💗 Maya Man is very online (#89)
Except when she isn't.
Maya Man is a generative artist based in Los Angeles whose work focuses on internet culture, gender, and identity, or, as she puts it, whatever she’s obsessed with.
Man’s entry for the inaugural Metaversal Lumen Prize for Generative Art, a delightful, pastel-hued series of machine-made affirmations, inspirations, and slogans, FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT, is one of the four projects shortlisted, so of course, we had to speak to her about it.
Maya Man (Image: Maya Man)
Metaversal’s content director, Craig Wilson, sat down with Man on a soggy fall day in New York to talk about the challenges of maintaining a healthy social media diet, the perils of self-promotion, and going beyond the traditional confines — and expectations — of making art with code.
Craig Wilson: How did you go from making music videos in iMovie to creating sold-out collections of generative art?
Maya Man: It's funny, because in hindsight, the narrative is very clear to me, but in the moment, growing up, it wasn’t totally clear at all. I always loved using digital tools like iMovie or Photobooth and spending time on the computer to make things, but I never saw that as a path forward for me in which I would be an artist.
That just wasn't a possibility that I had in mind. Because I thought artists were people who were good at painting and drawing, and I hadn't been exposed to artists in the museums or galleries who were making this type of digital work.
When I went to college, I decided to study computer science because I was interested in math. I had previously been interested in studying physics, but I was introduced to coding, like, two weeks before I went to college, and I decided to switch my major to computer science because I immediately loved it and loved that it gave you fine control over what you were creating on screen, but was also very logical and had the problem-solving aspect that I liked in math.
Then, after my first year of college, I met Lauren Lee McCarthy, the founder of p5.js. I was doing this program called Google Summer of Code, where I was working with the Processing Foundation. That's how I got introduced to her. She was so welcoming to me. I was a kid then and didn't know much about the world. She introduced me to p5 and had me get involved with it.
The community was so welcoming and inclusive, and I was really inspired by how the people in the community were making art with code as a medium and prioritizing access and inclusion. There just wasn't that same tech-bro energy that there was in many of the tech spaces I had been in previously with my computer science major.
It opened my mind to the possibility of pursuing a career focusing on making art that uses code as a medium. I mean, it's a long story, but, from there, it snowballed into wanting to pursue my own personal practice as a priority.
CW: In the rationale for FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT, you talk about how on social media, “What do I believe?“ becomes “What do I want to appear to believe.” Is all social media inherently performative, or has it changed with the rise of influencer culture and the monoculture of social media?
MM: Yeah, it's changed so much over the past couple of decades with the rise of influencer culture and the emergence of this intense platform capitalism where you're stuck in these ecosystems and only operating within that.
When people used to think about social media on the internet in the really early days, you were going to a specific website, and you're going from website to website, and they sort of each encompass their own world.
Sample outputs from FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT. (Image: Maya Man)
But to that question about performance, well, I always say that I believe there's no such thing as authenticity in the romanticized way people talk about it. On the internet everything is performance.
It doesn't differ much from how any social interaction you have off the internet with anyone you meet is a performance to an extent — because you're putting on a version of yourself that's appropriate for that interaction.
Even in our conversation right now I'm different than I would be with, say, my grandmother. But that's not because I'm being fake right now; it's just because I'm being what the context calls for.
On the internet everything is performance.
The context of social media has changed over the years, and I think we're at this really intense point where it takes an extreme level of performance and self-promotion to stand out in the feed. It's encouraged that type of behavior online, but I don't feel like it wasn’t performative before.
Social media can be a potent marketing tool for artists but can also take a toll on their mental health. What does your social media diet look like, and how do you keep it healthy… if you do?
I wish I could say that I kept it healthy, but I don't necessarily. I just released my solo exhibition collection [I’m Feeling Lucky with Verse], and the auction finished last night at around 7 p.m. in New York. Promoting the collection meant a lot of time online.
I was very lucky that I had the physical installation — that was really important to me and a big reason why I was excited to work with the Verse team on the show — but I put so much work into the project and so much thinking and energy into it, and it feels like no one's gonna necessarily know about it unless I talk about it on social media because that's where everyone is spending their time.
It's a really exhausting process because you want people to see the work and engage with the work — that's the most special thing about being an artist. But, I found the process of continually talking about it and feeling the need to promote it extremely exhausting. I felt like I had to be online all the time.
[Y]ou want people to see the work and engage with the work — that's the most special thing about being an artist.
I found it really hard, and I've been thinking throughout the process about how to have a little bit more balance. I feel like now I need to take a lot of time offline because I just spent a lot of time online. I don't have a foolproof method yet.
Most of your body of work speaks to onlineness and its implications. How has that changed from your early work to more recent projects as being online itself has changed?
My work is always about my particular current obsessions. So when I made FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT, I was really deep into collecting that sub-genre of Instagram graphics. I had a separate account, and I was following all of these accounts that posted graphics like that and really trying to dissect them formally, in terms of the rhetoric that they were using, and also understand that they were emblematic of this particular piece of culture that I wanted to discuss.
I moved to Los Angeles in 2021 to pursue my MFA, and I was really struck by the intensity of the influence of astrology, which was the starting point for I'm Feeling Lucky. It's become hugely influential in the past decade, especially among young people who’re using apps like Co-Star and The Pattern.
An output from I'm Feeling Lucky by Maya Man. (Image: Verse)
I’m really interested in what this represents about us, this format of self-interrogation online, what it says about our current culture, and the secular nature of a lot of online life for young people. I feel like [my work] always reflects whatever piece of culture I’m thinking about more largely and which I can zoom into and use as a case study.
With FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT, how much experimentation did you have to do to get it to a point where the outputs were not only consistently visually appealing but the messaging was also cohesive?
Oh my god. It took me a lot of iterations. I always feel like it's deceptively simple. People look at it, and they think, “Oh, that looks so easy.” But it was one of the most technically and, design-wise, challenging projects I've ever worked on because I wanted the language and the tone to feel right.
That’s why what actually came first was a sort of collaging style of language. It really worked well for me to get the tone that I wanted, but it also had this range between normalcy and absurdity in the phrases that were turned out.
The really challenging part for me was the visual aspect. I collected hundreds of examples, all from different accounts. There's a huge range of color palettes and hues and designs to consider. Then you have the added restraint when you're releasing a project on a platform like Art Blocks where you need all the code to be on-chain.
A lot of artists who make these sorts of things on Instagram bring in image design elements or that type of thing. And when you're working with text in this way, it's very obvious to an audience when something looks poorly designed. If the output had text that went out of the bounds of the square, say, it would immediately look wrong to people. When you're working with something that's a bit more abstracted, it's a lot more forgiving visually.
Inspiration from Instagram. (Image: Maya Man)
It was really challenging to get all of those elements right. I went through many iterations where I maybe liked them individually and thought they looked good, but then I’d export 100 of them together, and they didn’t feel cohesive or weren’t varied enough. I worked on [FITYMI] for about a year.
The rise of Art Blocks and fxhash seems to have grown both the number of artists creating generative artwork, and also the number of collectors collecting it. Do you think we’re in something of a golden age for generative art?
Generative art has been around since computers have been around so it's nothing new, but there's definitely a massive resurgence that I think is completely tied to the market aspect. When I met Lauren [Lee McCarthy] in 2015 and got interested in code, and in making generative art, there was no conversation about it being a potentially lucrative career.
In the contemporary art world, galleries were selling paintings and sculptures, but there was no market for most forms of digital art, especially software-based work and generative art. These platforms have really made the market for generative art very visible, which I think has played a huge role in increasing its popularity.
The other piece of it that I think is really important is that they've provided a technical way to view a collection of generative art that previously wasn't really possible.
Sure, I could write a piece of code, output 700 pieces, and say, “Oh, I just output these 700, and I didn't curate them at all.” Or some artist could curate 10 of their favorite outputs, and that would be the collection, but there's something so embedded in these platforms that makes it very clear that the code is running and it's outputting the collection.
There's an element of chance to it that I think it was difficult to emphasize before platforms like Art Blocks or fxhash to someone who wasn't deep into the culture of [generative art] already. That's been really cool.
You mentioned meeting Lauren Lee McCarthy made you feel the generative space was inclusive, but it’s still very homogenous — especially at the top — in terms of the most influential artists and collectors. How do we go about changing that?
It's a very hard question, and I don't have the answer, but I think about a community like p5.js and how inclusivity was a priority. It wasn't an afterthought for them. From the beginning, it was built into the software, built into the documentation, built into the community. It was something that they really prioritized.
My work is always about my particular current obsessions.
I think it's not a priority in this space right now. You can see it reflected in the demographics of who is the most influential in terms of different vectors of roles in this space. I think it needs to be overt. It's not going to happen accidentally.
The people with influence need to acknowledge the truth of the community's demographics now and decide it’s a priority to change them.
What does it mean to you to be shortlisted for the inaugural Metaversal Lumen Prize for generative art?
It's really exciting for me. When FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT was first released, it was extremely controversial within the community. It was so different from what most people's expectations are when they think of generative art, and it was so outside of people's comfort zones.
I knew why I was making it and felt strongly about it, and I was excited to release it, but I was nervous, and the initial reception was very polarized. So it's really meaningful to have the project recognized alongside other artists whom I really admire, especially for the inaugural award.
I feel like the longlist and shortlist both represent a range of work that’s happening in the generative art space, which is really refreshing. Because I think it's easy for people to think of generative art and think of three projects which all fall into the same general aesthetic category, and which some people think contain the borders of what generative art can be.
How did it feel to get backlash on a project you’d spent a year on? How did you contend with that?
I’ve often found an audience completely outside of the generative art world and Web3 world who my work really resonates with. It’s often women and young girls who encounter the work, or I show them the work, and they immediately get it — there's no explanation needed — because I think we’re spending time in the same corner of the internet and have this familiarity with these forms and phenomenons that I'm critiquing in my work and dealing with.
A lot of the initial controversy around FITYMI came down to two things. The first was the perceived simplicity we talked about earlier. The second was that I had to remind myself that I was making work about a specific phenomenon that not everyone understands, or is exposed to, or cares about.
An output from FAKE IT TILL YOU MAKE IT. (Image: Maya Man)
Visually, it's much more pared down than a lot of other projects, but I'm a very concept-driven artist, so it's not about making something that's visually driven for me. I always start with an idea, and then the visual form — the output — follows from that idea. The idea takes priority in making the work. I had to remind myself of that… and get offline.
I wanted to ask what's next for you, but it sounds like the answer is “Taking some time offline.”
Actually, I'm making a book that's representative of the FITYMI collection. I’m really excited about it. I've been working with a book designer for a while — we’ve been working on it for a while — and I’m hoping to release it in early-ish 2024. I’m looking forward to having a physical form of the collection that people can touch.
That’s also a great way to extend the collection’s lifespan.
Well, FITYMI has had this really amazing lifespan beyond its release because people in the Art Blocks Discord keep calling it up. If you type #FITYMI? in a channel, it pulls up a random output from the collection.
It's become this ongoing meme and part of the ongoing conversation in the most active channel in the Art Blocks server because people use it to respond to other people’s questions, and it's become known for often being freakishly relevant to the conversation.
It goes back to a theme that's really present in my I'm Feeling Lucky collection: this belief in the sort of magical powers of the internet, or the algorithm as an oracle being able to — by the power of the universe — tell you what you want to hear — or what you need to hear — in that moment.
That's been a piece of the project that's been really fun and totally unexpected, which has helped its legacy.
Connect for more 🔌
You can learn more about the Lumen Prize and see all of the shortlisted artists here.
Until next time, see you in the metaverse.