Duncan Bass, Curatorial Assistant


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Meet the Team: Duncan Bass

June 9, 2021

Tell us a little about yourself. What did you do before joining the Thoma Foundation team?
I recently completed dual Masters degrees at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where my thesis research analyzed the recent historicization of media art by museums and scholars. Over the past decade I’ve held various collections and curatorial roles at public and private institutions, and organized exhibitions in Austria, Brazil, China, and the United States.

Can you explain a little bit about the type of work you do at TAF?
My primary role at the TAF is to support the Collections Manager and Curator of Digital Art in the preservation and presentation of the TAF collections. On any given day this might entail database management, exhibition planning, or working directly with art objects—from oil paintings and early computer drawings to circuit-boards and digital files.

Do you have a favorite piece of artwork in the collection?
While there are a number of contenders, my favorite work in the collection is Sondra Perry’s Wet and Wavy Looks: Typhon coming on for a Three Monitor Workstation. Layering contemporary and historical references, Perry critiques the ongoing exploitation of Black lives for profit by American capitalism. Perry’s artwork takes JMW Turner’s 1840 canvas The Slave Ship as a point of departure; the painting depicts the slave ship Zong, whose captain had 133 enslaved Africans thrown overboard so that insurance payments could be collected. Perry digitally removes everything from the image except for the ocean waves, which she puts into motion using 3D animation software and overlays with a ‘chopped and screwed’ sample of Missy Elliot’s song “The Rain”. The eponymous three-monitor workstation is attached to a modified rowing machine, which displays the animation for viewers seated in the machine. The water in the machine’s resistance chamber has been replaced with hair gel, which makes the act of rowing almost impossible and materially links the transatlantic slave trade, post-industrial labor, and the ongoing exploitation of Black lives for profit by American capitalism. An interactive and immersive artwork that succinctly layers references to art history, popular culture, and digital technology to leverage an impactful socio-political critique, Wet and Wavy Looks is a phenomenal example of what contemporary art is capable of.

The Foundation’s collection ranges from seventeenth-century Spanish Colonial panel paintings to contemporary digital art. What has been the biggest challenge so far in working with such a diverse collection? The biggest reward?
While I studied art history and had worked with wide-ranging collections in the past, the diversity of the TAF collections—and the depth of each of these collections—presented a steep learning curve. The collection area I was most familiar with when I joined the TAF was the Digital and Electronic Art collection, and the biggest reward has been the opportunity to engage with the field as it continues to gain recognition by art history and presence in contemporary art.

Where is your favorite place to see art in the Chicago area?
In the past few years several distinct institutions at the University of Chicago (and the curators that drive them) have produced a concentration of world-class global contemporary art on the Hyde Park campus: Solveig Øvstebø and recently Myriam Ben Salah at the Renaissance Society, Orianna Cacchione at the Smart Museum of Art, Yesomi Umolu at the Logan Center, and Deiter Roelstraete at the Neubauer Collegium to name a few.

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