guest service representative for Netjets and I had to ensure the comfort and happiness of the world’s most rich and famous people. My commute from Brooklyn to Teterboro, NJ was about 2.5 hrs each way minimum and it became untenable to curtsey to the likes of people who have made billions out of fucking the average human out of dignified lives in one fashion or another. It got so bad that one day I broke my ankle (while off from work) and couldn’t work there anymore. I was absolutely relieved!

SW: Creative influences. I like to start with the dead ones

GDR: Rembrandt, Gerome, Leonard Cohen, Giordano Bruno, Hunter S. Thompson, Bowie & Aleister Crowley 

SW: And now for the living, please. 

GDR: Robert Plant and Iggy come to mind. Robert because he was offered some insane amount of money to play a tour with Zep and he said no. He knew there was something better than another cash grab. He makes chill albums and performs at wineries for boomers and gives no fucks about it. He’s happy, you can tell. Iggy because up till this damn day, he can outcool anybody, still posing in Gucci ads, making indie films, singing entire albums in French. These people understand the elegance of simplicity and personify a real sense of coolness.

SW: Who looks over your shoulder when you create? 

GDR:  Dead me looks over my shoulder. I’ve always been hyper aware of the ever presence of death, and I don’t see it in a negative way. Life is so brutal on earth, oftentimes for senseless reasons, and something about that puts a tremendous burden on me to only fill it with beauty if I can. When I float off, I want to take a minute to think about the people I made happy with the nice things I made and the good feelings I left them with in my relationships.

SW: It looks like the capital “A” art world has blinked first in the cryptoart/ “art” art standoff, which is in many ways a good thing, but do you fear that the old art world paradigms will fall back into place now that big auction houses and galleries have discovered a new revenue stream? 

GDR: Philip K. Dick wrote an entire cosmology, thinly veiled as a book called VALIS. In it he had this concept of the iron empire, this kind of eternal evil empire that would thrive no matter what. To kill the empire in its present form would be to become the empire. In this way I see the old guard morphing. There is no altruism on this plane, not if we’re honest. The best we can do is create guidelines and guardrails to keep the baddies playing nice. Whatever they have up their sleeve, they are definitely scrambling to catch up. Weeks before my first NFT sale, a multimillionaire bragged to me about how he talked down a traditional gallerist to less than 10% the original asking price for a piece. Let them join, we might have to teach them how to program the metaphorical VCR.

XERXES,” by Gabriel Dean Roberts

SW: Are your “favorite” pieces of yours based more on the emotional resonance you felt creating them, or is it too hard to consider your own work objectively? 

GDR: My most recent work is usually my favorite, because I’m taking everything that I’ve learned and fine tuned it, so each new piece is a new chance to reach a deeper level of expression. With people it’s a little bit different, because people contribute an additional factor. With that in mind, I think I enjoy photos I’ve taken with my kids the most.

SW: Speaking of your most recent work, can you tell me a little more about OMEGA. How did you decide on the project? How do you decide to embark on any project? 

GDR: I looked at how controversy fuels the art world, what makes waves, and what the boundaries of the smart contract really are. I asked how my body of work could confront all three of these vectors in a meaningful way, and Ω felt like the vehicle for that. I wanted to go beyond that with the way it was executed, to distance myself from the instant transactional nature of art, and make a living, breathing, ten year long performance in which the art, the artist and the patron(s) must all participate. This is going to advance with the continued movement of art and tech.

SW: Are you in any way scared? It’s so ambitious and demands sustained creativity over the span of a decade—takes a lot of emotional and physical stamina…

GDR: I am not scared in the traditional sense, and understand that I’m offering my energetic and creative apex during this ten year period. My art has been objectively scrutinized by some of the most insightful minds in the art world, and holds its own. More so I look back to when Dale Chihuli came to my high school art class. He would have his assistants lay out huge pieces of archival paper and spray out wild arcs of color across them, and yell “take it away!”. At the time and for many years, I thought he was just an arrogant overblown artist, but over time I realized he was trying to show us young artists how it’s done. THIS is how its done. To lead without fear, to pierce the veil between the liminal and physical with no hesitation and watch as those who follow in your path do the same. Whatever fears I had, I have replaced with sound counsel and good planning. 

I’m ready.