Do you have any routines or rituals to start your workday?
I like to go for a walk in the morning just to get grounded; I try to get a couple of miles in every day, and I usually walk in nature, whether in a park or alongside water, like at Fisherman’s Wharf or the Palace of Fine Arts, which has a lake outside and many swans I’ve come to know. I feel it’s crucial because I spend so much time indoors alone.
What is the rest of your day like?
I don’t really have a typical day. It depends on the project I’m working on. When I’m editing video, for example, that’s all I do. I try to work in the morning because my concentration is purest then; later on, my brain runs away.
What’s the first piece of art you ever made?
When I was young, my brothers were given art lessons at the Cleveland Museum of Art. No lessons for me. I was the girl. Instead, I’d spend that time looking at Cézanne and Gauguin, memorizing the Rembrandts and Turners, the artworks that became my teachers. One afternoon, when we returned home from the museum, I was determined to paint. I mixed some food coloring into glasses of water, cut off some of my hair with a scissors, found a pencil and rubber bands and made a brush. But it didn’t work — my hair was too curly. I think the first real art, the first original works I made, were the “Breathing Machines,” which got kicked out of the Berkeley Art Museum in 1972 because they had sound. It was a drawing show, and I thought sound sculptures worked because sound travels through the air like a line. I installed the pieces in the show, but when I went back with friends the next day, the gallery was empty. All my work had been taken out. Gone. The curator accused me of putting media in, which she insisted was not art. So my first museum show was a completely empty room. After that, I thought, “Who needs a museum anyway?”
What’s the first work you ever sold?
That was much later. [Laughs] I knew [the French art critic] Pierre Restany, who introduced me to [the Swiss collector] Donald Hess in the early ’90s. I think Donald canceled four times before he finally came to my studio, but then he bought everything that was in it, including the entire original Roberta collection, which was 300 pieces. It was not a lot of money, but at that time I was living in a basement and didn’t have a car, so it was a godsend. He’s the one who told me to edition things; I didn’t even know enough to do that. And he bought number one of every edition after that.
How do you know when you’re done with an artwork?
It tells me. Sometimes it takes five years, sometimes 35. Roberta and CybeRoberta come from the same source and are very much alike, but there is a shift because the technology shifted. So it’s kind of like a rebirth. My documentary on the feminist art movement, “!Women Art Revolution” (2011), took four decades to make. Viewers see the artists in it age, have frustrations and eventually triumph. I accumulated 250 hours of footage, so when I was finally ready to tell their story in their words, it took four more years to edit everything.
How much of your work these days involves being online?
A lot of it, about 80 percent. I think it’s getting worse, particularly with Covid.