Casey Reas on the persistence of digital media ✺
The “godfather” of generative art reflects on the evolution of the medium.
As part of his expansive solo exhibition at bitforms gallery, pioneering artist Casey Reas is presenting the culminating works from his years-long series, Still Life. The entire body of work began with a woodblock print and evolved into pieces rendered as generative art, plotter drawings, and video. As a whole, the collection looks at conceptual software painting through simulation and computer graphics, and examines the fundamental unit of digital images: the pixel.
You can now mint Casey's special-edition mint, “It Doesn't Exist (In Any Other Form)," exclusively on Gemma. The piece can be minted online or in person at bitforms gallery as part of his solo exhibition.
In a recent conversation, Gemma contributor Willa Koerner spoke with Reas about working with “shapes that don’t exist,” what it’s like teaching digital media to students right now, and his goal to ensure that more digital artists are able to pursue a career that centers around their artwork.
Willa Koerner: I'd like to hear about the piece that you're releasing with Gemma, and how it relates to your current bitforms exhibition.
Casey Reas: My Gemma release is called It Doesn't Exist (In Any Other Form), which is also the name of the show at bitforms. This is the second show at bitforms around this body of work, and this exhibition is the conclusion. The Gemma video is the final artwork in the larger series, which I've been working on since 2015, called The Still Life Series. Each piece within the series focuses on a different “platonic solid,” and attempts to generate and synthesize still life images based on ideas for shapes that don’t exist. The piece simulates a three-dimensional space, pulling the shapes apart based on the data inherent in the digital image, and then reassembling it as a two-dimensional image.
What is a “platonic solid,” exactly?
Platonic solids are three-dimensional forms where every element of the form is the same shape. There are only five Platonic solids: tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, dodecahedron, and icosahedron. They are essentially shapes that don't exist. Since platonic solids exist first and foremost as ideas, that’s why they're interesting to think about as a simulation rather than as something that is drawn from the world.
Overall, the series is about pictorial representation—especially in terms of the history of painting. It looks back to different movements that defined various eras, such as Impressionism and Cubism, and how those eras relate to today’s era of digital simulation.
I love the platonic solids reference as a way to explore the nature of digital representation. I was also excited to see that the title of your piece and the bitforms show, It Doesn't Exist (In Any Other Form), comes from a David Hockney quote.
I've been heavily influenced by David Hockney's ideas around pictorial representation, as well as his impressions and thoughts around digital drawings and digital pictures. In the mid 1980s, the company Quantel invited him into their studio. He sat down in front of this Quantel Paintbox for a day and just started drawing, and it was all caught on video. They invited him back a week later and he watched the video and improvised a commentary on top of it, in which he said some amazing things about the nature of the digital image, including, "It doesn't exist in any other form." He was enthralled with the idea that there was no physical artifact like a piece of paper or canvas—the drawing only exists as light on the screen.
The first show at bitforms was called There's No Distance, taken from another Hockney quote from the same monologue. His revelation was that there's no distance between the work being created and the work being perceived. This was a new way of working, where unlike a painter who works in the studio and then moves the work from the studio space into the gallery space, with digital work, it's being generated and created in the same moment and context in which it's being experienced.
You’ve been referred to as the “godfather of generative art.” How do you define generative art in the context of your practice?
I have a really broad definition of generative art that includes a lot of things that don't involve computers at all. For me, the most concise definition of generative art is that the artist creates a system and the system creates the art. So it's an art of making systems.
Personally, I'm interested in things that change and move and are always different. I'm drawn to making work that when I look at it, I've never seen it before in that form; a work that has a beginning but doesn't have an end. Recently I’ve been thinking of my work as “performative software” as a way to connect it to other forms of art making that are essential to my practice.
As a generative artist, the systems that you build become such an important part of the work. With the software that you make and the code that you write, do you think of that as part of the art, or is it more just like a user interface?
In the past, I became frustrated in my ability to communicate that I felt the work lived equally within the system and the image at the same time—that it was somewhere in between the code and the generated image. Because I was describing everything in source code, it became impenetrable, or at least not legible, to most of the people who I wanted to experience the work. Because of that, I switched over to writing everything in English instead of code as the primary source. That felt really good at that time, and led me to separate the code from the work.
I don't believe the code is the work—the code is just a way of describing what the work is, or just a functional layer needed to produce the images. For me, there's nothing interesting about the code other than the way that it describes the system with enough fidelity that it can be performed. The code is purely functional.
How do you begin your process? If you have an idea you want to pursue, how do you start to write the code or the system that will create the type of work you're looking for?
If it's a system that I've already worked with, I can write the code to produce the outcome I want. For example, for this show at bitforms and this video for Gemma, those systems were worked out a long time ago, and now it's following their rules to produce the work.
When I'm starting something new from scratch, it's all done intuitively through sketching and exploring in the studio. It's not top-down at all; instead, it’s about searching for something, and doing work in all different directions. When I finally find something that captures my interest and attention, that will be the origin of a new body of work.
“Generative art” is a term that's been around for a long time, but it has perhaps only become a fervently explored space more recently. What are your thoughts on the current state of the generative art space?
On one hand, there are many more people engaged with and interested in generative art, which is great. I've seen more new ideas, new energy, new voices, and new perspectives and opinions in the last three years than I'd seen in the 20 years prior. That's incredibly exciting to me.
At the same time, generative art has now escaped its very small community, and it's entered into a much larger world. In doing so, it's gotten wrapped up and tied in with cryptocurrencies and NFTs, and while I don't think it needed to be that way, that's how it happened. While these new economies allowed generative art to grow, I wonder, how does that affect the medium’s future? In which ways has it enabled the space, and in which ways has it damaged the space?
The fact that some public institutions like the Pompidou and LACMA and Buffalo AKG are accepting generative works into their collections—and the fact that they're being collected because they are generative art—is exciting. That just hasn't happened at any scale prior to the last couple of years.
Are the works going into the collections as NFTs? Has that technology somewhat enabled this new institutional appetite for collecting digital work?
Yes, they are being collected as NFTs. But overall, I think it's a part of a much larger shift and change that’s been in the works for a long time. For example, last Friday I was at LACMA for a day-long symposium on conserving time-based media. That includes performance, video, and code-based work. 20 years ago, there wasn't an infrastructure for educating people in that area and it's been growing and progressing as more and more works are digital. Now there are people at many major institutions globally who have expertise in the preservation of software-based and time-based media. That infrastructure was really needed for institutions to have advocates internally and confidence that they can bring the work into the collection and take care of it long-term. So a lot of other pieces needed to be in place way outside the scope of NFTs before generative art could be collected.
I also need to mention curators like Christiane Paul at the Whitney Museum, who has been bringing digital work into that collection for literally decades. It's not something new, it's just something that needed more references and infrastructure in place in order to accelerate more broadly.
I'm curious to hear what it's like being a professor right now. There's such a big difference in terms of the tools that are available to students. How have you seen your classroom dynamics change with new technologies like NFTs and AI entering the scene?
20 years ago, the idea of learning how to code in a design program or an art program was very rarefied. One of the primary missions of the Processing project was to get that knowledge and information outside the walls of institutions like MIT, where I was at that time, and get it out into the world. Largely, that has happened. Most schools’ art and design programs now have some form of curriculum that allows students to learn computer programming in ways where they can apply it to their work on the web or making games or whatever medium they’re exploring.
At the same time, digital software has gotten so powerful that the need for students to be highly technical has diminished. I see a lot of students making highly polished, sophisticated visual work with these extremely powerful software suites, that in the past would've required a lot of custom technical work and coding to create.
One more noteworthy thing is the way that NFT economies have flattened different communities. For a long time, the students doing 3D-modeling, simulation, animation, generative art, creative code, illustration, and digital painting have felt like very different and independent communities. Before, these students just didn’t tend to mingle. Now, many different kinds of media are commingling. This has allowed people to widen their view and to discover each other’s work and ideas. It's allowed new kinds of relationships to happen, and new kinds of social networks and interpersonal relationships to persist.
A big part of Gemma is that we're trying to build a sustainable arts ecosystem onchain. I know you've thought a lot about that through your work co-founding Feral File, another curated digital art platform. So I’d love to hear—what keeps you optimistic about the future of digital art marketplaces?
There are two things that keep me optimistic. The first is about the way that digital work can now be distributed in a fully digital way. Also, it's so exciting that all of this work is there for people to experience and for people to look at and think about, as a new form of public work. When Feral File was getting started, I was very drawn to the idea that instead of the artwork being in a physical location in one city that's only open certain hours, the work on our site would live natively in the web browser and therefore could be available for anyone to experience and spend time with anywhere, at any moment. That's an idea that started in the mid-1990s with all the pioneering work in the browser.
The second thing I remain extremely excited about is the fact that digital art marketplaces give artists working in digital media the opportunity to make a choice as to what they want to do with their careers. Prior to the last few years, it didn't feel honest to talk to students about making digital art as a kind of practice that you could ever do full-time. For artists who work with more traditional media, like painting, there’s at least an established career path and market there. This means that a painter can choose to approach a gallery, or can choose to work in a commercial environment—or they can decline that, and they can instead do work on their own, or take on another job to support themselves. That's a choice that every painter can make because the model is there to either pursue or not.
Before recently, there was really no way for digital artists to make their work full-time. What I'm hopeful about now is that more artists will be able to make the choice to pursue a career that centers around their artwork. Until now, everybody was tasked with creating their own model. A lot of digital artists were commercial freelancers or consultants, and a lot of digital artists entered into academia. Many of us had a completely different day job, and made our artwork at night. I think that's beautiful too, but everybody should be able to decide, and have a sense of what it means to attempt to make a living from their artwork. So even as digital art marketplaces continue to evolve and shift, I think the connections we’re building, and the models and communities we’re developing, will persist.