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October 16, 2023

The Truth of Generative Art

Adam Berninger shares his curatorial vision for Feral File’s new show with Emily Edelman
Credit: HAL09999, A broken symmetry — the cat’s parabola #66, 2023. Courtesy of the artist
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The Truth of Generative Art
The exhibition, “Truth,” curated by Adam Berninger, is now open on Feral File.

Feral File’s latest exhibition, “Truth,” is dedicated to the code-based craft of generative art, spotlighting works by Tyler Boswell, Presstube x bzor, Ella Hoeppner, Charlotte Dann, David Seven, HAL09999, and Lisa Orth. Right now, these artists are reaching deeply into the nature of their algorithms in order to engineer new worlds. 

For “Truth,” the artists were invited to express their existing abstract tendencies in ways that explore intuition. They used the short, immersive period of creation in advance of the exhibition to harness their own inner truth. The result is a series of works that foreground each artist’s different, yet “universal” building blocks — light, cells, threads, and forces — that together abstract the range and scale of what is possible. To celebrate the launch of “Truth,” Emily Edelman sat down with the exhibition’s curator, Adam Berninger, to discuss what truth really means in an age of infinite generation.

Ella Hoeppner, filum #13, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

Emily Edelman: It’s hard to portray ideas as universal and broad as truth, scale, and essence and still find specificity in them, but you’ve done that with “Truth.” What prompt did you bring to the artists, and what were your inspirations for it?

Adam Berninger: The prompt was about looking at the abstraction of scale to the point of ambiguity. 

Everything we do already plays with the abstraction of scale through the frame of your computer or the device in your hand. 

Art has its own bounds and translates something either representational or abstract in that frame, at a new scale. I asked the artists in the show to explore how common elements in their inherently abstract works can be used to further obscure a specific perception of size, and therefore reveal similarities across perceived scales within their works and in relation to generative works in general.

Charlotte Dann, Vitreous #6, 2023. Courtesy of the artists

EE: What was your approach to selecting the artists? Did you seek out artists that you felt were already working on these themes?

AB: Absolutely. Some of the artists seem to work on a cosmic scale, while others work on microscopic scales, but all tend to involve a level of abstraction that invites varied interpretations. That ambiguity was central to the exploration of this theme as was the works’ juxtaposition and the ways they alter the perception of each. 

The Feral File format — where you’re looking at sets of works from different series all together — reinforced that potential for different interpretations in a fun, randomized way. Each set might make you think differently about an individual work within it. I was interested in what emergent interpretations might result from that approach.
Tyler Boswell, Metamosaic #3, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

EE: That approach is so fascinating, specifically with this subject, because we are all of human scale, but we also experience it in different ways according to our own perspectives. How did you come up with the features of the collection? What made the process unique for you as a curator and for the artists?

AB: There wasn’t a commonality in terms of the expected structure or visual format for their series — it was about the artists interpreting the idea of scale in their own ways. 

I selected them individually because abstraction runs as a thread throughout their bodies of work, but I also asked for something entirely new that would extend that thread. 

Each of the projects feels inherently theirs, like a quintessential expression, yet different from their previous work. Because of this familiarity within such new works, there’s a comfort that precludes me from seeking a representational analog to the abstract works. I accept them as they are, and as I experience them.

Lisa Orth, inter/sections #20, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

EE: You noted Charles and Ray Eames’s Powers of Ten (1977) in your curatorial note and the emphasis on scale from a human perspective, but you also write about this idea of a perceived sameness across different scales. Is scale real or is it human perception?

AB: The perception of scale is real. The difference in scale is what’s in question here. I remember seeing Powers of Ten at a very young age and was immediately struck by the formal similarity between microscopic elements and stars or other cosmic phenomena. I remember feeling that it wasn’t a coincidence. Through their zooming effect, the Eameses imply that everything is inclusive of smaller things. This left me wondering what exists when you consider the abstract idea of what’s larger than the universe or smaller than a quark. I’ve sought out artworks that seem to ask this same question in their own abstract ways.

Through this search for what is truly extreme in size, I have found that everything is made up of a seemingly common fabric that exists at different scales. 

In 2022, I did another project with Robert Hodgin called Holons, a series that explored the idea that everything physical and material, every idea, and every living being is both inclusive of the things that came before it and simultaneously part of a greater whole. That idea was part of what inspired me for this show about truth.

HAL09999, A broken symmetry — the cat’s parabola #74, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

EE: Do you think about time when you think about truth and scale?

AB: I’m sure I do, but I’m not sure how I do. [...] I’m interested in the influence of human perception on the idea of reality and whether there is some definitive reality that we can all agree is perceived in the same way. This show acknowledges that we can’t, and that it’s okay. We all have different perspectives, but they are just another view of the same thing — including things that happen over time and the perceived reality of that seemingly immovable force. 

I see scale as a proxy for discussing and contemplating the truth of reality within this show. 

Truth here is not about objectivity, but rather an immense openness to everything and the validity in that. It’s a different way of observing truth, that anyone can experience by opening their vantage points to things at different scales. 

David Seven, Dactylogram #104, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

EE: What is more interesting or satisfying to you personally: getting as close as possible to understanding somebody else’s ultimate truth and perspective, or not ever being able to know it fully?

AB: With this exhibition, more than trying to understand, I focused on trying to accept and remove judgment as much as possible. Acknowledging that people are going to see these artworks in different ways means that abstract works can serve as a less biased entry point to evaluating differences in interpretation. There’s no wrong way to interpret an abstract work, and so they’re all right, and therefore true. It’s still possible to reach this conclusion with more representational work, but that tends to train one to focus on literal meanings. Abstraction helps many people remove their own specific experiences from consideration. 

That’s what we’re getting at when we talk about essence — it’s the ineffable feeling of what you’re perceiving without feeling like you have to define it. There’s no right way to do it, so it’s always right.

It’s been enlightening to read the artists’ interpretations of the concept of truth through their project statements. I invite everyone to read those writings as a set, just as one would look at the art in series. The artists’ statements help to triangulate the higher concept and provocations on truth in this exhibition.

Presstube x bzor, Cuneiform #1, 2023. Courtesy of the artists

EE: Were there any conversations between the artists about the show? Can you describe the process of working as a group?

AB: A lot of our conversations happened on Discord, and we had some great group calls to discuss the concept and how the works intersected. I was inspired by how all the artists interpreted the concept in their own ways but discussed them in common terms, which brought an additional philosophical perspective on both truth and scale. Those initial ideas and inspirations united the artists together and informed the evolution of the show’s concept, but the artists’ articulation of their own individual series also demonstrated a deeper expression of common truth.

Some artists had the philosophical implications of their work front of mind, while for others it seemed more subconscious. 

Either way, their projects’ meaning is driven by their intuition, and the underlying concept and philosophy comes from observing the output.

Charlotte Dann, Vitreous #44, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

EE: The Droste effect describes the experience of a picture within a picture. The first example of it was on the packaging for the Droste brand of cocoa powder, which displayed a woman holding a box on the box. It reinforces the idea of layers of truth and the question of which is the real one.

AB: That comes back to the Powers of Ten. The hall of mirrors (HOM) effect accentuates the bias we have for the immediacy of our current perception, whereby the closest thing to you is going to feel the most true, but all those reflections are just as true from a different vantage point, or consideration of the forces at play. 

EE: One thing that you identified in your curatorial note is that the artists didn’t feel the need to quantify their relationship to truth or scale. Some might find inspiration in atoms, or in planets, or in nature. In all those cases, there’s poetry and abstraction, but when we talk specifically about generative art, we are talking inherently about concrete, quantifiable mathematical probabilities. Was that relationship between the poetry of scale and mathematics of generative work a conversation you had with the artists? 

AB: That’s a conversation that is ongoing. There’s a lot more I’d love to hear from both artists and collectors, especially now that the works are complete. I hope that the theme is broad enough for everybody to apply their own interpretation of the poetics and systems in these new works. 

For me, they pose the question of how an art medium so technical, mathematical, and prone to error actually allows for an artist’s intuition to emerge. I find myself drawn to the outputs that carry a feeling of natural progression, of something that emerged from an artist that just feels right, whatever that means.
Ella Hoeppner, filum #50, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

EE: With some of the most interesting generative art, the viewer forgets that it is built of code. What about your experience building community at TENDER has shaped your curation of this Feral File show? Has your experience building that platform shaped your inspiration for the show?

AB: Absolutely. All the time I’ve spent around generative art, particularly in the last couple of years, has informed how I look at abstract works. 

In the same way that photography has a tendency towards representation, there’s an opposite tendency toward abstraction that is fed by the natural building blocks of code.

I’ve had the privilege of spending time with a community that is interested in sharing their own views of how different abstract works resonate with them. I’ve learned much from the unique perspectives of these community members, collectors, and artists. Sometimes, it might change my opinion about something and, at other times, it provides another vantage point for me to contemplate. 

I’m an opinionated person and, like most people, I can think that something is a certain way but also know that it’s not universally right. I can live with that tension. It is part of a broadening of what is right in art — which is everything. Putting together a group show is largely about trusting that truth, while bringing together a range of works and perspectives into one place so that, as a whole, they add up to new interpretations that are more than the sum of their parts. 

Lisa Orth, inter/sections #17, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

EE: What would be the dream scenario for displaying this collection if physics were no limit?

AB: I want to lie down and look at a black sky and see the light from each work materialize above me, which is similar to how the artwork’s light appears through the darkness of its native screen. The scale and distance between each celestial body in the night sky is so diverse, but because they look similar and flat one doesn’t have a sense of that scale disparity. I perceive the pieces in this show in the same way. A display like that would be an extraordinarily visceral viewing experience and a way of embodying the show’s focus on abstracted perceptions of experience. 

I’m not sure that this is entirely a dream — the potential for creating immersive experiences of generative art is still largely untapped, and viewing works in ways that challenge our perceived reality is one of the most exciting prospects for the future of this art form.

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Adam Berninger is an artist, curator, and founder based in New York and a graduate of Rhode Island School of Design. For the past 20 years, he has created works in photographic, painted, algorithmic, and written media, and served as a creative director for industry-leading brands with a high regard for taste. His work maintains an exploration of how technology, beauty, the written word, and interactive experiences can provoke a deeper understanding of our shared existence. Adam is also the founder of TENDER, a generative art hub, community, and advocate serving to advance the medium of computational art. Through TENDER, he collaborates with generative artists to create new long-form series. At the heart of his practice across platforms, artworks, and media is a dedication to revealing the essence of art itself.

Emily Edelman is a digital artist and designer who lives and works in Brooklyn. With a background in typography and the design of physical spaces, her work pushes the definition of text and communication as art objects. Emily’s first long-form generative series was Asemica, released on Art Blocks Curated in November 2021. She has also exhibited with Artsy, Bright Moments, EXPANDED.ART, theVERSEverse, VellumLA, Verse, and Vertical Crypto Art. She holds a BFA in Graphic Design from RISD and is the co-founder of Token Art, an art and tech unconference. In 2023, she curated the exhibition, “On Water,” at The Seaport in New York City. 

The exhibition, “Truth,” curated by Adam Berninger, is now open on Feral File.