☎️ Hello Operator (Issue #77)
We speak to the duo redefining the parameters of generative art.
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Dejha Ti and Ania Catherine are the dynamic duo better known to many in the art world as Operator, an artistic collective of two which the pair started in 2016. Known for their experiential works, the pair have also ventured into Web3 in recent years, exploring ideas around privacy, transparency, ownership, and the relationship between artist and audience, creator and collector.
Dejha Ti (L) and Ania Catherine (R). (Image: Operator)
Metaversal’s content director, Craig Wilson, sat down with Ti and Catherine days before a planned more from Berlin to Madrid to talk about the temporary popularity queer artists enjoy during Pride month, the complexities of combining choreography with generative art, and accepting the input of feline collaborators.
Craig Wilson: I wanted to get straight into it and ask you a question that I think a lot of fans and Twitter followers would like to know the answer to. Did you choose Claude the cat's choice for a Human Unreadable movement score or not? Because you kind of left us hanging on Twitter.
We had chosen a direction for the Human Unreadable movement score, then Claude sat on a different option leading us to discuss for 20 minutes whether the one she chose was actually better.
— Operator (@operator_______)
Jun 22, 2023
Dejha Ti: Well, actually, this is the thing I'm working on right now instead of packing.
Ania Catherine: So, it did make us question everything.
DT: It did make us question, but it's a modular design. So I'm trying out both options.
AC: She seems really sure, though.
DT: Yeah, I know. But it's a tighter design, and the other one's a bit more open. So I'm going to try it. I'm actually testing it out right now with mint number 373, which has 15 moves in the sequence, which is the maximum number of moves that you can have in a Human Unreadable piece. So I'm seeing if the design can withstand 15 moves.
CW: Well, it’s good that it's a whole family effort, and everyone's input is valued.
DT: Yeah, it’s a family business.
CW: To change tack entirely, I’ve got a more serious question. How do we begin to improve representation and diversity in a space that, despite a lot of lip service about inclusivity, remains dominated by cishet Caucasian males?
AC: I've been thinking about this a lot, especially because it's so interesting how, if you're visibly an out, queer person, then suddenly in May, people who ignore you the rest of the year are telling you how much they love your work because they want to do something for Pride.
We actually had this really interesting moment related to Human Unreadable where, on the homepage of OpenSea, it said “Pride Month Artists Spotlight,” and then right under it was “Trending in Art.”
Human Unreadable was in the “Trending in Art” section and not in the “Pride Spotlight.” I thought, yeah, this is actually the best version of representation when artists who happen to be queer have their work seen and discussed and talked about and recognized year-round, versus having it always being in a context where their identity is central.
Because, while some artists do make work about queerness or do make work about being women, we make work about many subjects, mostly privacy in recent years. f we're only spotlighting artists of color, queer people, women, and non-binary artists in these specific timeframes and contexts, it always feels like supporting them or caring about our work is a charity project. On the artist’s side, that doesn't feel very good.
So, what I would say is, ditch Pride Month, and year-round, if you're doing a show about, for example, black and white photography in the early 1990s, and you're showing seven artists’ work, make sure you have ranges of voices represented who happen to be working in that medium at that time. Do your research and find those voices in those moments, not at the end of May. Prioritize diversity in your year-round programming and stop making it always about the identity of the artist, which often undermines what many of us are trying to do; this kind of performativity and virtue signaling that we see a lot of is getting very old and seems ingenuine.
DT: Recently, there was a fashion brand that wanted to work with us, and a curator had put us forward, but the brand didn’t think our work seemed “gay enough.”
AC: I guess our work was too monochrome for them — not that Human Unreadable is strictly monochrome, but yeah, it’s seen that way, and it’s clearly not gay enough.
Not enough unicorns and rainbows, clearly.
Speaking of Human Unreadable and being enough of something, how did you embrace but also mitigate risk in the collection? There were so many parameters and so many inputs at play, how did you ensure sufficient variety in the outputs but also ensure that the collection lived up to your own expectations for it?
DT: Testing. Revision. Testing. Revision. Lack of sleep. Testing [laughs]. This artwork was nine months in the making, and at every step of the way, we had a rigorous, rapid prototyping process, like how you would rapid prototype software.
We had a double challenge. Usually, in long-form generative art, whatever the algorithm outputs on the day of the mint, that’s what everyone has to live with. Versus early generative art, where there were maybe hundreds of outputs, and the artist was able to curate and choose the ones they felt represented the work.
In the case of Human Unreadable, not only did we have to be concerned and pay attention to the visual output that collectors would be collecting from the mint and the reveal on Art Blocks. But we also had the double challenge of the choreography needing to look something like art instead of like a computer made it.
Our early process, before we even got to p5.js and even getting the motion data on-chain, we first ran analog algorithms and created a movement library, and kept revising and revising and doing rehearsals with performers to see if the sequences looked good.
We started there because, as Human Unreadable is driven by the choreography itself, that's where we had to start. We did that for three months straight. And then, once we were happy with motion capture and the motion library, we moved to the generative, programmed one — the coded one — and we then ran more rehearsals from the generative model output of the sequences.
From there, we asked, “What does this look like visually?” There are a lot of moving parts. It's a very complex project because we also have intensive glass shaders — that is, generative glass, or making glass with math. A lot of it ends up looking like paint instead of glass, but some of it looks glossy.
We have programmatically drawn body parts. And we have an x-ray shader which we call “The x-ray machine” that we built in p5. So all of these elements come together. When they come together, they create really unexpected results compositionally — the way that light interacts and refracts into glass… it’s very unexpected, like when light hits water.
We also built some tools in the early days of Human Unreadable, like a testnet, because we were seeing 1,000s of outputs… but 95% of them looked like shit. Sure, 5% of them were gold, but we had no idea how to get to them. So we created a data analytics tool where we could create buckets and say, “Okay, these 500 are good because they are good compositions. These 500 are bad because they're messy, and they're compositionally too complex.”
We could flag ones with terrible color palettes or good composition and then we ran an analytics script that one of our lead engineers, Isaac Patka, created, and it created almost like a tasting tool that was reflecting our tastes and analytics on our tastes.
Then we were able to see the parameter ranges based on our tastes, and we could trim them down. From there, we began to finesse it and finesse it, because there were an infinite amount of possibilities. That’s part of the reason it took nine months.
A sample piece from “Human Unreadable.” (Image: Operator)
Given the project's complexity, are there elements of it you’ll repurpose for future works, or do you think of the tools you’ve built as single-use?
DT: We're developing a white paper which will be released later this year. It’ll lay out the conceptual model of the on-chain generative choreography method so everyone can see what our mental model is and what the flow and our thought processes are. But we will also be providing technical documentation and releasing as open source most of the tools that would be applicable for others to take the code and build from there.
We're very interested in sharing what we did, because it was a massive amount of work, and we'd like to pay that forward for other artists and creators to take it further and implement it into their processes. It's important for us that the human body has more presence in not just generative art but crypto art and digital art at large. We’re happy whether it’s us increasing that presence or other artists.
AC: In terms of another artwork that we would make using the method, I almost feel like Human Unreadable is an artwork, and the method is also an artwork and beyond, as it can birth other works. A couple of artists have already come up to us and shared brilliant concepts with us of artworks they want to do that are using this sort of motion data, conceptually or anthropologically, to capture moments.
Unless there were specifically a concept or an artwork we had in mind that needed to use this method, I wouldn’t return to it naturally.
The technologies that artists use or like tend to be from the military, or porn, or entertainment, or surveillance capitalism.
I feel so happy, number one, that Human Unreadable exists. And, number two, that this method is now a new sandbox that other artists are going to play in. It feels like it has a life of its own now, and we love that. I'm just excited to see what comes out of it.
Also, it’s important to note that often times technologies artists use were created by the military, porn industry, entertainment, or by were created for purposes of surveillance capitalism. Those are the tools many of us have available to us to explore. Thinking about the method as a set of tools that were designed by artists and that can shape and affect others’ creativity, ideas, and what they want to make, that's in a way a continuation of the piece itself.
Do you think that Web3 artists take enough risks, and do you think collectors of Web3 art take enough risks?
AC: That's an interesting question. I can name a lot of artists that I think take a lot of risks. But I don't necessarily think the artists that take the most risks are the ones that have the most market success or the most visibility. I think that kind of leads into your second question, like, if collectors are wanting to be safe with their collecting, and artists are trying to survive by making their art and selling their art, then does the taste of certain major collectors or like the larger share of collectors actually incentivize artists to make work that is safer and speaking to those tastes?
It's kind of a cycle. And I think that is something that we wanted Human Unreadable to kind of challenge. We were told, actually, from well-meaning people, “The Art Blocks audience doesn't really like black and white.”
DT: Human Unreadable isn't technically black and white, but a lot of people read it that way.
AC: Right, and there were things we could have done that would have been safer. If we were going for major market success with our creative choices, we might not have gone for so much complexity or so little color. I think it would be great if the gap disappeared between risky art that has a lot of voice, and collectors who are buying works for significant amounts of money. I’d like to see that gap close and more experimental or risky forms of art see financial success, because right now, it does feel like safety and a lack of risk is rewarded financially. Not all the time, but a lot of the time.
DT: What was interesting about Human Unreadable is that, in terms of us interacting with the collectors, right before the sale, we tweeted something that I guess occurred to us that day, which was that, by the end of the day, hundreds of people would own choreography. We were like, “That's really cool.”
article out now 🗞️
“Collectors won’t only have the (Art Blocks minted) artwork…they will really own this piece of choreography.”
Mint: Today (May 24) 1PM
— Operator (@operator_______)
May 24, 2023
AC: A lot of fine art collectors don't know much about choreography because there isn’t really a history of collecting it. They might own a picture or an artifact of a performance, but that’s not the same as actually owning a choreographic sequence.
DT: It was so interesting, because now, at a historical milestone of collecting choreography, we have generative art collectors and crypto art collectors at the center, along with funds and major digital art collections. The variety in the types of people who collected Human Unreadable is really astounding.
Another interesting thing happened around this work, all of a sudden, everyone who was interested in performance is showing up and curious and it happens whenever we give our generative choreography talk. It’s almost as if people were craving dance and choreography to make their way into generative art or crypto art in this type of way.
We're in Block Talk, for instance — which is the Discord channel where you interact with supporters, community, and collectors on Art Blocks — and many of the collectors and supporters in there say things like, “My wife is a dancer and she doesn’t really understand everything I collect, but now all of a sudden she’s really obsessed.”
One day we suggested they check out the film One Day Pina Asked, which is a documentary created and directed by Chantal Akerman about one of our favorite choreographers Pina Bausch…
AC: … it’s very arthouse…
DT: …and to our surprise, some of the collectors watched it and reported back and wanted to discuss it. We were so pleasantly surprised and invigorated by that. So we have all these collectors who seemed to be solely focused on generative art, who are now really excited to receive the secondary token [the movement score from Human Unreadable] or see their choreography performed in an institution where the final artwork is completely out of the screen and moved into the body.
(Image: Icarus Films)
I guess my takeaway is this: there is a hunger from collectors to explore different histories and throughlines and different areas of art that maybe they haven't explored before. This release just happened to be a kind of a gateway into further exploration of the history of dance and technology, which is rich territory.
It was a highly experimental project released in a bear market, and to release it at that time was very nerve-wracking. We took quite a bit of care to communicate as clearly as possible and as simply as possible this very complex project, and to share our process.
There’s a sort of nest of storytelling we created around it, and it felt like an educational process — pointing to the histories and pointing to the process and the method, and bringing people inside that, and having conversations with the community and collectors leading up to the launch so they really could understand the work prior.
I feel that, in this way, where the market and an experimental artwork meet, there needs to be a significant amount of education, and that fell on us because we were the ones delivering it to the world. That communication of the work felt like an extension of the work itself and while it was a fun creative challenge, it took an immense amount of effort.
Your work often encourages a dialogue with its collectors, not just in the short term but over a protracted period. What's so appealing to you about the ability to do that? And is it unique to some of these technologies?
AC: Duration is super important for us, especially as immersive and experiential artists. I think time is a very powerful medium that we play with very intentionally, and we always have.
If you're doing an experiential artwork, and it's something that someone goes and sees in a museum, and maybe they spend 25 minutes with the piece, and then they leave, or if we do a project that's at a festival, and so it's up for one week, and then people leave, that’s sort of a limitation.
In those cases, we’re limited by the constraints of geography and how long the work can stay up practically, technically, financially. One thing that's really interesting to us about blockchain is that it has kind of unlocked this durational relationship potential between us and our collectors.
“Let me check with the wife.” (Image: Operator)
A really good example of this is our marriage certificate piece called “Let me check with the wife,” where the collector actually owns our marriage certificate, and there’s a secondary, dynamic NFT that allows us, every year on our anniversary, to make a request of the collector. It's kind of our sassy protest against the idea of utility — we have reverse utility, where every year we get to place a request. We could say, “Send us flowers to this address,” or “Let's meet for dinner at this restaurant at 8pm.”
The idea is that whoever owns that artwork has a relationship with us for as long as we're married, which is probably going to be 70 more years. I don't think creating this kind of durational 75-year relationship with a collector would be possible without blockchain and without the NFT.
Who do you think are some of the most criminally underrated or overlooked artists, whether in Web3 or more broadly?
AC: One is Lauren Lee McCarthy. She's the inventor of p5.js, which a lot of people don’t know. So when people ask, “Where are all the women?” I'm like, “Women built the tools that all of you are making millions from.” The women are here, we've always been here; we just usually don't get recognized for what we're doing.
So anyway, Lauren Lee McCarthy, who's also a really brilliant conceptual performance artist and has been working as a digital artist for a long time. She's a professor at UCLA. She's super brilliant.
I don't think creating this kind of durational 75-year relationship with a collector would be possible without blockchain and without the NFT.
DT: And then Evelyn Bencicova, who’s a photographer and beyond. She is in our opinion one of the most exciting artists of our time, and in addition to photography is also doing exceptional work with VR and performance. So she would be up there. And Sarah Friend, who is well known, but many people still might not realize how significant the work she’s doing is, she has got intense technical chops is an incredible conceptual thinker, developer, and artist.
Also, Primavera De Filippi. She has a groundbreaking project, a blockchain-based life form called Plantoid. She's an artist, lawyer, and researcher at Harvard, and her work is really conceptual — she's just brilliant. Plantoid is a crypto artwork she started nearly 10 years ago.
Do you think of NFTs as a medium? A means of delivery? Something that's purely transactional? And does the fact that you're creating NFTs influence the work you make with them?
DT: In 2019, Ania and I created the Operator rules for art and technology. One of them is: Tech doesn't age well, concepts do. Another one is: No tech demos. Another one is: Say no to spectacle (which is Yvonne Rainer).
Of those, the idea that tech doesn't age well, concepts do, is really, really important to us. And the idea of not flexing and heroing the technology, but using the technology that is needed to support the concept. If we always start there, then we kind of don't even need to answer that question, because it's just serving the artwork itself.
Tech doesn't age well, concepts do.
That being said, yes. Yes, technology, any technology that we use 100% shapes the output and the final artwork… it has to. Because it has capabilities, but it also has limitations.
With every project we look at the tools that are readily available and which tools we need to build ourselves — which we can build on top of, and which are out-of-the-box ready, and we build and choose based on that.
Human Unreadable is the way it is because of the constraints of blockchain technology, as well as the constraints of Art Blocks. For instance, it can only have one library dependency. Now, that might not sound like a big deal, but it meant probably 70 hours more work for us and a different way of approaching it.
The fact that blockchain technology isn't really meant for high-volume data storage meant that our initial dataset with motion capture would have cost us $200,000 to upload. We then had to spend another three and a half months to figure out how to choreograph in spreadsheets in a way that would preserve the movements and create a pipeline for taking high-resolution motion data of the sort you would rig to a video game avatar or a Hollywood avatar in a film and get it to a reasonable data size that we can store on-chain. We got the costs down significantly.
Even if we had 200 grand, it wouldn't be respecting the medium of blockchain. Because it's not really meant for that. Even if we had the money and, through brute force, could have uploaded all this data, it still didn’t feel like it made sense. Because of that limitation, and because of the nature of the technology, it changes everything. In the same way using clay or stone would change the outcome.
Let’s talk about phase two of Human Unreadable, the movement scores. How difficult have they been to bring to life, and why were they such an important part of the project for you?
AC: When I spoke to dancers and choreographers and people who have familiarity with dance notation, they asked, “Are you using Laban notation, or what notation system are you using?” One thing that's been exciting to us about the idea of the movement score is making it so the collector can show it to almost anyone, and they’ll be like, “Okay, so in the first movement, the arm goes over here, and then the body falls down.” We wanted anyone to be able to figure it out.
I'm not an illustrator. I do not draw. I dance, I move, I choreograph, I direct films, I don't draw things. But it was really interesting trying to capture movement in this completely different way that is not following any sophisticated system that requires, for instance, an understanding of dance notation.
Instead, I’ve been trying to think of this really hyper-accessible way where a collector could give it to their kid and have them perform it. Trying to make the movement accessible is kind of part of the artwork. It's actually all part of the experience of embodied generative art.
Dance has layers of interpretation anyway. You have the choreographer who imagines a move, and then it’s interpreted by how their body actually shows the move to the dancer, then it’s translated again into how the dancer performs it. I think the way that the score we're releasing can be translated by as many people who try to is a really cool aspect. There's no right or wrong — it’s not precious dance is always a translation because no two human bodies are the same.
DT: We also like the idea that it becomes more “human readable” as we go. We have Act I, where all the motion data is transparently there on-chain, anyone can go see it right now and see the full fidelity of the movement library, but it doesn't mean anything because it's not human-readable.
We didn't want to make the notation sophisticated because we want it to feel a bit more open-source and more human-readable versus something only a choreographer with a PhD can interpret.
Connect for more 🔌
You can find Operator’s work here.
Until next time, see you in the metaverse.
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