Rolin Dai: escapism as connection in an ever-changing world

Pau Waelder

This interview is part of a series dedicated to the artists whose works have been selected at the SMTH + Niio Open Call for Art Students. The jury been selected at the SMTH + Niio Open Call for Art Students. The jury members Valentina Peri, curator, Wolf Lieser, founder of DAM Projects/ DAM Museum, and Solimán López, new media artist, chose 5 artworks that are being displayed on more than 60 screens in public spaces, courtesy of Led&Go

Rolin Dai is an artist deeply interested in exploring new narrative forms by means of 3D images, animations, and various types of time-based media. Born and raised in Shenzhen, China, she is currently studying Photography and Imaging at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Her artistic work is characterized by an approach to storytelling that looks for positive messages and explores a variety of aesthetic influences ranging from Bauhaus rationalism and classic animation films to Y2K design. 

Rolin Yuxing Dai. Conform or Not, 2023

In “A fortuitous cosmic afterthought” you express an approach to storytelling that seems key in your work, which is to look for positive emotions and joyful ambiences even when facing difficult subjects. Can you elaborate on this choice and whether it defines a particular aesthetic in your digital art works?

In visual storytelling, I think there’s always an immense power in exploring positive emotions and moments of love and joy even within the context of challenging subjects since it helps to build a deeper connection in a world that often feels divided and tumultuous. Due to my personal preferences, most of my work is situated within a fantastical realm but its thematic essence remains firmly grounded in reality – I reckon that we can only reassess problems from an objective perspective when we step out of the conventional boundaries of space. Overall, I hope my artwork can be not only relatable but also offer an easygoing atmosphere that uplifts my audiences and serves as a catalyst for contemplation.

“Most of my work is situated within a fantastical realm but its thematic essence remains firmly grounded in reality.”

In terms of aesthetics, your work brings to mind fantastic realms such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, as depicted in the 1951 Walt Disney film, digital animations from the early 2000s, Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet, and Vaporwave. Can you tell me more about your influences and the role they play in your digital artworks?

Drawing from a fusion of both my personal experience and academic journey – from my fascination with Y2K style to the Bauhaus aesthetics taught in school – I have always been immersed in various artistic styles and consistently integrated them into my creative process. Thus, it’s hard to define the specific pattern among my works as it reflects a fluid amalgamation of all the influences. However, I realize that a recurring theme across them is the utilization of a vibrant color palette. Notably, I am drawn to the approach of artists like Schlemmer, who employed color not only for its visual appeal but also as a fundamental tool for spatial organization, and thematic expression in his theatrical productions. Consequently, I have combined aspects of his aesthetic into certain 3D works, driven by a desire to try out some new perspectives when combining the old elements with contemporary technology.

Rolin Yuxing Dai. Y2KIDS, 2024

Another subject that appears frequently in your work is escapism, that you connect on the one hand with vintage aesthetics (clothing, objects) and on the other with the need to stay within the comfort of home and let imagination go rather than confront the outside world. This is a common feeling that is facilitated by digital technologies. How do you address this subject?

I recognize my tendency towards escapism and nostalgia, as I believe in the value of reminiscence to remember who we used to be. Regarding the inspiration from the vintage, a significant portion of my artwork includes objects featured in the 2000s, years in my early childhood in which memories are all fragmented and blurred. I’m deeply influenced by the Y2K aesthetic and things that I like today always have a pinch of this aesthetic. Rather than a critique of the rapid pace of today’s information landscape, I view it as a homage to a collective memory or a yearning for a bygone era. Besides, I always find a feeling of peacefulness when wandering off into imaginative thoughts or fantasies since it serves as a repository of all my inner emotions. Thus, either through nostalgia or seeking comfort in familiar surroundings—what can be called escapism—it brings profound energy and meaning as these moments hold significance for me, offering a sense of connection and grounding in an ever-changing world.

“I’m deeply influenced by the Y2K aesthetic. Rather than a critique of the rapid pace of today’s information landscape, I view it as a homage to a collective memory or a yearning for a bygone era.”

Conform or Not?, the winning artwork in the SMTH + Niio Open Call, addresses both the escapism into a fantasy world and leaves open the question of being different or celebrating being part of the mass. Can you elaborate on the concept behind this artwork and its making?

As our life today is marked by hyper-individualism, the distinction between conformity and individualization has become increasingly pronounced, exemplified by the ability of an individual to influence widespread trends, attracting millions of followers, or one may deliberately seek to distinguish himself in a rapidly evolving social landscape. In this project, I don’t want to make a point that either the behavior is something good or bad but more in an open-ended way. Perhaps exploring the potential of conformity for fostering moments of simple happiness amidst shared experiences.

For the creating process, I tried with different 3D assets and built the virtual scenes in Maya. In the first part about the mushroom world, I was inspired by supporting actors in cartoons since conforming is a pretty common behavior among them which always contributes to a whimsical ambiance for the whole drama. Similarly, the portrayal of extraterrestrial life on a distant planet reflects a charming form of conformity amongst its inhabitants. The last scene features typing endeavors and I aim to capture the essence of a prevalent modern-day profession – programmers. Despite the demands, there’s a significant number of individuals dedicated to this field. Many of my acquaintances have pursued computer science because they used to believe a coding career has scope—not just today, but well into the future. Nevertheless, I intend to express that whether we choose to conform or assert our uniqueness, the paramount principle remains to stay true to our genuine selves. It is through this authenticity that we embody our true selves and cultivate meaningful connections with the world around us. After all, the world could be one that celebrates the one; the world could be one that celebrates the mass.

Rolin Yuxing Dai. Monodrama of a Buffon. Courtesy of the artist.

The SMTH + Niio Open Call brings you and four more artists the opportunity to have your work displayed on more than 60 screens in several shopping malls in Spain. What is your opinion about this kind of project, that aims to bring digital art closer to a wider audience in public spaces?

I think by presenting the digital work in a physical venue, it avoids the phenomenon of algorithmic audience segmentation because each viewer can experience a first-hand engagement. It will establish a deeper connection with the audience that differs from other digital engagements via handheld electronic devices. Given the thematic focus of my work on human dynamics, the audience somehow plays a role akin to the characters in the piece as the work serves as a backdrop for them. Besides, when our artwork is placed in diverse locations and spaces, additional layers of significance might emerge from it, enriching the overall meaning. 

Rolin Dai’s Conform or Not displayed at Max Center (Bilbao) as part of the SMTH x Niio open call. Photo: SMTH.

“Presenting the digital work in a physical venue avoids the phenomenon of algorithmic audience segmentation because each viewer can experience a first-hand engagement.”

You are currently majoring in Photography & Imaging at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. What has the school brought to your artistic practice? Which opportunities can be created from this and other similar institutions for emerging artists?

During my time in school, in addition to mastering photographic techniques, we were encouraged to experiment with emerging technology to produce innovative artwork. From a technical standpoint, I was trained a lot related to the field of post-photography such as 3D modeling, animating, and scanning through the use of a variety of software. I also found the cross-disciplinary setting of our program especially beneficial for me as it allows me to delve into diverse subjects extending beyond visual arts, including liberal arts and science. This comprehensive approach allowed me to draw inspiration from other fields, thereby enriching my creative process and the development of ideas.

“I found the cross-disciplinary setting of our program at NYU Tisch especially beneficial for me as it allows me to delve into diverse subjects extending beyond visual arts, including liberal arts and science.”

In your photography and video work, there is a marked interest in people, relationships and being different. You address these subjects with care and sensitivity, can you tell me more about your approach to photography and video as a means to tell these stories, as distinct mediums, and also in connection with your work with digital technologies?

In my approach to creating photography and video content, I find myself more of an observer role rather than that of a creator, especially when compared to my work in 3D art as those traditional mediums often involve a closer and more immediate interaction with my subjects, either through verbal communication or eye contact. Regarding its connection with my digital artwork, I usually try to apply my photographs as references for my 3D creations. I also feel that certain visual narratives are better conveyed through non-traditional mediums, prompting me to explore new ways to expand the possibilities of storytelling. 

Rolin Dai’s Conform or Not displayed at Fan Mallorca as part of the SMTH x Niio open call. Photo: SMTH.

Depicting the impossible: Eric Lerner’s Virtual Worlds

By Roxanne Vardi

This interview is part of a series of three editorial articles that dive deeper into the different software, technicalities, and processes that go into creating digital artworks, in order to offer our readers a deeper understanding of digital art as a medium.

We speak to Eric Lerner as part of a collaboration with Render Studio, a collective creative experimentation for a digital reality. Render Studio is inspired by art, design, nature and technology and aims to explore dimensions of virtuality, interactivity and motion. Eric Lerner’s series Tokonoma is featured on Niio this month.

Eric Lerner is a new media artist, animation director and professor at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design where he teaches art and animation for video games.

Part of your artistic practice deals with 3D animation. Could you give us an in-depth analysis of this digital art technique? Where do you see 3D animation going in the next five years?

3D animation or CGI animation refers to many different techniques and values but often will have similarity within the use of virtual “polygons” to calculate and produce an image. This constantly evolving technical practice has seen use in practically every modern art form; from film to games, graphic design to art. It is an extremely wide and flexible field of techniques that can produce a limitless variety of different styles, therefore It is difficult to lay clear borders or boundaries to 3D as an art form.

For me, the ability to create realistic looking imagery of physically impossible scenarios is where the true power and interest lays. This has of course been in use for cinema and VFX for many years but the types of narrative popular cinema usually portrays very often lacks the type of deep meaning and context that art makes possible; through more complex forms of expression, new fantastical realities can be created and used to invoke and provoke thought and experience, and with the democratization and  wide availability of 3D tools, artists anywhere are free to explore their style and visual expression in new and exciting ways. However, as the benchmark for quality rises, the entry level for artists to find their initial steps within these techniques rapidly becomes less achievable, requiring extensive study and practice; this might distance newcomers to the media. I would suggest to them that exploration of unique, even unconventional style, would be more important than technical prowess.

Eric Lerner, RedBrickWall1, 2022.

We are currently seeing a huge advancement in real time 3D rendering which allows for interactive media. To achieve the visual fidelity of what recently was only available to highly resourceful creation agents through pre-rendered processes only. This is already providing the gaming industry with hollywood style visuals for video games, but also has huge potential for art installations and exhibitions to create extremely immersive experiences that engulf viewers in an alternative reality.

Looking even further, I believe we’ll see these tools become available in more mobile setups such as smartphones and small headgear combinations. Furthermore, the interactive possibilities and AI generated content will be able to provide real time creation of completely unique experiences; entire detailed worlds created by direction of artists and then explored by viewers and users, possibly even as a one of a kind, single use experience – quite similar to our own reality.

Eric Lerner, Tokonoma I, 2022.

“For me, the ability to create realistic looking imagery of physically impossible scenarios is where the true power and interest lays.

Towards the creation of many of your artworks you create 3D animations which you then turn into live action videos? Could you elaborate on some of the complexities of this practice and your use of a handheld camera technique?

A process I’ve been researching and expanding on involves first shooting a live action clip, usually of empty (of people) urban or forest areas. Later I will “track” the footage (this is a process that follows hundreds of points of movement in a video in order to mimic the original movement of the camera, through a mathematical process of figuring out the parallax strength in the scene, thus producing a sort of “depth map” of the film scene). With a digital copy of the original camera movement, I can “film” 3D objects within CGI creation environments using the same exact movement of the original, often handheld footage. This eventually produces the illusion of the 3D object being present during the original shoot, even if the object itself doesn’t appear realistic in its own nature.

While this technique has been long used in film VFX, I find that it can bring to life many different types of narrative (with my favorite being surreal imagery) and its magic is quite captivating. While a relatively high end technique, it can still be produced by a single artist, and its creative possibilities are extremely interesting; it brings to life impossible objects and affects the mind very effectively, producing a magical realism that can turn everyday scenes into dreamscapes.

Eric Lerner, Pools of Reflection I, 2022.

Could you share some of your early experiences working in the NFT space, and provide us with your anticipations of NFTs as an accepted traditional art medium?

When NFT first started getting attention in the art world, I was very excited by the prospect that it promised a new form of livelihood for artists, specifically for more left-field, alternative arenas of art (alternative to fine arts, mostly). Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that a lot of people were entering the field as a quick cash grab and a lot of artists were being exploited, had their work stolen or just became obsessed with the financial aspect of this new “business” as a “get rich quick” scheme. While the technology itself was interesting, it was being used in poor taste and the original promise was mostly lost.

I feel the technology can eventually be used in decent (morally) ways but i’m not sure we are there yet. As more and more companies jump on the NFT bandwagon to use in their services, products and promotions, it’s unclear where the public’s view of NFTs will end up, but for art, either fine arts or more broad, alternative fields of art, there is still a hopeful promise for creators and collectors but more importantly, experiences of art that are yet to come to be.

Eric Lerner, Pools of Reflection II, 2022.

In Modernist Painting, Clement Greenberg suggests that the role of the Modern Artist is to bring attention to the flatness of the surface because the essence of visual arts is the optical experience. Today, through advanced technologies and softwares artists are able to create three dimensional pictorial spaces. Is it your opinion that contemporary artists working in the digital space should create experiences of visual worlds within themselves pushing our everyday reality into new realms introduced by web3 and the metaverse?

Yes, as I previously stated, the advancement of technology and its ability to create believable and emotional 3D experiences, for example, might be the starting point for a new breed of artwork where the experience is far from a single image or even a single interactive experience but rather a unique and personal experience each time it is activated, with a much broader scope than previously imagined.

That said, and pardon the controversial statement, but I find currently web3 promises to be extremely familiar, reminding me of grandiose promises made when web 2.0 was “introduced”. The main difference being the actual possibility of these ideas to come to life with technology reaching a point where they become possible. But to be truly interesting, I find these ideas need to go deeper into realms of data that might not be completely acceptable by the masses meant to enjoy them – either because they are built upon personal data or because they expose hidden truths; either way i believe these experiences have got to be personalize to be effective, otherwise they remain very 2.0 or just end up as good storytelling, which isn’t new but always very, very effective.

“I will often learn a new technique, and my immediate thought would be: How can I use this in a surprising way?.”

Eric Lerner, Gabriel in the Dreamscape, 2022.

You have stated that in the creation of your artworks you wish to explore the craft of art making in itself, and that through this investigation you are able to push the boundaries of what is possible. Could you elaborate further on this process in which your subject matter comes from technical ideas and your aims when creating new artworks?

When looking at this process in its truthful form, it is mostly a process of using the technical boundaries as limitations in order to create a “fenced” playground, which counterintuitively very often brings creative freedom. I will often learn a new technique, and my immediate thought would be: “How can I use this in a surprising way?”. For me, this usually directs into areas of magical realism where impossible events are plainly portrayed; So I will often use a technique to create unexpected yet [hopefully] intriguing moments, a tiny bit of awe for the viewer.

Unfortunately, this will often not do much in terms of context or narrative, areas which I find only inspiration derived from other narrative sources or life experiences can bring any meaningful context. This is where having your head stuck in a technical realm does little to help, or maybe even bring damage to the process. I aim to grow in these areas and I push my students to emphasize their efforts on these areas as I find them the most meaningful in a visual experience.

Quantum Memories, the spectacular power of AI art

Quantum Memories is Refik Anadol’s most technically and conceptually ambitious work to date. Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, the work explores the opportunities presented by artificial intelligence, machine learning and quantum computing to visualise an everchanging large-scale immersive multimedia artwork.

Installation view of Refik Anadol Quantum Memories 
On display in NGV Triennial 2020 from 19 December 2020–18 April 2021 
At NGV International, Melbourne
© Refik Anadol Photo: Tom Ross

New media artist Refik Anadol has created a body of work that locates creativity at the intersection of humans and machines. His site-specific parametric data sculptures, live audio/visual performances and immersive installations take many forms, while encouraging us to rethink our engagement with the physical world, its temporal and spatial dimensions, and the creative potential of the machine.

In Quantum Memories 2020 Anadol is harnessing a dataset drawn from over two hundred million images linked to nature from publicly available internet resources and processed using quantum computing with machine learning algorithms. Anadol’s work uses the data to speculate an alternate dimension of the natural world as a complex cultural entity with memory.

Installation view of Refik Anadol Quantum Memories 
On display in NGV Triennial 2020 from 19 December 2020–18 April 2021 
At NGV International, Melbourne
© Refik Anadol Photo: Tom Ross

The first true quantum artwork created, Anadol’s arresting visuals and accompanying audio are composed in collaboration with a generative algorithm enabled by AI. In taking the data that flows around us as his primary material and the neural network of a quantum mind as his collaborator, Anadol paints with a thinking brush offering us radical visualisations of our digitised memories of the natural realm.
By representing the complexity of our collective memory in the largest digital artwork staged by the NGV, the artist encourages us to imagine the beginning of a quantum computerised mind and its immense potential for the future of art and design.

Refik Anadol Quantum Memories on display in NGV Triennial 2020 from 19 December 2020 – 18 April 2021 at NGV International, Melbourne.