Holly Bass, SPACES' Artist-in-Residency, Examines Freedom and Safety With “Liberation Labs”

click to enlarge Holly Bass, SPACES' Artist-in-Residency, Examines Freedom and Safety With “Liberation Labs”
Shawn Mishak
Holly Bass — a multidisciplinary performance and visual artist, writer, director and SPACES’ artist-in-residency — explores the notions of personal safety and freedom in the midst of the global crisis with her latest work, called "Liberation Labs."

Originally, Bass set out to engage residents whose lives had been affected by the court system, but the arrival of the pandemic changed that path.

"[Her] residency shifted a great deal in response to the tragic events and global challenges of this year," said Tizziana Baldenebro, SPACES' executive director. "We are encouraged by the outcome, which is both poetic and mystical. Bass has a fantastic vision for the mutable nature of her work over time, so we will continue working closely, yet virtually. SPACES has always been a place for artists to explore and experiment, and this exhibition has been a great opportunity to learn how we can support shifting artistic endeavors amid the tumult."

I interviewed the D.C.-based ‘teaching artist’ to discuss her work, her residency and her current video series featured every Wednesday via Instagram as a forum to connect with community members and fellow artists.

“SPACES had the idea to do What If Wednesdays on Instagram… It’s nice to have a way to connect with people and answer questions. Even though it’s a regular series, I love that most people are finding it by chance, because they’re on Instagram and see the little live circle on their phones.”

At the opening of "Liberation Labs, a ‘living exhibition, I found Bass masked, in cream-colored coveralls and red, thick-rimmed glasses wielding what seemed to be a wood burning utensil. She hovered over an antique table with a video of hands rolling what resembled earth or clay into tiny balls projected above her.

The video installation was “Making Juju,” a video of her doing just that, her making the talismans or juju pouches, which the viewer could acquire in exchange for scribing a wish on a piece of paper and placing it into the drawer of the antique dresser on which the materials were placed as part of the piece entitled, “Juju on the beat.”

Bass explains:  "At the beginning of the pandemic, even just walking to the grocery store after being alone inside for a couple weeks felt really fraught. I didn’t know how to be physically distanced but emotionally connected. I felt the need for simple magic and ritual in my life and I thought that others might as well. So I wrote some poems, or spells, and I made small juju pouches, which are really just a physical object that we imbue with magic. I invited people coming to the gallery to leave me a written wish in exchange for a juju pouch. Even people who can’t come to Cleveland can mail a written wish to the gallery and I will send them a juju pouch. And inside the gallery, I basically set up different imagination stations, if you will. Like a desk that will transfer creative energy if you hover your hands above two silver Mylar hand cut-outs. Or a chair above an electrical outlet that I turned into an imaginary energy portal. As a child I always loved children’s science museums and how they have so many hands-on stations. So I kind of created something similar, bearing in mind the need to be contact-free and socially distanced.”

As we navigate a society where there is increasing concern over police brutality against our citizens, Bass, through her work, is raising questions about what freedom is and what is it to feel safe in America.

“I’m a teaching artist and spent four years running an arts program in the juvenile detention center in D.C. I developed a workshop called Liberation Labs where the students learned about different activists and freedom fighters through music and poetry. I wanted to do a variation here, working with a group of young people to learn about their experience with the court system in Cleveland and to create “liberation talismans”—basically imaginary devices that could protect you, say if the cops pulled you over. It might be a bullet-proof force field or a transporting device. The writer and activist adrienne marie browne says all organizing is science fiction because we’re trying to bring about a world we’ve never seen. So even though the devices would be imaginary, the real purpose is to remind us of the power we do have in real life and how so much of that power comes from being in community with each other.”

Bass’ exhibition raises awareness, questions our reality and communicates a sense of poetic whimsy to the viewer.

I asked Bass what ‘Freedom’ means to her: “Freedom for me means I can walk through the world in the fullness of my being and not be threatened, coerced or limited by the body I was born into or the circumstances in which I live. Freedom also means that my brothers can experience that, too. And I mean my literal brothers, my mom, my dad, my cousins. But also my community and the broader family of humanity.”

You can find out more about Bass’ work here and "Liberation Labs" here.