Notes on “Theme Song For An Exhibition”

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Posted July 3, 2014

“Theme Song For An Exhibition” came into being while I was making an exhibition, for Museo MADRE in Naples, based on a television show about a fictional family. Since most TV shows open with theme music, I thought my TV show might have one as well. The idea felt like a violation—in a good way—which, I suppose, meant it felt contemporary. So many of us now organize our pleasures horizontally. Art isn’t better than entertainment just because it’s art. (A good entertainer makes more of a contribution than a bad artist!) We accept that each form gives us access to different kinds of pleasure. With art and entertainment more equivalent than in the past, it’s become easier to bridge the gap between the two contexts. I’d been doing it for decades. Currently I use art institutions to produce and distribute work in popular culture formats that the popular culture itself isn’t producing.

But why limit a theme song to just this one exhibition? What if, somewhere down the line, I wanted to apply it to another exhibition? Why not write a song that would be more all-purpose—applicable to any exhibition, by anyone, at any venue? I poked about Milwaukee for musicians who might be sympathetic to the project, and the two musicians who volunteered, Richard Galling and Evan Gruzis, were also painters, for whom a song about this subject naturally had meaning. Richard and Evan had collaborated musically many times so they’d already developed a dialogue, and after I’d voiced a few musical preferences, our song quickly took shape. Evan asked his wife Nicole Rogers to handle the lead vocals, which she delivered with just the right touch of dispassion. It was my first exposure to the song-recording process and I was amazed to observe people creating a listenable tune on the spot—a talent simply not in my quiver.* The George Martin role felt a good fit, though! I certainly could see the appeal of working in the song form.

We’re releasing “Theme Song . . .” through a consortium of ten art institutions in the United States and Europe, from Los Angeles to Copenhagen. Its distribution, in fact, is part of the work. Since digital technology makes it possible to distribute information in new ways, why not “wire together” a group of museums and have them all release the same work at the same time? Breaking the structural relationships between contexts and re-setting them is something I’ve done many times, in one way or another, since making Talent 30 years ago. I’m applying art museums to my own cultural goals. Why not? “Take the culture where you want it to go,” as our song says. However the result may perform culturally—that’s my art.


*”The Mainstream,” a song featured in my 2002 Ice Cream Social TV Pilot for the Sundance Channel, was an earlier foray into pop. I contributed only the lyrics, however, and had no hand in shaping the song.

David Robbins is an artist and writer who lives and works in Shorewood, Wisconsin.

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