🏞️ Rebecca Xu's unique perspective (#90)
Taking generative art beyond the digital.
Rebecca Xu is an artist and academic, based in Syracuse, New York. She’s been making art for decades, including animations, visual music, generative art, and more. Her piece Dépaysement, which blends the digital and the physical, the printed and the found, and the designed and the fortuitous, is shortlisted for the inaugural Metaversal Lumen Prize Generative Art Award.
Rebecca Xu. (Image: Rebecca Xu)
She often collaborates with Sean Zhai, a fellow academic and artist, and did so again for Dépaysement. Metaversal’s content director, Craig Wilson, connected with Xu and Zhai to talk about the work, their work, and what the Lumen Prize means to them.
Craig Wilson: How did you first get interested in generative art?
Rebecca Xu: It started when I was in grad school — that's a long time ago now [laughs]. I was also teaching programming at the same time, and I did a project called Rain, which is based on Chinese traditional music. That's was my first visual music piece, and I learned a lot making it. That piece later got into the first Visual Music Marathon. I learned a lot. I was using 3D software, like Maya, C with OpenGL, and also Photoshop — of course — to create my artwork.
[T]ime after time I always come back to using programming to generate my art.
It made me realize I had more flexibility when working with programming directly, and more control. And so, in terms of, the generative, it actually fitted into my workflow very nicely when I was creating visual music. That's where I started, and I’ve stayed with it ever since. I shift, and sometimes I do other stuff, but time after time I always come back to using programming to generate my art.
CW: Sean, I know you and Rebecca have collaborated before, but what was it about Dépaysement specifically that attracted you to the project?
Sean Zhai: This project started when I was working on the printmaking process, specifically using monotype. And I discovered this process that you can transfer digital images onto the fine art print paper via a chemical transfer.
I naturally thought about a previous visual music project I collaborated with Rebecca on before, When Leaving Becomes Arriving. It seemed natural to take some digital images from that, and that we could create something new. Based on that, we created Dépaysement.
This project includes digital imagery, printed materials, stencils, found objects. How do you make a generative artwork where the physical elements are core to it? How do you decide which elements are physical and which are digitally created, and how does the code influence the physicality?
RX: When Leaving Becomes Arriving, is about a feeling you get in late February or early March when the winter’s almost ended, but the spring isn’t here yet. It's a description of that moment and that feeling in that particular environment. I listen to the sound, to the music, and what's in my mind is the environment: the gray weather, the tree branches without leaves but with little buds starting to pop up.
When Sean described the printmaking process to me, we asked ourselves, what kind of natural elements can we add to it to emphasize that feeling? And how can we incorporate the feeling of what we all experienced with the pandemic? That sense that you’re in a strange place and you’re not sure what to do — it's that kind of in-between or new place.
I think the physical objects give us a way to keep building on what we had before. Hopefully, we found a very good balance between the digital content and the physical objects. On the conceptual side, at the idea level, another motivation was thinking about the longing we were all feeling during the pandemic for a real-world connection.
We were thinking about how we could link the virtual world and the virtual content with the physical world. Most of the work we’ve collaborated on has existed in virtual space. We thought maybe it was time to link it back to the real world.
The original visual music which we started from is black and white, so we talked about how we could use that foundation when building this work. Because it’s not just an inspiration, it's also the foundation of this piece.
“Dépaysement” progress and outputs. (Image: Rebecca Xu)
So, for instance, in the original, the texture is generated with code, but we wanted to work with the physical. So where there’s a texture of a bird’s nest, we’re literally bringing a bird’s nest to the work, but that has it’s own texture, so we had to find ways to make the different elements all work together.
SZ: This is our first time working with monotype. So it's a new process to us and an unfamiliar domain. It's part of the reason we picked the word Dépaysement, because it's something we're not familiar with, but it spoke to something new we wanted to try.
The technical part of printmaking put some very interesting constraints on the work, and what we could do with it. For instance, with color, for printmaking, you don't have the unlimited options you have with digital. You have to physically mix the ink to get the color you want. That’s why, when we introduced color, we only used two contrasting colors, a warm color and a cold color.
RX: Another thing I wanted to add is that, though I used the texture as an example, there were also lots of other considerations and decisions we had to make. We had to think about the balance of negative and positive space, translating it into a 2D design, and how the composition and other details of the original would influence the new work.
The whole thing was very much an iteration process. Generative art is, in general, an iteration process already. With the printmaking, we did a few tests… and then quite a few more iterations.
When Sean started building on the prints and tried to experiment with different objects, we were talking about the concept, the composition, and which imagery we should select from the original visual music. We eventually ended up with seven pieces for Dépaysement.
SZ: We tried to make nine, but two of them didn’t work [laughs].
RX: It’s a process of selection, then iteration, then more selection and curation, all the way until the final outputs and the curation of the final pieces. It’s a very collaborative process throughout.
It sounds like there’s collaboration between the two of you, there’s collaboration between the code and the materials, and there’s collaboration with the printmaking and the happy accidents.
RX: Yes. There's more than just the collaboration between humans in this work.
Sean Zhai. (Image: Sean Zhai)
How do you explain “visual music” to people who’ve never encountered it before?
Oftentimes people confuse visual music with a music video. It's not a music video. Visual music is, for me, trying to figure out a way to make the music and visuals work together. That doesn't mean the visuals respond to the music — or create a one-to-one response to the music — but, rather, it’s about trying to create an interplay between those two.
Through the interplay between the two, the goal is to create a more cohesive or expanded experience. You want people to enjoy the visuals and the music, not necessarily equally, but at the same time.
Printmaking is also very physical. You have to use your muscles to press the work, to push the print through the machine.
There are different ways of making it. In some of my work I get involved with the composer very early on. I think that’s the best mode of collaboration, where I can think about how the visuals and the music will work together from very early on.
In other instances, like When Leaving Becomes Arriving, the music was ready-made by a composer, and then we generated imagery based on it. In that case, the process is slightly different, but the goal of creating a bigger, richer for the audience is still there.
SZ: People interpret the idea of “visual music” in lots of ways. Our visual music work is based on generative graphics, and we work primarily on abstract images. Technically, we use programming, audio, and sound analysis to get the parameters, the frequency, and the sound spectrum. But we're not trying to literally transfer everything we have in our artistic treatment to the sound. We want different sections to have different graphics with different styles to highlight what we want to emphasize.
When you’re working alone, you're free to make all of the creative decisions about an artwork, but when you collaborate, that necessarily changes. How did working with one another on Dépaysement shape the end result?
RX: Well, we've been collaborating for a long time. At the beginning, it was challenging. Sean’s more on the technical side and I’m more on the artistic side. But over the years, we’ve learned to communicate better, and we’ve learned to respect each other’s boundaries.
Working with Sean has given me the opportunity to look into the technical side of things more, and he’s helped me a lot. Oftentimes I would talk to him about what I’d like to do — what the concept for a project is — and he’d help me build the programming foundation of it.
Over the years, I’ve been able to start working with the programming myself. At the same time, over the years, Sean’s been taking a lot of art and design classes. He’s getting his third master’s degree in design, on top of his electronic engineering and programming degrees.
“Dépaysement No. 3: When Leaving Becomes Arriving” by Rebecca Xu. (Image: Rebecca Xu)
Sean was the one physically in the studio doing the printmaking. So even if we talked about the process and the composition, he was the one literally putting the flowers or the petals on the printer. There were creative decisions that needed to be made in those moments. He did a lot of work, not just physically.
SZ: Printmaking is also very physical. You have to use your muscles to press the work, to push the print through the machine. How you control the media is physical, and the results are instant. With programming, once you run the code it’s instant, but it can take days or weeks of preparation to get there — to get a graphic to display properly. But with printmaking, feedback is immediate, and you have to make decisions on the spot.
What prompted you to enter the Lumen Prize?
RX: This award; because it's called the “Generative Art Award.” The Lumen Prize is a famous and prestigious award in the field of digital art, and I’ve admired a lot of the fabulous work that’s been submitted over the years, but this is the first Generative Art Award. We wanted to be part of that, and we’re very honored to be on the shortlist.
What do you think of the rise of platforms like Art Blocks and fxhash, and how they’ve changed the number of artists making generative art and the number of collectors collecting it?
RX: It's really great. Generative art has always been on sidelines, with not a lot of people doing it, and not a lot of people understanding it. And — particularly on the abstract side — I think people find it not only hard to understand, but also hard to critique.
Art Blocks and fxhash provide a platform for people to create a sense of community, which is so important when people have oftentimes felt marginalized for creating this sort of work. I won’t go into too much detail, but when I was up for tenure promotion — and even when I was up for promotion to full professor — it was really hard for me to find an external reviewer to be able to comment on my work.
These platforms help me feel like I’m part of a digital art community. And with Art Blocks, part of a generative art community. NFTs have also made generative art more a part of the art market, and I see that as a great thing.
For a long time, digital artists have been the outsiders of the art market. As a digital artist, it's harder to make a living. That's why I teach, right? [Laughs]
New platforms provide digital artists, particularly young digital artists, more ways to navigate their lives and careers in art-making, and perhaps allow them to be more hopeful about it.
I haven’t made my work into NFTs, but it’s a space I’m watching closely. I’m always interested in new tools, and I’m interested to see what blockchain technology can do in terms of protecting copyright in the age of AIGC [AI-generated content].
Just like digital art technology changes fast, so does blockchain technology, so we’re keeping an eye on it, and looking for new ways to explore new technologies and utilize them in our art. It’s a very exciting time.
Connect for more 🔌
You can learn more about the Lumen Prize here.
Until next time, see you in the metaverse.