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July 17, 2023

The Interview | Piter Pasma

As the Generative Artists Club inaugurates Feral File 2.0, one of its stars speaks to Alex Estorick
Credit: Piter Pasma, Balls to the Walls (test output), 2023. Exhibited in “N=12,” an exhibition curated by Aaron Penne on Feral File
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The Interview | Piter Pasma

Generative art is often considered an art of isolated individuals, yet open source code remains crucial to its global community of creators. With this in mind, it was no surprise that the Generative Artists Club voted Piter Pasma into Feral File’s new exhibition, “N=12,” which celebrates collaboration as a critical component of generative art. Pasma is a pillar of the community — an artist whose mastery derives from his rare ability to manipulate pixels via complex mathematical equations, expressed in elegant, economical code.

Far from embracing the enigma, however, Pasma eagerly shares his secrets with other artists and appreciators alike. He is generous with his time, feedback, and tools, and his pseudorandom number generator makes multiple appearances in “N=12.” Yet despite his importance, Piter’s influence is often invisible, inspiring a generation toward technical excellence and emergent potential.

— Aaron Penne

Alex Estorick: At RCS, we spend a lot of time trying to understand how generative artists working today relate to their historical predecessors. We often cover artists who have emerged in the aftermath of the NFT as well as pioneering figures from the 1960s and ’70s. However, I’m also mindful of the many digital creators working in the interim period, who often go under the radar. Piter, you emerged from the demoscene of the late 1990s. What made that such a fertile basis for your later practice as a generative artist working on the blockchain? How does the current scene compare with those early experiences?

Piter Pasma: The demoscene allowed me to put into practice all the mathematics I was learning through my study of computational science. There was a lot of knowledge sharing, with people writing tutorials and helping each other out. At the same time, it was a rather competitive scene, with demo competitions where individuals would try to one up each other. Today, the size-coding component of the demoscene has proved especially useful for projects like Skulptuur (2021), whose code is written onto the blockchain, which means that every character costs money. 

The biggest difference between the demoscene and today’s generative art scene is not needing a piece to be real-time animated at 60 frames per second. This has been a breath of fresh air and allows me to explore more complex art. There is also much less competitiveness in the generative art scene. This is neither a bad nor a good thing, simply a noticeable difference. 

There is no real equivalent to a demoparty in the generative scene, since artist meetups are relatively small-scale. 
Piter Pasma, Balls to the Walls (test output), 2023. Exhibited in “N=12,” an exhibition curated by Aaron Penne on Feral File. Courtesy of the artist and Feral File

AE: How did you come to work with the Generative Artists Club, and what has been your experience of that specific micro-community?

PP: I started posting my work on Instagram in 2019 and quickly discovered many other generative artists. One of these was Aaron Penne, now a good friend, who founded the genartclub and invited me to join. The community has been an amazing source of friendship, commercial and technical help, and mental health, while also allowing me to share works in progress. I’ve been fortunate to meet a number of the group in real life and have helped out a lot of members with technical advice and code. 

It was Shvembldr who lent me my first tez to start minting on Hic Et Nunc — an early NFT platform on the Tezos blockchain. But if it hadn’t been for the genartclub and Dmitri Cherniak explaining his project, Ringers (2021), I’m not sure I would have gotten into NFTs.

Piter Pasma, Balls to the Walls (test output), 2023. Exhibited in “N=12,” an exhibition curated by Aaron Penne on Feral File. Courtesy of the artist and Feral File

AE: What can you tell us about your new release, Balls to the Walls (2023), on Feral File? How does it extend or depart from your approach to other recent projects?

PP: Most of my projects either output as plottable SVGs [scalable vector graphics], such as Universal Rayhatcher (2023), or else they are shader-based, as with Skulptuur. I will often use ray-tracing and ray-marching of SDFs [signed distance functions], which are mathematical formulas that define 3D scenes. 

Balls to the Walls is a shader-based ray-marching algorithm, involving a particularly colorful rendering technique that came to me during Genuary 2023

To generate interesting scenes, I developed a sphere-packing algorithm, a randomized room, and a clever search algorithm to find interesting light and camera angles.

Piter Pasma, Balls to the Walls (test output), 2023. Exhibited in “N=12,” an exhibition curated by Aaron Penne on Feral File. Courtesy of the artist and Feral File

AE: Your different projects on Art Blocks, fxhash, and Verse reveal the full potential of generative systems beyond the purely pictorial, sculptural, and architectonic. What are the implications of such expansive systems for increasingly digital societies?

PP: One other thing I brought with me from the demoscene was a desire to show what computers are really capable of. As the influence of Moore’s Law diminishes, perhaps we’ll find out how much there is to gain if we actually optimize our systems. This may sound strange — since a lot of my code is written in JavaScript — but there’s more to performance than a language, and there’s more to capability than performance.

AE: Your recent project, Universal Rayhatcher, used fx(params) to involve collectors in the production of new outputs of the algorithm. How do you see the relationship between generative artists and their collectors developing in the future? Will co-creation become fundamental to generative art, or do you regard parametric art as a world apart? 

PP: I regard “parametric art” as a rather confusing term that already has a lot of associations with generative art and architecture. I think it’s all part of one larger whole. Some of my projects are “long-form” series, comprising many uniquely random outputs, but I’ve also produced a lot of unique single-edition outputs as well, especially with my rayhatcher framework. These involve the careful crafting of mathematical SDF formulas using little to no randomness. Universal Rayhatcher basically allowed other artists — assuming their SDF skills, mostly vetted by me — to have the same experience. A number of mind-blowing pieces emerged from this project.

Piter Pasma, Balls to the Walls (test output), 2023. Exhibited in “N=12,” an exhibition curated by Aaron Penne on Feral File. Courtesy of the artist and Feral File

I don’t know how co-creation will develop. I think we’ll see much more of it, but I don’t think it will become fundamental. There is always a job for the artist: to make choices. You can do anything, but what will it be? 

It’s an artist’s choices that define their taste, technique, and style, setting them apart from other artists. Some collectors are looking for that, too.

AE: Certain artists throughout history have been regarded as “artists’ artists” i.e. those artists whose skills are often most appreciated by their fellow artists. You have become something of an icon among the community of generative artists for your skill as a coder and the power of your generative systems. What do you think distinguishes you as a creative coder beyond the aesthetic impact of your work? 

PP: Thank you for saying that. I have a really strong background in mathematics, which helps a lot. I have also assisted a number of people with feedback, bits of code, and an explanation of particular algorithms, which I really enjoy. I have a drive to understand everything I do from scratch. This allows me to discover new techniques and find shortcuts in true demoscene style.

Piter Pasma, Balls to the Walls (test output), 2023. Exhibited in “N=12,” an exhibition curated by Aaron Penne on Feral File. Courtesy of the artist and Feral File

AE: Is the code the art, or is it something more?

PP: For me, the code is everything. There is a power in code, and my art is a celebration of this. But maybe there is even more to it. 

AE: With generative art history now a lively source of discussion, who or what is being ignored that should be celebrated? Is there anything missing from the discourse surrounding generative art that you feel needs acknowledging right now? 

PP: The current generative art community is a confluence of many different scenes that have emerged in the same era, often without being aware of one other. There is still a lot we can learn from each other — the net art scene, the Flash scene, the demoscene, everyone. 

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Piter Pasma is a generative artist based in Groningen, The Netherlands, inspired by the power of mathematics and code. Pasma’s background in the competitive demoscene of the late 1990s honed his expertise in writing algorithms in their most efficient form, leading to multiple prizes for real-time audiovisual artworks contained in under four kilobytes. He is known for creating photorealistic generative artworks with mathematical functions, often using as few characters as possible. Pasma enjoys encouraging others to create by organizing Genuary, an annual event where artists create daily pieces according to 31 carefully selected prompts.

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

The exhibition, “N=12,” curated by Aaron Penne, is now open on Feral File.