Inspired by America’s leftovers—old lamps, broken speakers, hot-sauce packets, and Al Gore’s monologues—Trisha Baga sets the physical and digital worlds in motion
To prepare for a solo exhibition last summer at Société Berlin, 28-year-old Trisha Baga showed up with her laptop, a few hard drives containing an arsenal of found and manufactured sound bites, animations, video clips, and still images, and one small box full of garbage. “It’s garbage I could only find in America,” says the Bushwick-based artist, explaining that she prefers to acquire most of her physical materials from local shops and manufacturers, and that she uses them as shapes, rather than identifiable items. “I even brought a big tub of Cheez Balls to be an orange form,” she adds.
Alone in the gallery while the staff was busy with art fairs, Baga got down to work, weaving her varied digital sources—many of which she filmed herself with a 3-D camera—into disorienting, choppily edited video projections. Her signature technique, perhaps best described as multimedia installation, combines these moving collages with sculpture, painting, sound, and seemingly haphazard arrangements of the everyday trinkets she has collected, spread across the gallery floor. As the projected images shift and flicker against the wall, they collide with the static, anthropomorphic shadows cast by the objects set purposefully in their way—obsolete speakers, tangled wires, pizza boxes, lamps, plastic toys—and a steady dialogue is generated between physical and digital worlds.
“My stuff is about transitions,” Baga says. “It’s about different layers and mediums touching each other, like different bodies. A painting is an object; it’s really resolute. But a projection seems sexual,” she adds, “like it’s licking and wrapping itself around everything. I think there is something very romantic about that.”
In conjunction with her first solo show at Chelsea’s Greene Naftali Gallery in 2012, Baga’s 3-D video installation Plymouth Rock (2012) was presented in the Whitney Museum’s lobby gallery. Inspired by the historic time-ravaged rock that was considered by many a monument to freedom and a symbol of patriotic pride, the piece includes fragmented images of journeys: a glowing jellyfish flapping through a dark sea; a man with a metal detector seeking treasure on the beach. But the symbolic grandness of these visuals is brought to ground by the silhouettes of ordinary objects slumping and hunching against them, as haunting notes from the American Beauty soundtrack fade into footsteps, gusts of wind, and labored breathing.
Born in Venice, Florida, Baga is skilled in producing material whose superficial playfulness belies its substantial conceptual underpinnings. Her Berlin exhibition, “An Inconvenient Trash,” was ostensibly a satire based on Al Gore’s 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, and it featured numerous room-size installations and 3-D projections. Despite the abundance of pop music (including appearances by Cher and Madonna), cute graphics, and decontextualized monologues from Gore’s original film, the works on view offered surprisingly sincere, poetic reflections on consumer culture and environmental degradation.
The Bather (2013), for example, allots 14 minutes to a steady, bird’s-eye view of small bits of colored paper as they float languidly down into a water-filled claw-foot tub. Lifted occasionally on updrafts, the confetti flutters at varying speeds, cutting angles across the frame or quivering as wildly as Aspen leaves. As each scrap lands on the water, its dye is released and seeps across the surface like rivers viewed from space. Pigments merge and swirl together in gentle eddies that evoke oil spills, melting icebergs, and a polluted planet colored by waste as toxic as it is vibrant.
Although there is technically no performance involved, Baga’s practice is extremely performative, requiring the active coordination of shadow, light, color, moving image, object, and sound, often with minimal preparation. “I basically made the Berlin show during the two weeks of install,” she says. “Everything behaves so differently when it’s small, viewed in my studio or on my computer, and when it’s large—so I try to wait as long as I can to make those decisions. It makes my studio practice a lot more free in that way, because then it just feels like exercising or something, trying different combinations and remembering what looks good.”
Located in a large Bushwick loft building, just off a main street lined with bodegas, Baga’s studio looks more like the warehouse for a craft store than a functioning workspace. Inside, floor-to-ceiling windows are draped with black fabric, and every inch of surface is covered with piles of construction paper, empty beer cans, cleaning supplies, takeout-food boxes, fabric, tubes of paint, and clay sculptures. The only place to sit is the floor—and that is where Baga likes to work, crouched next to her laptop and a projector aimed permanently at her “exercise” wall, which retains traces of earlier productions, like faint eraser marks. Bits of old tape, dried expanses of paint, and nails obscure and deflect whatever she projects there, so the slate for her work is never entirely blank. Overlapping soundtracks blare from the speakers of a rocking video-game chair she found on the street and hooked up to her computer.
Due to the nature of Baga’s art, there are no finished works in sight—but every broken lawn ornament, bottle of glitter, and packet of hot sauce seethes with potential. Once objects have entered her orbit, they become not only rehearsal props but also actors, waiting to be cast in some future production; in the meantime, they clutter her space like nascent ideas. Her process is one of trial and error, vision and revision, a constant state of adjustment. “I think it’s knowing that the environment makes better decisions than I do,” she says, as she hits the projector’s ON switch and cues up the footage from an eight-minute video, An Inconvenient Trash (2013), that was included in the 2013 Lyon Biennial. “Let’s try it with the music from Harry Potter,” she muses, gesturing toward the DVD menu screen on her computer’s desktop.
Projected on the wall, the former vice-president turns toward the camera. “I’ve been trying to tell this story for a long time,” he says, and Baga—improvising—fades in the Harry Potter theme song, its melody swelling in an impassioned crescendo. “I’m cinematic,” she says. “I think that movie scores, especially popular Hollywood movie scores, just elongate the space of looking at a picture. If they work right, you don’t really hear them—they’re like MSG. They’re flavor enhancers.” When Gore addresses a color-coded map of the United States, Baga jumps up, grabs a twisted wire hanger from the floor, and dangles it from a nail in the wall, stepping back and adjusting until its serpentine shadow, cast across the projection, echoes the path of the Mississippi River.
In the summer of 2012, during a stretch of 90-degree nights, Baga’s studio flooded. “I had no natural disaster to blame,” she says. “A plastic cup got stuck in a drainpipe on the roof. But I had just made this book, The Great Pam, and it’s actually kind of nice because it turned out to be like an archive of everything in my studio just before it got ruined.” Released over the summer by Société Berlin—it debuted at Art Basel in June—and named after both The Great Gatsby and the artist’s sister, Pam, the outside cover suggests a vintage copy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel. Inside, as the story progresses, our view of each page zooms out incrementally and is increasingly dominated by cutout digital photographs of detritus from Baga’s studio. Googly eyes, gemstones, nail polish, a BIC lighter, green yarn, and an empty Doritos bag dart in and out of the lines of text and appear to mingle on the page like living creatures, until the narrative gives way almost completely to nonsensical, Photoshopped compositions.
“The book is based on a mess, the root of it is chaos,” Baga says, adding that she didn’t design the pages herself. Instead, she sent her friend, a graphic designer, to her studio when she was away, gave him a “script” of actions to complete—“put Gatsby on the scanner, take a picture, put any two objects to your right on the scanner, take a photo, etc.”—and left the rest to chance. All of her work is marked by that same context contingency, which acknowledges the many layers and polyvocal nature of experience. “Lately I’ve been thinking about the synchronization of things,” she says. “You’re in a Laundromat, and the TV is on, and you can attribute the voices to other things like the washing machine. You put in a rhythm with your eyes, looking back and forth between two loads, and suddenly it becomes a drama between wet whites and dry colors.”
Baga was raised in Florida by her Filipino-immigrant parents. Her father is a doctor, and her mother a housewife who “cooks and watches soap operas,” she says. “So I grew up watching a lot of those.” After graduating with an M.F.A. from Bard in 2010 (she received a B.F.A. from the Cooper Union in 2007), Baga lived for many years in New York’s East Village with her sister, who was enrolled in an accelerated nursing program at NYU. She recently moved into her Brooklyn studio, and she sleeps there amid all the chaos. “My dad is a radiologist,” she says. “He spends his whole day in a dark room looking for patterns—and I do the same thing. That’s really how we are able to talk about things.”
Emily Nathan is a freelance writer and critic based in Brooklyn, New York.
A version of this story originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 96 under the title “The Shape of Things.”