Mood Board: Collaboration Between Columbia Artists Explores Interiority Out Loud

Emily Johnson
December 15, 2022

One clear night this fall, in a spacious Chelsea loft, an expectant audience circulated, seeking any available spot from which to watch the evening’s presentation. People filled couches along the brick walls, leaned over the mezzanine railing with wine in hand, and even sat on the staircase. It was Saturday September 17, 2022, and Columbia alumni Kamari Carter ’19 and Julian Day ’20 were performing their collaborative sound and light piece, To Be Held (2022) as part of Hyphen Hub’s Salon series.

A matrix of private sounds made public and public words ensnared in introspection, To Be Held transfixes the audience between valances; the audio and visual, the interior and ultra-exterior. The salon gathering seemed like its ideal setting: a continuity of public art space and private home.

Carter was seated over a soundboard at a coffee table. A symmetrical array of six LED light boards was mounted behind him, two on the brick wall above his head, two to each side, framing his seated form. As Carter guided the audio tracks—slow-moving, organ-like resonances, developing into searing, trembling, starry chimes—Day cued the appearance of text on the LED light boards in response, isolating and alternating words like ‘don’t you,’ ‘silence,’ ‘goddamn,’ ‘it’s over,’ ‘I want,’ ‘to be held,’ and ‘words,’ ‘make you,’ ‘wrong,’ ‘funny,’ ‘listen.’

Carter and Day have been collaborating since 2020, and for the past two years have been exploring the overlapping curiosities that ignite their shared practice. The artists met in Columbia’s Sound Art MFA Program, where their conversations about their own practices grew into discussions about what a collaborative process could look like.

“We’re both sound artists but we both have a practice in thinking about visual art and minimalism and contemporary works,” Carter explained in an interview. “When the opportunity arose for us to do something, we had already prepared to think about the work from each other's perspective.”

To Be Held  began its life as Day’s solo piece, (I Want) To Be Held (2020), an LED light installation. “I commissioned Kamari to come up with an audio response, alongside two other artists,” said Day. Thus began a new branch of their collaboration, given the shorter title,To Be Held—which, says Day, "is a more deliberate equivalence between us working in light and sound simultaneously.”

The room at the Hyphen Hub performance was washed alternately in fuschia, purple, red. Day’s words, isolated in their boxes, were at times as colorful and playful as marquees, lasered into place in transitions reminiscent of an arcade aesthetic, or punctuated with emojis. In other moments they were spare; red and final as a public service or transit announcement. I was reminded of looking up anxiously at MTA train arrival screens, feeling my life was in the balance: 1. 1 train South Ferry 7min.

Day stayed out of sight during the performance. As he described, “I have the benefit of quite secretively sitting in the back behind everyone else, being able to carefully sculpt what’s happening visually.”

The sonic space of the performance is meditative, psychological, even solemn, with long draws of minor sound, like an organ or a cello. It gathers speed into lighter, more progressive movements, which flicker with bright clatter, trembling bells, clipped synth notes. Yet still, underneath it all, a smooth, elliptical adagio. Carter also integrates found sound components, like the mumbling of a police scanner at the beginning of the piece. 

“The structure of the piece starts with one composition by Julian from his 24-hour commissioned piece for the Orange County Museum of Contemporary Art," Carter said, “Then it goes more into my own compositions, with a mixture of my own personal voicemails.”

The first voicemail is from a friend of Carter’s. It’s a call we’ve probably all received—a sorry I missed you, and a let’s talk soon—a gesture of habitual love from across a distance. The second is a breakup voicemail, quiet and serious. 

“As someone who’s very interested in sound, but also interested in narratives and narrative structures,” Carter said, “I thought it would be very playful, but also very on point to use something so personalized and didactic in this stream of soundscape representation.”

An earlier iteration of Day’s LED project also incorporated break up texts, a curious coincidence of the artists’ independent impulses. Day’s work with language in his LED boxes is deeply responsive to what he encounters in the world. 

"During the first year of the pandemic," he said, “I was basically reporting on what I was hearing…things floating up from the street in Manhattan, from any number of protests that summer, from what I was seeing online…There were just so many points of contact [between these forms of rhetoric and expression] it was quite disturbing in a way. Things from across the political spectrum were starting to resonate with one another.

“But then, like with Kamari’s voicemails, it’s become almost a mood board, where I had this canvas on which to mix political and philosophical ideas with the personal.”

A Q&A followed the performance, led by writer and legendary curator Barbara London. An audience member asked about the juxtaposition of bright, glaring directives in the LED lights, and the more meditative, introspective sonic experience. “I found myself not knowing where to land,” they said. They found the ambiguity compelling.

“I’m so glad you used all the words that you did,” Carter responded. “I would say that they exactly emphasize a lot of the stuff that I’ve been thinking about in the process of making this work.”

We absorb countless sounds and words as we move through the world, which sink into our unconscious selves and float there, largely unexplored. It seems that Carter and Day’s collaborative work manages to surface these impressions, drawing words and sounds not only from their own minds, but from our collective subconscious; a reflection on the porous membrane between our interior and exterior experiences.

A larger rendition of To Be Held is in the works for 2023. In the meantime, Carter and Day are busy at work on their individual projects. Carter will be the artist-in-residence at The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) at the beginning of 2023. Day’s essay about the 45th anniversary of the launch of NASA's golden records aboard the Voyager spacecraft is currently in ADSR Zine, and a collaborative sound release responding to the same subject is available here. Day’s multimedia lyric essay, “Ten Public Actions,” to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Sydney Opera House will be published on the Opera House website later this month, and Day is also producing a piece for BBC Radio 3 on Marco Fusinato's epic 200-day experimental noise performance at the Venice Biennial. Tune in on Saturday December 17, 2022 to listen.