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March 24, 2023

Kitel | A Generative Artist for Ukraine

Following the success of his project, Fields of the Abandoned Homeland, Kitel shares the story behind his defining image of peace
Credit: Kitel, Fields of the Abandoned Homeland #78, 2023. Courtesy of the artist
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Kitel | A Generative Artist for Ukraine

There is a long history of war artists, not to mention history painters who have romanticized conflict. But earlier this month, a new project emerged on fxhash that replaced the fog of spasmodic war reporting with a vision of Ukraine at peace. It was produced by an artist currently living in Kyiv who had been forced to leave his home in Kharkiv by Russian rocket bombardment. Kitel’s long-form generative work, Fields of the Abandoned Homeland (2023), is an epic cycle of hope at a moment of extraordinary hardship for the Ukrainian people. 

Through his sequences of twinkling tower blocks, fertile wheat fields, and proud electrical pylons, Kitel conjures a country in which nature and industry exist in harmony. The logic is clear — this is a series for all Ukrainians, whether urban, rural, or temporarily displaced. Despite their deserted appearance, humanity pulses throughout these landscapes, which recall the metaphysical worlds of Giorgio de Chirico as well as the digital work of Igor Piwowarczyk. That the emergence of generative art as a mainstream art form has coincided with the war in Ukraine makes Kitel’s project especially poignant. Here, the artist shares his story with Alex Estorick.

Kitel, Fields of the Abandoned Homeland #25, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

Alex Estorick: Before we discuss your work as an artist, I wonder if you might share your experience of the war over the last year. 

Kitel: The day of the beginning of the war was an unpleasant surprise for me. I never expected that it could happen. The day before was my wife’s birthday, so we had a great celebration and then my family went to bed. I work as an engineer for one of Ukraine’s biggest internet providers and I was woken at around 5am by an alarm I have on my phone which told me something was wrong with our equipment. 

The first attack wasn’t rockets or artillery, it was a hack. 

At the time, I didn’t understand the reason for the problem so I had to take a taxi to the place where our servers are situated and fix them. I called the taxi and we drove around 100 meters from our house when I heard the first explosions. I returned home to my wife, who didn’t understand what was happening. The war had started. So we collected some warm clothes, documents, and money while our daughter was sleeping, and we moved a bit deeper into our neighborhood where my wife’s parents live. 

Kitel, Fields of the Abandoned Homeland #4, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

My house was situated on the edge of Kharkiv, so it was very dangerous due to the artillery and rockets. We spent the next two weeks in the new location with my daughter, my wife, and her parents, who are great people with great neighbors. We moved into the basement and prepared an internet connection, prepared everything for the kids, made beds out of doors, did everything we needed to do to stay safe for some time. 

But then we were lucky to escape. My car had been burnt when the garage was hit by a rocket so I had no ability to move my family myself. We had to call a taxi but no one wanted to take us because it was too dangerous and too close to the Russian troops at the time. 

One man helped us. He wasn’t Ukrainian, but Caucasian, perhaps from Azerbaijan. He didn’t know the city and when he accepted our request to take us he didn’t know where we were planning to go. 

He told us he couldn’t take us back home but that he could take us to the railway station from where we could move to the central part of Ukraine. So that’s how it started.

Kitel, Fields of the Abandoned Homeland #93, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

We had to relocate several times — first to my aunt’s family where my parents also joined us. But there were 14 of us and it was uncomfortable to live in one small village house with a single toilet and bathroom. We then moved three or four more times before finally, in the middle of summer, moving to Kyiv where I thought it would be safer because the main European and American embassies as well as other services had restarted their operations. I figured that if they were up and running again it might be safe. 

It was comfortable enough for three or four months until October, when Russia restarted its rocket attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure. That was a very depressing period because it was in the middle of autumn — the days were growing shorter and we had big problems with electricity. There were times when we were without power for two or three days at a time. I had to take all my family’s phones and power banks and find a generator. It took five or six hours to charge them all. But we survived.

AE: Has the situation improved at all recently? 

K: The time between rocket attacks is now much longer. Previously, we might have five attacks over the course of a month and now it’s closer to one. We have adapted to the situation. But the most depressing thing has been when I haven’t been able to work on my code and with my drawing. 

Kitel, Fields of the Abandoned Homeland #5, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

AE: Your work, Fields of the Abandoned Homeland, is one of the most powerful and moving digital artworks that I’ve encountered for a long time. How did the project evolve into a definitive expression of homeland in a time of conflict? I understand you started it just before the war began.

K: I decided to start the project after my initial experience on fxhash. I liked this platform very much and I started to buy NFTs there. I was also influenced by a number of works that prompted me to start my own projects. I can even name a person who inspired me to start: Jacek Markusiewicz. Following the release of his work, reborn (2021), I decided to contact him to congratulate him for his work. I still view that project as unfairly low priced. It’s one of the best and, as someone fond of history, it reminds me of old maps from medieval Europe. 

AE: That project is remarkable for how it imagines ideal cities. It shows that generative systems have implications well beyond art. 

K: One of my hobbies is that I am a detectorist, and I often use maps like those of Jacek. I’ve since written to him and he’s encouraged me in my practice. He’s also the only friend from Twitter who wrote to me on the morning of February 24, 2022. Following our conversations, I’ve been working twice as hard at my practice. I can tell you that the first drafts of that project were very unlike the final result. I make my art in my free time because, of course, I also have a primary occupation. That has been busy because everything has been hacked. 

Kitel, Fields of the Abandoned Homeland #39, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

AE: To me, it feels that there is safety in your artistic vision of Ukraine. 

K: Yeah. The main concept of the work came to me when I was in Vinnytsia in western Ukraine. If you’re outside of your native city — and Kharkiv is a big city of nearly 2 million people — all you see is endless fields of wheat. 

Ukraine is famous for its wheat. So, every time you move from place to place, even over a short distance, you see these fields and you see these power lines moving across the horizon. 

These images are stuck in my head all the time, so I don’t think the final results could have been any different. I don’t want to view my country as a war zone but as a peaceful, safe place.

Kitel, Fields of the Abandoned Homeland #103, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

AE: Can you share any insights into your technique?

K: My code isn’t obfuscated, so you can open it and read it. This work is a long-form project comprising 128 outputs. It’s not curated. I wanted to use the simplest techniques possible and I only used noise maybe once in the entire project. 

The most interesting part of the process was making the wheat itself. I like generative art where beautiful things are made from very simple patterns. I didn’t use any complicated algorithms or anything like that. It’s really a very simple chord. 
Kitel, Fields of the Abandoned Homeland #35, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

AE: I often hear generative artists talk about the similarity between natural and artificial growth. Of course, one of your principal skills is coding growth. In this project, industrial and organic growth seem to coexist rather than resist each other. The images also feel deeply humane despite having no humans in them. 

K: Before the war, I traveled throughout the countryside for my detecting. That’s also why I’m keen to visit England, where you are. When I’m detecting, it is really rare to come across anyone in the middle of the day. So it’s normal for these kinds of landscape to be deserted. 

AE: Is metal detecting legal in Ukraine?

K: Yes. But in England it’s even more legal. [Laughs] If one does it in company, it’s safer and also more interesting. There are four or five of us and, in the past, we would go detecting maybe twice a month in autumn and spring. 

Unfortunately, nearly all of these fields in my region are now minefields.
Kitel, Fields of the Abandoned Homeland #26, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

AE: What can you tell us about your background as a creative coder? How did your artistic career emerge from your work as an engineer?

There are two separate threads — me as a coder and me as an artist. I started making art as a child and, if you’d seen my textbooks from university, one side of the sheet was always lecture notes and the other drawings. My life as a coder began nearly four years ago. I decided to change my job and completed courses in front-end development to do so. At the time, I was working in the same company as I am now but not as a network engineer. Back then, I was a foreman — someone who came to your house if you had problems with your internet or television. Then I started learning JavaScript by watching The Coding Train on YouTube. That’s how this all started.

AE: What has been the response of the fxhash community to your project since you launched it earlier this month? 

K: The community is great. I didn’t expect such a positive reaction because the market is very bearish right now. I didn’t expect that my project would have such an effect. I imagined that, if it sold out, it would be at the lowest price, but not at the highest. So I was shocked, really shocked. Of course, my family was also happy with the response. But it surprised the older generation, who didn’t know about my art. Only my wife knew about it and she was also very nervous. When the auction started, she came to me and asked: “How’s it going? How’s it going?!”

Kitel, Fields of the Abandoned Homeland #7, 2023. Courtesy of the artist 

AE: I’ve been meaning to ask whether you have any forthcoming projects currently in development?

K: Yes. I have one idea that I’m working on at the moment. But, right now, the theme of it is secret. All I can say is that I want to produce the kind of work that makes people say: “wow” twice — first when they see it and, second, when they realize it’s generative art and not made using Photoshop or CorelDRAW or else digitized painting. 

AE: We did an article last year celebrating the extraordinary artists of Ukraine. I wonder if you’ve come into contact with other artists in Ukraine and, if so, what their response has been.

K: I had some connections with other artists prior to the war, who I’d met at a party in Kharkiv. I don’t think that many of them are making art at the moment. The only Ukrainian artist I’m currently in contact with is Olga, who’s based in Kyiv. She recently had a new drop

Kitel, Fields of the Abandoned Homeland #13, 2023. Courtesy of the artist 

AE: How conscious of the war are you when making your work? Is it possible to escape when you’re creating?

K: When I make my work, I don’t think about the war. I don’t even think about the work. I only think about peace. 

My work is not about Ukraine under fire or Ukraine at war. It’s about peace. And if you ask anyone currently in Ukraine, they only think about peace.
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Kitel is a generative artist originally from Kharkiv, who is now based in Kyiv. His first work, Fields of the Abandoned Homeland, is characterized by a minimal aesthetic that combines depictions of nature and industry. In this drop, Kitel captures the beauty of Ukraine’s wheat fields, juxtaposed with its industrial scenery: power lines, cooling towers, and urban silhouettes.

Alex Estorick is Editor-in-Chief at Right Click Save.