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.