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September 20, 2023


Emily Edelman, Lauren Lee McCarthy, and Kaoru Tanaka discuss how art can engineer equity
Credit: Kaoru Tanaka, This is how it goes (detail), 2023. Courtesy of the artist
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Artists working with AI and code are currently fusing historical canon with the cultures of art on the blockchain. Unfortunately, a lack of equal representation plagues the nascent space of Web3 as it does the wider art world. FEMGEN was established last year as an exhibition and curated conversation designed to counter the exclusion of female-identifying artists working within generative and AI art communities. It does this by both amplifying the voices and expanding the collector bases of its growing movement of creators. At the same time, it is naturalizing a plural alternative to the hegemonic male gaze that continues to drive the market for digital art. 

This week, Glitch Marfa plays host to the second edition of FEMGEN as part of Art Blocks Marfa Weekend 2023. After Micol Ap sat down with half of the participating artists on Monday, today Molly O’Brien hosts three further artists at the cutting-edge of generative art: Emily Edelman, Lauren Lee McCarthy, and Kaoru Tanaka. Here, they discuss the need to overturn bro culture and the power of generative systems to do so.

Molly Apop: What can you tell us about the work you are exhibiting at FEMGEN?

Emily Edelman: I have an endless fascination with text. Poised between personal and universal, ancient and modern, it lives in almost every culture and can take on any aesthetic. Cosmico is a series of 24 digital images meant to acknowledge an acute point in time at a specific location — that of the FEMGEN exhibition opening in Marfa, Texas on Friday September 22, 2023. 

Via straightforward text that describes momentary data through an aesthetic of fervent handwriting, my series is designed to focus viewers on the here and now, inviting acute awareness of this exact point between past and future. The images were created using a combination of generative processes and manual design. The text system was created from my own handwriting, a fervor carefully captured from a lifetime of practice into a permanent, digital representation. 

While the majority of the images are straightforward grayscale, three outputs stand out with warm, reddish colors that are inspired by the colors of Marfa — a moment of desert light in a vast landscape. Cosmico juxtaposes the intimate and immediate nature of handwriting with the sensation of an ongoing timeline and a whole wide world. Text used throughout the compositions is as follows:

friday september twenty second two thousand twenty three
femgen at glitch gallery on el paso street in marfa texas united states earth 
latitude three zero point three one zero two seven zero Longitude one zero four point zero two zero one six zero
this second in this moment in this day in this week month year in this time
right this second
a grain of sand a wisp of wind a passing cloud a drop of rain a pixel a honk
these four walls built for right this second 
at this point in time
Emily Edelman, Cosmico, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

Lauren Lee McCarthy: The work is called Testing. It reflects on the experience of living in an increasingly generated world, where it can be difficult to find the edges of our collectively simulated dream.

The work is a generative series of tests that invite viewers to question their own waking state. Simultaneously authoritative and absurd, the instructions seem to resemble those we constantly receive from technology as it directs us how to behave.

With this work, like most of my others, I aim to create something that moves beyond the screen and into the physical world. Rather than passively looking, the people in the space become part of the piece as they are invited to engage actively and perform the instructions.

Kaoru Tanaka: For This is how it goes, I approached the familiar landscape of rice paddies that one often passes by unthinkingly with a fresh perspective. Here, the sound of rice swaying against the wind, the subtle movements of insects, and the leaps of frogs unfold not as mere background noises, but as individual entities with their own presence. I focused on visualizing the intricate textures imperceptible to the human eye, highlighting the often unnoticed diversity and complexity of the natural world. Capturing the serene energy inherent in nature, while also encountering the mysteries and surprises hidden within it, I sought to create a space that generates a new appreciation and respect for the ordinary that we experience in our daily lives.

MA: Despite the centrality of women to early computing, they have been historically marginalized in Silicon Valley over many decades. Do you see emerging tech as facilitating legacy behaviors through bro culture? How can old logics be overturned in Web3?

LLM: There are many incredible woman and nonbinary artists, as well as artists of different races and ethnicities, disabled artists, and artists of other underrepresented backgrounds doing great work with code. The key to changing the dynamics is prioritizing change, and recognizing that this work takes time and resources. Budgets and events can be reorganized with attention to issues of access and inclusion. Those that have historically held power due to their privilege have to step back and work to lift up others. It matters who leads, who curates, who organizes, who gets paid. We can all educate ourselves to work against the status quo.

KT: It feels like acquiescence. 

The camaraderie among influential individuals — akin to a bro culture — appears to monopolize power and exclude that which does not align with their preferences. 

This resembles the current centralized web world, where many users are corralled before being subjected to its own rules. With Web3 technologies enabling the verification of individual identities, I believe that users might be emancipated from such centralization.

EE: Women have played pivotal roles throughout the history of computing, even if they haven’t always gotten as much credit. Emerging tech can certainly perpetuate old patterns, but it also offers opportunities for change. Web3, with its decentralized ethos, can be a platform where old logics are challenged. FEMGEN is doing amazing work by promoting alternative patterns and practices. I want to show up as an artist first, not as a female artist. But we must highlight gender because of historical behaviors, and because the treatment of women as insignificant or peripheral has been handed down to us. 

Kaoru Tanaka, (Still from) This is how it goes, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

MA: The creative coding community seems to embody a more inclusive vision of the art world. Do you see that being reflected in the wider space of Web3 and, if not, why not? 

KT: I believe that it hasn’t been widely embraced yet because many ordinary individuals are unaware of its existence. To make Web3 accessible to a wider audience, it requires more user-friendly, secure, and straightforward operations.

EE: Creative coding in Web3 certainly offers a glimpse of a more inclusive art world. Its decentralized foundations are an attempt to break down the limits of existing power structures while providing opportunities not afforded by the traditional art world. 

However, the requirements necessary for creative coding can still be a barrier. These include the time needed to learn the technology as well as access to hardware. 

Owing to the culture of decentralized and communal participation in Web3, people still bring their biases from the wider world. What’s exciting to me is that it is also an opportunity to rethink old structures. As early adopters, we can ensure that, as Web3 expands, it doesn’t merely trend toward repeating existing power struggles. 

LLM: The creative coding and Web3 communities are both large and varied spaces so it’s difficult to make any direct comparison or evaluation. There are initiatives within each that prioritize inclusion, while overarching dynamics tend to favor groups of people that have typically held power. For example, we see cis men and white people making the most money in sales, holding top leadership positions, and being invited to present their work much more often than other groups. 

When it comes to Web3, the explosion of platforms and networks has created some opportunities for new and underrepresented artists to enter the digital art scene and build careers. However, I wish that attempts could be made to build on previous work that has been done to bring awareness to these issues. I’m talking about work stretching beyond creative coding back to early women coders and feminist activists. 

Web3 often embraces the novelty and “disruptive” energy of the startup. But there is a lot to be learned from reflecting on the past when it comes to building supportive and inclusive communities.
Lauren Lee McCarthy, Testing — This Too Fantastic To Be Real?, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

MA: Can generative systems be used to imagine new social politics as well as aesthetics? If so, how?

EE: Absolutely. Generative systems, like those used in Cosmico, are not just aesthetic tools — they also envision new ways of making. By allowing outcomes to emerge organically, we mirror the potential of society to evolve and adapt. 

Generative systems speak to the power of people to change the world by deliberately designing those systems. To affect real change in this way, we need not start globally but within our communities. 

KT: By utilizing vast sociological data and similar resources to enable analysis and prediction, the development of a generative system could potentially reveal the shape of novel and needed political models.

MA: What inspires you to create? How important is co-creation to your practice?

LLM: I am captivated by the ways we are taught to interact with algorithms, and how this shapes the way we interact with each other. Central to my work is a critique of the simultaneous technological and social systems that we are building around ourselves. What are the rules, what happens when we introduce glitches? My work is inspired by my experiences with other people — all the moments of confusion, awkwardness, misunderstanding, and connection that I encounter.

As an autistic person, I often get lost in the lines of a social script, while the lines of code make sense to me. As technology moves ever closer to us, the scripts start to blend. I’m chasing the program crashes that open something up.

I care deeply about questioning the technologies around us because no tool is neutral. Each is embedded with the biases and beliefs of its creators. Every software system is also a social system. How do we reclaim a feeling of control, how do we participate? It is important for me that my code is open-source — that others may use, share, modify, and build on it. Communities form around the sharing of code, which decenters individual artists and prioritizes collaboration.

Lauren Lee McCarthy, Testing — Have You Forgotten How To Wake, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

Each of my works feels like an attempt to hack my way out of myself and into closeness with others. I am embodying machines, trying to understand that distance between the algorithm and myself, the distance between others and me. There’s humor in the breakdown, and also moments of clarity. Who builds these artificial systems, what values do they embody? Who is prioritized and who is targeted as race, gender, disability, and class are programmatically encoded? Where are the boundaries around our intimate spaces? In the midst of networked interfaces, what does it mean to be truly present?

EE: I’m inspired by text, typography, systems, and the tension between internal experience and universal legibility. I’m also inspired by community. My design background taught me to tell stories, which depend on an audience — I love creating with an audience in mind. I feel lucky that our entire community is building something together. We are a budding and co-dependant ecosystem of creative and technical possibility. Co-creation is the essence of community, especially in decentralized and generative art.

KT: I haven’t had much experience of collaborative creation, so I can’t grasp its significance. The inspiration for my creativity often arises from ordinary moments in daily life. For instance, it might be the sight of natural scenes that catch my eye while walking in a park. Japan experiences distinct seasons and each offers remarkably beautiful landscapes. The traditional events held every season may influence my creative work.

MA: Can FEMGEN help to uplift digital creators who identify as female? How useful is the NFT market as a measure of progress?

KT: I believe it can contribute significantly. Moreover, I consider NFTs to be a highly valuable way of assigning worth to one’s identity.

EE: FEMGEN’s commitment to amplifying female voices definitely uplifts digital creators who identify as female — not only those whose work is curated, but everyone who sees the good work being done. By providing a platform that recognizes and celebrates their work, it creates a particular place of welcome for female-identifying artists within the digital art world. More than merely discussing it, FEMGEN actually acts on this kind of inclusion.

The NFT market is important to the art ecosystem, but it is not a measure of artistic quality nor the best measure of progress. To grant it that power would be to admit that progress comes from changing the minds of the wealthy and putting their opinions above others. Progress comes from every direction; we must keep that in mind and act on it.

LLM: I don’t regard the market as a good measure of artistic value, but it does offer a picture of who holds wealth and power. FEMGEN is helping to work against these inequities by bringing more visibility to women and nonbinary artists, and building community among them. However, in order to uplift a diversity of practices, it is necessary to think about opening up modes of support that don’t simply follow the market dynamics, or require that artists front all the cost of making work with no guarantee of any compensation for it. This model will always favor those who are able to work for free, which is not a privilege everyone has.

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Emily Edelman is a digital artist and designer who lives and works in Brooklyn. With a background in typography and the design of physical spaces, her work pushes the definition of text and communication as art objects. Emily’s first long-form generative series was Asemica, released on Art Blocks Curated in November 2021. S he has also exhibited with Artsy, Bright Moments, EXPANDED.ART, theVERSEverse, VellumLA, and Verse. She holds a BFA in Graphic Design from RISD and is the co-founder of Taken Art, an art and tech unconference. In 2023, she curated the exhibition, “On Water,” at The Seaport, New York.

Lauren Lee McCarthy is an artist examining social relationships in the midst of surveillance, automation, and algorithmic living. She is the creator of p5.js, an open-source creative coding platform that prioritizes inclusion and access. She has received grants and residencies from Creative Capital, United States Artists, LACMA, Sundance, Eyebeam, Pioneer Works, Autodesk, and Ars Electronica. Lauren’s work has been exhibited internationally, including at the Barbican Centre, Ars Electronica, REDCAT, Fotomuseum Winterthur, HEK, ACM SIGGRAPH, Onassis Cultural Center, IDFA, Science Gallery Dublin, and Seoul Museum of Art. Lauren is a Professor at UCLA Design Media Arts.

Kaoru Tanaka is a self-taught digital artist based in Osaka, Japan. Having started out producing design work using Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, her experience of the artworks of John Maeda sparked an interest in creating art through programming. She has since produced work using both Processing and TouchDesigner.

Molly Apop is a Kentucky-born creative entrepreneur based in New York. She received her BFA in Photography from NYU Tisch School of the Arts in 2018, and is a 2012 Alumnus of Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts. Producing, directing, managing, and bringing together creative projects from start to finish constitute her ikigai. Unlearning and relearning through the process of each project — for Molly, creativity is a way to replace trauma with colorful representations that educate audiences.