Ronnie Bass


Ronnie Bass, The Astronomer, Part 1: Departure from Shed, 2009, stills from a color video, 9 minutes.

Ronnie Bass’s exhibition “The Astronomer, Part 1: Departure from Shed” at Marginal Utility in Philadelphia comprises a video, a sculpture of a fountain, and a live performance, which relay a narrative about an astronomer, his assistant, and a man under a blanket. Below, Bass discusses the video and the process of composing its simple, emotive score. The exhibition is on view through January 10.

THE CHARACTERS in my work are all pretty similar. There are slight differences, but they’re basically just an exaggeration of who I am. They all have my interests, too. Like the astronomer in this video, I always wanted to be an inventor. I still do. In a way, I also think the astronomer might be a hack, but I believe in him more than I don’t believe in him.

Most of my work is about preparation and potential. When I watch a film and read a book, I’m interested in what’s happening––I don’t want it to conclude. This has been true in a lot of my videos. The Catastrophe (with Tommy Hartung) and the Ribbon Cutting works are about preparing. I can’t actually have the characters accomplish the things they’re setting out to do. I’ve claimed that everything I make is “in progress,” so you’re left in the transition area, where there’s more potential. The big difference with this work is that it’s also about moving forward.

The crux of the video is moving from a character saying “I’m afraid” to saying “I’m not afraid no more.” This is part 1 of three potential parts. I don’t know what’s going to happen yet in the other two parts. In this particular video, I play an astronomer who looks through a telescope and sees that the planets are aligned in the right way, so he knows it’s time to go. The astronomer and his assistant prepare for a journey––they drill into a rock to extract a fluid, mix it with minerals, and make some kind of elixir for their journey. There’s also a guy under a blanket who is afraid.

Ronnie Bass, The Astronomer, Part 1: Departure From Shed, 2009. (Excerpt)

The idea for the piece started with the simple idea of being afraid under a blanket. I wrote a song about it in five minutes. For me, the songs that work happen quickly, like a freestyle rapper would do it. They become closely connected to a particular way I’m feeling. Then I refined the sound, working on it for eight months. I finally pulled out a video camera about two months before the show opened.

This video has two songs: The first is a tribute to the country singer Townes Van Zant. Then there’s the “I’m afraid to go” song. There are probably about 150 songs that didn’t make the cut. When I first started composing ten years ago, I only knew three chords. When I learned more, the production became sophisticated, but then I had to pare it down because it was too much. I’ve gone back to using two or three chords. It works well with call-and-response themes, for which each chord represents a character when they speak: C: “It’s time to go.” G: “I’m afraid.” C: “We don’t have time.” G: “But I’m afraid.” Those are the only two chords in that song. It’s rare for a song to be that simple. You pick up the corresponding chord subconsciously. When G strikes, you know it’s me talking. With the absence of voice you can still hear the G and C because it continues, so there is still a dialogue.

Toward the end, the astronomer is sitting with the assistant looking through the telescope, and the guy under the blanket says, “I’m not afraid no more,” to which the astronomer replies, “It’s too late, we missed our chance.” But the guy under the blanket repeats that he’s not afraid, and the astronomer recognizes that there’s still a sliver of opportunity to go. So they go, or at least we see the image of a shed fading to black.

— As told to Miriam Katz