“As a person who’s used to living in a metropolis, I love the feelings of being alone in public, the interstitial spaces that are a necessity when we spend so much time getting from place to place, mostly in view of / in indirect contact with other people. I really miss, during the pandemic, the feeling of being in some random location and getting the news of a major event.”
Chloë Bass (born 1984, New York) is a multiform conceptual artist working in performance, situation, conversation, publication, and installation. Her work uses daily life as a site of deep research to address scales of intimacy: where patterns hold and break as group sizes expand. She began her work with a focus on the individual (The Bureau of Self-Recognition, 2011-2013), has recently concluded a study of pairs (The Book of Everyday Instruction, 2015-2018), and will continue to scale up gradually until she’s working at the scale of the metropolis. She is currently working on Obligation To Others Holds Me in My Place, 2018-2022, an investigation of intimacy at the scale of immediate families.
Chloë received an MFA in Performance & Interactive Media at Brooklyn College, CUNY, and a BA in Theatre Studies at Yale University. Her projects have appeared nationally and internationally, including recent exhibits at The Studio Museum in Harlem, Kunsthalle Wilhelmshaven, BAK basis voor actuele kunst, the Knockdown Center, the Kitchen, the Brooklyn Museum, CUE Art Foundation, Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts Project Space, The Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, the James Gallery, and elsewhere. She is an Assistant Professor of Art at Queens College, CUNY, where she co-runs Social Practice Queens.
My work investigates the potential of the everyday as a catalyst for intimacy. I’m captivated by the common denominators of the human experience: the things that people do always. I highlight the seemingly normal as a means of questioning its stability. Originally trained as a theater director, I still embrace aspects of Brecht’s idea of alienation: the discomfort that arises from calling attention to structure through naming or pointing. That disconnect appears most clearly for me as a rupture between ourselves, and what we do without thinking. These usually unnoticed acts serve as my primary method of production and inquiry. My work evokes the particular state of attention produced by being alone in public: the sudden sense of everything as fascinating, the strange anxiety between feeling invisible and suddenly becoming aware that you are seen.
Now I engage theater’s collaborative, multi-disciplinary form through various aspects of myself. Everything that I create – texts, situations, installations, performances – leads my participants through interconnected layers of considered engagement. In bringing these forms together, it is my desire to build a unified and multivalent world with a variety of entry points: each form serves both as translation and as layering, manifesting a density of inquiry while maintaining a flexibility for new voices and information to change the story. My hope is always that this continued questioning will encourage audiences, over time, to live differently – not in a grand sense, but simply and enduringly.
I have many influences, divided here into rough categories. For rigor, connection, and creep factor: Adrian Piper, Andrea Fraser, Vito Acconci. For use of language: Claudia Rankine, Frank O’Hara, and Stanley Brouwn. For structure/archiving: Group Material, Charles and Ray Eames. Additionally, as so much of my work draws from immediate experience of the world, I’m influenced by people I watch on the street, the group behaviors that manifest through internet culture, and signage in public places (even when meant for private eyes). Some elements of my projects always already exist, and it’s just a matter of finding them. I use familiar structures —bureaucracy, social rituals, therapy, and games — to inspire participation and destabilize assumptions. I am full of questions that I answer through shared play.
I study the depth of what is already at hand. My work is not seeking to invent, but to reveal. I believe in performance as participation, and installation as scrutiny. If I succeed, I will become the world’s most invisible performance artist: always present, but unseen. Without you, my work is nothing.
john ros / As I wander through your website, which is a beautiful archive of your work, it’s exciting to see everything come together in a culmination of the everyday — every action — all interactions — regardless of how grand or minute, complex or simple. Moments reverberate off one other and illustrate an exhaustive commitment to reflection, surroundings and momentum — but also pause. There is a timelessness, which might be odd, because your work happens in real time — here and now — which is present then past. There is also rhythm — moments click metronome beats as movements sync between performer and participant-turned-performer. Text follows us consistently — through spaces, public and private; it envelops and fills, all while keeping time and key.
I settle on your statement, which is where I would like to start: “the potential of the everyday as a catalyst for intimacy.” When you speak of intimacy, I imagine a viewer’s connection to the work/experience; our connections to space, place, time; our connections to our specific past/lineage; and our connections to each other. Are these the intimacies you are referring to? Which feels most in line to your thought process and aim?
I also love the notion that your work is “not seeking to invent, but to reveal.” This feels concrete yet lyrical. Would it be safe to say that YOU are also not seeking to invent, but to reveal? Your choice of “My work… ” in that statement is very important, but I imagine as a multiform conceptual artist ‘the artist’ and ‘the work’ may share common space? How much connectivity exists between the self and the artist — the everyday and the studio practice?
Chloë Bass / Well, thank you first for this description of my website, which has certainly never, to my knowledge, inspired such a poetic response before. Something I reflect on a lot, often when talking to students (my own, or when I’m a visiting artist at other schools), is some feedback that I got about an old version of my website while I was in the AIM program at the Bronx Museum. The late, great Jane Farver had come in to give the cohort of artists advice about our websites, which she had looked at carefully in advance of her visit. When it came time to discuss mine, she said, among other things, the very succinct statement, “pictures of people talking are boring.”
I think there’s a tendency in the fields of social practice and performance to offer documentation of a work as a stand-in for an experience that’s really only experienced by those who were present. Of course other artists document their work, too: painters and sculptors offer installation and detail view images of pieces that are certainly very different in all kinds of ways (color, scale, texture, to name a few) when they’re experienced in a physical space. But I think Jane was right: there is something uniquely boring about documentation of bodies doing something together that you, the viewer, were unable to share or participate in.
None of this is really an answer to the question that you asked, which is the connection between the everyday and the studio practice — or, really, the connection between my self and my work. When I did more performance-based work that included, or featured, me as a performer, I sometimes got funny feedback like, “I don’t really know where you are in your work,” to which the answer seemed obvious: I’m right here. Like: literally, my body and voice are right here in front of you, that’s where I am. But that’s not what people mean when they say things like that; what they mean is more, like, “I didn’t get that you were emotionally present in this piece you presented,” or: “the emotions of this piece that you presented didn’t quite connect for me, so I felt like they must have been absent.”
Now, when I produce more text-based, conceptual and public work, I face a different, interesting problem. Because of the relative intimacy of the text — words that, regardless of the scale on which they appear, speak to the inner parts of people that often remain secret even to themselves — viewers often feel like they know me, or know something meaningful about me, after seeing/reading a particular piece or project. And honestly, although the text is based in feelings, I never said to anyone that they were my feelings. I never promised that these words were about me. But because they really do seem to reach people, viewers assume that I am highly present in them. Which I am, but maybe not in the ways you might think.
Nat Trotman, who has spoken with me about my work a few times, once joked that my practice is “inter-studio” — rather than studio, or post-studio. I took it upon myself to come up with a definition, as follows: inter-studio, adjective: the state of being between things. “I moved out of my previous workspace and I don’t yet know where the next one will be.” Inter-studio, noun: the ability to work from anywhere. “I just made art progress on the subway,” or “I get my best material from the public.” In the inter-studio reality, the separation between art and life can be thin, for sure. But that doesn’t mean that just because I’m the artist, it’s my life that becomes the material, or that all life is subject for inclusion in the work. Like any other creative practitioner, I edit, refine, select, reject, and shape through my work’s intentions; I say “my work’s,” because those intentions are not always, or even often, synonymous with my own.
jr / Yes, the website is a great example of the conundrum of documenting something meant to be an active experience. Beyond the possibility of being boring — which I’m not sure is necessarily wrong in the right context — representing more experiential work risks not only allowing the image to become a stand-in for the piece, but also allows for the possibility of the photo to become fetishistic as something that becomes contained in a more digestible form. I wonder how these images of people talking functioned and how they might have occupied your site before? Perhaps we get a glimpse in the documentation of Party Box, 2012, in the Interactions & Play section of your projects?
Inter-studio is a good word. Your definition is on point, while revealing the very thing it is describing. I think of this idea often while in the studio. “Making” involves all modes within this idea of inter-studio — or is omni-studio more fitting? Or omni-practice? Basically, depending on your type of studio practice, you might always find yourself in your practice, no matter the task at hand. A thin line for sure! Is that in-between space activating for you or something you think about throughout your process?
I am also interested in your “editor” here. As you “edit, refine, select, reject, and shape” how does life push against the editor? Does life ever become fully materialized? I imagine many things come close during the process or even throughout a project. Obligation To Others Holds Me In My Place, 2018, comes to mind. How do you decide between the nonfictional and imagined? When does the editor persist? Is there a counterpart to the editor? When do they persist?
CB / It’s true! Boring can be right in the right context! But I think the internet is, perhaps, not that context — or at least not the website/social media element of the internet, which is mostly used for attention-grabbing, aka advertising: of your work, of your “brand,” of yourself. What you say about the fetish of the image is also very real. Since many experiential works exist only as a small handful of regularly circulated photographs, these images of what happened (a single still shot from a single perspective) become many people’s “memory” or knowledge of what the work was. When in fact, as we know, any photograph is a false representation: it’s a frozen moment depicting a moving (in space, and/or in time), changing thing. If you took it a moment later, or a moment earlier, or from a different place, it could show, and therefore mean, something partially or fully different. And then of course it depends who’s doing the looking. We don’t all see things in the same way.
I’m not sure that I’m always in my practice. I have been very resistant to the “anything can be art!” dialogue, and am really, really not interested in the “what is art?” question anymore. Not because it’s an unworthy question, but because I think it begets some fairly belligerent responses that trend towards generalization. I do, however, definitely find the in-between spaces very activating. As a person who’s used to living in a metropolis, I love the feelings of being alone in public, the interstitial spaces that are a necessity when we spend so much time getting from place to place, mostly in view of / in indirect contact with other people. I really miss, during the pandemic, the feeling of being in some random location and getting the news of a major event. Now we have this endless parade of major events, but we’re always at home when we receive them. It’s a different kind of map for me. I’m not sure how to make meaning out of it yet.
That said, when does life materialize? Life materializes in the living of it. It’s materializing at a faster rate than we can reconcile or remember. Most of the materialization of life is being lost as we live it. I don’t mean that in a bad way: it’s just true. Many years ago, I did a performance piece at Glasshouse called Archiving the Now, 2013, where I tried to write down everything that was happening around me in the space for the duration of the performance; of course it was impossible, that’s the point. Even as you make the record of the current thing, a next thing is already occurring. Whatever is lost, forgotten, unnoticed, or unrecorded is already a kind of imprecise “editing”: although it may not seem to have the same intention, it can have the same result.
I’m not sure how to answer your question about the nonfictional and the imagined. I don’t work as a journalist or a researcher (although those professions also create their own kinds of fictions — or let’s call them narratives — in the service of making complex things digestible, or messy moments more linear). I work as an artist. That doesn’t mean that I’m free to pass off lies as truth, but rather that there is a flexibility between the different kinds of voicing I use, whether in direct language, or in the combination of language, image, object, and situation. I don’t promise that anything I’m saying is the truth. The counterpart to the editor is you, the viewer: it’s your job not to assume that something that’s not the truth is also not a lie, but rather an interpretation, and to figure out how that interpretation rests with you, and your own lived experiences and knowledge.
jr / I am very interested in the visual-created thinking about the multitudes of in-betweenness — past, present and future — all existing as individual and collective reverberations. The in-between as a culmination of experiences — seen and unseen, known and unknown. I probably see the in-between as more of a continuous, whole entity, free from time constraints — a constant — but these layers you point out heighten the complexity of appreciating moments and our abilities to be present, or not.
In your process of determining space and building on your research of presence and togetherness, has your background in Theatre Studies found itself embedded throughout your practice? Your statement, “documentation certainly impacts or shifts the presence and attention of the people who are being documented,” although true throughout our social interactions, seems to connect an awareness to stage performance and maybe performance more broadly? I wonder what tools have stayed with you?
CB / The secret about the theater is that you can never get free! I think that’s the good news, actually. I don’t want to participate in theater in a standard way anymore (except maybe as an audience member), but I also don’t want to get free. The theater is tremendously informative to any number of other practices, some of which are not necessarily art related at all. The theater informs how politics operates. The theater can train people within business contexts. The theater is helpful when working within fields of trauma. The strategies of the theater appear all over the place. I don’t want to say “everywhere,” but maybe “anywhere.” On the lowest common denominator level, that’s the basis of the field of Performance Studies: that performance is always, and impacts everything.
And yes, I can say that specific skills and strategies from the theater have also stuck with me, or continue to surface within my life and work. I will say very directly that within artistic fields, I believe that the theater offers the best format for collaboration, and is not shy to state the absolute necessity of building a team, wherein people have particular and not necessarily overlapping skills, if you want to make an artwork. The fine arts/visual arts, and even social practice, seem to be catching up to this kind of idea, like “oh right, I need other people, and not just as witnesses.” The myth of individual greatness is less prevalent in the theater. There are stars, for sure: star performers, star directors, star writers — but they’re nothing without each other, not to mention without the other people who make a production happen.
Tools of language use from the theater have also stayed with me. My development as a writer happened almost entirely within theatrical contexts, which means that I necessarily consider language to be something that is heard in addition to being something that is read. We write very differently when we stop to think about listening, and who is listening; when we think about speech and tone of voice alongside word choice or rhythm or meaning. The theater offers a tremendously expansive potential of language. So does everyday life! But my theater training maybe allows me to recognize that more, or in different and particular ways.
“This is a period of time that’s going to echo in our lives for a long, long time, to the point where we may not even be able to recognize how to trace those echoes back to this moment. So it seems worth it to take the time to sit with its repercussions at every scale of time and connection.”
jr / The collaborative sensibility seems connected to a support mechanism — both personal and professional. I imagine bringing in the connectivity of language can foster a fertile environment for developing a symbiotic space of sharing and nurturing. As you mention, the function of language may vary depending on how it is delivered and how it is received. This awareness seems paramount to a viewer’s ability to access a work. To complicate things, audiences in this current cultural moment interact on so many different though simultaneous levels. At the same time, we are able to reach more people with the click of a button. Do these added layers of communication and distance have an effect on where your research takes you and/or how things fall into place?
CB / I think the support mechanisms inherent to theater can be a little abstract, honestly. In certain working conditions, theater is highly unionized, and that can be helpful. However, outside of those conditions, much of the support that arrives within the theater is, as you indicated, interpersonal. If you have to communicate not only as part of your artwork (a play, a sculpture, whatever), but also in order to achieve that artwork’s creation, you start to consider language with a little bit more care, I think. That attention to language as a means of presentation and a means of production doesn’t fundamentally change with distance. I have access to diverse audiences both in person and online. I am still trying to figure out how I’m considering groups, or group sizes, in a more distanced capacity. That’s an answer I don’t have yet. I know it’s important, though! I’m optimistic that I’ll get there — and I think whenever I get there it will still be relevant to the world, or informative to my other work, even if we’re quasi “back to normal” at that point. This is a period of time that’s going to echo in our lives for a long, long time, to the point where we may not even be able to recognize how to trace those echoes back to this moment. So it seems worth it to take the time to sit with its repercussions at every scale of time and connection.
Six questions asked of all our guests.
What are you currently reading?
Rachel Zucker’s SoundMachine
What are you currently watching?
My partner and I have been joking that we are the worst at pandemic-t.v. watching, but it’s one of those jokes that’s funny because it’s true. We recently finished Small Axe, though, and succumbed to the Britney Spears documentary.
What was the last meal you made?
I made yasai yaki udon last night with the wrong kind of udon noodles (the smooth, thinner ones that are better for soup — they just don’t get the same kind of chewy char as a thick, fresh udon noodle!).
Can you share a recipe?
It’s pretty easy: take the veggies you have in your fridge — you can use anything, but allow me to recommend or mildly require: cabbage, onions, carrots; and suggest: mushrooms, bell peppers, corn, broccoli. I used red cabbage, yellow onion, carrots, red bell pepper, and frozen kernels of white corn. Have a patient person thinly slice the veggies (that person can also be you), and finely chop about an inch of peeled fresh ginger, and two cloves of garlic. Heat a tablespoon or so of sesame oil in a skillet over medium heat. Sautee the ginger and garlic until they have a little color, then add the vegetables (I usually do onions first, then carrots, and then less “hard” veg) and turn up the heat slightly.
While veggies are sauteeing, make a sauce: if you have udon soup mix from the package of fresh noodles, use that seasoning as a base, and then add soy sauce, mirin, sugar, black pepper (lots!), and dashi powder or bouillon until you like the taste. Thin the sauce out with about a quarter cup of warm or boiling water. Add noodles (“uncooked” if fresh, or parboiled if dried) to the stir fry, throw in the sauce, and toss it around with tongs until the noodles and veggies have absorbed the sauce and everything looks shiny and a bit sticky. Serve topped with freshly chopped scallions, sprinkles of bonito flakes (if you have them; I didn’t) and furikake (or just sesame seeds, but the slight seaweed flavor is nice here), and a dab of something spicy (I used yuzu kosho) on the side of the bowl to mix with the salty-sweet noodles as you go. Pickled ginger slivers are also great as a topping, but I didn’t have that either.
Whose studio have you visited recently that really excited you?
Last week I made studio visits with students at the University of Minnesota’s MFA program, and was delighted by the range and quality of work I experienced. I will say that I am not a fan of digital studio visits for myself, or with others, for the most part, so I am unlikely to schedule any unless I have to, or am conducting them for pedagogical reasons. With other artists, and for my own time and money (and spirit!), I’d rather just talk on the phone.
What have you seen recently (either art; performance; film, music; stage; etc.) that had a significant impact on you and your work?
It’s been a strange year for encounters with art — for all of us, I think. There are two things lately that I’ve really enjoyed and found inspiring recently: I went to a reading by Anaïs Duplan last week where he shared recent ekphrastic poems describing video art while simultaneously screening one of his own videos. I loved this as a cracking open of what the online format allows rather than an emphasis on what it prevents.
Separately, I got to spend a fair amount of (socially distanced! mostly solo!) time at the Terry Adkins exhibition at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, and it was amazing to be surrounded by epic-scale sound works in a silent duet with the museum.
A sincere thanks to Chloë from john ros and studioELL — thank you for sharing your practice with us.
john ros is a Brooklyn-based, multi-disciplinary artist, professor and curator. They obtained an MFA from Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and a BFA from the State University of New York at Binghamton. john is the founder of studioELL where they currently serve as director and professor. They have over 15 years experience in higher education and 22 years experience curating exhibitions and developing community programming.
This interview was conducted over a series of emails which started with an question and led to a responsive conversation. The text has been edited slightly for this publication.
Jeannine Bardo | Dominique Christina | Stephanie Williams | Vishwa Shroff | Chloë Bass | Natalia de Campos & Thiago Szmrecsányi | Elly Clarke | Sameer Kulavoor | Alfonso Fernandez | Nyeema Morgan