An Interview with Kamau Patton, written by Christopher Reid Martin published July 21, 2020.
Appears on the Cycling ’74 blog here: https://cycling74.com/articles/an-interview-with-kamau-patton
As of this time in the Summer of 2020, galleries, museums, and venues in America’s cities are inaccessible due to restrictions on social gatherings. As a result of this inaccessibility, the social threads that have existed within these spaces are compromised from physical engagement. This has forced communities to explore other means of facilitating cultural experience outside the physical space.
Kamau Patton, an interdisciplinary artist, and educator from Chicago whose work examines history and culture through engagement with archives, documents, stories, and sites, explores these ideas through message and practice in his ongoing series, Tel.
Tel is “a platform for performance, study, and contemplation that questions how the nature of memory has changed in relation to the encroachment of cyberspace, telematics, and transmission technologies.”
Tel is currently in residence at Coaxial Arts Foundation in Los Angeles. These works are currently hosted in Coaxial’s virtual 3d space. This last Saturday, July 18, 2020, was the opening of the virtual space as well as an event featuring wall projections of Patton’s work on the wall in the parking lot next to Coaxial where attendees were able to watch projections of Kamau’s work from their parked vehicles.
Kamau had a chance to follow up after day one of his residency at Coaxial to discuss Tel, community, memory, Max, empty rooms, and cyberspace.
What would you define as your earliest or most definitive moment of artistic expression?
Wow. There’s a couple. My most definitive moment of artistic expression is when I decided that I was going to take my tape recorder, which was a little portable Walkman which had a built-in mic, from my house in Clinton Hill Brooklyn to Prospect Park to the drum circle out there. I would go and listen to these guys play drums and would bring flutes and play with them.
My first conscious moment of “I’m making a piece of artwork, and I got this tape recorder”, I decided I would record my walk from my house to this drum circle that was in Prospect Park. That was about a couple miles in which the recording ended in Prospect Park in the drum circle. That’s my first piece of sound art. I would record different ambient sounds in New York that I would pick up from my walks from one place to another.
I don’t remember how long it took to do. An hour? It was a day of listening to the cars and the people. There is this vibe going through different neighborhoods in Brooklyn. When you enter Prospect Park from my side in Grand Army Plaza, you can circle around until you get into the more Caribbean-African side of the park. Getting closer, you can hear the drums starting to build and build more. Then, when you’re in the center, BOOM. You’re in it, with dancers and all of these sounds.
I must have been in high school and thought, “I’m going to make this art work” (laughs). It was for me.
Your work is very nonconventional in terms of approach, and it’s not limited to sound. There is a continuous dialogue of technological landscapes reinforced through your work.
In Tel, What is the message right now and Why is the message right now?
This is a moment of transition in terms of how we understand being on this planet. We understand being part of a community, how we can communicate, and network.
Cycling back to the first question, a lot of ways I understood where I was, was from hearing sounds that would come out of car stereos and people’s portable boomboxes. You could pick up the vibe of where you are in a neighborhood and what people were projecting into the world through their personal sound systems; a more portable and mobile sound.
In terms of how we assert who we are, that is what community is all about. It’s a technological continuum of how we map, personify, and appeal our cultural identity through these amplification technologies. We’re at a moment of a shift in cultures, from the boom box, the inwardness of the Walkman, and sound systems to these newer transmissions happening.
It’s time to think about that again, deep listening to culture and the sonic residue of these landscapes. How do you define being and being settled when communities are so dispersed? I come from a moment in time where who you are in relationship to what you are listening to is related to a site, a geographic place, a territory, or a domain. Now that’s just not the case.
I’m in Chicago, I am connected to people in a community in L.A. I am part of that community, but I am not physically there. I’m broadcasting my sound, video, and energy to this public site. This is not just me. That’s going on in these infinite places with people on SoundCloud, people on Instagram, and people on Twitter. All these fields of sound and vibrations going on, being archived on servers that are located in who-knows-where.
So I think it’s the time to think about settlements, think about community, think about sites. This is part of the Tel_ message, the agenda of thinking through what cyberspace is. Cyberspace promises a kind of fluid architecture where your being would meld with your information being. The architecture would be this hybrid architecture where all of the information could be a oneness. Somehow my body, my energy, and my information in whatever I am are located in multiple places at once.
It’s imperative for us to make sense of that. This is what is defining us as a species right now.
Part of the opening took place in Coaxial’s virtual gallery, where visitors were able to create an avatar and navigate this virtual space hosting your work. This “third space” medium reinforces the cyberspace message of Tel_. It seems so intentional, but Tel’s message predates the arrival of the pandemic and the disruption of gatherings.
How did this all fall into place so nicely?
The project name Tel is an archaeological term for a mound formed by the accumulated remains left by communities occupying sites over time. Our contemporary understanding of this is the term “gentrification” and that’s like the modern apocalypse. What is it that creates a context or one community to be displaced, fail, or collapse? That could be an economic collapse, could be a source of class warfare, could be a sickness. The point is. these things have happened over time.
And what is the sound of the apocalypse? Is it a sound of an eruption, a volcanic eruption? Is that the sound of the colonists arriving and getting off the boat, or the silent sound of a virus that is coming through, ready to decimate a whole population? Tel is a cultural burial mound. It’s an effigy. In our landmass America, the idea of having a mound where the remains of a populous nation have accumulated, like the native people in this landmass, are part of a culture. These are places of peace, where you bear witness to collectively understand a culture’s history.
I took on the name Tel as a way to guide myself through the future, to refine my consciousness about what it was I left behind and how I deal with my own life, legacy, and my own witnessing to this kind of immediacy of culture. What is actually being left behind are things like plastic. It’s mundane, everyday materials that don’t deteriorate. Everyday stuff you find in the dollar store.
Right. Cultural remnants vs. synthetic stuff that just serve a very novel purpose.
Yeah. And it’s immediate and unique.
A thousand years from now, you’re going to find fidget spinners and ask, ” what the hell are these? What was going on?” These spinners are going to say a lot more about what this culture was and the anxiety of our culture. And I mean, is that a failure? That’s our popular culture, squeezy foam balls, which won’t go away, and fidget spinners.
That’s fascinating to me, these are not grand gestures, these are everyday gestures that we do to pacify ourselves and make it as human beings on this planet.
It’s interesting to think about how we alleviate our anxieties now, how we’re going to alleviate them in the future, and how we did it years and years and years ago, How currently, squeezing a ball is related to something like running late to work. The difference between feelings of anxiety and the source of anxiety.
Right. Like, “Oh, late to work. What’s that mean? Oh, work. People were working. Oh, people had schedules like it was the idea of lateness.” All of these things give you a lot of information about what it means to be a human being on the planet.
And here we are sheltering in place, dealing with this viral threat to our existence on the planet. And, we’re still trying to be connected. It calls for a different way of networking and reimagining the concept of our communities, which is the key. And like all the rest of that stuff is like a pile of dust, and there is no turning back. It’s like our past lives are just gone. I just imagine that mounds of things that we used to need are not relevant anymore, or they’re not relevant in this iteration of this moment that we’re in.
The opportunity for the 3d gallery in the exhibition at Coaxial Arts allows for us to do what we can to commune this third space.
Digital images in the virtual gallery convey decomposed landscapes and statues, and unidentifiable masked human figures. However, there are also images of faraway galaxies and abstract videoart that suggests a sort of astral projection.
How do these images and videos in the virtual space play into Tel ‘s message?
The cosmic dust is the accumulated remains of planets and stars. That’s the material that we come from. That’s like deep, deep time, you know. We are accumulations and reconfigurations of that dust.
Within us, there is a Cosmos. We are a community of material that houses other communities. And within those communities there are communities. So we’re just beings on being on beings, and it’s important to zoom out to see it at that scale. What connects us, right? So we’re here on this Planet Earth, on this spaceship, sharing energy, sharing breath and sharing material.
So microcosmal and macrocosmal community perspectives.
Absolutely. I have been really fascinated by the ways that humans image themselves. So there’s one image in the gallery where it shows planes of a head. It’s basically a proto image of a head and a tool that artists use to render the head; a primitive rendering of a humanoid headpiece. In our current culture, our understanding of the head being the place that houses our consciousness is, for me, quite fascinating. It’s something that is also maybe being called into question because our consciousness is shifting right now. And with an extended expanded consciousness, maybe our energy center, our consciousness center, can shift.
There’s also an image which is these plains of the head combined with a vase. It’s a vessel for soul, spirit, and consciousness; it’s the container. Our bodies are like containers for things that persist, and energies that persist. Whereas our bodies are also decaying.
Those are the remains. All this other stuff is the energetics, the vibrations are being transmitted and have a kind of mobility. My body can’t get to L.A. right now. But electromagnetically I can go there. It’s like, what is the center. Is the center my physical being, It’s like an electromagnetic being that this technology allows me to transmit. Until we can say, ” Beam me up, Scotty” and my molecules , or my being, can transmit from one place to another planet, being able to beam my sound and video is where it’s at right now.
I was in attendance to the second part of the opening, which was the drive-in projection on the wall next to Coaxial. It felt like a different time and place. Yet the intentions of those interested in your work and those who are longstanding patrons of Coaxial seem to be unfettered by this experience. The gallery sat empty, yet the parking lot was full of cars. People were engaged with your work sitting in their cars, or in their masks on top of their cars. The speakers were blasting this heavy maximal synthetic sound through the lot.
So in times of disruption, how important is memory in maintaining our communities in these physical and virtual spaces?
Yeah, remembering why we commune.
It’s not remembering that we need to be in a particular configuration, but knowing that we can adjust. This new configuration is anti-communication. It is something that is asserting itself with a new way of being. If you listen to it and you adjust to it, you can understand how to assimilate this into your life and your consciousness, like a new language; a new language of how to be at Coaxial, or how to be yourself within this new paradigm.
Human beings are flexible and fluid. Communities of humans can evolve to accommodate. I think this is why we make monuments to that idea. It’s important to bear witness to the waves that impact us as human beings. It’s unique to us as species on this planet to bear witness to a way we used to be, and then this new way. That evolution is cool.
I’m really thankful for the opportunity to participate in showing and sharing a new way to commune at this site that has been such an important hub or an artistic community in a region. It’s like, okay, let’s just do this differently. We’re not getting shut down. We’re going to try and shift into this new paradigm, and here we are. If you invite people and if people are open, then they adjust. This felt like something new, but it also felt familiar. It was synergy. That body memory of togetherness was major and I’m thankful for that. That is the sensibility.
It’s not that Coaxial needs to get buried or anything, but it feels like a rebirth.
With the exception of global disruption, the necessity of being able to commune revealed itself as important in this opening. Maintenance of the community in these new terrains will further facilitate new ways and thought processes around expression.
Yeah. It’s like a new language. The Tel project is about language. How do you innovate the way that you communicate with one another? It can be through sound, physical communication, emotional communication, psychic communication. I am interested in the evolution of that. I like the idea of taking on a new language, seeing how it transforms people and transforms sites.
There are also challenges. If you think of all the Tel’s of the world, they’re in regions where there is conflict. There is conflict going on in areas where people feel displaced or people are being displaced. This displacement is happening all the time. New York, L.A., Chicago, Palestine etc.
In reimagining the ways that we commune as artists, the cyber network or transmission networks are really an interesting place and now it’s centered because of the isolation, but we’ve been doing this already. Working with folks across the world on this, it felt like, “We’re ready.” Working with everyone at Coaxial has been cool. We are already oriented to work in this way and are going to be able to share our understanding of this new terrain.
I wasn’t even there (laughs).
But you WERE there. (virtually)
Yeah, that was nice. It was comfortable. It felt exciting to me to be able to explore this simultaneous presence.
Being simultaneously present in my body physically and present in this avatar of myself that’s being presented to a community people, who are communicating with me from their avatars, in this interesting spacelike transmission. Psychically and sonically connected.
Could you go into any depth about your process for creating the video and the sound for the outside projections?
Those sound works are taking found sounds over time. There is one aspect of it where I’m searching for sounds recordings, making field recordings, and using like, different voices. In dealing with my own archive of sound, maybe I’m not unique in terms of how other musicians are deal with this stuff. I work with, and make, synths with square wave oscillators. I also generate sound from objects, using contact mics, getting some sounds from objects that I feel have interesting textures. Then, I digitize, recombine, and process the results through whatever. Sometimes, it’ll drive visual effects. Sometimes, I start playing it in a room and record that. It is a process of curating, deploying, and writing an archive so that it manifests as something that feels as if it’s asserting itself as a finished piece. All of these things I’m talking about often happen in my performances. Most of the Tel tracks you have heard are performances that I’ve combined into other performances, that then get reprocessed, to be put out there as feature performances. So it’s recursive.
In terms of finishing a piece of art for an album, many artists work up to a point where they consider the work finished and it’s time to move on to the next thing. However, if you’ve documented an archive of sounds, and your mind and/ or consciousness are changing over time, it’s as if you always have a new archive of material that you can approach; you’re constantly changing your mindset.
Yeah, and you have a new attitude to that sound. Accessibility of recording devices in our fleshy memory, in this wetware, in comparison to solid data, like a drive holding a memory, operate in a different kind of way. If I have memory on a hard drive of some performance, some sound or some piece that I made, my wet memory, my human-like cyborgian memory, and my relationship to that memory is going to be such a different thing. It’s going to be new. I will have accumulated all this stuff that has evolved and changed, but the drive’s memory is a static field. I’m just trying to free myself from the shackles of that and respect that I’m going to evolve. I guess machines are getting to that point, but we as human beings are really good at that.
Our memories change over time. It’s problematic to a certain extent. On another level, it’s really freeing and beautiful. I don’t have to have a static attitude towards the things that I’ve done OR the work that I might have not been able to acknowledge or see. Some of the work that I showed at Coaxial is from 2013, but to present it now and to rethink it, it shifts. I’m happy and thankful to have the technology to be able to do that, to preserve that work, and to redeploy it. You’re setting in a different context at a different site. That’s part of how I’m trying to embody the project as a time-based thing.
These are long-form works that are emerging over time. But it’s about an attitude to your own memories, your own work that I feel can be really generative. That’s part of what I decided to take on in Tel.
How Have you used Max in your past work? And how are you and will you be incorporating into this residency?
In the past, it’s been about performance interfaces, and to ask, “what are ways that I can deal with the void?”. There was a moment in my life where I did not want to make objects. I wanted to get out of the way of the spaces that I was occupying. This has a lot to do with my relationship with light and sound, and to get the volumes of light and sound instead of making concrete, physical objects that would circulate and live somewhere. It was all about the void and asking, “What is the emptiness?” and “How can I maintain this emptiness of a room, of its quality that I felt were amazing?” I wanted to maintain the resonant qualities of a room. Every room has a signature. There was this impulse to empty out, but how could I write that emptiness and make it active, useful, and be able to read it?
Max helped to facilitate that. To be able to use technology to capture the emptiness to translate to new signals that would be fluid and dynamic. I was taking these video cameras for input and using Max to map out scan lines on the screen. If my body is in there or any other object was in there or some other light source, it would read the input. I would define that by posterizing a number of black and white pixels or white pixels on a particular scanline, to output those as midi notes to drive a synth. It was a dynamic way of reading a field of emptiness that would often be occupied by a body in motion. So projects were reading the motion of dancers and translating that motion into sound. The other thing that gets interesting is to take numeric values, or hex value of reds, greens, and blues, to output as a signal to drive a synth. Those are interesting was to take the visual and create a sonic signal. I could work through the void and I didn’t have to be tethered to one medium. Max allowed me the opportunity to explore different media formats.
Working through these 3d spaces has been interesting to think about how Max handles objects rendered in the 3d space. It has been really interesting to me to bring in objects that are rendered in Blender or Maya into Max. Like Sun Ra says, “There are other worlds they have not told you of. They wish to speak to you.” I think it’s from Lanquidity ?
There are other worlds. Max allows for various worlds of various dimensions to speak to one another in a very fluid way. And that’s important because as an artist, getting into your trips, your dreamworld, and your worlds of imagination, manifesting that and figuring out the tools to help in this particular configuration flow is important.
I’m really thankful for the software to facilitate that.
This work is a pretty definitive foot forward for this month-long residency. Without spilling all the beans, what is coming up in the weeks ahead?
I think it’s going to be the exploration of the third space.
The 3D gallery was a major milestone, but now it’s about continuing to explore what this 3D space can do and how Max can situate itself to help navigate, mediate, and transmit the goings-on in these third spaces. Part of that is exploring this possibility through the object’s sonification and time-based media within Max.