Carson Teal is a multidisciplinary artist based in Toronto. His work features audio and visuals that create immersive environments in physical and virtual spaces. He shared with us how changing his discipline helped him discover his path as an artist. Teal is represented by Pari Nadimi Gallery.
What does an average day in the studio look like? Do you have a set routine, a preferred time to work, or anything that helps you get in the zone?
I would say that everyday is different. I'm kind of all over the place, even physically because I have two separate rooms to work in. Music is an easy way to get something going and to get into the mood. Sometimes I'll listen to ambient music or classical, or something more high energy, whatever strikes my mood. If I'm feeling an emotion that I need to get out or something is on my mind then I will start recording some sounds or if I'm envisioning an idea that I can only accomplish using digital programs then I'll go into my digital studio. But on a different day where I'm feeling like I want to get away from that digital space, I will start working on something much more hands-on and physical in my larger space where I can arrange objects. Often times this work uses projection of light so I have to wait until night time.
You studied at OCAD. How was your experience at school, what was it like for you?
School was great! I had a bit of an art education in highschool so the initial first few years were sort of learning the foundations over again. I went to OCAD for drawing and painting and by the time year three came around I wasn't feeling it the same way I used to. I had one professor who I'm still very close with who had a huge part in steering me into a different direction. She basically called me out in one of my classes and was like, "you need to challenge yourself and use more tools than the one trick you’re using." It sort of felt like I was a one trick pony, just doing the same thing over and over again and I needed to think differently and be more critical and generous with what I was giving the viewer. That sparked going down a different path of collage and sculpture and I picked up a few elective courses doing animation. It was interesting because I always loved sound and music before I even studied art, so when I got into these animation and video courses it sort of triggered me to think back and remember, oh you love music! Animation is a time based medium where you can work with sound, moving image and you can be painterly and use colour and draw. You can do whatever you want, but now you’re in a different realm, where there's a beginning and an end and it has a trajectory and a feeling that goes through the piece. This all happened in third year and by the time fourth year hit I stopped painting and I started doing these projection installations with sculpture and objects while trying to unify sound, image and the object into one experience. That was the goal of my thesis, to build relationships between these signifiers. I loved thesis and OCAD. It was definitely challenging at times, but overall it changed everything for me.
That’s great! I had a similar experience where I had professors who pushed me to try something new and it being the best thing for me.
Yeah, it shook me up a bit. I had never had anyone say anything like that to me. That’s the other thing too, I was sort of coasting by the first two years. I was doing well, getting decent, good grades but then this professor came in and pulled the rug out from under me. I loved it! I needed to wake up and try something new. I have never thought the same way since.
You mentioned you took some electives in animation and video. Did you have any interest in that before being pushed in that direction?
No not at all! Its funny, I took animation in high school and hated it because it was all on paper and it was very traditional. I didn’t like it at all. So going into OCAD I was like no animation isn't for me, it's tedious, its not something I'm interested in. But the title of the course was Digital Painting in Expanded Animation, or something along those lines. That’s when I learned how to draw in the computer, use a tablet, and learn frame by frame but also visual effects and experimenting with the software. I had this professor who recognized right away that I had a knack for it and that I should keep doing it. It became very satisfying to see the results of animation. You can sit there for hours and stare at a moving dot on the screen but then it's a very satisfying experience after the fact and seeing your image move. That’s the other thing, I've always wanted to see my drawings move. Before I got into animation my drawings already had an animation feel to them and even as a still image it looked like it was moving, just in how I was drawing the lines. When I was able to translate that into an actual moving picture it was amazing.
Even the idea of learning to use a software like Premiere is super intimidating to me!
Totally! Software is very daunting. I always tell people if they are interested in learning software, pick something you want to get out of it and learn that really well. Don’t worry about anything else, the menu and effects and all that. Just focus on the one thing you really want to do that you know that software can achieve. So for me, I wanted to draw on top of a video. Once I learned how to do that, it sort of opened me up to the rest of the possibilities. There's a couple of things you have to learn right away, like setting up your layers and a timeline and getting into drawing, but take it in bite size chunks and don’t worry about anything else. I wouldn’t consider myself an expert in any of these software's but I know how to do the things I know very well.
That’s very smart of you to focus on what you want to achieve!
The way I look at it is that everything is available for to you use as a tool, so if you want to make music, you would use a specific software for that. Sometimes people try to use things for the wrong purpose, that they are not intended for, which just makes it harder to achieve the end result. You sort of have to divide and conquer. It's like choosing the right tool to help you achieve what you are looking for. I love finding the right tool for the right job.
For your projections you use found objects. Do you use found images for your digital work? What is the criteria for the imagery and what sort of themes do your digital work portray?
Yes I do use found imagery for my digital work and it's always a tough question. The simple answer is I use a lot of intuition, which is a very vague answer, but there is a selection process based on keywords and searches. I am currently moving towards shooting my own images and footage. I have had a lot of criticism from people asking why I'm using found images or historical images. At the time it was that I couldn’t be bothered to shoot it myself and I was interested in history and videos that already exist in the world. This is a very recent change for me but taking my own photos and videos allow me to have more authorship.
I guess you are able to control the story being told more because it's all your work!
Yeah and it's exactly what I'm seeing, it’s in front of me and it’s things around me. It becomes more personal and I've noticed I'm much more connected to the images I'm pulling because I know where I was, what I was feeling or what I was thinking. But to go back to your original question, in school I was using a lot of found images from historical archives. I was initially interested in that because it was free, and readily available on these sites that I would sift through. It's called data mining, the practice of examining large databases in order to generate new information. So I would go to these databases and just type in a word to see what came up and scroll and pull the videos that I thought looked the best to the eye. I would often start with natural words like the earth, sunset or the clouds, sort of elemental searches and branch out from there. I loved looking at fire, fireworks, and people. I would start with these basic words and then something else would pop up and be interesting and you sort of end up on a journey of finding new content. I have developed a large collection of images and videos to create my own archive. A lot of them don’t get used at all or maybe I will use them at a later time. I do this with sound as well, sampling, like a lot of musicians do where they take a section of music and feature it. So it’s the same thing, collecting sounds and images and it’s the same with the objects. I kind of have this pattern that repeats itself in all these different areas. The images sort of end up fitting together after the fact when I piece it all together and try to build a narrative that fits. I try to build relationships between the images, like the relationship between an astronaut and the earth for example and then I build a narrative around them.
You have four areas of work, Digital painting, gifs, projections and sound. Do you ever make work that doesn’t include one feature?
I never really work on all four them at once. It kind of goes back to what I'm feeling at any given moment. I'll spend a lot of time just drawing, and the drawings exist just as drawings alone and that might give me an idea to work on a video or sculpture. So I work on each component in its isolated form. If I'm making sound, I'm just making sound. If I'm making video I'm just making video, but I can introduce sound and sometimes edit the sounds to fit and line up with the video. It's really when it comes to installation when I begin to bring all the elements together. I have these objects that I set up, I turn on the projector, go to my computer and get the video. Some of them have sound paired with them already and sometimes I need to create an entirely new score to the video, but it's in those moments where nothing would be the same without each other. When it comes to installation they all support each other, it’s a nice triangle of elements. I think it's my strongest and most ambitious work when I'm setting up a space, where each element is important and integral to the piece as a whole. But I think all of those elements can also be isolated on their own as well. Generally I would never make a video without sound, that's sort of a rule. I can make a video that doesn’t require sculpture, but generally video and sound go together. Sound is an interesting one because I also put out sound on its own, which I'm always sort of amazed by how that can be. Sound is probably the most fascinating thing to me out of anything, it's definitely the driving force. Without sound a lot of the work would be hollow, it wouldn’t be the same.
You do a lot of drawing where you use a lot of symbols, some that are similar to hieroglyphics. Where does your inspiration for these symbols come from? Has this been your style for a while or has it been developed?
It's definitely been developed over time, its something I have recently come into in the last few years. I have always drawn a lot, it was the first thing I did when I first started making art. I like drawing because its immediate. It’s the fastest way to get something from your head to paper, where things like animation or video take so much more time and labor and require much more planning. So the drawings are kind of playful and stream of conscious. I've always been interested in ancient hieroglyphics, Egyptian symbols, creating a language that is visual and beautiful. I have this battle with language and words, it’s a struggle that I've always been working at and fighting when explaining my work in writing. So it's kind of inspired by this idea to speak with symbols. It can be a sun, raindrop, heart, flower, but it becomes a little more mysterious at times where you’re unsure of what it is and I like the idea that its unknown. At the same time I'm not hiding being it, I would like to think there is meaning behind it, it's not just made up or whatever but it is kind of off the top of my head, immediate, what I see when I close my eyes. The thoughts popping in and out. The inspiration definitely comes from ancient languages.
I like that some are very obvious, like the sun and heart where people can draw their own conclusions from what that means to them but there is also more obscure and unclear imagery that lets the viewer consider what that means. It engages the viewer in an interesting way.
It creates a conversation and like what you were saying about the hearts and sun’s, little things, even like a word in the English language that pops up on the page that is clearly identifiable, gives the viewer something to grab onto and anchor it, where they recognize something human about it and they can relate to it. I think that’s something I've really struggled with over the years, being too abstract where I am now trying to be more generous, give more information, be honest. If this is what you’re feeling, put it down, don’t just scribble and hope people understand what your feeling from an abstract expression. Give them something, give them a house, a place or a word or something. Little things like that can go a long way to get someone's attention.
Yeah there can be layers to what you give a way and what you don’t. It can be subtle or more obvious in how you control the narrative.
I'm much more calculated on what I want to give away. It's definitely something I've tried to build towards. It's taken me a long time to get to the point where instead of just hoping the viewer is going to understand something, I’m actually participating and thinking of what I would want the audience to see and actively playing a role in the narrative. But I do I love hearing how people read into it.
How do you feel digital work is perceived in the Canadian Art Scene. It’s a fairly new medium and not as frequently discussed as say painting or drawing. It's definitely not in the canon of art history yet.
It’s a love hate thing. I think on one hand it speaks very much about the world we currently live in with the internet, social media. I know for me I am constantly on my phone whether I like it or not, it's very much a habitual thing and it's just the way of the world now. Everything we do now is on a digital platform. There are people who are trying to stay away from digital because it's overwhelming and it can be oversaturated, but in terms of as a medium in the art world, it's weird because it has no real materialistic value unless you make prints of still images. Its difficult to sell. When I was painting, I was selling paintings. Now I get paid for my time, my labor, and licensing of works. There are ways to be a digital artist and make a living doing it, at least establish yourself in the fine art scene where people are interested in collecting copies of your videos. You can make editions of videos and have them only distributed to certain people, where you don’t post the entire video online. When I post online it's usually just short snippets, little 10 to 30 second clips when the video is actually 2-3 mins in length. I haven't been lucky enough to have someone collect a digital file yet, I think that’s a fascinating idea. But I don’t think it's ideal, I'm almost fighting the digital realm as much as I'm heavily based in it. I make digital work because it helps me understand the world we live in, this hyper digital, post internet era. If we have these tools available to us, why not use them. There are things that I can do on the computer that I cannot do elsewhere. The art that I'm creating using digital techniques, cannot be created in any other medium. Installation art allows me to bring these images from the digital screen to a three-dimensional physical environment where people are able to walk around space. They can participate in creating the work simply by being there. They can experience it. I'm very interested in the human experience and creating memories and experiences using digital technologies in a space. In short, I think the digital art world is still sorting itself out.
You mentioned that you generally post short snippets of your digital work. What is the typical length of a video piece? Does it depend on the theme or what your trying to convey?
It definitely depends, more often than not they are short because they are experiments. The nice thing about working digitally is that you can make a 30 second clip and then add it to a longer video composition later on. I make these little videos, save them, archive them, and then bring them back later. If its a full length piece it might be 3 to 4 minutes. Those are much more narrative based with a beginning, middle and end to them. Generally they also loop. Sometimes they are seamless and sometimes they are not. I can make a 1 minute video that loops for 30 mins and after some time you would be able to tell that its looping but you can strategically place the clips at the beginning and end to disorient the viewer so they don’t know when it starts and finishes. You get the most out of a shorter clip that way. The longer the video the more time it takes so for the most part I'm doing short clips, like sketches.
Would you consider doing an MFA?
Yes I am currently considering it. I would like to do it in the next few years, before I lose interest in school and get distracted by other things in life. I think education is great and I would like more of it.
Can you tell us about Pari Nadimi Gallery and how you came to be represented by them?
My friend was doing his Masters at OCAD and he curated me into his thesis exhibition. He went on to work at the gallery after graduating and someone dropped out of showing last September. Pari was looking for artists to potentially show and my friend submitted a few artists he thought would work well with the artists that were already showing. She really liked my work and asked if I could show in a few months. Of course I said yes I would love to. It was a crazy opportunity and I had a very short turn around where I pulled together a brand new work. This piece was called “Chapter 2”. It was a duo show with Botto + Bruno from Italy. They had their work on the walls and I had the floor space which worked out really well. I was asked to do an artist talk for a group of people and afterwards Pari approached me and said that she would like to represent me. Its an honour to be represented, especially so early on.
Who are some artist who inspire your practice?
Fine artists: David Altmejd, Olafur Eliasson, Hadley + Maxwell, Geoffrey Farmer, Basquiat, Marcel Duchamp.
Also very much inspired by musicians like Nicolas Jaar. He is a huge inspiration sonically and conceptually. You can tell he is very aware of the fine art world even though he is making music.
If you could collaborate with any artist, dead or alive, who would it be?
Nicolas Jaar, I have such a crush on him. I think it would be amazing to learn from him.
What is a book or movie you’ve read or watched recently that you would recommend?
Homo deus and Sapiens, both written by Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens is a brief history of humankind and Homo deus is a brief history of tomorrow. Both are interesting in regards to the current world we are living in now.
Another book is The Hermetica: The Lost Wisdom of the Pharaohs. It is about the translations of Egyptian texts when it was translated into Latin and Greek.
As for a movie, Terrence Malick’s, Tree of Life. He is a really good director. His directing, editing, and sound really interests me because there isn't a lot of dialogue. There's a lot of human expression paired with very striking imagery.
What's next for you?
I'm releasing some music later this year! I'm also gearing up for my solo show at Pari Nadimi Gallery in February 2019.
Thanks for sharing with us Carson! Be sure to check out Carson's website and Instagram to see his latest work.