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Crypto Histories
October 26, 2023

The Generous Art of Robert Hodgin

The generative artist reveals the beauty in things we don’t understand, writes Virginia Valenzuela
Credit: Robert Hodgin, Growth v02 #500, 2022. Courtesy of the artist
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The Generous Art of Robert Hodgin
Robert Hodgin’s project, Recollection, is available on Art Blocks as part of reGEN.

One of the essential elements of generative art is the tension between order and chaos. As an art form, gen art relies on systems that are carefully tuned to perform acts in a specific way that also minimize the chance of producing the same outcome twice. Everyone has their own path to generative art, whether as a collector or as a coder. Some gen artists are programmers who see autonomous systems as their native media of expression, while others are traditional artists who adopt coding as a digital alternative to analog activity.

Robert Hodgin came to generative art largely by accident. As an art student, he ceaselessly switched disciplines but always returned to rules. While his creations are visually captivating, they also reflect his fascination with the intricate relationship between systems and infrastructure. These days, he builds frameworks in order to explore the gestures and relationships that can occur within those frameworks. 

Hodgin also seamlessly merges art and technology, using code to choreograph movements that reveal the delicate balance between intention and randomness, calculation and spontaneity.
Robert Hodgin, Recollection (test output), 2023. Courtesy of the artist

Yet he only found his forever art form in his last year at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). He had always seen beauty in the praxis of production — in the materiality of sculpture or mechanical approaches to illustration. But halfway through his senior year, he noticed students in the Graphic Design department developing portfolios in Flash, which became a means of documenting and sharing his physical works. More than a mere portfolio, however, Flash soon became the canvas he had always yearned for — “a way to express myself artistically, using computers.”

It was also a welcome vehicle by which the artist could learn to code, and learn to play with code. As he built out his skillset, Hodgin started thinking about what else he could create. He soon became hooked on Boids, a flocking simulation designed by Craig Reynolds in the late 1980s, whose fluidity across many different subjects allowed Hodgin to produce “a completely different look” by tweaking a small set of variables. 

Random movements are really easy to do, but this was a controlled form of randomness. You’re constantly surprised that this simple setup is able to turn into something sublime. (Robert Hodgin)
Robert Hodgin, (Still from) Traffic, 2020. Courtesy of the artist

Yet, over time, he began to yearn for a more strategic, artful approach to systems-based art — how to add more obstacles, achieve greater realism, and incorporate 3D. 

“I became a reluctant coder, ” Hodgin jokes. “I’m sure that’s the case with all sorts of creative coders. Their vision is constantly exceeding their skill, and so they have to keep leveling up their skill in order to achieve their vision.” 

The artist credits sculpture and, specifically, the Zen state experienced while woodworking and metalworking, for the material quality of his computational practice. Much of his work is inspired by natural and man-made infrastructure. In Traffic (2020), he brings city streets to life by illuminating traffic patterns, including occasional near-collisions. While Star Chart (2020) visualizes the starry night according to seemingly random arrays, rewiring the constellations to produce accurate positions for any time and location. In both works, Hodgin locates the site where order becomes chaos and vice versa. 

Robert Hodgin, Star Chart, 2020. Courtesy of the artist
If I can discern from a particular phenomenon how I would build it from scratch, then I’m immediately interested. (Robert Hodgin)

Hodgin is uniquely able to evaluate the logic behind a particular system, emulate it, and delight in the mistakes as well as the surprises found in the code. In his own words, “I’m embracing spontaneity and chance by noticing the bugs and accepting that there might be something interesting to pursue there.” 

His process involves constantly revisiting previous work, regarding it as “a collaboration with myself.” After generating a few hundred outputs, he will rank them on a scale of one to five stars and discern the most successful before taking a second look with fresh eyes. At this point, a number of “failures” reappear as unexpected successes. Finally, he goes back to the code in an effort to maximize quality without deleting any bugs or features that engendered the more interesting outputs: “It’s really easy to get carried away during the act of creating [by] adding features, new compositions, and new colors, but it also requires you to step back to see whether you’ve been going down the wrong path or if things are looking good enough that you want to continue.”

Robert Hodgin, Ancient Courses of Fictional Rivers #15, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

For artists working with code, there are several things that need to go right in order to keep a project on track. Sometimes the code runs too fast or too slow, or else it comes out looking too much like something that already exists. Hodgin knows that things are falling into place when, like a chess game, he starts to see opportunities five or ten moves ahead of him. Those are the moments when, instead of wondering what to do next, he begins to visualize multiple possibilities with each layered over the next. 

“It’s like writing a novel,” Hodgin tells me. “There is going to be self-doubt and moments when you wish you’d entered a different occupation. [Laughs] But, as long as you come back to it, then you haven’t successfully quit.” Ancient Courses of Fictional Rivers (2022) is one project that Hodgin had to set down for a while. He ended up showing his working by unveiling the course taken by the algorithm. Seeing rivers emerge along with the little towns built on their banks felt revelatory and intimate:

I’m allowing you to see the steps that produce the final image. Saying that, I feel like Ancient Courses was successful in allowing people to see the build-up. It ran at a decent speed and there were a bunch of interesting layers. If I had just presented the final image I feel like it would have been less impactful. (Robert Hodgin)
Robert Hodgin, Solar Transits #8, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

But sharing his flow doesn’t always make sense. In Latent Spirits (2022), the artworks began by rendering quickly in order to capture the viewer’s imagination, before accumulating layers over the course of three to five minutes. “Fairly recently, I rebuilt that piece in GLSL shaders,” he tells me, “just because I wanted to see if it would have made a difference.” The change in program brought those five-minute render times down to three seconds. His conclusion was that, “yeah, this is how I should have built it.” 

For his recent Art Blocks project, “Solar Transits,” he considered revealing each step once again, before ultimately presenting the outputs as though pictures in the process of development: “I thought that was a nice compromise because there’s no reason to expose the inner workings if it doesn’t actually help sell the piece as a concept.”

Robert Hodgin, Growth V02 #280, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

Perhaps Hodgin’s most well-known project, Growth v02 (2022), iterates on emergence. Where Growth v01 (2021) visualized growth as a centrifugal expansion of brightly colored pattern, v02 tracks multiple points of emergence all at once. By translating free space into foliate forms reminiscent of William Morris, he reconfigures generative art as a new form of craft, reconciling naturalism and decoration for the age of code-based creation.

By making rules to be broken, Hodgin lays bare the order and chaos involved in generative production alongside his own instinct for self-criticism. 

Thanks to the visual variety of his practice and his willingness to share his creative process, Hodgin’s art is a generous act. His participation in reGEN, proceeds of which will be donated to Cure Alzheimer’s Fund, reminds us that generative art, like life, requires challenging the past in order to imagine a different future. 

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Robert Hodgin’s project, Recollection, is available on Art Blocks as part of reGEN.

Virginia Valenzuela is a poet, art critic, and curator from New York. An alumna of The New School MFA in Creative Writing, she creates multimedia NFT artworks out of her poems and is currently writing her debut novel. Her work has been featured in Wired, The Independent, Le Random, the Best American Poetry Blog, and Right Click Save.