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June 9, 2023

When IX Shells Met Fingacode

Two of the world’s leading generative artists tell Abigail Miller about the importance of community to the art of code
Credit: Fingacode, nth culture #41 (detail), 2022. Courtesy of the artist
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When IX Shells Met Fingacode

IX Shells and Fingacode are two of the foremost creators in the world of generative art. Having shared their work on social media in the period prior to the NFT explosion, they have since emerged as part of a global community of creative coders that resembles a sharing economy.

Last year, they both exhibited as part of “In Our Code” at Unit London, which considered works by generative artists in light of the relationship between input and output. By exploring the space between process, behavior, and system, the show sparked a dialog about how artists manipulate the computing machine to create. This moved the focus away from visual aesthetics to the context of generative systems at large. Here, the artists tell Abigail Miller about the importance of community to the art of code as well as the role played by TouchDesigner in their visual imaginations.

IX Shells, (Still from) What Time Works for You?, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and ARTXCODE

Abigail Miller: You both use pseudonyms. Junior, you go by the name, Fingacode, and Itzel you’re known as IX Shells. Why do you use a pseudonym in this space?

Fingacode: I’ve always shared my stuff via my personal accounts on social media. But you know how algorithms are — you don’t really get interactions and that’s frustrating to me. So I thought: “let me see if it’s the people or the algorithms that don’t like my work, so I created a separate account and gave it the name “Fingacode.” When the account blew up it made sense to stick with it rather than create a new thing. 

IX Shells: My name is Itzel, but in my native language it translates as IX Shells. For some reason, people can’t say IX Shells in English so I started trying to find meanings for different aspects of the name. IX is one of my favorite numbers, while Ix is my favorite planet in the novel, Dune (1965). A shell is a computer program that refers to keeping something safe inside. 

AM: How did you both get into generative art? 

F: I’ve been coding since I was about 13 but I didn’t know it was called “generative art” until Itzel told me maybe a year ago. I’ve been in the NFT space for about 12 months now, but I’ve been creating stuff with code and producing digital art for over ten years. 

I’m not an art student per se — I just do the thing and let someone else give it a name. 
Fingacode, happy chemicals, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

IXS: I was studying Computer Science and the first thing I learned in school involved cryptography and how to hide information in pixels. I learned about Mondrian and the basics of Computer Science and then I continued learning online with The Coding Train. However, I don’t think I fell in love with it until I found TouchDesigner, which is a visual programming language that lets you see what’s going on within every section of the code. I’m a visual person, so I thought that would keep me connected to what I was doing. So far, I’ve been able to stick to this without getting bored. 

F: I also love TouchDesigner. I spent most of 2020-21 playing with that program, especially during lockdown. As a coder, I’ve always been a bit of a purist about how I approach certain things but the ability to learn an idea so quickly within Touch was something I absolutely adored. TouchDesigner abstracts away the complexities and gives you a very simple interface to deal with. You can actually learn the principles of coding in a visual way rather than some of the programs where you get a more shielded approach to design.

IXS: TouchDesigner is also more than a visual language, it is a big community that has been sharing resources for a long time. A lot of the work that we create within the program derives from other users who’ve left sketches behind. Of course, we can also create from scratch; I try to do it on my own. I haven’t been sharing project files as much as others. In the end, it’s like we’re all creating one big artwork which we divide across the collective.

That’s the nature of generative art. It’s all shared resources and mathematics — an open world, in a sense. Anyone can create art out of an algorithm and eventually it will reflect something that you’ve seen before, either in architecture or nature. 
IX Shells, VERMILLION, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and ARTXCODE

AM: It seems that a lot of generative artists are hesitant to call themselves artists. Why do you think that is? 

F: I know what my work is. In the past, I was doing graphic design, making mixtape covers and event posters. I’ve got a good eye for design; I understand how colors and shapes work and I can visualize my concepts very well. I draw the line at calling myself something. If I have a headache and I go and buy some paracetamol from the pharmacy, I can’t call myself a doctor. I don’t have the education to warrant being a doctor, I just understand one particular ailment. 

People who understand the theoretical side of things have earned their titles. I’d rather leave it to them. If someone sees my work as art and calls me an artist, that’s great. But I’m not going to call myself an artist as that’s pompous and self-righteous. But of course there’s an element of self-doubt in that. Quite frankly, it’s only in the last year that people have regarded my work as futuristic and cool. I never thought it would be more than me sharing it with a couple of friends. But now there’s a global audience and galleries and people invested, so now it’s important. I’m trying to stay as grounded as possible.

IXS: I’ve been using a meme recently: “so you’re an artist.” My friend calls herself a fashion designer but there’s more to it than that. We are all artists. The essence of [art] is in all of us.

F: I’d like to think that everything I put out is 100% original to me. I’d be flustered and uninspired if I felt that any of my works was regurgitating someone else. 
IXS: I think the only way to avoid repetition is by doing things randomly without thinking, like an automatic painting. 
Fingacode, nth culture #94, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

AM: Is it hard to be an artist in the ecosystem in which we operate, which demands constant output? 

F: I’d say it’s always been the same. Before Twitter, I was on Instagram posting on a daily basis. Anything I did that I thought was cool, I’d record it on my phone and put it up. Before the NFT space, people like Itzel, Dmitri Cherniak, Spongenuity, and I were just sharing our works. But now there’s a commercial side to things and you have to be a bit more careful about what you put out. You have to carve your own space and audience to an extent. So that makes it a bit harder. But I try not to think about that too much.

IXS: I think we are in a stage of evolution — trying to understand what happened, and how to go on. I stopped sharing so much on my Instagram feed. I used to share every day, sometimes even twice a day. But as Junior said, now it’s a bit different. We’re still getting used to the fact that, now, this is an actual way of living and before it wasn’t. 

In the past, we had to work our nine-to-five job because this wasn’t really contributing. Now we are adapting, changing skins. It’s difficult. I’ve stopped using Twitter so much. I need to relax and do my thing. Now I just share stories, little bits of me, almost like a Truman Show — I show what I’m doing, that I’m here and creating, but I’ve reduced my outlets.

IX Shells, In The Fullness of Time, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and ARTXCODE

AM: How do artist collaborations work when members of the community live all over the world? 

IXS: That’s the beauty of digital art, I’ve met most of my friends and collaborators online. I’ve only met perhaps 20% [of my collaborators] in person but we’ve managed to share video, share screens, and project files. Sometimes Junior sends new projects where I can interact with the audio, to see how I feel about it. I think I’m the app tester for Fingacode. [Laughs]

F: As a software engineer, I was working from home quite a lot during the pandemic and even beforehand, so online collaboration has never been an issue. However, the way I want to work now is increasingly physical, which makes certain collaborations harder to cultivate. But sometimes it’s just a case of sharing code and passing files back and forth until there’s an output. That said, not every collaboration has an intended output.

Personally, I don’t like to create with intent — with the sole purpose of having a work displayed somewhere. I just want to experiment and learn something that I can adapt and put into another project down the line.
Ayesha Kazim, Fingacode, and IX Shells with untitled (2022) gifted by Fingacode to IX Shells. Courtesy of the artists and ARTXCODE

AM: Is helping one another essential to the community of generative artists? 

F: 100%. The people who I’ve been in contact with are all developers by trade who are already used to the principle of an open-source community. The only difference with these projects is we’re making art instead of websites.

IXS: This past year I’ve been focusing on connecting with the scene here in Panama where they do a lot of things for free without government support. There’s no such thing as a crypto art community here yet. There are only five artists I know that are actually getting into NFTs, so I feel responsible to try to open doors for people I know who are talented and with whom I can collaborate on something that I will feel proud of. 

I’ve also been getting into different worlds here in Panama, including contemporary dance, which is very well-known, as well as plastic art and fashion design. A lot of the art doesn’t evolve here because no one is believing and investing in it. I’ve been doing it for a year and that’s a big part of what I do. 

I can’t be all by myself hoarding all the gains without giving back.

F: My experience is a bit different. I’m still up in the north of the UK and I’ve tried to bring a couple friends into Web3. Let’s say the fake news machine works against me when it comes to disinformation about NFTs, rug pulls, and all the scams that have occurred in the space. I’ve always been an independent worker but, like Itzel, I’d love to spread the gains and build a community, for sure. 

IX Shells, Recalling Dreams, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and ARTXCODE

AM: Our goal at Unit London is to be a bridge between the traditional art community, which doesn’t necessarily know about the technical side of this art form, and Web3. But how do you communicate everything that goes into your projects and collaborations?

F: Before I came to the gallery I’d probably only been into only two galleries myself, so I don’t really care what the traditional art world has to say. I appreciate people like you trying to build that bridge. But I also feel that we shouldn’t need to gain acceptance from it. If you are there to appreciate something on an aesthetic level, then that’s where it should start. If something interests you so much that you want to learn more about it, by all means go ahead. 

But we shouldn’t have to stand outside these galleries with placards saying: “let us in.” We’ll build our own, one way or another.

IXS: A lot of people are confused and ask me: “what do you do? How do you do it?” I think the best thing I can do is to sit at the computer and walk [them] through how I start my day. Maybe we can coexist by not closing doors to things from the past that we can learn from and stop using the future as a way to show off, thinking that we are more advanced and [everything else] should just be left behind and forgotten because we’re no longer using it.

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Fingacode (Junior Ngoma) is a multidisciplinary creative with an interest in audiovisual and interactive technologies. Born in Cameroon, he has been experimenting with creative technologies as a software engineer for the past ten years. Working closely with TouchDesigner, Fingacode uses movement to reflect patterns, examining human interactions in increasingly digital cultures and landscapes. He has released numerous creative projects on fxhash, Foundation, and SuperRare. While his project, translucent panes (2022), was a live-minting generative art project with Art Blocks through Bright Moments. He lives and works in the UK.

IX Shells (Itzel Yard) is a Panamanian-based artist who took to YouTube to learn coding and has subsequently become one of the world’s most recognizable generative artists. Her projects include Dreaming at Dusk (2021), a collaboration with the Tor Project which was purchased for 500 ETH (over $2 million) in Mway 2021, making her the top selling female NFT artist in the world. In the same year, Yard was included in Fortune’s NFTy 50. Like icons of the mid-century generative art such as Vera Molnar and Lillian Schwartz, Yard has set a precedent for women and girls interested in a future in Computer Science, making the artist a pioneer of her time, pushing the boundaries of creative coding.

Abigail Miller is Associate Director of Web3 at Unit London. Built at the intersection of art and technology, Unit London Web3 is a blockchain platform of highly curated digital art programming that is dedicated to identifying and supporting artists who work with ascendant technologies. Miller has a degree in Blockchain Security focusing on Terrorism and Nuclear Non-proliferation and holds an MA from the Courtauld Institute of Art, London.

The Pixel Generation” runs to June 15 at Unit London.