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September 18, 2023


Anna Beller, Emi Kusano, and Helena Sarin share what FEMGEN really means with Micol Ap
Credit: Emi Kusano, Pixelated Perception, 2023. Courtesy of the artist
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Following its first edition in Miami last December, this week FEMGEN comes to Marfa, Texas as part of Art Blocks Marfa Weekend 2023. On Friday September 22, Glitch Marfa will display the work of six artists while hosting a panel discussion pointedly titled: “You Wouldn’t Have A Show Called MENGEN.” This hybrid form is indicative of FEMGEN’s plural identity — a dynamic movement, an exhibition series, and an ongoing conversation that is designed to make space for female and non-binary artists working with generative systems. Born in the pursuit of a new art world that fosters diversity, openness, and greater access, FEMGEN is dedicated to cultivating a more inclusive ecosystem for artists. 

For Marfa Weekend, we are pleased to exhibit the work of six new members of FEMGEN’s artist community, half of whom I recently sat down with for RCS. These include Anna Beller, whose background in architecture and graphic design expands the reach of generative systems; Emi Kusano, who reflects on Japanese culture through post-photography and AI; and Helena Sarin, a pioneer of GANs (generative adversarial networks) whose work has laid the foundations for a new generation of AI artists.

Micol Ap: What can you tell us about the work you are exhibiting at FEMGEN?

Anna Beller: Red Shapes is a geometric study of the threshold between shape and its dissolution. I was inspired by random paper leftovers in the studio, which I had used as backgrounds for a series of spray paintings. Their stencil marks created the appearance of negative space, which led me to question how I might reproduce that kind of effect in digital form. 

I ended up selecting a highly minimal set of geometric elements that I then combined, overlaid, and rearranged in different ways to produce a series of surprising shapes and movements. Like many of my works, the project is born of an omnipresent duality of red and white elements combined with puzzle pieces (representing the physical paper tape), sharp edges, and color gradients. The outputs’ appearance is intentionally very digital and raw, on the one hand recalling harmonic Bauhaus design, architecture, and ground plans, while also being aggressive in their expression. The work probes the space between materiality and immateriality and challenges the logic of the digital: everywhere but nowhere.  

Emi Kusano: Set against the backdrop of Japan’s technological transition of the 1980s and ’90s, Pixelated Perception considers how we have perceived reality in the past. Using pink as its primary hue, it captures the irony of a Japanese society in which gender disparities have been pronounced. The work employs video game pixelation, emphasizing the pixel’s playful cuteness as well as its risqué potential. The collection reflects the tendencies of Japanese pop culture to consume excessively, prompting viewers via multifaceted and hidden meanings.

Helena Sarin: When you invited me to participate you pointed to a few of my works and suggested something evoking “heated earth and sun.” That clicked right away especially given the location of FEMGEN in Marfa at the end of September! Because I spend most of my time working with clay, my palette is influenced by Pre-Columbian art with a generative twist — what I lovingly call “AIztecan.” So El Planeta del Maiz: Las Tres Estaciones is situated somewhere in the Americas where the corn is the queen and there are only three seasons: spring for planting, summer for growing, and the endless Indian summer of abundance, harvest, and fiesta at the sunset! The work is a  celebration of New World culture, language, music, visual arts, crafts, and food. 

A lot of the current digital art seems too intellectualized. I want the viewer to experience raw material in all its glorious analog dirt and fingermarks. 
Helena Sarin, The Sound of Quenta If you didn’t know how a quanta sounds, now you will, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

MA: In what ways does identity dictate success in Web3? What have you learned from your interactions with your own collector community?

EK: Success in Web3 is deeply intertwined with having a transparent identity and an artist’s mad passion. I started my career in 2021. While I was involved with Zombie Zoo Keeper (2021) as a producer, it’s actually my son’s piece. This work granted me many interactions with the collector community. In 2022, alongside my friend Ayaka Ohira, I released a collection of 8,888 PFPs titled Shinsei Galverse, rooted in ’90s sci-fi anime, which achieved record sales. 

Many hold the opinion that artists shouldn’t do business. However, in my view, art is inherently centered on the customer. 

Genuine passion and a sort of madness are essential for an artist. Collectors desire artists to produce over the long term, and it’s clear that merely following trends or else being solely business-minded won’t suffice. As an artist, you must focus on genuinely captivating themes. Many PFP projects that have disappeared lacked a central guiding artist or else they simply pursued trends. I believe that those successful in Web3 strike a balance.

HS: I think that there is not much of a common thread in the success stories, except perhaps being early, making something unique and interesting, as well as decent marketing skills. I was fortunate with my curators and early collectors. On the question of identity, I used to think art was a means of settling into different cultures — my Planeta work manifests identity as fluid.

AB: I try to keep my internet identity quite neutral. Personally, I don’t see myself too much as a “female” artist; I didn’t grow up as a particular [kind of] “girl” and I have worked a lot in “male” surroundings. I also don’t see myself as a particular kind of German and I have traveled a lot. 

My art is partly emotional but the generative and technical aspects add a level of neutrality, which I like. 

I have an open personality, both IRL and in Web3, and I’m on cordial terms with my collectors. It’s great to be able to exchange thoughts and explain my artworks to them, and many are of a similar age to me. I don’t like asking collectors to buy my works but, with bigger, curated drops I do inform them and they are mostly very thankful for it.

Anna Beller, Red Shapes, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

MA: Many of the artists who have exhibited at FEMGEN adopt transmedia approaches. How does your practice intersect a variety of media?

AB: One moment I’m painting purely physically, and then I’m drawing digitally or with code. For my Red Shapes, my inspiration was originally physical pieces, but the result was purely and intentionally digital. I often make sketches on paper which I then develop further through Computer-Aided Design (CAD) programs. For my most recent collaboration, I sprayed paint over pen plots on paper. Physical painting is not enough for me at the moment. My nerd personality tells me that I need to connect my paintings with a digital counterpart. 

HS: In order to deal with the prolificacy of the AI models, a couple of years ago I started experimenting with stop-motion animations, which I call “GANimations” — they became my long-form of sorts. My current piece comprises around 150 pictures. 

EK: My approach is inspired by actual photos of Japanese culture, which I recreate using AI prompts. I draw my palette and themes from photos of high-rises from the 1980s, incorporating Super Sentai, and maid cafés.

By blending real photos with fantasy elements generated from my prompts, I can achieve an enchanting blend where reality blurs with fiction.

MA: The growth in the market for generative art has created interest in projects involving multiple variations as well as co-creation. How do you reflect on these developments?

HS: Let me be brutally honest — [long-form] works for some but not for me. This is because it involves manual curation to produce a series of between 100 and 300 works, which takes at least one order of magnitude longer than my typical approach. 

As much as I enjoy doing series, I think that most of my collectors don’t realize or appreciate the  effort. That’s in fact the main reason I absolutely refuse to make series anymore, only one-of-ones.

As for collaborations, when it works it’s amazing. After a few false starts trying to find a composer, last year I finally found a great collaborator, Mikhail Galkin. He is an extremely talented composer who has allowed me to add instrumentals to my GANimations. This has been a game-changer for conveying ideas as well as the depth and richness of my work. 

Emi Kusano, Pixelated Perception, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

EK: I’m thrilled by the growing interest in generative AI art. Though I’m not particularly skilled as a coder and faced setbacks when learning programming during my student days, I’ve rediscovered the joy of creation via today’s AI tools. Moving forward, I’m keen to deepen my collaboration with AI and explore new tools like p5.js.

AB: The interest has helped me to develop my physical-digital style, which has been a huge production booster to me. 

Generative art sometimes reminds me of a building that has been built with many hand-drawn details. Each detail is an artwork, but they just make sense together. 

I love the idea of communal collecting, which is so much more contemporary and less egocentric. Recently, I also had a great experience collaborating with the architect and coder Alejandro Campos — we set very high aims together that I wouldn’t have set by myself. Our experiment in connecting coding, pen plotting, and physical painting was successful. 

MA: Do you consider your works as worlds? Can artists working with digital technology change the world? 

EK: Yes, I believe that new technology consistently widens the concept of art. Over time, tools of realism like the camera and Photoshop have allowed us to visualize human creativity and thought in new ways. It is through mediums like the internet and blockchain that we can attribute value and weave narratives among collectors.

AB: My artistic processes lead me automatically into another world that is honest and pure and exists for itself. I search through that world and find results. What I don’t need is a gallery in the metaverse. In my eyes, art loses its abstraction in such an environment. I would much rather see digital art in frameless digital space, where artists can have a much bigger influence and reach people who had never previously experienced art. Digital art can be a huge community-builder.  

HS: Yes, or microworlds to be more precise. As an artist grounded in craft — I call myself an “engineering artist” — when working with AI models I try to bring intimacy and a grounding in the present by training generative models on mundane things like salad leaves or clay pots. 

Seeing the familiar as unfamiliar has become my mantra. 
Helena Sarin, Hot Tamales — it’s not the frames you play, it’s the frames you don’t play, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

MA: How far can an event or exhibition engineer greater inclusivity? What needs to change in Web3 to ensure that marginalized groups aren’t overlooked?

AB: Events and exhibitions are important in Web3 as general structures that can offer quality control and start conversations around topics such as inclusivity. The language of Web3 is entirely English, which is a huge disadvantage for many. Even if you can access a translation program it’s very time-consuming for non-native English speakers to communicate at a similar level as native speakers. I have no idea how to change that.

If you present art that is comprehensible to people from all nations and which doesn’t require words, it can be helpful. It’s probably one reason why generative art has become so prominent in Web3. 

HS: We know the overnight success stories, but ultimately it’s up to the artist herself. Unfortunately, it doesn’t only depend on talent or hard work. The events, collectors, and curators of high visibility also help to open the door. 

EK: I view Web3 as an interdisciplinary discourse. Tokens, initially without value, have become an invaluable tool championed under the noble cause of supporting artists. This has enabled artists to sustain themselves and sparked a new market. Given its conceptual and romantic nature, I wish for more artists and collectors with strong messaging and unique worldviews to join in. Though NFTs are currently somewhat taboo, I believe collaborations with contemporary art scenes can uplift this domain.

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Anna Beller is a German experimental painter and digital artist with a background in architecture. Her process-oriented abstract paintings are experiments in natural color flow versus systematic intervention, while her digital works play with strong, logical concepts, leading through playful combinations to surprising outputs. Her transmedia works combine the digital and physical via pen plotting and manual pre-editing. Drawing on her architectural background, Anna recently developed an NFT series of digital graphic artworks and digital paintings on and Foundation. In 2023, she collaborated with Alejandro Campos for Verse.

Emi Kusano is a multidisciplinary artist based in Tokyo who explores retrofuturism, accelerationism, and Japanese pop culture. After starting out as a street photographer in Harajuku, she has since expanded her repertoire to include installations and electro music. Emi is a pioneer in AI-generated art who blends reality, fiction, and diverse media to push the boundaries of traditional photography. Her AI self-portrait was featured as WWDJAPAN’s first AI cover and she is a member of Japan’s Cultural Council for AI copyright deliberation. Her work has been exhibited globally, including at Bright Moments, Unit London, and as part of “Future Frequencies,” a collaboration between Christie’s and Gucci. She is also the co-founder of Shinsei Galverse, a Web3 community-driven anime studio that has achieved record-breaking success and is further accelerating anime creation using AI.

Helena Sarin is a visual artist and software engineer who describes herself as an “engineering artist.” She has always worked with cutting-edge technologies for tech companies while producing commission work, and today generative models are her primary medium. She has been engaged with crypto art since early 2020 and has since become one of the top artists across the Foundation and SuperRare marketplaces. She is a frequent speaker at conferences on AI and machine learning and, in the last two years, has lectured at MIT, Adobe Research, Eyeo Festival, The Library of Congress, Capitol One, Carnegie Mellon University, and TEDxKonstanz. She has published multiple artist books, including The Book of GANesis (2020), GANcommedia Erudita (2020), Leaves of Manifold (2020-21), and The Book of #veGAN (2021). Her recent focus has been on generative pottery or, what she calls, #potteryGAN. Helena resides in the New Jersey suburbs with a rescue dog named Cumin, three GPUs, and a husband.

Micol Ap is founder and CEO of VERTICAL, a Web3 studio for art NFTs. She is interested in how blockchain technology and culture can create new paradigms and systems. VERTICAL is focused on elevating the discourse around the metaverse through curated content, exhibitions, auctions, and special projects as part of a mission to bridge the fine art, contemporary art, and Web3 artist economies.