Gathering String with Jacob M. Fisher

New York City artist, Jacob M. Fisher uses an unusual combination of string and digital projection in his installation at House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe, NM.

House of Eternal Return’s new massive installation comes courtesy of NYC-based artist Jacob M. Fisher. A creative whose work explores the near-limitless possibilities of string and digital projection, “until i see you again” is complete and on display in Art City inside the exhibition.

A graduate of Bard College in New York, Jacob studied under the pioneering installation artist Judy Pfaff. As he makes his way as an installation artist in a commodity-based art market, Jacob has exhibited grand works of scale for the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, the NYFW Hair Salon, the Cornell Art Museum, the Rosé Mansion, Walt Disney and more.

We talked to Jacob about the power of taking art “off the wall,” how string-based sculpture can twist time and space, and how his empirical, hypothesis-based approach to art is able to capture the viewer in a powerful suspended moment.

Talk a little about your history with installation art and how you came to Meow Wolf?

During my third year in college, I had a professor who was a huge mentor to me, my advisor, Judy Pfaff. She was one of the pioneers of installation art in the ‘80s, before it was even a thing. She’s just a really badass woman; she disrupted the whole art industry. Judy had a background in painting, but she wanted to make things bigger. She was super intense. “You need to be working all the time. Live in your studio…” I had that ingrained in me.

I took a class with her, and she told me, “You’re going to be an installation artist. You can’t make things that are small; you need to make big things.” I said "cool" and started focusing on installation art. To this day I still have trouble making small works I could sell to someone. I’d rather go 20 feet off the wall and attach things all over the place.

room filled with string hanging from the ceiling and lit in purple and blue hues
Some Are Connections, Photo provided by artist

I had this epiphany early that if I didn’t do installation art now (immediately after school), I’d never end up doing it. All the feedback I got from the art world was, “You’re an installation artist? Okay, good luck.” I think what they meant by that is that installation artwork doesn’t sell, not in a typical art world environment. You have installation artists who, when they reach their mid-career, they’ve done painting and sculpture and have a relationship with a gallery, and they’ll decide to do a big installation. The gallery will say, “Fine. We can’t make money off of this. We can’t sell it, but we’ll do this and you’ll go back to making works that sell.”

So, I partnered with my cousin. We started a studio. He comes from marketing, I come from art. Right off the bat, we knew we couldn’t sell to the fine art world, but how can we make this lucrative? We saw the rise of experiential marketing and so we went down that path, selling to companies and brands in really untraditional ways.

I’m still juggling that line between the art world, commercial art, and where I exist in there. I came in in a weird way, opposite of what most artists do. I did the commercial work, went into the art world and said, “Now, accept me into the art club!” It was an interesting journey.

Han (Santana-Sayles, of Meow Wolf) and I had been in touch for a very long time. I think my cousin emailed her early on when we saw what Meow Wolf was doing. She really pushed for my work to come to Meow Wolf. Originally, I was supposed to do a show for Meow Wolf’s Dark Palace (event) in Denver. But it was April 2020. Covid. We had everything lined up to work, but obviously it fell through.

But we kept talking. I wanted to make something substantial. It ended up being a permanent installation at House of Eternal Return. Because it was permanent it was something I could really get my teeth into. That’s what I always wanted to do: something impactful, because what you guys are doing is so awesome. I didn’t want to come up short.

What are you making for HoER? What is its title?

It’s called “until I see you again.” I’m not fully sure what that means. There’s an ambiguous component I like to use. I think I had too much whiskey or something and I was in my studio, thinking existentially about what the work means.

A lot of the work is based for me in storytelling, but without telling you what the meaning of the story is. I try to take away the part in the art statement that says “this is what the work means to me” so the viewer can have their own experience. The way you can read it is so different. Love. Loss. It could be the next time you see a good friend, the next time I have a hamburger. It’s ambiguous, but at the same time it starts you thinking. I try to think about different meanings behind the title and what they could represent to different people. If you lost someone, that means one thing. If you decided to travel to California to pursue an acting career and said to your parents, “Until I see you again!” it means something else. There’s nothing necessarily specific, but at the same time you have a punch. There’s something emotional and it’s hard to put your finger on.

Artist Jacob Fisher hanging part of his installation at the House of Eternal Return
Jacob Fisher working on installation titled, “until i see you again”, Photo by Brandon Soder

Tell us about your artmaking process.

There’s the process in the studio, then on-site. In the studio, I take string and tie, tuck, and zip it all by hand. There are thousands and thousands of pieces of string. Days straight of that. I absolutely love it because it’s so meditative. I sit there and do this repetitive process for hours. I reach a tranquil state and it’s very calming. Very relaxing. It’s a meditative thing that I don’t have in other facets of my life. The idea of sitting down and meditating is something I’ve never done, but probably should.

But, to me, the most important part is building the (on-site) installation. I look at a floor plan and say, “Okay, this is how much string I need. And this is what I’m trying to achieve.” It sometimes scares people when I say, “I have a plan, but it’s going to change rather drastically.” But the most important thing is when you’re on-site and trying to understand what the installation wants to be. It must adapt to the space. I never want to put something in a box and have someone else install it.

There are messages that are in the space. And you can only understand them when you’re in the space, or standing on a ladder when you’re in the space, or when you catch the sun shining through a window at 3 p.m. and see how it changes the work. You get these gifts! Things you never anticipated, that you never thought about while planning, but you get a beautiful result. Never work against those forces!

A sculpture doesn’t have a space. Sculpture exists in a location. To me, installation is the relationship the art has to the space. It needs to be in dialogue.

What beguiles you about string? When did you choose it for a medium and what was that choice like for you?

Judy (Pfaff) was critical of my first installation. She suggested line as a material instead. Mason line. It’s what masons use when they’re building a rock wall, that yellow string you see sometimes. You can buy it at Home Depot.

As an art student I always wanted to do so much. And you can buy a lot of mason line for really cheap. You can buy one piece of steel or 50 rolls of mason line, so it just made sense. Judy suggested I might like the colors, so I got it and started stapling pieces of it to the ceiling and kept doing that.

I got to the point where I realized, there’s a quality to it that is so light, but I was making substantial forms that felt monumental and sculptural.

There’s a feminine quality to string. It’s less masculine. We think as artists, “Oh, I need to have this big, heavy sculpture that I weld.” But string is deceiving because it can be big. It can be big without weighing 5,000 pounds.

In 2016, I went to Japan and saw a teamLab installation with my dad. They had 16 projectors mounted all over the place. It was intense, but so beautiful. I sat in there for 40 minutes, thinking, “How can I ever make something like this?” The first thing I did when I got home was buy a projector. I started playing with it, seeing what I could do.

I moved from one side of the studio to the other and noticed the projector shining through a string. I thought “What. Is. That?!” And everything clicked. “This string can take projections!” They’re nylon. They reflect. It was a pure coincidence and when it hit me it was really cool. It opened up a whole other door for this material that looks incredible, that looks twenty times more expensive than it is. It was literally just string and a projector.

string and neon colored chains hanging from the ceiling and wall
Five Myles by Jacob Fisher, Photo provided by artist

There’s a lot of versatility in strands. They can appear as solid or permeable. Other sculptures of yours appear to be clouds of particles, even though they’re really threads, which we typically perceive as more connected. Light and motion add a time element that complicates the experience even further. How do you marshal all of this potential into one coherent whole?

It’s a lot of trial and error. It’s putting something up and seeing if it works. To me, for whatever reason, that’s the only way my mind works and is able to comprehend it. It was ingrained in me by Judy. I’d put something up and she’d say, “That’s shit; take it down.” I think that’s positive.

There’s a lot of negatives about going to school and studying art, but for me I learned this visual language that ultimately still guides my practice. There are things that are right and things that are wrong, but it’s a long process. I’ll put something up and let it sit there a week, two months, three months. I’ll add something to it, let it simmer, then add something else. Sometimes it's a long process, sometimes it just clicks, but to me it makes sense.

It’s a playful process, but when you test things out it’s scientific, too. You try one thing, test your hypothesis, and move on to the next.

strings of different lengths and colors hanging from ceiling
Photo by Atlas Media

Waveforms have a science fiction quality even though they’re universal. Do you perceive a contrast between something so fundamental and yet so new to our understanding?

This (Meow Wolf) installation is relatively permanent, but a lot of times you have these ephemeral experiences within the work. The work exists while you’re within it, but the moment you walk away you’re in a different world. How do you hold on to these ephemeral moments?

I think that goes to time. A lot of my practice is memory and reflecting on past memories and trying to present them visually. There’s a connection between memory and time in the work that I’m creating. It’s like: why is there such beauty in waveforms? in radar?

I scoured the internet for the most professional radar app I could get as a civilian. It is so incredibly beautiful. I don’t know why I was drawn to this, but you can look at atmospheric pressures at different levels. When I saw it, I thought, “This is so fucking cool.” The patterns it creates are beyond complex. Radar is similar to wavelength patterns. It exists without our knowledge, but it’s under the surface and is always there.

How do you use massive installations to change people’s perceptions? How have you used scale?

So, part of me doing these massive works, like I was saying, I think was out of necessity because I didn’t know what else to do. I was a bad painter. I could do sculpture, which was fine, but never felt meaningful. I started to realize I had an architectural point of view. Creating space and thinking about how someone interacts with the space. That was always crucial to me in facilitating the experience.

From the moment you walk in, your mind needs to be firing. If I can control the environment with more than just a painting on the wall, it’s more impactful.

I try to put myself in it. I ask, “How can I come into this room and completely escape?” One of the most incredible stories I have—and I’ve told this about 100 times, but to this day it’s so impactful on the work I do—is of an installation I had on 14th Street. It was a place completely filled with string, with a space for people to look up. With the projections, it looked like the string was falling on you.

strings hanging from the ceiling in hues of blue hanging over a large blue orb
Photo by Atlas Media

It was about life and death, for me. It was the day of the Parkland Shooting. A woman walked in and was very quiet. This person spent 45 minutes with it and came up to the desk as I was walking out. She said, “I was feeling really bad before and I’ve been wandering the city for the last five hours. It happened that I stumbled in here. I want to have hope for society. I want to have hope in the world.”

It was a transformative experience for her and that meant a lot to me. My parents are doctors, and that made me feel like they do. Helping someone. I can see the power that can be created when you allow yourself to disconnect from the outside world and all the craziness. It’s silent, a place where you feel safe and comfortable.

That’s what I want to make for myself. I struggle a lot with mental health; I’ve had issues with anxiety and depression. I can use art to come to terms with and deal with these struggles. Things that aren’t talked about all that much, like keeping the sanctity of your mind and whatever that may be. I want to create a tranquil place that is calm and beautiful, where I don't have to think about anything else.

Giving that to other people is the most powerful thing.

Finally, who or what inspires you as an artist?

Well, I’m looking at this radar app and started getting into meteorology for some reason. I’m not a science-based person, but I want to be.

My parents are both doctors. My brother’s a doctor. My sister is going to medical school. I come from a big family of science people who are much more pragmatic. I’ve always wanted that. It’s almost an insecurity. It would have been a way to help people, so I try to do it in my artwork. I think that’s the best way I can do that.

There are pseudoscience approaches to the things I do. I’ll apply some science to it. I’ll look at radar maps and think they’re really interesting and beautiful. And when I’m fabricating an installation, everything is done strategically. You stick to the plan. You have a goal you’re trying to achieve. You have a process when you’re fabricating the work. You do geometry. You order the material. You test. When you take a lesson away, it’s not really based in science, but you are testing a hypothesis.

I’d love to be a doctor, if I liked math or science a little more. But I have a lot of science ingrained in me even though it doesn’t always come off. I think there’s that element to it.