Christy Rupp on Rats, Geese, and the Ecology of Public Art

Christy Rupp, “Rat Patrol” (1979) (all photos courtesy the artist unless otherwise noted)

Christy Rupp burst onto the New York art scene with “Rat Patrol,” a street art response to the sanitation strike of 1979. The artist’s offset prints were widely featured by the press after an unidentified woman was attacked by a pack of rats in downtown Manhattan. Rupp — who describes herself an ecoartist — envisioned the work as a public service, a visual reminder that the streets are a delicate ecosystem.

Rupp was a cohort of Collaborative Projects Inc. (Colab) and ABC No Rio, participating in seminal exhibitions such as the Times Square Show (1980). Whilst working at the American Museum of Natural History, Rupp collaborated with Dr. Betty Faber, an entomologist and roach behavior expert who shared her interest in didactic and educative work. Rupp’s recent bodies of work include Extinct Birds Previously Consumed by Humans (2008), sculptures comprised of fast food poultry bones, and Half Life (2014), sculptures of mammals fashioned from credit card solicitations. Rupp lives and works in Chelsea. Our interview was frequently (albeit pleasingly) interrupted by her cat Eartha, and her dog Lily. Rupp is represented by the Frederieke Taylor Gallery.

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Christy Rupp in her studio, Chelsea, Manhattan (January 2015) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Tiernan Morgan: When did you move to New York?

Christy Rupp: I had friends from undergrad who were living here already — John and Charlie Ahearn. I used to come visit them and gradually got introduced to Colab. It’s hard to believe that you could actually come up to the city and choose which loft you wanted. After grad school I ended up in Tribeca. That’s when I started participating with Colab in shows. That was June of ’77, the same time as Son of Sam and the blackout. Both of those things happened during my first few weeks in New York, which made it seem pretty exotic. I sent Artists Space a proposal, and within a few months they said ok. That was my first show in New York.

TM: That was ‘Goose Encounters’ (April 8–April 22, 1978). What was the inspiration for the exhibition?

CR: It was a response to urban living and aggression. Konrad Lorenz, the father of animal behavior, was really interested in geese. Without the internet it was much harder to research stuff. I sure didn’t learn a lot about animal behavior in art school, but that’s where it was coming from. I was really interested in that and comparing it to conceptual art — really using animal behavior as a mirror onto conceptual art. I made 12 life-size geese [sculptures]. Charlie Ahearn did a soundtrack where we documented the behavior of drivers at the bridges and tunnels. He also made some movies. He chased a bunch of geese around at a children’s zoo. So we had this brilliant abstract footage of geese being chased. There was his footage, my sculptures, and water all over the floor. There was an actual goose I was living with, which I got for the project. It would really make a mess.

TM: Where did you get the goose?

CR: There was a poultry market in Soho. I went and bought it. It was meat goose.

TM: Did you give it a name?

An installation shot of “Goose Encounters” (April 1978), Artists Space, New York

CR: No. I never give names to animals I’m working with. The animal behavior experiments I’ve done with them are for things like observing their preferences. Tests about what they like – specifically visually.

TM: I suppose by naming them, you run the risk of anthropomorphizing them.

CR: Yeah. I never thought they should have names. It’s not a pet. It’s a collaborator. I kept it in my loft until I could find a home for it. I was able to live with it for six months in my tiny little loft. By then I had moved to the Financial District [Fulton Street].

TM: Where did the goose end up?

CR: Somebody’s farm upstate. They had a nice pond. It was a meat goose. It didn’t have particularly wild behavior. Eventually he did warm up to me. I got a rehabilitated seagull from the Staten Island Zoo — where I was working briefly — and then a bunch of little things, which included rats and mice. The real star was the goose. We were hoping it would attack or come after the visitors.

TM: And did it?

CR: It wasn’t so much interested in the visitors as it was with the space. It loved the motion and it really liked playing in the water. It wasn’t stressed out but it was active.

TM: Were there any difficulties in having an animal in the space?

CR: No. I took him home. He wasn’t left there [overnight]. Artists Space was great. They were so supportive.

TM: Around this time, you got a job through the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA).

CR: It was supposed to be the New Deal for artists. Jimmy Carter revised it. It was the late seventies. The country was really in the doldrums. New York was one of the few cities that really had an art program. There were other CETA jobs in the rest of the country, but in New York we actually had an artist project. There were maybe four hundred of us. There were two rounds of it. All together it went on for about four years. As artists, we all relied on part time work, so to have a full time job was amazing. There was a panel. You’d apply and give them a proposal. Because I had just done this rat work (Rat Patrol, 1979) and had been in the papers, I think they were receptive. I got assigned to the public art team. You could have been assigned to teach in a school, do a mural, or teach poetry or dance. On the public art team there were 30 artists, some of whom are still my friends, and we got to choose our sites.

TM: And you chose the American Museum of Natural History.

CR: Yes. I knew someone who knew Betty [Faber]. She was a roach behavior expert. What was so fortunate is that I came to New York with this interest in animal behavior, and I had these rats to watch. I was never really a political artist but it showed me the way to both ecological and political art — just by the behavior of it. I was working with groups like Art Makers, Group Material, and Ventana. There were a lot of political art opportunities in New York. Much of it was fueled by the [Village] Voice critic Lucy Lippard. I always felt fortunate that I wasn’t a political artist first. Animal behavior taught me a lot about politics and ecology. Just learning how rats worked together in a community, how they function in cities, and how they talk to each other intergenerationally. They’re one of the few animals to have a culture — if you define culture as information that doesn’t have to be directly experienced.

TM: For example, an older rat can communicate the presence of danger to a younger rat.

Christy Rupp, “Rat Patrol” (1979)

CR: Yes. They understand that. They’re here because of us. That’s why we hate them. I did a lot of roach work too, and that’s what the work was always about. It wasn’t really about the animals. It was about our behavior around the animals — our impressions of wildlife.

TM: Do you think we hate rats, not just because they’re a nuisance, but because they remind us of the mess we leave behind?

CR: They mirror us. They’re a darker side of us. Being so smart and functioning in a community — that’s very much like us. Mice and roaches have some of that capability too. They all live very densely and very close to man.

TM: How did ‘Rat Patrol’ come about?

I was living down on Fulton Street, which was not considered a residential area. We had a garbage strike for three weeks. It was during warm weather in May. It was abnormally warm — for some reason it was 90 degrees. That was early (laughs). With the garbage strike I started having a great time observing the [rat] behavior. I was reading about the difference between ‘home ranges’ and ‘territory.’ Your home range is your job, your apartment, your friends, places that you share. Your territory is what you defend. With the garbage strike, their territory was getting bigger. So they think that they own the sidewalk. We’ve told them that they do because we have the garbage out there. It was really easy to observe them during the strike. I made these posters to mark their habitat. It wasn’t done to defend rats or glamorize them.

TM: So the posters functioned like signposts?

CR: They were always low on the ground. It was to alert people that the city is an ecosystem with a delicate balance, and that our garbage is a habitat. We may be done with it, but it’s still a vital habitat. I thought it was a good message for us to think about as creatures of the city (laughs).

TM: I read that you sourced the rat image from a subway advertisement. What was the context of the ad?

CR: It was put up by the health department to tell us to be mindful of our garbage. ‘Starve a rat today.’ It’s inconceivable to me that such an ad would be displayed on the subway today. They would never show a life size image of a rat.

The subway advertisement used by Rupp to create “Rat Patrol” (click to enlarge)

TM: Did you ever place your posters underground?

CR: They were all over the place, but mostly above ground near the accumulated piles of garbage. I printed four thousand. Two thousand running right and two thousand running left. That way they could be architecturally moving toward and away from things. They were all over downtown. I got friends to come with me a lot of the time. Most of the time I would keep them with me and do them on the way to things. I had special clothing to do it. Remember those carpenter pants everyone used to have? I wore those. I made two long pouches, one for the right and one for the left, so you could walk around and have them with you — making it easy to pull them out.

TM: Did you ever get in trouble for putting them up?

CR: Not that I remember. In those days the worst thing that could happen to you was that they made you dump out your wheat paste. They never arrested you or anything. They didn’t care. There wasn’t enough enforcement anyway. We were postering all the time. It wouldn’t be unusual to go out with three or four different posters. A poster for your event or some magazine. The radical thing about [Rat Patrol] was that it was low.

TM: For that reason it probably aroused more curiosity. It didn’t operate within the register of imagery that people were used to.

CR: Possibly. They were also life-size. I was really trying to activate the site by making people realize that something nocturnal was happening. You wouldn’t see the rats during the day … for the most part.

Christy Rupp, “Rat Patrol” (1979)

TM: Marc Miller mentioned on his website that the work got a lot of media attention because the press were actively covering the garbage strike. Your work gave them the visual that they were looking for.

CR: A woman was attacked at the site of a big installation of them. It was a lot that had been excavated and had been empty for thirteen years — a long time for an empty lot in Manhattan. People were just flinging their garbage over the construction fence into the lot. Out of sight, out of mind. It gradually filed up and became a rat city. It was really, really active. There wasn’t a lot of residential activity down there, so nobody cared. People became aware, particularly with the rat posters, that there was a problem behind this fence. The owner of the lot got a dumpster to privately remove the garbage. It was placed on the other side of the sidewalk, so all of a sudden it also became rat territory, whereas before it had been a home range. The part where people walked by was colliding with rat territory.

TM: And what happened to the woman?

CR: It was witnessed. She was hysterical. She was getting into her car and rats were jumping onto it. Maybe one of them jumped at her. She was screaming. I believe she drove off and was never heard from again. The story then became tangible — they’re attacking us. I went to the movies that night. When I came home the street was blocked off. They wouldn’t let anyone pass, so I explained that I lived there. I said, “yeah, I did those posters.” Members of the press then took my name. I took a lot of photos of the excavation and the aftermath. I become a presence around there and was interested in the media response to the rats. People would bash rats over the head with a shovel as if that was going to help anything. The [New York] Post came up to my loft and did a story. Channel 2 then did a spot. There was a spurt of media attention around this topic. It really captured the imagination of how New York was on the skids. It became national news about what a hellhole New York was.

A selection of newspaper clippings from May 1979

TM: What did you learn from the reaction to ‘Rat Patrol’?

CR: It gave me a real taste for public art. I think it really secured for me the concept that framing things in an ecological way was an extralegal way to do things. It wasn’t breaking the law if you were pointing something out. Postering is illegal, but if you’re doing it for a reason, they’re not going to arrest you. Particularly if it helps people.

TM: You saw ‘Rat Patrol’ as an unofficial public service?

CR: I did, but I also thought it was in service of the rats — to respect them as organisms.

TM: Did the plaster models follow shortly after?

CR: It was around the same time. I placed the 3D models in and around the garbage — having conversations and interacting. I started painting them in different animal prints and primary colors. I stopped painting them brown. It was about being there with a camera and seeing if people would find a brown plaster rat scarier than a red one. I also made paper mache dogs, which I probably stepped on a couple of times. They had little pictures of cars all over them. I left them out on the road to see if cars would stop for them because they looked like dead dogs. Again, that was a behavioral experiment for people.

Assorted plaster rats created by Rupp

TM: So by painting the rats in different animal and skin tones, you were studying how their color impacted our prejudice.

CR: Right. And there was also a sense of humor to it. Why would you see a leopard print rat?

TM: A lot of your work is characterized by the use of cheap materials and the production of multiples. The Times Square Show (1980) was credited with a resurgence of interest in multiples. Is that a fair assessment?

CR: As a group we were making multiples largely as a way to trade with each other. They were cheap to make, cheap to purchase. You’d sell something for $20 and think you were rich. The Times Square Show was our most ambitious store. We were riffing off Times Square and all the things you could buy there; sex toys, t-shirts, things like that. It was marvelous. It had hundreds and hundreds of objects in it. About half of the artists in the show were interested in making multiples; books, prints, calendars, cards, etc. Oldenburg had shown us how to do it. Warhol was also making multiples, or at least commodifying multiples. So I don’t think artists have ever not been interested in them. I think when you work as a group, as we did on the Times Square Show, it really magnifies the impact. It was an expression of the moment.

TM: Could you tell me more about your collaborations with Dr. Faber? I recently watched ‘City Wildlife’ (1980) on YouTube. The opening shot with the roaches scuttling across the pastoral painting is brilliant.

CR: Sure! Betty was on the news a lot. She had this wonderful educational perspective that was very light hearted and humanizing. We were really on the same page. We’re still friends today. She’s a very good mentor. I was able to work with her, taking pictures of the roaches. We’d collaborate on what we thought was an important issue and then I’d try to come up with a visual way to make it happen.

A filmmaker named Chris Post came to me and he donated the tech. He had read about the rats. The production values look funkier today than it did thirty years ago. We did another program called ‘City Wildlife News.’ That was live. We interviewed people about their opinions on wildlife. It was scripted and improvised. I liked doing the effects and the props. That was the beauty of it. There was plenty of room for people to have fun with it.

TM: I also recently came across footage of the ‘Williamsburg Bridge Show’ (May 8–June 29, 1983). Could you tell me how that came about?

CR: Frank Addeo directed the Department of Transportation Public Art Program at the time. He really liked artists and he made it easy. He gave us permission to use the bridge. That site was pretty cool. There’s a whodunit movie from the 50s, which shows the promenade. You would not believe how busy, crowded, and active that space was in the old days. By ’73 it was drug-riddled wasteland. It was scary to be up there. People would get mugged crossing the bridge. My jaw dropped when I saw how that space had been designed to be used. Everyone got a whopping $300 to do their piece. It was small. All sculptures. It was really a sculpture show. It was pretty much all about the city. I had a new species of urban monkey that I had “discovered.” Betty helped me give it a name: Pan Urbanics Garbagi N.S. Rupp. As soon as I finished installing them I called the New York Post to tell them how disgusting and dangerous they were — that they were stealing people’s lunches and creating a hazard. I’ve always wanted things to have some kind of scientific authenticity to them, but also to play with the idea of discovering a species and owning it. I’m still interested in the whole branding thing.

TM: Did the press fall for it?

CR: Yes, for about five minutes. Then they would ask, “where did you see this? How many are there?” And I’d say, “there are five.” I knew too much about it to be a disinterested bystander. I figured that was a better way to publicize it then by asking people to go and see my sculpture.

TM: Could you tell me about ‘Social Progress’ (1986), the public installation that was supported by the Public Art Fund?

Christy Rupp, “Social Progress” (1986)

CR: I went to Nicaragua in ’84. There were lots of artists doing solidarity work with Nicaragua. Some artists wanted it to be like the Spanish Civil War. That was the model for it — the republic fighting off the fascists. Nicaragua was a little bit like that. I wanted to make an artwork about it that reflected that struggle. I learned that a snail could pull ten times its own weight. It’s also a great symbol of the environment — a recycler. The work was a metaphor for believing in something, even if you didn’t know where it was headed. It was [installed] on 23rd street by the Flatiron building — where Broadway and Fifth Avenue go down. 23 Skidoo. Have you ever heard of that phrase? It’s a very hard crossing to get across. It’s been café tabled now, but at the time it was a nightmare. I thought it was a fabulous site for art. It was perfect for having a sculpture of something slow trying to head uptown — with the traffic flowing against it. On the ear of corn were these worms — the counter-revolution. Even though this snail is dragging the corn, it’s still being devoured by these parasites. But no one would let me talk about Nicaragua. We were treating the Sandinistas like rats. Everything was black and white. Reagan was describing the Contras as freedom fighters. There was no knowledge about what the situation really was. There was a guy — whose name I’ve forgotten — who approached me for a TV spot. “What’s this about?” Finally I started saying it was about struggle, not expecting change to come quickly, and believing in a dream. It was in the press release: “inspired by the struggle in Nicaragua.” This one guy specifically said to me, “if you tell me it’s about Nicaragua, I’m not covering it. It’s too complicated. People don’t want to know about that.” I said, “well that’s why I wanted to make it. You asked me, so I’m telling you!”

TM: Did you find yourself having to obfuscate the work’s message?

CR: Not really. My work remains didactic to this day. Nobody wants to know all this information. It’s too heavy. So if things can work on visual level, that’s ok. It’s essential to have a reason to make it. You can’t just make everything you wanna make. You gotta have a reason. Does the public have to know? If they ask questions, they can find out. But they don’t have to know. I used to fight with my students a lot about this; how much is too much, and what is enough.

Christy Rupp, “Drift” (2013), cut paper collage, 16 x 20 inches

TM: In my experience, the art world is generally dismissive of political art. If something is too didactic — they’re just not interested. They disengage with it.

CR: It’s documentary style. It’s not modernist for one thing. It’s not formalist. This culture still loves formalism.

TM: Have you experienced any hostility towards your work?

CR: No. Some just dismiss it. It’s very hard to get my work reviewed because people don’t want to engage the ideas. They only want to see it formally. I really love beauty too. Nature is, on some level, the study of functional beauty, of things that are engineered to work. It’s hard to write about the work and not talk about the ideas. All my little bugs and turtles look very decorative. I think it’s hard to write about. They all have a reason they got made. Hopefully I get to share that. I think the art world is allergic to that kind of content. It’s hyperallergic! (laughs).

TM: Are there works of yours that people find particularly difficult?

A work from Rupp’s “Fake Ivory” series (2012) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

CR: What bothers me is that some good friends of mine, friends whose work I have, say things like, “I feel I have to know the whole story when I look at your work.” I try to make you want to know the whole story. That’s the reason I do this. To create awareness and interest. My work is hard work, mostly because the formal qualities are so acute, so it’s really easy to dismiss it as decorative. But you can also dismiss it because it’s too dense. It’s hard in both those ways. That’s why I do it. For instance, take the Fake Ivory works. You don’t have to know that those are hydrocarbon molecules that are etched and printed into the wax. You could just see it as scrimshaw. There’s been a ton of research about which types of oil molecules are where in the world, and whose fault it is that they’re in the water.

TM: People really responded to “Extinct Birds Previously Consumed by Humans” (2008). Why do you think that was?

CR: I’m not sure. It was a tactile way to deal with extinction. We understand the scale of a chicken bone. There was also an ick factor. The birds were about framing what is precious. Obviously we think something that’s gone is more valuable. A fast food chicken, with its miserable five-week life, has value. It’s still a being — the same as something that’s missing. We think of extinction as something that’s prehistoric, but it’s happening more now.

TM: What do you use to cut the bones down to size?

CR: A die grinder. It’s a dentistry tool — a high-speed drill. Most of them have the marrow taken out, the gooey part which rots. They’re all hollow.

TM: Isn’t there a risk of shattering the bone?

An assortment of works from the series “Extinct Birds Previously Consumed by Humans” (2008)

CR: Yes, but I have a lot of bones! (Points to “Carolina Parakeet”) That’s paper wrapped around the steel. It’s a paper I use on everything. It picks up the rust. I use mending tissue, the kind you would use to mend an old diploma or photograph. It’s a thin tissue that’s very strong. That’s how I could do all these bones. You can’t use glue. It’s like working with chalk. It’s just not a stable medium. [The bones] are boiled, bleached, and dried. When the tissue goes on top of things, it just disappears. An amazing material.

TM: What was the inspiration behind your credit card sculptures?

CR: With extinct species, you don’t really know how many are left. The sound bite is “absence of proof is not proof of absence.” You can never really know what’s left in the ocean. I became interested in the way we attribute preciousness. It’s a cultural construct — the way the credit industry is too. When you’re living on credit, you don’t really know how much you’re going to have to pay back. When you’re pulling whales out of the ocean, you don’t know how many others are left. I was interested in the concept of preciousness and how it’s manipulated, depending on the needs of who is framing the debate. I’ve been reading about overseas debt. We need to forgive the debts of other nations. Haiti for instance, owes the US more than its gross national product. And who pays for it? The people who don’t get to buy their own food. The people who made these really bad deals are covered. If we can forgive [the debt], then why are we letting all these people suffer? It’s just about power. The money is totally manipulated. The farming thing too. You can make money by losing money through the subsidies for corn and wheat. I always thought that was fascinating. The environment and economics is how I wanted to frame these species.

Christy Rupp, “Walrus” (2014), mixed media with credit card solicitations, 41 x 72 x 10 inches (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

TM: What projects are you currently working on?

CR: Right now I’m trying to make wampum. The Dutch purchased the island of Manhattan for $24 worth of what they called “beads and trinkets,” but some people believe it was wampum. The historical records are very sketchy. This was 1626. It’s a thing of lore. Money is largely about the baggage that surrounds it. It’s a cultural construct for ascribing value to things. Wampum was commonly used among native peoples for agreements, or sending messages. It was only really when the Western traders arrived and wanted beaver pelts, that they started to use wampum as money. The wampum was much more valuable to tribes that weren’t living by the water because they had never seen anything like it. The value of it was totally up for grabs. Nobody really knew what these things were worth. The Dutch manipulated that to purchase Manhattan from the Lenape — who were just passing through. They didn’t even live there. In fact, most of the natives didn’t want to live on Manhattan because it was swampy and hard to get to. We think of it as this amazing real estate built on bedrock that you can put a skyscraper on, but it wasn’t of much value to the natives. Through the use of $24 worth of these shells, the Dutch came to own Manhattan, which was not only a way of driving out the Native Americans, but was also about establishing their sovereignty over the British and the French. I’ve been working on a piece in wax. I’m exploring the concept. New York, animals, money, preciousness … You can still buy wampum and find it online. That’s what I did. I bought $24 worth just to get a handful of it and see what $24 actually looks like.

TM: The currency to buy Manhattan — in your very own hand.

CR: Exactly — from eBay. I had to look really hard for it. I didn’t want to pay a penny over $24.

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