♾️ Fahad Karim's infinite creatures (#93)
The Lumen-shortlisted artist talks to us about time, inspiration, and his first commission.
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Fahad Karim is a South Asian new media artist specializing in generative art and currently based in Mexico. This year, he was shortlisted for the inaugural Metaversal Generative Art Award from the Lumen Prize.
Karim has lived in Switzerland, India, Bangladesh, Egypt, the Philippines, the US, and Mexico, and his work is informed by the various cultures, traditions folklore, and architecture he’s encountered along the way.
Fahad Karim (Image: Fahad Karim)
His submission for the Lumen Prize, entitled Pohualli, is an Aztec-inspired series of 100 dynamic outputs that grow, evolve, and eventually die, only to be reborn and for the process to repeat, ad infinitium.
Karim spoke to Metaversal’s content director Craig Wilson from Mexico City about his process, his relationship with time, and a very special commission.
Craig Wilson: How did you get to hear about the Lumen Prize and what prompted you to enter?
Fahad Karim: I heard about Lumen through some other artists who had submitted in previous years — it's a pretty tight community. I looked into it, and felt like Pohualli could be a good submission. It’s a project that I'm extremely proud of, and thought it got a lot of attention at the exhibition, I felt like there was more of a story to tell and Lumen seemed like a great opportunity to bring it up again.
CW: Generative art is many decades old, and has lots of practitioners, but it feels like there's been a change in recent years in how it’s received, how collectors feel about it, and who’s creating it. What do you attribute this uptick in interest to?
FK: I think things like the Lumen Prize are helping [laughs]. Having a category for generative art brings it to the stage with all these other categories in digital art that are perhaps more familiar to the public. I also love going through the entries to Lumen Prize that are adjacent to familiar categories but outside of the traditional art world.
Things like the Lumen Prize help to make [generative art] a little bit more mainstream and a little bit more recognizable. Code-based systems are often perceived as less advanced or cold, but I think as our world becomes more technology driven there’s more acceptance of them.
How did you first get interested in generative art?
My first exposure to it was in university — I studied computer science and I was always fascinated by art. My mom is an artist. She's incredible. Her name is Vinita Karim. She makes paintings — abstract cityscapes — also inspired by all the places we've lived.
I always had artistic inspiration in my life, and at university I stumbled across this class called “Computing in the Arts” that was basically generative art 101, but which also included music and visuals. It was my first time building a program that would allow you to generate an infinite number of outputs through a careful set of rules that I’d curated.
I often approach my art with form before color and texture.
That was my first exposure, and I loved it, but I probably put that away for a couple years and I spent more time on sketching by hand and more traditional mediums. But every now and then something would pop up in my wandering through the internet.
I found this library p5.js — which is a common entry point for a lot of generative artists — and I started with that and started seeing some of the more ambitious possibilities there.
How did you get involved with Art Blocks?
It was one of my dreams was to work on a more ambitious, generative art project. I’d been working in software for a long time and decided to take a break from that and pursue more creative ventures.
I wanted to explore generative art, but I had kind of stayed oblivious to everything going on with NFTs and didn't know about Art Blocks or any of that at the time. As I decided I wanted to make a generative art project and started research, I found Art Blocks in a day or two.
I thought to myself, “Oh my god, people are really putting a lot of attention and effort into creating incredible works.” I’d never spent more than a weekend on a project, so I decided to give myself several months to see what I could create.
Art Blocks showed me what was possible with more effort, and that there was a market for this sort of thing. So I just really poured myself into it. I was actually traveling through Mexico at the time, and that’s when the project I submitted to Art Blocks — Alan Ki Aankhen — was created.
Alan Ki Aankhen #326. (Image: Fahad Karim)
I had wanted to do a project that could translate some of my intuition and my visual style in hand drawing into a system, and to see what would happen if I introduced automation. Would I be able to create works that resembled the types of things that I would have drawn? I would send them to my family and friends and say nothing about generative art and they'd say, “Oh, nice drawing!” so it was worth it.
I have generally been drawn to things that are a little bit more figurative, a little bit more illustrative, than pure abstraction, especially within generative art.
Did you start working on Pohualli on the same trip?
Yes, I was in Oaxaca and still working on Alan Ki Aankhen. I was sitting in a cafe and the idea for Pohualli came to me because one of the people working there had this incredible tattoo on her shoulder inspired by traditional Aztec figures, which are very blocky, and have a very specific look to them, but this one had become a little bit more abstract and extended.
In my head, everything started turning, and I thought, this is a system that I want to explore. I want to see how I can take these visuals and stitch them together to create very wild, but still Aztec-feeling figures. I started sketching ideas for it, but I was still in the middle of Alan Ki Aankhen.
I started working on [Pohualli] here and there, making sure to go to as many museums in Mexico as I could and taking photos, trying to work out what are the styles? What is the role of the feather? What is the role of the shield in these symbols? I started collecting all of that.
As soon as Alan Ki Aankhen was done and dusted, I switched gears to finishing off Pohualli.
You refer to the 100 pieces in Pohualli as “creatures,” because they have this life-and-death cycle that can take a few days, or thousands of them. Time is a core feature of the work, which I find really interesting, because although there’s all this research and preparatory work that goes into a piece of generative art, thanks to the power of modern computers, sometimes creating the outputs can take mere seconds. Can talk about the slowness and deliberateness and forced-patience you place on the collector or viewer with this work?
Yeah, I think it will always be a goal of mine with my art to try to reverse some of the trends in the tension we have with patience, and everything else fighting against it. Creating art through the medium of code unlocks this dimension of interactivity and dynamism. It definitely isn't necessary to employ or to explore it all the time, but to me, not doing so feels a bit like having wings and never flying.
I'm so excited about the idea that you can unlock this different type of interaction that spans time with the person viewing it at the time. For two reasons. One is that, it’s relating and providing some commentary on a very historic art form, the art form of the Aztecs.
“Pohualli #89” by Fahad Karim. (Image: Fahad Karim)
I was thinking a lot about time in that context and I was thinking about how Mexico and its cities have changed over time, but at the same time I was also starting to create what resembled creatures, and they felt alive and I wanted them to be able to have a life of their own and allow code to enable that.
The creatures have an age at which they're born and an age at which they die. They have multiple life cycles, and people who collect them can inspect them and see how they've changed over time. I love that about it.
Code also lets you make art that’s theoretically infinite. When each creature is reborn is its life the same on the next pass?
It's kind of funny, because the easier technical implementation was for it to always be different. Being able to ensure determinism requires a lot more thought and a lot more testing. If you're okay with things changing, then it's actually quite a bit easier. That's what it was at first and I had to roll it back and make it more constrained.
The creature will take a similar growth pattern over days. There are a mix of organic and inorganic elements. There feathers and vines which are organic, and those will constantly be flowing with time. The same vine of a creature seen on day 100 versus seen on day 200 of its life will have swayed and moved.
Creating art through the medium of code unlocks this dimension of interactivity and dynamism. It definitely isn't necessary to employ or to explore it all the time, but to me, not doing so feels a bit like having wings and never flying.
Their shapes will more or less be the same on day 100 and day 200 of multiple lives, but, in one lifetime, if a creature dies at a very young age, there's auto scaling and positioning built into the program, so you're gonna see it in a much more minimalistic way. It has a very different aesthetic versus if it grows to thousands of days old and is highly detailed and complex.
By making an infinite project like this you’re building an ongoing relationship with collectors of the sort you don’t really get with a static or non-dynamic work. Have you seen some collectors gravitating towards certain palettes or attributes?
It's a very interesting question. I've tried to detect patterns in this as well. I think because the work evolves, people who know how the project works have less of an attachment to any particular look. They're excited to collect a creature knowing it will change over time versus putting too much of a bias on what the thumbnail — which is the snapshot when it was minted — looks like.
For people who don't really know how it works they’ll see the snapshot — what it looks like on OpenSea or any other marketplace — and evaluate the artwork as that.
For me, every now and then, something will draw my attention to a particular edition in the collection, and I'll go back and look at its live view and compare it with what it looked like when it was minted, and it's really refreshing. How has it changed? What does it look like now?
We're approaching the one-year anniversary since they were first minted [in November 2022]. So all of these creatures will have added about 350 days to their lives. Some of them grow to 3,000 days or so, so it's about 10% of their lives, and I just want to have a look.
What I would love to build one day is more of an exploration website dedicated to this project that’s like looking through a photo album. You can pick different creatures, scan through their lives, and see what happened in the past. Or you can see how a snapshot of what the entire population looks like on any day, because I put a lot of intentionality into that.
When the creatures were initially minted, I modeled an age distribution to correlate with the age distribution of Mexico. I wanted it to feel like the number of children, the number of adults, the number of elders, and that's how it started. But then obviously as the cycle of time and life and death begins, things get out of phase. Maybe one day there'll be a more biased young population, or a biased older population.
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What did quality control look like? How many iterations did you have to go through or how long did you have to work on it to get it to the point where you were consistently happy with the outputs?
It took a long time. I worked on this project over the span of seven months, and because it has the dimension of time in it, the testing needed just exploded.
I often approach my art with form before color and texture. I will often work on my work purely in black and white, with just lines, until I'm happy with a form so I can isolate that attribute and feel happy with it before I introduce colors.
That was the case with this project. There are a lot of different dimensions to the artwork that are baked in to create a lot of variety in the set. For example, when I felt a lot of them were feeling too clumped together or too dense, I introduced a mechanism to basically track a heat map for creature density and then I varied that through randomization. So you get some that are very sparse and will not overlap with their own elements, and others that are happy to build on top of each other.
There are all these sorts of dimensions that are not all purely visual — like, pick a color between these 10 — but are more about how the growth should happen. Are you allowed to repeat a growth in the same place? What are the biases for the types of elements to use when growing? How likely are shields to come up? They’re things that describe a creature or an organism, and those became the core of the variation in the algorithm.
What does it mean to you to be shortlisted for the inaugural Metaversal Generative Art Award from the Lumen Prize?
It means a ton. I've been so ecstatic about it. I think, with generative art, I’ve found a medium that feels so right for me. So to be able to get some recognition for it, and to be able to show Pohualli to more people and raise awareness of it is really exciting.
An ink drawing completed during preparation and research for Pohualli. (Image: Fahad Karim)
Most of my work used to be sketching and ink drawings, and my artistic practice has a ton of that still in the brainstorming stage, but I'm so addicted to generative art that I haven’t made as much time for purely sketching again. So being short-listed for this award is something I'm feeling very moved by.
Metaversal’s commissioned you to create a generative work for its corporate collection which will be revealed next week. What’s the elevator pitch for it?
I’m still working on that [laughs]. I wanted to create a work that will make people think about their relationship with AI, and I wanted to do that through a throwback to one of the most memorable, original productivity assistants, Clippy. I created a cousin of Clippy to serve as your assistant as you go through an experience in which you create generative art with its help.
I’ve gotten to play around with it a bit, and I love how it incorporates elements from your archive and shows your style and tastes. Without giving too much away, what are some of your favorite features of it?
I like how it goes from being an interactive art program — where you're creating art, moving around objects, working on composition, things like that — to confronting the viewer with the types of questions we’re all facing when we're dealing with more advanced AIs these days. Like, where is my data going? How’s it being used? Should I care for this thing?
We’re in a moment where ChatGPT and other LLMs [large language models] are becoming more common, and I wanted to make us think about what AI will look like in a decade, and what our relationship with it might look like.
In addition to being something that maybe makes you question how you feel about technology and AI, it also brings back your memories about early Microsoft Word and Clippy.
I also saw it as a little bit of an educational tool for generative art itself, set up as a public installation. It acts as a wizard asking you to make choices from infinite outputs, and that infinite set of possibilities in an artwork isn’t something most people are familiar with.
You have to let it unfold by participation. I'm trying to strike the right balance of keeping users engaged, but not succumbing to needing something to be super satisfying for their attention too quickly. People need to put a little bit of attention and a little bit of time into it. You will be rewarded if you stay engaged for a few minutes rather than a few seconds.
What is your relationship like with AI?
I am fascinated by it. I try to maintain that it needs to be controlled and needs to be rolled out and worked on in a safe way. I have to remind myself about that though, because I get so excited about the possibilities.
Outside of just playing with the text-to-image generators and things like that, I haven't really seriously embarked on any AI art projects or used it as a tool. I think it’s incredible that these tools exist, though.
It’s prompting the same questions every new technological development does. Does art require effort? What kind of effort and intentionality should be required for art? It happened with photography, with digital art, and with generative art. I like seeing the discussions and what people think.
You will be rewarded if you stay engaged for a few minutes rather than a few seconds.
I'm originally South Asian, so I come from a world where art is much more detailed, generally, than it is in the west. In the west there's more appreciation for abstract and conceptual art — which I love — and less room for highly detailed works. This is a huge generalization, of course, but in my experience, there’s a sort of spectrum of how the effort spent on creating an artwork is incorporated into perceived value.
I see some of the debate about AI as similar, because when someone says they took a million photos and trained their own AI model, then suddenly the people who are critiquing AI art prick up their ears because of the technical complexity of it. But if you're just trying to be an art appreciator you're not gonna catch all of that, so it's challenging.
What else have you got in the pipeline?
This commission was my first, and I’ve been very moved by the experience, so now I’m curious about exploring more of these sorts of single-artwork experiences. But I need to find the right avenue and figure some things out on my own for that.
I also love curating experiences. With Pohualli, Bright Moments got me this epic space where I could take everybody through an Aztec birth ceremony that ended in them getting an artwork.
The Pohualli Bright Moments minting room. (Image: Fahad Karim)
So I’m thinking about whether I can reach more people and curate an experience through the devices everybody's looking at all the time. I think that's a very exciting way for me to channel my voice.
But outside of that, this year I've been working on another project that's a little bit more medically inspired. With it, and with future projects, I'm constantly thinking about this interaction between the collector and the artwork, and that sort of dynamic dimension. So there's going to be certainly more of that.
Now that I'm in Mexico, I've also had lots of Pohualli-inspired ideas. I’d like to work with local artisans to maybe provide some sort of scaffolding for sculptures through generative systems, and work with people to realize them.
As someone originally from outside the US and Europe — which dominate contemporary generative art — what do you think we should be doing to encourage a more diverse selection of artists to participate in the space?
I appreciate the question. I think what we can first is keep asking that question. I think a good start is to improve access to technology, because the barrier to entry into this world is still extremely high.
It’s the same challenge with everything crypto-related. We have to make the barriers to entry lower and more accessible, so people aren’t panicking about remembering their seed phrase, or which wallet they’re using, or things like that.
If you're already a little bit skeptical about art that you can't hang on a wall as easily as physical art, then these sorts of obstacles are going to deter you. There are all of those common problems, but I think seeing more representation of this type of art at fairs and at events in other places around the world is helping. I think that's important just to bring more visibility to it.
If the bigger sort of galleries and platforms have the bandwidth to sponsor events in other parts of the world and just bring awareness and education, that helps a ton.
Connect for more 🔌
You can find out more about Fahad Karim’s work here.
You can learn more about the Lumen Prize here.
Until next time, see you in the metaverse.