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June 12, 2023

The Generative Symphony of Aaron Penne and Boreta

The artists discuss the healing power of generative art and music with Madeleine Pierpont
Credit: Aaron Penne and Boreta, Passages #52, 2023. Courtesy of the artists
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The Generative Symphony of Aaron Penne and Boreta

Winners of the Lumen Prize NFT Award for Rituals - Venice (2021), Aaron Penne and Boreta recently unveiled Passages (2023) as the latest project in a new pattern of live-minting experiences. From sunrise to sunset, mint pass holders participated in an intimate and meditative installation of generative art and music exquisitely woven together by sight and sound. Through this, their second collaboration, the artists offer a moment of pause and contemplation — an experience of generative being rather than simply seeing. Here they discuss the healing power of generative systems with Madeleine Pierpont.

Madeleine Pierpont: What brought you together to create generative art and music and how has your collaboration evolved?

Aaron Penne and Boreta: We have a shared love for the creative process, and approach it in similar ways — as something sacred and intentional. This is the true point of resonance which makes our collaboration work so well. 

When working, Boreta will have the current state of the artwork on the screen next to his music controls, and Penne will have the current state of the music playing in his headphones while coding the artwork. It’s a highly iterative process; we are in constant communication and share ideas fluidly. 
Aaron Penne and Boreta, Passages #4, 2023. Courtesy of the artists

Passages is built on ideas spawned during our work on Rituals - Venice, so we already had a sense of where we wanted to take the project from the outset. But prior to the experimentation phase we laid out some core ideas that the artwork would need:

  • There should be a focal point in the center
  • There should be some illusion of depth
  • The Rituals music was very close, in your head — Passages should give some room to breath
  • There should be a breath to the music and artwork

Getting on the same page about the world we wanted to create from the beginning has been very helpful. We both have a great deal of trust and sensitivity to the other’s skills so we are confident in being able to move forward independently knowing the two sides are intertwined. We talk daily throughout the project, sharing ideas and epiphanies as well as doubts. Some creative decisions take weeks to work out while others take seconds. The collaborative element is as exciting as the finished artwork. It’s quite beautiful and rewarding.

Aaron Penne and Boreta, Passages #10, 2023. Courtesy of the artists

MP: Tell us about the mechanics and audience experience of Passages. How do the auditory and visual components work in synergy to immerse the viewer?

AP and B: For Passages we wanted to create the equivalent of a sound bath in a sensory deprivation chamber. 

But instead of sensory deprivation we opted for sensory customization in that sight, smell, and touch were all carefully tuned to give a relaxed and focused experience when enjoying the artwork. 

Collectors sat for an actual sound bath while waiting for their mint, before being brought into an antechamber with custom incense created by Raihan, where they were asked to write down an intention. They were then led via a single candle into a pitch-dark tunnel that turned into a darkened room with a single reclined chair. The level of darkness was almost disorienting, which was the goal. 

A spatial quadraphonic sound system emanated music from each corner of the room, washing over the viewer with deep bass and crystal clarity as particles appeared and swirled on a darkened screen, crystallizing into the artwork. The art and music then played for several minutes, ebbing and flowing before dissolving into particles like sand being blown away.

Aaron Penne and Boreta, Passages #2, 2023. Courtesy of the artists

MP: You describe Passages as a “performance of a system.” In what ways does that system exercise autonomy from its human creators?

AP: The visual artwork and music tie together in multiple ways. There are several synthesized instruments that make up the musical compositions which are parameterized and arranged meticulously by Boreta. The visuals are constructed of multiple rings filled with complex patterns that emerge and dissolve in time with the bass, starting off each shift in the chord progression. 

We wanted to stay true to the emergent nature of generative artwork and allow for natural harmonies to rise between the audio and visual sides. 

The artwork is constructed in such a way as to guide the viewer’s focus to the center, activating one’s peripheral vision by shifting patterns in the outer layers of the artwork. This single pointed focus helps the viewer ease into a state similar to a deep meditation. A highly personal experience, the visuals are informed by the type of optical phenomena I experience when meditating, and we wanted the world to be able to access that.

Aaron Penne and Boreta, Passages #15, 2023. Courtesy of the artists

B: The creative impulse behind the Passages music system is consistent with all my creations — to relinquish control and allow inspiration to emerge. This necessitates the proper environment to foster creative playfulness. I collaborated with Counterpoint on a set of web-based tools that enable me to create in the same manner as composing albums, but with code as the output. Web-audio presents technical limitations, but while challenging, it is also immensely liberating. Creation is driven by the knowledge that I cannot add new plug-ins or audio samples but must instead work with what is available. 

With Passages, we sought to evoke a feeling of leaning in, smiling, or taking a deep breath. The beauty of audiovisual work lies in collaborating with Aaron’s captivating imagery. I admire his visual practice, and synchronizing audio art with it is a joyful experience. Several technical aspects also contribute to the unique flavor of the Passages collection. I knew I wanted to incorporate chords, reverb, and EQ into the pieces, so we employed a simple progression generator that was capable of creating up to five chords while cycling through them endlessly. This characteristic distinguishes each piece and differs according to the mint. Since chords are the foundation of every song, we had the generator select a set of chords randomly to give each piece a distinct flavor. 

Reverb, another vital component of almost every album, was also essential for this project. However, reverbs demand significant processing power. Tero discovered Dattorro, an open-source algorithmic reverb, which he integrated into the system, imbuing the collection with its recognizable atmosphere. 

Reverb imparts a sense of space that, while subtle, leaves a lasting effect on the listener. It prompts the sensation of a cathedral or outdoor environment, which is apt for a meditation on the impermanent nature of things.  
Aaron Penne and Boreta, Passages #81, 2023. Courtesy of the artists

MP: Like Rituals before it, Passages invites participants to enter into a meditative state. What is the relationship between generative systems and meditation?

AP and B: When we released Rituals in September 2021 the market was absolutely wild and the entire NFT space was driven by hype, profit, and FOMO. We wanted to create something grounding to give everyone a few minutes of peace and calm. At the time, people were buying artwork as thumbnails on their phone, experiencing magnificent projects in a small and highly specific way. 

We wanted to encourage the long look, whereby viewers would embrace the artwork as a whole, as something expansive and meaningful. To fully experience the project you have to see it in person, at scale, and with properly tuned audio equipment. 

The in-person mint was a new thing. Bright Moments had experimented with it for the CryptoVenetians project, and together we wanted to elevate that experience and give collectors something new. 

Aaron Penne and Boreta, Passages #9, 2023. Courtesy of the artists

MP: Bright Moments continues to develop innovative and highly engaging approaches to live minting. What excites you about this blending of digital and physical experiences?

AP and B: All digital work is experienced in the physical world. Even if the work is purely digital, the viewer’s environment, mood, posture, etc. all play a part in how the work is experienced. The screen is emanating light that must travel through air and into your eyes, therefore no artwork is purely digital.

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Boreta is known as a member of The Glitch Mob, a beat-driven electronic group that has been touring for more than a decade. Since their establishment in 2006, the electronic live act has performed at festivals around the world including Coachella and Lollapalooza. The artist has collaborated with spiritual teachers Ram Dass and Alan Watts on guided meditations with his Grammy-nominated ambient project, Superposition. In 2021, he extended his creative exploration into generative music with Rituals, a collaboration with Aaron Penne and Bright Moments on Art Blocks.

Aaron Penne is a renowned artist and engineer who has been making generative artwork with code since 2018. His work has sold at Sotheby’s and shown internationally at galleries and museums. He is the Director of Engineering at Art Blocks, helping to build the future of generative art as a medium. In 2021, he was one of the top 50 artists in the NFT space globally.

Madeleine Pierpont  is a creative-innovator working at the intersection of art, technology, and Web3. Driven by her desire to facilitate meaningful engagement with cultural and material aesthetics, she curates, strategizes, and produces art/tech projects across the digital and the physical. She leads Web3 projects at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.