Kari Altmann is the future, or a future, or a now that looks beyond anything I know. She is an artist who works, for the most part, online; she’ll say “wifi” or “cloud” based. She also exhibits in more traditional media, like, as one of her bios states “print to real life” showrooms. The reason for all the quotation is that Kari’s art practice is so new, it requires its own specialized vocabulary; I know no synonyms for “recreational idents” or “file-like treatment of constant mutation and re-grouping.”
I’m not sure how I came across Kari’s site, or even when, but I remember that it felt, for this old folio soul, like a bit of time travel—a visual culture surpassing my known imagination. I initially contacted Kari to participate in a column about creative individuals’ personal style. Our conversation went further than fashion and so we have this—an interview with artist Kari Altmann on her work, the future, and what she’s wearing right now.
This is a tricky question to phrase but I think it’s important. I was recently speaking with the fashion designer Rad Hourani. He told me he would rather not be defined just as a designer because he works in so many other mediums. We were talking about how it would be great if we stopped using old categories to define people and their work, since those don’t always apply anymore, and came up with new ones. Like, instead of saying someone is a “new media artist” or a “designer” or a “gay man,” we could get more specific. I said Rad would be something like an, “ethical individualist pursuing a Kantian ideal of harmonious beauty through mathematical logic and instinct.” I would be something like a, “playful semiotician, telling stories with words and pictures, with a bent towards the things we put on our bodies and other perversions.” What do you think about this idea and, taking it, how would you categorize your work?
I think artist is already specific enough, luckily it’s pretty meta and can encompass a lot of other fields and disciplines today. I don’t identify as a “new media” artist per se, and sometimes I have to make it clear that I’m interdisciplinary. I get tagged with “Post-Internet,” which is functional but I usually say “wifi-based” or “cloud-based.” I also work in various fields as a producer and art director which people occasionally confuse for my own practice, but essentially I have the same driving principles in most of what I do, though I don’t think they can be summed up so easily because part of the approach is about flexibility. Phrases like the ones above between you and Hourani sound just as generic and open to change in a sense, but I agree about identity diversification.
What are you working on right now?
Soft Brand Abstracts II, and a few new projects which I can’t talk about yet, but you can usually see my current cloud at karialtmann.com/work. I also just moved my self to a proper big city for a while so I’m planning to be a lot more in-person than before. I’m really focusing this year on new approaches to the art show and live show formats.
I was pretty taken away with your first Soft Brand Abstracts writing. Your work—there and in other modes—is theoretical, thoughtful, challenging. Do you read much contemporary art theory or philosophy? If so, what?
Thanks. It’s funny, I actually tried to keep that text pretty “wildstyle” and away from any kind of theoretical or social science requirements, hence the “fake trend report as art” vibe. I want to work in formats that let the content ring true for me, and keep that artist role in tact if possible when crossing over. I have my own background and my own vocabulary to employ, and I’m not interested in simply reblogging theorists or philosophers into one-shot texts or artworks…things need to go further for me. I read and watch and interact, yes, but I don’t let other thinkers dominate my own psyche, only aid in my budding trajectory as a support group.
All the ideas in the Soft Brand Abstracts series have been blatantly present in my artwork and life for the past few years. A lot of things I read just give me useful terms or deeper back-end insight for ideas and art projects I already have swarming. Summing it up in an explanatory format is usually a postmortem activity, though, and not always my primary focus. I often feel that I have to create a new textual vocabulary to support the visual one I’m producing, and that takes time to form. I like to put text to work in other ways first. As for a theorist name check, I try to avoid those. I’ve learned as much from artworks, films, music, family members, etc. as from any critical writings and don’t like championing one approach over the other, especially when so many people work in multiple ways at once. I support it all, I want it all!
What are you wearing right now?
I don’t spend much effort on clothing. Austerity measures. Almost everything I wear I either made myself, thrifted or Ebayed, or used borderline extreme couponing to buy online at a fraction of the retail price. I’ve been in a creative haven where those things don’t really matter for years, in an environment that’s really distilled me down to the raw essentials. Any style in my clothes just reflects the tropes of my current research, for instance a few of my favorite recent items [pictured above] include the S O N I A shirts (part of the R-U-In?S series which you can print to order here), and these beautiful hand-dyed shibori shirts which I buy directly from an artisan in the U.S., and which you can also order here. I started with this blue one because I was drawn to its mutant Avatar-like hyde, and have gathered a few more in varying color schemes over the years. I like things that look alien but casual. Hydes are a big trope in my work.
I’m also pretty obsessed with the pendant-style object and beads in general, due to a correlation with my projects—I think a lot about sequences and icons, as well as hand held items. What I like about opalescence is that it matches the muddy blue and purple filters you find on a lot of low res ccd cameras with auto white balance. That aesthetic has entire movements throughout my archive, as I’m usually investigating different kinds of imaging systems. What I like about bead culture is that it’s a very small, cheap, and efficient means of handheld cultural exchange often dominated by women, full of greymarket Asian shops and sick moms on Etsy.
In the spring and summer I usually have an airplant around my neck.
Do you think about matters of beauty or ugliness? I recently had a playful spat with a friend over a book cover (Eileen Myles’s Not Me cover for Semiotext(e))—I thought it was amazing looking, she thought it was “ugly.” She was like, “I’m not interested in the aesthetics of ugly like you are, like DIS and stuff.” Any thoughts?
This cover is fine! Very textual, matter-of-fact, and shows a lot of “refusal”. Part of learning about visual production for me was gaining an appreciation for all kinds of aesthetic logics and why they are what they are, which is usually directly related to culture and environment, class issues, equipment, production philosophies, genres, even available plants and minerals. Once you’re in that zone it’s hard to really condemn anything, as long as you can speak its language or appreciate its background. If there’s an idea or ideal at the helm, you can usually tell. Ugly to me is when there is a lack of that background, of those decisions and concerns. Rude, defiant, or efficient on purpose is different than clueless.
“The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” I see you working in the dense pockets of contemporary futurisms. Do you? Do you think about what the future will look like?
I feel like that’s a normal desire, there’s a saying that art is a discursive plane where the future is battled out. The aesthetics of something define how it will travel and operate in the cultural milieu, who will benefit from it, and how long it will survive. I’ve become very aware of that and essentially that’s where I work: in creating mutant new genres and vocabularies that are either more useful, more sustainable, or built to burn up and die out.
Back to fashion. How long does it take you to get dressed in the morning?
Under an hour in the morning—most days are full of studio work and errands, and I’m usually in neighborhoods or testosterone-laden zones where it’s not wise to be too flashy. I’ve always attracted more attention than I want to deal with on the street so I’ve learned over the years how to downplay things in order to move more fluidly through situations. After enough time in some brutal places I’ve developed a thick shell. Little elements of flair sneak into my raw template but never go too far. My work matters more than my physical appearance most days, at least that’s how it’s been for a while—very disembodied. I just set up camp in a big city again, though, and I’m curious if some of this shell will melt away—if I’ll feel a bit more liberated in that arena. You need the right conditions for that kind of play, especially as a woman. It really takes a social fortress. It’s the evening when the tricks come out of the bag, but again it’s all about doing a lot with very little. I still always wear shoes I can run and kick in.
If you were forced to wear a uniform everyday, what would it be? Or would you revolt?
If it were state decreed I’m sure I’d revolt, unless it was a really flattering unitard in a hi-tech performance fabric with classy seaming and some kind of skin-absorbed health benefits–but I tend toward my own daily uniform anyway, because I don’t want to spend too much time thinking about clothes. When I find something that works I buy three of it or wear it every day. I’m probably headed toward a series of custom unitards and rompers for different activities, really. Again, I try to put energy into my work first, at the expense of everything else. Most people I meet have already seen my websites and that’s enough.