The Ice Cream Social project began on a very small scale. In 1993, then living in New York City, I had the idea that it would be amusing to make a painting based on the simple pink-and-brown-dots-on-a-white-field motif long utilized by a well-known American ice cream company, Baskin-Robbins, in their shops and packaging, and then to briefly display that painting at one of the shops (a "parlor," to use the company's term) for an invited audience of friends. It was a simple gesture, yet one fully packed--partly because the Baskin-Robbins parlors held so many rich identity associations for me. Quoting from my 1998 novella:
It happened every time. Within minutes of entering any Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream Parlor, [he] could count on feeling as sure-footed as a man atop a ladder changing marquee letters in a squall.
The shakiness was due in part to the correspondence which his family name enjoyed. His identity suffered a certain dilution. Certain membranes turned a little too porous. Atoms that he'd always considered his and his alone suddenly mistook themselves for those of a corporation, a chain of stores, and tubs of ice cream....
Layers of time melted and merged as well. Images from his childhood--of glossy summer nights, of Galaxy 500s and Top 40, of 31 flavors (including an amazing black licorice sorbet that turned the tongue gunmetal gray)--blended with that larger, collective memory of the "parlors" shared by a generation now well established on the soggy plains of middle age. Added to the mixture was a third and synthetic memory--his by inheritance only--of an earlier golden age, one that was preserved in the parlors' decor. The attuned patron detected P. T. Barnum in the font used for the "31" marking each hour on the wall clock's face; Abner Doubleday in the baseball-diamond ice cream cakes displayed in the big free-standing freezers; in the pink and brown dots decorating every napkin and paper bowl, apron and cap, the pastelled innocence of barbershop quartets, gingerbread porches, old St. Looey--an America before Ford and Edison had had at it. Despite management's periodic attempts to update the chain's looks, ghosts of that era stubbornly lingered.
The dot motif employed by the Baskin-Robbins company in its decor and packaging emblematized these multiple layers of personal and collective memory. That the company had recently abandoned the dot motif and classic Neapolitan color scheme served to further objectify the nostalgia factor; now the motif represented the classical phase of American post-war pop culture, years which coincided with the company's own heyday.
Additionally, the dot form shimmered with meaning. Historically, dots signify comedy. Visually the most minimal trace of presence--the point or mark, stylized--the dot is a basic integer of existential evidence evened out, made geometry, filled in, rendered monochromatically. Existential mystery, stylized: the dot is a visual logo for Wit.
By using the dot I thus could access the rhetoric associated with abstract painting while tilting that rhetoric toward a more theatrical condition. And this particular painting was intended to function as something akin to a theatrical prop, in a comedy enacted in a setting far from gallery or museum.
Echoing the corporate partnership of Baskin-Robbins, I commissioned a young artist, Chris Sasser, to paint a dot composition of my design. Meanwhile, I arranged to show the finished painting in a Baskin-Robbins at 23rd Street and 1st Avenue, in Manhattan.
The date arrived: January 14--the dead of winter (more comedy!). Two dozen friends braved the cold to attend. After allowing twenty minutes or so for ice cream socializing, I walked behind the long glass counter from which ice cream is served and there recited a poem that I'd written for the occasion.
Where the clock strikes 31*
Players conspiring in the enjoyment of enjoyment
Unfurl the pink and brown of the Insupportable
Against animal virtue's blooded tribes
To savor the Ice Cream Social
Cold, licking sweet, always melting, and
Empty of all save their pleasure in it,
[*Editor’s Note: “31” is a reference to the Baskin-Robbins famous "31 flavors" logo. The parlors featured wall clocks with the number "31" substituted for the traditional hours.] The poem, about gathering, was spoken to people who had gathered in order to gather! The short and sweet event soon concluded. People chatted among themselves for a few minutes before wandering off into the cold night.
The project's subsequent history has been, essentially, an "unpacking" of the potential meanings framed that winter evening. Three more live events have been staged--in Chicago (at the Chicago Project Room, 2000), London (at Cubitt Studios, 2002), and most recently in Des Moines, Iowa (at the Des Moines Art Center, 2003). [Editor’s Note: Ice Cream Socials in Paris, Pittsburgh, and Tokyo would subsequently be added to this list.] The last of these drew eight hundred people. In addition to being authentic ice cream socials, providing a community with refreshment and pleasures, these events gave me an opportunity to explore the idea's gestural structure, its mise en scene and iconography--cake designs, ice cream bowls, decor--and its theatrical component.
These productions also explore the "social" concept of collaboration. The cakes have always been made by others. In London, for example, they were created by the artists associated with the Cubitt Studios program. For the Des Moines Social, more than one hundred artists and craftsmen--school kids, Drake University students and faculty--produced bowls, paintings, and drawings according to broad thematic and design parameters I'd provided. Restricting the palette to pink, brown, and white goes a long way toward unifying the collaborators.
Even while preparing for the first Ice Cream Social in New York, I'd planned to write about the event; several years later, in 1998, an eponymous novella was published by Purple magazine in Paris and, jointly, Feature, Inc. (my New York gallery). The book, a fiction integrating a variety of cultural interests, includes a deadpan, straightforward account of the '93 event. I was interested to embed a non-fiction event (itself already very fiction-like) within a larger fictional narrative. What kind of book is that? Which genre? Which category?
In 2004 I adapted the novella into a feature-length screenplay, which is now circulating among various film producers.
A television pilot
The Ice Cream Social television show, a pilot for which was commissioned by the Sundance Channel in 2003, updates the classic variety show format, blends in aspects of the talk show format, and envelops the whole in comedy. Combining elements of Laugh-In, American Bandstand, the old Ed Sullivan revue, and the Charlie Rose talk show, the pilot proposes a weekly hour-long party with an ensemble cast of regulars and an ever-changing array of guests and performers.
In contrast with earlier variety shows, the Social has no single host. Instead, the ensemble cast, alternately referred to as Socialists or Socialites ("depending on whichever we need more of," explains one partygoer) provides anchor and continuity. The Socialists/Socialites are imbued with consistent, scripted personalities that are revealed and developed over time. Mingling among them are a small number of invited guests from the worlds of entertainment, politics, sports, science, and the arts. Viewers are treated to extended fragments of conversations, witty lines, odd exchanges--i.e. party talk. During extended passages of conversation on pre-arranged topics with selected guests, the Social approximates the feel of a talk show. Since, at a party, guests must be entertained, the Social presents musical acts, comedians, poets, dancers, etc. On occasion the Socialists themselves perform tightly choreographed dances. From time to time, short experimental films and videos are screened or a static artwork is displayed for the partygoers' stimulation. The party concept naturalizes and lends cohesion to everything that happens at the party.
The Ice Cream Social is highly stylized and emphatically visual. The set, built on a large open soundstage (recalling TV variety shows of the 1950-1975 period) moves the viewer out of the domestic and office spaces favored by contemporary narrative television and into a more purely artificial, "theatrical" space. The decor, lighting, and costumes reinforce the artifice by hewing to a strict color scheme: pink, brown, and white (i.e. strawberry, chocolate, vanilla), presented either monochromatically or in combination. The "ice cream social" concept is thus thematized in the show's look.
Like the variety shows of the past, The Ice Cream Social has no story line or narrative. It isn't story-driven. Yet the concept can accomodate the development of continuing narrative threads about individual cast members or even the show itself, when needed or desired. A thin frosting of fiction is slathered over the whole, to be activated at will. The Social is premised on the imaginary--the Socialists/Socialites never leave the party space inside your television, and the party never ends--while at the same time showcasing real guests and real entertainers with real product to sell.
A specific example of the Social's interplay between the real and the imaginary: The show has a house band, a sort of Greek chorus called The Ingredients, that occasionally performs songs addressing some subject matter that's turned up in the course of events. At other times, the same stage features real musical groups--rock, jazz, bluegrass, etc.
As there is no story-line, the cameras may be used in a way that differs from narrative television. The Social's cameras are assigned distinct though complementary functions. Two cameras are assigned to the scripted and "talk show" portions of the show, capturing conversations and scheduled entertainment at pre-arranged locations and times. Two additional cameras move about the set discovering potent visuals. They are deployed in more painterly, durational, or improvisational ways. Their credo: Whatever Looks Good.
The show is taped, and then constructed in the editing process. While largely scripted, the unanticipated is accommodated and, to a degree, desired; the party format argues for a looser construction. But there is no single pace or tone; some phases of the party might feel frenetic and others quiet, contemplative, meandering.
With the platform's artifice firmly secured, those on camera are free to "be themselves." The Social is a show for people who are interested in other people. Guests and cast members may converse about nearly any subject--serious or slight, topical or historical, quotidian or abstract--which the show's writers might care to engage. Moreover, partygoers are free to touch upon/make use of/explore the show's more self-consciousness dimensions. The artifice of "a TV show," the artifice of the "ice cream social"--these can be used as conversational, thematic, and stylistic material. As the ice cream social is an indigenous American form, the show may also explore "American" themes and subject matter. This capacity and inclination to play with its own premises distinguishes The Ice Cream Social from variety shows of the past and contributes to its contemporary feel.
Relational Aesthetics and Morphing Forms
Until recently, contemporary art history had pigeonholed me as "an '80s artist," because my exhibition career began during that (for some reason notorious) decade. Lately, though, a new generation of curators has characterized the Ice Cream Social side of my output as an example of "relational aesthetics" (an idea associated with an important trend in the visual art of the ‘90s) so I've been upgraded to the status of a '90s artist.
While I arrived at the Ice Cream Social concept intuitively and independently, through my work in comedy, and only learned the term "relational aesthetics" within the past year or two, it is certainly true that the Ice Cream Social is about bringing people together on a platform of artifice sympathetic to the formation of new social rituals. My ice cream socials establish self-conscious, temporary communities. What is this community? For what purpose has it been formed? Though I"m interested in these questions, to my mind the ICS is equally a platform for bringing together forms of expression--formats, media, contexts. Paintings and digital prints, live events, a novella, a TV pilot, a movie script--a formal "morphing," with a concomitant levelling of formal hierarchies, has been a crucial aspect of the project's own narrative. As it has evolved, the ICS has reconciled media and communication contexts with heretofore competing, often conflicting cultural agendas. The story of the ICS is in part the story of its movement from a culturally marginal presentational form to mainstream presentational forms--from a painting to television and movies.
Parasitism and Politics
How does someone with an art mind-set go about working directly in mass media? With relation to the source inspiration, what is the degree of parasitism? In other words, is it possible for a self-described artist to make, say, genuine television and not video art about television? As far as aesthetic matters go, at this point in the Social's development these are the questions that intrigue, motivate, and keep me on track.
I'm not interested to introduce things--materials, subject matter, concepts--into the art context. That seems to me to have been the work of modernism, and a habit of imagination left over from modernism. Instead, with the ICS I'm interested in pushing certain ambitions for the culture and certain attitudes heretofore associated with the art context in the direction of the mainstream. I'm interested to work as an artist in mainstream forms, from a position of respect for mainstream forms. My ambition isn't to get video art shown on a television program or channel. My ambition is to make television shows for popular consumption. What might such shows be like? [Editor’s Note: Robbins has since realized this goal with the Something Theater program, a collaboration with Bobby Ciraldo and Andrew Swant, broadcast monthly on commercial television in Milwaukee.]
Until recently, the gap between "art" and mainstream media was quite large. Only the networks and movie studios possessed the necessary technology. Some of the resentment and "critique" that artists have aimed at mainstream media is attributable, I believe, to their frustration at having been "frozen out" of using powerful, modern communication technology. Today, though, the artist who wants to work in mass media forms needn't adopt that negative stance. The technology gap is closing, and an artist can now create with the same equipment that many filmmakers and televisionmakers use. While it's true that mass media distribution systems still favor status quo entertainment product, as imaginations that have been trained in other traditions increasingly produce in mainstream formats those distribution systems will gradually feel the pressure, and eventually discover the commercial advantage of opening up. It's only a matter of time.
Change doesn't flow in only one direction, though. Already, the improving availability of mainstream communication technologies is challenging an attitude long held by visual artists, who have hewn to the hierarchy of "art above, mainstream media below." Ranking media contexts in this way is an outdated attitude. A television sitcom is as specific a form of artifice as a painting; each delivers specific satisfactions that can't be delivered in another way. Art has no intrinsic superiority. Good television is better than bad art. A good entertainer contributes more than a bad artist. The art context is just another communication context, with its own strengths, its own limitations, its own institutionalized habits of mind. As a suburban, post-war American raised on TV, movies, and pop music, my cultural imprinting does not allow me to take the position that these are lesser forms, or that only by introducing them into the art context can they be elevated and redeemed. Is that position radical or conservative? I don't know. I do know that, in taking the position that the pleasures these mass media forms provide are valid pleasures, and that as an artist I wish my work to access those pleasures, I am being honest. Irony isn't even in the picture. The Ice Cream Social is emphatically post-ironic.
As long as we're being honest we must acknowledge that, on the occasion of this exhibition, it is an art museum, not HBO or NBC, that has recognized the value of these questions. An art museum, not Canal Plus or Channel 4, has acknowledged the validity of a conceptual artist's search for a way to introduce another kind of thinking into the mainstream. At present, cultural inquiry of the sort I'm pursuing does remain a specialty of the art context. The entertainment context--show biz--continues to work hard to maintain the opacity of its lucrative conventions and tropes.
Evolution may be slow but it's real. As indicated above, advances in technology are informing cultural evolution. There's personal evolution as well. In any of its myriad formats, The Ice Cream Social advances a position I had announced in 1986, in my work Talent--eighteen show biz-style "headshots" of various contemporary artists (Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, et al). In equating artists and entertainers, Talent substituted a new, more pragmatic, less marginalized image of the artist for the worn out, Van Gogh-romantic model. Since then, my practice has gradually become congruent with the new image. Quoting the writer and curator Polly Staple: "To entertain, and to use entertainment to create new models of experience for people--in the ICS, David found a way to go beyond the contemporary emblem of the artist that Talent had given us." The Ice Cream Social deepens an integration emblematized in eighteen photographs taken nearly twenty years ago.
Excerpted from a text published in conjunction with an Ice Cream Social and installation, exhibited January 14-March 13, 2005, at Regina Gouger Miller Gallery, Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh.