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Bob Dornberger

Bob and his daughter Olive

Tell us about where you are from and how you ended up here in the desert?

I grew up in Alabama, spending a lot of time out in the woods, building forts and treehouses. I lived in Chicago for seven years, and I moved to LA in 2000. I had visited off and on since then and started volunteering for HDTS when they had the Life Enhancement Shop in Joshua Tree. I began actively looking for a place in 2012.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background as an artist and your relationship to architecture?

After undergrad I stopped making art; it didn’t seem like my scene, and I didn’t really have the social skills to make the right connections. I had a cabinet shop that I made kitchen cabinets for people flipping houses, doors and windows for craftsman restorations, and some work for galleries. That all went well until the financial crisis evaporated access to easy credit. I closed the shop in 2008 and got a ‘real job’ since my daughter was just born. So, I have been working for architects since then. Since I am not an architect, my role is some combination of facilities management/furniture and object design/model builder. The firm I work at now designs lots of galleries and museums, so I got re-introduced to that scene. They are supportive of my work and I get to work on fun projects like Rirkrit Tiravanija’s piece for the LA Public Art Biennial and Sherin Guirguis’s Desert X piece, and design furniture for CalArts and the upcoming Institute of Contemporary Art Los Angeles.

Making models has influenced the way I think about projects; some of the most interesting models are section models, showing the different programs on multiple levels of a building. Of course you never really see this view in normal practice. I like to play with these up/down levels. It also lets you combine more activity in a small space.

You have built your entire space out here from the ground up. Can you tell us how this came about? How did you design it? What did you build it out of?

I camped for a while out there trying to figure out what i would do there. It is a beautiful but hilly and difficult plot, with limited flat areas to build anything. There is no road, so access is limited in terms of bringing in supplies or something pre-fabricated. I ended up building a small shed that is the County’s maximum size for an accessory structure. It’s very small, about 8’ square inside. Like Secret Restaurant it is about putting the smallest thing in the largest space. It has a gabled roof, the iconic house shape, that looks like the rural outbuildings in Alabama. After building some models and drawing the shed in CAD, I started getting materials together and began building. It has taken a few years just to get to this point, just due to finances and the remote site. I originally had a timetable to complete it before I turned 40, but now I just enjoy the process more. The shed is really there just to store the tools I used to build the shed. It’s simply constructed of wood framing and a corrugated exterior. The boards on the porch were saved from my old house in Alhambra. Eventually I would like to build a livable space, and using this experimental structure as a way to make mistakes on a small scale, I hope to someday.

Most of your sculptures tend to be performative objects, whether it’s a secret restaurant, a burrito launcher or wildflower seed bomber. Can you tell us about these objects, what you are thinking about when you make them and how they operate as both sculpture and performance?

I have to say I am a reluctant performer, being naturally quiet and a private person. That being said, I take a somewhat theatrical approach to the events. I wear chef’s whites and think about celebrity chefs like Matty Matheson and Guy Fieri. As for the objects I think they take a secondary role; I call them ‘leftovers;’ they get reused multiple times for different projects. The burrito cannon I made for the Machine Project/HDTS event in the Antelope Valley became a sandwich cannon in Washington State, and later a wildflower seed cannon back in the Morongo Basin. All of these things are taking up room in my LA studio, and on their own aren’t compelling as a standalone object. They need to be activated somehow. If anything I am making less of an object and more of an experience.

Often you end up feeding the crowd with your work, what is it about food and drink that interests you in these pieces?

Well when I was doing more cooking at the architecture firm that was a way to nudge people to come to office discussions, early on we were doing these salons twice or three times a month. I would make like 4 different quiches on one night, a DIY pizza bar on another. People like free food. I became interested in the ‘sportification’ of food, food trends, celebrity cooking shows. There is a huge range of experience there, from a feeding-tube to elaborate, seasonal kaiseki meals. Often my projects have very little to do with the actual food itself; like in the cooking shows, it’s all about drama. Food is incredibly intimate; you are asking people to put things into their bodies. There is a social contract there. I mean, I’m not a chef, and usually I have no idea what I am doing. My original concept for Secret Restaurant was a restaurant only open 4 days per year, incredibly intimate. The last desert iteration was anything but that, there was some press and hundreds of people came. I tried to scale back after that, making the work less about how hard I could work and more object-oriented.

You are between Los Angeles and the desert, making work in both places, do you feel your work shifts and operates differently between these two landscapes?

I definitely work in different ways depending on the surroundings. In LA, I have my daughter with me half the time, so I’ve started making small things I can work on in the house; quasi-practical decorative objects. In the desert, there is really a never-ending stream of improvements to the shed. I make less work there, but I spend more time writing and sketching. And a good deal of quietly staring into space.

Do you see yourself being here full time?

Probably, after my daughter is off to college. Like a lot of people I had a desert fantasy, that I would be off in the wild, like some sort of wizard version of Snow White, communing with the animals. The reality is of course different, the wind and sun are constantly trying to tear down any built structure, there was a woodrat building a nest under the shed. A lot of what I do out here is just surviving, that’s an activity.

Can you tell us about your influences, your conceptual framework and the context in which your work fits in to a larger dialogue today?

I read a lot, mainly lay science books these days, so sometimes this seeps in. I was reading a lot of cookbooks during the time of Secret Restaurant so that had a direct influence. In terms of working artists I like Tom Sachs and Rachel Whiteread, they are both making models of objects that are more interesting than the source material. I like Piero Golia’s Chalet project. I don’t think I have a conceptual framework, like a puppy I follow my nose to whatever seems interesting at the moment.

What are you working on now? Anything coming up in the future we can look out for?

I’ve been experimenting with drone photogrammetry, a way to make digital models of landscapes using a grid of captured imagery from unmanned aerial vehicles. So that may make its way into something. I got my HAM radio license last year, I’m not sure if this will turn into anything.

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