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April 21, 2023


A new exhibition from PROOF Curated considers generative art as an alternative form of growth
Credit: Fingacode, aaa #51 (detail), 2023. Courtesy of the artist
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This conversation is also available as a podcast.

Curated by Emily Xie, “Evolving Pixels” celebrates growth as the vital essence of generative systems. A collaboration between PROOF and Art Blocks, and exhibited at Venus Over Manhattan’s Soho gallery, the show unites a number of generative and AI artists across digital and physical platforms. Coinciding with NFT.NYC 2023, “Evolving Pixels” marks PROOF’s adoption of a new mode of decentralized curation — empowering a plurality of voices to develop themes, select artists, and shape installations according to new visions. 

For PROOF’s Head of Art, Eli Scheinman, the exhibition reflects the Collective’s own vision of “bilateral navigation” between the crypto and mainstream contemporary art worlds. The fact that the show is continuing long after the Web3 rodeo has left town is part of a concerted effort to engage traditional collectors despite the down market. A number of visitors to the gallery this week have run off to mint following tours with the curator, who is herself a leading generative artist. On that evidence, the future of the market may hinge on context. At Right Click Save, we believe that it should be artists who set the terms by which their own work is evaluated. To that end, Alex Estorick sat down with a group of participants currently writing their own names into generative art’s evolving story.

Cory Haber, Singularity #123, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

AE: Emily, I’m interested in the concept of the artist as a curator, which seems quite common in Web3. How has your own practice fed into this show?

Emily Xie: I’d say that my work as an artist has directly informed my decision to address the theme of growth. I had the subject in mind because, coming up on my first year as a full-time artist, I’ve been reflecting on how much I’ve grown. As artists, we are never stagnant: we continually learn, grow, and mutate, and we express this outwardly through what we produce. For this show, I decided specifically to curate artists who work with computation. The concept of growth is particularly front and center for those of us practicing in that medium — technology moves fast and relentlessly shapes the landscape around us, so there’s a constant pressure to keep up in the face of such rapid change. 

AE: Feileacan, this concept of growth and the closeness between machinic and natural emergence has been central to your work for a while. How have your thoughts on this subject evolved over time and how do they frame your work for this exhibition?

Feileacan McCormick for Entangled Others: A big part of our approach involves trying to erase some of the perceived divide between nature — the more-than-human — and the digital, framing them as part of the same ecosystem. Since early on in our collaboration, we have been collecting water samples for examination under a microscope, watching a whole world expand. 

That was a profound experience, and we have been keen to capture the intricate, entangled qualities of something that on the surface seems entirely mundane and bereft of anything complex.  
Entangled Others, Intertidal Samples 2.0 #1, 2023. Courtesy of the artists

AE: Cory, in what ways is growth both the explicit subject of your work and implicit in the practice of a generative artist?

Cory Haber: As someone who started out doing single editions combined with plotter work, growth was a perfect theme for me. This was a new opportunity to do something in long form and in JavaScript. I’ve done a lot of work relating to nature in the past and, as this work started to develop, I noticed the lines originating from a central point. I was looking at the flower as a metaphor for growth, potential, and, of course, our own connection to nature (or lack thereof).

Code is the perfect medium to convey that because nature is algorithmic. 

Fingacode: When I’m writing code, my mental state affects my perception of the outputs. I’d never used shaders before embarking on this project, so that was a technical challenge to overcome. And I can’t lie, there were several times when I thought to send Emily a message saying: “maybe not this time.” But I was already emotionally invested in the project. I could easily have avoided shaders, but then the output wouldn’t be what I had hoped for. This has happened to me a lot, but it’s only now that I’m starting to accept it as part of the composition stage, instead of seeing it as a negative.

CH: I feel exactly the same way. I’ve never written shader code, but I keep coming back to it thinking: “I wish I could do it.” I know it could enhance certain ideas that I have in mind.

EX: I recently wrote my first shader as well — I love how we’re all in the same boat. The thing that’s so amazing about generative or computational art is that you can grow as an artist in every single work by discovering a new technique. The field of possibilities is just so vast. 

Fingacode, aaa #11, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

AE: Lars, can you speak about the process of introducing limits, struggling against a system with which you might not be familiar yet?

Lars Wander: What I find so enjoyable about this type of enumerative art is that it’s all about establishing a system with specific constraints and then exploring the various ways that system can be expressed. We can grasp the basic idea of what will happen or what the program will do, but the actual outcome is often a surprise — even if it only generates a thousand outputs. To me, growth stems from the tangible embodiment of rules. It’s about taking concepts that can be expressed in a literal sense and then observing all the possible states in which they might be realized, providing a concrete representation of this numerical process.

AE: It seems to me that there exists a tension in the work of a generative artist between chance and control. Is there such a thing as a sweet spot where you can maintain control while regulating the flow of emergent possibilities?

F: I explored this quite heavily in my project. I’ve been considering abstract art a lot recently, reflecting on Pollock and Mondrian. With Pollock’s “all-over” approach — where the whole canvas is covered — the question for me is: “when does the artist decide they’re done? When is there too much paint on the canvas? And how many elements are too many?” I found a balance at the moment when I could just look at the work and feel something, without wanting to press F5 again. That’s something you can’t necessarily articulate.

LW: In this specific piece, which involves seven factorial, there’s only a single random parameter driving the entire process. [...] Randomness is a fundamental aspect of generative art and it’s essential to ensuring enough variety in long-form projects. 

The question is: “what happens if we reduce randomness to a minimum?” The answer is a work that still allows for long-form exploration while revealing discernible visual features. 
Lars Wander, 7 Factorial #2, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

My project doesn’t use the typical RAND function that we often see in Art Blocks projects. Indeed, it intentionally avoids texture and decoration, as those effects require hundreds of invocations of RAND to be applied correctly. Instead, with only a single random parameter, we are left with few choices. 

Xin Liu: In this community, the way we look at generative systems is highly dependent on the platform. With Art Blocks, for instance, we’re talking about a library that collectors can use to access work — one of the most established pipelines whereby artists can work with code and input data. But generative art is not strictly limited to JavaScript, and even Art Blocks has added a new Flex Engine

We’re in the process of expanding the word “generative.” For example, my project Atlas (21-ongoing) is also generative in a sense for the way it uses abandoned weather satellites to take pictures of the earth, with each moment generated by the conditions and location of the satellite, the angle of the camera, the weather on the ground, the signal quality, and the shape of the antenna itself. 

One could even describe much modernist art as generative, based as it is on a system of conducting paint on canvas, executing code written in the artist’s mind.
Xin Liu and Nan Zhao, Lycorises #41, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

AE: I’m interested in the importance of history to all of you. At RCS, we often publish new “crypto” histories that challenge the canon of art as a single monolithic narrative. Do you regard contemporary generative art as a form of modernist revenge designed to achieve visual purity, or does it owe more to early computer art?

EX: I’m fascinated by early 20th-century modern art, influenced by artists who’ve played with different textures and compositions. I’m also interested in Japanese woodblock prints. I tend to look to art forms that are highly material, playing with texture in a digital context. 

You cannot touch a digital piece. But you can gain an imagined texture and sense of feeling, which I think is just as interesting.

FM: Land art resonates with me the most. Since I was a teenager, I’ve always been fascinated by site specificity. This also applies in a digital context where one can choose to work with certain types of code, data, and environments. Each in turn produces a very different outcome. As a studio, Entangled Others is highly focused on installation and sometimes even conceptual art. A lot of our works begin by finding the right conceptual framework and performative ruleset, and then following where they lead. The fascinating thing about working with generative systems isn’t simply the end result, but also the exploration and growth that emerges as one encounters moments one didn’t expect, or frictions that open doors in new directions. Our practice is constantly branching and meandering through points of friction. 

A lot of our work focuses on the natural world and its representation in the digital space. There’s a constant tension between attempting to erode the barriers between the physical and digital through artificial life, and running the risk of creating Tamagotchi — works that are playthings for people. How do we avoid imposing ourselves too heavily on a generative representation of a more-than-human other? How might we even bring those others into the digital? We are constantly exploring such frictions rather than focusing on achieving the most glossy or seductive output.

Helena Sarin, Vernus Impudens, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

CH: I grew up painting on canvas, so I’ve always had an overwhelming desire to write code that actually paints on canvas. Impressionism was the only art form I took seriously when I was younger; I would even have arguments with people about it. Obviously, I’ve grown and matured since then, but I still want to build new realms on old themes. History is hugely important in explaining why we’re doing what we’re doing today. If anyone disputes that, I think it’s totally untrue. Right now, we have an opportunity to define a new genre of art that is currently emerging. It’s a fascinating time to be making work.

LW: What draws me into art almost never starts with its history, though I do feel a deep connection with history through my personal practice. My first enumerative project related to seven factorial was Rubber Band Folds (2021), which explored all the possible ways to create creases in rubber bands. A few months later, someone introduced me to Sol LeWitt’s Incomplete Open Cubes (1974/1982), a conceptually similar project executed forty years earlier with a different enumeration.

It’s so enjoyable to discover a strong connection to someone who was grappling with the same concepts years ago, albeit in a different manner. 
Juan Rodríguez García, Memorias del espacio olvidado #51, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

When I began working with my plotter, I had no context for computer art. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to emphasize the fact that a machine created the drawing instead of trying to imitate human brushstrokes. I wanted to explore the robotic nature of the process. Later, I read Harold Cohen, who held very similar feelings about his practice, stressing the importance of allowing the machine and the algorithm to make decisions. 

F: That’s interesting to me because, whereas Lars grew up painting on a physical canvas, I’m the complete opposite. I went to art school but I dropped out after six months — the theoretical side of things just wasn’t working for me. I would rather be on Photoshop in the practical lessons. I’ve been very strong-headed when it comes to the historical side of art because, without sounding pompous, I want to make a change and leave a me-sized fingerprint on this world.

Saying that history affects my decision-making would be too strong, but participating in the Tribute to Herbert W. Franke was pretty cool. The only conversation I ever had with him was via Twitter, but Tony Marinara has pointed out the similarities between our works, including some made by him before I was born.

Dean Blacc, Colour Computer #62, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

AE: It’s difficult even for a successful contemporary artist to develop a profile in Web3, since one likely has to build a new community from the ground up while also taking on some of the responsibilities of a traditional gallery. How do you reconcile the need for creative entrepreneurship with the daily demands of an artist? 

CH: I had a very tough time when I started out because, while I’ve had Twitter since 2010, I’ve probably only done ten posts in ten years. Artists have to do a lot of extra things in this space to find success. All I want to do is focus on making art, put it out there, and have conversations that can hopefully take me places.

F: For me, the only difference between what I’m doing in Web3 and what I’ve been doing for the last ten years is that now I have a Ledger. I’ve been creating Myspace layouts and websites, and selling music and all sorts with my friends via PayPal. 

My approach is always to put out my best and hope that someone appreciates it. I feel like that’s the approach taken by a lot of other artists too — just do the work and show up.

CH: I think showing up at events and meeting people is about 80% of it. This community is the most welcoming that I’ve ever experienced and it’s extremely important to establish relationships in order to grow as an artist. But I also think that things are going to change dramatically in Web3. We’re all going to have to fight to preserve royalties, which remain one of the beautiful things about this space. On the other hand, fine art and NFTs are different things and there are instances, for example with collectibles, where a 10% royalty doesn’t make sense. People are going to leave the space and there may be a five-year low, but it’s going to come back. We have to stick it out and continue to create. 

Sasha Stiles, ends with a surprise., 2023. Courtesy of the artist

F: The reason I absolutely despise the term “NFT artist” is that it lumps me in with the mess so that, if this all falls, I go with it, which is completely ridiculous. I’ve tapped into it but it’s not my whole being. On the royalty question, that’s probably going to be platform-specific, but I think it’s great that a platform like Art Blocks is stepping up and honoring royalties.

XL: I have experience operating as both a contemporary artist and as an NFT artist, and I’ve been thrilled to see how people in the blockchain community are so open about the process of collecting and the importance of maintaining inclusivity. In the contemporary art world, it is a taboo topic. 

I’ve found that members of this community, especially creators, are much more conscious of what they are putting out into the world and who is benefiting from each sale. In contemporary art, it is the opposite. Artists don’t talk about money and their audience, relying instead on some mysterious establishment to give them a gold sticker. One can be a well-known artist and not even know the price a work sells for. I’ve always felt that space to be discriminatory and hypocritical. However, at the same time, I work as a contemporary artist and it’s not within my powers to change the system myself. I’m just glad that we can finally talk about establishing new models in a new marketplace.

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With thanks to Eli Scheinman.

Entangled Others is the shared studio practice of artists Feileacan McCormick and Sofia Crespo. Their work focuses on ecology, artificial life forms, and generative arts, giving more-than-human forms a life and presence in digital space. This involves exploring questions of relationship, biodiversity, and awareness through biology-inspired technologies. Their practice highlights how new technology can be used to raise awareness of the unseen that we are tightly interwoven with. Entanglement is a complex state, where no single entity can be said to be separate or unaffected by any other entangled presence, wherein we cannot consider ourselves without others, act without interacting, or speak without being heard.

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 many creative projects on fxhash, Foundation, and SuperRare. His most recent project, translucent panes (2022), was a live-minting generative art project with Art Blocks through Bright Moments. He lives and works in the UK.

Cory Haber is a New York-based generative artist whose work invites the viewer to explore the infinite possibilities of the digital realm, while staying deeply rooted in the beauty of the natural world. Since 2014, Cory has honed his skills to develop a unique approach to generative art, employing plotters and meticulously-crafted, 3D-printed paintbrushes, to produce large-scale paintings on canvas. All of his works, both physical and digital, stem from the same foundational source code, evolving into distinct works that capture the essence of nature and its processes. 

Lars Wander is a computer artist, born in Germany and living in New York. His visual artwork follows his interests in perception, generative patterns, and computational systems. He has been writing programs to explore complexity for well over a decade, and began publishing his generative artwork in 2020.

Emily Xie is a visual artist and engineer based in New York who uses algorithms to produce realistic textures and forms. She is intrigued by the convergence of diverse materials and patterns and the narratives that emerge from their combination. Xie is inspired by tangible media such as textiles, collage, and wallpaper, examining how they are imagined in a digital context. Her generative systems tend to explore multiple dichotomies at once, including the tensions between randomness and precision, the natural and the computational, and the abstract and the figurative.

Xin Liu is an artist and engineer whose contribution to “Evolving Pixels” is a collaboration with Nan Zhao. Her recent research centers on the verticality of space, extraterrestrial explorations, and the cosmic metabolism of our planet and how it is affected by technological infrastructure. She graduated from MIT Media Lab with a masters in Media Arts & Sciences after an MFA from Rhode Island School of Design and a BE from Tsinghua University, Beijing. Xin is the Arts Curator for the Space Exploration Initiative at MIT Media Lab and an artist-in-residence at SETI Institute. She is the recipient of numerous awards and residencies, including Porche’s Chinese Young Artist of the Year 2021, Forbes 30 under 30 Asia, X Museum Triennial Award, the Van Lier Fellowship from The Museum of Arts and Design, amongst others. 

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

Evolving Pixels” runs until April 24, 2023 at Venus Over Manhattan.