The RCS Book Is Here!

Purchase a ClubNFT subscription and get the RCS book Free!

Get Your Copy
January 22, 2024

The Interview | Kim Asendorf

The artist discusses how digital art has evolved from Web2 to Web3 with River Davis
Credit: Kim Asendorf, Cargo #253 (detail), 2023. Courtesy of the artist
Now Reading:  
The Interview | Kim Asendorf

Since he joined the Hic Et Nunc community in early 2021, Kim Asendorf has become a leading figure among the current golden generation of generative artists. However, even before Web3 he was already sharing visually striking and politically pointed works of digital art across Flickr, Tumblr, and beyond. His open-source pixel-sorting algorithm has also allowed thousands of digital creators to modify existing images, in the process uniting pixel, generative, and glitch art according to the logic of wilful malfunction.

In recent years, projects including Monogrid (2021), Cargo (2023), and COLORS OF NOISE (2023) have continued to beguile collectors through their characteristic brand of Digital Expressionism. While Asendorf’s inclusion as one of the “first 15” artists to participate in the MOMA Postcard reflects his stature in the wider art world. Here, he shares how it feels to create across different eras of digital art with River Davis.

Kim Asendorf, COLORS OF NOISE #20, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

River Davis: The life of a digital artist is an often precarious one and you were creating long before the NFT explosion. What can you tell us about your early career? How did you keep moving forward with your art practice even through tough times?

Kim Asendorf: Being at art school was the best time because you only needed a little bit of money and had the whole day to be creative and do artistic projects. I also worked as a research assistant for a year at the time. After that, my wife Jana and I decided to move to Berlin together with our two-year-old son, which is where the struggle started because, of course, we needed to earn money to pay the rent. By 2017, we were broke and I needed to get a “real” job. At that moment, it felt like: “OK, this is bad because I’m no longer part of the art world,” by which I mean the space of online creativity rather than the traditional art world. 

I ended up going offline and living in a cave for some time, not producing any art for as much as three years. However, I still had to express myself so I mostly focused on making dark techno music using my synthesizers. For a few months, working a nine-to-five job was refreshing because I was able to go home and relax in the knowledge that I was making money and providing for my family. But then, slowly, I got depressed to a point when I ended up getting seriously sick. 

In our first session, my 87-year-old therapist said to me: “OK, I have 17 diseases, five of which are deadly, so what’s your problem? I’m still doing my job because this is my passion and my life.” He was 100% right. I had to quit my job and return to my art. 

I reached out to a few people close to me, including my old professor from Kassel, Joel Baumann, and the artists Aram Bartholl from Berlin and Hans Bernard from Vienna. Of course, it was a bit embarrassing to say: “hey, sorry, I haven’t reached out for three years, but now I’m asking you for help.” But luckily everyone was very supportive and pushed me to make art again. Ultimately, I went back online to see what was going on and there was this “NFT space” that I’d never heard of. By then, I knew about crypto, but the NFT stuff was super interesting and a new source of inspiration. 

Kim Asendorf, Mountain Tour — Aaefhinnorrrst A, 2010. Courtesy of the artist

RD: What was the first project you published after emerging from that period?

KA: Monogrid (2021) was the first work that I produced, though I had already started minting works on Foundation prior to that. Emilio Gomariz and Emilie Gervais were there and gave me a push as well as some ETH to get started. At the time, the gas fees were quite high, which was a bit frustrating. I minted a few things but nobody cared. 

Then, through Twitter, I discovered the Hic Et Nunc (HEN) community, where people including Marius Watz, Mario Klingemann, and Leander Herzog were active — it felt very avant-garde somehow. It also allowed me to upload code, so I started to upload a few old GIFs and other works. Then, all of a sudden, people started collecting it, which sent me a bit nuts. 

After my first day minting on HEN, I told my therapist: “I just sold my art for €2,000 today.” It was an incredible moment — it gives you another level of energy if people appreciate your work, especially if they want to own and collect it. 

When people reach out to me and say: “hey, I collected your work and it’s been running for five days straight on our kitchen TV,” that makes me proud and I’ve realized that my art practice blends quite well with Web3 because it is around 90% digital. I love the internet and outlets where you can create artwork and put it online because it keeps you excited and energized all day.

Generally my work is built on spontaneous visions and ideas, which is why I call it “expressive.” I communicate through art; it is my language, [but] it doesn’t have a big message behind it. At a certain point, it struck me that I needed to make a website made up of grids. Then I started experimenting and coding, and it grew into a mixture of experimental and conceptual work, back and forth between the two. Monogrid was the first work that I knew should grow as part of the blockchain community.

Kim Asendorf, Monogrid (random output), 2021. Courtesy of the artist

RD: In a digital art world where authenticity, ownership, provenance, and storage define the value of art, your body of work straddles the impermanence of Web2 and the supposed permanence of Web3. Outside of a few pieces that one can interact with using the Wayback Machine, much of your old work is lost to the ephemera of the internet and the updates of its native operating systems and GUI interfaces. This is (I assume) a result of the technical debt required to maintain each project from update to update in perpetuity. Has this influenced the way you use and value blockchain technology?

KA: When the Web2 platforms emerged, websites from Facebook to Flickr offered APIs (access points) into their services, which was a super nice tool. I could upload an image to Flickr to show it or create an artwork that utilized the whole platform. One of my favorite pieces from that time was titled How Many Images Am I Able to Upload Until Flickr Locks My Account? (2011). It comprised a bot that generated meaningless images of numbers with a little background color and uploaded them to Flickr automatically. I announced it as a performance, and a few people followed it and reloaded my Flickr profile to follow its progress. I think there were about 20,000 uploads before Flickr locked the account. I also used the Google Maps API for a few projects, but Google made so many updates. 

I wasn’t very interested in keeping those works alive — some art is only right for today, and it doesn’t make sense to keep it alive online for years if it is a fragment of the past. Those works were intended as comments on the moment.
Kim Asendorf, How Many Images Am I Able to Upload Until Flickr Locks My Account?, 2011. Courtesy of the artist

Prior to Web3, I was also playing with RSS feeds. I developed a project called Censored Censored Chinese News (2010) following the many discussions in the media that the news in China was pretty strict. We encountered more or less institutionalized censorship, so I got all the RSS feeds from Chinese news sites and censored parts of them at random. My website, “Censored Censored Chinese News,” streamed the news with black bars over random text fragments. I can’t read Chinese, so it was 100% conceptual. But now virtually nobody uses the RSS-feed technology anymore. There’s no way to keep stuff like that alive. 

With a few of those works I had an urge to be more political. In 2013, there was a protest against suppression in Taksim Gezi Park in Istanbul, where the Turkish police were acting pretty harshly with tear gas and water cannons. 

For me, it felt like the first time that participants in a protest were uploading huge volumes of images to the web. Thousands of violent pictures surfaced, and I felt a need to respond to that. 

Ole Fach and I started a Tumblr account called Gezi gelen Limon, meaning “lemons from Gezi” or “you need lemons to neutralize your burning eyes.” We took all these violent images, put them in Photoshop, and used the smart eraser tool to remove the violence. If we saw a policeman with a stick then we removed the stick, and so forth. We then uploaded the same pictures shot earlier that day back to the same internet at the same time, thereby creating a new stream of images based on real events while they were still ongoing. At the time, that work felt very on point and it was later included as part of the “global aCtIVISm” exhibition at ZKM Center for Art and Media. But I wouldn’t choose that topic anymore as it has too many depressing associations. 

Kim Asendorf and Ole Fach, Gezi gelen Limon, 2013. Courtesy of the artists

RD: I was able to trace the origin of the term “Digital Expressionism” to a 2013 paper, which emphasized the role of digital design in allowing innovative forms and complex geometries that were less feasible in the past. While Reed Hearne has since defined it as “a blending of the subjective, emotional impact of Expressionism with the Abstract Expressionist notion that the creative process is as much the art as the evidence of it left behind.” How do you define Digital Expressionism in the context of your artistic practice? 

KA: For me personally, labels are not important. I’ve done works that can be considered glitch art, generative art, net art, and otherwise. 

It’s not important for me to label myself with something that is already established. I would not call myself a media artist nor a generative artist because I don’t fit into one single group. It has always been important for me to create my own expressions. 

“Digital” is the word that best describes my work because digital technologies enable me to do so many uniquely interesting and creative things. Expressionism is also hard for me to contextualize. Ultimately, my work is a form of communication. I’m not a writer; I’m not telling a story in front of a bunch of people — that’s not my medium. My medium is art, which I use to express what’s on my mind in a very personal way. What I do has no general meaning or value, but it means everything to me. What I put out now comes from my deepest inner self — that’s the expressionist component. But I also find it interesting that, as a visual style, expressionism can involve something less explicit, something that offers room for interpretation — an abstraction. 

Kim Asendorf, Event Horizon #91, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

RD: Ahead of Bright Moments Tokyo last year, you described the structure of your work according to “macro blocks, the whole image, and micro blocks, which operate independently but still interact with the larger image.” I’ve also heard Casey Reas speak of the macro- and micro-interactions of his network. Is the relationship of parts to the whole fundamental to algorithmic art? 

KA: I prefer to see my work as a world with many components, ideally starting with a web domain, which is the first component or vessel. The algorithm is another component — maybe the most interesting and playful — and now, with blockchain, you can also integrate smart-contract functionality. 

The worlds that I create need a certain level of complexity to feel interesting to me. The macro-micro relationship is more a question of style.

Generative art, for me, is a simple concept that I incorporate without dwelling on it too much. You might create an algorithm, but it’s sometimes unclear what that algorithm does itself because you are always adding random features or values to restart the algorithm and produce a different output. What is important is that these variations pile up on top of each other. The generative component is that one decision builds upon another, which can go in a completely different direction than another version of the same code. It’s interesting to play with that. But I have no clue what is good or what is bad. For me, that is personal preference.

I think it’s important that I write good, clean code. I’m certainly not the best coder, mathematician, or anything like that. But, over the years, I’ve learned that I need to create a setup where I can work at speed. I see the code as the craft; that’s where you need to be good. But it’s also impossible to say what is more important, the code or the output, because both are important. If we are talking about art then it matters what the work does for the people who look at it or interact with it. But it’s also hard to say what the artwork is. I recall a disagreement between Casey Reas and Zach Lieberman where Zach said that the code doesn’t matter as much as the output he is going to be looking at, while Casey regarded the code as the real artwork, with the output just an offshoot. For me, it’s impossible to decide but, ultimately, what people feel is the most important thing for me. 

Kim Asendorf, Cargo #686, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

RD: What would you tell new digital artists to help them on their career path? 

KA: That’s a good question. There are many paths out there that one can take, and there’s an art to finding your own path from all the possibilities. One approach might be to release anything and everything, because that creates a dialogue with your audience. That would probably be frustrating and even disappointing but it would certainly be educational. I support the view that it takes seven years to become an expert, and it takes time to develop as an artist. On the other hand, it’s probably not smart to mint all your work at the beginning with the idea of making money from it. That might work for a genius or for someone who hits the bullseye at a particular moment, but that’s exceptional. 

If I were at art school now, I would adopt a more moderate approach. I would produce unrelated works that don’t need to be minted, have fun, find my tools, and do exhibitions here and there. You learn the most from putting your artwork in a room and seeing how people react. Do they even see it or do they walk past it? Likewise, It might be annoying to have minted something ten years ago that you are now embarrassed by. Another approach is to be very careful about every step. You can certainly become an expert on your own without communicating with anyone else, optimizing your craft independently without releasing any mediocre works, all the while learning from the exhibitions of others. But a decent or successful career does require a strategy. 

I’m not an organized person. I live by chaos theory. 

I think that following known paths is never the right way for an artist. But then, no recipe fits perfectly for everyone. It’s all about passion and being flexible and having a vision, however crazy that is.

Protect your NFT collection and discover new artists with ClubNFT

Kim Asendorf is a German visual artist who employs a fusion of experimental and conceptual strategies to craft abstract animations, images, and sculptures. Through the use of automations and algorithms, he engineers natively digital aesthetics to forge an immersive artistic experience. Asendorf is renowned as the creator of a pixel-sorting algorithm that, thanks to its open source nature, has been used by thousands of artists and designers since 2012. He has exhibited globally, including at Transmediale, Berlin; ZKM Karlsruhe; Kunstmuseum Gelsenkirchen; Edith-Russ-Haus für Medienkunst, Oldenburg; NCCA Yekaterinburg; Eyebeam, New York, Netherlands Media Art Institute (NIMk); and the Overlapping Biennial, Bucharest. He has received honorary mentions and created controversial discussions on major blogs, art magazines, and television.

River Davis (Dr. Banner) is an American multimedia artist who explores social consciousness in post-internet culture through novel consumer engagement systems. In 2023, he was featured in eight group exhibitions and holds the distinction of being the youngest artist to produce work for the Venet Foundation’s annual exhibition. River’s participatory installations fuse emergent technologies and conditional systems with historical mediums, inviting his audiences to co-create with him.