Art from the Natural World: Artist-in-residence Rob Carter

By Anita Overcash

Rob Carter isn’t a scientist, but he is an artist with a hypothesis of his own. He’s been rigorously exploring the roles that scientific advances and human interferences can have on the natural world. And he’s currently doing so as an artist-in-residence here at McColl Center. The residency is a partnership with the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where he is lending his creative lens to students enrolled in a video art class.

Working primarily in photography and video, Carter's newest work – featuring live footage, aerial photography and animation – is a short video called Catawba. It was sparked by his interest in the Catawba River and Lake Norman during his first visit to Charlotte as an artist-in-residence here in 2007. But now his latest work couldn’t be more relevant, as the Catawba River is a hot topic with ongoing coal ash issues and environmental concerns. Catawba touches on human reliance and interference of water supplies, in addition to the rise of pollution.


Rob Carter, Catawba, 2017, Single Channel HD Video. Total running time: 6 minutes. (Courtesy of the artist)

Carter has been busy researching the growth and development of the water supplies and he has a particular interest in former communities that have become “lost under the lake.” He notes that there are unseen remnants like bridges under the surface, and in his animation he recreates ghost-like trees and farms that existed prior to the changes. “It attempts to give a short overview of our relationship with Lake Norman, the sort of land beneath it, and our manipulation through damming of the river system,” says Carter. "These massive walls, these dams hold a great deal of water, but also all this mysterious lost history underneath.”


Rob Carter at work in his studio during his residence at McColl Center (Photo: McColl Center for Art + Innovation)

Catawba is part of Mechanical Eye, an exhibition that touches on aspects of Charlotte area life at UNC Charlotte’s Rowe Galleries. In addition to Carter’s work, there are 15 other videos –  with a focus on everything from cuisine and clubbing to water and playgrounds – created by the students. “I have tried to bring a sense of conceptual unity to the class project yet encourage plenty of experimentation not often seen in conventional filmmaking,” says Carter of his semester at UNC Charlotte. 

Prior to the video-assignment-turned-exhibition, Carter showed the class what he considers to be one of the greatest documentaries of all time: Dziga Vertov’s 1929 film, Man with a Movie Camera. The film is known for capturing the essence of daily life and the interactions between humans and machines in Soviet-era cities. “We can’t all make our own full-length films but we can make snippets. We can put those together for an exhibition and create an overall sense of the local area through the eyes of 16 individuals,” says Carter, who has cut-outs and aerial shots used for Catawba along his studio space walls here at McColl Center.


Rob Carter at work in his studio during his residence at McColl Center (Photo: McColl Center for Art + Innovation)

Also along the walls are his photos of poppies – different types in various stages of growth, in addition to info on what is and isn’t a federal offense due to the U.S Government’s Controlled Substances Act. Nestled in a corner of the room are grow lamps hanging over four types of soy plants – two are organic and two are genetically modified. This is part of a time-lapse video project documenting the movement of soy plants as they grow, and is next on his list to be edited. Charles Darwin's 1880 book The Power of Movement in Plants was a source of inspiration for Carter’s endeavors.  

“The idea was to see if they grow any differently and if the ink produced by their leaves is any different. It's a highly pseudo-scientific hypothesis and my expectation is that there will be no difference except that maybe the GMO plants might grow faster,” says Carter, who goes on to explain that the purpose of the project isn’t to expose GMO issues. “The issue here is ‘our' reliance, fear and mistrust of science, as well as the nasty way the market is controlling farmers and giving all the power to the big chemical and bio-agriculture industries. I will then make drawings of each plant's individual movements using ink derived from that particular plant.”

Anita Overcash is a writer and editor based in Charlotte.