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Framing a Wall: Math Bass and Lauren Davis Fisher

Installation view: Math Bass: Off the Clock, MoMA PS1, 2015. Image courtesy the artist and MoMA PS1. Photo: Pablo Enriquez

Los Angeles-based artists Math Bass and Lauren Davis Fisher recently collaborated on the exhibition Math Bass: Off the Clock at MoMA PS1. The nature of the collaboration is interesting, not only because it counteracts the structure of a solo show, but also because the artists are uniquely connected through their simplified and pared down visual language and modes of operation, which incorporate raw materials, identifiable symbols, architectural forms, conditions of space, and shifting spatial perspectives. The artists—who live together in a space that is also shared by Fisher’s studio—discuss here their recent collaboration in the context of the personal and creative relationship it was built on, as well as the physical and theoretical overlaps in their respective practices.

LAUREN DAVIS FISHER: Maybe we should start by talking about Sax Etc.—your studio.

MATH BASS: When I first got the studio, I was excited about the possibility of having events there. The first performance I organized at the space was an improvisational sax quartet between four people I knew who had never met each other and never played together before. After that, I called the space Sax Etc.

FISHER: You offered me the opportunity to do a show at Sax Etc., as part of Eve Fowler’s project ACP. I was really inspired by the space and for me that’s one of the most exciting starting points for any project. I often start with thinking about what a space is—both, “what is the context that I’m working within?” and “what are the structures that are held within and hold up that context?” Also, in both a physical and nonphysical sense, “what are the conditions of that space?” I’m interested in how responding to the specificity can actually be a way to open up to the nonspecific. So I had come up with an idea for the show, part of which involved building this wall structure to fit into a small nook off to the side under the stairwell. This architectural anomaly was very defining of the studio, which is otherwise a rectangle. I built the wall structure offsite at my studio. In the end, the show never happened, but the wall became a fixture in my space, which then became our space.

BASS: So, we live together. We live together, we live with this wall, and at a certain point I had pieces that had been at my studio for a long time moved into our space because I needed to clear it out. A couple of those pieces were these concrete casts of the interior of jeans, which were made in conjunction with the performance Brutal Set at the Hammer. You also participated in that performance along with eight other people. We both have an interest in the arrangement and position of objects in relation to one another and the placement of the concrete casts in relation to the wall in the studio happened organically, but the subtext of it is that we were both articulating these negative spaces and there was intentionality in that placement.

FISHER: Our space feels like an airplane hanger. Its about two thousand square feet with thirty-five-foot ceilings and it’s mostly just open. The wall has come to be this mobile device for separating parts of the space and it’s been amazing to see how successfully it operates that way.

BASS: It really does. Even though you have total visibility through the wall, when you take the wall out of the space, there’s no barrier between anything. Despite its transparency, it somehow manages to separate your studio from our living space, and because of its transparency, it also functions as a frame.

FISHER: I built it based on the standard increments for framing a wall, with studs, 16 inches on center. It’s the American standard, so it literally comes from the term framing a wall, and it does really function as a frame. It’s framing my studio from one side, and from the other side it’s framing our living space. And in turn, the casts are framing the wall.

BASS: And in the context of the PS1 exhibition, it’s framing the show. It’s a crucial piece. When I got the opportunity to do this show, and the museum said there was the potential to cut into the walls, this conversation started. It made sense that this situation that exists in our space could exist in another space. I was dealing with four small, disconnected rooms and it felt really important to open up the space, as well as bring the rooms together with this frame.

FISHER: I’ve been thinking about how the additive in general is more readily understood than the subtractive. We can see and understand accumulation, but we often don’t recognize when something has been paired down or subtracted. I think about how when making, it is often just as much about eliminating all the other ideas, or everything around the thing as it is about choosing the one idea, or articulating the thing. In a sense, all framing is subtractive, it directs the focus away from everything else. Or how an opening, a window, a door is more a lack of a wall, a barrier, an impedance, and it is called a “negative space,” but this absence is also full—there is just more possibility for envisioning how these negative spaces get filled out. For me this relates to the idea of context—context as the “negative space” around the thing or the idea.

BASS: Though we haven’t really collaborated that many times, we’re in ongoing conversation with each other. With this project, being in the context of an institution and my solo show, we really considered the importance of making it clear where the collaboration exists and where the work is separate.

FISHER: That was particularly important for me. Often what I’m exploring in the structures that I build are ideas of orientation and how the foreground and background are allocated, and where these grounds shift. When does the background become the foreground? I’m interested in working with other artists and seeing how these structures can act as platforms for different dialogues. For example, the idea for the wall originated in the context of a show of mine, in the context of a particular space, your studio. I’m interested in the potential for the work to move context, to move spaces, and to frame other work and frame a different dialogue. Which, in the
context of this show, is your dialogue and your work. So a question we have faced is how to talk about where the collaborative gesture is, where your voice and my voice come together, and where they’re separate.

BASS: This collaboration is interesting, because its elements are discrete, the wall is your piece and the concrete casts are my piece, but the scene is collaborative. When we first put them together, we both loved what they were doing for each other.

FISHER: Thinking about the wall and the casts together, deciding to cut open the existing wall at PS1 and to have the duplicating scene, that’s what we’re really considering the collaboration, the gesture—placing the scene.

BASS: Inserting the scene into the space.

FISHER: This in line with how we most actively collaborate, which is more alongside each other than really creating or articulating some one thing together.

BASS: We’ve only officially collaborated on one major performance, Quiet Work in Session, and that process was really fluid and generative. It was so much fun. Generally, we have parallel practices and we both have a lot of overlapping interests in trying to figure out potential ways of expanding or articulating unseen spaces.

FISHER: Or the unseen in the spaces we inhabit, which may be one and the same thing. Maybe how a space can expand in the unseen?

BASS: The space between the set and the mutable.

FISHER: I’m working with this language of framing and structure, addressing the interior of the wall and the structure behind the facade, which raises questions about exposure and imposition.

BASS: The imposition is revealed through the shift, because you experience it as a frame or as a potential exposure of an internal structure and when you re-experience it, you see that it’s imposed, whether you know it’s imposed from a whole other site or just that the whole situation is imposed in the next room, askew, there is still, at the actual site, an imposition and a reveal. We were excited to insert this nonspace into another space and draw the connection between it being framed by, or framing, these heavy, weighted bodylike forms, the cast interior of jeans. They are both articulating negative spaces…filling out…framing out…filling out these spaces. And there is an inversion that’s happening there, the mobility of the wall and the immobility of the figure or the body.

FISHER: We generally think that bodies have free movement and that structures are what’s set, but maybe there’s more flexibility there than we think. Thinking about what’s familiar or what’s our familiar understanding of our abilities and our abilities for movement.

BASS: Breaking through the wall.

FISHER: Breaking through the wall.

BASS: The interesting thing about this gesture is that it’s not one gesture, it’s not two gestures, but it’s a gesture repeated. Everything changes, the hole in the wall changes when that axis of the whole scene shifts, the visibility changes, the barrier changes. But it also all stays intact. The whole scene stays intact, it just shifts like a revolving door and how your experience will be affected is determined by what end you enter on.

FISHER: A shift in orientation is something I think a lot about in my work and in this situation, depending on where you enter and which room you enter into, the question is raised, “what direction is the shift going in?” And how often our sense of orientation is built on really unfixed points of reference, but that we, in seeking orientation, often assume that there’s a certain fixity that we’re orienting ourselves toward. Something exciting about the show as a whole is that there are two stairwells from either side and there isn’t one entry point, so the orientation of the show as a whole has—

BASS: Multiple points of entry. I have a video playing in a satellite room, but I decided to play its audio throughout the hallway in order to activate the corridor. I wanted the sound to leak from one space into another and tie together these multiple entry points. I think of the sound as a subtle pulse for the show. For the performance we did in Portland, I was interested in how we were facilitating these tableaus that were activated in our absence. Sound and light became a central character and the performer; the performance of bodies was more that of facilitator of these shifting scenes. There was a theatricality in the way things shifted as well as an idea of the cinematic or distilling all of these movements into this succinct image that became activated by a soundtrack.
We were using sound, weaving sound throughout the piece. We’re both invested in unpredictable patterns.

FISHER: And when predictable falls away.

BASS: Yeah. For example, we had this basketball, and we all have this cognitive relationship with this object—what it does, how it functions, what it looks like, and how we know it and see it and can predict its actions. In that performance, we used a ceramic basketball as a stand-in, and it shattered—it had its cue and it broke a scene. The scene broke with the ball breaking, it was symbolically and literally a breaking scene or breaking prop, but also breaking the predictability of this object. And in that collaboration, those ideas of shattering the predictable function of something familiar opens up into this interest that we both share in the familiar as an entry point into things that are more obtuse. And how that can be uncomfortable, potentially, that you’re easing yourself into a foreign situation and slowly raising the temperature of the water.

FISHER: This notion of challenging the familiar is central in both of our work. We largely deal with articulating negative spaces, articulating the nonmaterial or the unseen, and how this relates to the idea of the familiar. The very nature of the familiar is that it is unseen, it’s taken for granted, it’s the context that frames how we move. We don’t see the labor or the structures that hold up and uphold the familiar. These notions of negative space or absence, around the thing, or maybe just those words we use, seem somewhat inadequate because they do not in their familiar sense accommodate the fullness of possibility, or the heaviness of a given context.

BASS: I think this idea of challenging the familiar or challenging predictability relates to an idea of precarity.

FISHER: There’s a latent potential in precarity, for something to happen. With a lot of my work I think about propositions, so what can happen is the question or it’s a suggestion toward a multiplicity. How something can be appropriated in a sense to different actions and in that there are different performances in the action or situation.

BASS: Precarity often has a negative connotation.

FISHER: Maybe because it implies that if there is some sort of stasis or stability, there is also the potential for it to be disturbed, and that can make people uncomfortable, often the idea of disturbance or collapse has negative connotations.

BASS: Neither of us have any inherent belief in stability. We’ve both gotten really comfortable with unstable, unfixed ways of moving through the world, it’s a condition that both of us have been living in for a long time.

FISHER: If there is a belief, it’s in the unstable and in actively seeking the unstable as an opening.