As of September 1, the Institute of Contemporary Art has been hosting More Little Ditties, a video installation by Morgan Bassichis. It remains until January 4, 2024. Christian Detres sat down with the artist to discuss their collection and how it relates to everything from the collective trauma of COVID-19, to the ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestine.
Christian Detres: For the sake of me not having to write a bio intro, could you tell me a little bit about yourself, or tell me a lot about yourself.
Morgan Bassichis: What can I say? I’m a performer. And I live in New York. And I make music too, and little jokes and-
CD: You’re modest. You are a celebrated comedian, artist, and songwriter that just showed at Harvard, and now the ICA in Richmond.
MB: I’m just trying to be concrete. And just really happy to have this show here at the ICA. And it’s such a pleasure to get to hang out in Richmond.
CD: So there’s a thing that my wife and I do every time we watch anything that’s set in New York. We try to look at the background in any shot and see who can call out exactly where this person is in the city. We couldn’t figure it out. When you’re in the apartment sitting in the window. I was trying to figure out where is he? Bushwick?
MB: Crown Heights.
CD: Damn, almost. Crown Heights okay. We used to live in Bed Stuy. We moved a couple years ago. Like Tompkins and Hancock.
MB: I used to live at Quincy and Hancock!
CD : Get out of here. Really? That’s just a few blocks away. By the police station. It’s changed a lot.
MB: Yep. Gentrification!
CD: Sigh… So let’s talk about your show. Now, I come to this with subjective opinions or feelings, which I guess is the whole point of absorbing art. No wrong answers and such. I wanted to commiserate to see if I understood your intent or mood on this current show More Little Ditties. I imagine a lot of people do this too, but I sing songs to myself in my head all the time. For wildly different reasons. It’s a mental “go-to” when idling. It fills the space when there’s a lonely moment. There’s a built in, repetitive, self-lullaby ready for any silent or uncomfortable experience. I tend to do it when I’m trying to make other thoughts go away. I start humming to myself or something just to kind of, reel in my mind from wandering glass strewn paths.
I’m watching you do this in your video installation and I felt seen in this anxiety expression. In the context of quarantine, it rang so familiar. It was a difficult time for everyone of course, but for the New Yorker, where your apartment is a tiny place where you sleep, and outside is where you live most of your day, it was a mini-incarceration. The little “ditties” and singsong moments of a neutral day have been elevated through your work into moments of varying degrees of introspection, silliness at times, and activist intent. Seeing your daily timestamped progress through the time of quarantine was riveting in a subtle way. At one point, you mention in one of these installments, “Oh, well, you know, I hope this is over soon” which was like in April 2020. And I was like, “Oh, you sweet summer child. This ain’t going anywhere for a minute.” I appreciated the stream-of-consciousness immediacy of these recordings.
How much of the experience recording these ditties, or musical musings, were directed at creating an installation? At what point did you decide, “I’m going to turn this into an installation”, or did it start that way?
MB: Oh, I definitely didn’t imagine it as a show in the beginning. Never as an installation. It was really just an impulse just to start making these little songs and trying to share them with people. I didn’t imagine beyond what they were. I just had this really clear sense of “get a keyboard” because I just really wanted to make these little songs, which, like you said, was very self soothing. And exactly what you said, it’s self lullabies. I find repetition really soothing. And it was cool that other people resonated with them, too.
CD: The funny thing is there’s little editorial through-line between the twenty or so songs sung and performed off the top of your head. There’s a distinct recurring mood, haunting and familiar, but not thematically. I was drawn to, as a child of Borough Park (where I was the only guy named Christian), the struggle between Jewish heritage and Israeli politics. Zionism. This conversation was a big deal in my neighborhood. You are quite opinionated on the subject. You make the point that being Jewish and representing Israel is not the same thing, which is hard for even good-intentioned people to wrap their heads around. When you’re not intimately around people with a reason and a right to have an opinion on the subject, the media line seems the safest opinion to have. How does that conundrum, or conflict, rise up in your art?
MB: It makes sense that Judaism and Zionism get conflated because that’s so much of what the state of Israel says they stand for. They attempt to communicate that they stand for all Jewish people. They use the symbols of Judaism. It makes sense that there would be this conflation, but it’s really important to me and to so many of us to disentangle those things, and to say no. Being Jewish is not the same thing as being Zionist, and being anti Zionist is not the same as being anti semitic. In fact, the Jewish lineage that we are proud of and tend to, and want to advance is one of social justice for everybody. Since the beginning of Zionism, there have always been Jews that have been critical of Zionism. Since the very introduction of the idea. And so I feel like I’m very proud to come from a long lineage of Jews. My friend, Esther Farmer, who’s a contributor in my collaborative book, Questions to Ask Before Your Bat Mitzvah, relates that she and her mom used to say “Justice, not just us.” I really liked that.
CD: Which I think extrapolates to your feelings about incarceration as a whole. You bring this topic up several times in the course of your ditty-making. Could you expand on the anti-incarceration movement?
MB: Well, I really grew up in the abolitionist movement. I owe so much of my consciousness and my value system from a long lineage of activists who have said that police and prisons are not broken, they’re doing exactly what they’re built to do. It’s our job to imagine a society beyond incarceration, beyond police, beyond criminalization. I believe we can imagine a world beyond these things. I believe safety can’t come at the expense of someone else’s freedom. I don’t believe in choosing which life is more valuable than another. It doesn’t address any of the underlying reasons for anti-social behavior. You know, Angela Y. Davis addresses our obsession with incarceration as the catch all solution to all social problems. Part of our work as artists and comedians is making these ideas accessible and irresistible, funny and enjoyable to discuss and disassemble.
CD : There’s a bunch of different paths towards making those points on a comedian’s stage. You can go that George Carlin route and just, you know, be loud, persistent and cranky, Right? You can be very effective in communication of an ideal by treating something with a humorous angle, and gallows humor counts. It doesn’t have to be nice to be funny, but it has to be funny to be funny. You know what I mean? How many comics have had to respond to saying a thing that was offensive? Like, “haha nobody liked that. Now I’m in trouble.” It’s because they forgot to be funny. Your joke sucked dude. Always got to be funny, punching up not punching down. Funny doesn’t come from a place of bullying. Comedy is meant to alleviate stress, pain, tension; like punching a punching bag. It’s not supposed to feel like punching a person. It’s a different thing. There’s a therapeutic nature to it.
There’s a special humanity about More Little Ditties. You can be serious or irreverent, talk about politics, activism, but when you do it in this singsong way, it inhabits a liminal space between inner voice and speech. It’s speaking to hear yourself, to hear something in the silence. I’ll say something out loud in an empty room I could have totally just thought, just for the audio. You speak of repetition as an attractive force in this situation. Repetition begets rhythm, which invites melody. Your murmuring and playful id lading across a waxed floor in socks, singing in the rain, pontificating to the steering wheel on a long drive. There’s little space between a potent thought and a clever rhyme in 4/4 time.
I feel there is an important juxtaposition in your work of inane silliness interrupted by heartfelt activism – or the other way around. The silly catches you off guard, and when the important theme comes back around, it makes you listen a little louder. You go from talking about Zionism in a very informed way to kissing your empty jars goodnight. One by one. It was so incredibly silly. I cracked up out loud. But then we’re talking about insane incarceration rates in US prisons. I mean, this show is in a museum. It just exhibited at Harvard. These are not random Tik Tok videos. This is an intentional collection that takes you on several journeys at once. Through the lens of the pandemic quarantine, it can look like the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey when HAL9000 is losing his mind and singing little ditties to himself. As a modern social space experiment, they appear as zen koans for Gen Z. As a musical project, you can get lost in the incantation, like a conjuring of vibes – whether toward social justice, or playfulness.
I felt including the timestamps on each video was clever too. It adds to the sense of imprisonment and shows a progression of thought and focus that, however disjointed in message, is forced into a linear paradigm. Could you give us a recounting from when you started these in March 2020? Could you tell us how quarantine affected the project, or how this work sustained you through it?
MB: Humor and music are survival strategies for so many of us. What can we make in times of horror? It’s an impulse that helps us get through things. What can we make when there’s so much crisis and catastrophe, scarcity and fear? So yeah, those videos sustained me. The word “little” is important to me in this context. More little ditties, because it’s not like these BIG songs. It’s not Queen. They’re not grand. It’s like, about kissing your jars. It’s the minor gestures, the small moments.
CD: Isn’t that where humanity’s most expressed? You know, it’s not in the big things. It’s in the stupid little things, right? I think these moments are the most confounding human habits. I understand why humans cultivated food, developed animal husbandry, built homes. That makes sense. But we dance around and sing little silly songs to our kids, chase them around a table to hear them laugh and squeal. All these things are play. I guess that’s really what I’m getting at. Your show really combines thoughtfulness with play very effectively.
MB: I think that’s a great word. Play.
CD: I think that’s something that gets lost in fine art sometimes. The concept of play. It’s not all serious.
MB: Play actually is hard work. You have to block out a lot of internalized voices that say, “yeah, you better be smart.”
CD: Yeah, kissing your jars is not smart. It’s not dumb, but it’s just kind of “why?” I don’t know if it was intentional, or I’m just projecting, but the COVID quarantine setting of this series reminds me of when I had no work, projects were canceled, people are dying by the thousands every day, and here I am hiding in my tiny Bed Stuy apartment. I grew and cultivated daily coping rituals in the face of being disjointed, disconnected from any sort of real intensity of pace to my day. Wednesday could be Saturday. June morphed into July without any new plans, expectations. Summer turned into fall and we barely noticed. One of the impressions I got from the installation was a keen sense of trying to hold on to time. The day each ditty was recorded is displayed on screen prominently. COVID give us a lot of time to sit and think too much. How was that experience for you as an artist? How did that aspect of the journey affect you?
MB: There’s a relative privilege in that, right? So many people didn’t have that experience. The serious and the silly, it just all exists together.
CD: Like life? Navigating silly and the actually important-
MB: The absurd.
CD: I think it’s an even better word for it. Was it Camus? The Myth of Sisyphus? Embracing absurdity? I think a lot of modern comedy has its roots in that philosophy track. It’s interesting for people to take on as a meditation. I aspire to balance and react with balance to both of those things. To silliness and to concern – and sit in contemplation of those things. I think it’s beautiful. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me, and good luck.
Top photo courtesy of ICA.