Disordinary Beauty, a work in progress (part 1)

Domenico Barra and Pau Waelder

DISØRDINARY BƏAUTY is an ongoing art project by Domenico Barra that explores ugliness through glitch art. The project has been developed as a series of NFTs, with a new phase taking place on Niio as a work in progress, in which the artist will periodically upload new artworks and accompanying documentation. Here in the Editorial section, we’ll publish email exchanges bringing light into Domenico’s creative process and the ideas and influences behind this project.

Follow Domenico Barra’s work in progress on your screen in DISØRDINARY BƏAUTY: art canon

Domenico Barra is an Italian artist, educator, and curator whose work delves into the aesthetics of glitch art, “dirty” digital media and Internet cultures. He creates images, gifs, videos, and installations through a variety of techniques aimed at generating errors in the processes carried out by hardware and software to create the contents we experience on screens. In 2017, he adopted the nickname Altered_Data, inspired by the realization that online data is gradually shaping and manipulating our identity and behavior, and the fact that he was born with an immune system disorder.

He is the creator and art director of the online project White Page Gallery/s. a distributed and decentralized art network and community. In 2021, he started minting his works as NFTs and is now an active member of the NFT art community, selling his work on Ethereum and Tezos. He teaches glitch art and dirty new media at RUFA – Rome University of Fine Art. His work has been exhibited, among others, at DAM Gallery (Berlin), Galerie Charlot (Paris), Digital Art Center (Taipei), online at the Wrong Biennale and with Arebyte, and in many other galleries and cultural art events worldwide, on the internet and the metaverse.

Domenico Barra, DB a̶r̶t̶ ̶c̶a̶n̶o̶n̶ | a̶ ̶b̶e̶a̶u̶t̶y̶ ̶i̶n̶ ̶v̶i̶o̶l̶e̶t̶, 2023

First ɛʍǟɨʟ exchange

from: Pau Waelder
to: Domenico Barra
date: Feb 19, 2023, 12:23 PM
subject: Re: Disordinary Beauty Work In Progress launch

Hi, Domenico!
I’d like to start publishing our series of exchanges in the Editorial section this week. For the first exchange, I’d like to shoot this question:

I have read several interviews in which you describe how you got into Glitch Art and the artists that inspired you. We’ll get into that later, but I’d like to ask you: what does glitch mean to you now, in the midst of growing AI creativity, after the NFT boom, and in relation to this particular project about beauty?

from: Domenico Barra 
to: Pau Waelder 
date: Feb 20, 2023, 6:47 PM
subject: Re: Disordinary Beauty Work In Progress launch

Hello Pau, 

Ten years ago, I began making glitch art, and since then, glitching has evolved and taken on different meanings that are all related to our imperfect nature. I’m enthusiastic about AI and have been exploring with other glitch artists what a glitch within AI means and how to trigger it. However, since AI networks and ƧYƧƬΣMƧ are vast, closed, and not very transparent, most discussions are about finding vulnerabilities to exploit. A glitch within AI may not look like the digital glitches we’re accustomed to for sure, but Nick Briz advanced the suggestion that a glitch within AI could still be considered as something unexpected. For instance, AI’s inability to accurately depict hands can be considered a glitch.

A glitch within AI may not look like the digital glitches we’re accustomed to. For instance, AI’s inability to accurately depict hands can be considered a glitch.

My personal approach takes inspiration from Databending, precisely incorrect editing. I started inducing short circuits in AI’s word-based processing by using prompts inspired by L33T SP34K language. The results are interesting and absurd images that could resemble some sort of twisted memes. In databending, by injecting random values or deleting/substituting some data values in image files using hex editing, the software organizes the data according to the standard file format. I played with altering prompt word input and influencing AI’s interpretation to create random “glitchy” image associations, resulting in unexpected and interesting outcomes.

NFTs offer an opportunity for experimentation in the imperfect art market, but the vision of doing things differently is gradually fading as they are becoming more “traditional”. Decentralization requires a cultural shift in personal and community values, and Web3 still heavily relies on Web2 social media, hindering social value and the ways value is created and artists promoted and glorified. Glitch art emerged in crypto art thanks in part to X-Copy‘s market success and leadership. There is also a marketplace called Glitch Forge that is entirely dedicated to glitch works of all sorts. Glitch art and styles are popular online and in NFT/crypto art, with artists reclaiming their space through the #postglitch aesthetic, especially in response to the status quo. The most famous probably is “Trash Art”, a movement of artists using glitch apps and filters excessively and with a strong amateur style in response to the anonymous artist PAK who declared that artists using glitch effects for their art were not real artists, leading to the creation of the trash art movement.

Confused? Try this quick intro to Glitch Art:

NFTs offer an opportunity for experimentation in the imperfect art market, but the vision of doing things differently is gradually fading as they are becoming more “traditional”.

Disordinary Beauty was born in the midst of the NFT boom and the emergence of new creative apps. Specifically, there was a growing interest in generative art among NFT collectors. It started as a personal experiment when I decided to try out some new generative glitch scripts. While browsing Instagram, I came across a selfie by one of the many influencers on the platform. As someone who has always struggled with the cult of image, beauty, and success perpetuated by Instagram, I decided to use the glitch scripts to slice up the selfie, surely inspired by The Blade Artist by Irvine Welsh that I had just finished reading. I continued this practice by creating one glitch portrait per day, every day, using a different influencer’s selfie each time.

As I continued to select selfies to glitch, I noticed that there were many common features among them such as the lighting, saturation, head position, and gaze. It was as though there was a programmed formula for shooting the perfect selfie. Through further reading, I discovered that the pose and formula adopted by influencers were not just for the sake of appearance, but also to make their photos easily recognizable by Instagram algorithms, thereby gaining more priority in the platform’s feed. This led me to see the glitch scripts as a way to reprogram and decode the selfies, ultimately erasing the image itself. This became a sort of redemption of the atypical, the imperfect, and the weird.

The pose and formula adopted by influencers in their selfies were not just for the sake of appearance, but also to make their photos easily recognizable by Instagram algorithms.

My interest in the concept of beauty on Instagram led me to read ʊʍɮɛʀȶօ Eco‘s On Ugliness and expand my exploration into the meaning of beauty and ugliness in art, and how it has been used to create new biases towards individuals who do not fit societal standards. I wanted to push things a bit further and delve into these concepts in the realm of AI as a sort of social consciousness, prompting image-based conversations with AI using ChatGPT so far and then also disrupting the perception and formatting of beauty in classical art.

Disordinary Beauty is now divided into three stages. The first stage, “BÆUTY IZ CH∆ØZ,” involves glitch erasure actions on influencers’ selfies. The second stage is “Conversation between AI and I” on topics related to beauty, ugliness, art, and society. The third stage called “art canon” will happen on Niio and involves bringing chaos into the harmony and beauty of classical artworks, and the experience of the viewers.”

Sincerely,
d0/\/\!

Driessens & Verstappen: driven by process, shaped by time

Pau Waelder

Erwin Driessens and Maria Verstappen have worked together since 1990 in the creation of process-based artworks using software, robotics, film, photography, sculpture, 3D scanning, and many other analog and digital techniques, as well as enabling, manipulating, simulating or documenting physical, chemical and biological processes, including plant growth. Following the presentation of their artcast The Kennemer Dunes, curated by DAM Projects for Niio, we have discussed the main concepts that drive their artistic research and the processes behind some of their most influential artworks.

Kennemerduinen 2010, scene E, 2011

Process is a key concept in your work, that is carried out automatically by programmed machines, spontaneously occurring in a natural environment, or happening through physical and chemical reactions. Why is creating, enabling or documenting processes so fundamental to your work?

Not all generative processes are equally interesting to us. We are mainly focusing on decentralized processes, the so called bottom-up processes. In these processes the patterns are not defined by a central authority but by local interactions between a vast amount of  decentralized components. Examples for this are bird flocks, ant colonies, market economies, ecosystems or immune systems.When we study the landscape, what we see are the interactions of the elements in the ecosystem that react, adapt, and evolve over time. And that is also exactly what we try to model when we work with computers: the interactions of many small elements that together create a coherent global structure. We try to express that in the generative systems that we build. For us, this way of working implies another role of the artist. In the tradition of art, artists tend to work top-down, taking a piece of material and then shaping it to match an idea they had on their mind. We’d rather take a step back and see how the material can organize itself, albeit creating certain preconditions. As artists, we create a process that can make something by itself or react on the stages of development, so that it is the system that shapes the product instead of us determining how the material has to be formed. So there are different angles on why we are so interested in process, self organization, and evolution. 

“As artists, we create a process that can make something by itself, so that it is the system that shapes the product instead of us determining how the material has to be formed.”

Time is also an important aspect in these processes, of course. A landscape has many timescales: there are things that take ages to form, while others belong to a shorter time scale, like the seasons and the flowering. So there is this relationship between the different timescales that make it hard to understand exactly what has happened and why it is exactly like that. But when we look at the landscape, we feel the natural intertwining of all those small and big events that have led to the big picture that we see in front of us. And I think that’s why landscape, as a genre, has such a long history in art, because these inimitable processes, which take place differently in every place on earth, constantly evoke new aesthetic experiences in us.

Kennemerduinen 2010, scene H, 2011

In relation to the factor of time in your work, in The Kennemer Dunes the process is sped up, but still shown at a slow pace. What do you find most interesting about this slowness?

In the Landscape Films (2001-2010), we create an acceleration by the compression of time. We decided to do this because we experience the landscape at a given moment in time and we cannot predict or remember exactly how it looks in another season. We chose to show the series of still images in the form of a slow, fluent movie of around 9 minutes to enhance our perception of the slow, but powerful seasonal transformations. What we did here, then, is to take a picture from the same place on the same time of the day during different days over the course of a year. This gave us the opportunity to notice small things one would usually not pay attention to, the subtle changes in the landscape that happen at a pace that is the pace of nature and not humans. 

What we created is related to time-lapse animation techniques, but we decided not to simply put all images one after another, because that would generate a very hectic activity, with clouds passing by quickly and plants nervously growing towards the sunlight. In our view this would not support the landscape experience, so instead we chose very few images, around 52, and added a 10-second transition between them. The  transition between each photo is not a proper representation of what has happened  there and then, because it is just interweaving the pixels of one picture to the other. So it is not accurate as a document, but as an experience it is more accurate, because it keeps the quietness of the experience of contemplating the landscape.

Morphoteque #15 (2011). 27 elements, 1:1 copies of peppers. Plaster, acrylic paint.

A third outstanding aspect of your work is that of categorization and collection, as is made evident in the Morphoteque series or in Herbarium Vivum. What can you tell me about these artworks?

In these works, where we deal with static forms, particularly in the Morphotèque series, we always have a collection of objects that are expressions from a certain process and then we want to show the variety of the different outcomes. For instance, the Vegetables Collections (1994-2011) consist of rejected vegetables that have been collected by us from groceries and markets, and then cast as a sculpture, in order to preserve them, as they will obviously decay. We could have taken a photograph, but since the work is about morphology, we needed to keep the three-dimensional form rather than just an image. This work comments on the fact that, in our industrial world, we want our food to be produced in perfect and identical shapes. This is convenient for the machines that harvest and process them, but it is also the result of an aesthetic decision. But of course the plant growing the vegetable does not follow these principles, so it can produce asymmetrical or “abnormal” vegetables, which taste  the same as the “perfect”-looking ones, but nevertheless are put apart and used for cattle fodder or just thrown away. 

By collecting and preserving these irregular specimens, we show the wide variety of possible growths within a particular plant species. And that they are visually more rich-than the symmetrical and straight forms that we normally get to see in the supermarket. This type of work also gives us an opportunity to talk about processes that you cannot carry out in any museum space or in an art space. You cannot show the growth of a pepper, but each selected shape refers to an individual growth process, while the collection as a whole also shows the typical similarities.

Solid Spaces, 2013. 3D print in acrylic, approx. W.35 x D.25 x H.15 cm.

What drives you to create physical objects out of algorithmic processes (as in Accretor) and real space mappings (as in Solid Spaces)? What does the physicality of sculpture bring to your work?

In Solid Spaces (2013), particularly, there was an interesting connection between the process, the space, and the outcome. We had the 3D scanner working inside the church, we displayed two  sculptures that were made from previous scans of the interior of the church, and there was of course the architectural space of the church itself. People could see all of this at once and relate the objects with the space and the process of production. One thing we like about 3D printed objects is that we can create them by letting the machine look at something in the real world, an existing church for instance, but it can also be a completely virtual object, existing in a digital space. In the latter, the object that has been generated using generative software can be so complex and detailed that it might be difficult for the 3D printer to produce it. 

Sandbox, 2009. 245 x 122 x 176 cm. Wood, lacquer, metal, fans, sand, electronics.

The Kennemer Dunes can be connected with your diorama artworks of that time, Sandbox and Hot Pool, which also show a slowly evolving landscape, although through different means. Which connections would you make between these different types of landscapes?

All these works relate to our fascination with decentralized processes. What we did in Sandbox (2009) and Hot Pool (2010) is that we reduced all the elements that are in the landscape to three things: the box itself, which hosts the diorama, the wind or heat, and the particles of sand or wax. In Sandbox we create artificial winds using 55 individual fans placed on the roof of the box, with a software program that controls them. However, the result is not a pre-planned choreography, but there is an unpredictable process involved that turns on and off the fans. Of course, the wind shapes the dunes, but in turn the dunes change the direction of the wind.here is a complex interaction between the sand and the wind that is less deterministic than one might imagine. The geometry of the box causes even more complex turbulences, so in making these seemingly simple miniature landscapes, we realized that they are not so easy to understand and predict. If you change one little thing, it has an influence on everything, even in this very small secluded world. This is also something that we discovered working with software: when you change one of the many parameters a little bit, it can have a really dramatic effect on the whole. And that’s exactly something that we would like to communicate with our work: when you change a little thing in a complex system, when you take out one species, for example, one plant, or you change the temperature just one degree, everything changes and often in an unpredictable way. 

“We, as human beings, have to be more in balance with the ecosystem that we are in, and we should be humble when we interfere in systems that have evolved over many years”

Most things in the world are part of a complex system. So we, as human beings, have to be more in balance with the ecosystem that we are intertwined in. And we should be humble when we want to interfere in existing systems that are in balance, or have evolved over many, many, many, many years. We think we understand the system and that we can control what will happen when we change it. But actually, we always create a reduced model of the system and we let out some small things that we think are not important. And then it turns out that it’s this very small thing that you did overlook that is very influential in the end. 


E-volver, 2006. 4 breeding units with displays, 5 prints on canvas 600 x 300 cm. Permanent installation, interactive software. Research Labs, Medical Center Leiden University. Commissioned by LUMC Leiden and SKOR Amsterdam.

Works like E-volver and Breed deal with artificial evolution programs. How would you compare the processes involved in these computer simulations with your work with natural processes, either observed (Landscape Films, Pareidolia) or manipulated (Tschumi Tulips, Herbarium Vivum)?

We are interested in evolutionary processes as a kind of bottom up, decentralized process. Evolution is difficult to observe in the real world because adaptation to the environment and the passing of information to the next generation is rather indirect and it occurs  in small steps. But if you manage to model this slow and gradual process in the computer, it suddenly becomes observable, largely due to the acceleration of time (like in the landscape films). So in recent years we have set up a number of projects in which we have used evolution as a step-by-step development of an artwork, but also as a way of not completely controlling the results (due to the complex feedback loops involved).In Breed (1995-2007), for instance, the  process of mutation and selection is completely automatized, there is no human intervention. The artificial evolution takes place completely in itself, because the fitness score is determined by objective and measurable properties of the shape: the form that is generated inside this virtual environment should be structurally correct and be able to be materialized as a real object.  In E-volver (2006), there is human intervention involved,  since the mutations and variations of the animations are influenced by the subjective preferences of the people that interact with the work E-volver was made for the Research Labs of the LUMC in Leiden, where scientists and students in human genetics can grow abstract, colorful animations on four breeding units via a touch screen. It’s there now for I think 16 years, and it’s still working. It is always creating something new, and people can see that they have an influence on the outcome of the program, but it is more of a reactive intervention than a  creative one. E-volver involves an unusual collaboration between man and machine, providing a breeding machine on the one hand and a human “gardener” on the other. The combination of human and machine properties leads to results that neither could have created alone.

The outcomes of these artificial evolution programs can be connected with the Vegetable Collections in the sense that they also show how the industry speeds up evolution towards the genetic code that produces a set of desired outcomes, such as round potatoes and straight carrots, while what we want is to show the diversity in these morphological processes. We are equally interested in showing both the results of this virtual growth process in terms of diversity and detail, and the industrial production process that is automated from design to execution. Our approach shows that technological manufacturing processes do not necessarily have to lead to standardization, control, simplism and homogeneity, but to the contrary. When we started these projects in the 1990s, people were not used to computers as an artistic medium, and we had to explain that the artworks were generated in the digital realm, with digital processes, but now people understand that this is something that is created artificially.


Pareidolia, 2019. Robotics, microscope, camera, perspex, wood, metal, sea sand, screen 50 inch, black coated metal housing. Commissioned by SEA Science Encounters Art.

In your recent works, Pareidolia and Spotter, the task of observing nature is carried out by a machine through cameras, face detection software and machine learning models. It seems that this leads to a fully automated and autopoietic system, is that what you are looking for? Which possibilities do you see in machine learning for your future artistic projects?

We started working with neural networks some 10 or 15 years ago, but back then the computer processing speed was so slow that you could only do something very simple, and then it would take days before you could see the output. So it was very limited, but later on, when it became more achievable, we dived into it. However, we are reluctant to further elaborate on it, because artificial neural networks tend to take on an aesthetic that comes from the system itself and therefore all the artworks generated by these techniques look more or less similar. And it’s also very hard to understand how it works, beyond the fact that you can influence the training of the machine learning program by selecting input images and also some other training parameters. But what it has brought us so far is not very satisfying. Certainly now, with programs such as DALL-E or Midjourney, there are interesting possibilities to explore. These are very complex systems based on enormous amounts of data, and it can only be run by big companies and universities. Everyone can actually rent the software as an online service. As artists we are interested in building the systems we work with, not just using them to obtain specific results. So for us there is little to gain with these text-to-image generation systems. 

“We do not want to work with a big black box and wait for something to come out of it, without understanding anything about it. We want to build the system we are working with.”

The relation between process and result must also take place on the level of creating the system. We do not want to work with a big black box and wait for something to come out of it, without understanding anything about it. Although the systems that we build also are hard to fathom, in the end, we do have a very satisfying understanding. It’s a deeper understanding of what you cannot control. For instance, in Pareidolia (2021) we created a robot that uses machine vision and face detection to identify human faces in the texture of grains of sand. We built the face recognition program ourselves so that it would work on sand particles rather than the usual application of such software. Although it is hard to understand how the artificial brain learns to distinguish a face from something that is not a face, it was very satisfying to build the software based on our own database with tens of thousands of images. And then to see it applied to sand, whose morphology is really rich but too small for us humans to perceive. If you think that every sand particle in the world has a unique shape, then you can imagine a gigantic amount of sculptures that are right there under our feet. Applying machine learning to our own face detection software has so far been more interesting and satisfying than the potential of generative neural networks (GANs), yet another type of machine learning. But you never know, sometimes it can take quite some time before you are able to transform and internalize the possibilities opened by a new technology and use it in a personal and original way. 

Moodies: the anti-emojis by Asaf and Tomer Hanuka

Pau Waelder & Roxanne Vardi

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 [1], 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.

Pluchnik’s wheel of emotions. Source: Wikipedia

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.

Moodies emotion map. Source: moodiesnft.io

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. 

“Our mission is to expand the conversation of feelings. These are the anti-emojis. There is an astonishing beauty to the complexity and intricate structures that govern our moods. This esthetic quality has been erased by outsourcing our social lives to platforms like Instagram”

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.

One-page story by Asaf Hanuka explaining the making of Moodies.

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 Soul Ray. Source: moodiesnft.io

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.

Moodies LA Takeover. Source: moodiesnft.io

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.

[1] Robert Plutchnik. The nature of emotions. American Scientist ; Research Triangle Park Tome 89, N.º 4, (Jul/Aug 2001): 344-350.

Frank Ockenfels III: inspired to inspire

Roxanne Vardi

Niio is proud to introduce a selection of artcasts by celebrated photographers in collaboration with Fahey/Klein Gallery, the leading contemporary photography gallery in Los Angeles. Curated by Nicholas Fahey, these selections dive into the work of the artists, presenting key series and iconic images.

Interview with photographer Frank Ockenfels III. Courtesy of Fahey/Klein Gallery.

Frank W. Ockenfels III is an American photographer, artist, and director who is best known for his portrait photographs of celebrities and diverse personalities such as David Bowie, Kurt Cobain, and Hilary Clinton. Ockenfel’s work has frequently been featured in leading magazines globally such as the Time and the Rolling Stone. The artist’s works have been displayed at exhibitions in museums and galleries worldwide including Berlin, Amsterdam, New York, and Los Angeles.

Niio Art in collaboration with Fahey/Klein Gallery recently published an artcast titled “Frank Ockenfels III – Volume 3” which provides a window into the artist’s visual thinking. Over thirty years ago, Ockenfels started a process of journaling the product of which he calls Tech Books in which he would keep polaroids, written lighting diagrams, and his personal writings, specifically what he wanted to remember from each and every experience and project.

Once Ockenfels did away with the tech journals he started assembling objects, scraps of paper, drawing into the journals so that they became elaborate, and turned into pieces or found graphic elements instead of just photographs. To this end the artist has noted that this process “was a great way to flush my mind. You are so focused on being a photographer sometimes that you forget that the majority of photography is so inspired by other things like a Richard Serra sculpture”. In essence, Ockenfels’ artworks are no longer just portrait photographs but instead they become personal statements of the artist’s psyche and creative artistry. His artworks can be seen as re-presentations, as works that break the boundaries of traditional photography.

“You are so focused on being a photographer sometimes that you forget that the majority of photography is so inspired by other things like a Richard Serra sculpture”

Frank Ockenfels III, “Artwork”, 2019.

Referring to his tech books, the artist has mentioned that there is a lot that even he can learn from them as they allow him to reconsider why he captured certain projects as he did, and can make him think of the ways through which he approached his images. In the artist’s teachings he also liked to bring his tech books to classes, and through his student’s questions and questioning there was always something new that he felt he could learn about photography.

Ockenfels started out by shooting chrome, then went into negative, and lately has gotten into digital photography. Specifically referring to digital photography the artist has shared that he likes seeing “how far I can go, that’s when the interesting stuff actually happens. I find it more the abstract mind that I have less and less sense of time and space and what I am supposed to be doing. As I get older, its more so where I accept the moment and say this is what I’m supposed to be doing”. Thus, the artist prefers portraits which are less pre-defined and thought out and instead likes “the moment showing up and looking and seeing what I see about you that I would like to capture”. In turn, the artist’s representations leave the imprint of his unconscious on the photographic image.

Frank Ockenfels III, “Blank”, 2017.

The artist sees his journals as a place ‘to vent’, places that illustrate different points in his life. Ockenfels has stated that when he was younger he “didn’t care if anybody liked [the journals] or not, or was interested in them, but people started looking at them”. However, the artist didn’t want peoples opinions “because they are personal… its kind of like the Purist sense of art. Richard Serra would say ‘art is purposely useless’ it is a useless process thinking that anyone would be interested in seeing it, but it answers a lot of questions to yourself by the act of keeping journals, thoughts, memories, ideas”.

Frank Ockenfels III, “168 Thoughts”, 2019.

The artist thinks that inspiration is what a person should strive to do. “I think it’s important to inspire, almost more so than the creative process”. In his interview for Fahey/Klein Gallery Frank Ockenfels III shared that he had an experience a couple of years ago on a Brooklyn subway platform while he was coming back from visiting a friend when a young kid came over and said that he saw him on the internet talking about ‘the creative process’ and that he was completely inspired by that. He was a graffiti artist, inspired about the point of creativity. Referring to that specific instance the artist asserts “that to me is where I always wanted to be in life”.

“I think it’s important to inspire, almost more so than the creative process”

Frank Ockenfels III, “Damien Hirst (diptych)”, 2019.

Steve Schapiro: what is special about people

Pau Waelder

Niio is proud to introduce a selection of artcasts by celebrated photographers in collaboration with Fahey/Klein Gallery, the leading contemporary photography gallery in Los Angeles. Curated by Nicholas Fahey, these selections dive into the work of the artists, presenting key series and iconic images.

Interview with photographer Steve Schapiro (July 21st, 2017). Courtesy of Fahey/Klein Gallery

Steve Schapiro (1934-2022) was one of the most prominent figures of documentary photography in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century. An exceptional witness of the civil rights movement, his camera captured key moments in American history with a sharp eye and caring attention to the subjects of his portraits. 

Devoted to photojournalism from a young age, he was inspired by Henri Cartier-Bresson and took lessons from W. Eugene Smith, whose teachings marked a profound influence in Schapiro’s work throughout his career. In 1961 he traveled to Arkansas and photographed a camp for migrant workers. Jubilee, a small Catholic magazine, published his photos as an eight-page picture story. The New York Times picked up one of the photos and used it as the cover for the New York Times Magazine section. That was his first real break. Schapiro continued showing his pictures to Life while doing essays on “Narcotic Addiction in East Harlem”, “The Apollo Theatre”, “Women of New York”, and “Jazz Sessions for Riverside Records.” Finally Life gave him an assignment which worked out and he began freelancing for Life and other magazines such as Time, Newsweek, the Saturday Evening Post and Paris Match. 

“There’s so many pictures I look at which have an iconic feel to them. And yet, you can’t explain what it is in the picture that’s causing you to feel that way.”

Steve Schapiro

He closely followed the political and social changes of the 1960s in the United States, accompanying Robert F. Kennedy during his presidential campaign and the civil rights movement’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and the Selma to Montgomery march. In the 1970s and 1980s, Schapiro turned his attention to film set photography. He was hired by Paramount Pictures and worked on the set of famous films such as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). 

Steve Schapiro. Robert Kennedy at Berkeley, California, 1966

The series of photographs of the American Civil Rights Movement is among Schapiro’s finest. In late 1962, he read James Baldwin’s essays in the New Yorker which became the book The Fire Next Time. Schapiro asked Life if he could do a photo essay on Baldwin. They agreed and for the next month Steve traveled with Baldwin to Harlem, North Carolina, Mississippi, and New Orleans. He met many leaders of the non-violent civil rights movement and saw real segregation for the first time. Schapiro notes of meeting and traveling with Baldwin, “Here was an intellectual, a brilliant man, and a black leader who never seemed to forget the importance of relating to each other as human beings. He had a hunger for love and believed in its power.”

Steve Schapiro. James Baldwin, Do You Love Me, 1963

This portrait of Baldwin is particularly telling of a quality that Schapiro sensed in him: his loneliness. Describing the photograph, he confesses: “every time I look at that picture, I feel an emotional moment. Because it seems to me it really points out the loneliness that he had, during 1963, which was the time when I first met him.”

After Schapiro’s photo-essay ran in Life in March of 1963, he was assigned to cover the South in even greater depth. These assignments produced images that are now part of the American collective subconscious: George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door at the University of Alabama, the March on Washington, Civil Rights leader John Lewis in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. leading the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965. Schapiro’s photographs from this time are some of the most important historical documents of the American 20th century. While his photographs certainly document the darker side of the struggle, Schapiro also manages to relay the constant reliance upon love, community, and faith that became the legacy of King and his Civil Rights Movement.

“It is looking for that specialness in people, what makes someone unique, which I really treasure, either in a person or in an event.”

Steve Schapiro

The way in which the photographer became part of the people he was portraying speaks of his care and attention to the human side of the stories he was telling through his pictures: “I really enjoy being a fly on the wall,” he says. “And really waiting for that moment when I sense something about someone, particularly in a portrait that really conveys something.” 

Steve Schapiro. Vote, Selma March, 1965

The images from the Selma march are among his most iconic, with this one being particularly symbolic: “[The vote picture] conveyed a sense of what the civil rights struggle was about,” he says, “because it was about gaining the vote for black people in America. There’s so many pictures I look at which have an iconic feel to them. And yet, you can’t explain what it is in the picture that’s causing you to feel that way.” 

Schapiro’s unique ability to blend in with the crowd and capture spontaneity also allowed him to take candid photographs of movie stars, musicians, and artists that communicate a strong feeling of intimacy. His technique basically consisted in being there and assuming he would be allowed to take the picture: “If you’re a photographer, and you smile at people, they feel good about it,” he states. “Most people don’t mind being photographed, unless they feel that you’re going to do something to harm them in some way. So basically, if you’re just matter of fact photographing people in terms of who they are and what they’re doing, you don’t have any trouble.”

Steve Schapiro. Andy Warhol, Edie Sedgwick and Entourage, New York, 1965

“If I have a philosophy on life, it’s that we should care more about people.”

Steve Schapiro

Steve Schapiro was a great photographer not only because of his technique and his instinct for a perfect composition in the frame, but also because he cared about the stories he told and the people whose lives are part of that story. Without this sensibility and empathy, the images would appear perfect but distant, devoid of the human breath and the beating hearts that one feels in each of his pictures. Schapiro made this clear in one of his last interviews: “If I have a philosophy on life, it’s that we should care more about people. And we should have more of a humanitarian view of things. And I’m concerned that there are important, powerful people who don’t have that, and they don’t value human life. But life is so precious.”

Katie Torn on beauty and decay in a hybrid world

Roxanne Vardi and Pau Waelder

Katie Torn’s work explores the female figure in a world shaped by digital technology and obsession with self-image boosted by social media and consumer culture. She uses 3D graphics and video to build assemblages of natural and artificial elements that question the boundaries between beauty and decay, body and prosthesis, organic and synthetic, and between a person’s own self and the image she creates of herself. 

In the series Dream Flower, composed of two artworks commissioned by Niio, the artist draws inspiration from Victorian-era botanical drawings and the work of Mary Blair in the animated fantasy film Alice in Wonderland, produced by Walt Disney in 1951, to create the portraits of two exotic flowers with female-like features. In this interview, she elaborates on the connections between these characters and the ways women have had their bodies shaped by aesthetic stereotypes, as well as the contradictory beauty of decaying matter. 

Most of your artworks, including Dream Flower I and Dream Flower II, exhibit female figures. Could you please elaborate on your interest and explorations of representing women through your works?

Like many digital artists my background is in painting. I studied classical figure painting as a teenager and spent many hours in museums studying the “Old Masters”, male painters whose subject was often the female form. I was taught that light falls on the female body the same way light falls on a still life of a bowl of fruit. How I create my animations and digital paintings is informed by my study of the history of painting. I compose my works much like a 20th century painter who is responding to classical painting, starting with a figure as a central subject in relation to a picture plane and then fragmenting the form to create an abstraction.  In my work I use virtual space and digital tools to break down the figure. I wouldn’t say the figures in my work are women. They are creatures that have attributes that are female-like, but they also have attributes of plants, animals and inanimate objects.  

Katie Torn, Dream Flower I, 2022.

“I was taught that light falls on the female body the same way light falls on a still life of a bowl of fruit.”

In your artworks we find references to Victorian drawings, as well as dolls and children’s toys. Which connections would you draw between that time and our present consumer culture?

My animations Dream Flower I and Dream Flower II  were specifically inspired by Victorian botanical drawings of flower arrangements. I came across a few prints in my Great-grandmother’s apartment and noticed how they were composed almost like portraits of flowers with a large bulb situated in the middle of the arrangement like a human head. Many of the toys I use are virtual models either scavenged online or physical objects found at thrift stores and not tied to any specific era. What I do find interesting from the Victorian era is the way the fashion from the time distorted the female body almost like a physical filter. At that time corsets and bustles were used to sculpt the female form to fit an imagined ideal, in present consumer culture we use photoshop, filters and now AI to create imagined versions of ourselves.  

“What I do find interesting from the Victorian era is the way the fashion from the time distorted the female body almost like a physical filter”

In your work, there is an interplay between the apparent desire to please and the eerie quality of the scene. Would you relate this to our exposure to mass media and advertising?

In my work I like to use the tools of advertising such as slick 3D renderings, photoshop and liquid simulations to entice viewers and pull them into my world. The story I am telling is about a human trying to adapt to an environment that is in decay where the physical and virtual world are colliding and creating a hybrid like a newborn cyborg trying to function. 

Can we interpret in these works a reference to the submissive roles given to women in conservative societies, from the Victorian era to Post-War America and up to the present? 

I wouldn’t say that, no. The female-like creatures in my work are like goddesses. They are in control of their own ecosystems. 

“The female-like creatures in my work are like goddesses. They are in control of their own ecosystems”

Katie Torn, Dream Flower II, 2022.

You have mentioned that in some of your artworks there is a strong influence of the work of Mary Blair. What inspiration do you take from Blair’s work and life?

I love Mary Blair’s unexpected color combinations on the work she did for Disney in the 1950’s. Specifically in Alice in Wonderland and Cinderella, her art direction added a moody quality and sophistication to the animation. Since I was making creatures that were botanical for Dream Flower I and Dream Flower II I decided to rewatch the flower scene in Alice in Wonderland for inspiration. 

An interesting concept in your work is the use of waste, both by incorporating disused objects, elements that are constantly dripping or falling apart, and by depicting wastelands. What do you find interesting in this concept?

Destruction and decay is fighting but it can also be beautiful on a purely aesthetic level. Like watching a forest fire from your computer screen. It is awful and heart breaking but can be watched slightly removed like an explosion in an action film. My work stems from the ironies we see in industrial disasters in nature like the most beautiful pink sunset that is caused by pollution or being awestruck by the colorful beauty in an oil spill.  

Lately, you have been involved in the NFT space. Can you please share some of your insights of this new context of creation, dissemination, and commercialization of digital artworks?

I have been making short format looping video animations for years and have always struggled to find a place for them in the art and film world. They aren’t long enough to play at a festival and the lack of physicality made it impossible to really sell them at art fairs. NFTs legitimized the format. Physical objects like painting and sculpture have always been tied to money. It makes sense that digital currency would have its own digital art version. It’s been great to see digital artists who’ve careers I’ve followed for years finally being able to make a living off their works. 

“My work stems from the ironies we see in industrial disasters in nature like the most beautiful pink sunset that is caused by pollution or being awestruck by the colorful beauty in an oil spill”