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The fingertips of a perfectly manicured, interchangeable hand glide across the inviting surfaces of an array of touchscreens in artist Kari Altmann’s response to Jemsheed by Ayshay (from the ‘Warn U’ EP on Tri Angle). Commissioned by Art Dubai 2012 as part of a series exploring the “strange, story-telling familiarity” of PowerPoint, Altmann turns abstract moments of product demo into something ancient and ritualistic. In rendering the lines traced by fingertip interaction onscreen she reveals a set of bizarre but seemingly connected symbols, like some buried, innate language. Set to the prayer-like strains of Jemsheed, the idea of product – or perhaps production – as religion is evoked. It’s a sensual, mysterious and powerful piece of work that provides an intriguing introduction to Altmann’s world.
While she has provided art direction for a number of prominent figures in New York’s electronic music underground, including Kingdom (Mind Reader video) Teengirl Fantasy (‘Tracer’ album cover) and Fatima Al Qadiri (remixed artwork for ‘Genre-Specific Xperience Remixes’ EP), the Jemsheed video for the latter’s Ayshay project is the first music-related assignment that Altmann’s views as part of her own body of work.
“It’s definitely devotional, it references human devotion to any kind of omnipresent system like that,” says Altmann of the video over instant messenger. “All these versions of touchscreens are competing with each other and being produced by unseen forces across the globe.” A deep fascination with underlying systems, algorithms and the adaptation of language are themes that run throughout Altmann’s personal practice, something that can be traced back to her home life. Altmann’s brothers are programmers and they had encouraged her to be one too but she went her own way. “I wanted to ask the bigger questions.” Not create the code but question the code? “The whys, the hows, and consider the implications of these things on culture maybe, or just … think outside the screen in some sense.”
Describing herself as “wi-fi based”, Altmann currently works between a few different cities including Baltimore and New York. With a background in both art and music – something she is soon to return to – she started making album covers on a freelance basis as a teen in her hometown of Dallas and then, when she moved to Baltimore for art school, she got “a little more invested”. At the time the DIY scene in Baltimore was exploding, with Dan Deacon and his Wham City collective leading the way with their annual musical festival Whartscape and, beyond that, a “sprawling scene creating truly mutant live dance experiences”. She was a film major but found her course’s linear approach to storytelling limiting so used to sneak into other departments and classes when she could, fostering the interdisciplinary approach she today has made her own.
In 2009 Altmann initiated her sometimes bewildering, constantly mutating R-U-In?S project. Concerned with the “product systems, markets/economies and image systems around us”, it is in essence a platform for sharing ideas and exploring themes through image exchange. The R-U-In?S network grew rapidly with regular artist contributors Visual Aids (Sam Morgan), Dateismo (Sebastian Mercado), Energy Pangea (Iain Ball), X2MX (Matteo Giordano) and more joining Altmann in shaping its development.
“I crafted it as a sort of signal – partially aesthetic, partially topical – and I used an online platform (Tumblr) to sort of leave it all out for exchange,” explains Altmann. “That in itself sounds pretty normal/whatever but it was the specific topics and content, and the way things got exchanged, that gave the project form. We were operating in this instant, viral economy where nothing ever became actual showroom format. It was just the ideas, just the findings, instantly trading. We developed our own lexicon and our own sort of “agreements” between each ident. And despite many of us speaking different languages, we could decode each other’s image streams.”
R-U-In?S not only situated Altmann and her collaborators as key figures within a global network – or cloud commune – of post-internet artists and visual researchers that includes the Berlin-based American duo behind AIDS-3D, Amsterdam’s Katja Novitskova (responsible for the Post Internet Survival Guide network) and London’s Lucky PDF, but also brought her to the attention of music artists themselves working within a corporate-influenced aesthetic, including Jam City’s Jack Latham.
“When I first saw Kari’s work it was like nothing I’d seen before,” Latham tells me. “They can be scary, they can be sexy, they can be beautiful. But the collisions she facilitates through her work mean that images/objects and brands are continually disrupting, infecting and critiquing each other. Her work just does not stop questioning.”
Interestingly, and by no means coincidently, there is much crossover between the music artists mentioned here and those discussed in Adam Harper’s distroid feature which traces a strain of “brutal and cybernetic” music with a hi-def, hyper-capitalist aesthetic. Image as both language and currency has become increasingly central to the way new music is presented and discussed (perhaps linked to the fact we’re just as likely to watch our music as listen to it) yet recognition for the artists not just shaping the visual aesthetic but actively contributing to both the concept and perception of the music is often overlooked.
“In the music scene, art is often treated as a graphical response to music,” explains Altmann, which is why she wants to champion artist response: “As in letting the artist fully respond and art direct instead of simply using them as a graphical producer.” While Altmann is clear that there is also much satisfaction to be gained from art direction and production, her work with Al Qadiri – as well as CGI artist Tabor Robak’s video game ‘inspired and set to music by Gatekeeper’ for the latter’s debut album ‘EXO’ – hints at the richness that full artistic response and collaboration can bring.