Kari Altmann: Content Coaxing

Words by Lyndsy Welgos


Topical Cream sat down with Artist Kari Altmann to talk about the scope of her art practice, her interest integrated systems and memes. Kari spoke to us while installing her show in Switzerland.

Topical Cream: What are the power structures that you are most concerned about within your practice right now?

Kari Altmann: I’m really into networks of content and how they’re produced and organized, who benefits from them in what ways, and how they are perceived and dispersed. In this current phase of my career there seems to be a lot of focus on what blog or institution is hosting and validating your content, as well as what team of peers you’re packaging yourself with, what territory you’re claiming. I enjoy collaborating with everyone but I need to author my own context and produce my own spaces in the end because nothing that exists is ever a perfect fit. Lots of my projects experiment with making my own new tags, genres, and curated networks in some way or another, and my own work is organized together in this way, too. I think of my product as an expanding set of microcultures, and I want to remind people (and myself) that you can always create your own, no matter how big or aggressive the pre-existing things seem. It’s all up to you.A lot of people are surprised at my answers to who my community is or how I label my work. They’re surprised at the real stories behind the mirage of how everyone’s content gets glued together and branded through waves of group shows and articles, which are often narrativized by strangers. The work invites that, in a way, and it’s great, but there’s a lot of assumption and desire to package things in ways that others have packaged them before, which isn’t always 100% accurate. It’s like, surprise! We might actually be at the helm of this, we might be one step ahead.


Also, just in general, a lot of the creative scene is classist, sexist, and racist, but we knew that.

In R U IN?S (2009–ongoing) you considered or even created this idea of “networked survivalism” could you speak to us about this concept?

When I made it I was just thinking about how much of visual culture is based on genres, topics, trends, and concepts that could move a lot faster if they were treated more like memes or algorithms and organized in open networks. These memes eventually became group chat lexicons, tribal identities, cultural aesthetics, brands, and entire artist personalities…and were co-opted by a lot of things almost instantly, which I just fed back into the network again. It’s hard to put into words, but I feel like I got a back-end peek into how “culture” can be produced and shared among communal groups v. how it is turned into products by outside forces, which had their own ill-fitting formats and motives. It was great to get an audience more involved in the rapid production of genres to fit our work, but the speed and the evaporation of authorship boundaries were also really intense. We all got a lot out of participating but it was exhausting and we had to take breaks! (laughs) Hence the title. We all talk about how much that time on “conceptual Tumblr” sped us up, how we process images and information differently now, and how slow a lot of the art game seems comparatively…Late! We also learned a lot about how authorship is respected and appreciated communally, how appropriation+individuation is a part of belonging and how there are right and wrong ways to go about it, like sustainable or unsustainable ways to go viral.

Your online exhibition at the New Museum titled Soft Mobility Abstracts  included a handheld “phonecam” component capturing other artist performances as well as found source images. How was your experience collaborating with unknown sources? Also, how did you choose the performances you documented for this project?

I think this was more of a project than an exhibition, really.

Lauren (Cornell) wanted an all new project for  First Look, and when I’m making a new memetic series like that, it always starts a bit raw. It can take months or years to turn into a full, final thing, but the basic concept is there in just a few gestures. Other people who are in tune with that way of working and reading things usually get it right away and can start auto-completing it, but it’s hard to present a meme like that as an art product that’s readable for everyone else. Soft Mobility Abstracts is still building and it hasn’t really grown to the point where a big pool of unknown people are submitting content to it yet–so far it’s mostly me. This winter I’ll go back into it again. I think the projects that have had the most of that activity so far were Hellblau (old!), R-U-In?S, and Garden Club.

The more I learn about your work I see a dialogue between the way these object/images circulate as fetishized image/fantasy/ object (need word for this) whose value is derived from ideas about branding, power and circulation. Is there any difference for you in the way you treat an online exhibition and the way you might think about the life of an image?

Ultimately I think a lot about impressions over time, how those can connect together as a single ongoing and flexible image, a network-as-image. Everything becomes a site to keep creating new images with social lives that aggregate context and morph them into new forms. Everything is “live” and ongoing, every time you see a piece of mine it is probably updated and evolved from the last based on how it’s traveled. I count each of those impressions as part of the same overarching experience. Branding and things like image algorithms and memes already understand these types of production–they’re already in the territory, and we’re already absorbing their codes and language every day. I’m just putting these templates to my own use.


When we first met in person at Remedy Diner in the Lower East Side we spoke a lot about the slowness of language catching up with the pace of artists, especially those who work in technology and image based media. Also how embarrassing this can be at times for the artist. How do we correct this?

(Laughs) It’s a problem. I have to admit I’m tired of some of the curatorial clumps I get placed into, especially in relation to the internet. Love to the crew but I’m also in my own lane and need to tell my own story. I think the more terms we can come up with the better. The problem is that you have to use something that’s very accessible when you want to reach a wider audience, so as much as I want to label my practice with all my own tags all the time, in the end it’s just going to get wrapped up in whatever the most curators want to use. Ideally I could also curate my self a bit more for balance, hopefully I’ll have more time for that in the rest of this year. I have a project called Troping that’s exactly that, me grouping works around my own to place them in what I feel are appropriate or provocative contexts. Here are examples of Troping tags I’ve had in the queue, some of which are also just tags and titles I use independently on my own pieces:

slabworks, petrosumer, paleo, geopunk, jailbreak, ecosuprematism, xlear, invisible protection, handheld, go green, climate change, abundanzia, on hatch, soft brand abstracts, grub hub, resting point, tribal council, realflow, spirulxtina, bioPay, GCC, ecopia

My closest friends and I also just use these tags in everyday life.


I heard a rumor you were going to Switzerland soon.

I’m actually there right now installing a show, a “print to life” of this image Then I’ll be heading to Paris and London. I’m here with MSHR and we can’t believe how fresh the air, light, and water feel, it’s always funny to come to places where the vital materials around you are so choice. We feel so fucking CRISP! We can BREATHE! And everything looks like candy. Not mad.

What’s up in London in Fall 2014?

I’ll be stationed there for a little while. I’m not sure what will happen, but I’ve never been and there are a lot of people I need to meet or reconnect with. I’m also excited to have a bit of distance from the USA, both for perspective and just time to finish rendering. I’m sure the change of environment will reveal itself in my aesthetics, too.

vital-signs-deep-debt-install-001-900wide (1)

Resting Point (Native Arrangement, Vital Signs, Deep Debt, Tribal Council) 2013-Ongoing


Still from XLTE (Handheld) 2014-Ongoing

Photography: Lyndsy Welgos
Styling: Molly McCommons