On May 1, 2024, NOW Art Founder Carmen Zella sat down with Kamal Sinclair, Senior Director of Digital Innovation at the Music Center, for a live conversation about public art on Instagram (@nowart_la). We’ve been having a blast chatting with our favorite arts leaders and artists in Los Angeles, and we hope you’ll join us for future talks. RSVP here.

Below is a transcript of the video:

Carmen Zella (CZ): Hi everyone!

Kamal Sinclair (KS): Hello!

CZ: We are super excited because we’re going to have a really good time tonight. Thank you so much for joining. We’re going to settle in and let a few more people join, but I have the privilege of sitting beside Kamal Sinclair, who is the Senior Director of Digital Innovation at the Music Center, which is a really incredible title. We were just talking about how incredible that title is for an institution like the Music Center that has the L.A. Opera, the Center Theater Group – these are institutions that are more traditional institutions. So to be able to incorporate a very technology-based, futuristic implementation of art is quite extraordinary.

So as we settle in and get everybody comfortable in the room…  

KS: I love y’all in your virtual room.  

CZ: Yeah, we’re gonna dig in. So whoever is joining right now, Kamal Sinclair is our guest and I am so excited as the host. My name is Carmen Zella. I’m the Founder and Director of NOW Art LA, which is a public art institution.

So, we have a lot to talk about and we’ve already had a prelude. There’s a lot of exciting topics that we want to be able to cover. If you have any questions, go ahead and put them in the chat. I will do my best to address them. Although, sometimes I don’t, so we might circle back after the recorded conversation and make sure that all of your questions are addressed. So we’re definitely going to get to it. 

In respect of time the conversation is going to be around 15 minutes and we’re going to allow for some Q&A time. So I just want to dig in pretty quickly. And so Kamal, I want you to introduce yourself to everybody here. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Hopefully you guys can hear us well. We’re in downtown LA at the Music Center. 

KS: Hello everyone. Thank you so much for having me. I’m a fan and I’m a fan of not only your work with NOW Art, but Luminex – I mean, Luminex being a big part of that – But the first time I went to Luminex, I was like, “Oh my gosh, this immersion in my people!” It’s a great service to bring all these incredible artists for people to actually experience.

And that’s one of the things, like what we were talking about earlier – I came from this kind of development side of storytellers and artists and technologists that were trying to find their way into how do these things mix, these new technologies, da, da, da. But a lot of it always kind of went to the festivals and it went into kind of the shelves – like there’s so much great work that never gets to the public.

And so I think the work that you’ve done and this impetus around public art is actually in some ways not new to me because I’ve been in the arts for a long time, but I have the honor of being part of a community that’s going to bring things that have been kind of for a very small group of people to experience, and I’m one of those few people.

I go around and I give lectures around, “Oh, and this is what I’ve seen over the last 10 years of emerging art” and whatever. And one guy at Brown University raised his hand and he said, “I’m starting to think this is an oral storytelling tradition because I never get to see any of these things.”

Because it was in this elite festival world. And so, to bring those artists to the public, to get out of the way, is what you do, and what public art curators do. And I feel like I’m a newbie to that moment where there’s this incredible, huge public space. And it’s a place for these artists to connect to the public and the public to connect with them.

And so I’m hoping I can do a good job in that role here at the Music Center. Yeah, that’s my intro. 

CZ: So I was talking with Kamal about how she’s an influencer. And with her background, you know, she was in an off-Broadway production of Stomp. Gotta ask her about that!

But it’s like, historically, the storytelling, when we think about art, and we think about concept, and we think about storytelling, her vantage point of being able to make sure that that is impressed upon, it’s not lost, that there is an arc of a narrative in every single piece, no matter what application of technology there is – I think is really important. So do you want to talk a little bit about your history and how you kind of came into this role? 

KS: Thank you. Yeah. So I was a dancer. I went on my first professional dance tour at 12 in Southeast Asia. So from an early age, you know, you start dance early. So my career was very focused on dance.

And then went into experimental theater, which was dance and theater starting to connect. I was at New York University, studying experimental theater, when I auditioned for Stomp and I got it and it just took my life to a whole other direction. I did a thousand of those shows in my time. 

CZ: You must’ve been in such good shape!

KS: I was in such good shape! My knees are bad now because of that. But it was a thousand shows, but we still barely touched the tip of the iceberg in terms of the audiences that my peers in the film program were able to hit with their films. You know what I mean? I had to travel the country, travel the world, to be in real space to deliver the story, whatever that experience was.

They spent six months, created a film, and that lives in perpetuity and it’s spreadable. And I remember being like, ah, I’m so jealous! They’re two totally different mediums. I didn’t want to lose the power of liveness because there’s something about that that is just indescribable when a whole room of people are feeling this rhythm, and it’s like your spine is tingling. You guys have been in a room with great music.

CZ: Well for me it was De La Guarda. 

KS: Oh, De La Guarda! 

CZ: So it’s very similar, because for me, my like, “Oh my God” moment was when I saw physical theater for the very first time with De La Guarda. It was immersive in a way that, you can’t leave without having your life changed. So, Stomp, De La Guarda, like these are the roots of, I think, what we’re bringing into…what is now kind of, I’m using my fingers, immersive public space, right?

Which is a very kind of, it’s a strange term. Immersive doesn’t mean when you take your phone out and you film something. Immersive, at least to me, means when your entire body and your soul is enveloped and participates in a space. 

KS: So, I mean basically, when I first came upon, I was working at the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta. My job was, we need to get more diversity and more younger audiences on, and this is when YouTube started. This is when social media began. And I was seeing all this diverse cultural expression happening there. And we had like a dead canvas sometimes. And so I was like, how do we start to find a way for that culture that’s digital to connect with the physical and create some porousness? 

And so I was studying these early experiments in transmedia, or playable cities was one I was following, where these museums were having people go out with GPS stuff and play the city and have people find each other. So I was looking at these very early things and then I happened to talk with Hank Willis Thomas. He’s a friend of mine from NYU and he said, “Oh, I’m doing this project called Question Bridge: Black Males and I’m doing video-mediated dialogue.” And he showed me – he had 1,500 question and answer clips already in the can, and one night he was just showing me, he was just getting my opinion, like, what should I do with all this?

Should it be a documentary? Should it be a 15-minute media installation? And I was like, if this is about defining black men, like letting black men define themselves in their own terms, you can’t edit out any of these people. Like you’re immediately defining in your own way who black men are as soon as you cut them out.

So I said, you should look at the internet because there’s other kinds of tools in which to navigate content that you don’t define it, but you allow the users to find it. And so anyway, that’s why I got sucked into this whole world, was just trying to give him some advice on that.

CZ: That’s really strong advice. I would say that’s the right direction for him to have gone. Well, and plus, and then what happened to the project? 

KS: Yeah, it did. It did pretty good. 

CZ: Pretty good!

KS: And so that allowed me to put transmedia producer on my bio and then the rest is history. I just kind of got sucked up into this world, but bringing it back to being here again, being in a physical theater environment is…I’m kind of back to that opportunity of finding what I started then and didn’t get to finish was how do you create this porous relationship between physical and digital so that you don’t lose the liveness and you also can get what is native about both experiences, live as well as whatever digital, and I think that we’re in – placemakers are in – a particularly interesting position that we weren’t in back in 2007-8 when we started, when I was doing this in Atlanta. 

In Web 1.0, 90’s web, it was just, someone had to tell you the WWW and you had to find it. It was just like flat walls, right? Then Web 2.0 – when I was in Atlanta in 2007, all of a sudden, boom, social media takes over. Hello, we’re in Web 2.0 right now. How you doing? 

And there’s two more predictions. Not Web 3, just the blockchain, that thing. Web 3.0 is spatialized web. And so, what is a spatialized web? Spatialized web is where the screens go away. It’s where – in some ways, I mean, in some ways they get closer to your face – but it’s where…

CZ: It’s not VR? 

KS: It’s not VR. And it is, everything can be black mirror as well as optimistic. I’m not an evangelist for tech at all. I’m interested in how we can think about what is the most optimistic way we can go, but mitigate the worst case, because it can go both ways. But the spatialized web is when – I think there’s like 200 zettabytes of data right now that’s out in the world and that’s going to increase through embedded sensors everywhere, AI – AI helping to navigate that zettabytes of data that we’re generating with all these devices – but you won’t need screens anymore to engage with…so example, there was an artist that had an old, like antique nightstand that every time – he put a little glowing light on the front of the drawer – every time a certain hashtag with a picture came up on Twitter, it would light up and you’d pull the drawer.

There’d be an analog physical picture in there. That was the picture that was hashtagged on Twitter. So you never saw Twitter. You never had the screen, but you had this thing that was connected to the internet that created art. So it was kind of like, you’d screen this, but very much connected, and very much connected to the data.

So if you can imagine a spatialized web where there’s so many things happening around us that are not screen based, but are all internet connected, and they’re giving you the communication, giving you the opportunity to connect. 

CZ: So if I’m understanding then, artists would be creating, kind of, prompts so that art would be generated based on the data in the environment that’s happening around, or not even around them but just on a set of particular prompts, so that art would be permeated in any kind of medium.

KS: Well, there’s another one – Iyapo Repository was an Afrofuturist group. They created a speculative futurist lantern where they walked around – you held this beautiful art piece of a lantern. You walked around New York City and every time it crossed a point where a black person was killed by a police officer, it would light up. 

CZ: Wow.

KS: And so there’s no screen, there’s no audio, there’s nothing but this artifact, this thing you hold. But the story in context of place is so powerful – that’s just one side. That’s the Internet of Things kind of side. But there is also spatialized computing, which is where you do have like Apple’s new headset, where there’ll be smaller and smaller ways for us to not have to go through something that you’re holding, and you can stand up and you can be – just like you’d wear a pair of glasses, you’re seeing the layer.

CZ: But I love the physical object, too. You know, because it’s like, in the crafting of the art, it’s the convergence between the object, spatial place, storytelling, and in many ways that is absolutely public art. I mean, especially if you were able to multiply that object to be able to give it to whomever is in a space they can pick it up and they can actually go with it.

KS: Yeah. 

CZ: So incredible. 

KS: So for placemaking institutions, parks, whatever, there’s a way for us to kind of lead, or at least empower artists to lead, in defining some of those, of what is native in that kind of a web, which right now we are very good at doing it for a screen, but we don’t know how yet how to do it where we’re actually in place together and still connected.

CZ: Yeah. Because it’s more like geographic data points. 

KS: It’s geographic. It also can be…I mean it could be anything. 

CZ: Anything. 

KS: I mean literally they have heat sensor tracking, like I can’t even say in 15 minutes how many different kinds of technology will be coming out that will allow us to have access to the invisible data all around us, like the eyes of the animal – you could be somewhere in the forest and instantly go into a visual of how a bird is seeing the place where you’re in. 

CZ: So Kamal is flipping my brain right now and hopefully a lot of people on the other side are feeling the inspiration of possibility that is really at the forefront – that she’s very privy to. And so how would somebody…we’re trying to empower artists and we’re trying to engage them and share opportunities to create public art that are really unlimited. And the thing that makes AR so palpable and other types of technology, like what you’re talking about, so palpable is that you don’t need to get permits. You don’t have to go through all of this bureaucracy that a traditional, formal public art sculpture would have to go through. Technology is really our way into the future for being able to break that down and give artists opportunity to express and to be able to have their work.

Because everybody has a smartphone now to have their work visible and experienced. So with all of the information of these different types of technology that artists could harness and start to draw from as forms of inspiration or into their practice, how could we empower them? How could we share that? Like that canon of technology that’s maybe not even all developed in the future, but it’s coming.  

KS: Well, I think that what I found when I was at Sundance – I would have Oscar-award-winning filmmakers, they’re like, “What? I can’t even process what this thing is.” So we just spent a lot of time sharing what this thing is and let them go “Oh!” – they found what was native about it. We didn’t, I couldn’t prescribe it as the curator. I’m like, okay, this thing does this – what does that mean for the experience? I just want to make sure I double down that I don’t think it’s tech first and then you get an artist to do something with the tech. It’s about the artist has a vision. The artist has an experience. Something in them that they want to express and whatever, by any means necessary. If that is a pencil and paper and putting up Post-Its all over a wall and having people throw paint at it, that needs to be it. If it is something that this particular technology can give an insight into, then that artist, they find that.

So exposure of what the technology can do – you found this, you were showed this iPhone at one point, you were showed this tripod and you are now creating with that.  

So it’s about exposure. It’s about giving space for experimentation. And then things come out that I could never imagine. I’m always like, I would have never thought about that in that way. 

CZ: So one of the questions that I wanted to ask Kamal, and I think we’ve skipped through it maybe a little bit, is the future – What is the future of public art look like?

KS: Well, I think it looks like now and it looks like the past so I always want to make sure I always honor that it’s not necessarily a forward progress that leaves things behind, it’s circular, it’s messy, it’s all over the place, and sometimes the technology just scales already what we have.

But we did some experiments. So one of the things we did when I first started was bring Kinfolk here. And we commissioned three AR monuments. They identified three different artists in LA and they each created a signature monument to represent different communities that are underrepresented in our monument landscape, which we know 98 percent of it is about war and it’s men and it’s white men. So what I thought was interesting about what they’re doing is they’re using the AR technology to help us conceive and co-create, because they’re asking people, “Who do you, who from your family history or your community history, do you want to see memorialized?”

And then they create those monuments for us to visualize those hidden figures or just the different kinds of stories that are invisible. And so they’re using that almost as like a pre-visualization for us to then manifest it in physical ways. So what is interesting about that is the tool, the tech is more about connecting and co-creating public art, which is something we’ve always done. There’s always co-creation happening in our communities. We’re always building up each other. We’re always having this dynamic, synergistic thing that art emerges out of. But it’s just using it in a way that we haven’t been capable of using in the past.

So, the future of public art, I think some of these tools might influence what comes in physical forms. And I do think that as our cities get smarter or get more responsive, in other words they call it responsive cities, then there’s going to be a totally different layer over our physical canvas.

There’s going to be a whole digital layer over that canvas that is not on a screen. And it’s not even necessarily just projected. And sometimes it’s object to object. I have no idea what artists are going to use that technology to paint. 

CZ: And hopefully we can anchor space outside of it just being commercialized for the importance of what the artists have to say, without marketing dollars being the full influence.

So we want to make sure that we have these conversations and whomever is on the other listening end of this that we advocate for that space and be able to claim that space because it is going to be a challenge. 

KS: I mean collaboration among arts institutions and arts community is critical because we are, as always, the commercial entities, they have so much money. 

CZ: And power.

KS: And power. And honestly, the stuff that comes out isn’t even…like when VR first came out in this particular hype cycle, a lot of the content was so bad that the public was like, “I ain’t spending no money on that.” And we were like, if you kind of empower artists to do their thing then stuff that will connect with people will come out. So even from a commercial – let’s put that aside – but the cost of doing some of this experimentation is relatively high in a nonprofit arts environment.

So what we’re doing is we’re creating these cohorts of institutions around this country and around the world where we are resourcing artists and fellowships, we’re resourcing platform building, we’re resourcing understanding how to create ephemeral space in places that are only used to holding seats. So all that is happening behind the scenes right now. 

CZ: How can somebody tap into that? Yeah, call me!

KS: I mean, it’s emergent. It’s not like an Illuminati type thing, but there are about 40 performing arts centers that meet monthly on a Zoom, and we’re all sharing what we’re learning, and what’s working, what’s not working. And then we’re also working with the Royal Shakespeare Company and BAM, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and Oxford and Watershed and MIT and Stanford.

And it’s a group of people that are all looking at the future of performance and trying to understand, from a systems level, how do we create that non-commercial space for artists, because…

Okay, sorry, I’m all over the place. But we had an Imagineer come down here, amazing artist and designer, experienced designer.

And she came down, I was showing her around and I was like, “I know such small potatoes here,” compared to like, she does Disney World, you know what I mean? Like in terms of experience design. And she goes, “No, I would love to do something here.” She’s like, “I’m so tired of the mouse!” Like, the IP, she’s stuck to the IP of this big, mega…

CZ: Brand, and yeah, you’ve got constricted, yeah.

KS: And she said here, the actual stories of Angelenos, the nuances of culture, the nuances of human beings, like there’s a lot more freedom to express in institutions that are not the commercial side. So even though we don’t have the big bucks and even though we couldn’t afford her salary, or if she were going to come take my job, she makes a lot more money than I’ve ever made. She still sees the value here, on such a high level, even more than what’s happening at Disney.

CZ: Because it’s not always about turning a profit. It’s about creating and seeding influence. And it takes one really great project to be able to be showcased, and at that moment, then it creates a different standard for everybody else who’s looking at the same type of platform. It’s really important. It’s really important.  

KS: We’re just getting started. Most of the first year and a half that I’ve been here has been literally just trying to understand how the city works in terms of public space and how do we create cracks in the cement for some new grasses to grow.

And it’s been hard. I’ve had a lot of great support. Those that brought me in are really enthusiastic and are holding out. But it is something that…it’s a process. 

CZ: Do you feel like you need to defend your position sometimes in terms of the importance of digital art and, you know? 

KS: Somebody asked me at a conference in November, they were like, “So who did you have to convince to get this job?” I was like, me? This is not like a, “Oh yes, this is the dream. Like, when I was a little girl, I wanted to be this.” I’m very honored and privileged to be here, to be in this position, but I was like, that seems like…hard!

I came in actually more skeptical than enthusiastic and I was like, “Okay, is this institution going to be flexible enough? Is it going to find agility?” You know, we are the opposite of innovation in some ways because our role has been to create this stability, make sure that the lights come on, to make sure all of these things – because we’re not the L.A. Phil or the L.A. Opera or the Master Chorale or the Center Theater Group. We are the landlords, and we’ve been that for 60 years, which has been wonderful, but now trying to think of us as a campus and not just the individual companies that are inside of those theaters or in those buildings. And now that we also have Grand Park, Gloria Molina Grand Park, this is about place. It is about public. It is, how is this a playground in a way that’s…I mean, we have dance on the plaza and really great things. I mean, the park does amazing things, but thinking about it from that other sphere of connectivity, the physical as well as the digital, I mean that’s a big question.

CZ: So there’s an exhibition currently that’s happening at the Music Center campus, which we’re going to put on our social media, that I did like a little kind of fly through. And we’re really excited to see what Kamal has up her sleeve as her position continues, and the exchange continues with the Music Center. 

But, we’re coming up to time. Thank you everybody for participating and joining. I wanted to give you the opportunity in the last couple of minutes to say any last words about public art. 

KS: Yeah, I mean I think public art is the lifeblood of a city, right? People come from all over the world just to walk through cities to hear the stories that are coming off of the objects and the landscape around it and those sculptures, or those murals, or even living public art, like when you’re talking about the ways in which some of these gorgeous, growing art sculptures exist in different places. It just tells you a story. And I always, one of the things that I like about the digital is that when you walk around the city, you hear ghosts talking to you, hear previous people that walk those streets, and I’m always like, who are you?

And I just want to hear who was there before. So hopefully, these kinds of technologies will allow us to not only see and feel, but to get told those stories from the ghosts that have left their footsteps before us. So, I don’t know, that’s a little poetic, but…  

CZ: I think it’s totally on point. Alright guys, thank you so much. We really appreciate you attending. What we’re going to do is we’re going to have this as a recorded session on nowartpublic.com, Artist’s Portal page. And yeah, hopefully we’ll see you again for the next IG chat. Thank you. 

KS: Bye!

CZ: Bye. 

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