This piece is part of our 21 Local Innovators To Watch roundup in the August 2022 print issue of District Fray. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
One of the most prolific artists in D.C., Holly Bass has been practicing her craft for over 20 years. Her newest work, “American Woman,” was one 42 selected for exhibition at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s The Outwin 2022 from a field of over 2,700 entries. Her seven-hour performance begins at 11:30 a.m. on September 10, 2022.
District Fray: On staying hopeful
Holly Bass: The past three years have really tested my optimism, and my belief things will actually get better. I think the pandemic has made it difficult for me to move through the world with this sort of intentional naïveté. The pandemic has stripped bare the sort of corporate greed and avarice and sense that nobody cares and nothing matters. Your job doesn’t care about you. These brands you’re loyal to don’t care about you. The government doesn’t care about you. But the people who do care — if you are fortunate to be in a family or community that is loving — are friends, family and community. I can keep pushing and fighting the good fight because of that.
I have a history as an educator, and I think it’s really important not to poison the water for young people. That’s another reason why I try to stay optimistic, or at least try to instill in young people the idea resistance is its own reward. Like we resist negativity, we resist the powers that be. We fight against them, not because we’re going to win but because it makes us better.
On marathon performances
The first performance idea that was pretty durational was five hours. For two days, my body was wrecked. I was like, “This isn’t sustainable.” So, I started talking to marathoners and researching. The best advice one of them offered is you don’t have to be upright. If I’m running, I have to be on my feet — but I’m dancing. So, there are parts of my durational piece where I’m lying down. I’m being coquettish with the crowd to give my feet a break, but I’m still performing. The week before, I also usually quit alcohol, sugar and salt. I just eat grilled or steamed fish and vegetables. The night or two before, it’s pasta and carbs — those things make a huge difference. The rest is mental.
On money and performance
Every elevation in my career was hinged on a deep investment of money and resources. I remember the first time I made my first successful photographic series, called “NWBA,” which is a play on WNBA. I’ve met these amazing photographers. I bartered with them. I would edit this publication they were working on; they would do my photo shoot for free. I got myself to New York and I literally had $150 or $80 in the bank. So, it was scary. It was the thing that sort of established me being in galleries — you have to make a deeper sacrifice. Since then, each time it’s been like, “Now I have $5,000, $8,000, $10,000 to do this project.” That becomes really career changing. I don’t think you can push up higher, and build your platform and build your artistic vision without money.
I think hustle culture is one of those really deeply capitalistic things. It sounds cool and appeals to a certain demographic, but I think it ultimately holds us back. I was super into it: gotta hustle, gotta grind. I was wearing myself out and I was spinning my wheels, digging a deeper groove that was making it harder for me to push forward. It’s all a sham, because my best work comes from community, which gets built over time, and deepens and enriches. That’s why I still live in D.C.
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