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.

Aaron Higgins: The landscape has it all

Pau Waelder

Artist and researcher Aaron M. Higgins holds BFA and MFA degrees from The Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Art at Indiana University. Higgins delves into time-based media as an artistic medium, employing lens-oriented capture methods, digital layering processes, and interactivity. His artwork has been showcased both within the U.S., including cities like Chicago, Cincinnati, and New York, and abroad, with features in Korea, Sweden, and the Netherlands among others.

Higgins recently presented the solo artcast Memory Palaces on Niio, featuring a series of artworks in which the artist draws inspiration from microscopic images of the human brain, as well as those taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, to create alluring, surreal landscapes. In the following conversation, he reflects on the relationship between his digital media work and his background in painting, as well as his connection to landscape and nature.

Bring Aaron Higgins’ mnemonic landscapes to your screen

Aaron Higgins. Memoria, 2017

You have a background in painting prior to your digital media practice. How did you move from one medium to the other, and how does your knowledge about painting inform your digital work, which is at times deliberately painterly?

My undergraduate studies were in Painting, and my graduate studies focused on Digital Media. I found working with Digital Media somewhat intuitive and picked things up relatively quickly. I think my strengths lie in how I compose and composite imagery in my work. A lot of this is similar to how I think about composing a 2D rectangle, but with time-based media I am also considering how the composition moves and changes over its timeline. As with a drawing or painting, I consider how the eye might move around the image, or how space is constructed within the composition of the image. I also want something for the eye to sense, or feel, as it relates to the surface, so I think a lot about visual texture, and compositing methods that yield a ‘painterly’ quality. I guess in some ways I am trying to work against the sanitization of the screen-based image. In the same vein, I am also subverting the ‘digital’, or ‘machine’, and attempting to reimplement ‘the hand’.

“In some ways I am trying to work against the sanitization of the screen-based image and attempting to reimplement ‘the hand’.”

There is an interest in landscape in your work, from the documentary-style images of Tallgrass to the surreal environments of Mnemonic Passages. What do you find in landscapes that is interesting for your work?

The landscape has it all. I try to maintain a connection to the landscape, in my life and in my work, although it’s not necessarily front of mind. Most of my earlier work, painting, focused on painting in the landscape, as well as still-life, which I also think of as landscape. I’ve always been fascinated by nature, after all, we emerged from mother nature. To me, there is something spiritual in connecting with and observing nature, of being immersed in the landscape. The landscape can be so many things, a prairie, a memory, a body, a mind, etc. In my early interactive works, the Splitting Time series, I suppose that I am thinking of time, and the image itself (what the camera sees), as a landscape and reorganizing its pieces into abstract compositions. In a sense, everything is a landscape of sorts. 

Aaron Higgins. tmsplttr. Interactive video animation. Video still.

Since the landscape is a cultural construct, as Alain Roger has suggested, which roles do fiction and narrative play in your landscapes?

That’s an interesting question. As I mentioned in my previous answer, the landscape holds endless metaphoric possibilities. The landscape often serves as a placeholder for something else. In many ways we project our own values, ideals, and biases on the landscape before us. Artists do the same in their work, and the viewer does the same in experiencing the work. I try to leave room for this to occur. In the Tallgrass series, for example, the work is representative of my experience in the tallgrass prairie landscape. I want to share that dynamic, interactive experience with the viewer. In doing so, however, I am weaving a lot of fiction. The imagery is highly composited, creating something other than reality. Maybe a collage of reality… creating an ideal, but there is also a more universal narrative that is superimposed on the work transcending any information gathering, documentation, or individual experience.

“The landscape often serves as a placeholder for something else. In many ways we project our own values, ideals, and biases on the landscape before us.”

Tallgrass: An Osage Reverie: interactive HD video animation series (installation view)

In the Mnemonic Passages series, the imagery is completely invented, but I use actual video in my compositing process. In this series, particularly, I am using webcam footage of myself (working on things in front of my computer) as textures that wrap the 3D forms (memoryforms). This adds the hint of subjective imagery inside, or across the surface of these forms. It also helps to create a sense that these forms are flickering with information. In this way, as with other works of mine, there is an element of self-portraiture to my work as well as landscape.

Regardless, the process usually involves taking photo imagery and creating something ‘new’ with it. 

Aaron Higgins. MemoryForm (1), 2017

In the Mnemonic Passages series, you depict memory palaces as organic, and somewhat otherworldly spaces instead of the rational, neo classical buildings we are used to imagine. What drove you to choose this type of image? 

With the Mnemonic Passages series, I suppose I am really thinking of the memory palace as the mind. I was thinking of the biology of the brain, the intricate architecture of neurons and synapses, etc. But, also as a place, a landscape, where memories are stored. These memories take form and shape within our minds, building the landscape of our experience. Of course, as I say in my statement, I am inspired by imagery from the scientific research and study of the brain, but also imagery from the research and study of our cosmos. The cosmos might be a ‘superlandscape’, if you will, that I see as a metaphor for our mind, or accumulated experience and knowledge. As our experience and knowledge grows, so does our picture and understanding of our cosmos. 

“The cosmos might be a ‘superlandscape’ that I see as a metaphor for our mind, or accumulated experience and knowledge.”

 Aaron M. Higgins. Moonrise with Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, HD 1080p interactive video animation (video still)

Where does your interest in memory stem from?

I guess my interest in memory stems from ideas related to your previous question. Our memory and experience, our culture (a form of generational memory) forms our identity. Like culture, a memory is a living thing that can change, bits are added, bits are taken out, we fill in missing bits to keep the landscape (trying to be consistent with my metaphors, here) cohesive and making sense. Neuroscience is also very relevant these days with new groundbreaking discoveries in how our minds work seemingly happening all the time. The same could be said about the cosmos and what we are learning from the James Webb Space Telescope. We are literally looking back in time at the earliest galaxies that formed in our universe, amazing stuff. 

Aaron Higgins. MemoryForm (2), 2017

You speak of creating meditative experiences through works that you patiently build layer by layer. How important is that meditative aspect in the making of the artwork, as your own experience, and then in the final result, as the experience of the viewer?

I really believe the work and craft that goes into something adds to what is communicated to the viewer and their experience. Craftsmanship is an important part of the process, always. One of things I love about painting is how meditative the act of painting is. There’s a lot that I find similar in my creative process with Digital Media. For one thing, the work evolves over time, and you have to be open to those changes. An idea I start out with is not always the same as what I end up with. I, too, evolve and change throughout the process and find that my interests lead me in new directions. The work sometimes has a will of its own, too, it seems, whether it be the nature of the tools, or limitations of the software or hardware (or myself), it always seems to be a negotiated process. Beyond that, choices are made as things progress that depend on what has happened up until that point, until the work is resolved. I try not to labor too much on these choices and let the work tell me what to do, if that makes any sense, and being in an open, meditative state tends to help with this process. It can be a challenge, though, when your computer crashes, or render times get unbearably slow. 

Aaron M. Higgins. astrocyte, HD 1080p (32:9) video animation, 2:00 loop (installation view).

As far as the viewer experience, I guess I am sort of imposing my preferences and communicating what I want my work to be in how I present it. However, I do want the work to be disarming, calming, and perhaps to create a sense of wonder and awe. When I think of my time-based work, I often think of paintings, as we discussed. I think of viewing a painting as something that happens over time. The painting is always on, always there to be received. As it is experienced and one is immersed, the more that is discovered, it changes. The context within which a work is experienced also has an effect on the experience. Is it on a screen, a phone or a television, is it projected? In what space is it, a private or public space? I try to apply these ideas to the presentation and structure of my time-based work. All of my work seamlessly loops and is always on, there is no beginning or end. It is there to be experienced at viewer discretion, for 30 seconds, 10 minutes, or an hour, or more. It’s there when you want it, for as long as you want it. In that sense, I do not want the work to be annoying or overbearing. I want it to be tolerable, I guess, not seizure inducing. 

“I want to give viewers the space to experience the work on their own terms, as well as allow space for the viewer to discover new connections with the work the more they experience or interact with it.”

Yet, I also don’t want the viewer to ignore the work, I want them to be engaged. I don’t want to impose too many parameters on the viewer or make it a chore to experience the work. In this sense, I think a lot about control, and the relationship between artist and viewer, viewer and art, etc. 

Control then becomes a subject I explore as it relates to life, my experience, the creative process, etc. I try not to exert too much control, especially on things that are out of my control. I know I’m getting in the weeds here… But, I guess, this goes back to the landscape, haha… and the process having its own sort of evolution that involves the artist and the media and letting that process occur without too much interference. I want to afford the viewer the same opportunity in how they experience the work. 

To quote Caroline Lavoie, from an article titled, ‘Sketching the Landscape: Exploring a Sense of Place’, “An object or person does not exist in isolation, but through relationships with its context. These relationships support a necessary state of being…”. 

Tough question.

Aaron Higgins. Mnemonic Passage, 2017

You have expressed your interest in incorporating the viewer into your work, through interactive installations. How would you compare your interactive work with your films and animations in terms of their concept, production process, expectations, and outcome?

So, I think, picking up where we left off in the last question… I am interested in introducing more randomness and perhaps an element of surprise to my work and how others experience it. Something that is always on, and loops endlessly, runs the risk of becoming monotonous. Adding some randomness and unpredictability can thwart the monotony, and keep viewers engaged. This also speaks to the landscape, self-portrait concepts, as well as the viewer/art/artist relationship, and how things change over time. 

In the ‘Tallgrass’ series, for example, the viewer would trigger events in the landscape: lightning striking, the sun setting, moon rising, bird calls, different poses and movements, etc. For each scene, a clip from a library of audio clips with variations of bird calls could randomly be paired with a video sequence of a bird singing. Motion sensing cameras trigger events as viewers move through the space. This adds slight variation and randomness in experiencing the work, so that experiencing the work again would almost certainly be different in variation and sequence of events. To me, this more closely resembles my experience in the tallgrass prairie, where things are the same, but different each time I visit. 

“Adding some randomness and unpredictability can thwart the monotony, and keep viewers engaged.”

My life experience, my interrupted or failed plans, my unexpected successes and victories, all the predictable and unpredictable events… This sort of ‘passive interaction’, allowed in ideas of control vs chaos which made the work feel more alive and real to me. Back to the prairie, when I would hike in the prairie and see an animal, they didn’t act as though I wasn’t there, they responded to my presence. 

In turn, this extends to the viewer, who in some cases was literally incorporated into the work, i.e. Karmic_Lapse, and altered the work by viewing it. As it relates to the artist/viewer relationship, the work is completed upon experiencing. That is to say, work is meant to be shared with and received by a viewer, an audience. That is when a work comes alive, not in my mind, but the mind of the viewer. We can relate this back to the Lavoie quote, “an object (or person) does not exist in isolation, but through relationships with its context.”

Aaron Higgins, Karmic Lapse. Interactive video animation. Installation view.

In relation to your code-based work, you speak of a “collaboration” with the software. How do you balance control and randomness in these projects, and what would you say that you have learned from the machine?

I enjoy how these questions are threaded together, these are really good questions. First, I am not much of a coder, but I use After Effects java-based expressions, visual coding languages- connecting inputs to outputs, I used to use actionscript, that sort of thing. To answer your question, though, the machine, its operating system runs on code, the software runs on code, I implement code, etc. It’s all doing things for me, in a sense. I mean, I tell it what to do, but I don’t completely understand how it’s doing it. So, in that way it is a collaboration, I guess. But, as far as balancing control and randomness, there are serendipitous things that occur throughout the creative process. I try to let these things occur, even push the process, the machine, to catalyze their occurrence. These are moments where something unexpected, something random occurs that adds to the piece. There’s a lot of experimentation involved, trial and error, but it’s a sort of dance seeing where things go and knowing when you’ve gone too far. This applies to painting, as well, there are some tools, like the palette knife, that can offer great control, but also, if used in a certain way, can create randomness in the application of paint to the surface. It further removes ‘the hand’, so to speak. 

“I guess my background in more traditional media is keeping me grounded, and I am not quite ready to let the machine take over.”

Aaron M. Higgins. astrocyte, HD 1080p (32:9) video animation, 2:00 loop (video still)

I’m not sure what I’ve learned from the machine. It’s constantly changing. It’s a great tool and allows for infinite possibilities. But it can get old, too… Sometimes I feel that things have been homogenized to a degree, and things all start looking the same. I see a lot of that in AI art, especially. I guess my background in more traditional media is keeping me grounded, somewhat, and I am not quite ready to let the machine take over.

Yusuke Shigeta: pixel art and the history of image making

Pau Waelder

Japanese videographer Yusuke Shigeta (1981) has developed a body of work consisting of screen-based and multimedia installations for art exhibitions and museum shows. A Graduate from the Tokyo Graduate School of Film and New Media, he works in animation and has recently become involved in the NFT market, where he finds an additional channel of distribution for his work. 

His animations are characterized by the exploration of pixel art, with the depiction of complex scenes in the style of low-resolution graphics that became popular with video games in the 1980s. Far from simply using an aesthetic that has been revived in opposition to the dominance of hyperrealism in digital imagery, Shigeta explores pixel art as a form of finding new visual experiences in a world saturated with images. He connects this digital technique with the history of image-making, reinterpreting traditional Japanese paintings in painstakingly detailed animations (despite their pixelated look) that are as imaginative as they are respectful to the source material. 

The artist recently presented on Niio a selection of his latest work under the title Pixel Landscapes. In this exclusive interview, he explains his interest in pixel art, traditional painting, and cultural influences in our globalized society. 

Discover Yusuke Shigeta’s pixel landscapes

Yusuke Shigeta. Tatsuta Road Kamenose Picture Scroll -龍田古道亀の瀬絵巻-, 2023

You have expressed your interest in working with pixel art from your memories playing with the Nintendo Entertainment System (popularly known as Famicom) in the 1980s. Would you say that the pixelated graphics from this time gave more room to imagination than current high resolution 3D graphics?

I was indeed born in 1980, and I belong to a generation that was greatly influenced by the Nintendo Family Computer (Famicom) during my childhood. Many pixel art artists also have a background in gaming. However, I personally didn’t have a particularly strong interest in games. Of course, I consider games to be a highly influential and significant cultural medium in the present era of expression. Nevertheless, the reason I started creating pixel art was merely a coincidental choice while experimenting with various artistic techniques.

I hold great respect for the pixel techniques nurtured within gaming culture and have learned a lot from producing pixel art. However, I see my work as reconstructing pixel art in a context distinct from games, expanding it into new forms of expression.

Considering the nature of expression, I believe it’s crucial to think about the differences between 3D computer graphics (3DCG) and pixel art. Much of 3DCG aims to replicate photographic techniques and, more fundamentally, the functioning of the retina. On the other hand, pixel art is closer to primitive paintings or symbols. The 20th century witnessed an exploration of optical visual experiences through photography, cinema, and 3DCG, but now we are starting to feel a sense of stagnation. I believe that alternative visual expressions can provide us with new possibilities for visual experiences.

“After photography, cinema, and 3D, we are now starting to feel a sense of stagnation. I believe that alternative visual expressions can provide us with new possibilities for visual experiences.”

It is commonly said that pixel art is “cute.” Would you say it is cute because it is imperfect? How does this “cuteness” come into play in your work, for instance when depicting a historic battle or a scene from daily life? 

I believe the reason for the “cuteness” of pixel art lies in its “sense of size.” Pixel art feels cute because it appears small. However, this is quite peculiar because digital images do not possess a physical size. Whether an image is considered large or small depends on its content. A whale would be considered large, while an ant would be considered small. So why does pixel art evoke a sense of smallness?

I think it’s because of the lack of detail. When humans create something very small, the size of the tools or hands comes into play, inevitably resulting in less intricate details. Therefore, when we encounter pixel art with reduced detail, we intuitively perceive it as something small. Although pixel art is a pure digital form, we perceive a sense of materiality in it. That’s why I believe pieces like my Sekigahara-Sansui-zu-Byobu exude a kind of exquisite beauty akin to delicate craftsmanship.

“Pixel art feels cute because it appears small. However, digital images do not possess a physical size.”

In your pixel art animations based on traditional Japanese paintings, how much do you replicate from an original composition and how much do you create on your own? Do you feel constrained by the traditional norms of composition or does the use of pixel art liberate you to create according to your own rules?

When basing my artwork on traditional Japanese paintings, I adjust the layout to fit the screen, add elements, and sometimes make minor edits. However, my primary objective is to faithfully and modernly reinterpret the original artwork. Beyond the artwork itself, I gather various literature to research the historical background, actual landscapes, and surrounding ideologies of the depicted era. As Japanese people, we modernized significantly through Westernization, becoming an advanced nation. Therefore, exploring the Eastern classical way of thinking in the present offers a rather fresh experience.

Yusuke Shigeta. Sekigahara-Sansui-zu-Byobu, video installation, 2021.

There is creativity involved in translating traditional art into pixel art from a technical perspective, but there is also the fascination of rediscovering lost Eastern ideologies and interpreting them in a contemporary context. I am of the opinion that engaging with Eastern classics through my creative work is a highly stimulating process, providing me with numerous insights and ideas. Furthermore, I believe it enriches the viewer’s experience by establishing a connection between the viewer and classical art.

“In Japan, we modernized significantly through Westernization. Therefore, exploring the Eastern classical way of thinking in the present offers a rather fresh experience.”

The Tatsuta Road animation was created for the Kashiwara City History Museum. Can you tell me a bit more about this commission? How does the pixel art reinterpretation of traditional painted scrolls bring the history and aesthetics of this art form closer to a present day audience?

This artwork is in a traditional Japanese painting style, but there were no original illustrations available. It was created based on partial illustrations and texts, with supervision from history experts.

In the modern world, academic disciplines have become specialized and fragmented, but originally, knowledge was a comprehensive system. While specialization is unavoidable for the precision of academic pursuits, I find this approach somewhat restrictive. Personally, I appreciate the old notion of comprehensive knowledge, where different fields stimulate each other. Aesthetics, in particular, has the potential to connect various disciplines and can provide us with new inspirations.

Yusuke Shigeta. Sekigahara-Sansui-zu-Byobu -関ケ原山水図屏風-, 2021

Sekigahara-Sansui-zu-Byobu is exhibited as a “folding screen” made of several digital screens. With its combination of history and traditional and digital art making techniques, it seems a perfect embodiment of Japanese culture. Can you tell me more about this work and how it has been received? Was it challenging to reproduce the original work, applying crowd simulation techniques?

Sekigahara-Sansui-zu-Byobu is currently on permanent display at the Sekigahara Battlefield Memorial Museum. Until 2022, Japan hosted an international media art event called the “Agency for Cultural Affairs Media Arts Festival,” where my work received recognition. This led me to join the “CULTURE GATE to JAPAN” cultural promotion project. In 2021, several media artists were invited to create works based on the traditional cultures of different regions in Japan, with the plan to exhibit these works at Japanese international airports to connect with inbound tourists. Unfortunately, the project couldn’t fully achieve its goals due to the pandemic’s impact. However, “Sekigahara-Sansui-zu-Byobu” received significant attention from both domestic and international audiences, especially through social media. The creation of the “Tatsuta Road Kamenose Picture Scroll” was inspired by the Sekigahara article, and currently, I am working on another “Sekigahara-Byobu” commissioned by the Sekigahara Battlefield Memorial Museum.

Furthermore, in this artwork, I used HOUDINI software for crowd simulation, employing it in an entirely unprecedented manner, which gained recognition at HOUDINI conferences and SIGGRAPH. Collaborating with a specialized team, who are also a collective of media artists, was essential for the production using HOUDINI. The background for this connection can be traced back to the “JAPAN MEDIA ARTS FESTIVAL” mentioned at the beginning.

Yusuke Shigeta. A Shore A.M./ P.M., 2021

A Shore AM/PM is a totally different type of animation that focuses on daily life in the present day and the passing of time. Can you tell me how this work came to be and how you chose the setting and the scenes that are part of it? 

A Shore A.M./P.M. is a series depicting the landscapes of the town where I live. I have been living here for almost 10 years and have always wanted to create pixel art of this place because I truly love it. However, most of my previous art presentations were in physical spaces such as galleries and museums, and I ended up producing many large-scale installation works. Amidst this, the pandemic emerged, leading to the cancellation of many exhibitions that relied on in-person interactions. Simultaneously, the rise of NFTs prompted me to start working on a series of animation pieces focused on online showcasing.

In this artwork, I experimented with pixel art techniques that involve depicting familiar landscapes, creating variations with changes in time, and utilizing multiple resolutions while maintaining the same composition. It was intriguing to see the reactions on social media, where many people recognized the scenes as their own town. Some even connected with distant memories they had forgotten. The abstracted pixel art has the power to evoke the landscapes of the viewers’ own memories.

“The abstracted pixel art has the power to evoke the landscapes of the viewers’ own memories.”

Your work often involves installations with large projections, immersive environments and playful interactions with visitors. How do you conceive your work in terms of the space and of the interaction with viewers? 

Many video works incorporate a temporal development known as “exposition, rising action, climax, and resolution.” However, when these works are projected in exhibition spaces, the narrative design doesn’t always function seamlessly. This is because many viewers may join in and start watching from different points in the sequence. To address this, I focus on designing the overall temporal experience of the artwork. Sometimes, I embed various playful elements within looped videos or include gradual unfolding of events. As the progression of the experience depends on the viewers themselves, I believe creating artworks that actively engage the audience is crucial. In that regard, pixel art with its “cuteness” and “room for imagination” proves to be highly effective in accomplishing this goal.

Yusuke Shigeta. Video installation for the Yokai-Bon festival, 2020

Your screen-based work can be presented in large projections, installations, folding digital screens, and also via streaming on any screen now on Niio. What do you think about this flexibility in displaying your work and reaching new audiences?

I studied graphic design in my undergraduate program at university. After that, I joined an animation company and later pursued a graduate program in media arts. Currently, I am involved in various areas, such as pixel art, NFT, and teaching at an oil painting university. I believe this diverse career path truly represents who I am, and I still feel like everything is happening in parallel. I have faith that the new worlds and people I encounter will always provide me with fresh inspiration.

Learn more about Shigeta’s work in this video interview by Toco Toco

Phantasmaverse: the artists

Roxanne Vardi and Pau Waelder

Niio has proudly hosted a collaboration with artists and NYU professors Carla Gannis and Snow Yunxue Fu consisting of a group artcast featuring recent works by artists and NYU students Ren Ciarrocchi, Jessica Dai, Marina Roos Guthmann, James Lee, Tinrey Wang, Yuaqing She & June Bee, Shentong Yu, and Jerry Zhao

Titled Phantasmaverse, the exhibition addresses the potential of simulation technologies such as CGI animation and VR environments in storytelling and the creation of meaningful artworks that explore new forms of engaging with viewers and reflecting on our digital society.

We asked the artists about their work and their views on the use of digital technologies in their creative process.

Renz Renderz, AFTER THE AFTER PARTY, 2022

Ren Ciarrocchi (a.k.a. Renz Renderz) defines herself as an “extended reality builder,” a digital artist specializing in 3D modeling who creates architectural structures for virtual reality and metaverse environments. Currently, she is pursuing a masters degree in Integrated Design and Media with a focus in XR and selling digital art pieces as NFTs. After the Afterparty, the artwork she presents at Phantasmaverse, takes the viewer through a luxury apartment on the morning after a big party, peeping through the numerous rooms and imagining what took place in them.

You create architectural models for metaverses, how would you describe your creative process? Do you feel free to create beyond the logic of existing structures or do the references from modern architecture and luxury homes impose themselves?

I think the most wonderful part about the metaverse is the non-necessity for practicality. My galleries don’t need to stand on their own, they exist in a realm where the laws of gravity and space don’t have to exist. The precise planning and execution of a “real-life” building is much more intense with little room for error. In the metaverse, errors can flow! It’s a playful exploration of new technology while drawing inspiration from traditional architectural structures. I am particularly drawn to the minimalist approach of modern architecture. There’s beauty in our ability to stack basic shapes into buildings that are sleek and spacious. I still like to maintain familiarity in my structures that resemble “real-life” galleries and spaces, but as I progress with each one, I stray further away from the limitations of this base reality.

“As an emerging artist, I am adding to a massive sea of creativity that is driving the art world into a new era. I know that any piece I make will have meaning, because it’s an expression of myself.”

After the Afterparty depicts a luxurious home, the morning after a party, when everyone has left. As a young artist, do you feel that you are dealing with the afterparty of digital art and NFTs, or is there much more to come?

The interpretation of an empty, trashed, luxurious apartment is open and abstract. From a digital art and NFT perspective, it could represent a moment of reflection in the aftermath of the explosive growth and excitement that the NFT space experienced in recent years. The technology is revolutionizing the art world and empowering artists to take ownership of their own creations with unique and verifiable digital assets. The space and market will continue to fluctuate and evolve, but the fundamental logic behind these technologies is solid and revolutionary. The space is already full of incredibly talented artists who are utilizing NFTs to empower themselves and their work. As an emerging artist entering the space alongside them, I know that I am adding to a massive sea of creativity that is driving the art world into a new era. I know that any piece I make will have meaning, because it’s an expression of myself. 

James Lee, Interactive Visualizations, 2021

James Lee is a creative technologist who James is a creative technologist that solves problems by creating interactive experiences, web 3D apps, and physical computing installations. He majored in Mechanical Engineering and studied Computer Science and Information Engineering at National Taiwan University and is now completing his masters degree in Integrated Design and Media. In Phantasmaverse, he presents a series of interactive, code-based experiments that hint at his aesthetic and conceptual interests.

There are two layers to your work, its interactivity and the aesthetic composition that results from it. How do you balance these two layers? Which one seems more interesting to you?

The interactivity controls the aesthetics. By creating the interactivity, the works are now unique to each user’s randomness and also given the beauty of it. Carefully designing the controls is definitely interesting, so the piece doesn’t fall into a total chaos.

“I intend to give the cold numbers a «dress» for people to understand them more easily.”

You emphasize that the code you used is “simple and minimalistic.” Given that there is a beauty and elegance in the code itself, how would you describe the solutions you used to create these visualizations?

It’s simple because no complex structure or algorithms are used. I am always amazed by how simple loops and repeating elements can create such elegant outcomes.

Some of your works visualize external data. How relevant is that data to the meaning of the artwork? Does it drive its aesthetic output?

The works that visualize external data are tightly related to the source. It’s like a snapshot of the data. I intend to give the cold numbers a “dress” for people to understand them more easily.

Jerry Zhao, False Titans, 2022

Jerry Zhao is an artist working primarily with photography, videography, as well as recently, CGI. With his background in traditional art forms like drawing/painting, Jerry blends various mixed media together to explore the intersection of technology and ego. He is currently attending NYU Tisch for Photography & Imaging with minors in Business of Entertainment Media (Stern) and Technology and Integrated Design and Media (Tandon). In Phantasmaverse he presents False Titans, an allegory of the ego in our digital society.

In False Titans you address the role of the ego in our society mediated by technology through a series of metaphorical tableaus. Which references from psychology, the visual arts or popular culture can you trace in the creation of these compositions?

I think the clearest connection between my work to psychology is Carl Jung and his well-known take on the Theory of The Unconscious and ego-death. To quickly unpack the connections, my work establishes itself in three scenes which respectively represent the ego, the personal unconscious, and the collective unconscious all while maintaining an overarching theme of ego-death’s progression caused by technological advancement and social media. The title, “False Titans,” also references the Greek mythological titans who were eventually overthrown by their own creations, a parallel I draw between humanity (the titans) and our creation (AI and technology). 

The first scene utilizes a 3D scan of Ligier Richier’s ‘Le Transi de Rene de Chalon,’ a cadaver sculpture, the type of which typically represents a transitory state between life and death. Further interpretation of the statue includes concepts  of repentance and desire for salvation, which I likened to the desire to find purpose and make peace with oneself—a much-desired fulfillment I understand as universal among humanity and especially my generation indicated by the many grasping hands. But I borrow the facade of a snowy mountain peak meant to show the arduous journey and the difficult nature of the trek where the many hands also represent the many who don’t make it. The black sludge flowing out of the eye-socket is my further representation of ego and the personal unconscious leaving the body as lamentation of a realization that everyone in a sense is chasing the same thing.

“3D allows great freedom in creation—a paralyzing factor. I’ve found that it’s more difficult for me to “finish” pieces because there’s always so much room for improvement.”

The second scene takes place in a personal bedroom space suspended in animation with no clocks and a chrome skeleton figure. This scene includes concepts of baptism and the implications of the personal unconscious being constantly born and reborn by ego’s hand, resulting in the following scene of a shattered reality showing possibly separate but identical individuals lit by a massive screen that turns on and off showing how technology now molds and gives dimension to our personal unconscious and ego.

The final scene is the collective unconscious and a liminal space that represents how everyone’s personal features have been removed and the collective unconscious has developed a technological ego of uniformity. It also raises a question of who shall inherit the earth when we disappear as the figure is both a monument representative of humanity’s remnant existence than a true individual—a conglomerate existence of identical egos.

As an artist who has worked with traditional art techniques, what would you say that painting and sculpture bring to 3D modeling, and what does this digital technique allow that makes it different from other formats?

I believe that painting and sculpture have brought a lot of advantages to me in terms of 3D modeling as I can properly conceptualize as well as visualize what I wish to create in the digital world as a lot of my creation relies on my sketching it out beforehand. 3D, like other artforms, has a steep learning curve and a nonexistent skill-ceiling, but I think that the medium goes beyond this factor as 3D has many more ways of interactivity, allowing great freedom in creation—a paralyzing factor that almost makes it harder to create because possibilities are limitless. As such I’ve found that it’s more difficult for me to “finish” pieces because there’s always so much room for improvement in every aspect. But this freedom also has the upside in that its versatility allows for infinite innovation that redefines and paves the way for new definitions of art.

Tinrey Wang, The Other Relics, 2021

Tinrey Wang is a 3D artist, game designer, and multimedia designer based in New York. He currently works as a Research Resident at New York University, where he focuses on exploring the intersection of XR technology, game design, and fashion. He selected for Phantasmaverse a VR experience, The Other Relics, which deals with culture, memory, and otherness.

In The Other Relics, you confront the viewer with Otherness, from the encounter with the character Bubble to the zero-gravity space where they explore the remains of an alien culture. What interests you most about exploring Otherness, particularly in a VR environment?

In The Other Relics, the otherness consists of artifacts related to art, architecture, and culture. Using VR technology, players are able to navigate freely within the space, interact with objects, and experience the absence of gravitational forces. What most interests me about this experience is the opportunity to challenge traditional methods of curating and viewing artworks. By immersing the view in an unconventional space that blurs the boundaries of physicality, narratives, and immersion, I aim to provoke new perspectives and modes of engagement with art and discuss what is possible in the world of art.

“Using VR technology I aim to provoke new perspectives and modes of engagement with art and discuss what is possible in the world of art.”

You state that you are interested in new ways of curating and experiencing art. What is your opinion about the possibilities of art streaming (displaying art on any screen, turning a TV at home into a space for art)?

In my opinion, art streaming can offer greater accessibility and exposure to artwork to a wider audience, potentially leading to increased interest and appreciation for art. It also provides a new platform for artists and galleries to showcase their work, expanding their reach beyond traditional physical spaces. However, I think that there are still concerns about the quality of the viewing experience. The possibilities of art streaming offer both opportunities and challenges for the art world to adapt and evolve with this technology.

Jessica Dai, Life After Death, 2023

Jessica Dai is an artist whose practice utilizes photography and digital media based in New York. She studies photography at NYU Tisch and hopes to tell stories through unique conceptual solutions. Phantasmaverse features her work Life After Death, a CGI animation exploring a peculiar form of afterlife.

Life After Death depicts a somber, crystallized world inhabited by skeletons and nevertheless filled with a life of its own. What inspired you to choose these elements in particular?

Life After Death is a CGI project that explores the theme of death and the afterlife through a unique and somber lens. Inspired by the natural phenomenon of whale fall, where a whale’s body becomes a source of nutrients and sustenance for various creatures in the deep sea, the project seeks to capture the beauty and mystery of life beyond the physical realm.

Through the use of digital modeling and animation, I have created a world that is both haunting and captivating, where the bones of the dead are situated in shimmering crystals that reflect the light in a stunning and ethereal way. In this world, the skeletons themselves have become part of the landscape, taking on a life of their own as they move and interact with their environment.

“I use camera movements to guide the viewer through the narrative. I aim to create a sense of intimacy and immersion through close-ups and wide shots.”

As an artist interested in storytelling, how do you take the viewer through the story? 

I use camera movements and transitions to guide the viewer through the narrative. The camera serves as a window into this mysterious world, drawing the viewer in and revealing its secrets one frame at a time. I aim to create a sense of intimacy and immersion through close-ups and wide shots. Music also plays an essential role in the narrative, serving as a critical element in setting the mood and tone of the piece. By combining haunting melodies and eerie sound effects, I aim to create an otherworldly atmosphere that draws the viewer deeper into the story.

Marina Roos Guthmann, When It Looks Back, 2021

Marina Roos Guthmann is a Brazilian UX/UI designer, currently based in Brooklyn, NYC. She has worked in different areas of the Design industry (including Illustration, Motion Design, and UX). She loves crafting weird experiences that use immersive means and coding. In Phantasmaverse, she presents a VR experience about post-traumatic stress disorder set in a surreal environment.

When It Looks Back is based on a traumatizing feeling but set in a rather pleasant yet eerie atmosphere, which sometimes reminds of casual games. Why did you choose this particular aesthetic?

I decided to set the experience in a flat casual game aesthetic because of how harmless and almost naive it looks. Yet, the more you explore, the weirder it gets. The contrast between a presumed pleasant setting and the weirdness of the experience is an interesting mix that enhances the sentiment that there is something out of place or wrong. In addition, I like how subtle the fear grows the more you explore, thanks to the presumed inoffensive look of the surroundings. In my experience dealing with my fears and traumas, something that might look inoffensive one day can easily be transformed into something fearsome that threatens my existence. Thus, the reason I worked with this specific look and feel.

“I believe VR can easily translate sensations and make the brain think you’re elsewhere, no matter how surreal your virtual environment is. This is fascinating.”

You state that you like weird and surreal experiences. How does using immersive technologies such as VR help you create the type of experience you are looking for?

With VR and other immersive experiences, you can go above and beyond to emulate sensations as you can literally create a whole new world around your audience. In this new world, you can play around with architecture, scale, and even gravity. And, because the person is immersed in this virtual new place, it has a much more significant impact than other mediums. 

In the experience I created, I took advantage of spatial audio and sound by exploring different ambients – with other materials, objects, and sizes –and how they reverberate sound differently. All these nuances significantly affect a VR environment, and a simple whisper can feel very real and disturbing. Additionally, as I wanted to portray the “growing fear” someone experiences, VR might be the scariest choice. Besides being a first-person experience with the option to interact with objects directly with your “hands,” you are immersed in a 360º field of view with nowhere else to look at. I believe VR can easily translate sensations and make the brain think you’re elsewhere, no matter how surreal your virtual environment is, and I think that is fascinating.

Shentong Yu, Facial Expressions: The Signal, 2022

Shentong Yu is a Shanghai born, NYC based visual artist. Her work ranges from 3D Computer Graphics to Conceptual Photography, sharing an imaginative quality and reflecting her understanding of self-identity and the surroundings. Facial Expressions: The Signal is the work she presents in Phantasmaverse, which connects a questioning of the self with Freud’s theories and Surrealism.

Facial Expression, from 2021, depicts our changing selves in the age of social media and endless swiping. The Signal expands on this idea by going down the rabbit hole into a fully-developed surreal world. What led you to develop this environment? What does it bring to the original concept?

I think every artist has a different relationship with their artwork. For me, creating artwork is a way for me to document my growth, reflect on what I perceive, and visualize my thoughts in my mind. One of my favorite artists Gillian Wearing has a saying in her work Wearing Masks: “I believe that identity is fluid and it’s what you absorb from the world around you and internalize. But what you reveal of yourself to the world, that’s how other people define your identity.” I think that is highly consistent with my view of my work.

I started with traditional photography, taking pictures of beautiful faces. At some point, I began to question what these beautiful faces meant to me. I feel the face is a semblance of people’s identity, as it is what determines people’s first impressions while neglecting the inner side. These ideas inspired me to create Facial Expression (2021), in which I alternate my own face to challenge how a face can be seen.

While Facial Expression focuses on the outward appearance, I want to answer the question of what my inner world looks like naturally. I thought it was a good time to address this question after learning computer graphics for a year, to document what I had learned so far and create something meaningful to myself. And other than that, yes, what you see becomes what you express. I watched Alice in Wonderland by Tim Burton 8 times when I was a kid and am highly drawn to artwork with surreal aesthetics, so those are what influenced me to create the rabbit-hole storytelling and make it look like a dream. Finally, I created The Signal (2022), building this surreal world, visualizing my unconscious part, and telling the story of self-discovery. The Signal makes the idea in Facial Expression more complete.

“People’s participation in an interactive artwork adds new levels of meaning to the original piece”

You have also worked with collage and AR filters, what do these techniques bring to the ideas you want to convey about the self and virtual worlds?

AR is a really fun one. My motivation to create AR filters was simple, as I had a hard time removing stickers from my face when doing Does Shentong Dream of Electronic Sheep?, but AR makes it easy for everyone to try what I have done without suffering the pain. I love seeing people try out and their reactions. People’s participation in the work sort of adds new levels of meaning to the original piece, as it is not only me altering my face, but viewers can also alter their own faces using AR as well. 

In general, I enjoy trying out different visual mediums techniques. Sometimes I determine the idea first and then the most proper technique to use, sometimes I determine the technique I want to play with first and then tie it back to my thoughts. Different techniques give the work a different character as well as different viewing experiences. It is hard to pick my favorite technique because I think the charm of it is to feel how different they are from each other. As long as a technique makes the work look more visually attractive or the experience more engaging then I am good with it. So far, I have tried photography, image appropriation, stop-motion video, computer graphics video, collage animation, augmented reality, and 3D prints…They give me more possibilities and freedom when expressing my ideas.

Yuanqing Xie & June Bee, Aftermath of Us, 2023

Yuanqing Xie is is a photographer and new media artist who graduated from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
June Bee is a New York based designer who studied both Architectural Design and Design & Technology Bachelor’s programs at Parsons School of Design and currently pursuing a BFA degree in Interactive Media Arts at NYU. Their work Aftermath of Us, presented in Phantasmaverse, is a short film created with 3D animation that reflects on the consequences of AI technologies.

“Aftermath of Us” has a distinctively cinematic narrative. In your experience, how have digital technologies transformed filmmaking and visual storytelling? Which references from the history of cinema have influenced this work?

Digital technology has democratized the filmmaking process, allowing anyone with the right tools to create their own voice typically in the form of films and visual stories. This has led to a proliferation of independent filmmakers, animators, and video artists, helping to create a more diverse and vibrant film culture. In this piece, we decided to explore this form beyond traditional films and animations. June and I (Yuanqing) as independent 3D animators took the notion of such a decentralized design process into our team collaborations and even elevated it to the core of how the narration could be.

By using Unreal Engine, we designed an open-world space that allowed content to be present yet has the capacity to have instant impressions developed over time as what is composed to the viewing experiences.

With the revolutionized digital technologies nowadays, the engineering aspect of filmmaking and visual storytelling became easier and more accessible to create high-quality visual effects that convince audiences what is the new reality. Such trends have led to a large amount of immersive worlds being created in this era. In order to navigate within this ocean of multi-media works, we decided to look back to the origin of how these started – Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982). The piece draws heavily from the history of cinema, specifically the science fiction and cyberpunk genres that have explored the intersection between humanity and technology. It references Blade Runner in terms of both its aesthetic and the themes it explores, delving into the impact of technology on society and the environment through the use of literature, religious symbolism, dramatic themes, and film noir techniques. This theme is reflected in the retrofitted future portrayed in the film, which is both futuristic and rundown.

In terms of visual storytelling, this work also draws on experimental and avant-garde cinema traditions. The use of surreal and dreamlike imagery and the incorporation of music and sound effects to create an immersive atmosphere are reminiscent of the works of filmmakers like Maya Deren and Stan Brakhage.

“Niio provides this pure art and thoughts environment that allows our ideas to continue to grow and flourish.”

Additionally, the rise of streaming platforms such as Netflix have transformed the distribution and consumption of films, providing new opportunities for independent filmmakers to reach global audiences and allowing a wider range of voices and perspectives to be heard. By putting our work on Niio, we believed in the same effect of reaching a larger audience without time and space limitations. Moreover, Niio provides this pure art and thoughts environment that allows these ideas to continue to grow and flourish.

Overall, we think this work is a powerful example of how digital technologies can be used to create immersive and thought-provoking visual stories that draw on the rich traditions of cinema. By combining cutting-edge digital tools with a deep appreciation for the history of film, we can create a work that is both visually stunning and intellectually engaging.

To what extent did the environment you created influence the narrative? Did you start with a storyboard and built the spaces around this idea, or did you first create the spaces and then experiment with camera movements around them?

The idea for this piece arose from the sense of uncertainty that Yuanqing and I (June) felt last year. Even before artificial intelligence services like ChatGPT and Notion AI were introduced, we were unsure of our place and role in the world as creative technologists. Taking and gathering the various enlightening and concerning elements that technology brings about, we created a space to explore. By examining the dynamic relationships within the experience, we aim to answer the question “What happens after AI?”

Why does this experience provide an answer to that question? The animation is viewed through the lens of the bionic/AI. Using a VR headset, we follow the journey of a lost bionic who wakes up in the cracks between yesterday and tomorrow and overhears two people talking on an old recorder. The content of the old recorder serves as a guide for the wandering AI as it navigates through space. The recording is actually a real transcript of an interview between Blake Lemoine – a former artificial intelligence engineer from Google, and Google’s first dialogical AI – LaMDA.

This is a transcript of an interview that led to Blake Lemoine’s termination from Google. Lemoine was working on the LaMDa project. As he interacted with the dialogical AI, he became convinced that the AI was more sentient than just speaking from a database, and actually understood the conversation. As a result, Lemoine and one of his Google collaborators conducted the interview with the LaMDa AI, asking challenging questions such as whether the AI had read Les Miserables, what her favorite parts were, and why. They also asked her to write a fable based on a newly introduced concept, and inquired about her thoughts on the concept of a soul, and whether she thinks she has one. After the interview, it was difficult to tell if the AI was sentient or not, as she seemed to have a deep understanding of the topics they discussed.

“The environment in the piece had a significant influence on the narration. There was no original storyboard, but rather the camera movement became an attempt to simulate AI’s consciousness.”

To answer the question, the environment in the piece had a significant influence on the narration. The cave-like space was created first, and the exploratory journey within it became the storyline. There was no original storyboard, but rather the camera movement became an attempt to simulate AI’s consciousness from all sources we designed. The intricate environment and the recording of the interview between Blake Lemoine and Google’s LaMDA AI serve as a guiding voice and source for the simulation of AI’s wandering.

Read the interview with the curators of the Phantasmaverse exhibition and artcast, Carla Gannis and Snow Yunxue Fu

Claudia Hart on Machiavelli, politics, and NFTs

New York-based artist Claudia Hart’s background in art and architectural history and publishing has defined an artistic practice developed since the late 1980s and focused on bridging the physical and digital worlds. An art critic and curator as well as an artist, her production is infused with literary and art historical references, using the words of male philosophers, poets, and painters such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Lord Byron, Lewis Carroll, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Ford, or Walter Gropius to apply a feminist approach to the representation of women in art and the influence of digital technologies in our patriarchal society.

An early work that she has come back to regularly, A Child’s Machiavelli combines many of Hart’s interests, from literature to analog and digital image making, performance, and a satirical view of society. 

Claudia Hart. LittleGuys, 1994.

A Child’s Machiavelli is a series that started in 1995 and has seen many different versions over a span of almost three decades. Hart was living in Berlin at the time the city was reinventing itself after the fall of the infamous wall. As the artist recalls, despite the spirit of newly regained freedom and the reunification of its people, the emerging art scene was fiercely competitive. She told a friend, sarcastically, that what was needed in that context was a revision of Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532). The oft-quoted treatise on politics, known for its pragmatism and lack of morality, seemed particularly apt for a young society that was plunging deep and fast into capitalism. Hart’s version of The Prince, however, was not meant to be a guide for ambitious and reckless artists, but rather a fable about a time in which innocence would be lost to self-interest. She chose to create a primer to teach bad manners to children, aiming to spark a reflection on contemporary politics through the obvious contradiction between the childlike illustrations and the shockingly expedient advice.

Claudia Hart. A Child’s Machiavelli. Exhibition at bitforms (New York), 2020.

The initial version of A Child’s Machiavelli counted 31 small oil paintings, each one combining an illustration taken from a classic children’s book and the text that Hart had written, updating Machiavelli’s dictums in a more informal language. The paintings were exhibited in 1995 at the Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst in Berlin, accompanied by a small catalog produced by the Realismus Studio. From the beginning, the artist saw her Machiavelli as an imaginary book, with the paintings representing its pages, and quickly the project morphed into different formats, such as the first printed edition (Machiavelli für Kids. Hamburg: Edition Nautilus, 1995), or the hip-hop track Babyrap (1996), performed by Hart and produced in collaboration with the French band Assassin. The artist then imagined the next iteration of A Child’s Machiavelli as an animated series (intended to be aired in the popular MTV music video channel), which became her first 3D work, setting a turning point in her artistic production.

Hart’s version of The Prince is a fable about a time in which innocence would be lost to self-interest.

The series saw three more printed editions, one in French (Le Petit Machiavel illustré. Paris: Abbeville Press, 1998), and two in English. The first English version was published by Penguin Books in New York in 1998, and a decade later a second edition was published by Beatrice Books in a redesigned version. This latter edition, that came out in 2019, proved how relevant Machiavelli is to this day, and how aptly Hart’s satirical guide for infantile and selfish rulers reflects actual politics: in 2020, the results of  the United States presidential election were contested by Donald J. Trump, who refused to concede defeat and led his supporters to attack the US Capitol. The way in which Trump’s foolhardy self-interest and childish narcissism almost ended democracy seems right out of Machiavelli’s playbook and even more outlandish than Hart’s mordacious fairy tale.

Claudia Hart. A Child’s Machiavelli. New York: Beatrice Books, 2019

In 2021, as the NFT market boomed, Claudia Hart saw in this form of distribution and commercialization of digital art something akin to her experience with publishing books and magazines. The possibility of both widely distributing her artworks while retaining a sense of ownership (as is the case with printed books) appealed to her. So, the next version of A Child’s Machiavelli consists of 20 animated short films distributed as NFTs and presented in an exclusive artcast on Niio. On the occasion of this new phase in the Machiavelli project, I had a long conversation with the artist, in which we focused particularly on the latest iteration of the book as a series of NFTs.

Claudia Hart. DonDontThrowYourMoneyAround, 1994.

Continuing A Child’s Machiavelli as a series of NFTs seems a logical next step in the project, but what has been your experience with the NFT market so far?

When I first entered the NFT market, I was participating in auctions but I pulled out because they were taking what was intended to be a one-of-a-kind painting, a unique artwork, and then turning it into an edition. It seemed to me that this would hurt me. I always had a very ambivalent relationship with digital, but when NFTs came along, I realized that they are a hybrid of publishing, and digital, which is interesting to me. I’ve also had a very good experience with the community, it is very supportive. 

What is happening in the NFT space now that the crash happened, is that NFTs are being developed as a medium, not just as a register on the blockchain. If I take my earlier work, where for instance I do a movie that is 12 to 20 minutes long and it took me a year to make, and then I sell it as an NFT, I am giving the collector a guarantee of provenance and ownership. But the artwork is not “an NFT,” it’s a movie. As a medium, NFTs are serial, not sequential, because you can’t put things in order, like a baseball card is serial, but not sequential.

“NFTs are far from being anti-capitalist, as some people may want to describe them. They are pure neoliberalism.”

Claudia Hart

Since the original drawings are inspired by 1920s children’s books and the text was written in the 1990s, have you considered creating a new version using other references from children’s literature and updating the language to how kids talk today?

The illustrations I use in this series (the potter, the rabbit, Alice, and so forth), are all in the public domain. I have a collection of these illustrations from out-of-print books from the olden days, which I used to create the paintings and drawings for A Child’s Machiavelli. This is relevant in terms of copyright in relation to NFTs, because these are also about rights ownership. I think the issue of ownership, certified on the blockchain, coupled with distribution everywhere, is mainly the radical part of the production. The rights of the artwork usually remain with the artist, but lately several NFT projects have been offering the copyright of the image to the owner of the NFT, so some NFT collectors expect to have full rights over the artwork they bought. 

Claudia Hart. YoureNoGood, 1994.

Therefore, it can be said that NFTs are far from being anti-capitalist, as some people may want to describe them. They are pure neoliberalism. I believe that by selling NFTs I am not helping, but that is also part of why I want to make all my NFTs very dark and perverse, and about power. I have done another series about the Art of War, which has not been released yet. I also have handmade illustrations that I will turn ultimately into animations as well. Those have vocalizations, where I process the sound and I do interesting things with it. 

Claudia Hart. GivingThingsAway, 1994

The NFT market has been quite wild over the last two years, maybe as fiercely competitive as the art scene of the mid-1990s in Berlin. Do you see Machiavellian tactics in it?

The crypto winter cleared the ground of the pure, speculative designer ethos. It cleared the ground for artists, because now that there’s not so much money and attention we can focus on exploring NFTs as an artistic form. Some artists are bringing back generative art in new forms, and then there’s what I said about it being a serial but not sequential type of medium. Also, the NFT marketplaces are now looking for new blood, because those that were there in the first place are a bit contaminated right now. So they need a whole bunch of newbies like me, because they can sell us for cheaper. It’s the same thing in the art world: after a fiscal crash, the speculators like to bring in new “undiscovered artists,” because we’re cheaper.

Explore Claudia Hart’s work on Niio

Spøgelsesmaskinen: invoking the ghost in the machine

Pau Waelder

Rune Brink Hansen (Denmark, 1979) is a digital designer and artist who has developed a career in web design, 3D modeling and VJing since the early 2000s, creating stage design for operas, concerts, and festivals, as well as spatial design for museum exhibitions. Since 2010, he has created a wide range of immersive and interactive light installation pieces in Danish galleries and museums and has also worked as curator in several contemporary art projects. In May 2021, he created Spøgelsesmaskinen (“the ghost machine,” in Danish), an alter ego and a specific project for the NFT scene that focuses on creating short 3D animations in a distinctive pixelated style that depict surreal and eerie scenes involving computers and other machines. After successfully selling his NFTs on Tezos, Ethereum, and Solana, he is now preparing screen-based pieces to exhibit in art galleries.

On the occasion of his solo artcast Abnor Mall, we spoke about his career, his aesthetic and conceptual choices, and the influence that the NFT scene has had on this production and creative process.

Rune Brink and Yoke Aps, KONSTRUKTUR. Interactive installation at Nikolaj Kunsthal, 2018

You are known for your interactive and kinetic light installations, which often create a novel experience of the surrounding space. What interests you about working with light and the architectural space?

I have always been interested in telling a story in a different way than you would normally find in a movie or a book, a way in which you can become the main protagonist of an experience that the story creates. I have done a lot of installations for cultural heritage museums, and in them I’ve tried to develop a visual language that would keep a certain level of abstraction, in a way to focus on telling the story. And then by doing spatial projections, or light installations, I have created a landscape around the visitors that would trigger their imagination to feel that they are the main character of the story, instead of watching something at a distance. For instance, if I had to depict a war zone, I’d rather create an atmosphere of anxiety and work with the feelings it generates rather than show images. 

So I would say that this is the reason why, when I started to work in art installations, coming from a design background and then doing visuals for music, I decided to create these spaces for the audiences where they really feel immersed and not just watching someone else. I have always been hesitant to create a narrative that is too defined and detached from the viewer, even when I did live visuals for music. I didn’t want to create a perception of the music that was too concrete, too pre-defined.

Spøgelsesmaskinen. Abnormall: Parking, 2022

The animations you create as Spøgelsesmaskinen usually depict scenes in carefully set up spaces, how do they relate to your artistic installations?

In 2009 I did a stage design for the opera Konsumia by Rasmus Zwicki. The story was about a group of people trapped inside a digital illusion. The opera singers would have to sing to make sure that the computer controlling the illusion couldn’t understand what they were talking about. All of this was situated in this dull, eerie, office landscape that represented the capitalistic world. I did the stage design in the exact style I’m now using with Spøgelsesmaskinen, with non-antialiased, very hard pixels and low resolution. 

So I thought, okay, I would really like to go back to this world. It was really a very nice world for me to work in. So that led to what is Spøgelsesmaskinen, basically. And then things started to take off, I started to go into different directions, but I also went back into doing more abstract experimentations. But obviously, the style that is identified with Spøgelsesmaskinen comes from stage design and probably that is why they look like tableaus, in small spaces, although without any characters. But there may be a spirit somewhere in the room…

“The style of Spøgelsesmaskinen comes from stage design. That is why they look like tableaus, in small spaces, although without any characters.”

Spøgelsesmaskinen means “The Ghost Machine:” why did you choose this alias? Is that connected to the idea of “the ghost in the machine” and the use of glitches?

In my early childhood, maybe at the age of eight or nine, the first computer came into my home. To me, the computer was always surrounded by mystery, an uncanny feeling. The computer was in a corner of my bedroom. I was in my bed at night, and I was looking at it and just expecting it to wake up on its own. Because for me, this was magic. In Microsoft DOS, there was this application called Q Basic, where you could write small applications. And I wrote my first chatbot, which would just reply to different prompts. And I could sit for hours chatting with the bot, having a pre-programmed conversation, and feeling that there might be a spirit in this machine, somehow. This continues coming back to me: the complexity of the machine is still enough to fool me into believing it’s alive, in a way.

And how do the glitches come in?

The glitches are what the computer does that is unexpected to the human. I guess that’s why glitches are celebrated, especially right now, as the computer’s capability of being an artist on its own, in a way creating things that are unexpected. Design today is very inspired by how HTML is wrapping different boxes around and making mistakes. There is a huge trend of putting text on top of images halfway, all these different things are coming out of what the computer can do. And so the glitch is proof that the computer is superior or that the computer can surprise us.

“The complexity of the machine is still enough to fool me into believing it’s alive, in a way.”

In relation to this ability of the computer to create, now that artists are increasingly integrating AI tools into their creative processes, are you interested in this possibility?

Yes, certainly. I recently did an installation for YOKE with AI Sweden for the Nobel Prize Museum’s new exhibition, Life Eternal, at Liljevalchs art gallery in Stockholm. The installation is based on GPT SW3, a Swedish version of the GPT-3 generative language model, and used the text of the novel Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. Visitors can have a conversation with an AI system modeled after the protagonist of the book on the theme of eternal life. So, I have worked with AI in the facet of my work related to installations and stage design, but not yet as a tool to create visual compositions. I’m very open to doing so, but I just haven’t found the right opportunity.

Spøgelsesmaskinen. Abnormall: Electro, 2022

The aesthetics of your work as Spøgelsesmaskine are clearly influenced by computer graphics from the early 1990s, which is about the time you started doing 3D animations before becoming a graphic designer and VJ. How do all these experiences collide in your present work?

I have this background as a graphic designer, and then I’ve worked with a lot of installations, festivals, and live events, building big physical installations that are very costly, so I’m used to dealing with all the pressures and limitations, making sure that things are not coming down from the walls or that I don’t go over the budget. In this work with 3D animations I feel that I have the complete freedom to do anything I want, to experiment in any crazy way I like to. And sometimes it seems to me that I am also sketching physical works to come. So in a way, they are a sort of doodle, or a sketch. Even though they are self contained pieces on their own.

“The glitch is proof that the computer is superior or that the computer can surprise us.”

Your low pixel resolution work becomes instantly recognizable. Do you feel that in an environment saturated with images, and particularly in the NFT community, with many similar artworks, it is important to stand out with a distinctive visual style?

Yes, I’m trying to stick to it. Because I feel that it’s becoming my signature. And I never really had a style before, I never drew, or painted. So it feels like I’m finally coming to a place where I can connect with what I create very easily. Working with 3D has always been limited by the looks of the final render, because the final render never looks like reality, it’s very hard to make it look realistic. And so I’ve always been struggling with 3D, but now I found a render style that is actually taking me into a more humble space. I think it was p1xelfool who said that the lower the resolution, the more connected to the machine he felt. I agree and I think that working in low resolution is a way for us to feel this craftsmanship and also to feel that the computer is not overdoing it, that you can still be in control. It’s not this hyper technological thing that you need the robots to do it for you. It is also a way to say: I don’t need 204k screens, I don’t need to buy new things all the time. I can work with what I have, what has been here for a long time.

In that sense, you have mentioned that you find a lot of 3D models in libraries of objects that no one uses anymore, and that you include in your scenes.

Yes, there are so many 3D models on different platforms that represent different times in history, for instance old mobile phones that are not being used anymore for the commercial purpose they were built for. So it’s a fun way of diving into the history of 3D models, and it’s interesting to see how much time and thought went into modeling all these objects that are now lying in digital junkyards.

Spøgelsesmaskinen. Abnormall: Flash, 2022

So, to better understand the process, you create the whole model in 3D, and then you apply the rendering in a very low resolution, is that correct?

Yes. For some of the scenes I’ve used all these different 3D models I’ve found and put them together, and for others I model from scratch because I need to build a specific scene. Then an interesting thing happens with the loss of information when rendering at a low resolution: sometimes it doesn’t look good the first time, and I have to change the objects, the positions, maybe zoom in more, get more or less details, and so on. I render them in 320 x 240 pixels and scale them up frame by frame, to double the size, and then turn them into GIFs. I think Photoshop is getting rid of GIFs, so maybe soon I will probably have to start working on older machines to actually be able to run the software

Right now I’m working with a company that builds LED screens and I’m doing tests to have an animation run in the screen at the exact size, each pixel an LED, with no scaling, a sharp image. For that I need to avoid any form of antialiasing, which luckily can still be the disabled in some software. 

You have decades of experience with 3D imaging and digital creation tools. What do you think about the development of digital technologies for creatives? Do you consider that open source software has had a major impact on creativity?

I wouldn’t be able to use abandoned software and hardware in the future if there wasn’t an open source community. I did a small project called Memory Leaks in which I worked on the Classic Mac OS. And that was only possible because of the community that is still putting up the software online, hosting it, and making it available for free. The same goes for the 3D models. I’m working on a series of assets for people to create their own scenes. So I’m planning to do a series in which every model is made by me from scratch and everything is released for people to use in different ways.

“The NFT scene has changed my life completely.”

What has the NFT market brought to your practice and its sustainability?

It changed my life completely. I went from working freelance for museums, and very rarely doing my own installations, maybe once a year, to only being on my own now. So it has completely changed everything. In Denmark, there is a lot of interest in blockchain because it is still so new and few people work on it. So basically every week, I have five phone calls with organizations asking me how they can implement blockchain and what they can do with it. I started a small think tank with two friends of mine, called Korridor.digital, which is a shared workspace for blockchain projects in the field of art. We try to help other artists, we do workshops. And we just recently moved into an art foundation where we are now helping to consult in this field.

My network has really changed, I have made so many friends all over the globe in the last few years, and such a huge network, having places to crash in all the major cities of the world, that it is completely mind blowing, and amazing. Even if NFTs are a capitalistic project, they have become a huge social movement. I also worked for some time on the Afghan NFT project where we try to raise money for African artists and Africans in general in need. About 50 artists donated works, and we raised around $18,000. Unfortunately crypto is currently banned there.

Spøgelsesmaskinen. Abnormall: Escalation, 2022

You work under two different names, one of them specifically directed to the NFT market. How does that affect your practice? Can you balance both aspects of your work?

I don’t know. What should I do? Help me! The Spøgelsesmaskinen project is growing, now I’m going to do exhibitions in Copenhagen, so I guess I will start to work with some specialists who can help me out a little bit. Because I recently did a permanent light installation in a park which is like a playground where you can play with light, and that has really nothing to do with the concept of Spøgelsesmaskinen. So for me it is good to have these two names and separate the kind of work that I do. Being online as a different person that is not related to my real identity or my personal life is very interesting. And starting from scratch Twitter and Instagram accounts that are now outnumbering my other accounts, this gives so much energy. So in that sense, I am enjoying the freedom it gives me to try out something new.