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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Marius Watz Builds Algorithms into Trippy and Beautiful Art

Posted By on Thu, Jul 21, 2011 at 2:45 PM

An image from Electro Plastique #1, one of the works that will be exhibited at the San Francisco Film Society's KinoTek program "Marius Watz: Automatic Writing." - COURTESY OF [DAM]BERLIN
  • Courtesy of [DAM]Berlin
  • An image from Electro Plastique #1, one of the works that will be exhibited at the San Francisco Film Society's KinoTek program "Marius Watz: Automatic Writing."

In 2004, the Norwegian-born software artist Marius Watz, normally a mild-mannered visual abstractionist, got a gig with Nike. His task: "Show the individual energy and aura that women achieve when they do real cardio exercises." His response: "A computational approach with spiraling shapes and washes of color emerging from and meshing with the body of the model." Naturally.

One name for what Watz does is generative art. Sometimes it involves computers, but not always. The primary gesture of the generative artist is setting a process in motion. A sort of animated aesthetics of dynamics is the frequent result. You don't really need to know what circle packing algorithms are to appreciate the lovely, trippy precision of Watz's.

Today his Flickr stream gives glimpses of 3D-printed intrigues including Creepy Day-Glo Colbert and The Seductive Quality of Flat-Shaded Polygons -- not to mention the Wall Exploder he has in the works at Superfrog Gallery as part of Marius Watz: Automatic Writing, the latest episode of the San Francisco Film Society's KinoTek series of boundary-pushing multimedia programming.

Watz lives in Oslo and New York. He took a moment away from setting up his San Francisco show to speak with us about it by phone.

  • Courtesy of [DAM]Berlin
  • Marius Watz

Where do you come from? Norway, yes, but I mean creatively.

I come from a hybrid background. I'm part of a generation of people working with microcomputers like the Commodore 64. I just glued myself to that topic from a very early age. Later I studied computer science, but I realized it was killing off everything I enjoyed about computer programming. So I dropped out and started working with designers and artists on doing creative manifestations with code. I didn't know if this was a good idea. My dad wasn't very happy about me dropping out. But at the time the field of graphic design was being revolutionized by desktop publishing. It was a new way of thinking about images -- not as static, difficult surfaces that you can barely touch once you've laid them out. So I found my way into installations and images using computer code as the material -- algorithms as recipes. The computer needs a precise recipe. Computers are actually very stupid. Or at least very literal.

What's it like to mount a gallery show in association with a film society?

As an artist, you're always concerned with how can you manifest your work in the world. The screen can feel limiting. It's always restricted to being immaterial. So I've been working with digital fabrication techniques. You have 3D printing, and it's a really nice counterpoint to the electronic imagery of the software. It's quite an interesting juxtaposition. In planning this, we began with a screening of generative works, and the discussion was about how, on the one hand, software is a moving image and that has for a long time been the default way of showing. But on the other hand, how could we take something that originates in that format and do something else? So there are 3D-printed sculptures, too, and one of the images will also be drawn as a tape drawing on the wall. Things like that.

Would you say generative art is useful for surprising yourself? Does it also relieve the burden of creative block?

There is definitely an element of surprise -- either because you wrote it wrong and it comes up with bugs, which sometimes is interesting, or because you just don't know the full range of what it'll do. So there is an element of discovery. At the same time, people think that it comes from just wandering through the computer and finding things. But there's definitely a strong authorship. You're manipulating the material you choose, and the strategy you have for exploring it. It's true that most artists understand the fear of a blank canvas. How do you start from nothing? So they come up with strategies, like bringing yourself away from preconceived notions and being in a blank state. That definitely happens when you sit down and write code. You start with an idea of a gesture, or a kinetic behavior, and go from there.

Another image from Electro Plastique #1.
  • Another image from Electro Plastique #1.

If you were born at a different time, before computer-based art became possible, what might you be doing or making?

Ah, yeah. If you look at the work of someone like Antonio Gaudí, who was creating these insane structures that were barely possible with the elements of his time, you wonder: What would he have done now? Every person has a set of abilities they can explore, and sometimes they are not explored. I see people sometimes discover code even quite late in life. If computers didn't exist, I know I would have done something. Maybe I'd have been a Color Field painter, or worked with parametric structures, which are not specific to the computer. Definitely something with system-based thinking.

How has your work evolved, and how do you project it to evolve? Is it a matter of technological capacity, or a particular creative inclination?

It's an introverted process. You explore ideas for your own reasons that aren't easy to explain. But the work in this show shows the evolution. It's toward the physical. I'm less and less interested in technology as a topic in and of itself. So I want to show work that does not filter through the lens of technology. When people see a screen or a projector, they immediately have prejudices or expectations of the artifact. Recently I've been working with drawing through machines, with solder or a laser cutter. It's very organic. A laser on plywood can be very warm and physical. I'm finding new materials and doing things not predicated on computer technology.

Do you feel any tension between art and design?

Sometimes. I see that expressed by others, but I try to know very well what the context is. The idea of utility doesn't enter into my artworks at all. As a creator, you do need to take a position. The reality of deciding between art and design is about market -- which market do you address or are you appealing to? It's a question of how committed you are to your own voice. Living in the United States, where there's very little public support for the arts, you have to be able to put food on the table. Like most artists, I'm making a living from a series of practices. I have a gallery practice, and some teaching, and some support from international festivals. You combine all this to make a living, and to keep working. It's a hybrid digital-nomad lifestyle.

What do you make of San Francisco?

San Francisco has a very clear history of experimentation around technology in many creative fields. I haven't shown my work here, so that's new to me. It's a great opportunity.

Marius Watz: Automatic Writing runs from July 22 through August 17 at Superfrog Gallery, 1746 Post (at Webster), with an opening reception from 6-9 p.m. Friday, July 22, an artist talk 7 p.m. Tuesday, July 26, and a master class on digital fabrication 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 27. More information is here.

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.

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About The Author

Jonathan Kiefer

SF Weekly movie critic Jonathan Kiefer is on Twitter: @kieferama and of course @sfweeklyfilm.


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