Naked terrains: the imaginary landscapes of Franz Rosati

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Roxanne Vardi and Pau Waelder

A musician and digital artist, Franz Rosati explores a broad spectrum aesthetic experiences in the intersection of digital music and real time 3D renderings, that he presents in the form of audiovisual concerts, screen based installations, software art and printed artworks. His artistic production is characterized by the creation of dystopian landscapes and autonomous virtual entities, in series such as Latentscape, Hyletics, Map of Null, and Machine & Structure.

His work has been exhibited in international events, festivals, and listed for galleries and platforms such as NIIO, Framed*, ARTPOINT, Dong Gallery, NEAL Digital Gallery, The OUTPUT, Sedition Art, and Mana. In our curated art program, Rosati’s work has been presented in several artcasts, such as Wanderlust and Rare Earths. We sat down with him to talk about his creative process, his favorite software, and the multiple dimensions of his work.

Sound and music are the key elements in your work that are presented with engaging visual compositions and often use generative techniques. How would you describe the relationship between the sounds and images?

It’s a pretty parallel process. Each project, even Latentscape, starts as an audio-visual concert with a strong narrative that develops over time. With the screen based artworks, I extract the main theme and timbral features of the audio parts to build a piece which can’t be a full track because there’s no time for such development, but can deliver the average impression and mood of the sound while you can stand in front of the work between 10 seconds to 3 minutes and you can still catch it. The sound comes from a main idea of the work, but then when I develop a concept I try to separate between the two things, as different emanations of the same artwork. In this sense, screen based artworks and audio visual concerts are the ways I can experiment with different languages.

Franz Rosati, LATENTSCAPE KV4A, 2021

There is an important immersive and performative element in your work, exemplified by the installations and live performances. Taking this into account, how do you conceive the duration of your pieces, the rhythms in them, and the presence of the viewer as a body in an enclosed space, exposed to sounds and images?

It depends on the project. In the past I was more into improvisation. I always had a canvas to work on, but I didn’t know the development before the concert, so it was different in that sense, a flow of sounds and generative visuals out from my custom made digital instruments with defined possibilities to explore freely.  I changed this approach in the last few years because I felt like I wanted to work in a more cinematic way. Now I have different kind of visualizations and moments such as chapters and interludes and so forth. In this moment I see myself more like a director than just a musician or a performer. Right now, I know exactly what material palette, depth, and sound I want to use in specific moments. About the screen based artworks I decided to choose some specific camera movements for Latentscape which is limited to upward, downward and zoom-io/out movements because I want the audience to feel a sense of ascension or falling-into when in front of the screen. For the sound I wanted something rich and textural but still maintaining the “full spectrum” approach I had in the past and when it is possible in the venue, I like to have multichannel speakers and very loud sound pressure.

Franz Rosati, LATENTSCAPE XV4A, 2021

In that sense, how do you see the works that are on Niio, which are more intimate for the user, in the context of your work?

I like the intimate dimension. When I play live I can have 200 or 2,000 people in front of me, on Niio I can have only one person in front of the artwork. To me this is fascinating because it forces me to tailor my project so that can talk to everyone without giving up its identity, and this means mediating a lot to find a common language and expressive balance. It can be on an 80 inch screen or on 3 small computer screens, and this can allow the audience to get closer to the screen instead of being surrounded and overpowered by huge screens and loud sounds. With the Latentscape works, I like to configure them as going up and going down, changing direction, doing sliding and zooming movements instead of complex camera movements, slow movement and slow changes, slow cinematic sequences and what you can perceive on both large and small screens as a shift in perception. It is like exploring a big painting with your eyes or seeing the ground from a plane. Latentscape depicts a landscape that doesn’t exist, it’s everything we know from experience, but it’s imaginary. An aerial bat above the ground, but at the same time you are watching something that is not moving but it’s just you.

In this moment I see myself more like a director than just a musician or a performer.

Can you pinpoint the reason why you used to be more into improvisation whereas today you like working with a clear narrative? 

From 2007-2012 I mainly played electronic, electroacoustic and noise music so I was a lot into improvisation and I used to play with radical-jazz musicians too, so when I went on stage myself I was still into this kind of stream of consciousness approach even if my first attempt with a cinematic approach was Pathline #1 in 2011 but than it was only in 2016 with Map of Null that I went back on a Cinematic approach. I was also in a moment in my life when I needed to express myself in a more instinctual and physical way. But right now, I am more focused on designing my projects, so I want to balance and craft more details in what I put on screens and what plays out of the speakers. At the time of improvisation I played a lot at small clubs and festivals, and my setup was more flexible in a way. Right now, my works cannot be played on smaller stages, because I need a good screen or projector and a at least a couple of big subwoofer to deliver everything properly. There are also a lot of cultural differences in my own growth and development. Ten years ago I was more into music than into digital arts even if I was already doing large scale printed generative artworks and visuals.

“It is like exploring a big painting with your eyes or seeing the ground from a plane. Latentscape depicts a landscape that doesn’t exist, it’s everything we know from experience, but it’s imaginary.”

In your work we often find the presence of generated landscapes that can be located in the edge between real and imaginary, figurative and abstract. What role do these landscapes play in your work? Would you say they have become a signature element that identifies your work?

From a technical point of view, I was interested in landscape generation techniques, because I like the expressive possibilities of the shapes and feature of the naked terrain with no buildings, vegetation or traces of human presence, it’s just what we see from above when we look at the world. It’s fascinating because at some heights there are things you cannot distinguish anymore and disappear, and just shapes and colours remains. At the moment I am still working on Latentscape, I don’t want to stop it as I like the workflow and the style. But at the same time, I am working on a a new project, Distantia, based on complex satellite imagery. I am talking to researchers and trying to figure out what I can do with that huge amount of informations. I want to develop an aesthetic which is in continuity with Latentscapes but will be separate. It will be more scientific accurate, which would give totally different results. In the end I think that the landscape at the moment is the main framework of intervention I want to work because it’s clear but can carry many meanings.

Franz Rosati, Hyletics, sequenza H301A, 2020

The visuals and sounds you create are usually not encapsulated in themselves, but enriched by external data. How do you choose and modulate this data? How do you balance control and randomness in the use of this data and in your live performances?

Latentscapes are made of elevation maps generated from a GAN which was trained with a custom dataset made of thousands of DEMs (elevation maps) I’ve collected in about 6 months. For the sounds I made the same kind of approach collecting sounds and music recordings  generated by machine learning algorithm SapleRNN and other Autoencoders. In both cases, the collection of the dataset, (a very long and human based practice) was the big part. For example I created sonic dataset made of Baroque Musica and Sound Design to see what the algorithm could generate from this mix. I tried to make some clashes in this sense. AI is not so smart but it’s precise, so if I tell it what to do it starts to become an interesting game. I am not a big fan of AI as a creative tool for final outputs, I am not sure how much I will use it in the next projects but in Latentscape it was interesting to use it for particular sounds and the shapes.

“I was interested in landscape generation techniques, because I like the expressive possibilities of the shapes and feature of the naked terrain with no buildings, vegetation or traces of human presence”

For the colors, instead, I collected a lot of photography and concatenated together and extracted the color scheme I like. Sometimes I grab a leaf of a plant and put it together with the color of a metal packaging that I like. I like to consider data not just as a digit, not just as numbers. A famous and brilliant couple of Italian philosophers, artists and hackers, Salvatore Iaconesi and Oriana Persico, suggested that data is more about experience instead of only visualizing or  extracting numbers from real environments or statistical events. So it’s part of my data. A collection of my own experience. I love to work with technology and humanize technology. I ask myself who I am when I work with technology and don’t let technology take over to my feelings and tastes.

In the creation of your artworks you use software that you have developed personally. What does this software bring to your creative process that you cannot find in off-the-shelf commercial software? What do you think about open source software and creative coding environments such as PureData, Max/MSP, Processing, VVVV, or openFrameworks?

I use Max/MSP and TouchDesigner for a very big part of my works even if I really started around 2004-2006 with Processing and PureData. Max is my main tool for sound and in the past for visuals too. Latentscape, instead, uses complex workflows that starts with GANs, to end up in Unreal Engine with a specific attention to Blueprint Materials programming.
I always had my own instruments and tools made in Max for the sound, which allow me to play the music and do sound design how I want – so it is customized and tailored for me. It’s nice to design a tool for yourself. This is why I like to design my own instruments. At the moment my Latentscape Live Set is only built around Ableton Live and Max communicating with TouchDesigner, while the production of screen based artworks and video content for the live set is fully based on Unreal Engine.

About AI as I told before, I use it in a very functional way. At the moment I’m exploring a bit Stable Diffusion and Dall-E and what I don’t like is that you can customize a notebook, lines of code, features, but the problem is the dataset – it’s very wide, endless and the nature of the dataset but at the same time very general and the fine tuning from the company is another limit. I think that AI is be very cool to create a variety of outputs from a single idea. For Latentscapes I did that for landscapes as well as for micro-texturing with GANs, which gave me a wide range of variations in just one click.
I’m struggling to see DALL-E or Stable Diffusion as a real creative instrument. I look at it more as a “recursive subconscious stimulating search engine”.

Would you say that these tools have fostered a new generation of digital artists?

I remember years ago here in Rome there were really few people experimenting with digital arts. Open source was a real revolution. It’s still a revolution even if from a political point of view. I don’t consider OpenAI or DALL-E a good use of the open source paradigm. Calling something open source just because the source is open it’ doesn’t work for me. In the case of AI there’s a dataset involved which most of the times means data collected without any authorization by big companies. There is a wide shade of things to analyze about the open source movement today.

Going back to the question I see what the algorithm is telling me that it thinks, it’s something hyperrealistic, or it can give me a suggestion of something strange which I didn’t imagine but It’s always very similar, it seems to have it’s own artistic trait in some ways, and you cannot do anything to make the tool your own. The final user is just the new audience in that sense, an active audience –but the audience is not the artist. Being an artist means having a vision, feeling an urge to translate that into matter and so called traditional digital tools to me are still the way to really develop a unique style if you want and you need to do it. The main observation is that the same thing was told about 3D and digital animation back in the days, but this time there’s a huge difference which is the data involved.

Your professional career includes collaborations with other artists and musicians as composer and sound designer. How have these collaborations been developed? What would you point out as key elements in a collaboration, particularly when it involves sound and visuals?

In the past I worked a lot with other artists as a technical artist, such as my work with Quayola. But I collaborated only a few times with artists on collaborative projects, for example doing visuals for Plaster, which is a very important and quiet an historical Italian techno/electronic project as well as doing several remixes/reworks or more recently collaborative audiovisual pieces for a serie of events curated by Edward Paul Quist for his own Embryoroom/Embryogallery project or producing music for Daniele Spanò videoartistic installation, which is a very clever italian artist and friend.
Then recently I’ve been involved into the Sentio tour by Martin Garrix with one custom Latentscape artworks, and it’s pretty insane to see my stuff on such gigantic ledwalls with literrally tens of thousands of people dancing on this very powerful and energetic music.

Franz Rosati, Map of Null T010N, 2018

With my own projects I have assistant collaborators. But I am a control freak for the workflow and I like to always keep my hands on the work. So I start alone doing lot of technological a nd conceptual research and then bring in someone to help for specific tasks, then I give the final form to the project by mysels. In the last four years I opened up a lot in that sense, also talking to researchers about remote sensing or machine learning in my case or in depth Unreal Engine techniques. But I am not really a collaboration artist, because I work slowly. I am not a machine gun when I produce works. Usually it takes me 3-6 months or more to publish a work but maybe it’s in the pipeline from an year. So it’s difficult for me to commit to someone. Difficult to align to other people’s workflows also because I am also a Sound Design and Media Art teacher so I need to schedule my time properly not to neglect my students and my artistic carreer.

Did any of these collaborations inspire you to do something else?

Working with Quayola was quiet an enlightenment. I learned a lot watching him at work, especially to scan and organize the work, keep track of everything and keep the focus on specific aspects of your output. It was a very important encounter from both human and development point of view mostly thanks to Andrea Santicchia which is a very important figure of Quayola Studio and dragged me into this. Also the Jazz musicians I was talking at the beginning, at the time gave me the right approach to put my inner self out there with music. In the end everyone you meet is your master in life. This is the same with my students, I learn a lot from anyone of them.

“I love the idea of the artcast, because seeing a platform that is active in publishing, not just showing your artwork but doing curatorial activities with your work makes a lot of sense.”

You have worked with several digital platforms, such as Sedition, FRAMED*, and of course Niio. These platforms offer artists different services and forms of distribution of the artworks, what is your experience with them? How would you describe the possibilities that artists now have to distribute and sell their work through online and device-specific platforms?

In general these platforms were a big game changer for me, they gave me an opportunity to put out my work differently. When these platforms came out it completely changed the game. Sedition was the first one I worked with, but I lost track with them a bit, at some point it seemed like a good art shop instead of a platform but the initial idea was very forwardthinking. When Framed* came out it was a blessing because they don’t just have a shop, they have a whole device ready to display the artworks and also involved us artists in several public events. Artpoint is also a very clever company based in France mainly focused on distributing artworks on real spaces and contexts which is something I feel very good with.

When I approached Niio for the Open Call with Samsung at the end of 2019, my perception was of a very serious platform which was more curated and prestigious with a wide network behind. I love the idea of the artcast, because seeing a platform that is active in publishing, not just showing your artwork but doing curatorial activities with your work does something for me and makes a lot of sense. 

Now that NFTs came into the game, do you feel there is a wider space for artists to come in?

About NFT I am really critical. I did something around Hicetnunc mainly, so on Tezos – the green blockchain, and this was pretty good, I’ve met very clever artists and collectors, but I didn’t push too much to be in the NFT space because I feel that it’s too risky. I don’t like that everything goes through Twitter as it can lead to bot collectors or just some kind of overproductive approach. But at the same time there are several companies working with NFTs in a more healthy way.

I like the way some companies such as ReasonedArt, which I’m collaborating with, works with the Matic blockchain, which is green too, and also because they use the NFT/blockchain paradigm to works mainly in the real space doing also public events and broadcasting such as projections at the train stations like it happened recently. These are artists and curators using NFTs in a more realistic way. When I hear people talking of crypto art it’s not really my cup of tea. It’s like calling wall art something you put on your wall. So I am not interested in the NFT space as a space itself. I tend more towards the notion of talking about NFT as a system so when used in a good way with a proper method it’s cool, even if it’s a technology that carries some very equivocal meanings itself. The focus should be on the art, otherwise, just to cite Salvatore Iaconesi once again, in one of his latest articles about NFTs, we run the risk of living in a reality in which “everything becomes a financial transaction, so much so that it is impossible to conceive of anything else…”

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