Not so long ago, in another New York, was a magic
place called Mother,
created by Chi
Chi Valenti and Johnny
Dynell. Its gold-painted door on a dark, cobbled street in what
was still the meat-packing district, was a portal onto other worlds
and other times. Wonderful things happened in that place. It’s
60 lived, and the night called Click + Drag, where the scents
of extreme fetish and untried technology swirled around powdered
wigs and Edwardian frock coats and boozy old drag queens. When we
met Rob Roth at Click + Drag, the night he founded with Chi Chi
Valenti and Kitty
Boots, with Abby
Ehmann as its co-producer, he was standing against a wall dressed
in white, looking in every way like the Little Prince of Saint-Exupery.
We came to know him as a kind of art magician. Rob belongs to a
movement that transcends time, its members living in all different
periods of history, none of them able to do anything but make art
and often at great sacrifice. He’s a true son of New York,
born here, and part of its history. Out of necessity, he is good
at finding stuff in the streets to use for his work. He drags heavy
objects home and turns them alchemically into glorious theater.
Sometimes he performs on stage. He’s old school in a new world
and uses new technology for a very old purpose. He sees the beauty
in ruin. He fills sketchbooks with landscapes from his head. He
makes it all look effortless, but it isn’t. When he works
he doesn’t sleep and works in a zombie trance until the work
is done. And once more, it almost is. Besides being the very first
Goodie online, he's also our Featured Guest
this month, and there you can see stills from his current project
Screen Test. We are delighted to introduce Rob to all of you who
may have not yet met him.
Romy & Foxy
I always thought that Mother—Jackie
60 and Click + Drag—was like graduate school
for me. I was forced every week to do something creative with a
budget of zero. It was a challenge and it’s been imbedded
in me. And I’ve proved to myself that once a dumpster diver,
always a dumpster diver. That’s one of the great things about
New York City still: When I need something specific for a project,
somehow I always end up finding it.
Rob in "Kurt , Courtney and Jackie"
(photo Bobby Miller)
Tell us about your beginning.
My parents met in the Catskills one summer in the
1950s. My father was a drag racer, and it was classic: he was a
bad boy, and my mother was the beautiful, good girl he could bring
home to Mom. My mother was a nurse and she gave that up to be a
housewife to my father. I was the first born, on December 18th,
1968 in Queens, New York. I have two younger sisters.
Mother Goose child model
My father was still in the NYPD academy when he
got the call that I was born. We lived in Woodside, Queens until
I was four or five, when my father decided to move us to Rockland
County, on the other side of the Hudson and near the Tappan Zee
Bridge and Nyack. It’s about as suburban as you can get and
that was my demise.
Was there no little old town attached?
Well, there was Nyack, which was always a favorite
place for me to go, and Tappan, which had the 76 House where Benedict
Arnold plotted to spy. It was rich in history. I still go there
sometimes on the bus.
Suburbia almost killed me, especially at adolescence. From 8th grade
until I went to college, it was very, very difficult. Difficult
socially, I guess you’d call it. I was “outed”
and tormented for years, so I couldn’t learn even if I’d
wanted to, and the teachers sucked anyway.
But up until then I actually had a nice upbringing. Every weekend
I would go to Manhattan to visit my grandmother. My favorite thing
when I was nine or ten was going with her to the bank. The bank
was one of those huge, beautiful, gorgeous old ornate banks with
gold vaulted ceilings and all the pens still worked and they had
beautiful brass holders at the tables where you’d fill out
your deposit slips. Everything was so regal and the tellers were
behind cages. I thought it was the fanciest place in the world.
You really felt that you were putting your money into a very rich
place and that it would be safe there.
Where did your grandmother live?
She lived in Washington Heights and from her apartment
you could see the top of the George
Washington Bridge. She used to tell me the story of how her
father—my great grandfather—helped put one of the lights
on the GW Bridge, so every time I would go over the bridge I would
look at the light on the top and think how my great grandfather
put it there.
One of the big lights at the very top?
Yes. My mother swears that he was too drunk to have
ever done anything like that. But I believe it. The GW Bridge has
always been my favorite bridge because of my history with it. That
bridge is also the way I would go to see my grandmother, because
we would take the bus from Rockland to the GW Bridge Terminal. I’ve
been taking that route my entire life. Something that my grandmother
remembers and constantly brings up, is one day when we were in the
GW Bridge Terminal, they had a Chock Full o’ Nuts restaurant
where they had the cream cheese and walnut sandwiches, and they
had counters and swivel chairs. I remember being in there, and she
gave me a napkin and a pen while we were waiting for our bus. I
was about five, and I drew a picture of the bridge. The way she
tells it you would think I drew the Sistine Chapel.
Bridge" by Robert Roth, age 5
Did she save it?
It’s framed! She gave it to my mother, and
my mother kept it all these years. My grandmother still talks about
it! If I say, “Nannie, I did a show at this place called PS122,”
she’ll say, “I remember when you drew that picture of
the bridge on that napkin in the Bridge Terminal! I was speechless!
All that detail!”
Remember how funky the trains were back then?
I remember how exciting it was to take the subway
because it was so crazy and loud and full of graffiti. On the C
Train, which we used to take from my grandmother’s at 175th
Street all the way downtown, you’d feel like you were going
to die! It was shaking all over, the tracks were squealing and sparks
were flying and there was graffiti on everything and all the windows
were open in the summer because there was no air conditioning then.
Oh, it was so exciting for me, it was like being on a roller coaster!
How old is your grandma now?
My grandmother is about 89. She totally has her
wits about her, but finally I am noticing that she is getting old
and it upsets me if I think of it.
What does she think of it?
Oh, she can’t wait to die! She’s a very,
very devout Catholic. If I say, “Oh, Nannie, that ring you
have, I have always loved that,” she’ll say, “Do
you want it when I die?” She has little things in bags with
people’s names on them!
She’s very practical.
I tell her I don’t want to talk about it.
I say, “You can’t die! You can’t leave me with
these people!” She never forces any belief on me but she’s
very devout. I know it’s useless to talk about abortion and
things, but there’s no reason to talk about these things with
her. But what’s funny is that way in the back of my mind I
think, I should just shut up, because if she’s right and I
find myself up there, it will be like getting into a club. I’ll
just say, “I’m on Fran Barrett’s list. Plus one.”
And I’ll be in like that, because I know she is on the
guest list. She has had such a hard life and never, ever have I
met anyone so kind and loving. I don’t remember her ever complaining,
and it never ceases to amaze me. In my family, she was the one where
everything she said was positive encouragement. She’s the
Did you tell her that you wanted to be an artist?
I didn’t have to tell her. I did that napkin
and she wouldn’t shut up about it!
Surely the Catholic part of your childhood must
have rubbed off on you somewhat.
The parts of Catholicism I’ve always loved
are the architecture and the ritual. It is really theater, the Catholic
Church, and it is really quite gay when you really look at it, because
it is so over the top! When I was very young and they’d say,
‘This is the blood of Christ,’ and get into the whole
blood ritual and drinking it, I would get a little weak-kneed because
I had a weird thing about blood. So every time I’d feel a
little faint. But I was also strangely attracted to it in a kind
of vampire-like way. It’s as Goth as you can get.
Being Catholic I was brought up in a certain way, but I will give
my parents credit because they did send me to little art lessons
and they did eventually send me to Pratt and I got what I needed.
They put me in the Catholic Diocese Art Show, and I won. I’ve
had the Catholic award, which just cracks me up when I look at what
I do now. My mother begged me to be an alter boy but I told her
absolutely not. In retrospect it’s so funny to me what with
all the scandals in the church and everything I went through being
gay. I have the sneaking suspicion that she thought that being an
alter boy would have been good for me. I’ve never asked her,
but she probably thought that maybe I was a little effeminate and
maybe it would help me, whereas it would probably have been the
worst thing for me.
Another funny Catholic story was when my cousin and I, before we
had our first communion, were dying to know what those little wafers
tasted like. So my cousin stole two after church because they still
had some left out, and in the back of the station-wagon we each
put one in our mouth and of course, we said, “Eww!”
and spit it out. And my grandmother caught us! She got so freaked
out that she took both of the soggy, spitty little things and she
ate them. She said, “That’s sacrilege!” And we
thought, “Ewww! She ate it after we ate it!”
I don’t know if we got punished that day and didn’t
go to the bakery or not, but every Sunday we’d go to church
and if we were good we’d be taken to the bakery afterwards
to get a cookie.
When did you start coming into the city by yourself?
I started coming on my own in my teens. I was lucky
enough to catch the end of what downtown meant in the very early
’80s. I’d go to the Village and shop in what were still
real thrift stores.
NYC subway, 1981 (snapshot bought at
W. 25th St. flea market for $1)
You could get a pair of shoes for $2. Things were
still really cheap, and the East Village was still full of all those
blocks of bombed-out, burnt-out shells of old tenements, like the
South Bronx. And funny enough, that was where my father was a cop,
in the South Bronx. When I was about 17, Nyack had a photo contest.
One of the categories was photo essay, and I told my father
I wanted him to take me to the South Bronx so I could see where
he worked every day. My father and I had a rather rough relationship.
But he did it. He took me all around the South Bronx, and I mean,
the full-on South Bronx with the burnt-out buildings, he introduced
me to a pimp and people he’d arrested seven or eight times,
and they’d say, “Oh, hello Officer Bob!” I took
pictures of the burnt-out buildings, the pimp, some kind of drug
dealer guy, and I developed them myself. And the funny thing was
that I won. I won $500, which to me was huge! I didn’t
even go on the day they awarded the prize. I went with a friend
down to the city to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My mother
and grandmother went, and when I won, my mother went up and got
the award. She said that all the other photo essays were of flowers,
and then there was mine. Nobody knew how I was able to go in there
and take those pictures. But my father introduced me to them all.
That’s the funny thing about my father. He never didn’t
encourage me to do what I was doing. I don’t think he ever
really understood it. I think it was always very, very difficult
for my mother and father to understand that I would be okay doing
what I wanted to do. It’s only in the last five or six years
that they’ve finally stopped asking, “When are you going
to get a real job?”
What was art school like?
I went to Pratt in ’87, and I lived there
in the dorms and all over that neighborhood, Fort Greene, which
back then was very dangerous. I was mugged and people were shot,
there was always somebody murdered; one student was shot in the
chest, then the next semester one was shot through the eye, then
a girl was raped in the main building. It was a rough, rough, rough
neighborhood then, but I learned a lot at Pratt, from crazy old
art teachers who were maniacs. The old fogies I liked. The more
insane they were, the more I learned from them.
What was your mugger like?
A crack addict. It was when I was a club kid. We’d
dress up in ridiculous outfits with platform shoes and shorts to
the knees with striped socks and carry a lunch pail. I had a Fat
Albert lunch pail, I’ll admit it. Chi Chi Valenti said, “You
Oh, Chi Chi and Johnny hated the whole lunchbox
Well, I was a real club kid, and it was the heydey
for that. We used to go to Michael
Alig's outlaw parties. I’m glad I got to see it and experience
it. We would take the G Train, all dressed up for those parties,
from Brooklyn and back again, drunk. The subway cost a dollar, so
you could go out all night for two dollars. You’d buy your
two tokens for two dollars, you’d get to the Tunnel Club,
or wherever you were going, and you’d get in for free. This
was the end of the ’80s decadence. You’d have an open
bar for two hours. You’d be smashed, dance all night, then
get back on the subway with your token. Sometimes we’d buy
cheap beer to drink on the train. The invites that came for those
parties were so elaborate. There would be boxes of candy with the
information on the candy, and once I remember getting plastic tools.
When did you first go to Jackie 60?
One of my best friends met a total flaming homosexual
Italian ex-priest from Brooklyn named Eddie. His mother had sent
him to seminary, and he was such a queen. He would always say, “Jackie!
The House of Domination! You gotta go!” The first time I walked
through the doors, I thought, “ I’m home.” It
had all the clever ideas and themes and performances, everything
I’ve ever wanted to do and was interested in, and it was so
legit, it didn’t seem forced or stupid, it was so real and
the place was so tiny! I had found what I was looking for. And from
then on, the rest is history.
Rob, Debbie, Garrett Domina at Jackie
(photo Marti Domination)
How long did it take you to befriend Chi Chi
Not very long. I’ve never been the most assertive
person. I do approach people I find interesting, but it’s
not easy for me. Especially with someone like Chi Chi! Can you imagine?
So I said to myself, okay, I’m just going to take a deep breath
and approach this woman. The immediacy with her was that I had an
email address, which was very rare then, in about 1992, in that
world especially. We started emailing each other and I pitched an
idea and we did it.
Chi Chi Valenti and Johnny Dynell (photos
What was the idea?
It was “InterJackie.” I was working
for AT&T on this interactive television trial, right before
the internet really exploded. It was a whole campaign of stuff,
that didn’t even exist, around what the future would be like,
with interactive TV and picture phones and video phones, and it
was all fake. But they were doing trials in Chicago, and I was designing
these things to make them look like they were real. Chi Chi was
fascinated with all that. I said, “I want to do this in the
club.” They were doing “CyberSlut” nights that
were technology-themed with robots, and I said I wanted to do one
of those and call it “InterJackie.” So we made a “MistressMaster”
tool where you could make your own dominatrix. The whole thing was
absurd and ridiculous, but it worked. We were one of the first clubs
to have a website, and I designed it.
The invitation cards for Click + Drag were each
one a work of art. One of Rob’s nights was called Gibson Girls,
but instead of the early 20th Century style of Charles
Dana Gibson, Rob’s Gibson Girls were of the future world
Gibson's novels. The image he used for the whole night was of
Debbie Harry, a regular misfit performer at Jackie herself. She
and Chris Stein liked what Rob did so much they decided to ask him
to design the art for their new Blondie
record, NO EXIT. Rob had just escaped dying and was in the hospital
hopped up on morphine.
Deb as Gibson Girl
I’d had appendicitis in Mexico, on vacation
with Chi Chi and Johnny, and we all thought it was food poisoning.
I went scuba diving, but I was hunched over. It took more than 24
hours to find out what was wrong with me when I finally came back
and went to the emergency room, because Mexico was such a red herring.
I felt like I was slowly dying. If it had burst, they said, I would
have been dead in thirty minutes. If it had happened when I was
scuba diving, they would have thought I drowned. No one would have
thought it was my appendix.
Rob was so happy after Chris asked him to do
the record art. He was blissful on the morphine, he hadn’t
died and he’d make static magic for Blondie when he woke up.
Later he thought he dreamed it. He ended up doing all of the art
for the next two Blondie CDs and huge video installations for their
tours. He’s done equally beautiful work for Theo, including
videos and CD art. He works constantly, more recently spending a
lot of time in Berlin with Big Art Group.
What is Big
Manson's theater company that does truly new theater with heavy
use of videos in the stories. They tour all over Europe and that
has brought me somewhere else. They’re so supportive, in the
way that Chi Chi and Johnny gave me that seal of approval at that
point in my life and really left me free and loose to do anything
I wanted. I’ve been very lucky. I think that I’ve always
had good instincts, and I’ve had a sort of divining rod drawing
me naturally to where I’m supposed to go. There are people
I know who are very successful now and I see how they’ve been
so driven, knowing exactly what they were doing, whereas with me,
the wind somehow takes me where I’m supposed to be. I’ve
always known that I had to go certain places and work with certain
people for a long time to learn what I wanted to be. I like to learn
from the scenes that I somehow end up in and I just end up where
I’m supposed to be. I’ve always been happy that I’ve
ended up working with who I’ve ended up working with and befriending.
Sweetie darling! Rob in Ab Fab episode
with Jennifer Saunders
I only work with people who I admire and like. I
can’t work with anyone whose work I don’t like, and
that, I think, is my problem in a way. I don’t know if I could
do good work if I didn’t like what it was. I’ve loved
working with Debbie and Theo and Chi Chi, people who I’m inspired
by. They bring out what I need. But that’s also why I feel
that I’m never going to be what most people consider “successful.”
What is it about Theo that you most appreciate
as a muse of sorts?
I get everything that inspires me to create. Music, performance,
a strong iconic female and most important, she trusts my vision
and understands what I’m doing, especially with the body projections.
Technically she really understands what to do. It also helps that
she is such an open and calm person. I tend to be a bit more hyperactive
so it’s a good balance. I always admired her from afar and
eventually we worked together when she performed at Click + Drag.
Theo and Rob at Theo and the Skyscrapers
show in LA (photo Gilby)
When you work on video projects such as what
you’re doing for Screen Test, do you ever find yourself not
leaving the house for long periods?
With this project I’m spending a lot of time,
sometimes all day, without leaving the house. But because I have
to shoot video and have meetings with potential collaborators (lighting,
choreography, set, etc), I do get to go outside. If I don’t
go out and get some kind of physical activity I tend to go a bit
crazy. I love riding my bicycle. That really helps my head. So I
try to make myself do that. I love working on the computer and what
I do, but for me it’s not the most natural position.
Theo's face on Rob's computer (photo
Rob has the good fortune of having Todd Thomas
designing the costumes for Screen Test. Todd is an exceptional designer:
he’s designed and made by hand the most stunning original
costumes for Debbie Harry. He too belongs to another era of artistry,
able to keep delicacy and finery at play while being overtly outrageous
at the same time. His work is exquisite and lends itself beautifully
to Theo’s marvelous character.
Todd Thomas, Deb and Rob (photo
We know that you outdid yourself with finding
what you needed for this set. Would you tell about the hospital
I was walking past Bellevue Hospital after taking
pictures of an amazing, huge building they have been tearing down
over the summer on 40th Street (the old Con Ed building) and somehow
I managed to eye a shiny piece of metal sticking out of a dumpster
in front of some medical facility. I jumped up on it and looked
in, and there was this perfect surgery bed. There were a few, in
fact. One thing I really wish I’d gotten was some kind of
metal child's crib that was oval in shape and looked like a metal
cage. It was so creepy and strange. It looked like something from
an old medical journal for rabid infants. As I was looking in the
dumpster, a guard came out of the building and asked what I was
doing. I told him that I was looking at the bed, and he started
giving me a hard time, saying that I had to have permission from
NYU medical center or something like that. So I just smiled and
said, “Okay, who do I talk to? Where is that?” All the
while thinking of how I was going to sneak the surgery bed out of
there. It was in the garbage! Since when do you have to ask permission
to pull stuff out of the garbage? I think he was just bored and
looking for something to happen. I ended up renting a van and going
with my friends Dax and Jan to take it the next night. It was so
hot and we forgot to wear gloves so it was a bit disconcerting when
there was a mysterious yellow gel on Jan. We were also sweating
profusely. I sometimes wonder what the hell I’m doing in these
What did you do with it once you had it out
of the dumpster?
I ended up driving it up to my parents place in
Rockland County and leaving it behind the garage. The whole trip
it was rolling all over the back of the van and making a big thud
At some point the surgery bed will find its
way back to the city and into some mysterious doorway of PS122 on
1st Avenue in time for the opening of Screen Test on November 28,
2006. As long as we’ve known Rob, he’s worked on things
until the very last second, all the while worrying that he won’t
find the right meat hook or filament bulb or black and gold tights,
and all along he’s found ruined buildings, derelict locales
and deserted warehouses full of beauteous obsolescence in which
to take pictures and videos. Real fire, cracked mirrors and rust
are just as good as paint. But little by little, the city is losing
its derelict quality. Eventually, there won’t be dumpsters
full of sinister old hospital beds. Rob feels it as keenly as any
artist, but he keeps a certain optimism. Perhaps it’s his
grandmother Fran Barrett’s legacy.
What do you think is happening in this city?
I think what happened was that during the Giuliani
period, they ousted the artists because they couldn’t afford
the rents. The rents went up with all the “Sex and the City”
girls coming in to go to NYU, all these people re-did apartments
and then charged three times as much, and all the artists left.
When that happens, scenes die. Those people with the money don’t
create scenes, they buy them. They go to things and want to be there,
but they don’t create anything. So when the scales are outweighed
and the people who make the scenes can’t afford to live in
them, when the people who make New York New York are gone,
then there is nothing happening. But even at its worst New York
is still my favorite city and I think it will always be. If you
watch that Burns documentary about New York, it shows how everything
is cyclical. There were moments like this in the past, and New York
will come back around.
Rob, lower Manhattan, October 2006
See Rob's Featured
Guest page for more.