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January 11, 2024

The Interview | Jared S. Tarbell

The iconic creator shares how generative art can unite computation and spirituality with Kate Vass and Alex Estorick
Jared S. Tarbell, Circle inversion, 2023. Set of 5 unique NFTs accompanied by Fine Art Prints. Courtesy of the artist and Kate Vass Galerie
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The Interview | Jared S. Tarbell

Jared S. Tarbell has been a leading generative artist for 25 years. In the early 2000s, he used an early version of Processing to develop digital works that reconciled nature with mathematics while achieving a balance of simplicity and complexity. He also co-founded Etsy

Today, the creative principles that originally drove his practice have become fundamental to the movement of generative art that has mushroomed following the rise of NFTs. Recently, he collaborated with Kate Vass Galerie on “Node to Node,” introducing a new series of generative morphologies that seem to reorder the cosmos through elegant code. Here, he reflects on his career so far and shares his excitement about the new age of long-form generative art with Kate Vass and Alex Estorick.

Jared S. Tarbell, Node Garden Moment of Clarity, 2023. Set of 5 unique NFTs accompanied by Fine Art Prints. Courtesy of the artist and Kate Vass Galerie

Kate Vass: Jared, what does art mean to you and how do you think your background in mathematics and computer science influences your perspective?

Jared S. Tarbell: For the longest time, I hesitated to call what I did “art.” I thought of writing code and seeing what I could create with it as more of an academic exercise. Now that I’m older, I’ve realized how powerful art can be and how it can change a person’s life in subtle ways. 

Art is a means of exploring space, asking questions about the nature of reality, how code and logic fit into all that, and the aesthetics and beauty that we can create. Art is all I want to do these days — creating and sharing it is a source of joy.

I’ve never been a very good mathematician or programmer, but I’ve done it long enough that it’s a language that I can speak fluently, especially with Processing thanks to its durability. Not much has changed, [but] I used to sit down with a reference manual and have to look something up every three or four minutes. Now it just flows out of me.

Jared S. Tarbell, Circle Inversion #3, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Kate Vass

KV: In a 2020 interview, Jason Bailey described you as seeking harmony in your work between the seemingly oppositional forces of the spiritual and the rational. How do you relate to this description, and is it still relevant or even more relevant than before?

JST: There is some reconciliation between computation and spirituality. I view computation as a spaceship to explore these spaces, realities, and spirituality. We’re asking ourselves these questions: what is our purpose? What is the nature of reality? What is consciousness? All of which raise really big ideas about our relationship to other people, other life forms, and the earth. 

The way I like to explore such ideas is through the fundamental truths of mathematics, geometry, and code. It seems I’m never going to get the answer, but it is a way of gaining perspective and insight.

Alex Estorick: One of your works in this show, Flower Composition (2023), has a mandala-like quality, which evokes spiritual geometries via association with Buddhist and Hindu religions. You’re quoted as saying that you “tend to view the world computationally,” but are there limits to computation?

JST: Flower Composition is a radial arrangement of hand-drawn, flower-like elements with some recursive motifs thrown in. I’ve always loved radial symmetry. Looking at something and spinning it around — the order that it creates is really pleasing. There’s a natural point of focus. But you also drift off, just like you do in life, and find yourself at the perimeter or in a sea of information, and then you can just pull yourself back to the center and keep repeating that process. It’s great to print a piece very large, and, of course, it’s black and white and has lots of open spaces just begging to be colored, which is what I do with my kids. It’s a peaceful, fun activity.

Jared S. Tarbell, Flower Composition, 2023. Set of 5 unique NFTs accompanied by Fine Art Prints. Courtesy of the artist and Kate Vass Galerie

I view the world computationally because that is my framework and the way I understand how to build these complex systems. It’s a result of the culture I’m in and the way I was raised. It doesn’t answer all the questions, but it gets you pretty far. It’s a way to look at a system that seems so complex, and how you start to understand what’s happened. 

With code and algorithms, you can reduce a system, rebuild it, and then simulate it. We’ve done that successfully in many fields, but is that merely an emulation of physical phenomena or do physical phenomena actually behave according to rules embedded in a code?

The bigger mysteries like consciousness, the soul, and life after death — these are really good questions. Computation is just my way of trying to understand them, particularly computation with geometry. I love geometry because it’s built up from these axioms, these truths, and it’s hard to point at any one thing and say: “that’s truth.” But if you point at a circle and say: “that’s the truth of the space around that point,” then you’re right, and that’s true anywhere in the universe. It’s a fun and beautiful way to explore our spiritual nature.

Jared S. Tarbell, Node Garden Moments of Clarity #1, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Kate Vass Galerie

AE: Take us back to the Flash communities of the early 2000s when you were also developing Etsy. How do you recall that experience now?

JST: It was an amazing time — Flash was emerging and the web was growing like crazy. It’s hard to know the good old days when you’re in them. 

I had an open-source philosophy, where everything I was programming I was giving away, which became popular because of my tutorial approach. 

I started getting invited to conferences, traveling the world, and getting some book deals. There was a lot of growth and excitement, and nobody really knew where it was going. I had a lot of opportunities to meet interesting people who were doing phenomenal things. And that’s where Etsy came about. I met my co-founder online. He asked me if I could apply some of these techniques to a marketplace where we sell handmade goods. At first, like any other gig, it was like: “is this gonna work?” It was fun, but I didn’t know where it would go. 

Jared S. Tarbell, Flower Composition #4, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Kate Vass Galerie
Etsy worked out really well, like finding a unicorn in the forest. 

I put my artwork on hold while I was developing Etsy, but it was okay because I was still applying a lot of the skills and joy that I experienced programming to these tools that helped people find items. Etsy’s success was wonderful. It gave me a lot of freedom but, in some ways, almost killed my artistic career because you think: “well, here it is, and you’ve done it, so now you can stop.” And I almost did. But you get kind of depressed, and you think: “why am I sad?” And it’s because I’m not doing what I love, which is programming. Etsy has affected a lot of people’s lives, and a lot of people want to know how you create a billion-dollar startup. 

AE: As a user-driven project, Etsy also seems to equate with recent developments in generative art toward co-creation, with collectors of generative art becoming increasingly active creative agents. Does that resonate with you?

JST: It’s fantastic. It feels more collaborative because, as generative programmers, we are not creating images or works of art. We’re creating complex systems which are infinite in nature. To have this collaborative partnership, where your collectors are exploring the space and finding the most interesting pieces within it, is something that is difficult to do as an artist. Sometimes, collectors go to places you would never go to — undiscovered spaces within a system. 

Jared S. Tarbell, Mystic Rose, 2023. Set of 5 unique NFTs accompanied by Fine Art Prints. Courtesy of the artist and Kate Vass Galerie

KV: You’ve also created video games, even though we haven’t seen many artworks related to that. Certainly, there are a lot of Flash-based sketches that you created with at the beginning of the 2000s. What are your thoughts on the discontinuation of Flash? Did you enjoy using it as a tool?

JST: The demise of Flash was a long and painful process, but you could see it coming. I loved Flash; it was a breakthrough technology. The ability to create something on my computer locally, that anyone with a browser could see how I programmed exactly and without any special hardware requirements or software to install — it was amazing to get that work to such a large group of people. 

KV: Do you question the durability of these tools that you use to create art, like Flash, which is no longer in use? As an artist yourself, do you see preservation as a problem? How does it feel that more and more tools are becoming available to artists? 

JST: I care a lot. For any computer scientist who needs to learn a new language or software to solve a problem, it requires a considerable amount of effort. I’ve always looked for the environments, communities, and languages that seem like they will persist. 

I’m hesitant to adopt exotic new languages or software packages because it’s happened to me over and over again that I’ve put a lot of time into learning a language or using a tool that has then become obsolete. It’s like making your bed in the morning — why bother? You’re just going to get in it again. 
Jared S. Tarbell, Infinite Regeneration #2, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Kate Vass Galerie

I’m careful with the time that I have to invest in learning new tools, and Processing is such an amazing language because it’s been able to evolve into contemporary times yet it remains largely unchanged. A lot of the code I wrote 20 years ago in Processing still runs with just a few semantic changes. That’s amazing. It’s powerful, and the community that has developed around it is evidence of that. 

There’s a lot of tangible work I like to do with a laser cutter, a lot of which I write in Processing and output it to SVG, which is how I get my cutting vectors. The Grasshopper module of the Rhinoceros 3D software program interests me; I’ve been learning and using it recently, trying to design an algorithmic Ewok-style treehouse village in Washington.

I do a huge amount of laser cutting and woodworking, and I’m not publishing much of it because it doesn’t fit in with the algorithmic work I am known for. I’m still trying to figure out how to bring that to the public and make it open-source like I’ve tried with my other work. 

It’s fun to work with your hands. You write some code for a while, make all these pieces, and then you can put them together the way you’re supposed to, but you can also just get creative with it and build something totally new. 

Jared S. Tarbell, Mystic Rose #4, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Kate Vass Galerie

KV: When you founded the company,, in 2004, you also offered prints of your work. I see a lot of tangibility when it comes to showing your work. What is the significance of moving your work from the screen to something physical, either to laser cutter or to print? Do you like your work to be displayed physically or digitally?

JST: I’ve often seen work vaporize because systems change and hard drives crash, so I love the physical representation of the work. That’s the ephemeral nature of code — it disappears quickly. If you can get something physical, it’s sometimes easier to view and, even when the lights go out, you’ve got it and it’s easier to share with the people closest to you. In the beginning, when I made prints, I was motivated because I told my family that I was making art on the computer and writing these programs. 

It might seem strange now but, at the time, there was this rejection — how could it be art on the computer? You’re writing a program, making art. It didn’t make sense to some of [my family]. I thought, if I can print it out into this more traditional medium and hand a print to somebody and they get it, it’s art

I wrote my shopping cart in PHP, which took six months. It was hard work, and that was a big motivation. It was clear that other artists were struggling to sell their work online, so we thought we’d make it easier, and that’s when the opportunity for Etsy came along. The developments in the blockchain and the ability to sell and manage these digital assets are almost unbelievable. I never imagined it working out the way it has. That’s been a big change. I am doing things differently now.

Jared S. Tarbell, Infinite Regeneration, 2023. Set of 5 unique NFTs accompanied by Fine Art Prints. Courtesy of the artist and Kate Vass Galerie

KV: You usually select a few outputs produced by the algorithm and link them together in combination. But how do you feel about producing long-form projects with potentially thousands of outputs generated from one algorithm? Would you prefer to select five or six images that are representative of the best outputs of an algorithm?

JST: I like the unbounded, infinite nature of long-form generative work. It’s a technical problem for me to understand how to implement it with a platform like fx(hash). I’m very interested in it and I definitely want to move in that direction. But, for me, there’s a technical barrier. 

Part of my problem is that I work in isolation — I live like a wizard in a tower and only come down to get bread sometimes. 

I miss the days when I would be close to my colleagues working on different projects [with] that cross-pollination of shared information and inspiration. When I went to Zurich for NFT ART DAY earlier this year, I came away from that lit up — I was so excited about what was possible. That night, I tried to build my first fx(hash) program in JavaScript, which is a language that I abandoned 20 years ago. [...] I have a long-form generative work in mind — my goal is to create an algorithm that is complex enough that you would never get bored of the output and always be surprised. 

I’m inspired by natural systems and the beauty and mystery there. I’m also inspired by the sheer power of programming and the ability to imagine something and type out magic words in the right order, and then have a system that can do incredible things — not just art but any kind of information system. Most of the machines that we use on a daily basis are driven by code. 

Jared S. Tarbell, Node to Node #3, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Kate Vass Galerie

KV: Before the pandemic we only had physical shows. Then, in 2020, we were forced to exhibit online. “Game of Life: Emergence in Generative Art” included work by you inspired by the mathematician John Conway. How do you feel about emergence today where complexity arises from simplicity?

JST: Emergence is the one topic in computer science that I keep coming back to because its mystery is so interesting. My first exposure to emergence was through binary networks — simple systems with nodes that you tie together, stop the clock, and each node turns on or off based on a rule set. You might expect sheer chaos [with] a system like that, just a lot of blinky lights, but what you get is waves of pattern with an almost lifelike quality, as though you’ve created an organism. Even in Flash, with a limited number of nodes, I saw hints of emergence. As a computer scientist you’re working with a system that is wholly human-designed, [so] there should be no mystery at all because you’ve built every part of the machine. There’s no true randomness — it’s all derived. 

How could there be something so complex and beautiful and such a mirror of the cosmos? How could something like that come out of such an ordered system? 

[...] People ask me: “why are you still programming when you could be doing anything?” And the answer is: “because there’s a big mystery here. There is evidence that we might understand this complex world using these tools.” I was inspired by Karl Sims, who made a physical simulation that allowed blocks and springs to combine. [...] The system ran millions of cycles, and the results looked like early sea life — monopods and bipedal things that were almost grotesque. It was fascinating that there was a way of using some natural selection process to evolve these computational organisms.

Jared S. Tarbell, Circle Inversion #2, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Kate Vass Galerie

KV: Many people are saying of generative art that it’s primarily focused on color, geometry, and the algorithm. But, in your work, one rarely encounters bright palettes. Why is that? In our recent show, “Node to Node,” we exhibited six sets of five images, with each set referring to a different algorithm. What more can you tell about these works and the decision to adopt a monochrome approach? 

JST: I stick to black and white because I’m most interested in the structure and less the vibrancy or artistic quality of the piece. I want to expose the structure. Whenever possible, I try to reduce it to the heart of the phenomena that I’m exploring. 

Maybe as I grow and develop as an artist, I will someday learn how to use color. But for now, I am limiting my palette so that I’m forced to study the creativity of the structure.

I usually start there and then embellish with the sand stroke, which is the technique I’ve been using since 2004 where I sweep an area with a line of finely distributed, mostly transparent, pixels. [Here] I seem to be departing from that because the sand stroke gets messy after a while, and reducing it down to its purest truth is what I’m trying to do. 

Jared S. Tarbell, Node to Node, 2023. Set of 5 unique NFTs accompanied by Fine Art Prints. Courtesy of the artist and Kate Vass Galerie

AE: You’ve said previously that creators have a responsibility to contribute to the world at large beyond the insulated realm of art. Do you feel that generative artists or software developers have the capacity to reshape or disrupt systems, particularly Web2 systems that have produced such a vertical and centralized environment?

JST: There’s a huge potential for disruption. It’s happening now [but] it’s hard to define or understand, at least for me. I had an uncle who was an artist, but I just thought that all he did was smoke his pipe and paint all day. I was like: “what good is that?” And so there was this selfish aspect to making art that I held for a long time; I viewed it as a very personal thing to do — not really working for anybody else [but only] for themselves. I judged it as not having value. Of course, I’ve come around and realized the power of art, especially good art, and I’ve forgiven my uncle and credited him for being an inspiration in my life.

KV: What do you consider to be the artwork: the final result or the code itself?

JST: It’s got to be both — you can produce the image and distribute it, [and] there’s a hollowness to what a lot of these artists are presenting when they aren’t sharing their code and their process. 

Once you start to get into it and understand it, the real beauty is in the mechanism and in the ability to edit and modify the mechanism. I’ve made it a goal that every new work I produce until the end of my life will also be released in the code.
Jared S. Tarbell, Substrate, 2003. Courtesy of the artist

KV: But I also remember saying you felt insecure about sharing everything as open source.

JST: It’s like I’m taking my clothes off, don’t laugh. [Laughs] I’ve gotten over that, and I’ve learned that releasing your code is actually beneficial in so many ways because people will read it and understand more than you. They’ll approach you and suggest doing some things in another way. It’s also a permanent record, so when I’m dead and gone, if I’ve got these images, they will fade a lot faster [without] these code repositories that people use to create new images. I’m writing better code now, so maybe it’s less intimidating [for me].

Another aspect for a lot of programmers is intellectual property. If you work really hard to create something, sometimes it’s novel and nobody’s done it before, so releasing it can be a real loss in an intellectual property sense. In my experience, I was a starving artist in my Flash days and released code, and I saw that people were “stealing” it sometimes and using it in their own work. But, overall, I believe that there is some karmic balance, and that the people you help or inspire by releasing your code will come back to you. Here we are at the dawn of AI, where intellectual property is almost meaningless [anyway].

KV: For our show “Game of Life” we didn’t have any digital works, so we showed the physical version of Substrate (2003) instead — a fine art print produced by you and signed beautifully in pencil. How did you produce it and what is coming next?

JST: I print them myself. I really enjoy the process of selecting the paper, using an archival printer, and then signing and numbering the prints. I [still] have a lot of unpublished work that I made during the pandemic [but] I’m much better at producing the work than publishing it. I’m going to do this until I’m blind.

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Jared S. Tarbell is a generative artist, developer, and programmer who has worked with code for over 30 years. Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Tarbell’s initial encounter with personal computers in 1987 sparked a lifelong passion. Fascinated by the system-like intricacies of the world, he visualizes abstract truths by observing multiple outputs and refining his algorithms. His works bridge mathematical beauty and abstract exploration, uniting spirituality with computational precision.

Kate Vass is the founder of Kate Vass Galerie, a pioneering art gallery established in Zurich, Switzerland in 2016. She has since launched a curated marketplace, K011, which empowers AI and generative artists through a long-form AI engine called 0KAI that enables the creation of long-form AI artworks on the blockchain. Kate Vass Galerie has hosted a number of ground-breaking exhibitions, including “Perfect & Priceless: Value Systems on the Blockchain” (2018-19) and “Automat Und Mensch,” which explored the history of generative art. Recognized for her contributions to global art and tech culture, in 2021 Kate Vass was named as one of the Art & Tech 40 under 40 and featured on the Artnet NFT 30 list.

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