Imagine living an entire life – 41 years, to be exact – only to find out you were secretly just someone else’s art project the entire time. Your life seemed like it was yours, but really it could’ve been ended at any given moment by someone you barely even knew existed.
Such was the life of artist Bert Rodriguez, who died in his sleep on May 30, 2016.
On May 31, when Norberto Rodriguez awoke for the first time, he knew he was a different man. It’d been exactly one year since the native Floridian had visited his cultural homeland in Cuba and discovered that there was a piece of him he’d never known. The “Bert” moniker bestowed upon him over 35 years ago by an aging white kindergarten teacher who couldn’t pronounce “Norberto” no longer made sense. Bert had a good run – making a name for himself in galleries and odd performance spaces in both Miami and Los Angeles – but he was ultimately doomed to become one of the many elaborate creative projects Rodriguez is known for.
“When I went to Cuba, it totally freaked me out,” Rodriguez says. “There were all these people who I was genetically related to, and it was like a new part of me. When I came back, it was like a new faucet had been turned on, and I couldn’t turn it off. I started thinking about Bert and how his first show was a retrospective. I could end his life with a museum in his own name, and it’d be a perfect fit. Then, I could start fresh with this new guy who’s actually the old guy. The first thing Norberto announced was to claim Bert’s entire life as one complete art piece, so now I’m going to keep exploring that as my main opus.”
Although some snobby painters and sculptors may argue that simply living life without realizing who you truly are isn’t “art,” Rodriguez contends that art in the traditional sense is really quite outdated for the most part. Sure, Rodriguez has created some incredible visual art during his career (well, Bert’s career), but paintings and galleries really haven’t evolved much over the last several centuries – yet the world we live in is entirely different than the one in which the Mona Lisa was created. Rodriguez is slight in stature, but his philosophical grasp of art history is monumental. In his eyes, ancient shamans and healers were the original artists and one of his greatest influences is someone whose work you’ll see in every gallery, but not on the walls.
“You have to step out of art for art to evolve,” Rodriguez says. “The rest of culture is way ahead of art because of people like Steve Jobs. He said ‘What if we take everything you’ll ever need and put it in your hand? And you only need one button.’ He was so tapped in to the future of human evolution that he created this thing and the second people got it in their hands they were already complaining about what it couldn’t do. That’s being in the presence of evolution. You take something that no one thought would ever exist and make it so natural that you start bitching about its limitations. That’s a human being evolving at that moment. That’s what Steve Jobs did as a person, and that’s what I’m hoping I’m doing as an artist.”
In a way, Rodriguez’s current project is a fitting homage to Jobs. For one month, the artist is living in a dorm-room-like enclosure inside of the Pancake Epidemic’s headquarters. There’s little to the room aside from a bed, a desk, a mirror, some plants and books, and a white bathrobe hanging from a coat hook. Technically, the experience is supposed to be about the bed (his stay is sponsored by Bedaga, the company that made the bed), but most of the experience ultimately comes down to Rodriguez’s MacBook sitting open on the desk and the iPhone in his hand.
“You only know performance art happened through the documentation,” Rodriguez says. “Unless you were there, documentation is super important when it comes to an experience. It’s a shift from creation to just documenting. The document is the creation. Technology was built for that. I have this camera in my hand all day long, so I can just be art all day. I couldn’t do that 10 years ago. Social media at its best — and I doubt they knew this when they were making it — is the opportunity for every single human being to be an artist. I don’t think it matters if you have 30 million followers. If you have even just one person engaging with one thing, that’s one person putting enough value on your artwork to double tap the screen. That’s gold to me.”
This isn’t the first time Rodriguez has taken a paycheck from a brand to document his experiences. Most famously, vaporizer brand G Pen paid a pretty penny for his 2013 installation at Coachella, and he’s not opposed to sprinkling in as many corporate-sponsored projects as he can as long as he has control of what he does. In short, the brands get the extra publicity and an installation that’ll never be duplicated while Rodriguez gets paid to create the same kind of strange experiences he’d be doing anyway. While some artists might see it as selling out, it’s a way for Rodriguez to pay his bills and fulfill his artistic desires at the same time.
“[Artists] forget that we’re in charge,” Rodriguez says about the divide between the art and commercial worlds. “We’re creating the cultural capital, so if those guys don’t like it, I’ll take it elsewhere. Those guys have a ton of money, so why am I struggling to pay my rent because I can’t sell some theoretical idea of a thing that doesn’t exist yet? A brand will pay me to do things because the public gets to share it and be involved in it, so it makes them seem that much more interesting. As long as I can maintain a level of integrity, it’s ideal for me. Unless it was something stupid that I fucking hate – like BMW giving someone half of a million dollars to paint a BMW that no one gets to drive or touch and only like 50 people get to see a car that looks like a Crayola factory exploded on it.”
As for this one, Rodriguez is essentially the main attraction. It’s not entirely different from when he lived in his apartment-turned-museum-turned-Airbnb, the Bert Rodriguez Museum, just without the relics to his former self and in a supposedly much more comfortable bed.
“The whole idea is what I’ve been building toward for the last 20 years, that life is art,” Rodriguez says. “I’m here. We can go have dinner at IHOP, and just the fact that I’m an artist with a history of doing this stuff, people come into that experience with a heightened awareness. Those pancakes aren’t going to be regular pancakes, they’re going to be art-cakes just by virtue of me having built up this stuff. I think more artists need to think about shit in a more expansive way than just making a painting — not that there aren’t some great paintings.”
If you don’t have the time to catch Rodriguez at the IHOP downstairs from his temporary habitat, you can check in on him for just about every waking moment via social media. Whatever you do, just don’t get him started on Kanye West.
“I believe that Kanye is actually a great artist, he’s just really fucking lost,” Rodriguez says. “He needs someone to come into his life and have him calm down and figure it out. I think he’s actually a brilliant artist, but he’s just so overwhelmed with everything that gets thrown at him. His nervous system isn’t ready for the influx of data that’s coming in, and that’s why he’s acting like a complete fucking idiot. I think he gets a bad rap and I love giving him a hard time, but I really want him to be a great artist. He knows what great art is, and he can see it and he can recognize it, but he has no idea how to connect that through him. He really means well, I think.”