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Interview with Casey Reas at {G2} Generative Graphics

Interview with Casey Reas



Casey REAS gave interview to {G2}

How would you describe the main themes in your work?

Systems have been the core of my work for the last twelve years and for the last six years I’ve been creating dynamic systems in software. I work in two areas: organic systems and conceptual systems. The organic systems are derived from my interest in artificial life and the phenomenon of emergence. The conceptual systems are more formal and explore the nature of software, representation, notation, and process. I’m fascinated with the way temporal and logical processes are encoded and decoded through symbols.

In their most basic form, your pieces are evolving systems based on a set of rules. Why is that?

Actually, none of my work ‘evolves’ in the biological sense. The state of the programs change, but the structure remains constant. I’ve thought about making evolving work and some people have encouraged me into this direction, but I haven’t felt compelled to go there.
The visual form of the work emerges through the interactions of autonomous software elements. Complex holistic structures emerge from the interactions of simple parts.

Working with such dynamic systems means that the result isn’t completely predictable. How do you start designing such an art work? Do you set strict boundaries for the direction the system can follow and the results it will produce? Or is it rather an instinctive process, using trial and error perhaps?

I like to work in diverse ways. Sometimes I set strict rules, build it, and then observe the result. More frequently, I begin with a core behavior, built it, observe the result, and then let the idea flow instinctively from there. Sometimes an idea will begin with a drawing, sometimes an idea with come from an essay, and sometimes from fussing around with code. I work with dynamic systems with the intent of arriving at unpredictable results. Computers are built to be predictable and this is a way of generating incongruous results which I find more satisfactory than randomness.

What are your criteria for deciding if a dynamic system is successful?

I have many criteria and I don’t apply them to every piece. It?s successful if it holds my interest over a period of months, if I want to keep using it or watching it. It’s successful if it holds the interest of other people. If they want to spend time with the work - to explore and discover its core. It’s successful if it reveals something I haven’t previously known. I often think about these issues:

Who is in control? Is the system controlling the interaction or is the participant?

Is there a balance between action and response?
If it always behaves the same way, it becomes boring. If there is no relation between the stimulus and the response, there is no feeling of engagement.

Is there a fine level of control? The human body is amazingly dexterous and expressive. Does the interface allow us to use our potential or does is restrict?

Does the work engage the entire body? Is there total involvement?

Like many people of my generation I grew up playing video games. They were my first experience using computers and I judge all interaction with computing machines in relation to this early experience.

The idea of emergence is present in many contemporary scientific models. Do you get inspired by science? If so, how important is that source of inspiration and how does it interact with you work?

I’m interested in biology (particularly physiology), and psychology, but I’m not very concerned with physics. I don’t actively study the sciences, but observe carefully and occasionally read essays, articles, and books. I’m more interested in metaphysics and engineering.

I’ve been interested in artificial life, artificial intelligence, the principle of emergence, and robotics for many years. This interest motivated me to learn how to write software and build electronics. The related courses I took at MIT further fed these interests and the core of my work in the past few years is derived from ideas explored in these communities.

The concept of ‘emergence’ refers to the generation of structures that are not specified or intentionally programmed. Instead of consciously designing the entire structure, I write simple programs to define the interactions between elements. Structure emerges from the discreet movements of each organism as it modifies itself in relation to the environment. The structures generated through this process cannot be anticipated and evolves through continual iterations involving alterations to the programs and exploring the changes through interacting with the software.

I’ve recently been reading more art theory and writings on conceptual art. I?m actively bringing together ideas from both directions.

You wrote your master thesis on the kinetic art of the 60s and 70s, which is in many ways a predecessor of what we now call information arts. Do you see any striking similarities and differences between the two? Do you feel related to the ideas of the kinetic artists?

During the height of the interest in kinetic art, a group of sculptors were creating cybernetic sculpture (the term ‘cybernetic’ was a buzzword during that time and referred to a synthesis of information theory and biology). Work by artists such at Nicolas Schöffer, Wen-Ying Tsai, and James Seawright were an intersection between kinetic art and information theory. This thread was picked up more recently by artists such as Simon Penny, Wim Delvoye, and a host of other individuals interested in the interaction of behavior, information, and material. I’m awed by the physical presence of autonomous sculpture and it is viscerally engaging in a way that pixel-based work is not.

Usually, you are not presenting your work on a normal desktop PC. Instead, you create custom interfaces, and the computer running the code is hidden from the viewer. Could you tell us something about that? For example, what’s the idea behind the discs in ‘TI’?

TI is an environment of enigmatic growing forms. It is a software installation projecting images onto disks hovering above the floor and configured to encourage people to move through the space, stopping to look at the different images. I feel strongly that all software should have a method of presentation that is optimum for the concept. I’m very frustrated to show my work on standard computer screen using peripherals like a mouse or keyboard. These are arbitrary physical objects which have no intrinsic relation to my work. My previous projects Tissue and RPM both also have interfaces built to relate to the software?s controls. In the future, I?m working to always integrate my software into objects and environments.

You made DVD and print versions of your software pieces. How do you decide which medium to use? And how does a software work evolve into print or DVD?

The concept exists outside of any physical media and seeing different manifestations in diverse media give a more complete view of the whole. MicroImage is also a good example of exploring a concept through diverse media. The core of all my work is the concept, not the implementation. I work in print to reveal the resolution of the system, I work with animation to have complete control of how the image unfolds over time, and I implement the structure in software so it’s possible to interact with it. The software implementation is closest to my actual concept, but the other media provide additional views into the structure.

For example, in addition to the software MicroImage is also manifested as prints and animation. There is a series of medium format prints and a triptych of large format prints of 5×2.8 meters which was commissioned by the Ars Electronica Center. We printed them at a commercial printer who usually prints enormous advertisements. The quality of the printing decreases tremendously at this size but the scale allows for a different experience of the underlying structure. To augment the software and prints, an eight minute animation was carefully scripted. The animation explores an image density not possible in live software due to the processor?s speed not being able to draw as many lines as I want in each frame. For each different medium, I alter the software to enhance the unique qualities.

Your visual language is abstract; there isn’t any direct representation. However, your recent works all have an organic, living feeling. What’s the motive for this?

I love representational and narrative painting and film, but when I make my own work, abstraction comes naturally. I don’t think of abstraction as devoid of representation, but there are different levels of abstraction along the path from pure representation to pure abstraction. For example, there are the abstractions of landscape found in the work of Diebenkorn and the abstractions of Rothko which make no reference to our physical environment. In my work I create abstractions of the systems of the natural world, rather than the appearance of the natural world. The fact that people see recognizable forms in my work is symptomatic of how our brains work, but is inconsequential in understanding the work. The works Tissue and MicroImage are based on writings of neuroanatomist Valentino Braitenberg. Because this software is derived from natural systems, sometimes natural visual patterns appear in the form and motion.

I read in an online interview that you started to perform with your works for an audience. Where does this interest in performing come from? Do you plan on continuing this?

I think this is a misunderstanding. I’ve never performed software live for an audience. When I interact with my software, though, I do consider it a performative action. I recently spent one year created works which were not interactive. I took that away from the audience as a way of giving myself more control. That was interesting, but I’m back creating work which interacts with the audience.

How does the traditional art world relate to media artists like you?

There are a few ways to think about it and there are very different communities of ‘traditional artists’ and ‘media artists’. The communities I’m a part of are converging. In the past, there have been cross-over artists and both domains share some heroes including Nam June Paik and John Cage. There were many events and exhibitions in the late 1960’s where many pioneers of media art were engaged in the same communities as traditional artists. This diminished and has diffused but contemporary art magazines and newspapers publish reviews of media art exhibitions along side exhibition of painting and sculpture. There were extreme technical and monetary impediments to creating media art boundaries in the past and while they still exist today, they are fewer obstacles. I think I’ll see a complete convergence in my lifetime, the same way that video is now entirely integrated into the world of traditional art.

Are museums a good place for showing interactive art? What’s the best type of place to present your work?

I’ve been shocked by the difference the venue makes for viewing interactive art. Depending on the setting, people quickly dismiss the work or treat it with a high degree of respect. I’ve had people physically destroy my pieces by being extremely rough with the interface and I’ve had wonderful experiences where people take time to explore and understand the work. Some works are very successful at media art festivals where there are large groups of people with short attention spans, while some works fail in this environment and succeed in others.

Interactive work is often fragile and most traditional museums don’t have experience or the staff to maintain it. They have enough difficultly maintaining mechanical kinetic art and interactive work can be even more problematic. Museums such at the Ars Electronica Futurelab are excellent for showing work because they have a superb staff of technicians and guides.

I enjoy showing my work in shows including work in other media (painting, sculpture, video, etc.) I think this helps take the emphasis away from the technology. Galleries are an excellent place to show work. They are typically carefully maintained by the staff and are free to the public. They are usually not extremely crowded and it’s possible to spend time with the work. Because gallery spaces are small, there is no pressure to rush off and see other pieces, which is a tendency in a large museum or media festival. I hope more galleries with eclectic, media-art-friendly programs like bitforms in New York, chromosome in Berlin, and telic in Los Angeles will continue open.

How important is technology in your work? Are computers and software simply tools, or do they have an essential role in what you do?

I like to think of software as a medium and my work is not possible without it. I didn’t create any form of art before I began creating software. I’ve drawn my whole life and I didn’t approach drawing with the rigor I now produce software. The essence of my work is dynamic systems and software is the medium in which I?m able to construct my vision.

I use computers as tools as well. I’m currently writing this text using a word processing tool.

While many other multimedia artists use software packages (such as MAX/MSP) or special programming languages (such as Flash ActionScript), you work with more complicated, general-purpose languages. What is your reason for this choice?

For some people, tools like MAX/MSP and Flash are more complicated than general purpose languages. It depends on they way peoples brains are wired. The decision to make software with one environment should be made based on the goals of the final work and the process individuals are comfortable with. Because I want to make generative work (typically the only visual element in my software is a line), I don’t need many of the form editing controls and image editing tools embedded into software like Flash or Director. Because my work is complicated logically, using MAX would tedious.

Another aspect is the ‘quality’ of the result. To use problematic metaphors, acrylic paint has a different quality than oil and paster has a different quality than stone. Different software materials also have different ‘qualities’ and I prefer the quality of C++ using OpenGL. My materials give me more resolution in time and space and this is important.

I’ve been learning about computer programming since 1998 when I was 26. I spent many years working with visual media before thinking about it in relation to writing code. I still hold many prejudices from this time and I think it allows me to not be consumed by the technology. In some ways I’m constrained because I don’t have the programming skills of some of my contemporaries, but it also helps me to put the focus on the work on the concept rather than technical innovation. I don’t accept programming for what it is, but instead think critically about how it can be improved for making visual and interactive work. Programming languages all developed for making precise calculating programs and this heritage can be very confining for people wanting to do different things with the technology.

Can you describe the Processing software? What’s the importance of it and where is it heading?

Processing is a programming language and environment built for the electronic arts and visual design communities. It was created to teach fundamentals of computer programming within a visual context and to serve as a software sketchbook. The software exports Java applets which may be posted on the Internet and shared with other artists and designers. is the online hub for the international community of people using the software. It hosts examples, reference, a public exhibition, and a discussion space.

Graphical user interfaces became mainstream nearly twenty years ago, but programming fundamentals are still primarily taught through the command line interface. Classes proceed from outputting text to the screen, to GUI, to computer graphics (if at all). It’s possible to teach programming in a way that moves graphics and concepts of interaction closer to the surface. Processing is a text programming language specifically for making responsive images, rather than a visual programming language. The language enables sophisticated visual and responsive structures and has a balance between features and ease of use. Many computer graphics and interaction techniques can be discussed including vector/raster drawing, image processing, color models, events, network communication, etc.

Processing is a prototyping and learning environment. In the same way architects use cardboard to build models and musicians use a keyboard to develop arrangements, Processing may be used as a tool for writing software sketches. Ideas can quickly be realized in code, with programs usually much shorter than their Java or C++ equivalents. Processing allows similar functionality of Java and C++ but with a simplified syntax, and is more general than other design environments such as Macromedia’s Flash and Director. The Processing syntax is designed to be a useful base for future learning. Feedback from the community reveals that skills learned through Processing are transferable to other languages and APIs suitable for different contexts including web authoring (ActionScript), networking and communications (Java), and computer graphics (OpenGL).

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  1. 1 interview with Casey Reas « Practice In Context by Reem Sharaf
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