May 9, 2022

An Interview with Tyler Hobbs | Part 2

The artist addresses the growing public interest in generative art
Credit: Tyler in the Studio, 2022. Courtesy of the artist
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An Interview with Tyler Hobbs | Part 2

Jason Bailey: Something I often hear is: “This generative art looks like wallpaper, how is this not just design?” How do you respond to those types of comments?

Tyler Hobbs: I think it’s totally fair to link it to wallpaper. Here’s why: Wallpaper is a mechanistic, process-oriented product — as is almost everything around us. To me, that’s even more of a compelling reason for artists to think systematically and in terms of process. It also poses the question: How can we make more interesting systems and processes so that we don’t just have these same boring, repetitive things going on all around us, especially in software, where the costs of doing something unique every time are low?

JB: Essentially, everything around us is a system. Generative art acknowledges that and celebrates it in a way that maybe other traditional art forms simply haven’t yet. 

TH: Yeah, the universe is generative, and everything that’s happening around us is a result of these processes, right? They might be really complex processes — weather systems and geological systems — guided by the laws of physics and chemistry, but nature is process driven. Thinking in terms of systems and processes is a really beautiful way to analyze and appreciate the world around us. As generative artists, we talk a lot about emergence. But earth is one hell of an emergent artifact in the universe. So I feel incredibly lucky to get to experience it.

Tyler Hobbs, Bouldin Creek Mural, Austin, TX, 2020. Photography by Leonid Furmansky. Courtesy of the artist

JB: How much does the display of your work matter to you? I’m guessing the majority of people consume your work on their laptop or their phone. How do you feel about that as an artist? What level of control do you want to have? 

TH: The format of display and the context of display are crucial for our work. It’s a little bit tough as a digital artist that I lose a lot of control over how people are viewing the work. As you mentioned, probably quite a few people are seeing my work on a cell phone screen. And that’s such a difficult environment because, first of all, the image is tiny, with limited resolution, and the color accuracy might not be great. Sometimes I try to take that into account when designing the work, to make it robust at smaller scales. But as the artist, anytime that I can have more control, to guarantee a better viewing experience, I always want to take that. 

For my work in particular, prints are often the highest quality way to view the work. I think people don’t really appreciate the gulf in resolution between prints and even something like a 4K monitor. Prints still just totally blow our best digital displays out of the water. I can also guarantee color accuracy and any sort of texture or lighting elements as well. So, for me, prints are the highest tier of display for work that’s digital in origin. I do love to create plotter drawings — works on paper that involve drawing and painting. I love how analog media has this infinite richness and detail to it. So the closer you look, the more interesting things you can find to enjoy, which is often not the case for digital work. 

I think there’s something special and really curious about taking algorithmic forms and producing them in an analog way. The downside is only people who can see it in person get to enjoy that full experience. The internet just has massive reach, and probably 100 or 1,000 times the number of people are going to be able to see a work as a digital image versus seeing it in person. So there’s this breadth versus quality trade-off that one has to make.

JB: I know from going to your site that you take documentation of your process and the work pretty seriously. Could you say something about that and also about the role of writing as a complement to your art-making process?

TH: I’ve discovered over time that documenting the process helps people to appreciate the work so much more. I think this is largely an artifact of generative art being new to so many viewers. I had this experience with studio tours in Austin a few years ago where 200 or so people would come in every day, look at the work, and we’d talk about it. Probably 99 percent of them had never heard of generative art before. But I could see, as I was explaining it, that they got it. 

While work has to be good in the first place, documentation can deepen that. So part of my desire to document came from this repeated experience of seeing that effect on people. I also initially started documenting my process for the benefit of other artists, as I wanted to try to expand the art form. These days, I think other people probably do a better job of that, so I’m a little bit more focused on explaining the philosophy and artistic intentions behind my work to allow viewers to better understand it.

Tyler in the Studio, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

JB: I’ve always been a believer that context is underrated. A lot of people make the argument that art should stand on its own, but I think that’s rubbish. Art is not made in a vacuum, it’s made by a human and one’s knowledge about that human and the context of their prior practice informs one’s response to the work. On the other hand, if you have to explain everything about the art, you’ve almost undressed it and there’s nothing left to the imagination. I think people expect that because I come from a family of engineers that I have a multi-step process for collecting or assessing art. But within the first millisecond, I’m either in love or I’m bored. And then if I’m in love, I want to learn all these other things about the context. 

TH: There is a sliding scale, with conceptualism pitted against, say, expressionism. I think the more conceptual a work is, the more completely it might be captured by writing. Seeing Duchamp’s Fountain (1917) doesn’t tell you anything about the work. You basically have to read about it in order to get it. But with visual artwork — while I agree that understanding the artist and their body of work is very important — I also compare it to music. 

I have a background studying guitar and drumming and playing in bands, which shapes my thinking about my visual artwork. We don’t feel the same need to provide context about music or to analyze it through a conceptual lens. Somehow we’re much more sensual, instinctual, and intuitive when it comes to our experience of music. I would love for viewers to be able to enjoy my visual artwork in a similar way, and then to deepen their understanding and appreciation via the context, if they choose to.

JB: How, in your view, do the affordances of generative art shape its aesthetic? 

TH: They have a massive influence on it. First of all, the computer can work tirelessly. It doesn’t complain about drawing millions of tiny lines, or tiny dots, or super precise placements. It can create works that, from a labor perspective, would not be accessible by hand. So that’s one area of new territory that generative art can access.

Tyler Hobbs, Fidenza #430, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

Computers are engineered from top to bottom to be as predictable and reliable and exact as possible. Every single thing about the stack is engineered that way. And so by default, everything that comes out of a program is going to be rigid and precise, exactly as you would expect it. So that has a large implication for the artwork, which is almost the opposite of creating work by hand where everything by default is flawed. Try and draw the straightest line you can by hand and it’s going to be wobbly and messy. 

But let’s take the example of looping, which is a core component of programming. Looping shows up visually in generative art over and over again, even just the idea of multiple iterations from a single program. Excessive repetition is an element that shows up in my work and that of many other generative artists as well. One component that’s really interesting, which kind of counterbalances the others, is randomness. A computer is an amazing source of randomness. But because you can tune it to very specific probability distributions, you can get very controlled randomness from the computer. And I think this is a really interesting way for the artist to work in terms of fuzzy specifications. I think that has a large aesthetic impact as well.

JB: What’s the role of algorithms in your creative process?

TH: I have definitely built my own toolkit of algorithms that I go back to over and over again. I’ve never done anything with Voronoi breakdowns, which was once a really common thing, and I avoided Perlin noise for the first seven years of making generative art. But I also came up with my own circle-packing algorithm. 

My thought was always: “If I’m going to use the algorithm, I would really prefer to design it myself.” An artist should have complete mastery over any tool that they use, and that’s what will help to give them the most effective results in their work. So I’ve chosen to mostly stick with algorithms that I can think up and implement myself. I’m avoiding things like Navier-Stokes equations where I could never be a master of that — it might look pretty, but it doesn’t seem like a good tool for creating my artwork. 

Tyler at “Incomplete Control”, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

I’ve tried to avoid reading too much about the standard bag of algorithms, just because I’ve seen them get worked so much. But at this point, I definitely have my own standard algorithms that I go back to again and again. I’ve written about flow fields and all of the different ways that I’ve found them to be useful. But when I’m creating a work, I often don’t have an end point in mind, only a starting point. I want to avoid having a blank canvas. And I trust that during the artistic process of exploration that I can discover something interesting. 

I often start by asking: “What if I take a flow field and twist and disturb it in this way?” And I might write up a quick version of that algorithm, play with it, see what it looks like, and then, based on what I’m seeing, start to alter it. I might not even need flow fields. Or I might be looking at a work and think it could use some fine textures, so l might use circle packing to create some textural elements. I feel totally comfortable using these algorithms over and over again. I think as an artist, it’s really helpful for your productivity not to reinvent the wheel every single time you create a new work. It’s nice that I have flow fields, for example, as a dependable way to achieve certain things because it allows me to focus my artistic thoughts elsewhere.

JB: One could make an analogy with musical scales, which are an inherent infrastructure that everyone uses to write songs but which aren’t an end in themselves.

TH: Absolutely. Musicians use standard scales and chord progressions all the time. But they’re such a basic part of what goes into the work that they don’t make the work what it truly is.

Tyler Hobbs, Fidenza #889, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

JB: Figures like Casey Reas, Ben Fry, as well as Joshua Davis have shaped a culture of open-source code. But now that generative art is big business, have you seen that put a chill on open sourcing at all?

TH: Unfortunately, I have seen more of a lockdown in terms of code. I’ve definitely heard from many prominent artists that they no longer open source their code, because people would take that code, use it to generate their set of entities and then essentially sell another artist’s work, which is an inappropriate use. 

Some people feel very strongly that the code is the artwork. And even though I have a slightly different take on it, I view the code as a very important component of the artwork. And I would prefer for viewers and collectors to be able to enjoy that. Historically, whenever I sold a print, I would include a printout of the source code as part of the package so they could at least enjoy that aspect of it. 

It’s going to be tough to figure out the ethics of what’s acceptable. Perhaps artists may have to accept that this type of code reuse is going to happen. One also has to consider the practicalities of it. Say somebody takes the Fidenza (2021) algorithm off the blockchain and they change 25% of the code. There’s a lot of fuzzy, gray territory there. And I don’t have the answers. I would love for generative artists to be able to share the code more openly. But we definitely do have to acknowledge that there have also been problems recently with people doing unauthorized usages of that code.

Based on requests from a segment of the community that was focused on this issue, Jason asked a follow-up question…

JB: A lot of people are upset that you filed DMCAs against work by other artists. What was the motivation behind those and how do you think about the line between protecting your work and fair use?

TH: In the months since Fidenza was released, many NFT collections popped up that incorporated Fidenza in various ways, often prominently and without permission. My work is special to me, and something I’ve worked a long time to create. I don’t appreciate it when others take that work and use it commercially without asking. Fair use is a nuanced subject, but here are the primary factors I consider. 

First, is the use commercial? Second, was the work changed in a substantial and transformative way? Last, how much of the original work was used? The answers to these three questions guide my decisions about what is fair use, and they also have a legal basis, at least within US law. I wanted to properly spell out my thoughts on the subject and provide examples, so I recently put together this write-up that goes more in depth on the subject.

Tyler Hobbs, Fidenza #450, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

JB: What role do you think NFTs have played in the explosion of interest in generative art? 

TH: There’s no doubt that NFTs have played a massive role. I think NFTs gave generative art a platform and visibility at exactly the right time. I think we’re fortunate that generative art is seeing a third wave of artists who are creating new and, in my opinion, particularly high-quality work. 

I think the generative art these days is by far the best that I’ve ever seen. And it’s nice that it coincided with NFTs becoming popular. Blockchain technology also marries very nicely with generative art in a lot of ways — Art Blocks being one particularly good example of that. 

In general, I think NFTs are incredibly important for digital artists of all kinds. There hasn’t been a time before now when digital artists could really make a living off their work. I think you can make a pretty easy case for digital art being more relevant to this time than painting is. And so I think it’s wonderful that digital artists can earn their living now with NFTs.

JB: Is there a threshold where the adulation becomes more about the hype than the art itself? And have we reached that threshold in generative art?

TH: There are absolutely times and places where it’s gone way beyond what it should be. It’s very easy to point to the late summer of 2021 as a moment where hype outstripped artistic merit, or when there was such a large inflow of money that it attracted lots of people for monetary rather than artistic reasons. I think we’ve seen that slowly recede since then which has felt to me like a very healthy change. I think things went way too far.

I’m definitely very grateful to be in the position I am where I’ve benefited tremendously from that. It’s given me the means to establish myself as an artist, and to work comfortably for the rest of my life. But there’s no doubt in my mind that there’s a more healthy balance that I would love to see — more of a focus on the art and less of a focus on the money, people behaving sanely and rationally and not viewing artwork as a speculative investment. But I think that NFTs create a great opportunity for patrons to support and share the work of digital artists. I think it’s just going to take time for that hype cycle to play out fully, to get to a more healthy plateau.

Tyler in the Studio, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

JB: Finally, I’d like to throw out some quick questions from the community, starting with the most important: What’s the hardest skateboard trick you can do?

TH: Maybe a crooked grind down a handrail.

JB: Outside of Fidenza (2021), What are your favorite series on Art Blocks?

TH: I am a massive fan of Archetype (2021) by Kjetil Golid. I’ve always loved his work. Just the graphic quality, and the way he works with color is mind-blowing. I consider color to be one of the most challenging aspects of generative artwork, and I think Kjetil does an amazing job with that. 

I think phase (2021) by Loren Bednar was really amazing as an animated work. I mentioned earlier that I often don’t feel super engaged by animated work. But I thought this was just really special. That was the first long-form animated work that I thought was really successful. Ringers (2021), of course, is legendary for really paving the way for what can be done, and I think Dmitri Cherniak deserves mad props for that. 

Some of the stuff that’s come out more recently has been really amazing: Thomas Lin Pederson’s Screens (2022); Ben Kovach’s Edifice (2021); William Mapan’s Anticyclone (2022); Emily Xie’s Memories of Qilin (2022). It’s really exciting to see within the Art Blocks scene all these artists learning from each other and challenging each other to up their game. I definitely have seen a massive increase in quality and I think that scene is a big part of the reason that’s happening.

JB: Where does the name “Fidenza” come from?

TH: Fidenza is a small town in northern Italy with a population of about 25,000. In the past, I have used town names for the titles of my works. I do that because I often don’t want the title to have a strong influence on the way that the viewer initially perceives the work. And so I like to sometimes have a more neutral title. Town names work well for that because it’s already a name, it can do the job well, and so in the past I used Texan town names. But when I was working on Fidenza (2021), I looked around Texas as much as I could but couldn’t find a town name that really seemed like a fit so I panned over to Italy and the town of Fidenza stood out as a really cool name, so I went with that.

Tyler Hobbs, AGNES, 2020. Photography by Leonid Furmansky. Courtesy of the artist

JB: Will there be a Tyler Hobbs fxhash drop?

TH: I am not currently planning an fxhash drop. I’ve seen a lot of cool stuff coming out of that platform, so I wouldn’t rule it out for the future, but at least not in the next year. Maybe somewhere further down the road.

JB: And is there anything that you’re working on that you’re excited about that you can share? Or are there any topics we haven’t covered that you’d like to address?

TH: I’ve got a secret NFT project that’s slated for the late summer that I think will be interesting, but unfortunately I can’t give any details about that. I do have a couple of exciting exhibitions with more traditional art galleries that are looking to do a bit of hybridizing of NFTs and physical works. So I’m excited about the opportunity to work in both formats. There are also a couple of cool murals in different parts of the world that I’m trying to plan out as well. So there’s a good variety of different projects going on.

Also, I’m not not trying to flatter you here but I think what Right Click Save has been doing and what you were doing with your writing before is such an important job. There really needs to be better critical discourse in this field. There’s a few people doing it, but we could just benefit so much more from focusing the discussion on the artwork — thinking more deeply about why we’re making this work, what we want it to be, and what value it serves. Intelligent, thoughtful writing is an incredibly important tool along those lines. So I would encourage people to give Right Click Save competition. I think we need more written publications out there from different angles. And so I would love to see more people focus on thoughtful analysis of this artwork, including curation. 

I think a lot of people in this scene have found themselves really connecting with a form of art for the first time. Maybe this has to do with digital art or generative art speaking more directly and in some way feeling more relevant to them. Maybe it has to do with this art world being more accessible and a little bit less intimidating than the traditional art world. Either way, I’m excited to see how it all plays out.

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Tyler Hobbs is a visual artist from Austin, Texas. His work focuses on computational aesthetics, how they are shaped by the biases of modern computer hardware and software, and how they relate to and interact with the natural world around us. Hobbs’s most notable project, Fidenza (2021) — a series of 999 algorithmically generated works — has become one of the most sought-after fine art NFT collections of all time. His drawings, paintings, and digital works have been privately collected around the world. Hobbs has presented two solo exhibitions: “Progress” (2018) at Galería Dos Topos in León, Mexico, and “Incomplete Control” (2021) at Bright Moments, New York. His work has been auctioned at Christie’s in 2021, and at Sotheby’s in 2022. He holds a BSc in Computer Science from the University of Texas at Austin.

Jason Bailey is the creator of the art and tech blog Artnome.com and founder of GreenNFTs and ClubNFT where he serves as CEO.