Talking with Chris Kallmyer leaves you certain of one thing: This is a person who loves his job. Everything else? Open for interpretation.
After being asked whether he considers himself a musician or an artist, his reply is a discussion about the essence and necessity of ambiguity. A speech on the potential of experiential enchantment during museum visits veers off into concerns about the social-justice issues inherent to entering a performance space. The guy is intensely multifaceted and refuses to be pinned down.
Looking over his artwork provides some explanation for this coy evasiveness. Kallmyer’s work is less an oeuvre composed of objects than a poetics of experiencing experiences. His installations often involve taking performance pieces out of their expected habitats and executing them in new contexts that are at once disarming and charming. While his musical roots often guide this impulse toward audio, he’s just as likely to work in video, or sculpture — or anything else that strikes his fancy.
What’s your origin story?
I was born in Washington, D.C. and grew up around Maryland. I found my lane by studying classical music and playing the trumpet. I went to Europe and played in the symphony there, but before long I decided that it wasn’t for me. The symphony didn’t represent any of the reasons I had for getting into music: community, dialogue with the rest of life, like politics and sociocultural issues. So I quit about 10 years ago to attend the California Institute of the Arts. I wanted to reintegrate all those things back into my life and work.
What was being in the symphony like?
It’s like being a fine craftsperson where you’re shaping and building things live and collaboratively with other craftspeople. Which is beautiful! But there’s often this strict division of labor between the composer and the performers. The composer is the generator of ideas, and the performers enact or realize that vision in real time. There’s no room, as a member of the symphony, for being a generator of ideas and a performer. Once I started tuning in to all the incongruences between the symphony and everyday life, I realized that I didn’t have tools available to me as a performer to rectify any of it. When I was at CalArts, I didn’t know how to turn this impulse into action. Over time, living ambiguously between two fields — music and art — has allowed me to learn more about what kind of art I want to make and what kind of person I want to be. I didn’t go to that school with the aim of becoming the person I am today. Despite my reason for going, I was pretty unaware of my own interests. I thought I knew, but I became aware of how much I needed to learn, especially about myself. Today I feel more prepared to engage with my own goals. I think that’s a pretty typical journey for students.