Good Guy in the Gorge
Flipping the script for positive change
Robbins (in black hat) works with African refugee think-tank members who were incarcerated in an Israeli detention center.
Sometimes you come across a person who seems to have reached a transcendental understanding that propels him or her to live a little better life. You may get that sense quite immediately. Or it may take watching a person’s behavior in the community or at work, or perhaps noticing the good deeds and charitable things he or she does. And on a rare and special occasion, you get to actually meet and spend time with a person, hear his or her passion and purpose, and confirm that you’ve found someone exceptional, who is devoted to a higher purpose and who is working hard on making some positive change.
Christopher Robbins is that guy. I got that sense as soon as I pulled into his leafy property, set between a brook and rock wall, near the Saint Mary’s Church crossroads, deep in the wooded Mianus River Gorge. He welcomed me with an informal “Hey, how are you? Come on up!” from the deck of his relatively modest home. We sat outside on that sunny afternoon, with his wife Shelly and their young daughter puttering around inside. He said the family chose this house because it was “important for us to be connected with nature, and this place seemed like the most rural of the suburban alternatives.” More than a decade after settling in, he proclaims complete satisfaction within the greater-Bedford area, where he enjoys walking, biking, and snowshoeing around Miller’s Mill, Muscoot Farm, and other local parks.
Robbins is an associate professor of art and design at Purchase College, specializing in sculpture. He went to college at the University of Virginia and graduate school at Pratt and Rhode Island School of Design. The Manhattan native spent over a decade working in aid-related endeavors, including a tour in the Peace Corps, about which he observes, “the Peace Corps gave me my first immersion with people who were experiencing off-the-charts poverty but who seemed somehow generally happier than those of us in America.”
But it’s what Robbins does, beyond our Westchester borders, trying to make the world a better place, that’s his particular passion and etched him onto my personal “Good Guy” list.
Robbins is a co-founder of Ghana Think Tank, a non-profit that uses art to bring First World problems to Third World places to be analyzed and solved. Yes, First to Third, not the other way around. For instance, in one of their first projects, GTT heard from residents of Westport that a lack of diversity was negatively impacting their daily lives. GTT held think tanks in Cuba, Ghana, and El Salvador to address this issue, and a solution was implemented utilizing suggestions to involve diverse groups that were already living in and around the well-to-do Connecticut suburb. “Involvement with those in the Third World always shatters our preconceptions and works to show us what it’s like to have those from other cultures impose their values,” Robbins says. “I have an innate drive to help people who appear to be less advantaged, but with GTT, I get to see over and over again that people who have nothing often spend more time with the people they love, exhibit more smiles per day, and seem to have a happier quality of life than most of us.”
Right now, Robbins and GTT are working on a project called American Riad, including a think tank collaboration between Morocco and Detroit, and involving a GTT art installation as a part of the broader effort to build a community of affordable homes and businesses in Detroit’s North End. “There’s something special about art—and particularly interactive installations that foster what I call ‘experiential instrumentalization’—that can get people to do or think something they wouldn’t otherwise,” he says. In another example of that mission, performed at the 2011 Hong Kong/Shenzen Bienniale, GTT installed an enormous structure made of industrial junk, including 32 TV screens, which provided an anonymous way for passersby to speak out politically (and without the regular fear of serious repercussions).
Whenever you ask a good guy what makes him tick it’s always about helping first, but when I got Robbins looking back on all his work with GTT, he showed some pleasure and a little justified pride and remarked: “I love when we get to flip the script and make a positive change.”
BUILDING BRIDGES In 2014, ArtPort Gallery in Tel Aviv invited GTT to collaborate with curator Maayan Sheleff to create an interchange between African refugees seeking asylum in Israel and local residents who resented their presence.