Sunday, May 17, 2015

Interview with Tish Carter

From the performance art piece Water Walkers (Rome, 1991) by Tish Carter
Tish Carter has always seen the world in a cross-disciplined way. Listening to her, one realizes just how many different forms and methods of artistic expression intersect. She is a critically acclaimed and award-winning visual and performance artist, choreographer and educator who has toured internationally. Her work has been shown at the Spoleto Festival (USA and Italy), the Kennedy Center and the Hirshhorn Museum in DC, among others. Using different mechanisms, she explores self-awareness, memory, time and perception.

Based in Washington, DC, her website is She answered some questions about her upbringing, inspirations, her approach to art, as well as elephants and tugboats. 

Arts Community Connection: You’ve mentioned “time based media” as part of your repertoire. Could you explain what that means?

Tish Carter: Time based art is a cluster of units dealing with the complex multiplicity of artistic forms which use the passage of - and the manipulation of - time as the essential element. Time based art includes specific reference to experimental film, video art and installation, sound, performance and multimedia computing. Time based art develops critical awareness through close study of different histories of the moving image and the expressive use of technology and the human body.

ACC: You grew up in Michigan, the daughter of accomplished academics. What about your childhood and young adult years most shaped you? Did growing up in a more rural setting – versus an urban one – shape your artistic perspective?

Tish: I never thought that I was living in a "rural setting", that was the farmer's property I could see from the north side of the island I lived on as a child and into young adulthood. I lived with just my parents, grandparents and an older brother. My father was always planning a trip for fun or for academic research so I never felt isolated. By the time I was 12, I had visited every state but Hawaii. 

My mother taught Art History and believed that creative engagement was a daily activity. My grandmother who taught me to design and build costumes, or encouraged building creative environments with simple materials such as string, rolls of paper, cardboard boxes and large pieces of cloth. My grandfather, father and brother helped me design and build a tree house when I was 10. It was 4 cubes that made one large space. It had a lovely oak wood floor with large windows. I often think of the various experiences associated with building my tree house while I am designing backdrops, or objects for installations that include performers.

I learned to fly small planes which encouraged a different perspective of seeing landscape. I would notice the visuals present in the Michigan landscape…the plow lines of the farmers’ fields for example, which resemble brush-strokes by a painter. The great lakes contain the vibrant hues that you find in watercolors and the lights of factories echoed a light grid for a theater.  What is puzzling is my parents really pushed me, or should I say...wanted me…to become a dentist.
Untitled by Tish Carter
ACCYou have toured internationally...and to some very interesting places. What is the most interesting experience you’ve had abroad?

Tish: Watching a herd of elephants majestically walking single file in the great Serengeti plains (a region located in north Tanzania to south-western Kenya), highlighted against the horizon. There were at least 50 in the herd, maybe more. Walking has played an important role in the development of the performance structures I use in my art work. The day before seeing this heard of elephants, I was working with a zoologist whose focus included the study of how elephants move and I was shown a fascinating demonstration of an elephant walking. The heel - with its large, flat pad - hits the ground first. This is why elephants are able to walk so quietly. The foot rocks onto the toes which are the last thing to leave the ground. Sometimes this leaves a typical "scuff" mark at the front of the spoor and helps identify which way the animal is traveling. Also noted was that the rear foot is often placed on the same spot just vacated by the front foot. This is called registering and may make the spoor more difficult to read. 

ACCHow do you find inspiration or source material for your work?

Tish: My research involves ongoing, often progressive, studies of eastern and western views on perception, memory, self-awareness and the physical expression.

I combine this with an intuitive and random collecting of information that I happen upon on a day-to-day basis. This includes things I see in the news/media or in public/private spaces, and the inspiration I find in fashion, architecture, and visual art. It’s an attempt to engage with wherever I happen to be in the moment. I don’t tend to work with a single idea when I’m creating. Rather, the distillation occurs as the piece arises through the editing and framing of the multitude of content I collect.

ACCDescribe your most informative experience as an artist that helped define your aesthetic.

Tish: Being around established visual artists that encouraged me…or should I say that allowed me to feel OK to utilize a wide array of media and artistic approaches to redefine those moments of self discovery that lead to developing performance material that becomes a memorable experience for audiences. Some powerful formative experiences I had were during a wonderful Ford Foundation Fellowship which allowed me to study with visual and performing artists such as Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Lar Lubovitch, Laurie Anderson, Pina Bausch, Robert Wilson and many more.

ACCHow do you deconstruct a linear story and keep the core in tact through an abstract medium?

Tish: I have never been too concerned about a linear story. My artistic work tends to be nonlinear narrative, disjointed narrative or disrupted narrative. That is, I use a narrative technique, sometimes used in literature, film, hypertext websites and other narratives, where events are portrayed out of chronological order, or in other ways where the narrative does not follow the direct causality pattern of the events featured, such as parallel distinctive plot lines, dream immersions or narrating another story inside the main plot-line. It is often used to mimic the structure and recall human memory, but has been applied for other reasons as well.

VAC: How do you determine when a work is complete?

Tish: Frankly, a performance work is never complete; it is an ongoing process that you learn more about each time you make a new work.

When I was teaching in Italy, this was written in English on wall that lead to my studio: “When the work leaves the studio and goes beyond the reach of the artist.”

ACCIs there a question you’ve always wanted to be asked?

Tish: How did you get your name on a tugboat? 

ACCWhat is your answer?

Tish: When standing on the shore of the island I grew up on and looking cross the main channel, there was a boatyard, called Stenders. Mr. Stender had a fleet of tugboats that he used to help the large freighters navigate through the main channel when the freighters were too heavy. I had a horse that I would ride to the point of the island to watch the tugboats as they assisted the large freighters who were carrying oversized loads to the open bay area. Mr. Stander saw me on the standing there, so he stopped to show me his newest tugboat. He asked me what he should call her…and I said Letitia (my full name)! A week later, I saw my name painted on the back of his newest tugboat.

(Jameson Freeman interviewed Tish Carter on behalf of the Arts Community Connection)

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