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March 22, 2024

The Interview | Matt DesLauriers

One of the world’s leading generative artists discusses the evolving digital landscape with Alex Estorick
Credit: Matt DesLauriers, Filigree, 2024. Courtesy of the artist and The Disruptive Gallery
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The Interview | Matt DesLauriers

Matt DesLauriers has been crafting generative systems that reimagine our evolving digital landscape for years. He has also contributed open-source software to support the community of creative coders around the world. Through projects like Meridian and Subscapes he has questioned the ability of digital procedures to simulate natural processes, while proving the power of digital art to make marks inconceivable in analog media. As he prepares for his latest imagining of natural habitats using AI and computation, he sat down with Alex Estorick to discuss whether code can ever surpass Mother Nature.

Matt DesLauriers, Filigree, 2024. Courtesy of the artist and The Disruptive Gallery

Alex Estorick: You build generative systems using code, but you also care a lot about the history of generative art and pen plotting as a form of physical production. With that in mind, I’d love to start by discussing your work, Meridian (2021), which has been so successful as both a generative project and as a physical book.

Matt DesLauriers: Meridian is a long-form generative art project that I released on Art Blocks in 2021. But where many of the algorithmic works I had created previously were shorter sketches, [this] was a significant endeavor. Something that many generative artists will share is that, before the crypto art market emerged, much of our work was shared as fleeting and ephemeral sketches on Twitter or Instagram. We might get some likes and hearts on social media, and then it would be pretty much forgotten as we moved onto the next idea.

But Meridian was a really different approach, where I spent months working on a single piece of code, with a strong intent for how I wanted the project to look and come together. Like many other blockchain-based projects, the outputs would be collected, shared, scrutinized, and analyzed for months and in a way that you would never see with a Twitter post. 

Each of the 1,000 editions of Meridian acts as a slice or view into an infinite landscape of different terrains. 
Matt DesLauriers, Meridian #146, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

The title, Meridian, is itself inspired by Earth’s longitudes, but instead of coordinates in physical space, I imagine the cryptographic hashes associated with each digital token to represent inputs into a multidimensional parametric space. The minimalistic prime style is named after the planet’s prime meridian, which sits at 0º (Greenwich), and the attributes for this style suggest it could be considered a starting point.

Even before I released the project, I wanted it to be something that would span both digital and print media. The way the work looks and the way it acts really lends itself to being printed because it is made up of these tiny little strokes which most people will never see when they view it on a screen. With a print, you can get up close and see those details. The Meridian book, published with Vetro Editions, brings together all 1,000 outputs alongside technical essays that dive into my process and thoughts as an artist. The outputs have this really tactile feel in the book that you don’t get on a backlit computer screen. We were surprised by the demand, selling out our stock pretty quickly, so we reissued the book in 2023 as a second edition with a new cover design.

Matt DesLauriers, Meridian (2021) from the second book edition of Meridian, published in 2023 by Vetro Editions

AE: Do you draw a distinction between generative art and generative drawing or what was once called “plotter art”? To me, it sometimes feels as though generative art collapses prints, plots, and even paintings into a generalized category of physical.  

MDL: I often use the term “generative art” as a catch-all in order to embrace everything that is going on in the space. [But] there are generative systems, and then there are very rule-based [algorithms] that, each time you run them, are very predictable to the point where they don’t feel emergent in the way that you would expect of a generative system.

I find a lot of inspiration in plotters and old-school drawing systems. I love the systems of mark-making that developed in response to the constraints of early computers. I often find them more interesting than today’s fancy rendering engines.

Meridian is also inspired by pen plotters. When I got my first plotter some years ago, it shifted all of the work that I was doing. Before that, I had been really into shaders, doing pixel-based things and image-based work with strong post-processing effects. The plotter took me back to the basics of a line and a limited color palette. Meridian is basically plotter marks but if the pen were changed with every stroke. Many of its outputs are drawn using only two or three ink colors, as though one were using a set of real pens. I guess my work is a bit more like generative drawing or an algorithmic drawing system or something like that. 

Matt DesLauriers, Filigree, 2024. Courtesy of the artist and The Disruptive Gallery

AE: In a recent interview, William Mapan noted a trend toward “textures and natural media in the generative art space.” A certain handmade aesthetic has become quite popular in the last couple of years, which suggests a pervading interest in using code to simulate analog art of the past. At a moment when art produced with machine learning frequently overlaps the market for generative art, is this handmade aesthetic a way of preserving some semblance of the human in an increasingly nonhuman domain?

MDL: Yeah, that’s one way to understand it that I would generally agree with. That approach is common practice in computer art, and I don’t see it going away. Even some of the earliest computer artworks were attempts to recreate or simulate paint and analog forms. But my interest in the analog and humanness is maybe different to William’s in that I’m exploring mark-making through the lens of constrained systems like pen plotters and ASCII symbols, whereas I think his focus might be more on simulating the physics of a paint stroke through code and getting into every little detail, which is one of the things that makes his work so impressive. I’m not trying to simulate a pen plotter, but I am taking some of the constraints of analog processes and making them central to my work.

AE: A. Michael Noll based one of his earliest works, Ninety-Parallel Sinusoids (1964), on a painting by Bridget Riley, which shows that this kind of emulation has been central to generative practices since the dawn of computer art. What makes Meridian striking to me is the vertical format of the landscapes, which is unusual throughout the history of landscape painting. What prompted that decision? 

MDL: For the narrow vertical format, I was inspired more by Japanese sumi-e ink drawings than traditional painted landscapes that we see in the West. This is obvious in certain outputs, where I steered the algorithm toward a style of charcoal drawing that looks like an ink wash landscape. Other outputs evoke a colorful prismatic style that feels like a vertical tapestry, reflecting my fascination with Bauhaus designers like Anni Albers. Some of her sketches were on display at Tate Modern in 2019, where you could see the rule-based logic that underscored that period of textile design, especially in the use of jacquard looms based on the same punched card system as early computers.

I do feel like I have more of an affinity with the fields of design and crafts than with painting and fine arts. A lot of the work that I do, including my recent project Sierra (2024), involves trying to bring analog design processes to the forefront by focusing on screen printing, color imaging, and so forth.
Matt DesLauriers, Sierra, 2024. Courtesy of the artist and Avant Arte

AE: Reading back your essay “on crypto and NFTs,” it feels like the blockchain and the transaction hash are especially important to you. Last year, Charlotte Kent and I wrote an essay that sought to reframe the blockchain as a kind of time-space with its own native temporal and spatial properties. I think your work visualizes that. 

MDL: The way I think about this, and the way it might come across in the Meridian book, is as if the generative code is suspended by invisible threads between thousands of nodes or computers around the world. As long as there are still enough nodes attached to it, that code will continue to be discoverable. But there’s a chance that, over the next few decades, those threads might fray and break and, eventually, nobody will be hosting the code anymore. However, that would only happen if everyone in the network decides to leave or move or change their hosting mechanism. In its current form, [the code] is being maintained or at least archived through this system in a way that none of my other projects really is, which is fascinating to me. Most of the projects that I was releasing online several years ago are either no longer online or you can only see them if you’re logged into Twitter, or else they are just 404 errors

With some of my old works, I’m having to continually pay to host and keep them alive. One day, when I’m gone, those things will probably disappear unless someone else tries to maintain them. But with projects like Meridian or FOLIO or Subscapes (2021) it’s like you’re putting the code into a common system and state of suspension that will be upheld for a very long time. 

In the book, I have a page that explains the digital archiving of the project. If, let’s say, the Art Blocks website goes away, how do you actually retrieve the image? How do you retrieve the code? The book allows someone in a hypothetical future to see the contract addresses and assemble things back together from the chain without needing to rely on centralized hosting. 

Matt DesLauriers, Subscapes #180, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

AE: I find the language of “suspension” interesting, as though code is a liquid medium or aqueous solution. I’m also happy you mention Subscapes, which is a project that A.V. Marraccini discussed in her study of your and Zancan’s work. She posed the question: “Is Subscapes natural? Is it artificial? Yes. And yes. Matt DesLauriers’s little worlds here prod both the nature-artifice line and that of reproducibility and uniqueness.” Does that line between nature and artifice resonate with you?

MDL: Yeah, I think so. Both Subscapes and Meridian are driven by natural systems and geography, as is hachure (2023). I like thinking about the topology of a mountain as well as the structure, rules, and parameters that come together to create forms that are so naturally beautiful.

When you take these sets of rules or mathematical equations, in some ways you’re taking an approximation of the real natural systems that exist around us. 

I like to imagine those surveyors that you might see on the street, with a tripod and camera, taking measurements and constructing a drawing with CAD [computer-aided design]. Subscapes is like that but for a multiverse of infinite worlds. The drawing system it uses is very pen plotter-inspired, so each piece is almost like an artificial survey of a natural thing. But, in reality, it’s not natural, it’s all artificial. So yes and yes, I guess. [Laughs] But I was also thinking about the work like collectibles in a computer game, which is where the isometric viewpoint came from. I grew up with a lot of old-school, real-time strategy games such as SimCity that often used an isometric perspective. 

AE: Do you see yourself as a generator of worlds? 

MDL: I like that phrase because I am trying almost to transport the audience into these hypothetical terrains or worlds that don’t necessarily exist in another dimension but rather in the parameter space of the algorithm. They are basically coordinates into a very high-dimensional parameter space where a lot of this code exists.

Matt DesLauriers, hachure #15, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

AE: What about a work like FOLIO where you flatten out the motif to the point where you lose the different gradients of suspended space and it becomes something more like a textile.

MDL: Yeah, FOLIO feels very textile in the way that it renders line by line, like weaving row by row. It’s also not really trying to capture the parameter space in a spatial sense. That project is more about the system, punching symbols all the way down and then repeating the process with a second and third color, almost like a teletype printer.

With FOLIO I was trying to express the ephemerality of generative art. If you don’t save the program — the code as well as the seed of randomness — then you basically lose that output. A lot of generative artists struggle with that. 

I sometimes get a client who asks to have something printed that was posted on Instagram many years ago. I have to tell them that I can never generate that image ever again at a higher resolution, even though I still have the source code, because I lost the seed of random entropy. It’s a pretty weird thing for a digital artist to lose their work so easily. Usually the next question is: “but can’t you just rerun it?” or “how about something else close to it?” Generative systems don’t work like that.

The FOLIO experience was trying to accentuate that by making the 100 minters aware that, when they entered commands into the computer terminal, they were permanently suspending the state of the code and its random entropy on the blockchain so that it might be forever retrievable.

Matt DesLauriers, FOLIO #99, 2022. Courtesy of the artist

AE: Back in the 19th century, there were competing theories about how the Earth’s crust had evolved, which affected how landscape artists depicted different topologies. Some people argued for uniformitarianism, whereby changes in the landscape are the result of continuous and uniform processes. While others argued for catastrophism, by which the physical world is viewed as the result of sudden violent events. Are such notions still relevant to a generator of digital terrain today?

MDL: In hachure, I was thinking about rules and parameters that give terrain its unique features. A lot of procedural systems in generative art use noise, for instance Perlin noise. But a real mountain will have flows, gullies, rivulets, and all sorts of other structures and topologies. The system in hachure is a basic one, driven by many tiny particles of water, as if I’m speeding up erosion to see what the landscape would look like a million years later. But the chaos and catastrophe of a natural landscape is really hard to capture in a coded and rule-based system. 

At one point, I compared my generated height maps to satellite imagery, and I could see the incredible level of complexity of the real mountains, born of so many different processes crashing together. It would take a lifetime to try and code all of those rules.

A lot of what generative artists are doing is trying to look at chaos in their algorithmic systems and tame it, play with it. That is tricky with a long-form project, where you might try to make each output strong enough on its own but you still need to introduce some surprises between outputs so that the whole collection doesn’t collapse into one. After thousands of outputs you might find a gem where all the parameters line up to create something completely unexpected. In Meridian, that only happened with a couple of outputs. But that chaos is like the chaos present in every aspect of natural terrain, where all the different systems line up and the whole thing is impossible to reconstruct.

Matt DesLauriers, The Sferic Project, 2023-ongoing. Courtesy of the artist

AE: Does there exist a digital form of nature that isn’t in any way skeuomorphic — that doesn’t seek to simulate Mother Nature at all?

MDL: I’m not sure if such a digital nature exists. I think that a lot of what we’re doing is skeuomorphic and is simulation. Obviously, Meridian and Subscapes are landforms and terrains that simulate mountains and things like that. But I’m more interested in simulating the system than simulating an image of the system. I’m not trying to simulate an image or visual of nature; I’m interested in rules and parameters and what happens when you combine them into a single process. 

I find that if I focus too much on trying to construct an image of reality, the process and system behind it is lost and the work becomes only about the visual output. With natural systems, it’s very hard to construct something better than Mother Nature.

AE: It sounds like you’re drawing a distinction between naturalism and literalism, between the production of something equivalent to a natural system and the simulation of its literal appearance. Would that be fair? 

MDL: Yeah, I think that’s a good way to frame it. I also think it ties in with some of my ongoing projects, like The Sferic Project, which involves capturing nature and analyzing it. That project involves going into places with very little electrical interference, far away from civilization, in order to record low-frequency atmospheric radio waves. It is all about surfacing the hidden and chaotic systems that exist in nature. There’s an elusive beauty within that infinite chaos.

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Matt DesLauriers is an artist and creative coder.

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