ARTS & CULTURE
09/15/2011 03:16 pm ET | Updated Nov 14, 2011

Robbie Conal Creates Poster For Steven Soderbergh's 'Contagion'

Steven Soderbergh's latest film, 'Contagion,' is the story of a world thrown into pandemonium as the result of a fast-moving, deadly disease. As the infection spreads, fear and paranoia take hold, misinformation reigns supreme, and characters attempt to hold on in the face of an uncertain future.

To capture the proper climate of skepticism, Soderbergh enlisted the help of guerilla street artist, Robbie Conal, renowned for his warped renderings of controversial cultural figures, such as Bill Clinton and Dan Quayle. Conal created a series of posters depicting the character of Alan Krumweide, played by Jude Law in the film.

In the film, Krumwiede is a conspiracy-theorist who suspects the government is in cahoots with pharmaceutical companies to prevent the cure from ever seeing the light of day; he touts the potential benefits of a homeopathic remedy called forsythia as the solution. Conal, being no stranger to incendiary political rhetoric, crafted a distorted image of Krumwiede that appears in the film, depicting him as a bringer of truth in addition to an opportunist.

Courtesy of Warner Bros. and Robbie Conal.

Our intention was to ask Robbie a couple of questions about this project and compose a piece based on his answers. However, upon reading Mr. Conal's responses, we felt it better to leave his responses intact to better illuminate the inner workings of a man who is not your typical political animal.

How did this collaboration come about?

We got a call from Stacey Sher, one of the producers of 'Contagion'. Stacey talked us through the subject, plot and arc of the movie—there just happens to be a street scene toward the end where lots of guerrilla posters have appeared like toadstools popping through organic debris after a hard rain—in a pandemic trashed, I'm tempted to say, apocalyptic San Francisco.

The script calls for posters of Jude Law's character—a diptych of his bipolar image in the media culture at that moment in the narrative: charlatan and/or savior. Of course the subject was gripping, close to terrifyingly possible, Stacey was persuasively positive about our involvement (may I say i got paid?). Working with such accomplished professionals outside my comfort zone (because it is indeed so inside) was a hook for me as well. Not to mention the challenge of making Jude Law look shady, fuzz away a measure of the pretty, but seductive enough—with that gleam of secret knowledge mixed with mischief in his eye— to possibly be a hero, what I'd call a "fictive metaphornication," of his character. Don't ask. But I am quick with a burnt stick (charcoal).
Game on!

What attracted you to the story of 'Contagion?'

Disingenuously speaking, I initially I thought it was about a strain of big U.S. mortgage bankers' and Rupert Murdoch's virulent business model, channeling J. Edgar Hoover's predatory bugging of everybody." That would excite anybody, right? Maybe not…
Then Stacey told me the real subject--snap out of it, Guerrilla Art Boy!—of course,It was about a hypothetical pandemic of biological origin. YEOWZA! Scary. And I'm kind of a chicken about these (cough-cough) contagious diseases.... But also I could see the possibilities the subject opens up for the filmmakers and this amazing array of talented actors(!) to address LARGE issues threatening our tenuous tenure on the planet! Like getting bureaucratic institutions (and regular human beings) to override artificial barriers between nation states, (how about forced immigration?), self interest and paranoia blocking the sharing of vital scientific information—and the moral dilemmas that crop up in a crisis that's larger than one culture's ideology can process constructively. Indeed, enough of a mouthful to chew on for 2 hours in the dark with a bunch of people you haven't met yet. What a subject for a movie!

Courtesy of Warner Bros. and Robbie Conal.

What similarities do you see between the character of Alan Krumwiede and previous subjects that have appeared in your work?

It's the tantalizing devil or angel factor! I truly believe that many (OK, some, uh, several) of our elected representatives enter government with the best of intentions--public service sounds so altruistic! Then power happens. The combination of access to enormous wealth and power seems to alter human beings, not always in the most felicitous of ways. But, it's still possible for them to do a great service for their constituents...so...which will it be? Or what percentage of both?

An older Conal work. Courtesy of Robbie Conal.

Explain the meaning behind alternating homonym that appears on the posters, "Prophet/Profit."

These are not my words. They were in the script. But they're close to my sensibility. Verrrry close. In 1988 I did a diptych of televangelists, Jim & Tammy Faye Bakker. She was "FALSE" He was "PROFIT." The only difference is it's opposite assessments of one guy's public actions. You get the idea...

How do you see the themes of your work (politics, power, and the abuse of both) magnified in 'Contagion?'

The great thing about 'Contagion' is its GLOBAL scope. I usually stick to abuses of power and privilege—hubris—in the good ole U.S. of A. (Because it's the only country I know something, if anything about.) But our politicians, financial wizards (very funny) and captains of industry's abuses seem to have global consequences, dont they?! So, I'm not that far off...

An older Conal work. Courtesy of Robbie Conal.

In a scenario such as that of 'Contagion,' where misinformation and paranoia are king, how do you see postering as an effective form of propaganda?

You know, it really isn't. As far as my efforts go—in the direction of "effective"—the same is true. Only probably much less effective. And that's not my purpose. Guerrilla postering is just my little way of expressing myself about public issues I care about—in a somewhat public arena. However, If you choose to remove the pejorative connotation of "propaganda" for a moment, international distribution of major American films is the most terrifically effective form of propaganda on the planet right now. In the case of 'Contagion'—I hope its message is contagious.

Editor's Note: Robbie wanted to dedicate this interview to the late proto-pop artist, Richard Hamilton, saying "He was expelled from the Royal Academy art school for, 'not profiting by instruction.' (My man!)"

Robbie Conal will be displaying his work in the "Infinite Jest: Caricature from Leonardo to Levine" exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, opening September 14. He will also be speaking at the Met on October 16.