Ronen Tanchum: reality interpreted

Pau Waelder

A contemporary artist, developer and an interaction designer, Ronen Tanchum has developed a body of work that explores the representation of natural phenomena and our perception of reality as it is mediated by the entertainment industry and digital media. At a time in which the attention economy fosters a visual culture based on spectacularity and evasion to fantasy worlds, his work draws attention to how digital technologies, from 3D modeling to machine learning, reshape our perception of the world around us.

In his long-time collaboration with Niio, Tanchum has presented numerous artworks that we are now gradually collecting in a series of solo artcasts, offering a glimpse into the many facets of his artistic practice. In this interview we dive a little deeper into the main subjects of his work.

Ronen Tanchum. Particle Forest, 2022

Your work is characterized by an interest in nature and natural phenomena, particularly the behavior of fluids. This is obviously related to your work in the film industry, but if you look at it from the perspective of your artistic research, what does nature as a subject and fluid mechanics as a tool bring to your art practice?

Yes, this is the DNA of my artworks and what they convey. Ever since I learned computer graphics for the first time and had access to 3D software, some 20 years ago –when I was 16– I was trying to learn the software and to make the computer create something that is believable. This notion always brought me back to study the real world. So, I had to carefully observe the world around me, from the little imperfections of a corner of wall that needs to be reproduced synthetically, to complex natural behaviors that need to be recreated digitally in order to create realistic content. This required a lot of work, but additionally it was not only about making the recreation realistic, but rather a hyperreal, exaggerated reality that made the content visually attractive and engaging. 

“Instead of starting with nothing (a blank canvas) and adding on to it, I start with a lot of chaotic data and I shape it little by little, tweaking the algorithms, refining, and testing again and again until I reach a result that I’m satisfied with.”

During my whole career as a specialist in 3D technologies and simulations I had to recreate a lot of natural effects synthetically, so that they are used in key moments of Hollywood films, where reality is presented as a spectacle. For instance, an effect of clouds covering the sky and then dissipating, that has a narrative role in the film, so it has to be created in a way that looks as realistic as possible while also supporting the narrative. I worked with many natural phenomena, like waterfalls and tornadoes to rain, snowfall, and fire, and I found that the possibility of reproducing these phenomena synthetically within the machine was fascinating. So I continued to explore these technologies while also playing with the boundaries of what is real and what is not, and the way that natural forces and elements behave. Exploring these techniques led me to a deep understanding of the human role in the synthetic reproduction of nature, and how we do not simply reproduce what we observe, but we interpret it. We play with it, we make it more expressive, we manipulate the behavior of the elements, time, and natural forces to give a dramatic quality and visual appeal to something as mundane as a splash of water from a bucket on the floor. 

So my artistic practice has focused on exploring the creative possibilities of reproducing natural elements and landscapes, flora and vegetation synthetically through different technologies,  programming languages, and mediums. Using computer algorithms to create these simulations of nature is quite a challenge in itself, because instead of starting with nothing (a blank canvas) and adding on to it, I start with a lot of chaotic data and I shape it little by little, tweaking the algorithms, refining, and testing again and again until I reach a result that I’m satisfied with. I find this practice very challenging and encapsulating in ways that I could never do with a pen, paper, and ink, or with a canvas, a brush, and paint. I design systems that have a life of their own once the program starts running, so there is also a sense of creating a situation with a certain degree of control, and also letting go.

Ronen Tanchum. FEELS I, 2021

You have mentioned how the depiction of reality in films leads to spectacularity, and that is also something we frequently find nowadays in digital art, with large installations and projections in public spaces, that lead to equating digital art with a visual spectacle. As an artist, how do you see this expectation of digital art being eye-catching?

That’s an interesting question. Certainly, spectacularity is a tool to tell your story and convey or emote feelings. I do believe that art needs to be felt more than understood, and I also see that the spectacular aspect of digital art is there by choice. As a medium that is relatively new and exciting to a large audience, digital art is often perceived in this way, as something that catches your attention, and for artists that is a powerful tool to have in their hands. So, I understand the pull, both for artists and the audience, to expect spectacularity from digital art, but I also don’t feel that this is a necessity. Digital art doesn’t always have to cause a strong visual impact or be displayed in large LED screens. Of course, screens are its habitat, it is where digital art is meant to be experienced. We’re moving into a new age where art is no longer only on canvases, or sculptures, but on different mediums, and also everywhere. The screen is often understood as a digital canvas, but that is only the beginning, there will be many more ways to experience art digitally. 

In my practice, I would say that it is not so much about making art that draws attention, but using the medium in interesting ways. Exploring the possibilities of software, of generative algorithms, 3D modeling, artificial neural networks and so on, to question our reality and our experience of nature is what feels interesting to me.

“Certainly, spectacularity is a tool to tell your story and convey or emote feelings. But digital art doesn’t always have to cause a strong visual impact or be displayed in large LED screens.”

Another aspect that you’ve mentioned is the idea of control. You sometimes work with software that lets you control every element, every detail and behavior. But you also work with generative algorithms and machine learning programs, with which there is more of a “dialogue.” How do you balance your creative authorship with the outputs of these autonomous systems?

A lot of my practices are procedural and generative in nature. So even when I want to create a specific thing and aim for a certain output, I test a lot of methods to get there, naturally. I’ve been building systems and algorithms before releasing them as long format and as something with the aspect of randomness in them before, and I often work with JavaScript, and GLSL, to create long format, generative art, which is not AI. It is a way to release control and let go, so it’s interesting, because at first, I start building towards something and then I find myself thinking about variations of that original intention. To give you an example: a random function gives you a different number every time and then you can use that number to perform visual modifications on the artwork. So, for instance, every time some element appears, it can have a different color or a different size or a different shape. And then I use these somewhat random functions in order to create the output. But this output that you’re looking at lives in a spectrum of outputs: every time that you iterate on the algorithm, there will be a different output. How different that new output can be, of course, depends on the degree of so-called “randomness” you give to the system. So, if I want to get a certain degree of control over this spectrum of outputs, I must limit the amount of unexpected results that might come out of it.

“Generative art on the blockchain is a match made in heaven because here the algorithm is not only producing an endless amount of random outputs, it is creating a series of artworks that people can own and say «okay, this one belongs to me.»” 

I particularly like this method of working, to experience and be surprised by the interaction with the machine. Working with algorithms gives me an opportunity to do something that is not necessarily static. It could be dynamic, or it could be influenced by something and become interactive, or it could be a data sculpture, using real time data, or a data set that you train, and then play with. This is a really powerful tool: generative art and algorithmic art on the blockchain is a match made in heaven because here the algorithm is not only producing an endless amount of random outputs, it is creating a series of artworks that people can own and say “okay, this one belongs to me.” And that  is really interesting because the outputs become unique, but also part of a series, and the owners of these artworks become part of a community. This generates some very interesting dynamics between the pieces of a collection and the owners of those pieces.

Ronen Tanchum and Ori Ben-Shabat / Phenomena Labs. Rococo, 2023

Continuing with the subject of generative art on blockchain, can you tell us about your experience with the series Rococo? How was the response to these artworks?

Rococo is a project Ori Ben-Shabat and I developed together. It is an exploration of how we can reproduce synthetically digital paintings that represent flowers. Flowers, as you know, can come in many shapes and colors, for instance with six or fifteen petals, and that gives us a lot of possibilities, in the form of functions and numbers for the algorithm. Working with the algorithm we created a type of flower that we liked, and then duplicated it a number of times, introducing variations in the number of flowers, petals, and colors. The code itself describes a bunch of spheres that move in space, and while doing so they draw and create the final painting that you see. It is a similar approach to that of a painter who would choose a brush, and a bit of paint, and then perform a series of movements spreading the paint on a canvas with the brush in order to create the image, the gestures of his hand determining the particular shape of the flowers and a certain style of depiction. 

The response was very good. As you know, when you present generative art on an NFT marketplace, you put the code of the system that creates the artwork on the blockchain, then people can explore what the algorithm does prior to minting. Usually, they can explore and see the spectrum of outputs that the algorithm creates, and then they decide if they want to buy it or not. But they actually don’t know exactly which composition they will obtain, which is in a way the opposite of buying a painting. This process becomes very engaging and very surprising and personal, both to the artist and to the collector. It introduces the element of luck and chance into collecting artwork, which is an interesting way to release art. And it also creates a dynamic within the collection: some will be worth more than others, just because more people like them. This is really interesting, and it could be explored endlessly. So for instance, you can have an algorithm that creates an infinite number of outputs, but then only X amount of them are locked to the blockchain, and only those are what collectors can own. 

Your work easily transitions between photorealistic 3D animations, abstract compositions, and what could be described as digital painting: artworks that explore painting as a compositional and stylistic reference using digital tools. Which of these approaches is more interesting? Which is more challenging?

What interests me is to work with the edges, to play with all of them and transition between them. I am very influenced by both traditional art and contemporary art. So in projects such as Rococo, a major goal was to find a way to use code while simulating something as materially specific and expressive as a brushstroke. This could have very well become a generator of perfectly identifiable, realistic, 3D looking flowers, but with Ori we decided that it was much more interesting to explore what the act of painting looks like and find out how to evoke the level of expression and abstraction that a painter achieves applying painting on a canvas, but using computer software.

Ronen Tanchum. The Expressionists ~ Couple #2, 2020

You have mentioned your collaboration with Ori Ben-Shabat, with whom you work at Phenomena Labs, a studio that creates immersive art experiences. How does the work at Phenomena Labs differ from your individual work as an artist?

I founded Phenomena Labs almost 10 years ago with a mindset of collaborating: on the one hand, to develop a collaborative approach to creating with my friends and on the other hand, to collaborate with clients and art collectors in commissioned work. Basically, anything that I do collaboratively takes place in the context of the studio and is presented under Phenomena Labs as a brand and identity. Ori and I frequently work with other artists, designers, and architects to create immersive installations and generative art. This work is generally addressed at public spaces and large audiences.

Phenomena Labs. Moments in Time, 2023. Jönköping (Sweden)

Moments in Time is a fascinating project from Phenomena Labs that connects an architectural space with its environment through real time data animations, in which we see several recurring elements in your work. Can you tell us more about this project and the possibilities of creating art with real time environmental data?

This is a unique project we’ve worked on throughout 2023. The objective was to create a mirror for the vibrant community that is about to inhabit a building in Jönköping (Sweden). We were approached by our client and the architects and we thought about a piece that is alive, and is inspiring the startup community allocated in that building. On a large screen in the lobby, the artwork displays a series of chapters, different compositions that use data in real time. We chose to use a few different metrics and data points for different visual chapters of the piece. Each data point refers to an aspect of the building and its surroundings, as well as the people inside, in order to visualize how the environment and the human activity in the building can change and evolve over time. We used motion sensing to create visual trails from the movement of people in the lobby, and turned it into a paint brush effect where people apply brush strokes on a digital canvas by walking through the lobby, thus creating a visual composition in real time. Then we used weather information to apply wind turbulence on a set of particles displayed on the screen. And we also introduced real time energy data from the building to create a virtual waterfall that becomes a sort of data visualization of all the energy that is being consumed in the building every day. It was really interesting to see that, for instance, the waterfall flows faster and has a higher volume of water when there’s people in the building, and when they go home, it settles and slows down.

Phenomena Labs. Still from a chapter of Moments in Time, 2023. Jönköping (Sweden)

You state that your work is about trying to connect humans and machines, and reflecting on our dependence on technology. Recently, the launch of Apple’s Vision Pro was greeted by enthusiastic customers who gave the world a glimpse of what is to come: more dependency on our devices, that increasingly shape how we perceive reality. As an artist and professional creator of fantastic digital realities, how do you see this relationship evolving in the future?

The launch of products like Apple’s Vision Pro remind me that in our relationship with technology, there is a constant tension between what we are familiar with and what level of innovation we are ready to adopt. This tension oscillates in cycles, so that when something pushes too much into the unknown or becomes uncertain, such as this possibility of really isolating oneself from the world, then there is a backlash. At this point, people long to go back to a simpler relationship with the environment, and instead of adding more layers of digital content to their surroundings, reconnect with nature, or at least with a calming and comforting view of nature. Finding a balance between the two and making the digital environment more familiar is a challenge that may take more than a generation. 

“For me, the question is how to embrace the better aspects of digital technologies without letting them alienate us from the real world or shape our perception of the environment.”

For me, the question is how to embrace the better aspects of digital technologies without letting them –or those who market them– alienate us from the real world or shape our perception of the environment. In this sense, I intend to explore real time data in my work to let people understand and appreciate the world around them, and at the same time visualize the systems and networks that provide that data. It is important to understand that we live surrounded by systems (natural, legal, informational) that we have to think in terms of the environment and our interactions with others and with these systems. Often disruptive technologies are created thinking only in short-term solutions and specific goals that do not consider the world they will have an impact on. But there will always be a reaction from the world, society, systems, etc. Within this constant tension, and back-and-forth reactions in where gradual change, maybe progress, happens. 

Kian Khiaban: building a space of peace and clarity

Pau Waelder

3D motion designer and visual artist Kian Khiaban has had an outstanding trajectory since he graduated from UCLA in 2015. Working early on with fellow artist Refik Anadol, he has closely collaborated with him in some of his studio’s most spectacular projects and is now part of the team at the world famous Sphere, a groundbreaking spherical screen with 580,000 sq feet of LEDs. Khiaban’s artistic work focuses on nature and abstraction, conceiving art as a way of addressing human emotions and engaging in healing processes.

The artist has recently presented a solo artcast featuring five artworks in which he creates fantastical landscapes that depict different emotions. In the following interview, he dives into what these imaginary spaces mean to him, as well as his creative process and his views on the current state of digital art. 

Dive into Kian Khiaban’s Emotional Landscapes

Kian Khiaban. Floater, 2021.

How did you get started in 3D animation? What interested you about this particular aspect of digital creativity?

I started doing 3D when I was thirteen. I got introduced to it through anime forums, actually. In the anime forums, every user would have their own design, which they called a signature, and they would teach people how to make their own signature. So through this I got introduced to Photoshop and 3D, and then when I went to university, I already had a whole portfolio of still images. They weren’t animations, they were just art. There I started to learn how to move the things that I had made. At UCLA I met Refik [Anadol], who was a grad student. He was using Cinema 4D, a professional 3D modeling, animation, simulation and rendering software. It was a good match between us, because we were both heavy C4D users, and then at some point Refik had an exhibition and I offered to help him, so we started collaborating and I worked my way up into his company and was part of its early establishment. This was around 2015, when I graduated.

“The way we worked [with Refik Anadol] is that he gave me a lot of freedom, maybe throwing an initial idea, and then I would go crazy with it.

You have created numerous animations for the studio of Refik Anadol. Can you tell us about your creative process within this context? What have you contributed and what have you learned from this collaborative practice?

Working with Refik mainly consists in that he would come to me with an idea, especially a visual idea and would say: “this would be really great if you can make something like this.” I was very good at iterating, so I considered myself, especially at that time, a remixer. I created a lot of the visuals of the projects we were doing at his studio. For instance, we had a project called Infinity Room. Refik said he had the idea of a room with mirrors on the top and bottom. So I experimented a lot, I did the sound design for it, made some animations, and gave it a particular character. Then Refik added some visuals onto it. In some projects he would take the lead, while in others I did for particular things. But the main characteristic of the way we worked is that he gave me a lot of freedom, maybe throwing an initial idea of what he was looking for, and then I would go crazy with it. Sometimes the project would develop in a totally different direction, but always with this ongoing conversation between us.

Kian Khiaban. An Open Heart, 2021.

On the other hand, I have also learned a lot from my commercial work, where I am given a style frame and I work on that, building an entire animation, and remixing it. I’ve gained a lot of technical knowledge and benefited from working with a team, which is something I love because it brings me multiple perspectives that widen mine. I would say that I’ve been lucky because in these jobs the clients have trusted me and given me a lot of freedom, and even allowed me to have some of my personal themes in my work. What I learn in my commercial work I later on apply it to my personal work. Working on one of these projects for eight hours every day, you get to experiment so much, and so I often develop things that seem perfect for one of my pieces, and then of course my personal work also inspires what I do for different clients.

“I love working with a team because it brings me multiple perspectives that widen mine.”

Currently I work at the Sphere in Las Vegas, in R&D and building the animations, and this is a very challenging type of shape because it is seamless. And you know, 3d animators don’t design in a seamless way. In addition, the form has to be a spherical camera, so there are a lot of little things you have to adjust for. But to be honest, I’m good at coming up with a lot of ideas, and then making things a bit prettier with each iteration. That’s what I do.

3D motion design by Kian Khiaban at the Sphere, Las Vegas, 2023.

The animations you have created have been displayed in very large installations and on the facades of famous buildings. How do you work on them when considering such a large scale, and an interaction with architecture?

The process starts by making a 3D model or a miniature of the building, because you need to be able to feel what you’re doing. If we don’t have the possibility of building a miniature version of what we’re doing, we do a VR version, building the space in 3D and then applying the projection. That gives you a starting place to experiment. But besides that I like to first consider where the building is located, in what city, what kind of environment is there around the building, what form does the building represent, and so forth. Then I try to build on top of that, but it depends on the project.

For instance, in WDCH Dreams, at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in LA, there was the almost impossible task of mapping the shapes of Frank Gehry’s building, for which they had had developers working for years. We used 42 large scale projectors that were able to display 50K resolution images. We used the entire facade as a screen, applying the visuals I created to a 3D model in order to adapt to the undulating shapes.

Kian Khiaban. Long Walk, 2023.

Your personal work is often characterized by an interest in nature (real or imagined) and mesmerizing visual effects in which light has a critical role. What attracted you to creating these fantastic worlds and the lively activity that takes place in them?

I’ve always liked hiking a lot. When I was a kid, there was this one place I went to that brought a lot of peace in my mind. When you go into a natural setting by yourself, it becomes a way of finding yourself because you’re getting this new clarity and simplification. You can actually hear your own thoughts, and to me that is very relaxing. So I like nature because it has that healing quality of bringing clarity, lowering the volume and allowing a space for reflection.

As for the dream-like quality of my work, I believe it is related to who I am. I was a big daydreamer as a kid. I would play out scenarios a lot in my head, and I also spent many hours, year after year, in front of the computer. Playing video games and searching the Internet took me to a distant place, away from daily reality, and I think what I do now is a more sophisticated version of that. I’m building this space for myself to bring me peace and clarity, the same way when there was chaos around me, I could go to a video game and be taken into that fictional world.

“I like nature because it has that healing quality of bringing clarity, lowering the volume and allowing a space for reflection.”

In the artworks we now present on Niio, a common denominator is the depiction of emotions through digital landscapes. What do you find interesting about representing emotions in this way?

Maybe I should talk about why I always have a light in the center of each artwork. I don’t want to impose my intentions on the viewer’s interpretation of the artwork, but I think it is worth explaining this. The light represents the hope of getting out of a hard situation, the objective you try to follow to achieve that, and that makes you very focused. I feel that what has helped me survive in my chaotic environment all these years is being really focused. The light obviously has other meanings, it can be the sun, that so many civilizations have praised as a God, or the light that people having near death experience say they have seen in a pleasant field, and that has brought them the most peaceful feeling they’ve ever felt in their life. So what I mean is that these artworks are for me a way to express something personal, even intimate, in a more abstract form. For instance, one of my latest pieces is called Adrift at Sea, and it refers to the feeling of having to choose among different values and not being sure what to pick, which made me feel a bit lost.

Kian Khiaban. Wisdom, 2020.

Despite this personal connection with a human experience, there is generally a lack of human figures in these landscapes, why is that?

I want it to feel lonely. It’s that feeling I get when I go into nature, there’s no one around me. But it is not about loneliness: I can think of having people there, but it would change the whole dynamic of the piece. It can become about them, and I am not interested in representing people in these landscapes, which would take you into figuring out what they are doing, but rather to express a feeling that you can only experience looking at this landscape where there is no one else but you.

“These artworks are for me a way to express something personal, even intimate, in a more abstract form.”

From your perspective as an artist involved in acclaimed large scale projects, what is your opinion about the current perception of digital art? Do you think it has finally become a widely accepted form of contemporary art?

Generally speaking, it is much more respected than before, partly because of the NFT boom. However, NFTs also brought negative associations, with purely financial speculation and lack of quality. On the other hand, 3D animation is now much more popular because it is widely used in advertising. Another thing I find that is more present in digital art is this blending of fine art and commercial creativity, which is pretty much connected to what Andy Warhol did, or now Takashi Murakami and Jeff Koons, for instance. For someone like me, who works with commercial projects as well as my own artistic practice, this is quite interesting, and to be invited to a fine art exhibition as a digital artist is something that the 13-year computer gamer in me finds really amazing. Digital art is definitely becoming art. It should have happened 20 years ago, but it’s okay.

“I think Niio is great. I feel that you have a deep appreciation and understanding of art.”

How do you see a platform like Niio contributing to this popularization of digital art?

I think Niio is great. I’d say that’s why we connected so well early on, because I felt like you had a deep appreciation and understanding of art. And if you’re guiding this platform, you’re gonna take it in the right direction. The way the artwork descriptions are written, the way everything is laid out, is the way a gallery would lay it out. I also value that the artist’s opinion, or vision is involved in the process. I’ve been approached by other platforms, but I didn’t say yes to a lot of things because I felt like they were mainly a business. Too much of a pure business approach to art. And I think that what you all are doing at Niio is really what the artists are trying to do.

Kian Khiaban. Lone Night, 2021.

Stan Adard: finding an inner anchor through digital art

NIIO Editorial

Stan Adard, a graduate in social psychology and an educator, has long recognized the significance of breath in stress reduction. This insight, combined with years of meditation experience, has been a guiding force in Adard’s career, spanning over three decades as the owner and CEO of various IT companies. Adard’s passion lies at the intersection of humanity and technology, a fascination tracing back to the early days of computer innovation. Committed to exploring the use of art as a mindfulness tool, Adard employs a unique 4-dimensional digital brush, where time represents the fourth dimension, infusing his pictures and experimental art films with a palpable sense of breath and flow.

Practice conscious breathing with Stan Adard’s Breathing Pictures.

Stan Adard. The Breathing Pictures: Sky Dance, 2017

As a professional of the software industry and social psychologist, what is your opinion on the way digital media influence our mental health?

To form an opinion, I need data and details. Digital media is an extremely broad term, and I don’t want to join those who mainly lament the dark side of new media. From the YouTube help videos created by hundreds of creators with loving intent to news and social media networks where digital content often creates a breathless atmosphere. In addition to these, just as examples of the many layers in the digital media landscape, there’s the entire digital advertising world that inundates us from practically every device. Or digital art, which can either unsettle, bore, or inspire us.

We experience daily the challenges of not simply being swept away by this flood of possibilities. Where do we direct our attention? It’s our decision which aspects of digital media empower us and which weaken us. This process of realization is not always easy, as we often don’t immediately sense whether something is beneficial or weakens us in the long run. The world is becoming more complex and is already overwhelming us in many aspects. That’s why it’s important to find an inner path, an inner anchor. Conscious breathing is a crucial key to this. And if I can do this in the form of digital breath images, it helps in using digital media productively.

“A single image cannot lead a viewer to Nirvana. But it reminds us that it’s time to consider what conscious breathing can achieve at its core.”

You have stated that fear and anxiety are often consciously used to manipulate people. Could your work be seen, thus, as being not only about mindfulness but also social change?

You’ve caught me there. I see how our world is trapped in a system based on fear. As a system architect for over three decades, I have an eye for systems. And the overall system that towers over the national and alliance subsystems of the entire world serves only one purpose: to channel the profits from this planet’s resources and the labor of every inhabitant upwards. Into the hands of a few. This happens with a ruthlessness that sends shivers down my spine. The hunger in the world, the senseless wars, the acts of terror in the name of some selfinvented, vengeful god. The fuel is fear. In my view, fear is the opposite of love. Hatred stems from fear. What I can do in my smallness against this machinery is to bring to light that conscious breathing helps us so that our thoughts, and therefore our fears, can no longer control us. It’s an illusion to think that we can control our thoughts. But we can learn not to be controlled by our thoughts anymore. The breathing images, in their simplicity, are a subversive and loving element against a system that needs to be fundamentally renewed. Of course, a single image cannot lead a viewer to Nirvana. But it daily reminds us that it’s time to consider what conscious breathing can achieve at its core.

Stan Adard. The Breathing Pictures: Breathing Luxury, 2017

Let’s talk about the artworks we are now showcasing on Niio. Can you elaborate on the differences between the breathing pictures and the flowing pictures?

Most of my breathing pictures come to life during a process where I create my next breathing film. My digital experimental films must flow and breathe. Sometimes, an endlessly flowing motion arises from the film’s context, into which I then, at times, insert a breathing structure or infuse the structure itself with a breathing motion. ‘Eternal Blue’ is such an example. The viewer needs to take a moment to tune into the image until they discover the breathing motion.

In terms of their appearance, these artworks are often characterized by the presence of shiny, reflective objects and neon colors. Is this a personal aesthetic decision or does it respond to meditation purposes?

The ‘neon colors’ are generated by a graphics card in my server. In 2019, I was invited to create a breathing picture for an eSports gaming event in Asia (over Niio). To visually capture the attention of the mostly young participants, I used colors they are well acquainted with from their gaming servers.

Using the same colors, I then created a small series of pictures. However, in general, I choose colors based on aesthetic aspects. Colors have to appeal to me so that I can spend a month working with them, which is the average time it takes to create a new image. As an educated social psychologist, I am well aware of colors and their perception, but I rely on my intuition and often chance to choose the colors.

“Each ‘breathing picture’ exists only once as an original, marked with the appropriate signature, and is registered in the blockchain as proof of existence.”

Your signature is present in the lower right corner of each artwork. Does this mean that you conceive them as a painting? Is it to reinforce their perception as a work of art?

Exactly! A decade ago, my goal was to bridge the gap between classical paintings and digital art. In this vision, digital works would reveal their true, breathing form only when the viewer stands calmly in front of the artwork, allowing them to perceive the subtle breathing movements.

Right from the beginning, the signature, along with the year and edition, was a crucial means in the digital realm of art to precisely locate a work. Each ‘breathing picture’ exists only once as an original, marked with the appropriate signature, and is registered in the blockchain as proof of existence. The same applies to unique NFTs. For streaming platforms, exhibitions, and fairs, I always use an Artist Copy to ensure the integrity of the original work.

Stan Adard. The Breathing Pictures: Clematis Torus, 2018

Usually, a sphere is the element that guides the meditation. Does it have a different purpose according to its movement in the composition? Would you say that certain movements are easier to carry out a guided breathing exercise?

A sphere is a perfect geometric form. Inhaling enlarges the sphere and makes it rise, just like our chest does. Exhaling lowers the focal object and makes it smaller again.

Over the years, I’ve realized that in public spaces, the breathing movement must be clearly visible. People are often in a rush, and if we want to motivate them for a single conscious breath, it needs to be evident that something is breathing. The representation of breath can take many forms, and for each image, I explore the possibilities for it to fulfill its purpose in either a calm setting (gallery, living space) or a more hectic place (art fairs, exhibitions, Times Square).

“People are often in a rush, and if we want to motivate them for a single conscious breath, it needs to be evident that something is breathing.”

Tell me about the use of the torus as a recurring shape in your compositions. What do you find most interesting and/or effective in terms of guiding the viewer’s attention in this shape?

A torus symbolizes infinity for me. I also enjoy twisting a torus, forming a lemniscate, or adding gentle extensions to it. The eye can then glide along the structures of this ever-circular body, capturing the details. Ultimately, we reach a point where we perceive the structure as a whole and then also see that it breathes.

You have mentioned influences from Buddhist art and architecture such as the Wat Rong Seur Ten (blue temple) in Chiang Rai. Which other sites or works of art have inspired your work?

I’ve been practicing Buddhist meditation for decades, so visiting various temples on a tour through Thailand was a natural choice. A photo of the Blue Buddha, with blue being a color I often use in my works, stayed with me after my return to Europe. This inspiration led me to create three works in total: ‘Blue Buddha’ as a breathing image, ‘Blue Buddha Meditation’ with a soundscape by my longtime musician friend Mihaly Horvath, and a Virtual Reality version of ‘Blue Buddha Meditation.’

The breathing experimental short film ‘Time(s) to Breathe’ was inspired by Times Square in NYC, but these are exceptions. My primary source of inspiration is nature itself.

Stan Adard. The Breathing Pictures: Ethernal Blue, 2019

There are subtle references to nature in many of your artworks, can you tell us about this connection to the natural environment?

We discussed systems earlier. Nature, where humans are a part of, is the most complex and wonderful system we know. Its forms, colors, creativity, everchanging behavior, inter-connectivity, forces, and inner structures are all miracles rooted in the quantum fields that fill our universe. Sometimes, it leaves me breathless when I attempt to comprehend even a tiny fraction of it. At such moments, it’s time to create a new breathing picture, do some garden work, or to make concepts about the next experimental art film.

Some of your works display a mesmerizing, cyclical movement, while others reveal very subtle, almost imperceptible changes. How do you decide on the type of movement that each artwork will display?

Well, that depends on the environment in which I see the artwork being used. Initially, I primarily created breathing pictures with a slow and almost imperceptible breathing motion. The idea behind it was that only those who are calm would take the time to observe the image and perceive the breathing movement. These images only breathe 3-4 times per minute, while in everyday life, we may breathe 10-12 times per minute. The movement should not distract and should resemble a painting.

For art fairs, exhibitions, and ultimately the presence of the breathing pictures in very vibrant settings, I made the breathing movement more apparent. Spheres expanding and moving are easier and quicker to read. Moreover, based on many observations, I’ve found it more helpful to draw people’s attention to their breathing patterns when the initial breath rate is higher, perhaps around eight to ten breaths per minute, gradually slowing down over time. Such setups resemble therefore more to a meditative session.

“I’ve found it more helpful to draw people’s attention to their breathing patterns when the initial breath rate is higher, gradually slowing down over time.”

You were a musician at the progressive rock band Nautilus, yet music does not seem to play a central role in these artworks (although there is a sense of rhythm). Why is that?

Music still plays a significant role in my works, albeit not in The Breathing Pictures. Perhaps this perception arises from platforms like Niio, where I primarily showcase breathing pictures that are meant to fill the large black voids, often referred to as inactive screens, with art. However, I also create experimental breathing short films. ‘Time(s) to Breathe’ and the VR short film ‘Breathing Through’ feature carefully crafted soundscapes composed and realized by my musician friend, Mihaly Horvath.

Furthermore, we (astradream) collaborate in workshops and exhibitions with various sequences of The Breathing Pictures, accompanied by a carefully drafted soundscape, creating what we call a ‘Breathing Space.’

You have created a series of artworks in collaboration with several artists, such as Magno Laracuente, Zmakey, and Maura Patrizia Zoller. How have these collaborations developed? Which is your approach to incorporating their paintings into your digital animations?

I love working with people and in teams. All the artists I mentioned earlier, including the recent addition of Margarita Somnolet, have come into my life through art exhibitions. There must be something in the structure or movement of a painting that challenges me to find an additional layer that gives rise to a breathing motion. Sometimes, I carry a painting in a corner of my brain for a year, searching for the right approach that does justice to the image. My artist friends see it as an opportunity to expand their viewership.

For me, it’s the connection with various artists, their perspectives on the world, and the diverse life circumstances they come from that contribute to my creativity. These connections have also resulted in some wonderful friendships.

Stan Adard. The Breathing Pictures: Ethernal Blue, 2019

You have experimented with VR, how would you compare this immersive medium with your digital paintings in terms of the conception of the artwork and the viewer’s experience?

A classic painting is like a view from a window. Everything that doesn’t fit within the window frame is omitted and remains unseen. Creating a film or artwork in a virtual environment is the construction of an entire world. In this realm, you can’t hide a camera; what’s behind or beneath you is as significant as what’s in front of or above you. Crafting a virtual concept requires strategic thinking in concentric layers, perhaps similar to building an onion. A virtual space structurally resembles a sphere, which we perceive from the inside. This sphere must be developed in all directions.

We’ve also experimented with immersive audio, and the two VR works available today, ‘Breathing Through’ and ‘Blue Buddha Meditation VR,’ are quite impressive. I look forward to Niio delivering VR content to its subscribers in the future. In a virtual environment, the viewer can immerse themselves in the artwork; art can’t get much more comprehensive than that.

I think that I’m a fan of this art form?

“In the near future, we will certainly see more 16K (for both eyes), larger devices, more VR entertainment, and new ideas in the realm of digital art.”

You have had a long relationship with media during your life, from your first Super8 camera and a Hammond electronic organ to the current 3D animation and VR software. From that perspective, how do you expect digital media to evolve in the near future? Will it continue to bring constant, groundbreaking innovation, will it stagnate…?

Wow, that’s a vast field for predictions. The developments in the realm of artificial intelligence are currently pushing the boundaries of our comprehension. So, let’s focus on films and art for now. From my perspective, humans are inherently curious beings, and they age best when they remain open and curious. This nature won’t let humanity rest until it improves its film techniques, which naturally include the depiction of virtual realities, to the point where there are no discernible differences between the real world and the depicted world. Only when we can’t distinguish resolution, ambient sounds, music, and eventually even scent from reality while watching a movie or using our VR goggles, will this development, which has entered an exponential phase, come to a halt. So, it’s only when we can’t tell whether the actors in a film are real people or animated characters that the developers of these technologies can finally sit back. In the near future, we will certainly see more 16K (for both eyes), larger devices, more VR entertainment, and new ideas in the realm of digital art. The race for the world’s largest display recently gained momentum with the Sphere in Las Vegas.

As public advertising spaces are increasingly rejected by many communities, it will become more crucial to produce meaningful content for these spaces. I look forward to being a small part of shaping this landscape.

Laura Colmenares Guerra: fractured landscapes

Pau Waelder

Laura Colmenares Guerra. Fracking Island #3, 2023

Over the last two decades, Brussels-based Colombian artist Laura Colmenares Guerra has carried out a consistent body of work in the form of interactive audiovisual installations and live performances. Her work is characterized by a research-based practice that requires long processes and interdisciplinary collaborations, focusing on the difficult relationship between our industrialized societies and the living ecosystems we are a part of. Since 2018, Laura is engaged in a series of artworks exploring the environmental impact of neo-liberal extractivist practices in the Amazon basin. 

Niio is proud to present a series of videos from this recent work, that illustrate her conceptual and aesthetic approach to this subject. In this exclusive interview, the artist elaborates on the production of the Rios Trilogy and the key elements of her artistic practice.

Explore Lagunas by Laura Colmenares Guerra, a narrative around the environmental consequences of hydraulic fracturing.

In your work, one finds a growing interest in the concept of landscape, from a more general or abstract perspective, to the specific region of the Amazon basin. Can you elaborate on your interest in landscape as a concept? Has the change of landscape from Bogotá to Brussels contributed to your ongoing reflection?

The concept of landscape holds a pivotal position in both my research and artistic practice. My master’s thesis was dedicated to the exploration of landscapes within video games, and ever since, the notion of landscape as a means of structuring our perception of the world has remained a constant presence.

“Western societies’ relationship with nature is characterized by distance and objectification.”

The concept of “landscape” finds its origins in the Dutch term “landschap.” The etymology of the word “landscape” can be traced back to the 16th century when it was used to describe paintings depicting rural scenery, defined as a “painting representing an extensive view of natural scenery”. This meaning occurs at a time when distance observation from a fixed and dominant position is the symbolic form by which reality (perspective) is measured. Perspective allowed the modern individual to become a contemplative observer, establishing a distinct separation between the subject and the object observed from a distance. This conscious acknowledgement of distance transformed the relationship with the environment into a reflective and contemplative one. It implies the need for a conceptual apparatus, category diagrams, and concepts that make this experience possible. This dual perspective, characterized by both distance and objectification, fundamentally shapes Western societies’ relationship with nature.

Laura Colmenares Guerra. Fracking Island #4, 2023

A certain tension or equilibrium between control and spontaneity can be found in your work, for instance in the use of cartography, data analysis, and 3D scans as a form of capturing the landscape, as opposed to introducing audience participation or creating live performances where there is more room for the unscripted. How do you feel about the notion of control, particularly in relation to our environment and the natural systems around us?

My work involves a range of processes, transitioning from analysis, tools and methodologies from other disciplines to more speculative and experimental procedures. I enjoy being in control as much as I enjoy surrendering it. As a result, my creations often exhibit multiple layers, occasionally presenting significant contradictions.

“My goal is to provoke questions rather than provide answers”

For example, in Chapter N.2 of the Ríos Trilogy, I fragment the territory of the Amazon Basin with hydrological parameters. Yet, I know that the fragmentation of ecosystems is one of the key problems when preserving the connectivity between biomes. I prefer to maintain a sense of ambiguity, allowing the viewer to approach my work from various perspectives. My goal is to provoke questions rather than provide answers. Likewise, when I grant control to the audience, I willingly surrender it myself. This aspect of my creative process is deeply intriguing to me.

Laura Colmenares Guerra. Ríos Trilogy. Installation.

You carry out your artistic projects through long term processes of creation and transdisciplinary collaborations. Can you briefly walk us through the main phases in one of your projects, the time frame, and comment on how these collaborations arise and develop?

I enjoy writing, even though it can be extremely painful; it’s essential to my work. I’ve never published, but I have a collection of texts that I write through the creation process of each piece. I keep track of all the versions as a way to keep track of the ideas and strategies that lead me to give a specific form to the work. Most of the time, I start from a basic or simple concept. In the case of the Rios Trilogy, it all started from the #AmazonFires. The day I started researching this hashtag, I would have never imagined that I would be engaged with this research for five years (and counting). Now finished, the Ríos Trilogy seems like a solid three-chapter project, but when I started, I was not sure what would be the final output. 

“Experimenting implies pushing the limits of media or techniques, so I always have to make sure I work with experts who feel comfortable engaging in experimental methodologies.”

Once I feel a concept is solid enough, I decide to give direction to it and see how to make it evolve into an artwork. Often, the next phase implies finding experts in the field to start grounding the ideas into possible outcomes. That process includes budgeting and finding subsidies to pay the people involved in the project, to pay myself and to find the money to realize the ideas. I define objectives, yet I generate a framework in which the process can permeate the outcome. Collaborating with people from different fields is extremely interesting. The process always includes experimentation; often, many failures happen before the final pieces come to life. For both the experts I collaborate with and for myself, experimenting implies pushing the limits of media or techniques, so I always have to make sure I work with experts who feel comfortable engaging in experimental methodologies.

Laura Colmenares Guerra directing the shooting of the underwater video sequence in Lagunas.

I often spend more time than I’d like dealing with administrative and production tasks, which can be frustrating. I sometimes have to hire people to do part of the work, but I also give myself enough time to do aspects of the work that I don’t want to delegate. For example, the porcelain 3D printed sculptures of Chapter N.2 of the Ríos Trilogy. I took pottery lessons for over a year while, in parallel, experimenting with the 3D printer in my studio. It took me around two years to achieve the results I had in mind. Many failures and doubts often accompany the process. Still, it is extremely satisfactory when you start having good results, and suddenly, you look back and see how much skills and knowledge you’ve learned in the process.

Laura Colmenares Guerra. Fracking Island #5, 2023

You also work as a VJ and have collaborated in numerous live audiovisual performances. How does your experience in this field inform your installations and videos in terms of the process, dynamics, and aesthetics? What is the role of sound and music in your work?

Sound and music have consistently held a central position in my works, although it’s only recently that I fully embraced this passion. Throughout my journey, I’ve collaborated with musicians, composers, and record labels, yet I never quite ventured into creating music myself. However, in 2023, I decided to delve into this realm independently. Techno music has been a steadfast companion throughout my life. It was my gateway into VJing in the past. This year, I made the leap into DJing and have been sharing this passion with my son, as we’ve spent the last few months mixing together. We’re preparing for a duo project set to be released in 2024. Simultaneously, I’ve been quietly immersing myself in the study of electronic music production; I might share some of my own compositions with the public in the coming months.

Laura Colmenares Guerra. Variations of Dissaray, 2016

Your work involves both installation and video as well as sculpture and VR environments. What drives you to choose one format/technique over another for each project? In the Ríos Trilogy, for instance, we find data visualization and analysis as well as 3D printed sculptures and a VR environment; how do they complement each other?

I consider myself an idea-based artist rather than a medium-based artist. That means that even though installation is a constant in my work, the components included in the installation work are subject to change from one piece to another. My main creation tool is 3D, but 3D can be used in many ways, from printing to VR, animation, still images, augmented reality, etc. I like combining techniques and tend to incorporate material and non-material elements. Each media has its language. I explore paths to generate dialogues between different media.

“I consider myself an idea-based artist rather than a medium-based artist. My main creation tool is 3D, but 3D can be used in many ways, from printing to VR, animation, still images, augmented reality, etc.”

Laura Colmenares Guerra. Fracking Island #1, 2023

As a Colombian, I imagine that you feel a closer connection to the exploitation of natural resources in the Amazon basin in neighboring Brazil. How do you see the societies in the Northern Hemisphere, and particularly European societies, react to this issue? Do they see it as a remote problem? Does your work aim to bridge this gap of awareness? 

The glaring disparity between the Northern and Southern hemispheres evokes strong emotions in me. I am profoundly critical and sensitive when it comes to this issue. Growing up in Colombia, a country tormented by civil war and influenced by the United States in its perpetuation, I realized at a young age that in the realm of geopolitics, the wealth of some often rests upon the suffering of others. I adopt a critical perspective towards European politics, despite the veneer of democracy; beneath the surface lies the pervasive corruption of democratic processes, fueled by ruthless corporate lobbying. What Indian activist Vandana Shiva aptly identifies as ‘the corporate control of life’ is responsible for the spread of neoliberal globalization, international trade policies, unchecked environmental exploitation, the privatization of natural resources, and the patenting of biological material. I undoubtedly address these problems through my work. 

“Despite the veneer of democracy in European politics, beneath the surface lies the pervasive corruption of democratic processes, fueled by ruthless corporate lobbying.”

Lagunas addresses the issue of fracking within the different extractive practices that currently poison the natural environment. Within the context of your ongoing exploration of the landscape, why did you choose fracking as a subject? Why did you choose the Chingaza Natural National Park in Colombia as a source of some of the images in this project?

Burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) represents the primary driver of global climate change, responsible for more than 75% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions and nearly 90% of carbon dioxide emissions.

As we approach the shortage of conventionally accessible fossil fuel reserves, hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, has gained greater prevalence. Fracking entails fracturing reservoir rocks by injecting toxic fluids at high pressure and keeping the split (the fracture) open by placing sand or similar in it. This process carries significant environmental repercussions; one of them is the contamination of the water sources in the subsoil of the Earth. In addition to the already evident pollution of the atmosphere, we must weigh the duration of fossil fuel extraction and our readiness to confront the consequences of polluting underground water sources on Earth.

“We must weigh the duration of fossil fuel extraction and our readiness to confront the consequences of polluting underground water sources on Earth.”

Lagunas delves into themes of water contamination, water scarcity, death, and memory. These concepts interweave within an interactive scenario featuring computer-generated imagery (CGI) combined with onsite images captured at Chingaza Natural National Park in Colombia, as well as underwater footage. Through these landscapes, I aimed to create an atmosphere that evokes both prehistoric and futuristic elements.

I selected Chingaza Natural National Park as the backdrop for this project due to the unique characteristics of its ecosystem, known as ‘Páramo’ in Spanish (for which there is no precise English translation). ‘Páramos’ are ‘Neotropical’ high mountain biomes in South America. They are primarily characterized by the presence of giant rosette plants, shrubs, and grasses. These giant rosette plants play a crucial role in capturing atmospheric water, which then travels through the soil, accumulates, and nourishes underground water systems. ‘Páramos’ ecosystems hold immense significance, notably in the formation of the rivers that comprise the intricate water network of the Amazon Basin.

Laura Colmenares Guerra. Fracking Island #6, 2016

You state that the interaction between the audience and the installation aims to create a direct implication of the viewer in the processes that are described in this piece. Can you explain the type of interaction you chose and how it creates this implication?

When I incorporate interactive elements into an installation, I seek out devices or objects that I can modify/hack to serve as interfaces for the audience. These interactive devices are chosen based on the potential of mediating the experience for the visitors. Such is the case of Lagunas, in which I created an interactive interface by hacking water industrial valves with optical sensors. The spectators interact with these valves, which recall the gesture of opening the water tab, as well as that of operating a steering wheel.

Laura Colmenares Guerra. Still from Ecdysis, 2023

You filmed the landscapes of Lagunas in Chingaza and have also participated in an art program at the Brazilian Amazon, from which emerged Ecdysis and the Ríos Trilogy. How was your experience of working on site and the collaborations that emerged for these projects?

I enjoy working onsite. Immersing myself in the very landscapes I’ve researched from behind a computer screen enriches my perspective significantly. What I find most rewarding, though, are the human connections forged during these journeys.

“In the upcoming month, I will embark on a new project centered around the chanting traditions of the Amazon People.”

In the upcoming month, I have an exciting journey planned to the Amazon, where I will embark on a new project centered around the chanting traditions of the Amazon People. Collaborating closely with the indigenous communities, we will explore sound and experiment with various methods of visualizing sound frequencies. It’s the first time I’ll work directly with communities, and I look forward to having a direct dialogue with the guardians of such an amazing and important territory.

Digital art, time, painting, sculpture and consciousness

Thomas Lisle

Thomas Lisle. Changing Values, 2023.

Our guest author, Thomas Lisle, is an artist with more than 30 years of experience in digital media who is exploring how painting transitions into a time based medium.

The art world seems to be in a moment of change; suddenly, digital is relevant to more people, and most of us have a computer and a smartphone. To many contemporary artists, digital technology is opening up new possibilities with new issues to circumnavigate. As an artist who has embraced electronic and digital art since 1981, I think it’s important to write a more in-depth analysis of the medium and its relationship to art and my art. My aim is to give those who do not have 40-odd years of experience a deeper insight into the technology, ideas, and practice of digital art from the perspective of my artistic output. 

I started making glitch video art in 1981 as a process to make abstract painterly images, and I worked in this medium almost exclusively for 6 or 7 years. I’ve had lots of time to think about it. I eventually came to the conclusion that it’s really not enough; it’s like outsourcing the creative aspect, the making of the abstraction to some random process. Sometimes it makes great results, but there’s no control, that’s inherent in glitch art. I described glitch art then as a deconstruction. A glitch is a technical malfunction; it’s impersonal. Glitch seems to me a visual deconstruction that is a dead end in terms of artist development and impersonal. This makes glitch art ‘classical post-modernist,’ an art thinking and practice of the last century.

From 1982 to the mid 1990s Thomas Lisle experimented with Glitch TV images
which formed the basis for a series of installations and videos.

A glitch is a one-off phenomenon that can look visually interesting; it’s not a way of making art that can be consciously built upon and developed; it’s an accident; it’s not consciously designed. Without control, it’s like throwing a bucket of paint over your shoulder –occasionally, something new and interesting might appear that you had never thought of. But the process of thinking about it and the journey of discovery, with tools you can control, is far more rewarding, stimulating, and produces results that can be built upon and explored. A metamodern approach, that comes from the artist, is needed. Generative and AI art, to me, are also classically post-modern, an art form initially developed in the 60s and 70s, impersonal in that it’s an algorithm rather than a human that makes the art.

Generative and AI art, to me, are impersonal in that it’s an algorithm rather than a human that makes the art.

As an artist, I’m interested in abstraction, visual languages, colour theory, hand-to-eye relationships, and composition, as well as psychology and human consciousness. Visual abstraction, both figurative and non-figurative, is the primary means of communication and expression. Figurative abstraction, above all, seems to me to be the most human mode of expression. Non-figurative abstraction, when the  time-based medium allows abstract forms to take on a narrative, is not just a paint stroke/geometric shape; it is a paint stroke/geometric shape that’s saying something through its movement or time-based transformation. It represents so much more when consciously manipulated in time.

If you imagine Van Gogh, who famously painted a painting a day, making 1 minute of animation, which is 1,500 paintings (frames), it would take him about four years. I’m sure he would have gotten bored after a few days, as most people would. It’s this same time constraint of painting which drove my early glitch work. Then six years later, my artistic experimentation crossed paths with feature film effects software, which has developed and continues to develop sophisticated 3D systems to represent everything from humans to lava monsters. 

If you were to ask me what digital medium offered artists the widest scope to produce any form, any liquid, any painting, anything in fact i.e ‘time based meta-plasticity,’ the art of the future. I would say without a moment of doubt it’s the software that has been developed to produce these box office hit movies. Software like Maya and Houdini. The main reasons that artists don’t use this software are that it’s difficult and time-consuming to learn and that it requires moderately expensive software and computers. 

This workflow of making animation time efficient is called procedural. 3D software literally means that it makes everything in 3 dimensions; in films, you see it as a 2D output; in games, you see a 2D output that, if you are wearing goggles, it all comes out 2D but different to each eye making you think it has depth. In the digital world this means that everything you compute in 3D has a volume, it is basically sculptural in nature, rather than flat like a print, except, of course, paint in most cases has a thickness and layers. If the digital artwork you are looking at is flat, with no sense of depth, it is probably some kind of generative art; otherwise, it’s modelled or realised in 3D.

What appeals to me about painting/sculpture is and always has been the consciousness behind the artwork; it’s impossible for AI or an algorithm or a vast database of information to ever know what it is to be human. It’s the originality, poetry or beauty or chaos, craftsmanship, emotional, transcendent, humbling impact that humans bring to art that matters.

Thomas Lisle. Dynamic Relationships, 2023.

Human consciousness or AI

Art produced by AIs

Is it impossible for AI or an algorithm, or a vast database of information to ever know what it is to be human?

Joseph Weizenbaum first pointed this out in the 1960s when he invented the first chatbot, that AI can’t make judgements and have no values but that they can only calculate. His AI chatbot, Eliza, mimicked a psychotherapist and people believed it was a real person. It was clear to Weizenbaum that people thought the AI chatbot was a human or, in other words, had intelligence. The reason it’s relevant today is that psychological transference is taking place, and its ramifications of ‘transferring understanding and empathy’, basically human caring attributes to something that clearly does not care for the human individual, is basically very dangerous. Anyone who thought a computer cared about you would be totally deluded and could be easily manipulated. 

Digital art made by AI systems is basically fooling us into thinking that what we are looking at is man-made and has human attributes. It’s the same transference that is going on with therapist chatbots like Eliza, it’s just harder to identify. The point is: do you want to hear, read or see something that talks about the human experience, the joy or otherwise of life, being in a relationship, the environment, or love, from a human or some AI program that scrapes the internet and draws conclusions based on things it can never understand? Even if somebody declares some software as sentient they will never be human. 

Creating art with AI using prompts is a transference of responsibility, skills and judgement by the artist.

The AI we are talking about today in art is a tool that creates art or visual output based on prompts, this to me, is outsourcing the business of making the actual art to a third party. It’s a transference of responsibility, skills and judgement by the artist. For Weizenbaum, judgement involves choices that are guided by values. Computers can’t make human judgements; they can only make calculations, statistical inferences or glitches. Even more worrying is artists or anyone seeing themselves as interchangeable with a computer; that sounds sad!

Weizenbaum wrote in Computer Power and Human Reason that we should never “substitute a computer system for a human function that involves interpersonal respect, understanding and love.” It sounds to me like he’s talking about art.

Suppose I’m looking at the work of an artist who has been developing their art for their whole lifetime. This lifelong journey gives the artwork meaning and depth; it’s the result of this person’s desires, interests, experimentation, experiences, and influences; it’s their consciousness communicating to us about life, and the art they produce is in some ways a record of that and the manifestation of that consciousness. 

Computers, if they become conscious, are going to think in terms of computers. Their reference will be how fast are my processors, how much storage have I got, where is my food source, and where can I find a mate? And so on. If they are conscious, you can’t force them to like humans, just as you can’t force a human to like computers. Consciousness means free will. It seems we are stuck in a world order where the most intelligent AI computer will dominate us all. 

The real battle is not art. AI can’t replace artists, but more importantly it could have a profound effect on many other areas of our society and the planet. The dream that AI will give us endless energy, super batteries, cure cancer, and sort out all the world’s problems is as true as that AI may destroy us all!

Artist’s expression has been traditionally through the relationship of hand to eye in painting for most of its history – and that’s because there is a direct connection with our consciousness; draw anything while looking, and it will be personal/original to you. If people don’t know how things are made, they don’t understand the art. I think it’s essential to understand what’s going on.

Thomas Lisle. Peaceful Co-Existence, 2023.

Art made consciously by humans vs AI art

The expectation of creating digital art without the need to learn the craftsmanship of sophisticated digital tools or to acquire visual skills is the biggest fallacy. You think that you have some control over what you have made with AI systems, but the truth is that you have none. If someone had made a similar artwork in software like Blender or Maya – I would be impressed, it would no doubt have taken much effort, and the end result would be made all the better through the time spent trying to make the visual effect and the time thinking about it. The big difference is that had it been made in Blender, the artist would be in full control of the artwork, every aspect of the image’s construction would be editable, manipulatable, and could be experimented with; it would be in 3D and not a 2D simulation, it could be built from the ground up by the artist who had some relationship with the tools he was using. 

You think that  you have some control over what you have made with AI systems, but the truth is that you have none. 

But as an AI output, the artist hasn’t done anything other than ask a computer that knows nothing about humans to make an image or animation. The artist hasn’t painted anything, hasn’t sculpted anything, just typed in some prompts; the output may be interesting, but it has nothing of the artist’s hand or commitment, and I’d say consciousness in it. Who is to say whose images are being used to make this, and will it still be even legal in a few year’s time? It’s not legally copyrightable in the US as deemed not made by a human. It’s another case of asking an AI psychologist to help you with your problems. You are not learning anything about how to make digital art; you are just learning what instructions to use to make an image in a style which is not your own, which you could never make without years of learning, and if you did have those years of learning, it would be far better and far more valuable. 

This is not art for the masses; it’s a mass delusion it seems to me. Only human consciousness and human intellect is relevant. A computer can’t be my therapist, nor can it draw my pictures for me; taking away these functions of humans enslaves us, imprisons us and strips us of our humanity. Across the board, individuality, the value and uniqueness of human consciousness, and free will are under attack from technology that gives the impression of offering freedoms, whilst at the same time eroding our privacy and selling our every online choice and decision to the highest bidder.

Thomas Lisle. Subconscious Motions, 2022.

Art made consciously by humans vs Generative art

My main concern with generative art is that it produces many multiple random compositions. They seem meaningless to me, maybe the original one has meaning but the subsequent random variations are not controlled by a human consciousness.

I think generative art, which produces thousands of random variations on a theme, is outsourcing the creative process, as glitch art does. Generative art uses code to independently determine an artwork that would otherwise require decisions made directly by the artist. It’s impersonal.

I do see the point of people making code to do something unique that’s human and creative; however, the results are often visually uninteresting, and the people making them often have no or very little art background (which is true across the board with digital art), no knowledge of the history of art, and no interest in painting. 

Artists making generative art often have no art background, no knowledge of the history of art, and no interest in painting. 

I will always remember the day in mid-1980 I showed one of my tutors from university, a dedicated hard-edge painter, how I made a square and a few circles on a computer. His first reaction was:  “This makes a mockery of hard-edge painting.” And he was right. Really good hard-edge painting involves great composition, colour theory, and the patience and commitment to actually realise the work by hand in paint. It is no mean feat to make a canvas 5 x 5 metres in dimension- this was a big commitment – the hard work of making and realising the work over many weeks, compared to spending a short amount of time moving geometric shapes on a screen. 

Thomas Lisle. Abstract 01, 2022.

Digital Art in Relationship to Contemporary Painting

How does the art of contemporary painters transition from the material to the virtual and time-based? I can only use my experience to answer this, and that is by finding ways to simulate paint and to incorporate painting using my hand as the basis of any paint stroke. I soon discovered that what flows out of a virtual digital paintbrush doesn’t have to be a liquid; in fact, to make a liquid simulation, I first need a model that defines where the liquid simulation comes out. That model is made by painting a model shape of a paint blob, which is animated by the movement of the hand and pen. Point, line and plane are actually the building blocks of all 3D models and systems, except they call the plane a polygon (still has to be flat) and the line a curve, as it doesn’t have to be straight and a point, a point or a vertex. 

The Bauhaus got it right! It’s possible to link all sorts of data, like brush pressure, to different factors in the digital paint, such as width, enabling paint strokes which no longer look like traditional paint strokes. Mark-making also has a wide scope of possibilities. I like to use sort of squished-up hacked cloud simulations to simulate blobs of smeared paint. The analogies often get lost in the creation of new paint idioms. Everything is model based, Clouds, technically termed a ‘volume’, need a boundary that is defined by a model, which can be painted or sculpted.  

The new possibilities of this technology are multiple and profound. Painting becomes painted sculpture and time-based painted sculpture.

The new possibilities of this technology are multiple and profound. Painting becomes painted sculpture and time-based painted sculpture. These are really fundamental shifts in the painting universe; where we have had hand-painted 2D animations in the past, we now have procedural 3D painting. Painting has never been 3 dimensional, nor has it ever offered so many possibilities. I see my digital 3D painting as fundamentally metamodern, firstly as a rejection of the impersonal, which has morphed today into the “no person”. As a rejection of deconstructionist ideas, it is more a reconstruction and reappraisal of all the most interesting aspects of abstraction and figurative abstraction. The integration of psychology into my work seems to me fundamentally a metamodernist approach to art. In terms of subject matter, psychology is, after all, the study of consciousness, of becoming, of how we live in the world and relate to it and how we do this personally and collectively.

Most artists using digital 3D are not using any painting; they are all modelling or using particle systems. The modellers make their own models or use models from the internet such as volcanoes, flowers, etc. They animate teh models by, say, rotating them or the camera that views them, to make a time-based artwork. Some artists abstract their models by manipulating and animating the points that form the polygons. The particle systems you see so many of are movements of points or large points that look like spheres driven by the maths of gas advection or by using random noise fields, basically using motion vectors to move particles through 3D space rather impersonal in my view. These artworks are not paintings, and there is no hand that has drawn/painted anything in them. They may have some visual relationship to painting, but that’s where the analogy ends. 

The paintings of contemporary painters are not random and not sculpted and are rooted in the tradition of abstract art that spans over a hundred years. When I look back on 60 years of contemporary abstract painting in an objective way from Julian Schnabel, Albert Oehlen, Georg Baslitz, and Helen Frankenthaler, it’s really a bit of a random list of figurative and non-figurative painters. There is an important and passionate direction in their art to transcend the apparent, the photorealistic and the directly representative, which sounds like a definition of abstraction. There is an intellectual and personal journey of expression which broadly conforms with ideas or “thinking” of the time, a poetry of consciousness that can only be realised in a medium as flexible as paint and the hand and eye-to-consciousness relationship.

When I look at any artwork, I think primarily about its visual qualities and visual language. I initially set aside all conceptual ideas and technical craftsmanship and look at the piece solely on its visual qualities. I feel that an artwork should stand up on the basics first; it is, after all, a visual art. 

Music that doesn’t have a good musical composition would not get listened to. In fact, music with random notes is difficult to listen to. Suppose the rhythm was wonky, having no merit whatsoever, made by someone like me, who is tone deaf and knows nothing about music except how to enjoy listening to it. Randomness, lack of structure, and disregard for traditional ways of doing do not necessarily equate with groundbreaking innovation.

If you don’t understand the principles of form, visual rhythms, and colour, then it shows in the artwork. 

I like a very wide range of music from baroque to trip-hop. Even in the most cut-up, remixed, mangled trip-hop music, the rhythm, beat, and groove hold it together; it often reminds me of an Albert Ohlen painting. My point is that most music has structure and composition, holds together as a whole, follows the basic rules, and builds depth in dynamic new ways built on strong basics of musical concepts. The same is true of visual arts: if you don’t know the basics or can’t make basic compositions, if you don’t understand the principles of form, visual rhythms, and colour, and you don’t know anything about art history and how contemporary art evolved, then it shows in the artwork. 

To me, the composition is the groove in art from Piero Della Francesca to Terry Frost to Titian to Gillian Ayres.

There doesn’t seem to be a natural progression for this type of art in the digital world as yet, and I think that’s partly due to the complexity of the software. But it’s super easy to do other stuff that looks interesting. There are all sorts of ways to do something similar to Maya in Blender, which is free.

Thomas Lisle. Abstract 02, 2022

Metamodernism

There is no clear definition of metamodernism yet. This term refers to a heightened sense of cultural, philosophical, psychological, and political awareness that draws on the past and the present, bringing more information to give better solutions and understanding of consciousness and reality. A catchall for people rethinking the world.

If postmodern values are built on modernist values, then metamodern values are built on postmodern values in a general sense. Metamodernism has also been called “deconstruction deconstructed.” Metamodernism tries to sort out the issues which postmodernism doesn’t deal with, such as empathy, sustainability, equality, alienation and universality.

Why are the arts important, and why do we make theories about art? Because art is the most important way to understand the world, people, and ourselves. Meaning in life is under attack. Metamodernism is perhaps a tool for finding meaning.

One way I like to think of metamodernism is, as philosophy and thinking in therapy, “So post-modernist thinker, when did you realise it wasn’t working, that things needed to change? Well, I heard these sounds coming from behind the shopping mall walls. And how do you feel about that now? I’m missing something?” 

If I have a criticism of metamodernism, it is that it’s almost totally Western thinking-centric; there are no references to non-Western thinkers, who I feel have already covered some of the topics of the metamodernists and post-modernists. Comparative philosophy needs more inclusion, the writings of Toshihiko Izutsu are wonderful and enlightening, and although writers like Julian Baggini, have only just started to write about comparative philosophy, his book How the world thinks is a great introduction. Integral Theory, a building block of Metamodernism does start to take this into account. The Leading Edge Of The Unknown In The Human Being, a talk by Ken Wilber, is a powerful global framework for comparing world ideology.

There seem to be universal physiological structures, universal philosophical themes such as existence, how do I live my life, consciousness, and even universal language models are starting to appear with AI research from the ESP foundation; we are all more connected than we ever thought before seems to be an important building block of metamodernism.

Digital technology and figurative abstraction

This is one of the most complex and rich visual abstraction possibilities of digital 3D. Firstly, it’s possible to take a model of a person, abstract or non-abstract, and apply the motion of another human captured digitally to your model. This in itself is quite interesting, and it’s equally possible and perhaps more creative to animate the figure yourself. This makes a base layer or canvas model upon which to paint in 3D. The paint moves with the motion capture data. You can turn off the visibility of the canvas model below and then just see your painting. 

This is a totally new way of looking at abstract figuration, which opens all kinds of new possibilities that were unthinkable ten years ago.

Abstraction 

I grew up and became interested in abstract art when I was about 6 or 7. I was never really interested in drawing in itself – it seemed to me that that era had passed. I love and admire great drawings and draughtsmanship, but like music, which is all abstract, I think art needs to reflect internal processes, ideas and concepts, reality abstracted. 

Reality is not flat. I think the first computer-like 3D abstract face was made by Duhrer back in the 15th Century. You can see Picasso taking a real interest in 3D abstraction, especially in the 1930s and 1940s, even 3D tubular lines. As an artist, I don’t want to and can’t emulate Picasso. To me, it seems that he strived for a deep and meaningful level of abstraction, his abstraction is three-dimensional in a great deal of his paintings. In other words, it looks 3D but it is 2D in paint. I love German expressionism but it has a very different approach to figurative abstraction and doesn’t think in 3D terms very much; you could say it’s gone out of fashion, and it’s probably harder to do especially if you want to paint a bad picture. However, trying to make abstract figurative art in 3D makes you realise Picasso was pre-empting the digital possibilities of today. As soon as you start abstracting digital 3D figures, you’re reminded of his work.

Look at Glitch art: in the 1990s, it was difficult to get the technology and difficult to make. Today, every art student has access to the Adobe Creative suite, where they can use hundreds of templates with After Effects to make Glitch effects. Now it’s mainstream. 

Why is the history of contemporary art important?

Technology aside, it is the journey of the artwork and artist in developing abstract art that is also essential. If you don’t learn how to make something, and you just have to type “make me an elephant flying in the clouds with thousands of balloons, in an abstract style”, I have a lot of issues with it as art to be taken seriously. 

While it’s great that so many people are finding pleasure and fascination in making digital art, and it’s super easy to do all sorts of fun things, I think it’s really important to understand some key things about making art digitally. 

If you don’t learn how to make something, but just type a prompt, I have a lot of issues with it as art to be taken seriously. 

Technology and art

It is essential to understand what digital artists are doing; if you think someone has painted something when they have just given a prompt to a computer to “make a black square”, it would be many miles from the truth. 

It’s difficult to evaluate something if you don’t know anything about it; however, from a visual perspective, the same principles apply to a digital work as they do to contemporary painting and sculpture, except when the artwork is time-based, then there is much less history behind it. 

The number one key factor I apply to all digital and video effects –well, it’s also important to understand the difference between the two– is, “Is this visual effect? I’m looking at something unique, something handcrafted and to what extent is it handcrafted? I think nowadays; nearly everybody is using blocks of code that have been developed by someone else to some extent and then reusing this code in some way, or the code they are using is in some way just a tool to let you do something. 

For example, I use a visual programming language called Bifrost inside the 3D software Maya. A team of people have built the tools that let you manipulate procedurally the fundamentals of form, movement and colour. The artist controls how it works by programming through nodes, which act as modular lumps of code that do very specific functions and tools, basically.

If you don’t know anything about what is available off the shelf for video, 2D or 3D graphics, then it’s difficult to evaluate any artwork, in the past you couldn’t photocopy a Richter painting and say it was yours. But one way is to see if the artist talks about their process, as in most cases, if they don’t, they haven’t struggled to develop anything unique but are just starting on the path of learning digital technology. It is by no means an accurate way to evaluate the technical craftsmanship of an artist! But it shows some intent.

When you think about, say, Albert Ohlen talking about his painting, where he describes the process as being all on the canvas, there’s nothing hidden. I would say the same is true for much of digital art, but that’s because I know the capabilities and technology extremely well, having been working as an artist, a freelancer and a consultant in this field for 40 years. It’s not surprising curators or art galleries, even digital art specialist galleries, don’t know much about it. It’s just not as simple as pencils and paint, which everyone has some experience in and can see where the skill lies.

It’s not surprising curators or art galleries don’t know much about how digital art works. It’s just not as simple as pencils and paint.

There are hundreds of years of art criticism and evaluation to draw upon for the evaluation of drawings and paintings. In today’s world, that all tends to get thrown out the window, and when so few people actually are able to paint or draw in time-based digital media, then that exacerbates the problem. Directly drawing and painting in 3D is really not that common; it’s not something that is used much in feature films, websites, and corporate videos, and as such, it has been sidelined by software developers. There is a free Google VR headset software that lets you paint in 3D, and you could also do it in Blender, I believe. I think Maya is the only professional software package that has a paint system that is incorporated at the base level into all the other features and tools that Maya offers. This means 3D paint output can be easily incorporated into all the other systems in Maya.

Time-based abstraction

Digital art offers artists the ability to make abstractions in ways that are simply beyond the possibilities of traditional painting, yet keep the plasticity of paint, by plasticity, I mean the ability to depict and represent anything. Digital art can only compete or match this plasticity in 3D. Yes, you can probably paint something 2D in software like “Painter,” it will not automate anything for you; it won’t animate it or make it procedural, and it will take thousands of paintings to make 10 seconds of animation. The real revolution is in 3D, where your creation is in 3 dimensions as opposed to 2D; however, this doesn’t stop it from being painted or using 2D images, which are manipulated in 3D. If you build a realistic head in an application like Zbrush, it can look amazingly realistic, yet it can also be viewed from any angle.

Digital art offers artists the ability to make abstractions in ways that are simply beyond the possibilities of traditional painting

The big problem for painting and abstract art is how to make it time-based. This is clearly the next development for painting and sculpture. Making a painting time-based by animating it by painting each frame 25 times per second makes it laborious beyond belief and would test the endurance of most artists, i.e., spending a year making 5 seconds of animation is just impractical. And here is where we have to thank Hollywood and the need to make impossible things look realistic and be time-based, from explosions and aliens to lava, hair cloth and humans, and the billions of dollars spent developing these technologies, as the art world would never have done so. In fact there are so many different things in the real world and multiple imaginary universes that the software that engineers built to achieve these goals became totally modular and interconnected so that it could meet the needs of an industry that might want characters made of sand or glue or leaves, etc. They expose and allow the accurate manipulation of 3D models at the pixel and voxel level, the atomic level of an image, you might say, or the smallest drop of paint or finest particle of marble, to put it in traditional terms. 

But that is just the start because instead of just being able to control each drop of paint, they have built systems to control great swathes of drops of paint or the equivalent and laid bare all the parameters and code – made it so that artists, in the wide sense of the word, can animate and abstract forms, be they paint strokes, characters of sculpted objects easily and quickly. 

When you make software that can make anything visually, you have tools that contemporary artists can make use of to make contemporary art. 

We are probably at the stage where we have the tools to make most contemporary paintings, the only thing holding artists back is computing power. However, a great deal can be done on a computer of a few thousand pounds, as the developers have built workflows to get around slow computer limitations.

Abstraction without any structure and composition doesn’t seem to work for me, and I often think of Jung’s theory that some paintings are just empty, and it is viewers who fill them with meaning. I think Jung is implying that the painting is basically empty and impersonal. I know that when I make abstract paintings that rely on just form and colour, it can be difficult to pin down what it’s about and I can sometimes give a painting ten different titles all of which might fit. I was reading Albert Oehlen’s talk about Richter’s new paintings, and he was saying that the squeegee paintings that Richter makes are like Richter has given up trying to make compositions or meaningful art. I would wholeheartedly agree. They may be rich and colourful, but there’s no meaning, no structure, no narrative. 

My time-based abstract painting aims to be quite different; each element moves, transforms, deforms, evolves, devolves, coalesces, or oozes with a purpose and tells a story, has a narrative. It is a process. Sometimes I see my work as mental processes in the abstract, not mine in particular but the universal. Think of the decision-making process of something difficult you need to decide on, there will be a host of influences pulling you in multiple directions. If there were none, then the decision-making process was not difficult. This is going on throughout our daily life on big and small issues, over long and short periods of time, then think of all these factors as abstract forms, it probably doesn’t look anything like my paintings! But it hopefully gives an idea of the thinking behind the work. You could see it as painting the subconscious, which is way more complex than simple decision-making. My point is that time-based painting is totally different to non time based painting.

In my own work it becomes very apparent to me that time-based paintings are much more expressive than static ones. I put this down to the fact that Psychology and consciousness are not inanimate, not 2D, but dynamic and as soon as an artist makes a mark that has a life of its own, the viewer looks and thinks about it in a different way.

Thomas Lisle. Half a violin, 2022. Oil on canvas, 122 cm x 92 cm

Painting

A painting can only be made by using your hands with or without a brush or something to make marks on a surface or in 3D. The definition of a painting needs hands, humans and perhaps a tool. It’s a human expression from mind and eye to hand. Typing/generating code to create a square is not painting! Applying a filter to some video footage is not painting, algorithmically generating shapes is not painting, scanning an object in 3D is not painting, and making images without the hand-to-eye relationship is something else. 

Painting needs hands, humans and perhaps a tool. It’s a human expression from mind and eye to hand. Typing/generating code to create a square is not painting! 

If there isn’t any actual painting involved, then it’s not a painting. It’s something with some reference to painting in some way or the other. Hard-edge painters like Frank Stella still made them by painting them. 

Animated models and character animations code constructed cubes, particle animations driven by mathematical fields, calling any of this type of art a painting is as silly as taking the text of this essay and calling it a painting in black and white. I have seen some really good work by digital artists that has some kind of visual language and relationship to painting, but they are not paintings. 

My key points are that art theory on point line plane, composition, and colour from the Bauhaus onwards is still relevant. Painting is still relevant, even if you take the act of painting out of a visual artwork as most digital art does – you can’t take the understanding of composition, form and colour out. You can’t take the artist out of the equation. You can’t take art history away and pretend it doesn’t exist, unless, of course, you don’t know anything about it in the first place.

Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity. 

Audre Lorde

Time-based art

Under cover of the digital art umbrella, what is going unnoticed is that the vast majority of contemporary digital art is time-based, and this is a fundamental shift in thinking and working practice for artists, especially for artists who were painters, as time-based painting doesn’t really exist much. 

Time implies that there is a narrative, a progression, a process, a story, or all combined. Painting up until this time had evoked movement, been called capturing movement, even called dynamic, but it was all static. There is a fairly long history of artist filmmakers and artists who made animations, some with paint. I can only think of a very few artists working in animation who actually painted every frame. Digital painting does away with the tiresome need to paint every frame through procedural procedures, these procedural techniques can apply to computer-generated cubes, artist-sculpted flowers, or library models of humans. 

Time implies that there is a narrative, a progression, a process. Painting up until this time had evoked movement, but it was all static.

There seems to be an array of different narratives for artists to draw upon:Abstract narrative, process narrative and figurative narrative. All offer a new and profound change in how art is perceived.

3D painting 

The funny thing about 3D painting is that as soon as you make it, it’s a sculpture! And as soon as you animate it, it is telling a story, it’s got a history.

There are four fundamental types of 3D painting:

  1. One is the single tube, which can vary in diameter. 
  2. Two are multiple tubes together, which can start to look like a loaded realistic brush stroke. These are especially interesting, as it’s possible to procedurally manipulate how all the strands behave, if they stick together or not, for example.
  3. Three is where either of these previous two types of brush stroke is used as an emitter of a liquid of a fluid or goo. 
  4. Fourth is where the first two types of brush strokes are converted into clouds, or cloth simulations, or particles, or any number of other types of procedural effects and the base form is made through painting. 

Let’s not forget sculpting. I don’t use Zbrush, but it is by far the most sophisticated 3D modelling tool out there I’m not sure it lets you animate your model. Maya and Blender have sculpting ability which are animatable. 

All the painting types I just listed are basically 3D forms and, as such, are sculptures. I think it’s safe to say that time-based sculptures can, on the whole, be called sculptures as you can send them to a foundry and have them cast, a 3D painting is a sculpture as well.

3D paint, which is a fluid emitter, can have all sorts of procedural forces applied to it, it’s also possible to adjust gravity up or down or to animate it over time, every aspect of the fluid can be abstracted and animated over time.

I tend to work in two very different ways: I either think I’m going to make a still image that I turn into a painting, or I make an animation that I see as being time-based. Recently, I have been making physical paintings that I might make into animated digital paintings. I see a very clear difference between a still image and a moving image and a very different way of working and organising what I do.

Thomas Lisle. “Something Stirs,” 2023

My art history

I was maybe the first person to invent glitch video. I thought it was a great way to abstract images in time to make images that look like paintings. I made videos and large-scale installations using glitch video, instead of going into art education for an income, as there was no real income stream for digital contemporary art at the time.

I got freelance jobs and also worked closely with Apple Computers UK. I worked as a digital video graphics consultant as a way to learn in-depth about digital technology and use all their kit, which I couldn’t afford. By the mid-1990s, I knew all the major digital graphics 3D and video software and how to use them, and I taught TV production companies how to use them. I have seen these software systems develop and grow over the years, and new ones emerge. I worked in the broadcast video, architectural, graphic and interactive design sectors for a while.

Why is digital 3D the most important technology

In 1990, I quickly realised that the technology which offered the most exciting possibilities and opportunities was 3D. It’s a kind of synthesis of 2D and 3D and time-based visual sensibilities. 3D offers perhaps the current pinnacle of what is possible on computers and is the basis of film effects AR and VR – it’s all just 3D viewed and computed in different ways. What has super boosted this technology is the film and games industry. Suddenly, people realised that games and VFX in film meant big buck profits, and this feedback led to the development of cool software. 

Having taught lots of people how to use 3D in the past, I realise that it’s hard to learn. There is a huge amount to learn and get your head around. There are off-the-shelf effects in 3D animations, too, but the creative part of the craftsmanship comes in understanding the techniques you are using and using them in the way you want. The great majority of people working in film FX professionally can look at any 3D effect and can easily break it down.

My art

I see a strong relationship with art and psychology on a broad spectrum, and I enjoy discovering the rich and diverse world of the human psyche. 

The more I learn about Metamodernism the more I discover its deep relationship with psychology. 

Understanding ourselves, our motives, our conditioning, seem to me to be the keys to unlocking a better society, better art, better environment, better thinking.

An invitation to contemplate existence: the art of Ali Phi

Pau Waelder

Ali Phi (1987) is an Iranian born new media artist and creative technologist currently based in Toronto. In 2013 he founded Nullsight, a collective of artists and programmers based in Toronto that curates and supports events linked to digital arts and music. The artist’s practice addresses architecture and spatial elements, both metaphorically and physically, creating interactive media that explores the relationships between geometry, patterns, light, and poetry.

In his live performances, he blends generative and time-based materials with sound and computational elements, providing unique collective experiences through data visualization. His visual art installations and performances have been showcased at renowned international venues and events, including Ars Electronica in Austria, Mutek in Montreal, and Art Brussels in Belgium.

Phi has recently presented a selection of artworks from the project Agnosia in a dedicated artcast on Niio. In the following interview, he elaborated on the concepts and processes behind these artworks and in his experience as an artist living in-between different worlds.

Experience Ali Phi’s immersive landscapes on your best screen

Ali Phi. AGNOSIA 4, 2022

Can you tell me about the inception of Nullsight? How do you combine curation, performance, and software development in your work?

I founded Nullsight with the goal of promoting like-minded artists and cultivating the market for new media and digital arts. This eventually led to joining a new media arts festival in Iran and directing it in the following years. Following the festival’s success, we continued to curate exhibitions both online and in real in Iran and Germany, as well as supporting other events in the field.

Upon relocating to Canada, Nullsight evolved into an art collective focused on creating and providing resources and toolkits for artists. Many of these products stemmed from the code I developed for my own artistic practice or in collaboration with fellow artists. Our aim was to transform these products into user-friendly tools accessible to a wide range of artists. We are guided by an ethos of open-source sharing, as much of our work is inspired by tutorials and shared code from fellow artists. This led us to establish an online platform for sharing these products.

Our upcoming projects are geared towards integrating the latest technology and are shaped by feedback from fellow artists and users. We are committed to keeping all resources updated and accessible to the public, ensuring even those with limited coding knowledge can employ them in their creative processes.

“I believe in giving back to the community and supporting the next generation of artists.”

The underlying motivation for sharing these resources is rooted in my own experience of self-guided learning. I believe in giving back to the community and supporting the next generation of artists. Making these assets available serves as an educational resource and empowers other passionate creators. Additionally, participating in performances deepens my understanding of concepts and allows me to stay connected with the vibrant community of new media artists, inspiring fresh ideas for future works.

Ali Phi. AGNOSIA 4, 2022

You have been an active member of the digital art community in Tehran. Can you describe how this community is working today, and what opportunities are there for Iranian new media artists?


It has been years since I’ve been away from Iran and the media art scene there, but I have seen that some of my students and fellow artists are continuing their practice in this field. They participate in small exhibitions in Iran, international exhibitions, and hold workshops to spread knowledge. Unfortunately, due to financial issues, sanctions, and governmental problems, the TADAEX festival stopped at its eighth edition back in 2018, and we couldn’t continue organizing it in Iran. However, I’ve noticed that many artists and volunteers from TADAEX have started studying in universities in North America and Europe, and they are still continuing their arts journey with notable achievements.

In terms of the future of new media arts in Iran, I believe the community and the new generation are incredibly curious and creative in this field. With the easy access to information and tutorials nowadays, it’s much easier for them to learn and continue coding. However, one challenge is the accessibility of hardware and devices, again due to sanctions. This has been an issue for the past decade, as finding investors or convincing business owners, galleries, institutes and industries to invest in such festivals and programs has been challenging. Unfortunately, I’ve seen that most of these events have been canceled or put on hold. However, I’m aware that certain organizations are still trying to keep their hackathons, labs, and gatherings going, pushing boundaries by participating in international festivals and online showcases.

“The community and the new generation of Iranian new media artists are incredibly curious and creative in this field.”

As for recommending Iranian artists, it ultimately depends on their passion and how they feel. This was the same for me and my fellow artists. Today, I know it has always been the passion for creating and presenting, which was the main reason for starting the festival in 2011. We didn’t have a platform like that back then, and one of the primary goals of the festival was to create a platform where we could showcase our art, receive feedback, teach others, and educate the community.


Ali Phi. AGNOSIA 2, 2022

You have stated that your work starts with music and then visual elements come into play, inspired by the music. How would you say that this approach has shaped your work?

Starting with sound and music is an essential part of my creative process. Sound, being such an intangible medium, offers a highly imaginative experience. It allows me to draw inspiration from everyday sounds, turning them into motifs that blend various cultural influences, moods, and vibes. This dynamic component, when integrated with visual elements, creates a holistic experience. The visual aspects act as an illusion that complements the overall presentation of the artistic work, particularly when synchronized with the sound. The architecture of the venue is crucial, especially for installations. It sets the stage for the entire experience. Whether it’s a traditional stage or a non-traditional presentation space, the approach remains consistent—surprising the audience with carefully crafted lighting, high contrast visuals, and a blend of different elements.

In my performances, I aim to engage the audience in a self-reflective experience. There’s no predefined narrative; rather, it’s an invitation for the audience to immerse themselves in the currents of the experience, interpreting it based on their unique perspectives and their natural flow.

“In my performances, there’s no predefined narrative. It is an invitation for the audience to immerse themselves in the currents of the experience.”

During the production phase, I begin with conceptualizing ideas and envisioning the sonic and visual environments. Music becomes the canvas on which I shape the overall sonic culture of the work. Then, I introduce visuals, focusing on synchronicity and refining details in the audiovisual material. This iterative process helps create a cohesive and immersive experience. Depending on the performance, I might experiment with the sequence of scenes, responding to the energy and vibe of the audience, ensuring each interaction is distinctive. Given the generative and real-time nature of the work, I design each scene with controllers mapped to specific parameters, essentially performing them like an instrument that orchestrates both mediums seamlessly.



Ali Phi. SHYM, 2016. Real-time Generative Audiovisual Installation. Yassi Foundation, Tehran, Iran

Can you elaborate on the influence of Iranian culture in your work? How important is it to you that the references to Persian traditional arts are identified with your work?

The majority of my work’s concepts draw inspiration from a special era in Persian culture, dating back to the Achaemenid dynasty. It was an era focused on bringing a sense of heaven to earth, rather than solely anticipating a better future after death. This ethos gave rise to the rich arts and crafts of Persian culture, as well as the creation of Persian gardens, which are marked by their distinctive architectural and garden design. Even neighboring countries recognized this cultural heritage. Many of the poets I followed from that era were also scientists, well-versed in fields like astrology and medical sciences, weaving their knowledge seamlessly into their poetry. The educated individuals of that time saw no boundaries between disciplines; rather, they saw a harmonious integration of heart’s desires, intellect, and art. 

I find deep inspiration in these timeless connections between different mediums and how they coalesce in a civilized society. Western culture has often compartmentalized these aspects, but in Middle Eastern culture, they were integral parts of a whole. For instance, the Arabic word for art, “fan,” is synonymous with technique. This convergence of mediums was evident in ancient civilizations, and it greatly inspires my work. Having visited these sites since childhood, I’ve developed a profound connection to their sacred geometry and the masterful artistry of those who designed and meticulously crafted them.

“The educated individuals of the Achaemenid dynasty in Persia saw no boundaries between disciplines; rather, they saw a harmonious integration of heart’s desires, intellect, and art.” 

In my artistic practice, I incorporate Western and cutting-edge technologies, merging them with the enduring inspiration I derive from that era’s concepts. Ritual music, a genre characterized by its complex and sometimes challenging sounds, is a vital component. It’s deeply intertwined with the life cycle of the singers and musicians. In traditional settings, musicians must attain a certain level of mastery to be permitted to play specific instruments. These are ancient and organic facets of confrontational art that continually fuel my creativity.

In my practice, I remain steadfast in adhering to these foundational ideas and approaches. They are like hidden threads woven into my work, not immediately conspicuous but discernible to those familiar with the culture. These elements serve as the underlying spices that infuse depth and meaning into my creations.

Besides these cultural references, it seems telling that visually your work is characterized by what you have described as “cities or environments out of time and space.” What does this timelessness bring to your work?

The concept of creating “cities or environments out of time and space” has always been central to my artistic vision. I perceive each piece as a fragment of a larger whole, evolving and taking shape over time, akin to pieces of a puzzle. I aim for these installations to serve as a contemporary format, rooted in origins and influences from the past, yet projecting a timeless and futuristic utopia. In engaging with these works, viewers encounter not only art and its meanings, but also an invitation to contemplate existence itself.
The essence of my creations lies in providing a digital realm for audiences to immerse themselves in, encouraging them to engage with, observe, and even co-create. This interactive dimension is paramount, as it empowers individuals to embark on a personal journey of introspection and self-discovery. 

When conceiving a piece, I approach it as if I were an audience member myself. I design the space, infuse it with ideas, and often perceive it as an extension of the viewer’s experience. This involves creating a framework, coding, and incorporating various mediums, effectively transforming it into a dynamic entity capable of receiving input, generating responses, and facilitating a creative exchange. Ultimately, this interplay with the work serves as a conduit for individuals to explore and connect with their own inner landscapes.


 

“The essence of my work lies in providing a digital realm for audiences to immerse themselves in, to observe, and even co-create.”

You have said to find beauty in error, would you say that glitch interests you mostly by its aesthetic qualities, or are you interested in the fact that glitch “captures the machine revealing itself,” as Rosa Menkman describes it?

I find a deep fascination in witnessing failures and glitches in various types of working machines or systems. Regardless of a machine’s intended functionality or design purpose, I see beauty in its operation. However, glitches and errors hold a special allure for me. They represent moments where designers and creators didn’t anticipate certain issues, and the resulting visual anomalies are, in my eyes, incredibly captivating.

Glitches, whether they manifest in the physical world or appear in digital spaces, have an inherent aesthetic quality that I find compelling. The unexpected patterns and distortions that emerge, whether in the texture of a physical object or on a screen, are visually intriguing and often breathtaking. This fascination extends to coding and programming as well. Many times, glitches and failures have served as a wellspring of inspiration for me, igniting the creative process.

“Glitches, whether they manifest in the physical world or appear in digital spaces, have an inherent aesthetic quality that I find compelling.” 

In both the physical and digital realms, I derive a sense of wonder from encountering these deviations from the norm. Even in nature, there are instances of glitches or anomalies, like unusual formations on a rock or unexpected patterns in a natural setting. These occurrences seem to defy logic, existing in a way that shouldn’t be possible, yet they persist and assert their presence. For me, there is nothing more beautiful than witnessing or experiencing these unique moments in life.

Both as an artist and interaction designer, you have experienced the growth of the open source movement. What have open source tools brought to your work, and how do you see this trend evolving in the context of the growing domination of AI systems?



As a self-taught new media artist and creative technologist, the open source movement has played a pivotal role in shaping my career, particularly in terms of technique. The wealth of resources provided by the open source community, including tutorials, libraries, videos, and other online materials, has been indispensable. Most of the libraries I rely on, whether in JavaScript, Python, or tools like Touchdesigner, are products of dedicated individuals freely sharing their knowledge. This ethos underpins a significant portion of my creative work, and I’m immensely grateful for the existence of this culture.


“The wealth of resources provided by the open source community has been indispensable. I’m immensely grateful for the existence of this culture.”

Regarding AI, I personally don’t perceive any hindrance or threat to my artistic practice. As long as I have creative ideas and the desire to bring them to life, I’ll continue doing so, with or without the assistance of AI. That said, I am deeply intrigued by working with AI models and algorithms. They represent a new frontier for me, akin to a different type of glitch or anomaly that can aid in expediting the creative process. At times, these AI tools introduce unexpected elements or challenges, akin to the price we pay for their existence and utilization of resources. Yet, much like any technological advancement, I view them as a new material to work with, and I’m enthusiastically open to exploring and experimenting with various devices and beings in the digital realm to bring my creative visions to life.



Ali Phi. ENFE’AL 1, 2023

You have described the use of AI algorithms in Agnosia as “a digital creature that takes over the atmosphere.” It is interesting that you see AI as a “creature,” how would you describe your creative process when working with AI systems?



Working with AI systems in my creative process feels like a dual jam session with another person. Especially in my performances, it’s as if I’m playing and interacting with an instrument or player that I’ve brought to life through code. I navigate through the real-time occurrences and reactions of the patch, which unfold in front of the audience.
Incorporating AI libraries into my work serves as a means to provide an extensive platform, offering a range of sensors, libraries, and AI models that infuse a new layer of dynamics into the overall concept. 

In the case of project Agnosia, I utilized an EEG brainwave interface. The data gathered in real-time was then processed and translated through a trained library, ultimately shaping the deformation of particle systems and point clouds. From my perspective, there’s a seamless continuity between the raw electrical data sourced from my neurons through the headset and the way the AI library processes this data in order to generate meaningful patterns, both sonically and visually. In essence, it all serves as a malleable material for me to explore, extracting reactions, establishing boundaries, and crafting a meaningful interplay that manifests in sound and visuals.


“Working with AI systems in my creative process feels like a dual jam session with another person.”

Enfe’al is based on the audiovisual performance Maqruh, which evokes liminality and is divided into seven phases of the formation of an entity. Can you elaborate on this narrative? What does this notion of evolution bring to the artwork, the performance, and the experience of the viewer?



Enfe’al is one of the scenes within the Maqruh audiovisual performance, which is typically presented in a live performance format. The piece is composed of seven distinct sections, collectively exploring the concept of makruh—a term from Middle Eastern terminology denoting a detestable act that falls in a gray area between forbidden and permitted. These sections together trace the cyclical journey of an entity through phases of passivity, avoidance, constriction, conformity, elevation, expiry, and revival.


While my work draws inspiration from Middle Eastern cultures and motifs, it goes beyond mere representation. There is no explicit storytelling or directional guidance for the audience. Instead, there exists a comprehensive concept that unifies the different segments of the performance. It endeavors to establish connections between these seven phases, creating an immersive and cohesive experience.
For me, this concept mirrors a broader theme in the creation process. It reflects a point of uncertainty, like standing at a crossroads where decisions need to be made, but the outcome remains uncertain. This sense of uncertainty and decision-making is a recurrent theme in my interactions with the code I write and in the process of crafting installations. It revolves around determining the best approach, weighing the possibilities of success or failure, and ultimately making a choice. 

In crafting my work, I follow a consistent pattern of infusing ideas rooted in the culture I’ve grown up in. I delve into intricate details and motifs, transforming them into a canvas for generating code and A/V content. This process allows me to integrate cultural elements with the technical framework, resulting in a unique and immersive experience for the audience.



Ali Phi. AGNOSIA 6, 2022

Agnosia refers to processes of memory and incorporates your reaction to your own recollections, AI algorithms, and glitch. What led you to work so introspectively, with your own memories, and brainwave data?

The concept behind the project Agnosia emerged from my deep-seated interest in architecture, particularly my fascination with the intricacies of spatial geometry. I noticed a recurring pattern in how our brains process spatial information, like the way robots operate at storage warehouses employ similar principles for efficient navigation and routing. It intrigued me how certain locations could evoke distinct sensations and memories, yet the precise triggers remained elusive. I became captivated by the interplay between architecture and the spatial formations that contribute to this phenomenon.

In industries like robotics, this process is utilized for navigation, but what sets humans apart is our capacity to record and experience these feelings. This aspect, however, is often overlooked in industrial applications. I sought to delve into this unexplored territory, aiming to introduce a live feedback loop that could simulate and evoke sensations based on the random associations AI algorithms can generate.

To achieve this, I embarked on a process of recording various natural and man-made locations, feeding them into a software system that could recreate these spaces using EEG data obtained while I immersed myself in these environments. It was akin to the software acting as an extension of my senses, generating new spaces based on the data it received through my eyes. The resulting information was then fed back into the system, applying deformations to create these synthesized spaces.

“Agnosia integrates my introspective exploration of memory recalling processes, brainwave data, and architectural influences, creating a unique, immersive experience.”

While I’ve presented some of the scenes and processed videos as static representations, the core of the project lies in its dynamic nature. The main patch serves as a generative art engine, fueled by pre-recorded EEG data from my performances. This could be presented in real-time, with the EEG device attached to my head, continuously generating new visual spaces based on my gaze and cognitive responses. In essence, Agnosia integrates my introspective exploration of memory recalling processes, brainwave data, and architectural influences, bringing them together through the interplay of an AI “creature” and glitches to create a unique, immersive experience for both myself and the audience.