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Kabir Carter’s Ghostly Room Tones at White Box (NYC)

At exactly 6:02 pm on Saturday, November 17, the ghosts entered the White Box gallery. This is a few weeks back, when Kabir Carter performed at White Box, a basement exhibit space deep in Manhattan’s Chelsea district.

The ghosts were sounds, and those sounds were of the room but not presently evident in the room. The space was momentarily full of clanking and voices, none of it emanating from the small group of people, among them myself and some families with small children, who had arrived in time for the scheduled start of show. We were all still as sculpture in the space, which was empty aside from Carter’s modest setup: a folding table, some mixing equipment, three speakers, and a telltale microphone stand.

The ghostly noises, and then silence: an extended pause, followed by more noises, some familiar, some not, some seemingly transformed by digital devices. Carter’s mode had been made evident: he was recording sounds in the room, then playing them back to us, having altered them in a variety of ways. Hence the work’s title, Overexcited Recaptures. The most prominent elements included the footsteps of people entering and exiting (notably some of those families) by way of the long ramp that connects the gallery to the street above. Late in the piece, children were literally heard but not seen. At one point I thought I heard cellphone that had rung earlier on, but there’s always a chance its owner had simply stuffed it deep in a bag so as to muffle the sound.

A lot of the sounds weren’t noticeable until Carter drew our attention to them, especially the tones inherent in the space, small noises that had been amplified well beyond their natural volume levels. Thick tones appeared occasionally, with no self-evident point of origin.

Though the sounds themselves were fascinating, their root in the near present gave them an added visceral dimension. I had the urge one might get in a cave or at the base of a canyon, to scream or clap in order to witness how the nature of the space — or in the case or Carter’s piece, the nature of the system — would transform and reflect the sound back at me.

The gallery is called White Box but its most characteristic architectural element is like a mortician’s idea of a catwalk, a concrete slab that extends partially across the floor and supports a load-bearing column. The initial batch of attendees first stood up above the sunken level where Carter had stationed himself, but as time went on, many of us made our way onto the main floor and spread out — out among the ghosts.

Carter’s piece was part of White Noise II, a month-long series of sound art events and exhibitions curated by Esa Nickle. These included work by Michael Northam, James Fei with Kato Hideki, and Eva Sjuve, as well as a restaging of a seminal John Cage work. In related events, Phill Niblock performed on December 7 and Michael Schumacher is scheduled to do so on December 13.

Additional info and documentation, including photos, though no apparent sound, at whiteboxny.org. Kabir Carter’s webpage is kabircarter.com.

By Marc Weidenbaum

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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