Digital art, time, painting, sculpture and consciousness

Thomas Lisle

Thomas Lisle. Changing Values, 2023.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Lisle. Dynamic Relationships, 2023.

Human consciousness or AI

Art produced by AIs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Lisle. Peaceful Co-Existence, 2023.

Art made consciously by humans vs AI art

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

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

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

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

Thomas Lisle. Subconscious Motions, 2022.

Art made consciously by humans vs Generative art

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Lisle. Abstract 01, 2022.

Digital Art in Relationship to Contemporary Painting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Lisle. Abstract 02, 2022

Metamodernism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Digital technology and figurative abstraction

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

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

Abstraction 

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

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

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

Why is the history of contemporary art important?

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

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

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

Technology and art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time-based abstraction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Painting

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

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

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

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

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

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

Audre Lorde

Time-based art

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

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

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

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

3D painting 

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

There are four fundamental types of 3D painting:

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

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

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

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

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

Thomas Lisle. “Something Stirs,” 2023

My art history

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

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

Why is digital 3D the most important technology

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

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

My art

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

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

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

Stuart Ward: on myths and systems of power

Interview by Pau Waelder

Canadian artist Stuart Ward has been inspired by ancient cultures since his childhood, and by a pragmatic approach to art making that had him incorporate digital tools into his traditional arts education. Living in Tokyo, he joined the live VJ scene in the mid 2000s and began collaborating with musicians, dancers, performers, and visual artists. Returning to Canada in 2010, he started an experiential design studio, working with internationally recognized brands such as Porsche, Cadillac, Lyft, TED, Asics, and Heineken.

His experience in both the traditional art world and the advertising and design fields shapes his perception of art as a form of creative expression that transcends boundaries and communicates with an audience on any possible context: not just in the white cube of the gallery or museum, but also on media façades, projections and screens in private and public spaces.

MUEO is the chosen name for his visual art persona and a creative project that references from Greek and Roman sculpture, Baroque architecture, treatises on visual perception, advertising, and the neon lights of the streets of Tokyo. On the occasion of his solo artcast Mueo – The Initiation, we talked about his work and the topics it explores. 

Take MUEO’s Neo-Baroque compositions to your screen

Stuart Ward, Venus, 2023

How would you describe the way Greek and Roman iconography, as well as that of other traditions, such as Buddhism for instance, is being incorporated into our contemporary culture, e.g. as a symbol of power or authority, or to express refinement? How does this apply to your work?

Greek and Roman architecture was adopted by several powerful nations and used as a symbol to perpetuate their power through association. Some of those nations ended up leaning more towards fascism, others went entirely that way. Cultural symbols have been permanently ruined in parts of the world. Architecture of power and dominance being built today has since shifted to the opposite end of the spectrum while simultaneously holding on to Greek and Roman forms. It’s almost as though the powerful are seizing both ends of the spectrum. There is a lot of nasty brutality in history, everywhere in the world. Learning about it is a great start to avoiding repeating it. 

Simultaneously, the possibility of greater expression has roots in freedom, so within the brutality of history, moments of divine inspiration have occurred, possibly through extended peace and periods of abundance. There is now more art being made than ever before, as humans have access to tools of creation like never before. The color blue used to be a symbol of immense wealth. Now we can buy it by the gallon.

“My work isn’t intended to be religious in its theme, but more to express the possibility of there being more to the universe than we can perceive with our senses.”

Buddhism is an interesting one. Their recruitment tools are more elegant and sophisticated, but they have recruitment. It is interesting to consider who they are appealing to. The aesthetics associated with Buddhism seem to also be universally associated with spirituality and lack the association of power and dominance that has been added to the spiritual or religious expressions of Europe. I’m paying attention to symbols in my work, as I recognize the power they carry.

Stuart Ward, Neptune, 2023

In your work we can see references to cycles of death and rebirth, and the connection between the divine and eternity, that are expressed in a visually attractive form. How would you say these concepts of constant changes and cycles speak to our consumption of cultural products, and of cultural trends?

I try to avoid politics before whisky, but there’s an idea by an awful political theorist that makes a lot of sense when removed from the rest of the context of his work. He said that people should express themselves by what they create, not by what they consume. I think most people’s creative expression comes through consumption. How they dress, the music they listen to, the food they eat. One thing that I’ve noticed that makes me uncomfortable is that sometimes after binging on a bunch of interesting and creative content on social media, I feel like I myself have been participatory in the creative process. This is far from accurate, but the feeling has existed, and I wonder if that non-productive creative moment is the reward for most people?

It might also be worth mentioning in the digital art scene, as NFTs emerged, everyone was so excited to break down the existing system and start anew, but within a few months, the existing systems had re-emerged, or the community was unknowingly asking for its return. Curators and critics reappeared. Blue Chip artists in the digital space became a thing. Now the digital scene is an established system waiting for its next interruption. 

“As NFTs emerged, everyone was so excited to break down the system and start anew, but within a few months, the existing systems had re-emerged. Now the digital scene is an established system waiting for its next interruption.”

You point out that you are interested in a Neo-Baroque aesthetic and in seeing what is possible to do with decorative forms when their material limitations have been removed. What drove your attention to these decorative forms in the beginning?

Where did these decorative forms emerge from? I know that some forms come from nature, like a dried acanthus leaf, or a fiddlehead fern, but the forms have evolved an almost musical quality. They so beautifully match the music of the era, wherein a form goes one way, and satisfyingly at just the right location, it spins and curls off in a different direction. We like music because it does what we expect, and we like it even more when it does what we didn’t expect, and subsequently brings us back around into what we expect again. Without the restriction of gravity or construction materials, what is the end evolution of those whirling swirling decorative forms? I think the mystery and curiosity to explore those questions drove me towards working with them in my art. That, and my early childhood home had several pieces of furniture with decorative swirls that I’d get lost in while playing, so there may be some deep memories of early childhood surfacing.

Stuart Ward, Artemis, 2023

In the artworks we see on Niio the elements of Baroque architecture create a frame around the main character, but in other works such as Ecstatic Angel and Transformation at the Gates of Eternity, which feature sculptures by Bernini, the architecture dwarfs the sculpture and becomes the main element in the composition. How do you conceive the balance between the two: sculpture and architecture, figure and frame?

Good question. I see them merging to become part of a singular experience where the architectural details and the sculptural details become a cohesive whole. This is part of the effort to explore the forms without physical limits. They can occupy similar values. Beyond that, in the Bernini piece for example, if it were to take a more dominant role in terms of scale in relation to the rest of the artwork, I’d feel a sense of unease. The sculpture is iconic and stands alone as an artwork. Is a great photograph of the sculpture also an artwork? Sure. I guess. But it runs dangerously close to losing its artness and becoming just a photograph. I feel similarly about a 3D rendering of a sculpture. Yes, I posed it in a scene. Yes, I organized a virtual camera, and created a lighting system, and a material system, but it’s still at the edge of art, in my valuation of things. Perhaps my system of values is more strict than others, but I felt like to make the artwork a deeper expression of my own work while simultaneously referring to the greatness of Bernini’s sculpture, the surrounding artwork needed to occupy more space visually and thematically.

“I’m a big fan of magenta. It’s my favourite color, despite not being a color on the electromagnetic spectrum.”

Your choice of colors is quite characteristic of a type of aesthetic that has become popular in NFT communities. Have you been inspired by other creators in these communities? What do the colors bring to these compositions in relation to the references to Greek and Roman sculpture, and Baroque architecture?

My artwork series from 2021 was more ‘classical’ in its color range, in comparison to Baroque artwork. In late 2021 I moved to Tokyo, again. The neon and lights of the big city had an influence on my aesthetic, and the works made in 2022 evolved to have luminous neon shapes and glowing effects. I think part of the purpose of it was to progress in the arms race against creative stagnation, and to challenge myself to express in a new aesthetic. 

To further discuss colour for a minute, I’m a big fan of magenta. It’s my favourite color, despite not being a color on the electromagnetic spectrum. I was working with a lighting expert several years ago planning some lighting projections for an event. They told me that using warm colours like orange, yellow, and pink will make the audience under the lights look healthy and the event will be more fun and better received, as opposed to an event lit with too much blue and green, making people look unhealthy. I think of that, and use magenta’s contrasting colors with consideration. 

Aqua/teal expands into the possibility of color. Before synthetic pigments arrived on the scene, some colours were rarely available for use. Despite the sky being blue, blue pigments were expensive and rare, as were purples, which is the reason for their association with royalty. The arrival of spring and the blooming of flowers in the pre-synthetic colour era meant that colours would be visible, having almost entirely disappeared to nearly everyone for the winter, the exception being the blue sky, always out of reach. Coincidentally, blue leds were the most difficult coloured lights to engineer: there were a few decades where led screens were yellow, orange, red and green. Now, the entire world can access as much colour as they want without restriction, but perhaps we have a deep memory of life before that unlimited access, and give brightly coloured things a sense of special attention. It could also be linked to an earlier structure of foraging for colourful fruits and berries. The concept is interesting to mentally explore.

“Social media has caused some harm. Artworks are becoming a response to the high speed social feedback rather than taking time to really work on an idea and iterate on the work.”

You speak of creating moments of elation and wonder with your artworks. Would you say that the use of a symmetrical composition, the cyclical movement of the different elements, and the rhythm of the animation are all intended to create a mesmerizing effect?

My work intends to express the possibility of there being more to the universe than we can perceive with our senses. This is generally objectively true in that right now we can’t sense the multitude of wifi and cellular signals flowing through our bodies. But further to that, more deeply universal questions about the possibility of a soul or spirit within, or a sense of divinity. I’m careful with how to express this, because my artwork isn’t intended to be religious in its theme, but more to express a possibility of ‘more’ through myth, pattern, motion, and the emotional response that those tools create. There are two fantastic books, The Oxford Compendium of Optical Illusions, and Vision and Art; The Biology of Seeing. They look into what is happening in the eye and the brain while observing images, and how optical illusions trick our visual sense. I’ve been exploring how to use this in art to express a sense of mystery.

Stuart Ward, Ecstatic Dance 2, 2023

In your opinion, how have social media and motion graphics influenced digital art creators?

Social media has caused some harm. As a result of the trend of Dailies, artists are rushing to create work quickly in order to get something new to share every day. In the process of trying to accomplish that, we end up making simpler things, and exploring creative ideas that we’ve already proven to be a social media hit. So the artwork becomes a response to the high speed social feedback rather than taking time to really work on an idea and iterate on the work. I know, because I fell into the same traps.

I must also confess that a short loop is better for me, because the render time is shorter, and the reward centers are activated sooner in the creative process. Some of my loops are only 4 seconds long, despite seeming much longer due to their seamless quality. As I’ve moved further away from the ‘dailies’ style work, I’m more and more comfortable with longer content where some parts loop quickly while others take more time to reach their looping conclusion. But this is still content under 30s long. 

Motion graphics add another tool to the artist’s creative capacity. The addition of motion to artworks adds to the capability of expression, but without proper media systems and hardware, it runs the risk of being forgotten, in favor of more physical media. It’s part of the reason why I’m excited to be working with NIIO: they facilitate the exhibition of motion enabled artwork in a progressive and intelligent way.

“I’m excited to be working with NIIO because they facilitate the exhibition of motion enabled artwork in a progressive and intelligent way.”

Your experience as a VJ and designer have surely taken you through different spheres of the visual arts, crossing the membrane between what is considered art and what is considered popular culture. What is your opinion on this separation? How can it be overcome in an age of art on screens and online distribution?

The barrier between art and pop culture has been largely broken down during my art career. Collaborating with a brand used to be considered ‘selling out’ and the only customers and revenue streams an artist should have was sales of art, and the non-art job that supported their practice in the likely event that it wasn’t sufficient. Now we see major artists collaborating with major brands, and it is seen as a part of ‘making it in the art world’. 

Stuart Ward, Nymph, 2023

Murakami and Arsham immediately come to mind when it comes to successful collaborations wherein the artist retains control over their image and artwork, while also merging in a beautiful way with well known global brands. Perhaps this process was facilitated by luxury brands supporting the arts, like Fondation Louis Vuitton. The art world seems to have shifted again as NFTs rocketed into the scene. The digital art space was moving so quickly that the old guard couldn’t keep up, and the gatekeepers were left behind. Eventually, in the chaos, a new order emerged, and some artists who were not considered ‘real artists’, but mere ‘digital creators’ found themselves on the inside of the gates, selling work at globally renowned, established art auction houses. The system has restructured.

Alona Rodeh: Automated Fantasy

Roxanne Vardi

Alona Rodeh is an Israeli visual artist and individual researcher who currently lives and works in Berlin. Rodeh is a cross-disciplinary artist whose works include immersive environments, video works, sculpture, and public art projects. Rodeh’s artworks are currently focused on the presence of artificial illumination in the public sphere, and in turn its influence on humans and non-humans. Rosenfeld Gallery is presently exhibiting its third solo show of Rodeh’s works, this time focusing on a collaboration with artist Rachid Moro. The exhibition titled CITY DUMMIES is made up of CGI works which were all created in the past year, and which mark a shift in the artist’s oeuvre from video and cinema to the practice of post-cinema. Rodeh’s artworks have been exhibited internationally at private as well as public spaces including Berlin, Vienna, Tel Aviv, and New York.

CITY DUMMIES, comprises of eight video artworks, powered by Niio Art, which are spread across Rosenfeld gallery’s space. The artist designed and engineered the space in a way which complements what the viewer is anticipated to see on the screens. The gallery space is painted in a dark grey tint to complement the video works, and the screens hang from industrial metal poles. Moreover, the space is partitioned with a white metal roofing panel used as a wall to separate one of the artworks titled Runway Freefall Deluxe. The works exhibited are CGI works which all display familiar urban scenes that are deplete of humans, and instead all show inanimate objects as the protagonists of the presented scenes. The fictional urban scenes produced by the artist present viewers with different machines that vary from an ATM machine, to electric scooters, to drones which come to life during the nighttime hours and become the stars of the spectacle.

The hyper realistic works set within dystopian environments display a certain obedience to contemporary consumer society. The presented imaginary urban technology landscapes all show orchestrated plays between extraordinary lighting, movement, sound, and visual effects. The Juicer (Late Shift), shows a transit van pulling over down a driveway in reverse gear. The back doors of the car open and a stack of electric scooters flicker and play music from within the transit. The artist has stated that she feels she plays a kind of god-like figure of the fabricated events that are created within these artworks. The series of works created for the CITY DUMMIES exhibition were all created using 3D models which were inserted into gaming models as a kind of “puzzle of pieces which we put together”. Moreover, Rodeh has shared with us that the work here is of a scenographer of built environments, and that many of the final artworks allude to movies such as the work Runway Freefall Deluxe which references Magnolia.

Alona Rodeh, The Juicer (Late Shift), 2022.

You started your artistic career working mostly with sculpture and installation, whereas lately you have been working mostly in the digital space and specifically focusing on Unreal projects. Can you walk us through this trajectory and how one medium led you or complemented the other on your artistic journey?

CITY DUMMIES is–also–a sculpture and installation show, though it might not look like it at first glance. But going into the creation of digitally-fabricated environments had much to do with the pandemic. When reality as we knew it came to a halt in 2020 and into 2021, I felt it as a life-changing experience. My plans were shattered time and time again. I, among so many others, lost a sense of control over my present and near future. This project, slowly but surely, grew out of an almost existential urge to create my work on my terms, without relying on institutions and their commissions. Not by coincidence, it’s an imaginative space that can be seen online and offline. It’s a huge bet, and hopefully, it also pays back. 

“This project, slowly but surely, grew out of an almost existential urge to create my work on my terms, without relying on institutions and their commissions.”

Alona Rodeh, Gearing Up, 2022.

The artworks which are part of the CITY DUMMIES all insinuate human intervention but are in fact completely deplete of people. What is your intention towards this definite decision? Does it in your opinion also point to what is expected to come in the future?

People’s presence is felt even if they are not visible since the built environment results from human production. Here, direct human presence is strictly ruled out; The series is a little love letter to all those precarious machines of the Zeitgeist acting out at night. Dancing as if nobody is watching. I don’t look so much at the future but comment on the shadow of the present. It’s a strange, automated fantasy.

Towards the creation of your new series of works and towards the CITY DUMMIES exhibition you discovered and worked with Unreal Engine. Can you share your experience working with this novel and advanced real-time rendering tool?

I heard “rumors” of Unreal Engine while using other render engines for presentations of sculpture, which I have been using for some time (Keyshot, Blender), and I thought I’d try it. No other software allows such powerful real-time rendering, which is a game-changer. There is no delay between design and output; The software is so well-optimized that it can run very complex scenes with little effort. I did one little work with it, and appetite comes with eating. My partner Rachid Moro (lead CGI in this project) and I had to shift all the studio equipment to feed the monster: getting the best graphic cards, extra memory cards, screens, and of course: expanding the team. Rachid dived in with all his attention to detail; I focused on the conceptual possibilities and steering this big ship; we gathered a few other people around us to contribute and learn together what this engine can allow. Some clips took a good few months; some are still in the works, and others are only in my head still. It’s complicated but gratifying.

“I find all my inspiration and ideas in the built environment. Therefore I’m always happy to do work in actual public space.”

Alona Rodeh, Runway Freefall Deluxe, 2022.

You have also created artworks for public spaces in the past, can you elaborate on the differences, at least from your personal perspective, working in the public sphere as opposed to the private gallery sphere?

I find all my inspiration and ideas in the built environment. Therefore I’m always happy to do work in actual public space, and I focus on doing some of these in parallel. When I work on public art commissions, I have to consider a battery of limitations and challenges: safety, the resilience of materials, costs, communication with local authorities, public opinion, and so forth. With CITY DUMMIES, I don’t have all this baggage; it’s all up to me. At this point in my career, it feels liberating. 

Eelco Brand: landscape as fiction

Pau Waelder

Eelco Brand (Rotterdam, 1969) creates virtual 3D models that resemble beautiful natural environments full of lush vegetation, bathed by the warm light of the sun or entrancing moonlight. While photorealistic, his artworks are not based on photography or 3D scanning. They are painstakingly created from scratch, layer by layer, with the patience of a devoted painter. The scenes he creates have no conclusion. They simply play out endlessly in seamless loops, depicting a surreal activity that, by repetition, becomes natural.

Brand is represented by DAM Projects, the pioneering digital art gallery funded and owned by Wolf Lieser in Berlin, which is presenting its most outstanding artists on Niio. Our recent artcast Sprout features a selection of artworks by Brand that depict scenes of nature with a mysterious twist. We sat down with the artist to discuss the concepts behind his 3D animations and the techniques he uses to create them.

Eelco Brand. WT.movi, 2019

Can you take us through the process of creating one of your animations?

A project starts with small pencil sketches. Followed by animating the movements in simple test scenes with dummy objects. When things seem to be possible technically and it might become an interesting work, I start building with 3D modeling. Then I import the 3D objects in a construction that could best be described as a virtual film studio. Lights and a camera are used as in a real film set. Only the area within the viewport of the camera is relevant, zooming out would reveal it is an illusion, as in a studio scene of a feature film.

At the same time it is often impossible to build a whole scene in one construction because of the limitations of computer memory and render power. So I use separate rendered layers and place them on top of each other in a film editing program. Which gives additional tools for adjusting image details.

From beginning to end, to every detail, it feels important to construct everything myself. It would be very well possible to obtain existing 3D objects, but that feels as cheating.

Your artworks integrate elements of the languages of both painting and cinema. Which role do these elements play?

In my animations there isn’t a narrative, no story development. Shown within the edges of a screen hanging on a wall, the similarity with a painting is obvious. It doesn’t matter when you start looking at it. This can be bothersome in a video art exhibition, when it is unclear whether you are at the end or at the beginning. A painting, on the other hand, is static and is often looked at for just a brief moment, trained as we are to see and judge an image in a split second because of the visual bombardment we are subjected to each day. So, as a painter, to be able to use movement to attract and hold the attention of a viewer has always felt as a powerful quality. In maintaining the resemblance with a painting I prefer to use slow movements or keep the camera standing still. For me, the slow rhythm and iterations are a welcome opposite of the constant flow of images in a fast, hyper tensed society. 

Light and colors in the animations, as well as camera angle and depth of field are mostly a consequence of the scenery. The most attractive way of working on an animation is when the whole construction seems to take over and evolves by its own logic. 

Eelco Brand. HH.movi, 2017

You do not use photographs or scanned objects in the making of your artworks. Why did you choose this method of creation? Do you keep libraries of elements that you can re-use in different artworks?

Yes, I re-use objects when I can. The sculpting and texturing of a 3D object is quite a lot of work each time, but the handmade aspect is essential in my opinion. It would be very well possible to obtain existing 3D objects, but that feels as cheating. From beginning to end, to every detail, it feels important to construct everything myself.

At the same time, I find it interesting to question to which extent the 3D software is only a technical toolset and whether you can consider yourself as the creator of each and any aspect. It can be said that there is a sort of anonymous collaboration between the designers of the software and the artist, particularly when certain typical effects are applied. I always try to be careful and avoid using the newest effects of 3D software, because there is this point that it is not so much the artist just using a toolset, but you see in fact the coolest new wizardry made by software designers.

And nothing is outdated as fast as the newest, flashy techniques.

Eelco Brand. OBJ.movi, 2021

You underscore the fact that landscape is a fiction, and so your depiction of nature is at the same time photorealistic and playfully fantastic. Is this your intention, to lead the viewer to question their perception of reality?

Nature is, on the one hand, an infinitely refined machinery. A biochemical machine. Up to the tiniest protein and molecule behaves according to the laws of physics. And, on the other hand, nature is mystical, magical and divine. Or is that the human mind, projecting its thoughts and feelings? Indeed a landscape is fictional. It is our perception that creates a landscape out of trees and rocks and fields that are just randomly placed. 

For me the fascinating quality about 3D animations is its immaterial aspect. It can be compared to the substance that dreams are made of. While fully virtual, it can be convincingly real. And with VR techniques rapidly evolving using virtual environments, the boundaries between fiction and reality will fade more and more.

For me the fascinating quality about 3D animations is its immaterial aspect. It can be compared to the substance that dreams are made of. While fully virtual, it can be convincingly real.

One would say that some of your animations depict particular moods, such as joy, longing, or sadness. Is there an emotional dimension in these landscape and still life compositions?

I think that the works can have a certain atmosphere depending on the interpretation of the viewer. I entertain the idea that it is a personal issue. Nevertheless, the fact that a scene could trigger a certain emotion is very welcome.

Eelco Brand. KB.movi, 2021

The titles of your artworks are particularly puzzling, since they are reduced to a string of letters and the file extension. Is this a way to remove all possible interpretations of the artwork beyond the fact that it is a 3D rendered animation?

Exactly. They could all be named N.T., but the different letters help me organize the artworks. They are often just abbreviations of the project map on the computer. For example ‘Fir Tree Project’ would be FT.movi.

Eelco Brand. QTQ.movi, 2018

Since you create such detailed scenes with 3D modeling, have you considered expanding your landscapes to immersive 360 environments for virtual reality? Or do you prefer the image to stay inside a frame?

I have tried some things with Unreal Engine and it is fascinating. The visual impact of a VR environment is huge and a big promise for the future. But still, to put a device on your head isn’t that ideal. Especially in an exhibition surrounding, I don’t think it works very well.

Eelco Brand. The Act of Bringing To Life. 25 Frames per Second and More. Solo exhibition at DAM Gallery, 2013. Photo courtesy of DAM Projects.

Your sculptures seem to go in the opposite direction of the animations, as they are artificial objects that seem extracted from a 3D rendering process and placed in a world where they don’t belong. What is your main interest in the creation of these pieces?

Because of the immaterial quality of 3D modeling, it felt almost magical to touch a real sculpture after production, designed on the computer as an intangible object. In several pieces I have an animation in which a shiny, unnatural shape moves. And in the exhibition the sculpture lies materialized next to the monitor as the actor out of the movie. It was interesting that there were people convinced to see the sculpture moving after watching the animation.

Julian Brangold: the computer error as a great revealer

Pau Waelder

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. 

Julian Brangold, Observation Machine (Bifurcation), 2022

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 approach is mediated 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.”

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. 

Julian Brangold. Observation Machines. A Song of Rubble, 2022 (detail).

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. 

Julian Brangold, Fade, 2022.

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.

Julian Brangold, Observation Machine (Bifurcation), 2022

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.  

Julian Brangold, Observation Machine (Iteration), 2022

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.”

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. 

Julian Brangold, Observation Machine (Fragmentation), 2022

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. 

“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.”

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. 

14th Factory LA

It’s always refreshing to walk into an exhibit and to be greeted by video art.  It’s even better when you get to the end and realize that that half of the show is comprised of multi-screen moving image works. Such was the case at the 14th Factory LA, a show we were lucky enough to catch right before it closed its doors after after 4 months and over 75,000 visitors.

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‘The Inevitable’ by Simon Birch and Eric Hu with music by Gary Gunn. Read more about this incredible work inspired by a devastating medical diagnosis on Niio’s Instagram page.

The 14th Factory LA was a monumental, multiple-media, socially engaged art and documentary experience conceived by the Hong Kong-based British artist Simon Birch. Taking over three acres of an empty industrial warehouse and lot on the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles, the location was transformed into a factory where Birch and his 20 creative collaborators worked and manufactured their art, creating an ever-changing immersive environment of 14 interlinked spaces comprised of video, installation, sculpture, paintings and performance.

Keep an eye on Simon Birch, he has some great projects on the horizon. You won’t want to miss them.

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Simon Birch, ‘Tannhauser’, 2016. Realized by Scott Sporleder, Jennifer Russell, with sound design by Gary Gunn. 4-channel video featuring a Hong Kong cityscape. Still by Matthew Sebastian Wood.

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‘The Inhumans’ is a short film directed by Wing Shya in collaboration with Simon Birch.

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The ‘Barmecide Feast’ by Simon Birch and KPlusK Assoc. was a replica of The Otherworldly Bedroom from Stanley Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Simon Birch pictured with Michael Govan, the Director of LACMA. According to Birch, ‘The Crusher’ was in part a tribute to the legendary American wrestler Reginald Lisowski, The Crusher who inspired a 1960s pop song of the same name. Photo by VM Fernandez.

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Niio’s Margo Spiritus with the 14th Factory LA’s founder, Simon Birch in front of one of his paintings.

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Panel: The Art Experience in the Age of Social Media with 14th Factory’s Simon Birch, Niio’s Margo Spiritus, Venus Over Manhattan’s Aaron Moulton,  Marissa Gluck and moderator Gloria Yu of 14th Factory LA.