Conversations with Artists in Art Getting Art: Kamari Carter '19

Audrey Deng
July 10, 2020

Conversations with Artists in Art Getting Art is a bi-weekly series and a play on Jerry Seinfeld's Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. We interview artists about their art and 'getting art'.

Kamari Carter ’19 is a recent graduate of the Sound Art program. He worked as Director of Technology for TEDXColumbia and also delivered a TED talk on sound-color synesthesia, demonstrating that there are imperceptible factors that control our visual sense. His work has been exhibited at such venues as Automata Arts, MoMA, Fridman Gallery, Lenfest Center for the Arts, and Issue Project Room, to name a few. Earlier this year, Carter was an artist-in-residence at 
a public arts and community space. When the pandemic hit, Carter and his fellow residents entered lockdown in their Queens gallery space. Though difficult, Carter did not go crazy while stuck in a house for four months with a dozen other artists; in fact, he was able to create a unique workday for himself during quarantine. Here, we talk about the dedication of space to work and play, creative freedom during a pandemic, and DJing as a subset of sound art.

So tell me what happened: you were at a residency, and then the pandemic struck. Where was this residency? What were you working on?

It’s a residency in New York City based in Queens, Long Island City. It’s not very far into Queens—you don’t get into the multicultural area. It’s that residential area with warehouses and scaffolding. Long Island City is also a very weird place because you find one part of it has all these warehouses and feels very residential, and then around the corner you see seventeen-story buildings with a Whole Foods at the bottom. It's a very gentrified juxtaposition. I started the residency in February. I had gotten notice that I was going to be an artist-in-residence at the end of December, so I was very excited, and it started pretty smoothly, honestly. I moved in in February, I had all my stuff situated relatively quickly. I don’t like clutter, so I moved in, got rid of boxes, and got ready to go.

I was living with fifteen other artists of varying backgrounds and varying degrees of art fluency; some people were artists, others were art organizers, others were writers and researchers enthralled by art. It was an interesting cluster of individuals. The first month was a typical month at a residency where you get to know the individuals there as well as the space, the rules in terms of voting, dietary restrictions, things like that. That was totally fine. I didn’t really create all too much because it was kind of a transitional period.

In mid-March, everyone got the mandate to stay at home because coronavirus cases were skyrocketing in the US, and the house started freaking out. The people at the residency started freaking out. All their fear and apprehension was extremely warranted, but I was not as taken aback as some. The first week and a half, there was a lot of tension, some pretty intense freak outs.

We had to figure out the best protocol for being prepared to deal with the virus inside the residency. We made a system in which we had to trust each other to do and not do certain things. We kept abreast of the situation as best we could. We didn’t leave the house unless it was for something essential, like groceries. We made sure to sanitize the space as best we could and we made sure that we all shared information relevant to us, as residents of New York. At a certain point that became overwhelming because you would have people sharing articles left and right. This is how it spread; How long this lives on counters. But I like to think in the end we figured it out.

For someone who was working full time but also working at the residency, it felt that I was living in two realities at once. I would go to work—remotely—then in between I would go down to the gallery space. It was a very unique experience, to have a workday divided like that. I don’t think I’m going to be able to have that again.

I wouldn’t say that there was anything inherently good about this crisis, but I can say that I have been fortunate to have been surrounded by people who were staying educated and vigilant. I was in a space which allowed for social distancing—staying six feet apart wasn’t a problem. We could watch movies, play ping pong and get groceries. There was a lot of communication between the residents. So—yeah, at a time when I was forced to be inside, I can’t say I would have wanted it to be any different.

What had you planned to work on at the residency?

: When you are an artist in residence you get to have a gallery show for a certain duration of time, and the duration depends on whether you choose to do a solo show or do it in collaboration with fellow artists. I was mostly working on some of my proposal ideas. The intent was that I would have a dual show with another artist in residence that would run for perhaps three weeks in July. I don’t think that’s going to happen because I don’t think New York is in the phase in which art galleries can open. I think also, because June is the end of the fiscal year, there is a lot of talk about floating funding over to the arts because due to this pandemic a lot of institutions are having trouble, most notably the Met Breuer, which I think is closing, or getting shut down.

I think it’s being sold to the Frick Collection.

Something like that. I’ll have to read up on that. It’s a shame because I love the Met Breuer.

Rear Sight, 2018, by Kamari Carter '19
Rear Sight, 2018, by Kamari Carter '19

Leading up to this residency, what were you working on?

 I think beforehand I was working on some moving image work. I had worked on sound design on a film for a colleague of mine, and I was in talks with a duo I work with for a short film. I was just working on a lot more moving image/installation work before I started working on more still/framed work. What I wanted to do at the residency was to flex different mediums, feel as though you can experiment freely, and make mistakes freely and loudly.

“Loudly,” can I take this word in the literal sense in terms of your sound art? I am curious about the literal nature of sound art in terms of what you incorporate into your practice. How did working in an enclosed space with a dozen other artists during a highly stressful time impact the sense of liberty that had initially accompanied the residency?

KC: We each had our own studios, so we didn’t have to work in a shared space. So it didn’t really affect me that much. I was able to create as freely as I wanted, and I was able to do with my time what I wanted. The thing that was actually the hardest was trying to be as productive as I could with working remotely and with my artwork. The stress of the pandemic and the stress of being with a bunch of artists in a house wasn’t something I really considered, because the pandemic was going to happen either way, so it was like, “This is just the situation now. How do I fit in this situation comfortably?”

In terms of the work, I use the word “loudly” somewhat loosely. But I was actually interested in working on less sound art or sound-oriented work, and more something that has implied sound. I did end up finishing one installation that was audio work, called Absorption. It’s a plethora of hand radios mounted to a canvas and the radios are all activated and have sound on at the same time. It has a lot of connotations and conversations about the concept of hyper communication, telecommunications, sensory deprivation in a more maximalist sense.

I wanted to take that opportunity with this residency to figure out the best medium for what I wanted to do, be it within sound art or not. I started making framed works, not because I felt like I couldn’t do it before, but because I didn’t necessarily feel like I had the space to play before. Being in a program like Columbia, you want to do things as best you can so that you can get the best results. But that doesn’t necessarily breathe new life into an idea like playing does, you know, you want to showcase your best things for advisors, and for thesis.

So sheltering in a residency was kind of an advantage in a way, creatively?

The only advantage I would say is that I had much more free time than I would normally. Even if I were unemployed at the time of quarantine, I think it would’ve been a situation where I would have had too much free time, and I don’t know if that’s something I would’ve handled well. But having to stay at home, with home being an artists’ residency, makes it advantageous because being at home would be where I want to stay if I wanted to be creative. But if the quarantine wasn’t in place, I would’ve spent a lot of time outside of my home, because I work full-time. So working from home, and home being a residency, it’s kind of a double-life situation.

I always wondered why artists do not live and sleep in the space of their studio.

I guess if you work with hazardous materials, that wouldn’t be advantageous. (Laughs.)

Do you work with hazardous materials?

I started doing a lot more painting, and a lot of painting, be that watercolor, or oil, or acrylics, are not the best to breathe in all the time. But I don’t work with things that, left to their elements, would, you know, explode. It may not be the best idea to sleep around these sorts of things.

I was about to say something silly about osmosis. Here goes. In seventh grade we learned about the process of osmosis, and my teacher made a joke about how we ought to sleep with our textbook under a pillow to gain knowledge through osmosis.

I don’t know how effective that is, but that does remind me of an episode of Dexter’s Laboratory in which Dexter tries to learn French to impress people, so he learns via a record. Unfortunately, there is a record skip, and the only thing he hears, when he wakes up, is “omelette du fromage” which I think is “cheese omelette” in French. So when Dexter wakes up he expects to have this immaculate understanding of French but the only thing he can say is “omelette du fromage.” That’s kind of the plot of the entire episode. (Laughs.)

That could be useful! So you have work in the South Bend Museum of Art as part of the “Perspective” gallery, in the Making a Way show. Tell me about your pieces.

I submitted my works and my practice, and the thing they latched on to was my thesis, which is called Landline/Lifeline, a work I made in 2019. It’s a series of four black identical rotary phones very similar to John Giorno’s work Dial-a-Poem in the 1970s. At MoMA, he showed this work, which was a traveling work, but interestingly enough, I stayed away from looking at that piece while I was in the process of making mine, but they look very similar nonetheless. Similar outlook, but very, very different ideas.

The idea of Landline/Lifeline, in the simplest way of putting it, is a separation of conversation that you are voyeuristic to when you experience the installation. I split two separate 911 calls from the caller and the dispatcher, and because the phones are identical, you don’t know who’s who and which conversation goes together until you get to the end. You find out more about the narrative you are listening to by going through each conversation.

Can you describe the contents of these phone conversations, how you found them, what drew you to them?

One of them was a call from a twenty-seven-year old mother who strangles her two-year-old son and kills him, and she calls 911 herself. The other is about a young girl named Savannah, five years old, who notices that her father is having trouble breathing, and wants to do everything that she can to help him, but she doesn’t understand the state of the emergency. She says things like “We’re in pyjamas, I don’t know what I’m going to wear when the people get here.”

The nature of these calls are both heartbreaking and uplifting, because you get the general sense that Savannah is doing everything she can, and there’s hope. But in the other call you’re met with a very stark reality that somebody has committed a murder to someone they are supposed to love. We like to think that parents love their children more than anyone else in the world. It’s the opposite here, chillingly opposite, and the reason I chose this call is because it was one of the first calls of the many 911 calls I listened to in which the caller was fearsomely calm, and the dispatcher was frantic. This informed the rest of the work.

This project sounds like a lot of mental anguish.

 I tend to do a good job of avoiding sentiment in my research, desensitizing myself.

Still from Landline, Lifeline, video by Kamari Carter '19

What do you like to read? I'm guessing—are you a fan of nonfiction?

 Yeah, it’s like the only stuff I read. I’m currently reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, and Paul Patton’s Nietzsche, Feminism and Political Theory which is a book of radical feminist thought. I like reading things that aren’t super imaginative, possibly because I seek that stuff in movies and videogames and such, that when it comes to reading and research I like to hit the ground running with hard facts.

Hard facts and primary resources that you work into your sound art.

 I don’t think I subvert my work in a magical or ethereal way. I’m just telling a narrative that has piqued my interest using very different semiotics. I don’t think my work is this mystifying representation of some story. I think that what is mystifying is subjective. You might see something missing in my work that I might not. I consider myself a realist and a minimalist.

You studied at the California Institute of Arts. What did you study there?

 I studied music technology, which is everything from music software to music hardware, and the links between those. I was a practicing DJ in the Los Angeles area. My style—I would always go into the night with a narrative in mind that I would tell through the set. It is a case-by-case situation though, it all depends on the people involved.

I find that interesting, the relationship between DJ and audience and the relationship between artist and audience. One arrives before the audience with a fixed creation, the other perhaps responds to the audience and is in constant flux. Would you say your relationship with the audience as a concept has changed throughout your sound art career?

No, I don’t think so, because they are so different. When I do a performance, I don’t perform to a room of people who come in hating it, because it’s a show. Like I don’t perform in my bedroom. And artwork is not that. It’s kind of the exact opposite. It’s like, here is something I made in my bedroom—my studio—and I’m hoping that it nets a reaction, I don’t really care if it’s positive or negative. I think the worst thing is ambivalence. If it makes you feel some kind of way, mission accomplished.