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October 9, 2023

The Edges of Code

Iskra Velitchkova and Zach Lieberman discuss the art of generative collaboration
Credit: Iskra Velitchkova and Zach Lieberman, horizon(te)s #359 (detail), 2022. Courtesy of the artists
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The Edges of Code

SOURCE” is a non-commercial exhibition on Feral File curated by Operator, 0xDEAFBEEF, and Casey Reas, featuring 25 artworks made in the last several years which use software as a medium.

From the curatorial statement: This is not an attempt at a survey exhibition or defining a new canon, this is simply a selection of work that the four of us are thinking about right now. For those of us in the middle of art, code, and blockchains for the last few years, there’s been little to no time to pause and reflect on what has happened. SOURCE is our attempt to do that, collaboratively.

Feral File invited exhibiting artists to participate in the SOURCE Talk Series, which gave the artists, curators, and community an opportunity to reflect on these iconic works together. Here Iskra Velitchkova and Zach Lieberman discuss their collaboration, horizon(te)s, which debuted on fx(hash) in August 2022. Alex Estorick, Editor-in-Chief at Right Click Save, moderated the talk, which was the first time Iskra and Zach had spoken in public about the project.

— Elisabeth Sweet

This conversation is also available as a podcast.

Alex Estorick: One thread running through recent conversations around generative art is the notion of co-creation. Did the results of your collaboration surprise you at all? 

Iskra Velitchkova: Fxhash was organizing this huge celebration after one year of activity, and they wrote asking me to participate. In 2022, I was in this hurricane of projects, and I had to decline because it was impossible. 

Then, I found a DM from Zach proposing a collaboration. I was in shock because I’d been following him for a long time — he is one of the maestros in the field. 

There is something interesting in how we built the whole thing. I have a very personal style, and I’m very connected with what I’ve been doing. At the same time, I’m amazed by Zach’s light projections — how he plays with shaders, light, and movement. I’ve never done that before, so it was very challenging. At the time, my practice was very focused on playing with lines, their width, and how that can create shades and volumes. That challenge was achieved by playing with color. If I use my technique, I iterate a lot with the background and with lines. For me, it was more a conceptual [question] of how I could use my tools to get closer to his style.

 Iskra Velitchkova and Zach Lieberman, horizon(te)s #209, 2022. Courtesy of the artists

Zach Lieberman: It was fun that we stumbled into that construction. We really wanted to avoid having a bit of one style and a bit of another but rather use this as an opportunity to get to know each other’s work. That is a gift we gave each other. It’s a challenge as an artist to understand how other people see your work, which is the one superpower I wish I had or that I wish I could give to other artists — to see with someone else’s eyes how they see your work. In the end, this notion of me as me, me as you, me as you as me, proved really interesting and gave us a lot of time to meditate.

I spent a lot of time looking at Iskra’s work and imagining how I would create that using my own approach. I was playing with lines because Iskra’s work is so much about lines on top of lines on top of lines, and I remember sketching and feeling that I was getting nowhere. 

It was only when we gave ourselves the liberty to express with our own voice, to use our own techniques, but to try to see that in the voice of the other that it felt really magical, when I stepped away from lines and said: “I’m going to use gradients or color; I’m going to use the things that I feel like I have a lot of control over, but to use them to describe what I see in Iskra’s work.” 
 Iskra Velitchkova and Zach Lieberman, horizon(te)s #278, 2022. Courtesy of the artists

AE: The subject of the horizon is important in a formal sense, as a unifier, but it’s also important from a conceptual standpoint. I tend to think of generative art as a born-digital project. On the other hand, I’m conscious that the most high-resolution output is still a physical print. Did this project change how you think about the materiality of code — sitting on the edge of the physical and the digital?

ZL: There’s something that I see in Iskra’s work, which feels very architectural and oftentimes infinite. For me, horizon(te)s was responding to Uninhabitable (2021) and seeing this dominant horizon line. We were really looking for a graphical anchor to base the work on and that was one of the ones that we landed on.

IV: We allowed ourselves to explore the other’s style. The connection between all the systems came naturally from playing with these shapes. At some point, the horizontal line emerged from the process, which is a nice analogy to what we do with art.

The emergence from the code and our surprise at the result came in a natural way.
 Iskra Velitchkova and Zach Lieberman, horizon(te)s #389, 2022. Courtesy of the artists

AE: The idea of inhabiting the mind of another artist might lead one to feel paralyzed, but that doesn’t seem to have happened in this instance. How did you structure the collaboration in practice? 

ZL: It was really straightforward. We used p5.js, and there was a Zach.js and an Iskra.js file. There were almost two different universes because my work was completely shader-based, and so, when the software was running Zach.js, it would create a WebGL context and draw in a certain way. Iskra’s work was very line-oriented, did not use WebGL, but rather a traditional p5.js mode. It was almost like two different pathways that the code could go down. Then, we created this central framework for running it. The back-and-forth was one of the most exciting parts of the project. 

Every time we’d jump on a call, we’d have this portfolio of new things that we had invented. 

At some point, Iskra sent me the code, and I was running it, and she had saved a screenshot every time she had refreshed the browser — it was phenomenal. It was this intensely iterative way of working. We both have that similar [approach] which is to change it and break it and come back and change it more. Being able to do that together and have conversations about what we saw in the other was one of the most enjoyable parts of the project.

 Iskra Velitchkova and Zach Lieberman, horizon(te)s #251, 2022. Courtesy of the artists

IV: I ended up having a very large spectrum of landscapes and moods. I created this field, like a farm; another one was a sunset; then I created this rain, and then I ended up doing what I called “the end of the world.” At some point, Zach became quite desperate because I never finished anything, so I just said to myself: “Iskra, you need to stop here.” 

Even though Zach was creating a lot of systems, he had this consistency. There was something common to the three systems — me as me, me as you, and me as you as me. I really wanted to get close to that. 

The translation between the code and the output was very challenging for me because my way of coding often comes from iterating on previous systems. Everything is different but it comes from a common code. The most beautiful thing was having weekly feedback from someone I respect a lot, which was very rewarding but could also be frustrating. I had the sensation that I had created 15 systems that I could release as different projects, but it felt very nice to release them as one and to have given all I had for a common purpose.

 Iskra Velitchkova and Zach Lieberman, horizon(te)s #159, 2022. Courtesy of the artists

AE: Long-form generative art projects tend to follow a consistent visual idiom, but horizon(te)s is strikingly varied. Can you explain that?

ZL: After the project was released, somebody said that it was almost like a retrospective. In Iskra’s work, there’s a real delicacy in the use of line and a transparency and layering that I’m not used to seeing in generative art. I remember seeing her work in the early days and seeing these very delicate, organic birds — they’re not creatures, but they are creatures.

I spent a lot of time thinking about how to achieve the lightness, transparency, and luminous energy I saw in her work. The question for me — working in shaders, gradients, color, and light — was how I could respond to that. 

It really pushed me and it was a fun challenge. After we worked on this project, we kept seeing each other’s work everywhere. Iskra would send me a photograph of a light in an elevator, and she’d say: “I see your work.” The same was true for me. We had spent so much time looking at each other’s work that we noticed it everywhere, which seemed like a really generous part of the conversation.

 Iskra Velitchkova and Zach Lieberman, horizon(te)s #332, 2022. Courtesy of the artists

IV: For me, the key thing was to achieve the brightness that is so particular in Zach’s work. Knowing that I didn’t have the tools and didn’t know how to do it in his way, I needed to find my own way. We had something very clear in mind, which was to celebrate the overall process. 

For me, the concept of long-form [generative art] is beautiful in its openness to creating an infinite number of variations. I like to call them “generative explorations.” By presenting 400 or 1,000 pieces, you can establish a story. Our story was one of two people connecting. Sometimes you hear the other’s voice; sometimes you agree or disagree; sometimes you have a mess. It is a conversation rather than a monologue.

We focused on the story we wanted to create. If it’s not consistent visually, then it’s consistent intellectually.
 Iskra Velitchkova and Zach Lieberman, horizon(te)s #173, 2022. Courtesy of the artists

AE: When I look at this project, emergence seems to be built into it so that instead of looking out for an outlier or “grail” I’m surprised constantly. Does it feel that way to you?

IV: It’s a very fun system to explore and it’s very nice when I see a piece being sold — I’m super interested in which one it will be. There is no grail because you don’t have a rarity parameter. The rarity is in the system itself and in the approach. To find that variety and consistency [requires] a very delicate equilibrium.

ZL: Sometimes, the things that are the most beautiful are the most broken, and sometimes, the things that are the most exciting are at the edges of what is possible. [With long-form], there’s a question of how to create systems that produce high-quality work [and] celebrate that brokenness. There’s a tendency or desire to push everything toward the realm of beauty or consistency. [But] one of the most important dials is that of the outlier, the misfit, and the thing that really surprises you. 

I generally find [long-form] to be a very hard way to work. Part of the art is in the curation. 

I love selecting things, sketching, and finding something that is the best version of an idea, and giving up some control is something I find really hard to do. The invitation from fxhash made it easier for me because it’s not a form that I’m really excited about. The joy was in working with Iskra and focusing on how we could reflect each other’s work.

 Iskra Velitchkova and Zach Lieberman, horizon(te)s #265, 2022. Courtesy of the artists

Elisabeth Sweet: In horizon(te)s you’re representing not only each other but yourselves, and then also yourselves as each other. Whenever we’re representing something, there is an expectation that comes along with it. Did this process of inhabiting or reflecting on each other’s aesthetics and representing each other have an impact on your expectations of yourselves in your own work, and do those expectations carry through to your work now?

IV: When we were about to release the project, I was a bit worried about how people would perceive it. I felt that I should focus on making the next one follow the rules better. For a month or two, I had this personal conflict about what my next project should be. I became stronger after that because I felt that, seeing how Zach approached everything with such naturalness, I understood that I am here to be free — if you want to curate just curate; if you want to create long-forms, create them; if you want to print, do whatever you want.

ZL: For me, this was the first long-form work that I had made and the chance to collaborate with Iskra felt so great. Several months later, we were doing the first mint of another long-form work for Bright Moments in Mexico. It was so social — we were hanging out in an office, and everybody was minting their first work and celebrating. It was the exact opposite of how I felt in the Fall of 2021 when the hype and energy was at its peak. This was a chance to do something that I had really struggled with and it felt like a great breakthrough.

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Zachary Lieberman is an artist, researcher, and educator with a simple goal: to surprise you. In his work, he creates performances and installations that take human gestures as inputs and amplify them in different ways — making drawings come to life, imagining what the voice might look like if we could see it, and transforming people’s silhouettes into music. He has been listed as one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People and his projects have won the Ars Electronica Golden Nica and Design Museum London’s Interactive Design of the Year. His work has also been listed among Time Magazine’s Best Inventions of the Year.  He creates artwork by writing software and is a co-creator of openFrameworks, an open source C++ toolkit for creative coding. He also co-founded the School for Poetic Computation and is a professor at MIT’s Media Lab, where he runs the Future Sketches group.

Iskra Velitchkova stands at the intersection of art and technology, working as a computational artist to produce both digital and physical expressions. With an extensive background in data visualization, Iskra has lent her strategic expertise to multiple scientific teams in recent years. Her work finds its mooring in generative systems, where lines of code transmute into entirely new realms of imagination, uncharted landscapes, and narratives about the human experience. Her work has been exhibited globally, including at Art Basel Miami and Hong Kong, Kate Vass Galerie, Bright Moments, Unit London, and Feral File. Her work has been auctioned at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, New York. Her work has also garnered recognition from Google Brain and IBM. Recognized by BBVA with awards in 2014 and 2015, she has graced international conferences as a speaker and served as a jury member for several events.  

Elisabeth Sweet is a poet exploring patterns of randomness. Her poetry has been exhibited internationally in New York, Paris, and Tallinn. Elisabeth supports community connection and creativity in crypto art and Web3, serving as both the Community Manager at theVERSEverse and Communications Lead at Feral File. 

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