Digital Collage: an interview with Nico Tone

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By Pau Waelder & Roxanne Vardi

With a history that spans more than a century, collage has evolved as an artistic technique from the pieces of newspaper glued to a canvas to a wide array of forms of appropriating content using digital tools. We sat down with Tal Keren, who established the Nico Tone collective and acts as the senior artist, on their use of found images to create digital collages in their latest series of artworks.

This interview is part of a series of three editorial articles that dive deeper into the different software, technicalities, and processes that go into creating digital artworks, in order to offer our readers a deeper understanding of digital art as a medium.

We speak to Nico Tone as part of a collaboration with Render Studio, a collective creative experimentation for a digital reality. Render Studio is inspired by art, design, nature and technology and aims to explore dimensions of virtuality, interactivity and motion. Nico Tone’s series Cornucopia,  Vintage Matchbox Series and Cosmoscapes are all featured on Niio this summer, and were all created for Render Studio. 

Towards these series, Nico Tone looked at archives of vintage matchbox illustrations from around the world. Can you please explain the complexity of turning older images into novel digital artworks, and the different technicalities that go into this process?

We were very lucky to find many archives of designs and illustrations of matchboxes that were scanned in a good quality. So it wasn’t a problem to take these images from the server, and to put them into different folders. Each of the folders we create is categorized under a different topic such as animals, flowers and space. We took images of each subject and with the use of Photoshop, we cut the illustrations and then used the program After Effects in which we placed all the cut images. To make these series we needed to create many small animations. I equate this process to Lego: animating each image separately so with each artwork we can use the same animations but in different colors, sizes and placements. We also created many animated GIFs towards the creation of the final artworks. We use between 50-70 illustrations collected by the group from vintage matchboxes to create one coherent artwork. From some matchboxes we just take one element or illustration, and for others we can take all of them. We also looked at the reference of stamps and of vintage bills for the Vintage Matchbox series. The artworks are conceived to be symmetrical at first glance so that the compositions are like mirrors, but then the illustrations break that symmetry.

Nico Tone, Vintage Tales I, 2022

In your search for these images, do you have a specific website that you explore or do you start every exploration from scratch using search engines such as Google search?

We tend to use specific links that we are familiar with, and we were very careful about the copyrighting of the images, so even when we found an image that we liked we needed to do a lot of research on the image’s legal copyright conditions.

Do you take these images and try to think about what the different illustrations meant historically, and play with these existing narratives or do you really use these images just as a starting point to create something completely new?

The history of the different illustrations is usually taken into account. It is very important and interesting to know the history of the images. But when we create the artworks, the main focus is on how it looks,  and how something new can be created from these materials. It may reference and remind us of the history, but the outcome is not the history itself, it’s something else, a new world that combines everything together. Each design comes from a different culture and country, and we take everything and mix it up into a new narrative. This type of work is similar to the process of globalization, which is experienced everywhere. Keep in mind  that the vintage illustrations are very small, so we have to work with a lot of small details. This was also a challenge, to try to think what can be done, and how something new can be created from these small historical illustrations.

“Each design comes from a different culture and country, and we take everything and mix it up into a new narrative. This type of work is similar to the process of globalization, which is experienced everywhere.”

Can you elaborate on the different softwares used in creating this series of works?

As I mentioned, for the creation of these works we use Photoshop and After Effects. I make use of a digital tablet and a pen. For the space series, Wandering Stars, we needed to create the backgrounds, so we used the Ipad with a program called Procreate to create them in high quality.

Nico Tone, Wandering Stars I, 2022

In your works you combine subject matters taken from different cultures and different time periods into one coherent whole. How do advanced technical softwares help in creating these new collated narratives?

The size of the illustrations make the available opportunities very limited, but on the other hand this is also a good thing because this also creates abstract boundaries where we need to be very creative. We try to create everything that is supposed to be alive in real life as breathing. Most of the animations are not fast, but instead are very slow and calm. It is like looking into an aquarium, or like when you’re diving and looking at the fish as a spectator. So the focus is on creating something that will be nice to be with. Even when portraying wild animals, we don’t want to represent them as scary but instead as calm and pleasing. Most of the animations portray movement, where the GIFs are created in a loop of movement. For this process, we take the image, for example the head of the bear, and break it apart into different pieces, and then move these different pieces one by one.

Present in your collage works, there also seems to be little stories or narratives, so that upon closer inspection over time, one can see some particular things happening or maybe even expect some things to happen which were not necessarily visible at first glance.

Yes, the artworks are all created in loops. But within those loops of 1.5-2 minutes there exist even smaller loops. These are created purposefully so that the narrative of the work is constantly changing. We like to create small surprises in the artworks, so that every time you see the work you can see something different. Like the half moon in Shell City that jumps out and back into the coffee cup, or the butterfly in Vintage Tales II that flies and lands on top of the boat. Also, as you mentioned, there are little stories that we create firstly for ourselves, where the viewer needs to see the work a couple of times to notice these. For example, in Shell Flower, there is a turtle that is biting into a plant on top of the car. In general, we think about the movement that you see the first time that you see the work, whereas there are other elements that one would only see after a couple of times that one has seen the work.

Nico Tone, Shell Animals, 2022

You mentioned that you would like viewers to take the time to see the artworks, or to live with them. What do you think of how we usually consume images which is really the opposite, fast-paced and ephemeral?

I think that because we are confronted daily with many images and videos that nothing really infiltrates us or touches us anymore. I believe that if you take the time and look at one artwork you will start feeling and sensing its power. This is what we try to achieve. We would like viewers to look at our works for a while, and not just a couple of seconds. I am in favor of technology, but I think that the subject matter that we choose to portray is usually more natural. We try to combine technology and nature for a long term relationship as opposed to a short one.

“We like to create small surprises in the artworks, so that every time you see the work you can see something different.”

You don’t use much text in your compositions, is this done purposefully?

We feel that when you incorporate text in the works, it gives it a more radical feeling or meaning which we want to leave more open. We don’t want our viewers to relate an artwork to one culture or to one language, but instead wish for every viewer to have their own take and perception of the artwork.

Your artworks show many references to Art Historical collage practices such as those initiated by Cubist and Dadaist artists from the early Twentieth century. What do you see as the role of the digital artist in this lineage?

When we are presented with a new technology, we have a new opportunity to do new things. So that we are aware of the history, and what the artists did in the past, but now we can do those same things with different techniques and challenges. I don’t like to create political artworks. The use of technological advancements for me comes out in the small nuances, when we say that we can use technology but in a positive way. The collage method and the digital tools give us the opportunity to portray what we are trying to say. Taking elements from history and from different cultures and with that to advance towards something more positive and more colorful, and to show the similarities between these different cultures. I like the idea that when you put different and seemingly opposite things together in a collage, such as a polar bear next to a tiger, suddenly it can make sense to see these two elements presented side by side.

Nico Tone, Wandering Stars III, 2022. The Mondrian Hotel, Seoul.

You present your artworks on very large screens, which are sometimes a couple of stories high. What do you need to consider, digitally, when your art is presented on such large scale?

On very large screens every detail is seen and scrutinized. Everything needs to be meticulous and have meaning. It is like putting all your imperfections out there, enlarged for the world to see. We have to simultaneously consider both the viewer looking at the collosal screen from very close, and one looking from far away. This does not happen on a normal size screen where a viewer must come relatively close to it. The short distance viewer will be very focused in a limited space inside the artwork and must gain value from that spot alone. He or she will see every detail in that limited scope. The viewer looking from afar will see the big picture. We aspire to convey the message or story of the artwork for both these types of viewers. From a technical standpoint, these colossal screens have very irregular formats and colors that we need to consider. We commonly need to make adjustments in the artworks to fit these unique screens. It is both scary and extremely satisfying to present our works on these huge screens.  

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