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 An art critic and curator as well as an artist, her production is infused with literary and art historical references, using the words of male philosophers, poets, and painters such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Lord Byron, Lewis Carroll, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Ford, or Walter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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The following text is an excerpt from my contribution to the book The Meaning of Creativity in the Age of AI, edited by Raivo Kelomees, Varvara Guljajeva, and Oliver Laas (Tallinn: EKA, 2022). The volume is focuses on critical observations of the possibilities of Artificial Intelligence in the field of the arts and includes contributions by artists, art professionals, and scholars Varvara Guljajeva, Chris Hales, Mar Canet Solà, Jon Karvinen, Luba Elliot, Oliver Laas, Raivo Kelomees, Mauri Kaipainen, Pia Tikka, and Sabine Himmelsbach.
The book, which addresses key questions currently being debated around AI systems such as DALL-E 2 and Chat GPT, has been recently made available as afree PDF.
Can you teach your machine to draw?
On 5th February 1965, during the opening of Georg Nees’ exhibition of algorithmic art at the Technische Hochschule in Stuttgart, there was an exchange between the engineer and an artist who asked him provocatively if he could teach the computer to draw the same way he did. Nees replied that, given a precise description, he could effectively write a program that would produce drawings in the artist’s style (Nake, 2010, p.40). His response echoes the conjecture that had given birth to the field of artificial intelligence ten years earlier: that “every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it” (Moor, 2006, p.87). It should be noted that, at least at this point, the machine is not meant to think or create, but simulate. In his seminal paper from 1950, Alan Turing already suggested that computers could perform an “imitation game” (later known as the Turing Test) in which the aim was to mimic human intelligence to the point of seeming human to an external observer (Turing, 1950).
Therefore, what Nees asserted is that the computer could create a successful imitation of the artist’s work. The exchange between Nees and the artist did not go well, as the engineer’s vision of a computable art seemed to threaten the superiority of artistic creativity. Upset and resentful, the artist and his colleagues left the room, with philosopher Max Bense trying to appease them by calling the art made with computers “artificial” (Nake, 2010, p.40) – as opposed, one might think, to a “natural” art made by human artists. The need for this distinction denotes the uneasy relationship between artists and their tools, the latter supposedly having no agency at all, being mere instruments in the skilled hands of the artist.
Certainly, there had been some room for randomness and uncontrolled processes to emerge in the different artistic practices that had succeeded each other during the 20th century, but until that point creativity was unquestionably anthropocentric, with the artist (or their assistants), at the centre of the creation of every artwork. The computer introduced an unprecedented level of autonomy: the artist only needed to write a set of instructions, the program did the rest. This was challenging for artists at a time when few had seen a computer and even fewer knew how to write a program or understood what it could do.
Despite the profound differences from our current perception of computers, over fifty years later, AI still holds the same fascination and is subject to the same misunderstandings as early computer art. The initial rejection of computer-generated art has turned to uncritical enthusiasm, and the prospect of an art that does not need human artists has been celebrated with a spectacular sale at Christie’s. But the artist was never out of the picture.
Pioneering computer artist Vera Molnarcreated her first artworks in the 1960s with a “machine imaginaire”, a program for an imaginary computer that helped her develop a series of combinatorial compositions of geometric forms and colours. In 1968, she started working with a real computer (which back then was only available at a research lab), but she has always stressed that the machine is, to her, nothing but a tool: “The computer helps, but it does not ′do′, does not ′design′ or ′invent′ anything” (Molnar, 1990, p.16).
Another pioneer, Frieder Nake, recalls the experience of creating his first algorithmic drawing in 1965, underscoring his role as the creator of the artwork:
“Clearly: I was the artist! A laughable artist, to be sure. […] But an artist insofar as he – like all other artists – decided when an image was finished or whether it was finished at all and not rather to be thrown away. I developed the general software, wrote the specific program, set the parameters for running the program. […] I influenced the process of materialization by choosing the paper, the pens, and the inks; and I finally selected the pieces that were to be destroyed or to leave the studio to be presented to the public.”
Manfred Mohr, one of the first artists to work with computers who, like Molnar, had a background in fine arts instead of mathematics, has frequently stated that his artworks transcend the computational process they are based on: “My artistic goal is reached” he states, “when a finished work can visually dissociate itself from its logical content and convincingly stand as an independent abstract entity” (Mohr, 2002).
Algorithmic artists have played with the balance between control and randomness, always keeping a direct involvement in every part of the process of creation, from the code to the final output. The software, however, can be allowed a greater portion of the decision making. This is what Harold Cohen did in 1973 when he developed AARON, a computer program designed to generate drawings on its own, with no visual input, based on a complex series of instructions written by the artist.
Influenced by the ideas that were being discussed at Stanford University’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the time, Cohen sought to understand how images were made. AARON aimed to answer that question by creating drawings that simulated those of a human artist, without human intervention. Cohen stressed AARON was “not an artists’ tool” but “a complete and functionally independent entity, capable of generating autonomously an endless succession of different drawings” (Cohen, 1979). This autonomy led to thinking about AARON in cognitive terms, with Cohen himself stating that the program “has a very clear idea of what it is doing” (Cohen and Cohen, 1995, p.3). For over four decades, the artist kept developing the program, establishing a relationship that he described as the kind of collaboration one would have with another human being:
“AARON is teaching me things all the way down the line. From the beginning, it has always been very much a two-way interaction. I have learned things about what I want from AARON that I could never have learned without AARON”
Cohen and Cohen, 1995, p.12
Cohen’s work prefigured the current applications of AI systems in art making, not only in the way the program worked but also in its role as a collaborator rather than a mere tool.
Artists working with artificial neural networks nowadays describe their experience in similar terms to those expressed by AARON’s creator. When Anna Ridler created her own dataset of 200 drawings to train a GAN for her animated film Fall of the House of Usher I (2017), she sought to push the boundaries of creativity by producing an artwork that is a machine generated interpretation of her drawings, which in turn represent scenes from a silent film based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. The outcome has led her to wonder where is the “real” artwork, and to doubt the role that the program plays in its making: “I do not see a GAN as a tool like I would think of say a photoshop filter but neither would I see it is as true creative partner. I’m not really quite sure what is is” (Ridler, 2018).
For Patrick Tresset, working with robots that can draw in their own style enables him to distance himself from his work: “I found it very difficult to show my work, as a painter, as an emotional thing, and the distance that we have with the action when you use computers, that you are not directly involved… makes it far easier for me to exhibit” (Upton, 2018).
Memo Akten explores the structure and functioning of artificial neural networks and uses Machine Learning as a form of exploring human thinking: “My main interest,” he states, “is in using machines that learn as a reflection on ourselves, and how we navigate our world, how we learn and ‘understand’, and ultimately how we make decisions and take actions” (Akten, 2018).
Gregory Chatonsky criticizes the perception of the artist as purely autonomous and the machine as a simple tool, while describing his creative process as an interaction with the software that not only generates images but also spurs his imagination: “Working with a neural network to produce images or texts,” he states, “I perceive how my imagination develops, becomes disproportionate and germinates in all directions. I try to adapt to this rhythm, to this breath. It’s almost alive” (Chatonsky, 2020).
These statements show that artists have carried out a dialogical relationship with the software they have used, considering it not just an instrument, but a collaborator. However, the deeply entrenched perception of the artist as the sole creator of the artwork, in full control of every aspect of the outcome, looms over this partnership insisting that either the machine is to remain a mere tool or it is destined to take over the artist’s role.
Towards post-anthropocentric creativity
The question whether a machine can be creative is recurrently asked as AI systems increase their capabilities and become more sophisticated. Recently developed systems such as CAN (Creative Adversarial Network), which is taught to deviate from the examples it has learnt in order to produce new types of images (Elgammal et. al., 2017), or DALL-E, which can generate images from text descriptions (Ramesh et. al., 2021), illustrate how far computers can go in creating visual content.
CAN has even been used in an attempt to pass the Turing Test, that is, to produce machine-generated art that appears indistinguishable from that created by an artist. The results have been disputed in a study that shows a preference for art made by humans and suggests that what should be asked is not if AI can create art, but whether the art created by AI is worthy (Hong and Ming, 2019).
Seen from this perspective, the debate pivots to more practical considerations: what can AI do, and how can it be used? GANs are widely employed by artists nowadays, but they tend to generate the same type of images because of the limitations of the programs and the processors. In this sense, the artificial neural networks are not particularly creative because they do not produce anything that breaks out from a set of established parameters and similar outputs. The creativity stems from how artists use these images and assign them a certain narrative. Therefore, to expect machines to become creative by following problem-solving approaches seems limiting and even counterproductive (Esling and Devis, 2020), given that we don’t even understand how creativity works and cannot translate it into computable formulas.
Instead of asking whether an AI system can replace an artist, it would be more interesting to consider how artists can expand their creativity using AI. This proposition does not imply considering the artist as the sole creator of the artwork, but moves past this preconception to embrace a notion of creativity that includes all the actors involved, human and non-human.
Jan Løhmann Stephensen suggests the terms “postcreativity” or “postanthropocentric creativity” to challenge the idea of creativity as something that is exclusive to humans and a marker of human “greatness” (Løhmann, 2019). Through the lens of postcreativity, we can consider artworks as the outcome of an interaction between a variety of actors, including humans, objects, systems, and environments. In AI-generated art, this means taking into account all the people, animals, natural environments, institutions, communities, software, networks, etc. that take part, more or less directly, more or less willingly, in the artwork’s making.
This opens up deeper reflection on how the piece is created, as do Anna Ridler and Memo Akten in their examination of the artificial neural networks they use. It also allows artists to distance themselves from the specific output while retaining authorship of the process, as do Patrick Tresset and Guido Segni – the latter currently engaged in a five year project titled Demand Full Laziness(2018-2023), in which he outsources his artistic production to a deep learning algorithm trained with images from his moments of rest. Overall, it emphasises the potential of co-creation between humans and machines, in which computers do not mimic, but expand human creativity.
Artificial Intelligence has developed at a growing pace over the past seven decades, and it will continue to do so, bringing new challenges and possibilities for computer-generated art. As several authors point out, AI is currently at a stage equivalent to the daguerrotype in photography (Aguera, 2016; Hertzman, 2018), and it is difficult to predict what novel forms of creativity it will unfold. It might well be, if AI were to reach a stage of consciousness or self-volition, that a program may not be interested in producing a drawing or a photograph and would rather express itself through elegant programming code or a beautiful mathematical equation. Or, maybe it would even create art that is not intended for humans to understand, but is addressed to fellow AIs.
Elgammal, A., Liu, B., Elhoseiny, M., Mazzone, M., 2017. CAN: Creative Adversarial Networks Generating “Art” by Learning About Styles and Deviating from Style Norms. Cornell University [online] Available at: https://arxiv.org/abs/1706.07068 [Accessed 14 March 2021].
Esling, P., and Devis, N., 2020. Creativity In The Era Of Artificial Intelligence. Cornell University [online] Available at: https://arxiv.org/abs/2008.05959v1 [Accessed 14 March 2021].
Hong, J. and Ming Curran, N., 2019. Artiﬁcial Intelligence, Artists, and Art: Attitudes Toward Artwork Produced By Humans vs. Artiﬁcial Intelligence. ACM Trans. Multimedia Comput. Commun. Appl., 15(2). Available at: https://doi.org/10.1145/3326337 [Accessed 14 March 2021].
Løhmann Stephensen, J., 2019. Towards a Philosophy of Post-creative Practices? – Reading Obvious’ “Portrait of Edmond de Belamy.” In: Politics of the Machine Beirut 2019 (POM2019). [online] Beirut: BCS Learning and Development Ltd., pp.21-30. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.14236/ewic/POM19.4 [Accessed 14 March 2021].
Marcus, G. and Davis, E., 2019. Rebooting AI. Building Artificial Intelligence We Can Trust. New York: Pantheon Books.
Mohr, M., 2002. Artist’s Statement. Ylem Journal, Artists using Science & Technology, 22(10), p.5.
Ramesh, A., Pavlov, M., Goh, G., Gray, S., Voss, C., Radford, A., Chen, M., Sutskever, I., 2021. Zero-Shot Text-to-Image Generation. Cornell University [online] Available at: https://arxiv.org/abs/2102.12092 [Accessed 14 March 2021].
Emotions are complicated, much more than a set of emojis can ever convey. “By one estimate, more than 90 definitions of «emotion» were proposed over the course of the 20th century,” stated psychologist Robert Pluchnik , the author of one of the most widely cited theories of basic emotions. In 1958, Pluchnik suggested a structure based on eight basic bipolar emotions: joy versus sorrow, anger versus fear, acceptance versus disgust and surprise versus expectancy. Later on, in 1980, he developed this classification further into a more complex “wheel of emotions,” analogous to a color wheel, in which primary emotions were placed forming a circle, with opposites 180 degrees apart and other emotions placed between them, as mixtures of the primary emotions in the same manner that primary colors can be mixed to obtain secondary colors.
Inspired by Pluchnik’s diagram, in early August 2022 visual artists Asaf and Tomer Hanuka created Moodies, a collection of 7,401 artworks generated from a set of 32 original illustrations depicting human emotions in the form of a portrait of a fictional character whose face is a big hole (which the artists call “the cave”), filled and surrounded by different elements that build a visual metaphor of each emotional state. Notably, the brothers Hanuka have updated some of the terms in Pluchnik’s diagram, adapting it to the type of emotions that are prevalent in a society where human interactions are mediated by social media and messaging apps.
For instance, the term “annoyance” in Pluchnik’s wheel becomes FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), a particular kind of annoyance we all experience in the fast-paced “present” built by mass media. Similarly, “aggressiveness” is described as “bullish,” an attitude that is at once celebrated by those who identify with toxic masculinity and frowned upon by those who decry a behavior that preys on the weak and can have fatal consequences (such as cyberbullying). Other changes may seem a matter of semantics, but they are nonetheless significant. Take “serenity”, which becomes “nostalgia,” a feeling particularly connected to Asaf’s and Tomer’s generation, whose childhood was deeply influenced by the culture of the 1980s, which has since been constantly repackaged a resold to them as adults, cashing in on their longing for the past. Additionally, “admiration” becomes “proud,” signaling the growing importance of the self in our highly individualistic society.
These subtle changes illustrate the attention that both artists have put into creating a depiction of human emotions that speaks to the specific context of social media and the NFT art scene. Moodies stems from the Hanuka brothers’ desire to re-imagine the profile picture or selfie as it is used in today’s world; the image that has come to define us in the social world. Asaf and Tomer therefore describe the Moodies as ‘anti-emojis’ and aim to re-introduce to our social lives conversations about emotions and the inner-self rather than just creating pictures of perfect lives that are usually experienced as cover-ups.
‘FOMO’, for example, portrays an eyeball with a knife poking down its middle where the face is supposed to be, in the background we see a broken down backyard that looks out on Hollywood Hills. The person in the image has a bad hairdo with bald spots on the top of his scalp, and the grass that makes up his body and the background is far from being green. ‘Nostalgia’ depicts an old tape recorder in place of a face, the figure wears a Duran Duran 80’s hairdo and a jean jacket, and the background is a retro gas station.
Pluchnik’s diagram not only provided inspiration but also the blueprint for an algorithmic creation based on combining the elements in each of the 32 original drawings. These illustrations, termed “Pure Soul Moodies,” are each composed of 6 elements: Aura (head), Body (clothing), Cave (face), Environment (backdrop), and Skin (color or texture of the skin). These elements are then associated with the emotion that the Pure Soul represents, thus creating several thousands of mixed emotions artworks, in which each part of the drawing corresponds to an emotion. The compositions resulting from this process, alongside the original 32 Pure Souls, constitute the Moodies NFT collection, each artwork being minted as a unique piece.
A meaningful PFP project
Moodies belong to a type of NFT projects known as PFP, which stands for profile picture: these are illustrations intended to be used by their collectors as profile pictures on social media. Increasingly popular thanks to the success of early projects such as Larva Lab’s CryptoPunks or the ubiquitous Bored Ape Yacht Club, that have inspired an endless array of copycats, PFP NFTs combine the uniqueness of the artwork with the desire to create a personal identity on social networks that is at the same time distinctly individualistic yet belonging to a group. However, Moodies stands out for introducing a narrative and an underlying concept that is lacking everywhere else. Award-winning illustrators and storytellers, Asaf and Tomer Hanuka have succeeded in creating a series of artworks that respond to the driving aesthetics of the NFT space but also introduce a reflection on the need to express one’s personality and emotions. As Pluchnik stated:
“Although personality is usually taught in universities as if it had little or nothing to do with emotions, words such as gloomy, resentful, anxious and calm can describe personality traits as well as emotional states. An individual can feel depressed, or be a depressed person, feel nervous or be a nervous person. […] Thus personality traits may be conceptualized as being derived from mixtures of emotions.”
In this sense, the Moodies aptly connect the depiction of a combination of emotions with the construction of one’s personality, and more specifically, one’s persona in a social environment like those provided by Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and so forth. The chaotic combination of elements in a surreal and somehow uneasy relationship becomes a perfect illustration of Pluchnik’s description of emotions as unstable processes:
“Emotions are not simply linear events, but rather are feedback processes. The function of emotion is to restore the individual to a state of equilibrium when unexpected or unusual events create disequilibrium.”
The artists have therefore succeeded in creating a series of artworks that reflect on our digital identity and our need to belong to a group, which nowadays can be made of a large number of geographically distant and anonymous people, but also invite expressing our inner self in a playful way: “We wanted to create a group of people that care about feelings,” state Asaf and Tomer. “Instagram is about looking good and feeling happy: this is manipulation, forcing you aggressively to be happy. For us this felt fake, and we wanted to turn this inside out. Inside you have darkness, pain, love, we are made up of a cocktail of good and bad.”
Into the Moodieverse
Moodies goes beyond the depiction of mixed emotions in a set of algorithmically combined portraits. The artists are currently developing a larger story that builds a whole world around the initial idea of bringing the wheel of emotions to life. Central to this story is a character known as The Great Moodie, “a brilliant physician turned mentalist who modeled the principles of electromagnetics to uncover the mysteries of the unconscious mind.” This enigmatic character, which according to the story created a machine capable of tapping into the collective unconscious, known as the Soul-Ray, is said to have disappeared and will soon resurface in the Metaverse.
The Hanuka brothers consider this character essential to the plot that unites the whole Moodies project and will lead its continuation beyond the initial launch of the NFT series, which quickly sold out and is now only available in the secondary market.
“The relationship between the great Moodie and the Moodies is that first we wanted to create generative art, something we wanted to control mixed with random decisions, and then we needed to define a concept to justify this loss of control, which brought us to creating mixed emotions. The Great Moodie is us trying to visualize feelings. There is this visual metaphor: The Great Moodie is what it means to be an artist.”
Just like The Great Moodie, the Hanuka brothers have big plans for this project which they keep under wraps for the moment, but that will unfold in a fully developed narrative and a growing community experience for their NFT holders. The project has already expanded beyond the blockchain to create experiences with people in the real world: the Moodies have been touring the world, making appearances in Los Angeles and at NFT NYC 2022. Their latest stop is Tel Aviv, where the Hanuka brothers have displayed a selection of the collection at SAGA, a cave-shaped gallery in Jaffa.
Asaf Hanuka is based in Tel Aviv and serves as the Head of Department at Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Art. He is also an illustrator and comic book artist. He has won multiple international awards including the Eisner for best US edition of international material for The Realist, an autobiographical weekly comic, and recently published I’m Still Alive with writer Roberto Saviano (Gomorrah).
Tomer Hanuka is based in New York and has most recently worked in visual development with Netflix and Sony for live-action and animated projects. He is an illustrator and cartoonist who regularly contributes to magazines such as The New Yorker, Time Magazine, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone. Tomer has exhibited at international museums such as The British Design Museum and has won multiple industry awards including Gold medals from The Society of Illustrators and The Society of Publication Designers.
They have also co-created, with the collaboration of writer Boaz Lavie, The Divine, a graphic novel which made The New York Times bestseller list, was nominated for a Hugo, and won the International Manga Award. Publisher’s Weekly described it as “Heady, hellacious, and phantasmagoric”. In addition, the brothers Hanuka have contributed a story to the Attack on Titan anthology, published by Kodansha Comics.
 Robert Plutchnik. The nature of emotions. American Scientist ; Research Triangle Park Tome 89, N.º 4, (Jul/Aug 2001): 344-350.
Julian Brangold (Buenos Aires, 1986) is one of the leading names in the growing digital art community in Argentina. Through painting, computer programming, 3D modeling, video installations, collage, and a myriad of digital mediums, he addresses how technologies such as artificial intelligence and data processing are shaping our culture and memory, as well as our notion of self. An active participant in the cryptoart scene and NFT market in Argentina he has been exploring art on the blockchain since 2020 and is currently the Director of Programming at Museum of Crypto Art, a web3 native cultural institution.
Coinciding with the launch of his solo artcast Observation Machines, which brings together a selection of four artworks from a recent series exploring classical sculpture and computer glitches, we sat down to discuss his work and views on the digital art scene.
Every artist studying Fine Arts is confronted with classical sculpture as a model and a source of inspiration, to the point that this particular period in the history of sculpture has become intrinsically associated with the concept of Fine Arts and academia. Is it correct to see in your work a reaction to this?
I see the aesthetic territory of Greco-roman classical statues as a marker for how contemporary imaginaries are constructed today. Our cultural identities are shaped by this legacy, and my interest resides in a sort of ontological anchor to this node, and how it connects with the now, how it has an impact on our collective cultural memory. More specifically, I am fascinated by how information storage technologies today shape our relationship to that legacy that exists in the form of data, and how it makes us connect to that information so differently from how we could in the past.
My bond to this imagery began when I came across an overwhelmingly enormous Russian database that stored hundreds of thousands of photographs of ancient Greco-roman culture (art, architecture, ornaments, technical objects). I wanted to explore how appropriating this complete sea of information as a subject matter would look like. The first exploration came from creating a data scraper that stole all the images of sculptures from the website and then grabbing small bits from that huge span of data and developing an intimate relationship with just one cutout to create something very human, very handcrafted and detailed. In this case a drawing, or a series of drawings. In the process, I also explored how technological tools would facilitate a sort of mishmash of the aesthetic “trigger” of these classical imaginaries (we know immediately what we are seeing when we come across these images) with modern computer aesthetics.
Physical mixed media artworks such as the Anonymous Elements of Cultural Memory (2019) series already show an interest in classical sculpture, a form or rendering (as a drawing) and duplication. These elements are clearly present in your digital artworks, what does working with 3D rendering bring to your original intentions in these series?
This is a very interesting question because for years I worked with flat images, as you mention, in drawings, and then translated them to physical large-scale collages where the process of printing and then hand-pasting the different parts of the composition was part of the work itself. The jump to 3D was in the same line, a large database of 3D scanned classical sculptures (in this case one that is meant for people to be able to print out their own versions of this classic statuary), but I became very enticed with the idea of manipulating these object in 3D space because the visual possibilities expanded enormously. My approach is mediated a lot by error aesthetics, the computing error as a sort of visualizer of the hidden side of technology, of a great revealer of what commercial technology tries to hide. So error was a big part of the transition from 2D to 3D, in the sense that the manipulations were about destroying these 3D models, breaking them, bending them, and then seeing what happens when I tried to put them back together. 3D models have a lot more potential for destruction, at least in my mind, because there is simply more data to work with, more possible iterations of the same object when, for example, you can rotate 360 degrees.
Your digital drawings bring to a tangible medium (paper) a single fixed composition that stems from your exploration of 3D models. How is the process that goes from the 3D model to the drawing? Do you build the composition “manually” (intervening in every step) or do you let the software decide on certain aspects of it?
I love to use randomness in my work. I am very fond of serendipitous findings in the process of building an image, especially when working with computers, because this error aesthetic shines through. I use a lot of procedural tools in 3D to create the destruction and decomposition of these 3D models, and the outcomes are usually very surprising and accidental. The first explorations based on photographs from 2019 and 2020 were digital but hand drawn, because I was looking to convey a more intimate relationship with the material. Even the return to the physical outcomes (the printing and then collaging these drawings on a canvas) was also related to that same intention. The later 2021 and most recent drawings are created with 3D shading tools that imitate a flat style, a technique called “Toon Shading”, mixed with a tool in Blender called “Freestyle”. I find it funny to go back to 2D using 3D tools, it’s like the flat, drawing aesthetic is somehow calling me.
In your video works there is often an atmosphere of decay and decomposition, the latter being also present in Observation Machine, albeit as something fluid and reversible. Is this a comment on our society, or rather on the ephemeral nature of 3D renderings, despite appearing “real” and “solid” to the eye?
It is definitely more related to the ephemerality of 3D objects. It has to do with this notion of “showing what is behind”’ the tools we are using, of using technology to reveal more than what we try to hide. I use industrial and commercial tools that always invite us to orbit closer to streamlined aesthetics that tend to deny the fact that they are being used, to “cheat” the eye into realism, or hide the process happening behind. This is a constant in all artistic disciplines. Film montage for example works very hard to hide itself, to give a feeling that you are “not watching a film”. I think (and this is not a very new notion) that there is a form of subversion in using the tool in ways it is not intended to be used, and thus the outcome is not about cheating the eye, but more about revealing what hides underneath. This is where error, destruction, decay, and “untidiness” come to play.
In the Observation Machine series, we see several classical sculptures that are used as raw material for digital manipulation. Which sculptures did you use for these artworks? Are these 3D scans that you made yourself, or that you took from an online library? If so, which one? Is the iconography or original placement of the sculptures relevant to you, or have you chosen them mainly for their aesthetic appeal?
The 3D scans come from an open-source library called “Scan The World”, as I mentioned before, meant for people to be able to print out their own versions of classical sculptures. The process of selecting which sculptures I use for each work varies from series to series. In this case, I wanted to explore different possibilities of the 3D tool I’m using (Blender), and ended up choosing the sculptures using very visual parameters (scale, shape, amount of information). Sometimes I like to empty the sculptures of their cultural meaning and just look at them as pure subject matter, almost like an abstract object, particularly to see what happens if I do that, what happens to the archival baggage. It is kind of paradoxical, but I like that it’s all intertwined in the same process.
A common trait of the artworks included in this artcast is that, unlike previous works, they play shadows and contrast to appear flat, going back and forth between what could be seen as a digital painting and a 3D object floating in a virtual space. Color also plays an important role in creating this perceptual effect. Can you elaborate on these aspects of the artworks?
“Observation Machines” is a series of time-based works that present an emulation of a machine learning process being operated on these sculptures. The movement and sound are inspired by a machine’s logic of movement. It is an imagination exercise: what would it look like if a machine were trying to study this object? In the works included in this artcast (a subset of this series), I wanted to explore how when using color alone within the 3D software the image would transition from two-dimensional to three-dimensional. The only thing changing in these pieces besides the sculpture is the color of the background, which makes the shadows and the textures react differently and thus reveals the depth of the object being observed.
You have come to prominence in Argentina as a leading figure in the contemporary art scene linked to NFTs. Can you tell us how this scene is evolving and how do you participate in it? What have NFTs brought to digital artists in Argentina, and is it different from other art scenes, as far as you can tell?
I have a background in the traditional art world, where I spent almost 12 years, so for me entering the crypto art world had a very strong influence on how I see my practice and my career. Argentina hosts one of the largest, more organized communities of crypto artists in the world, called Cryptoarg. I was part of the conception of this community from the start, and the relationship with other artists that came from very diverse backgrounds in art and the creative industries, intertwined with a novel art world that had very new dynamics and potentials, was a very impactful experience for me. Argentina already has a very close relationship with crypto technologies, being one of the “capitals” for Ethereum development, for example. I think we are very prone to adopting alternative means for the distribution of labor, information, and capital management, mostly because of our very precarious economic conditions.
The crypto art scene is very different from the traditional art scene. The tools for the experimentation, collaboration, and distribution of art make it a very fertile landscape for exploration and experimentation. Honestly, I find the traditional art world quite stagnant in its approach to technology. It is almost as if traditional art curriculums turn their back to our contemporary technological realities, and if they adopt some sort of look or introspection that relates to technology, it is usually quite a few years late. It is crazy to think it is still hard in some traditional circles to have technological art considered a valid art form. This is why, for me, the crypto art environment is interesting, it is very technology-native, and so the attention to what is happening with technology is very novel and updated, it is fast-paced in the same manner that technological development is, and it provides an honest, accurate look at contemporary culture, in a way that the traditional art world can’t keep up with because of its interests and scale. I don’t renounce the traditional art world, I’m very much interested in a lot of things that it has that the crypto art scene doesn’t, so I keep advocating for a cohesive intertwinement of both, a mutual nurturing. Even the distinction between both feels a bit silly sometimes. It’s all art we are talking about in the end. But the crypto art world developed so fast and came out of the underground so quickly that I feel it missed a bit of depth in its contextualization and organization.
You are now director of programming at the Museum of Crypto Art. Tell us about this entity and your role in it. How do you define crypto art, and what do you find more interesting about it?
The Museum of Crypto Art (MOCA) is in my mind the very first web3 native proper art institution project. It began as one of the largest crypto art collections and became a space for empowering, contextualizing, and displaying digital art in experimental new ways that were in tune with web3 technologies. Decentralization plays a very important role in the museum’s ethos, and so my role as director of programming is to create a cultural output curriculum that follows that ideology. This is why, beginning next year, we will begin to experiment with the museum’s DAO and have the community of art enthusiasts, collectors, and artists participate in the construction of that curriculum collectively.
We are looking into ways of creating an art program that escapes the top-down dynamics of traditional institutions, which are inescapably mediated by political and cultural bias, without losing the paramount power of cultural resources such as expert curation, historicization, critique, archiving, and the creation of artistic experiences. It is a very challenging project and holds a great deal of responsibility, but it is one of the most exciting ones I’ve ever been involved with.
I find the definition of crypto art as challenging as the definition of art itself. I am a big advocate of definition by context, both in the notions of art and crypto art. So, I guess I would define crypto art as whatever art exists in the context of blockchain technologies. The same goes for art in general, which for me is whatever exists within an “art-appointed” context. As an artist, I find crypto art interesting in its nativeness to technology, and in its potential for experimentation and the exploration of distribution and commercialization. The fact that an artwork can be sold as unique to one individual at the same time that it is readily available for anyone to experience in its native form is very powerful.
As an Argentinian, I’ve struggled a lot with the accessibility of art (my artistic idols had exclusive exhibitions in London and New York all the time, so I simply didn’t have, and still don’t have, access to their works), so the fact that crypto art is an ecosystem that hosts art that is naturally networked and accessible to anyone with access to the internet is very captivating to me. The problematizing of certain arbitrary boundaries established by the traditional art market, between “the high arts” and other creative disciplines, is also something I find quite appealing. In general, I have to say that the disruptive nature of crypto art, and the fact that it challenges an art world status quo, is one of the most interesting things for me. It kind of fucks things up a bit, and I find that quite exhilarating, and honestly, quite necessary too.
This interview is part of a series of three editorial articles that dive deeper into the different software, technicalities, and processes that go into creating digital artworks, in order to offer our readers a deeper understanding of digital art as a medium.
We speak to Kineret Noam as part of a collaboration with Render Studio, a collective creative experimentation for a digital reality. Render Studio is inspired by art, design, nature and technology and aims to explore dimensions of virtuality, interactivity and motion.Kineret Noam’s series Three RoomsandThe Whispering Reedare both featured on Niio this summer, and were both created for Render Studio.
Kineret Noam, The Whispering Reed, 2022
For the creation of this series you made use of two different digital art practices. Could you expand on the difference between these two practices and how you integrated each towards the creation of the final artworks?
In the creation of these series I used two techniques. First I paint on my Ipad using Procreate and Photoshop, which allow me to create digital illustrations that feel like they are painted with a brush. I create the sketch with Procreate to get an understanding of the composition. I choose the brushes that feel like the real thing, the process is really cool. Secondly, I build every layer with all the text and the colors. For example when I illustrate a tree, I make the whole tree in one layer, and then I open up a new layer and make the mountain. In one minute of the final video we have about fifteen layers. Once I’ve created the individual elements in Procreate I arrange all the layers in Photoshop. This can amount to about sixty layers. Then in the final composition I decide which elements are moving and which stay still. In this way, I can focus on time and on depth of the composition.
The second technique is Frame-by-Frame animation. Once I have the different elements of a scene set in different layers in Photoshop, I think about the camera, the cinematic view, the mise-en-scène and what I want to say using these elements. The camera can take the vantage point of the spectators which is a more static and passive angle. For example, I am now working on a series about Genesis. What I am trying to convey with this series is the historical importance of the Genesis story, which we all know of and which my children will know of as well. So the camera, or the vantage point, in this series is always static. But, sometimes I want to say something about time and about feelings. There is a famous song in Hebrew by singer Rona Kenan titled “My Prison by the Sea” in which the artist says ‘every time I turn away I seem to miss a train’. So sometimes I want to portray the feeling that something happened emotionally but that it is moving on, like we all do in life. So in that way I decide what to do with the camera, what needs to move and what needs to stay static in order to convey the meanings and feelings I am looking for.
Kineret Noam, The Whispering Reed: Cleansing, 2022
So if the different elements are animated individually, we can say that you act as a stage director, setting up the stage and placing the actors. Right?
Exactly, yes. I think about the stage, in which the elements intervene like a cast. Sometimes I want to tell the story not from the point of view of a distanced viewer, but getting in the middle of the action. For instance, in The Whispering Reed, King Midas was alone, so I imagined following him with the camera and I tried to capture his emotions in that situation, to understand him and his loneliness in this tragic story. So, I thought about myself as a child walking around a valley near my childhood home, which also gave me the inspiration for the background and nature in this series.
As part of your work process you have stated that you first approach your works with more traditional art practices such as drawing, and then proceed to applying different softwares to create the final digital versions. What is the role of the digital in your artistic practice?
First, I will answer on a technical level. When I draw in my studio with a pencil I need to fix the work, so it takes a lot of time to work on every detail of each element and to create the composition. If I want to change something about the character I need to change the composition. When I do this digitally it’s much easier to fix things. Secondly, from a philosophical viewpoint, the great traditional artists had to draw from their memory, from just one image. But our memory works differently, we need a few frames if we want to build something. For example when you think of a childhood event, you don’t imagine it in one frame but in several frames. I always try to think how we can keep an image dramatic, like the great artists did, but still succeed in spreading the memory in a broad way. Today, it’s more convenient to create several frames, but it’s also the conflict between traditional art and digital art. I always ask myself, “what is the mission of the artist today, now that we have digital tools?”. When the camera was invented, artists encountered a conflict, because if they could capture something with a camera why would they need to draw or paint it? We need to ask ourselves: What is our mission today?
Kineret Noam, Three Rooms, 2022
How do today’s different available softwares help in reconstructing ancient narratives and philosophies while bringing attention to and questioning the world we live in today?
When you read a story, for example, ancient Greek mythology, you can imagine a few timelines together: the refuge, the character, which register in your head like a collage. When you create this and put it on a timeline, you block or omit things from your mind. So I try to ask myself how I can keep these hidden instances within the timeline, taking into consideration that we cannot see everything. Areas where you look again and again and suddenly you see something. I leave some illustrations not very clear on purpose.
Do you also feel that it helps you to add a personal layer to such a well-known narrative? Taking into account that the inspiration for scenery comes from the valley next to your childhood home.
What is great about my work is that I can choose subjects that I am connected to, so in all of my series I choose subjects that I feel that I can give more layers to from my personal perspective. For example, there is a scene in The Whispering Reed where the character is drying his laundry. There is a special prayer in one of the Jewish holidays where it says that God will take our sins and clean them like white laundry. Comparing the atonement to washing, I might have done that unconsciously as I thought of this prayer which I was used to repeating as a child.
Kineret Noam, Three Rooms, 2022
You have also created NFTs as part of your collection of the Three Rooms series. Could you please elaborate on your experience in this new Art Space and expand on your expectations for this new medium?
I am a bit suspicious and afraid of this space: we live in this Instagram society, we just have a few seconds to view an NFT square and cannot dive deeper into it. Thinking about NFTs as one more layer in the history of art, I find this layer hard for me to understand. When comparing NFTs to the introduction of the camera I feel that I need to find a way to do things like Cardi B is doing. The pop star is able to take the medium she is working with, pop music which is vastly spread through out society and highly accessible to all, with all the industry around it and the expectations of her fans, and turns it around to take a very personal and extreme position that is unique to her in a way critiquing society and destabilizing social foundations.
I am still not sure how to do this, but when I create a square NFT I want to do it in an extreme way. Using the negative aspects of society and ridicules because in a sense we are consuming this. I want to take the NFT square and say something extreme about our digital world, and about our way of looking and understanding art. I want to question, and to create something that addresses the way we use NFTs and the way we use our phones and social media.
Patrick Tresset is an artist who explores a form of mediated creation in which his drawing style is transferred to a set of robotic drawing machines or applied to video footage to create artworks that are curiously algorithmic and spontaneous at the same time. He is also the co-founder of alterHEN, an eco-friendly NFT platform and artist community whose artists have participated in a previousartcast on Niio. Tresset has also presented his series Human Studyin a solo artcast launched recently.
I had the chance to interview him in his studio in Brussels on the occasion of my visit to the Art Brussels to discuss his work and the series that originated from an exhibition in Hong Kong that he had to remotely orchestrate during lockdown.
After working as a painter for fifteen years, you decided to study arts and computational technologies. What drove you to become interested in computer science and programming?
Well, actually, I was already interested in computing, because my dad gave me a computer when I was nine years old, and as a kid, I managed to do some little things, and I got fascinated by it. I particularly remember this possibility of creating little worlds that would be autonomous. I studied computing, but back then it was business computing. And after that, I decided to become a painter, move to London… I think I was a painter for thirteen years. And in the meantime, computing evolved a lot. So I always kept my eye on it, and after some time I got back into computing. So it was not new, computing. And I had this intuition that I could do something with it, because I knew I could program. I could imagine things.
As a painter, I had a creative block. It just didn’t make sense to continue painting. And also I had lost my spontaneity, everything I did in painting looked stiff, and unemotional. I couldn’t do emotion. Strangely enough, I thought that I could put back emotions using computers. I was always into doing those very spontaneous drawings, and so as soon as I got back into programming, I worked on drawing faces, from the beginning, and then there was the internet. Thanks what I found online, I kept learning and I came across the Algorists: Roman Verotsko, Cohen… well, Cohen is not part of the Algorists, so Verotsko, essentially. And I saw they were using pen plotters. So I bought myself old pen plotters on eBay. And I started to do drawings like that. I wrote those out on my own for two or three years, using scientific libraries and other resources. But I felt that I was stuck, and I knew that I needed to go further to achieve what I was looking for.
You have mentioned that you transfer your drawing style to the robots. Can you elaborate on this mediated process?
When I was doing my Masters studies, I was working on simulated drawings, and it’s only during the doctoral studies (I started a PhD that I never finished) that I did proper research. It’s a risky thing in computing, but mainly, we’re learning drawing, psychology, perception and things like that… motor control, and all those things. I really researched a lot. And all that influenced the program. But also at this time, I understood that a drawing system needed to be embodied, particularly since I was interested in gestural drawing. So the way I did it was that I simulated different processes that interact, with parts dedicated to low level perception, then higher level motor control, and strategy.
The style of the drawing has never been forced. The style is a consequence of the characteristics of the robot. If you just change little parameter on in, or on the camera, or the speed of the app, that will be enough to give the resulting drawing a different style. So it’s really an interaction between the body, the character and the characteristics of the robot. My input is in there in that the technique that they have is a technique I used when I was trying to draw. There is detachment in a certain way, but it’s not so detached, because I am in the system –I programmed everything myself.
So there is this weird thing with control, because in the beginning I have control, but then when the robots start, I don’t have any control. And that leads to an interesting form of spontaneity. For me it’s always fresh, but the problem is, because it is using humans, not everybody’s a performer. A lot of people do it for the portrait, and then during the process, they notice that it is not just a machine that makes their portrait. Here I feel that there is the usual problem of entertainment and art. That does not happen with the still life drawings, because the whole system is encapsulated in itself. It’s a different type of storytelling.
For about a year, you have created a new type of artwork by applying the drawing program to video footage. What led you to use this technique? Particularly since you were just mentioned the embodied creation of the drawings.
It all came about because of NFTs. I needed something digital to sell, to mint. And it started like that. I did some experiments a few years back with video, so I already had some ideas but it really came to be through NFTs. I wrote a program to extract a big interface over the program I use for the robots, that enables me to play with and create these animations. It was by necessity. But in the end, I explore the same themes, only that now I know better what I’m exploring.
Let’s talk about the exhibition Human Study you had in Hong Kong, back in 2020. I find it interesting how it was developed under lockdown, and how the animations that you have now presented on Niio reflect that particular atmosphere.
Yes, it was a very interesting process. The exhibition was planned normally during Art Basel Hong Kong, but obviously it didn’t happen because of COVID. They moved it to November, but still they didn’t get the authorization to open the theater. So, it was decided to carry out the exhibition without an audience, using actors or anyone who was around, so sometimes it was the technical staff and not actors. To me it was particularly interesting because I helped select the actresses and the actors, so it became something like a piece of theater. I had created a generative system to edit the video feed from the cameras, so while I was doing everything from thousands of kilometers away, I became the director of a performance.