Toni Collums Roberts

AB: OK, what were you saying about your thesis? 

TCR: My thesis marked a huge transition in my art. From shedding the aesthetics of visual culture-approaching it in a more minimal way, and the process in endurance art. So I still haven’t figured out my new direction. I’m still processing that.  

AB: Its funny that you say that first because that was one of the things I really wanted to talk to you about. I was looking at your website last night and I thought your work was so so different up until the thesis show. It was so heavily conceptual and you went from working with  film/photography to the physical labor of building these cubes and then doing a performance piece. That is such a bold move. I mean its awesome, but a bold move. 

TCR: Yea but I guess in undergrad a lot of my video, which is not on my website, a was performance video.  I was doing a performance for video, I had just never done a performance live. Also in undergrad many of my photographs were of me, they weren’t self-portraits, but I was in them. I was at this conference and I met some photographers and performance artists, Morgan Kohn and Erin Sotak, who were working in that way. They were working with their body and filming it. One of the things they were talking about was the camera as the theater so I feel like in my undergrad, thinking about it now in retrospect, I used the camera as the theater.  Now making this transition where I’m interested in performance, but live, removing the camera.  Which is really funny because I just got my MFA in photography.  When I was finishing grad school I was thinking about having to defend the work that I was making because I was no longer using photography. I mean I did have the live video feed.  

 AB: That’s true

TCR: I mean really the live video feed was what the end result was supposed to be, so all of that was just for a 4-inch projection.

AB: Yea but your performance and the beauty of all the cubes totally took over. 

TCR: Now I’m kind of thinking more about how to make something that is monumental without it being monumental?  

AB: Yea I remember when you were originally talking about this idea for your thesis show you said you wanted it to be anti-monumental and boring. I remember we all told you this is not going to be boring. Were you still trying of that or at some point did you realize this is going to be monumental and I need to accept it. 

TCR: I didn’t realize until after I installed them. I was standing there like oh man. You have to think that I was working in a small studio; I was only making 1000 at a time.  

AB: Yea, you were really only seeing them in small groups. 

TCR: So at the end when they were all together it was like whoa, this is huge.  But I knew that it was huge deep down because my body physically knew that it was huge. Even the performance, I exerted my body in a way that I had not. From that experience I started thinking about work and questioning it.  

AB: Physical labor?  

TCR: Yea but also just the idea of work. I guess since I’m not exactly happy with my job situation.  Thinking about purposeless work it makes sense that I am interested in it. I think that Inveterate would have become boring if people spent more time with it. I think it failed in some ways but was successful in others.  

AB: In the attempt to make something anti-monumental? 

TCR: Yea  

AB: It was so overwhelming though to walk up to that space and see all those cubes. That’s interesting that after making Inveterate you didn’t think OK I want to make monumental work now.  

TCR: I do want to make monumental work; I just want to figure out a way to make it non-monumental.

AB: That’s right so you want to make monumental work that feels lacking or uninteresting… But anything that is monumental becomes interesting. 

TCR: Right. Well I am going to try. I also really liked working on a site-specific installation.  

AB: Have you ever thought about doing something outside? 

TCR: Yea now that I have the cubes I am interested in how they retain smell and how they made that entire space smell like chlorine. I was thinking about using other fragrances to alter space, thinking about scent in space, and trying to push that further.  I wasn’t considering that they would make that entire space smell like chlorine, or that I would have to bleach all 8,000 because of mold.

AB: It fed the aesthetic though. You created a sterile feeling environment. 

TCR: I definitely want to use the cubes again; I don’t want them to die in that space. In regards to participating or embarking on a Sisyphean task…that is something I have become really drawn to from that body of work and I have a bunch of ideas, performance wise, endurance performance wise, in a similar way. 

AB: Combined with labor or do you mean labor just in terms of preforming? 

TCR: Both, one of the things I’m thinking about doing right now is, so I created a character based off the idea of Sisyphus. I was thinking about southern culture, the idea of work, and then women in the south and the name or nickname sissy.  

AB: Is that the name of the character? 

TCR: Yea  

AB: So what does this character do? 

TCR: So I don’t have the space to do this yet but I am just going to do it. I am going to plant 300 purple hull pea plants in pots, I think 300 will be enough. Then I am going grow them, pick them, sew them on to a dress, and then I want to wear the dress and shell the peas.  

AB: So you are going to film this or have a live audience? 

TCR: I want to have an audience, but this is pretty new.  The reason I was going to use peas is because of the agricultural dominance in the south and the disintegration of that and the decline of the antebellum….the decay. Also there is something I like about the idea of shelling peas.  

AB: That is a very feminine act too, traditionally feminine act. 

TCR: Yea, maybe I am trying to combine conceptual interests in my past work with my new work, and then having my hands stained purple because the peas will stain your hands.  There is something I really like about the staining of purple.  I am going to bag the peas and sell them after the performance.  I think it would be beautiful to have the pea plants in the space.  

AB: So can you say more about the idea of boredom. 

TCR: There is this really interesting article that I just read about boredom and how it is now being researched and all the different facets. Colleen Merrifield in her thesis made a video to bore people, two actors hang white clothes in a white room on loop. She wanted to see if boredom affected a person’s ability to focus.  She had the participants carry out a classic attention task, sit through the video, and then do the task again.  She found that the task was more boring than the video.  I think that is what happened in inveterate.

AB: So then I guess that’s a question for you. Is it about you being bored or your audience? 

TCR: See I want my audience to be bored not me.  

AB: It seems like in your thesis show you were bored making all those cubes and we as your audience were in no way bored seeing the piece and watching you preform. And with the peas we wouldn’t be bored watching that but you would be bored shelling all these peas because we are coming upon something new that is unexpected to us. Why is it so important for your audience to be bored? 

TCR: In my previous work when I was making those videos.  There was so much happening, I was appropriating imagery and trying to make it overwhelming to make statements about fetish and women and power dynamics and gender. With Inveterate I wanted people to wonder what it was, wonder what was happening, and then get really bored and start playing on their phones. So I wanted boredom to facilitate fetish. You know check your Facebook, watch a cat video, and then see an ad.. I mean now boredom is something that is being researched as this psychological state, what is it? How can we use it? In literature boredom is used to draw you through the piece in text. I guess I was trying to figure out how to do that visually. I really want to figure out how to harness that lull.  

 “In literature boredom is used to draw you through the piece in text. I guess I was trying to figure out how to do that visually. I really want to figure out how to harness that lull.” 


AB: Well I guess a question is how do you keep your audience there long enough to create that lull? If they happen upon something in a gallery there will never be that lull, unless you lock them in a room. 

TCR: Yes come to the gallery and I will lock you in a room. I don’t know I guess I’m just boring myself right now. I need to figure out how to bore other people. Maybe I can’t, maybe it’s not possible. 

AB: How would you recognize boredom? How would you know if your audience is bored? I mean how then would you define a successful piece? 

TCR: Maybe I need to have someone write about it and say that was boring…this is boring, what a waste of time…don’t go. I mean if I read a review like that I probably would go.  

AB: Why is it so important for your audience to be bored? 

TCR: I feel like boredom is the root of a lot of the escapism that is happening in society today. I think that’s why a lot of social function has become more and more important. I think unlike in the past with the TV being an escape it’s a whole other social component. I mean also from working at a bar and seeing infidelity and poor decision making on a nightly basis, I feel like most of the people who come in are unsatisfied with their situations and they are escaping in various ways which is destructive. I think a lot of society is exhibiting these behaviors.  

AB: I think that’s true and I think its happening more with younger generations in that people can’t sit still or they can’t be quite or don’t know how to be alone without distracting themselves, which then maybe means people reflect less.

TCR: Right, we have to constantly be engaged.  

AB: So you are asking or drawing attention to that fact with this work saying we need to be quite, maybe you won’t be able to, it will probably bore you, and hopefully it bores you… 

TCR: I think boredom is really misunderstood psychological state.   

AB: Its changed though because of technology and the need to be constantly connected, or our need to document everything. 

TCR: Yea a lot of people did stand in the space on their phones but they were taking pictures or video of the work or me.  I’m OK with it being a failure though. One of the things that I was talking about in the beginning that I want to circle back to is my shift away from the camera.  I think that what I was interested in in graduate school was tackling contemporary issues.  There is so much nostalgia associated with photography that I can’t effectively use that medium right now.  I think every image carries nostalgia for someone.  

 “There is so much nostalgia associated with photography that I can’t effectively use that medium right now.  I think every image carries nostalgia for someone.” 

AB: I have never seen you make work with photography or film where you are embracing the medium, you have always been critiquing the medium.

TCR: That’s funny you say that because I am creating a body of photographs where I make images of traditional landscapes and naming them nostalgic titles like field at sunrise and butterflies.  People would always ask me what do you take pictures of, flowers? I laugh. Then I am pulling them in to text programs so it’s just the data. I am going to print the data, so it’s just the letters and symbols then frame them.  

AB: So you are again critiquing the medium. 

TCR: I think the medium of photography is growing in so many ways. Everyone has a cell phone with a nice camera.  Also with the Internet becoming a whole new space with online galleries. People are making work to exist solely online. I think that stripping down photography to this raw data has been a lot of fun.  

Toni’s website:

Amelia Briggs