Kamari Carter Encounters Fred Sandback
In this Encounters interview, we speak with Sound Art alumnus Kamari Carter ’19 about the minimalist conceptual sculptor Fred Sandback. Born in 1943, Sandback came of age during the 1960s, a rich era in American Art that featured the Pop Art, Conceptual, and Minimalism movements. Through his large-scale yet barely visible sculptures rendered from yarn dyed with acrylic paint—often just three or four strands of it—Sandback drew attention to space, one’s presence within it, and one’s expectations about it.
In his practice, Carter works with sound, video, and installation to explore and circumvent these same concepts. Despite their different mediums, both artists fill a room with the invisibly voluminous. Sandback’s sculptures have been said to be “made of air and edges,” whereas Carter’s “sound installations and single-channel videos…may be considered an invitation to ask oneself whose narratives and voices are heard and how that reflects upon systems of control and oppression in the United States,” Microscope Gallery, which represents Carter, notes.
In many regards, Carter and Sandback sculpt and puncture both space and one’s expectations about it by foregrounding the work of attention. What if, their works seem to ask—what if I draw your focus to the essential lines within a light and air-filled space or the essential iconography of a historic experience? What if we pay attention to the minimalist or the essential? What may come of it?
Tell me about your first encounter with Fred Sandback.
Kamari Carter: During the fall semester of my first year of the Sound Art Program, I drove up to DIA Beacon with a group of friends from Columbia. I’d not known about it before. It’s a museum full of minimalist and abstractionist art from the late 60s through the mid-80s. There were sculptures, there were paintings, there was a sound installation—stuff that I’d seen in photos and been a little familiar with as well as stuff that I’d never seen before. And I remember going through the halls—and it’s quite a massive space, there’s a lot to see—so we’re seeing entire walls of Sol Lewit and beautiful sculptures and rooms dedicated to Anne Truitt. I recall going into this second area, and there were a few sculptures, one that involved some mirrors, one that involved some glass and sand, and straight past the doors was just a very vibrant red piece of yarn; and I didn’t know if it was a work, I didn’t know anything about it. I’d just walked through rooms with all of these large and monumental objects, and then there's this almost timid piece of yarn that’s shooting diagonally from one side of the wall to the other. First of all, I was perplexed as to the conversation that this Sandback piece [Untitled (from Ten Vertical Constructions [rust red variation])] is having with these other objects, because there were many other objects that were monumental in scale and then there was this thin, fragile material—so I found that intriguing. And then, I noticed two other pieces of yarn somewhat tangentially connected to this one piece of yarn, which made a floating diagonal triangle in between the two walls. You as the participant and the viewer had the option to go under or around or through this negative space, this sculpture of nothingness, and I was just infatuated.
That’s quite a juxtaposition—between large and monumental objects, like you said, and a Sandback sculpture, which is incredibly minimalist, almost ethereal. What do you think infatuated or affected you most?
KC: It was a moment for me that really turned the key and clicked in: oh, this is contemporary art, this act and ethos of doing a thing unlike other things and almost presenting this forced perspective of thought process. I felt like I didn’t need to see a wall didactic; I didn’t need to read a catalog—and yet, it was as though I was in dialogue with the artist in their studio. There was so much about the work that, perhaps unjustly so, I felt like I understood. I thought this work, Untitled, called into question the idea of how space is navigated, and materiality and strength and weakness. There was just so much there that was offered with so little, and that moment of realization for me was a very pivotal one. It was an affirmation that I didn’t expect but very much felt in the moment.
About what art is in society?
KC: Right, and how I fit into that and what role I could position myself in in the entirety of that trajectory. What that looks like for me and how, hopefully, I can include myself in that, how I can add to that.
I want to return to a term you used a few moments ago because I think it relates to your work. What do you mean by a forced perspective?
KC: There’s an interview that [the American painter] Sam Gilliam gave before his passing, where he was asked how abstract art could be political. His response was: "It messes with you; it shows you that what you think isn’t all that there is."
It’s that idea that I experienced through Sandback’s work and that I’m hoping to seep into my own practice. It’s this notion of seeing a sculpture from afar and thinking that you understand it and can go on to the next room, but in the process of making your way into the next room, passing the sculpture and getting closer, you see a detail or two that makes you go, whoa, I now have to engage with this for at least another twenty-minutes to figure out how I’m feeling about it, and then in the process of that, you see even more details that push you to Google whoever the artist is because the work is so incredible.
It seems that a forced perspective, then, is that subtle quality within a work that is forceful only by virtue of it presenting a perspective, or several possible perspectives, and allowing them to continually unfold the longer one is willing to engage with the work.
KC: Yes, the work may be finished but there’s unfinished business in the practice and you’re positioned to be more engaged. You’re kind of thrown and sucked more into what the thing is now that you’ve taken the opportunity to further engage with it. I don’t like the idea that a two-channel video tells you what to think, sometimes; or a painting says this is the right way to be, this is how you have to think to be on the right side of history. I love work that involves a nuanced layer of presenting thought so that the person who’s engaging with the work can think OK, I don’t know how I feel about this. I’d like to do more work or research or come back to it to see it a second or third time because it’s so intriguing.
I want to talk a little bit about making work that continually reveals itself to the willing viewer. On that front, there’s a lot of resonance between your work and Sandback’s: you have abstracted so much and you’ve employed, at times, a very small detail that draws attention to a very complex experience. Is there a specific element from your encounter with Sandback’s works that you’ve incorporated into your practice?
KC: I think there’s this idea that I realized in experiencing Sandback’s work that’s akin to the relationship we have when meeting other people for the first time. When you know nothing about something, everything you’re presented with is everything—so, with one red piece of yarn shooting catawampus from the side of a wall, every component that is involved in that registry that I’m experiencing is now an aspect of how I am digesting the work. The color, the direction, the way that it was installed, the other works that are in conversation with it, how tight and stretched the yarn is, all of these things become a component of how I’m reading it because I’m only given so much—and because I’m only given so much, I have to do what I can to take and absorb everything from that so much. That provides me with an opportunity to ask how much more—on top of what I’m seeing and trying to understand—am I putting on top of the work to give it meaning, give it life, understand it through a different lens; and this dual-didactic experience is what’s very exciting to me. I can meet the work where it may want for me to meet it but then I can also take it and elevate it.
It’s this beautifully executed minimalism, where the work can stand as strongly as you’d like for it to with as few details as possible. You are offered one or two things—take that as you will—but hopefully you take it. That was profound to me. And so I tried my best to do something very similar.
How did you incorporate this distilled simplicity into works that address complex issues, like I know I’ve hurt you, I’m sorry (2022), a visual work about the Jonestown massacre, and Event Horizon (2023), a real-time audio installation using police radio transmissions from locations across the U.S. with concentrated rates of police brutality?
KC: I think a lot about the presentation of work that may involve sound. There’s the idea that because it’s sound work, the most important component that you are to engage with is the sound, but an installation is a very different installation if it’s ten speakers or if it’s ten megaphones—and just that simple shift in the iconography through which you’re going to register and understand the thing can pull out so many different meanings. The megaphone is an iconographic tool of protest, it is about voicing the unvoiced, ensuring that people are heard. The speaker has its own history and definitely can be abstracted into a richer meaning than an application device but I think that there’s something very special about using a megaphone because in addition to the sonic component, there’s a connectivity and a polymerization in the ethos of what’s being presented—it is a work of protest, it is a work of unidirectional conversation, it’s a work that’s trying to vivify conversation.
There is something very special about using a megaphone. It’s at once visually unexpected and perfectly fitting for the conversations you’re seeking to catalyze through your work.
KC: Yes. How can we do that with both imagery and sound? What’s the sonorous synthesis that we can present that makes that merger make sense, without offering too much? Giving enough so that somebody meets the work in a certain way but not giving so much that you say, this is how you’re supposed to think about the work and if you don’t see it this way you misread it. I am a very firm believer in the idea that people can meet my work and love it, they can meet my work and hate it, but if they meet it in ambivalence then I have not done a very good job.
In your artist talk with Julian Day '21 at Microscope Gallery, you mentioned a phrase I want to bring in here, “presentation without egregiousness,” particularly as it relates to Event Horizon.
KC: Yes, when it came to Event Horizon, I wanted it to not only be the iconoclastic huge first responding symbol of the show, but I wanted to position it as something that you had to engage with sonically. That’s why every single megaphone was set at the same volume, and because the audio streams are real time audio streams, they’re coming in and out at various times, so you don’t know what you’re going to hear and when it’s going to happen. I'm giving you just enough. If you further engage with what you’ve been given, then who knows what you’ll find.
What are you working on now?
KC: For many years, I’ve been very infatuated with the long canon of American flag artwork. I’ve been considering how I can add to that canon. There’s a forthcoming work that’s currently in production that utilizes American flag iconography. I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s a piece that maintains the stripes on an American flag and the canton, which is the part of the flag’s anatomy where stars appear, has been changed.
Kamari Carter is a producer, performer, sound designer, and installation artist primarily working with sound and found objects. Driven by the probative nature of perception and the concept of conversation and social science, he seeks to expand narrative structures through sonic stillness. Carter’s work has been exhibited at such venues as Automata Arts, MoMA, Mana Contemporary, RISD Museum, Flux Factory, Lenfest Center for the Arts, WaveHill and has been featured in a range of major publications including ArtNet, Precog Magazine, LevelGround and WhiteWall. Carter holds a BFA in Music Technology from California Institute of the Arts and an MFA in Sound Art from Columbia.