All the Centrifugal Ways our Lives Fall in and out of Place - Interview with Marcelo Soria-Rodriguez

February 13, 2023
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Marcelo Soria-Rodriguez in conversation with Mimi Nguyen on his latest series Centrifugal.

Mimi Nguyen: You’ve been experimenting with generative art for over 25 years now, what drew you to generative art and what draws you to its history, specifically the influence of early practitioners like Vera Molnár and Herbert W. Franke?

Marcelo Soria-Rodriguez: The experimentation I used to do was, to me, a natural combination of my interests in technology and creative endeavors, more than a conscious “I’m doing generative art” type of thinking. As I learnt more about signal processing during my engineering studies, I found myself doing works with code, with whichever language I was using at the time (Matlab), that were basically algorithms that painted things. Either based on meaningful signals (data) or noise (randomness).

Honestly, back then I didn’t know about Molnár or Franke or any of the generative art pioneers. I was mostly influenced, consciously or unconsciously, by Bauhaus-era painters. Once I learnt about the early computer artists I was immediately drawn to their practice, and recognized in their pathfinding the fascination for the possibilities of this medium that I had since the beginning.

Prior to studying engineering I had been toying around with raytracers, musical composition and other things using computers, and reading about the pioneers and their relationships to other artists from other movements or genres (visual - music, for example) has been fascinating, but this was mostly in recent years.

Vasily Kandinsky, Composition 8 (Komposition 8), 1923. Image credit: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Founding Collection.

Mimi Nguyen: Your work in generative art combines a variety of techniques such as algorithms, data visualization, and digital simulations. You refer to inspirations from early twentieth-century modernist movements like Orphism and Suprematism.

How does the geometrical nature and color exploration of modernist art movements influence your approach to generative art and how do you incorporate these elements in your work? Can you discuss your experimentation with pen plotters and how it relates to your interest in these movements?

Marcelo Soria-Rodriguez: Geometries have long attracted me. Both in visual form and in musical form. I can’t easily point to a source for this influence, and both Orphism and Suprematism were love at first sight because there was something a priori that had prepared the ground for me to like those movements. Maybe architecture, which I was exposed to when I was younger, primed me towards that. It was modern architecture, minimalistic, which again has its roots in the Bauhaus era. I find the same delight in Bach, which is geometry as well. Same with minimalist composers, most notably Philip Glass. When I did photography, not very successfully I should say, it was mostly influenced by geometry and I was very interested in the geometries created by light and shadow (which I explored recently on my piece lo que no está). I was attracted to taking photographs of marked contrasts, angles, straight lines.

The use of basic geometries lends itself very nicely to generative art, to the possibility of using those as the earth, water, wind and fire of the artwork. Colour is a different plane altogether. I still need to learn and experiment much more with colour. Sonia Delaunay’s paintings jumpstarted me in this quest. Then I discovered other painters which now I admire in how they use colour. Frantisek Kupka, the german Expressionists… I love the way in which these use green tones to create light in the skin of the characters in their paintings. The colours that you wouldn’t probably see in real life, but that have, well, such a strong expressive capability. I have used green more in Centrifugal than I have before, in part because of this.

František Kupka, “Discs of Newton” (1912), Image credit: Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Louise and Walter Arensberg Collection, 1950 (© Adagp, Paris 2018 © Philadelphia Museum of Art)

Pen plotters are still a largely uncharted territory for me. My experimentation so far has been limited, but I find them very interesting to bring generative art into the physical world in an organic, texture-rich way. I originally developed the “line fill” mode of Entretiempos just to be able to paint those on a pen plotter with a brush using paint, because I still find prints a bit lacking in the emotion that oil can transmit. Because it’s flat, very flat.

Last summer I made an experiment of creating paper with a design directly inside the paper, that is, not printed over it, but rather created into the fibers of the paper. I will be dedicating more time towards creating physical translations of an artwork that is created using digital tools (code), as I believe it’s easier for us human beings to relate to a physical object. However, I also find the idea of purely digital art expanding into the territory of the non-achievable-in-physical-life very appealing. That’s why most of my artworks are interactive, animated, etc. I’m interested in exploring the directions into which a medium expands human existence.

Mimi Nguyen: How do you see the role of interactivity in your art, particularly in relation to your previous works such as Entretiempos? How do you believe digital art changes the traditional viewing experience of art and how do you use it to create a connection with your audience?

Marcelo Soria-Rodriguez: I am interested in walking in the directions in which each media expands human experience, as well as the directions in which each situation expands itself. It’s what I called the Total Cognitive Space in an article some time ago: each system has a given space of total possibilities, given by its elements and their engagement rules. Digital art has a completely different set of rules and elements. To start with, it’s immaterial in its very nature. We create an image to be able to understand what it is. But the artwork exists in a plane that we probably cannot grasp entirely. Maybe sentient machines will one day. Now, the fact that digital art can play in this expanse does not necessarily mean that it must do it.

I find equally pleasing art in digital media that does not engage with interactivity, animation or any other domain-specific characteristic or possibility. It’s just another resource available in the process of creation / expression. To me, art is about that connection that you mention, about what triggers in the time and space of emotions and thoughts of the experiencer: joy, reflection, anger, fear, indifference, etc. Interactivity is just a way to explore those possible responses. To most people it means indifference, bore, drag. To others it might be technically interesting. To others it might mean co-creation. To others it’s a window into the concept that the artwork proposes, effectively expanding that concept beyond a single representation into a myriad of possibilities that each experiencer will discover on their own: this is one of the aims I have with this “total cognitive space”, to explore further, at the same time, the realm of digital art, the total space of a given piece (a given mint of a given generative series) and hopefully the total space of the experiencer who, by interacting with the piece, might find themselves in mental positions or states that they don’t visit so often.

At the end of the day, however, it all comes down to whether an art piece made you feel or not. Sometimes interactivity might help, because it helps you find a place closer to your emotions in that piece that what the “finished piece” dogma would propose. But, interactive or not, if the piece fails to engage emotionally its existence will be a failed one.

Marcelo Soria-Rodriguez, entretiempos #593, 2022.

Mimi Nguyen: How does the concept of "glitch" or error influence your creative process in your piece Entretiempos and how do you balance the line between intentional noise and machine precision in your work?

Marcelo Soria-Rodriguez: Entretiempos deliberately introduced noise in two axes: both in visual grain but, most importantly, in the position and sizes of the different geometries that make up the piece. To me, this exploration of the tension between machine precision, human emotion and paint imprecision is very relevant, as it helps me get closer to a loose understanding of what emotions are made of. It helps me think about whether a machine may understand what it is.

Since that piece, I have used position noise and grain noise in most of my pieces. But I exposed the difference in Entretiempos only. To me it wasn’t glitch, as it’s not trying to represent a transient error in a signal. Rather, it tries to mimic real world imperfection (be it human imprecision when painting lines, or the fact that in the physical world purely clean surfaces do not exist) and pitches it against the “machine precision” piece. Which one do you prefer? Which one is the “finished artwork”? In generative art, does such a thing as “finished piece” exist? But I digress. We are noise and dirt, without it, life does not exist, literally.

Mimi Nguyen: Geoffrey Miller once said “We put too much of ourselves into our product facades, spinning too much mass to our outer edges where we hope it is both publicly visible and instantly lovable. One problem with this strategy is that it leaves too much blank space in the middle, so there’s not much of ourselves left for lovers or friends to discover in the long term. This could be called the centrifugal-soul effect.”

This was previously referenced in the installation of a contemporary British artist Mat Collishaw ‘The Centrifugal Soul’, a zoetrope sculpture animating mating rituals of bowerbirds and birds of paradise, exploring evolution and visual stimulation through sexual selection and reflecting the artist's examination of our need for self-promotion. What inspired you to create ‘Centrifugal’ as a reflection on the nature of human development and the relationship between one's inner and outer world?

Marcelo Soria-Rodriguez: In the project notes I wrote something that is loosely related to this, so let me use that here :) Human nature is one of disguise. One of the characteristics that humans exhibit more distinctively than other species is their simultaneous fear and need to both know and ignore their fate. Our form of consciousness, of self-awareness, of understanding our relation to what is around us is one that calls, more often than we'd probably like to confess, for the use of totems of support, disguises that carry their own meaning so that we can adapt that meaning to our selves. Uniforms, brands, ideologies that relieve us from having to create our own fate.

But our fate is something we write along our most difficult journey: the one towards within. It's the one trip that one has no companion for, no flags to fight under, no uniforms to disguise the fear that lies inside, because there is not the figure of the other, there's only one with one's inner world. Only one's own judgment towards oneself. It's also the ultimate journey: all the territorial advances within are instantly rewarded in how we navigate what's outside. A known and charted self is probably the best tool for the unknown and uncharted others. A never ending journey it is as well, precisely because it interacts with the infinite others.

centrifugal by Marcelo Soria-Rodríguez | Verse
This is an interactive artwork designed to be viewed through a web browser for the optimal experience. Human nature is one of disguise. One of the characterist

In the back and forth that is the odyssey of developing one's self, a word comes to mind that I take from "Vigil", a song by the band The Mars Volta. They say "all the centrifugal ways our lives fall in and out of place", and I relate to that very specifically. One's journey within has the necessary scenario of those others, an environment that pulls us out continuously of our interior exploration, in an endless mutual influence.

This work is a reflection of that nature of human development. External structures in centrifugal motion around an axis that one tries to keep stable. But the axis can’t be always perfectly stable. It all creates an imperfect mechanism through which one relates to both sides of their existence: what’s inside and what’s outside.

Mimi Nguyen: How does the interactive element of the Centrifugal allow the experiencer to explore the axis of development, and what do you hope the audience takes away from this experience?

Marcelo Soria-Rodriguez: Centrifugal has a rather extensive set of interactions available. The metaphor that it proposes can be approached through rotation speed, rotation mode, axis of rotation, inspecting the rotating elements on their own or looking at the overall shape that they produce, etc.

To me, every interactive piece is an invitation to spend time with the artwork and hopefully let the experiencer wander in their own thoughts as they explore the piece. I draw the parallels that I write about in the project notes and interaction description, but maybe another observer can think of something entirely different. This is what I would consider a successful piece.

Marcelo Soria-Rodriguez, Centrifugal, 2023. Preview. Video courtesy of the artist.

Even though the metaphor that I use is probably a bit basic and seemingly shallow, its meaning goes deep for me. In recent years I have spent time in this inner journey and when I evolved the piece slowly it helped me reflect on a number of things related to that process. Again, maybe it won’t fire any meaningful response in its experimenters, but I want them to understand that the point is not to produce a “final” image when the painting process “has ended”.

The point is that every process, every activity, every life has many parts, each with their own movement, each with their own scale, each leaving a different mark on our self. A process that starts when we are born and stops when we die. There is no “final artwork”, there is no “preview image” for a life. There is a succession of events, of points of view, decisions, rhythms, etc. A life has to be lived, not viewed passively. The piece reflects on that.

See the generative long form of Marcelo Soria-Rodriguez on Verse's exhibition "Odysseys" on Thursday 16 February at 6:00PM BST | 1:00PM ET.

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