August 29, 2022

An Interview with William Mapan

The artist tells Jason Bailey about getting lost in code, the market for generative art, and the creator community in France
Credit: William Mapan, Untitled (detail), 2022. Courtesy of the artist
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An Interview with William Mapan

Jason Bailey: Most generative artists I know either started in programming and later took an interest in art or started in art and later learned to program. What was your experience?

William Mapan: While I had some programming classes, I actually started in motion design with Flash and Adobe After Effects. I rapidly hacked my way through them and started programming again by building tools to suit my needs. I quickly moved from Flash to Processing and then, ultimately, to JavaScript

Art has always been a part of my studies, I just wasn’t paying attention. Big classrooms with a teacher reciting literature to hundreds of students weren’t really my thing. Eventually, I became a “Creative Developer” — whatever that means — so that I could mix different skills in my day job. Then five years later, I returned naturally to art and suddenly the teaching I’d received in the past made sense! I still consider myself a newborn artist; I know I lack some knowledge, but I like how art helps me to grow as a human being too. There are so many levels to dig into — it’s inspiring!

William Mapan, Untitled, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

JB: How did you discover generative art and who were the first generative artists you looked up to?

WM: I always loved to doodle and make quick sketches. I’ve also always loved how only a few lines of code can generate imagery. That’s still crazy to me. At a certain point, I wanted to combine my growing love of art with my programming skills. In the meantime, I also started to go to more museums and exhibitions, whilst also scrolling Pinterest, before eventually stumbling on the work of Manfred Mohr. At that moment, I was finally able to put a name to all this — generative art.

JB: Generative art has gone from having very few collectors to receiving enormous interest overnight, with artists apparently increasing their output to match demand. Do you think this pace is sustainable or is it just a short-term trend? Is there a risk that artists will overproduce?

WM: That’s an interesting question. There’s still a long way to go but, with NFTs, I feel generative art is having a formidable run and is finally getting wide recognition. A lot is happening, from websites to galleries, exhibitions, DAOs, and communities — a lot of opportunities to share and make visible one’s work. Now that there’s a new market with a growing number of collectors, I feel the global rhythm of creation has definitely spiked. I’m not good with trends, so I don’t know if this will persist, but I do know it’s not sustainable to always make art for sale.

William Mapan, Untitled, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

As artists, we need room to breathe. And in my opinion, it’s very important to take these breaths, otherwise we burn out. All in all, it’s an exciting moment to be a part of but we have to remember to take care of our health! In my opinion, it’s okay not to make your best art every time. I feel there’s a pressure from the market to always have something new to offer. 

Most traditional artists operate at a much slower pace, which allows them to grow more organically. Today, computers allow us to develop and explore ourselves steadily and rapidly but that doesn’t mean we have to burn out in the process. 

I love how Iskra Velitchkova and Zancan master their pace. When they reveal something, yes it can look similar to some of their previous work, but if you zoom out you’ll see that an evolution and exploration is still happening.

William Mapan, Blood in Water, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

JB: NFTs have done wonders for creating a market around generative art. But they have also systematized the collecting process. Rather than look through thousands of works by hundreds of artists to find that one special work, collectors often buy work before they even know what it looks like and race against each other in prearranged drops. Does this cheapen the collecting process as well as the bond between artist and collector, or is it a healthy collaboration?

WM: I think it is a nuanced problem. It can certainly seem crazy to buy something even before viewing it but, as a concept, it is nonetheless interesting. It also requires the artist to build up the trust of their collectors, since it requires a phenomenal commitment from a collector to buy something blindly. 

I’m excited to see what the blockchain enables in the long run. Certainly, the long-form generative art phenomenon is perfectly suited to the blockchain and an innovative way to challenge our practice. 

William Mapan, Untitled, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

JB: Paris has long been a nodal point for leading artists. Can you describe the Parisian gen art scene for us? 

WM: France has a huge art scene overall, and I’m starting to realize its historical influence on the art world. The big cities in France are highly developed culturally and I’m convinced it impacts us, French people, for the good without us even noticing. Paris is highly concentrated with art and culture. When I started living in the city, I couldn’t believe the richness it offers. You can spend every weekend exploring museums, exhibitions, stores and still discover something new. I’m not sure there’s a cluster of great artists in Paris though, simply more people! 

But there are great artists all across the country. Each big city has its monthly events with their own crowd. We usually all gather online in forums on Slack, Twitter, and Discord. I find the community very welcoming and we do not hesitate to help each other. I love it. But I have to be honest — the biggest opportunities remain in Paris as an artistic, economic, and educational hub. Many of the artists first came to Paris to study.

William Mapan, Untitled, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

JB: I read that you taught creative coding at Gobelins, a school for arts and visual communications in Paris. Many of us learned to code by looking at open source code made available by other artists. As an educator, do you worry that the new market for generative art could have a chilling effect on artists’ willingness to open source their code for others to learn from?

WM: Time will tell. I’ve always been in awe of Daniel Shiffman and others who never hesitate to share their knowledge of coding. That has inspired me to do the same in the work I do. It’s also a fuel for the exchange of ideas, which we all gain from. 

Occasionally, one comes across the demonic sale of art to people who don’t realize the code is stolen. That’s a real shame, and it makes one wonder if it’s worth sharing one’s knowledge at all. But I still love to teach and will continue to do so. Transmission is key to be able to develop this movement.

I see at least three positive side effects in having a market for generative art. Firstly, the quality of work will increase and become more personal at the same time, which is good in my view. Secondly, it forces collectors to understand more about an artist’s practice. I’ve never had so many discussions with people interested in my work. Finally, with the spotlight on generative art, it encourages artists to think more deeply about it.

William Mapan, Untitled, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

JB: You are probably best known for Dragons (2021) and Anticyclone (2022). How are these projects different for you

WM: I think they are quite different. Making Dragons was all about bringing my piece to life, giving it different personalities through code, color, shape, and attributes to establish a link with the viewer. By combining elements a bit more aggressively it meant that different traits were discoverable along the way — creating proper creatures with their own will. Anticyclone was about conveying my own emotions and sensitivity through color and strong movement. 

But what both have in common is that I thought first in terms of emotions and feelings instead of wanting to implement any particular algorithm. That’s something I hadn’t really allowed myself in the past.

Luckily, I feel collectors received perfectly what I was trying to say, which I love. Both projects received a level of attention that I wasn’t prepared for. But while Dragons was a total surprise, I had expected a bit of exposure with Anticyclone because it was curated on Art Blocks, although not as much as it received. All the attention is overwhelming and I’m very thankful for it.

William Mapan, Not a Mint #0947, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

JB: Why are you driven to create?

WM: Creating is a journey through myself, and I cherish the moments where I’m in my flow with just the will to create. Those are the best. I can also be an obsessive person at times and art is a good way of channeling my emotions. For me, making art is one of the best ways to communicate with the world out there. There’s this subtle connection you can make with anyone by just showing them an image or video. Maybe that’s why social media is so inherent to our lives today?

JB: Has the increased interest in your work over the last year changed your practice at all?

WM: Before the NFT era, I was already practicing and sharing my work, not caring if I received one or 100 likes. I would just make something because it piqued my interest. I try hard to stay the same regardless of the level of interest in my work, and it’s really important for me to take my time while doing something, without rushing. That said, the recent increase of interest in my work also allows me to explore further and make more art. I’m very humbled by it.

One thing that has changed is the pace at which I share my work. It’s hard to focus sometimes so I try to reduce my activity on social media. Because of the level of public interest, it’s easy to be on it 24 hours a day.

William Mapan, Dragons #18, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

JB: Can you tell me a bit about your process? Do you conceive of ideas ahead of time and then march toward realizing them or is it a more circuitous process of intentionally getting lost and discovering things along the way? 

WM: I like the idea of intentionally getting lost. That’s exactly right. I always have multiple ideas in mind but they rarely match the moment of realization. The process is often about taking inspiration from literally anything and wandering. Sometimes I do nothing, seeking not to force it. But if I feel like it, I can choose to keep things basic or otherwise develop a fancy algorithm and iterate on it. The one thing I’m always doing is watching. At some point it just clicks and I will decide whether or not to mix in what I had in mind at the start. I see it as an organic and natural process.

JB: Many people mistakenly assume that art made with computers does not require much creativity from the human. How do you see your relationship with the computer? Is it a collaborator or simply a tool?

WM: It may sound weird to say it, but computer art literally can’t be made without human intervention. So, in many cases, I see the computer as a tool and extension of my body. But with generative art, I consider the computer as a collaborator.

Generative artists work a lot with the concepts of emergence and iteration, which require a good dose of trial and error as well as exploration. Having a computer speeds up the process of iteration to a rate rarely seen in other artistic fields. It also allows the brain to see things that one couldn’t conceive of without a machine. 

William Mapan, Dragons #29, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

JB: Is the art the code, the output, or both?

WM: It’s a question I’m still figuring out actually, and my answer will probably evolve in the future. 

Today, I really don’t care if the code is good or bad. What brings me joy is when the outputs trigger a reaction in me and the viewer. My craft is about how I can efficiently translate my ideas into visual outputs. That’s the only thing that matters to me for now. 

Of course, I get some satisfaction when I write some smart code or when I use a smart algorithm, but that’s a bonus. What really counts is the output. That said, I rarely see bad code outputting outstanding visuals. I also love bugs. So while the art is definitely the output, there’s a deeper layer where we can take the code into the mix. I admire people who can do a lot with very little code, like Piter Pasma. That’s real wizardry. 

William Mapan, Very First NFT (HEN), March 2021. Courtesy of the artist

JB: Do you have a particular audience in mind when you are creating? 

WM: The wider the audience, the happier I am, and I’m really pumped when someone who isn’t tech-savvy appreciates my work. I don’t like the idea of my art being enjoyed by a niche, though that is totally fine too. I always hope my art will travel beyond its original bubble. 

Generative art is a subset of art, which I try not to forget. But that doesn’t mean I have to mimic traditional art. However, I would like for my art to provoke the same questions as other fields of art: What is it? Is it beautiful? What does it mean? 

Before NFTs, I lived mainly in a tech bubble. But now I’m surrounded by developers, illustrators, writers, musicians, and so on — all different kinds of artists. This opens up interesting discussions. However, I maintain that If you know a bit about coding, you can achieve a higher layer of understanding.

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William Mapan is an artist, coder, and teacher based in France. Best known for his series, Dragons (2021) and Anticyclone (2022), his work is dedicated to bridging worlds through color, texture, and composition in order to create the unexpected. His latest exhibition, “In Our Code,” runs from 13 September to 16 October, 2022 at Unit London. 

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