“I’m not sure I have a message with my work. I’m still working that one out. I think though, the larger thesis is to try to completely demystify art, almost to the level of eliminating it from culture.”
Norberto—it sounds grandiose. At the suggestion he seems like some great magician he’s delighted, but this isn’t the reason behind his name. He was originally born Norberto “It’s a very immigrant hispanic tradition to name the male after the father, and that’s how I was born. Both of my parents were Cuban,” he explains. “When I first started school in America, the teacher couldn’t pronounce my name on role call so she called me Bert. And from that moment on I was Bert, I didn’t really argue the point.” His decision to reassume the name Norberto came after his first visit to Cuba just last year, in 2017. He felt at home there. “Everyone I met there felt like family. They called me by my birth name, they didn’t know how to use my other name, it didn’t make sense.”
Rodriguez exhibited his work in Berlin, Paris, London, New York, Miami, L.A., picking up awards along the way. In 2008 Bert set up a white cube as a psychiatrist’s office at the Whitney Biennial, offering therapy to passing visitors. In 2009 Bert buried himself up to his chin in The Bass Museum gardens for his piece, ‘What a Tree Feels Like’. In 2014 he cut all ties with galleries and established the ‘Bert Rodriguez Museum’—”It was essentially an apartment, but also a fully functioning museum, with opening times, programing, lectures, screenings.”
But it is not Bert who explains this. “So here I am in Bert’s apartment, and after a lot of internal dialogue, Bert decided it was time for him to go, it was time for him to die.” His voice doesn’t falter. “So then on the eve of our birthday, May 31st, he went to sleep. And then never woke up. And I, Norberto Rodriguez, woke up in his apartment. And here we are.”
To some extent, the name indicates Norberto’s re-identification with his Cuban heritage. But it also marks a new artistic direction. “Bert was just experimenting. Norberto is teasing out meaning from everyday conversations, or brushing your teeth, or having a meal,” he explains. “We’re used to art being a thing that an artist makes, as opposed to art being a way that a person sees—I want that to change,” he says. “I’m driven to share that message in whatever capacity that I can.”
“I’ve found myself. I see the world much richer now. Inner-City Arts is creating a space for that to happen with these kids, sparking that interest in them that would never be encouraged otherwise.”
Soon Norberto will be sharing his vision with Inner-City Arts in L.A., a program created to provide arts education to children without the means. On June 9th they’re set to host ‘Summer on Seventh’, where Norberto will perform alongside Mark Ronson and Mayer Hawthorne. “I’ll be doing a 15-20 minute performance, which was initially supposed to be a kind of guided meditation,” he says. “Then I realized there’s no way everyone’s going to be sitting down on a dance floor right after a DJ set, so I’m just going to go up there and kind of wing it,” he says, laughing. “A lot of what I do is very improvisational, I just set up the circumstances and jump in.”
His energy and sense of wonder seems as though it would translate well to children, and he’s considering becoming a teacher for Inner-City Arts. “I see art as a service, and I’m at a place now where I feel like the things I do can contribute to that program,” he says. When he’s asked if becoming Norberto has brought him to this point he nods. “I’ve found myself. I see the world much richer now. Inner-City Arts is creating a space for that to happen with these kids, sparking that interest in them that would never be encouraged otherwise,” he enthuses. “I think art is actually at the core of our evolution as a species. I want to be an artist that is conscious of that, and I will do everything I can before I die to push that message.”
Norbeto Rodriguez is a multidisciplinary performance artist, born in Miami and based in L.A. For his upcoming events check out his website.
Inner-City Arts has been providing an arts education to children from underserved communities since 1989. If you want to hear a little more about Summer on Seventh, take a look!
And if you’d like to read some more of the things we’ve written on the creative community in Los Angeles, we’ve got plenty more where that came from.
Text: Louis Harnett O’Meara
Photography: Inner-City Arts