Ambiguationist Bullets: Preface
By Kai (Kari) Altmann
The following is a text with a patchy history. Originally commissioned by a writing platform in 2015, art historian/writer/editor Cadence Kinsey had asked me to collaborate with her on publishing and polishing up some kind of art text I had in my drafts.
I told her I had a loose draft of a “manifesto”, even though I don’t necessarily believe in manifestos, or rather I think they should be written and re-written, edited all the time to reflect evolving needs and questions, and maybe called something else.
Rather than call it a manifesto, I just wanted to call it “bullets”, some new terms and some points to be made about contemporary creative practices that I felt many of the nuts and bolts of the art industry was far behind on or getting wrong— even those touting “post internet” and other new tags around like a badge.
So I made it a shared GDoc and she added some insightful and really understanding comments. She was in the process of writing a book about “post internet and beyond” art (and still is), and seemed to be very into the same headspace and questions. We asked the publisher if we could post this document in this format, as a GDoc with responses and comments, and he said “sure”. Unfortunately, somehow our honorarium (like a supportive fee for creators) for participating/creating this doc never arrived and it was also never released on that platform — the “facilitator” went M.I.A. Truthfully, many things in this world of cutting-edge cultural creation are pet projects and “labors of love” which run on fumes and risk dissipating into thin air. I kept the doc in my folders for my own use, and Cadence mentioned it really helped her with her research for the book, so at least that was one positive.
A little while later, DIS Magazine hired some guest editors who reached out to me to submit to an issue they were working on. These guest editors seemed to have no idea about the bad history I had with Dis — how many times I had already been approached by them and escaped due to their bad ethics. They seemed confused as to why I wasn’t on the platform more already, as many people felt I was some kind of poster woman in that scene, someone leading the conversation (and often disagreeing, trying to evolve it). I only have one editorial there from 2011. I was simply avoiding bad contexts and collaborations. Similarity is not congruence and does not always equal identity aggregation. I had a few overlaps with some things happening there and elsewhere, but my own projects and platforms were distinctly different in a way that I didn’t want to “give up” in order to merge in. (See also: structural cannibalism.) At some point there was discussion about posting this text there, and the G-Doc was shared, but for one reason or another I pulled out.
One point of this document was to try to define what post-internet/post-western/post-production changes had actually occurred, and then carve out new terms beyond “post internet”, a tag that by this time (2015/2016) had pretty much been “ruined”— spun out of control with plenty of people jumping in the ring to say what it was or wasn’t, or re-purposing the aesthetic codes toward different motives, winding up with a lot of confusion.
This isn’t all bad — it’s a result of it catching air and capturing the imagination and participation of people around the world in all different contexts…and challenging them to understand and sus out a new way of things. Was it really ruined? Or just so viral and confrontational that it got controversial? I think people were willing to ride out the controversy, resistance and flop maneuvers, but not everyone has the (usually unpaid) time to write or talk at length about the ideas and contexts of these practices, or continually mark their own place in a real-time revisionist and “grab the flag” history while also running a creative practice and life themselves. To me all the answers to these questions are already in my work and the many interviews I‘d done, it felt like I’d said and made it all 100 times over, yet still it seemed people were trying to contextualize things in the wrong way and stage the same exhibitions and essays ad nauseam. People who were eager to “kill it” didn’t really have anything new or compelling to replace it with, it seemed they just wanted it gone because they didn’t understand it or gain anything from it, or they were tired of the auto-pilot repetitive shows and features with the same tropes and watered down copy work (weren’t we all). Rather than kill it off, it really just needed to be re-versioned and updated as things continued to move and evolve. It was defining a new shift in how creative practices and languages could be, so it wasn’t really an “aesthetic trend” that could just be deleted.
To its credit, this is how big the shifts in the art world have been since the globalized era became digitally connected — the same way it continues to shift knowledge, production, economies and lifestyles. Post internet and other terms are just toe-ins to a much bigger pool. It’s not about algorithms, brands or tech, it’s about states of mind/consciousness and making, visions and voices which have been fundamentally and globally updated. Additionally, it had gotten so “big” that it had become a kind of arms race to “print it all out” in institutional formats via production funding, which trampled over some people and missed the point of a lot of the shift…that all creative formats and voices were now viable, that there were new possibilities and understandings on deck and that the usual modes of display, platforming and “content classes” needed to adapt to the change.
Maybe I didn’t want to share this document. Maybe I was tired of spending so much time on writing, defending, explaining the theories and #bts world of everything in addition to making the art. It’s not that I don’t enjoy speaking and writing (and arguing). I was in the eye of the conceptual/cultural storm in a sense, although it seemed like most of the funding and fruits came from Europe. It’s just that I wanted to get back to creating, living my life, health and travel, relationships, self care, etc. I’d also felt that a lot of things in this supposed genre had gotten formulaic…it was more about pasting some of the right signifiers together then writing an essay, and getting the right sponsorship. It was becoming a game of curator bait and I had more to offer than that. Strangely, digital+social “post internet” work in the music world didn’t seem to be getting hung up on this obsessive genre categorization.
I also find power in expansion and exploration — part of the drive of my practice has always been widening the cultural connection of things, exploring civilization and its many aesthetic and social mutations throughout time…including so many “scenes” around the world. There were so many other image systems and geographies to explore, and post internet seemed to mostly bring bad agents and incorrect contextualization to my work at that point. Trying to continually negotiate, refuse or disentangle these supposedly “curatorial” and communal forces was exhausting. People really weren’t getting it.
So I kept this in my folders again, possibly forever.
In the time since 2015 I’ve taken another new life route, something I often do anyway. I was already using so many new terms and modalities to define myself, but the creative world was slow to catch on. Anthropocene caught some fire, which I predicted and touched on with my project, Garden Club, and a few other things here and there… I stopped doing group shows for the most part, as they weren’t really bringing my work to fruition anyway, and often felt like some approximation of the real art, an outsourced mirage of a party other people had for your projects. That used to feel fun, but over time it became a geographical and financial hurdle — like spinning my wheels. #Nonewgroupshows became a running joke. I stopped contributing to publications or talks with any kind of internet or tech tag, or any that seemed like a bit of a waste of my time, that weren’t going to let me fully voice and image myself.
I always avoided saying yes to bad situations, but I got even more hard-line about it — stronger in my boundaries. I focused on fleshing out my works as full-bodied solo shows, installations, mixes of media/objects/words/performances. It’s slow going but it feels more productive in the long run. I focused on music again and on storyboarding videos, focused back on the new futures I always felt were coming.
In 2017 I was invited to give my lecture, “Meta Images”, which is about my practice and some of these surrounding themes, in Geneva. I turned it into a small “world tour” just by contacting friends/hosts at different institutions and wound up in Moscow, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, then Abu Dhabi. I talked very openly about how my practice worked like a kind of culture industry hack, how visual production works in scenes and genres in today’s climate, how visual culture is still full of tropes and psychogeographical zones, and other things. Each time there was a strong reaction — it was a game-changing talk. After avoiding writing and speaking for a while, it reminded me of the danger and potential in talking about these realities. It always sparked big questions. Many people thanked me for opening their eyes to a kind of “meta code” behind aesthetics…this code (visual culture/production) is something most artists know very well, and what the best creators are masters at authoring.
At the end of the tour I went to India for the first time, and the rest is history. I planned to stay one or two weeks, and wound up there for months. I came back to New York after a life-changing India trip, during which I visited mind-bending things like Kailasa Temple and got an illness so bad I almost died, only to find another “post internet” installation in City Hall park, including a project that was originally a bit of a rip off of one of my own from years before…not the first time. In the culture industry it is sadly common to have your work copy/pasted then sold back to you. Seeing that just made me realize how out of touch (and Europe-centric) these curatorial cycles really were. It cemented this feeling that I had moved beyond wherever these modes and zones were focused, maybe before I’d even fully cashed out the chips. Oops! But for me art is more than a job, it’s my way of living and self-cultivation. I trust that process and while I will compromise here and there in order to reach audiences, I can’t pull myself backwards. I go where it leads, even if others can’t follow yet. This means I have to get used to controversy which honestly, sometimes still exhausts me…even though I’m good at conflict and debate…at times I go quiet. This also means that at times I’ll have to wait for a forest fire to burn and clear, for a wave to hit the shore and break, for people to catch on and catch up to the new world that’s brewing all the time.
A few months later I was back in South Asia during monsoon season, wandering the jungles of the Thai islands with their mix of forms and spirits, and processing/unleashing everything that had happened in the last few years. I listened to drafts of songs I’d started and filled sketchbook pages to the brim. Something had returned, something had been unlocked.
Since 2017 I’ve gone by “Kai”, which is easier for people in every country to pronounce and remember, and I’ve now done long world tours each year via a mix of shows and special projects. Mostly my rules for accepting projects are about full support, creative and contextual freedom + authority. I need to be able to do the work I actually want to do, now, at any scale. My musical project, Hitashya, is finally coming together. I made a new, slow editorial platform called XLE.LIFE. I’ve learned so much more about consciousness and world history, art history and art present on a global scale. I’ve always worked in industries beyond fine art, too, and it’s been refreshing to go back into film, dance and music again. I’m typing this from Mumbai, actually, which is my adopted second home city. You can usually find me in Dubai/Mumbai/Bangkok and many outlets from there, exploring the wonders of South Asia which are not commonly known or understood by the rest of the world. Also, as my friend Abhinit Khanna says, “post internet hasn’t hit India yet” which isn’t entirely true, people here are plugged into all the scenes, it’s just that it’s sort of irrelevant in this social+labor structure. More on this in another post, but I wanted to give some context to this document that is finally being released.
During this Co-Vid lockdown many people are emptying out their archives, throwing things on the “trashfire” as it feels like a backlog that should be cleared before we enter a new era. Is anyone else having trouble remembering things that happened before March? In many ways I feel I hit this same boundary back in 2017, maybe even earlier, and have already been on the other side for a while. Welcome to the new world. It’s different out here! I have a few drafts that should probably go up, and I’d much rather post them here where I have the final edit. I’m not sure who will read, but enjoy the flames!