Artists Jim Drain and Naomi Fisher on Why Miami is Like a “Scary, Sexy, Messy, Futuristic Sci-fi Novel”

Crowned Miami’s ‘It’ couple by T: The New York Times Style Magazine in 2011, Jim Drain and Naomi Fisher are the city’s perennial favorite power couple—like a 21st-century Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera—and the city is theirs for the taking. And although together, they are fabulous, collaborating on year-round projects like artist-run bus tours that explore the city through the eyes of an artist, or Bas Fisher International, their artist-run nonprofit, Drain and Fisher are deeply involved in their own respective projects. This week, Art Basel in Miami Beach will turn their hometown into what Fisher calls “the art world on Spring Break,” but for the remaining 51 weeks of the year, the pair knows a drastically different city. “It’s a complicated, magical, diverse city that expands far beyond South Beach,” Fisher says, who spent her childhood in Miami. In a chat with Artsy, the artists open up about the NOVA bar they are curating at Art Basel in Miami Beach, Drain’s collaboration with artist Bhakti Baxter on a waterfront public installation posed as an exclusive VIP party for ABMB, and last, the local places and year-round projects that define their Miami—after the crowds have dispersed.

Artsy: Can you describe your Miami respectively in three parts: What is your relationship with the city? How does the city play a role in your art practice? How is the city different from every other American city?

Jim Drain: There were camels here and giant sloths that once chewed on the avocados. There are ancient ceremonial tent poles being catalogued, stalling the construction of another high rise. Bullets and car bombs pocked the landscape where blimps spelled out “The World is Yours.” That dust seems to have settled. My studio is in a building slated for demolition in three years. I live in a condo that is 6-ft above sea level. Sands from the Saharan Desert make their way to South Florida crossing the Bermuda Triangle; mangroves thrive in salt water.

Naomi Fisher: I was born in Miami. I kept trying to leave but the warm wet air, ocean, and Everglades continue to keep my roots deep.

Artsy: How does the city play a role in your art practice? How is the city different from every other American city?

NF: Chaos and logic are the same here. Hot mess is default. The sea is clearly rising. The schism between rich and poor borders on favela in a way that America is destined to become if the middle class keeps bottoming out. It’s like living in a scary, sexy, messy, futuristic sci-fi novel. With lots of yoga.

JD: As Joan Didion writes, “Spanish is heard in Miami”. I was in the desert a few weeks ago. You can lay out all your belongings and watch them shrivel to dust over centuries. Miami has a heavy air that is a tropical hug. It is impossible to escape it. Here nature wins in minutes.

Artsy: What are your favorite local haunts in Miami—places to eat, drink, see art? And where is the first place you’d point a visitor to Miami, both during Art Basel in Miami Beach week and otherwise?

JD: I would take them to Magnum, the place for heavy cake and Broadway tunes sung over a dirty martini. But, the ultimate thing to do is get take-out from My Ceviche and eat it on the hillside of South Pointe Park. That is heaven.  

NF: The new PAMM is poised to be one of the most gorgeous museums in the country. PAMM’s new additions to their curatorial staff over the last couple years are thoughtful, critical, and fun. Alex Gartenfeld is a shining light rejuvenating MOCA. The Rubell Collection and De La Cruz Collection are constantly changing and great to visit. Younger galleries like our space [the Bas Fisher Invitational] (BFI), Michael Jon Gallery, and Gallery Diet are building a vital community.

I always hope people will take the time to visit the Everglades. It’s the only ecosystem like it in the world.

Artsy: Where is your studio located and where are Miami-based artist workspaces generally located? And where do Miami-based artists tend to congregate?

JD: Artists go to Gramps, to Lesters, to the Corner, to Sweat Records, to Churchills. Panther Coffee will make your hands shake. Yummy!

NF: Artist studios have been spreading out since the District became more upscale and Wynwood became more of a nightlife center. Our studios are in Downtown Miami in the Miami World Center area.

Artsy: What are some year-round projects you are involved in together in Miami?

JD: Naomi Fisher and I run the BFI with Javier Hernandez. We do a project called WEIRD MIAMI Bus Tours. We take the name from Austin’s “Keep Austin Weird” motto and apply it to our project; “Weird”, in this case could also mean dynamic and “unfixed”. We have artists lead the tours and typically it is connected to an exhibition we have in the space. It provides an opportunity to have an audience see Miami through an artist’s unique perspective. Sangria is served on every tour.

Artsy: How does Miami change during Art Basel in Miami? Do you attend the fair every year?

JD: It is more that it has changed the entire identity of the city. I think the new [Pérez Art Museum Miami] PAMM, the transformation of Craig Robbin’s Design District, Alex Gartenfeld joining MOCA North Miami, and the proposed Rem Koolhaas alteration of the Miami Beach Convention Center are good examples of this ABMB effect.

NF: I have been to every ABMB starting with the events surrounding the first fair that was cancelled in 2001. While it has brought culture to the forefront, the city also becomes the Art World on Spring Break. People should come back to really see what Miami is all about. It’s a complicated, magical, diverse city that expands far beyond South Beach. The art scene exists year round. BFI’s WEIRD MIAMI bus tours are a perfect way to get to see the city through the eyes of an artist.

Artsy: What projects are you currently working on respectively, and what do you have coming up next?

JD: Bhakti Baxter and I are collaborating on a project for ABMB called “MIAMIMAX”. It will be at Port Miami and seen from the MacArthur causeway. As Brandi Reddick of Art In Public Places writes, “Miami artists Jim Drain and Bhakti Baxter will create M|/\M|M/\X, a four-night temporary public art installation that will serve as the backdrop to the most elite, VIP party of Art Basel Miami Beach. A decadent soiree hosted by the artists will take place in the cargo containers located on the waterfront area of PortMiami. This party promises to be the most exclusive of Art Basel Miami Beach, only available to be experienced voyeuristically by travelers in vehicles on the MacArthur Causeway or on boats in Government Cut. The artists note, ‘Everyone is invited, no one may attend’.”

NF: I am on the tail end of a series of projects I have been staging in various parts of South Florida like Myakka State Park, Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, and the Everglades. I just had a show at the University Gallery in Gainesville stemming from a month-long residency in the Everglades National Park. The installation had digital prints on leather, 12-foot-long python skins lit by trophy skin LED lights, and wearable artifacts made from natural materials on loan from the Natural History Museum [pictured]. The project is still expanding and growing.  

JD: Naomi and I are curating the NOVA bar at ABMB with David Andrew Tasman. It is titled “Paradise Working Title” and will reflect our interest in presenting a different take on Miami, one that is more Fairchild Gardens than Nikki Beach.

NF: Fairchild Tropical Botanical Gardens has been a lifelong source of inspiration for me—my father was a botanist there. I am almost finished with my first Art in Public Places project nestled in the gardens. Botanical-inspired, sculptural friezes will surround windows and doors at the new Adam R. Rose and Peter R. McQuillan Arts Center, scheduled to open in Spring 2014.

Jim and Naomi’s Miami picks: Magnum Lounge, 709 NE 79th St, Miami, FL 33138; My Ceviche, 235 Washington Ave, Miami, FL 33139; Gramps, 176 NW 24th St, Miami, FL 33127; Lester’s, 2519 NW 2nd Ave, Miami, FL 33127; The Corner, 1035 N. Miami Avenue, Miami, Florida 33136; Sweat Records, 5505 NE 2nd Ave, Miami, FL 33137; Churchill’s Pub, 5501 NE 2nd Ave, Miami, FL 33137; Panther Coffee, 2390 NW 2nd Ave, Miami, FL 33127.

Jim Drain’s work is on view at Locust Projects, NADA Miami Beach, Main, Booth L1, Dec. 4th – 8th.

Naomi Fisher’s work is on view at Fredric Snitzer Gallery, Art Basel in Miami Beach, Booth B26, Dec. 5th–8th.

Fisher and Drain will be collaborating on a hidden oasis of a bar in the NOVA section of Art Basel Miami Beach.  Look for a little hallway in the furthest corner of NOVA with palm trees peeking from behind a giant fluorescent pink and green sculpture by Drain and come inside.

Jim Drain will be collaborating with Bhakti Baxter on “MIAMIMAX” at the Port of Miami. The two artists are making an “inaccessible VIP party” that can only be seen from I-395.

Images: Naomi Fisher, Lay of the Land - Performance at University Gallery, UF, Gainesville, 2013.

Explore Art Basel in Miami Beach on Artsy and Artsy’s Editorial Highlights from the Miami Art Fairs.

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