hälo: in conversation with p1xelfool
hälo is the latest generative art project of p1xelfool that explores the relationship between light and technology. The artwork is also highly technical, featuring a particle system that changes in real-time in the browser. The chunky pixels used in the work enhance the material aspect of screens and create a mass of light that emanates from them. hälo has been showcased on a cinema screen at the Screen SH, Hong Kong in March 2023, where the artwork became the main source of light in the room.
p1xelfool has always been fascinated by the interplay between light and darkness, and this is evident in every aspect of the work. From the use of colour pixels to the way in which the particles in the piece move and dance across the screen, every element of hälo is a deeply personal expression of his artistic vision and his fascination with the possibilities of technology. But it is also a work that invites us to reflect on our own relationship to machines and to the world around us.
In this interview, we spoke with the artist about this latest series, hälo. We discussed the inspiration behind the project, which focuses on light and the use of screens as a source of light. p1xelfool also talked about his personal relationship with computers and screens, and how he enjoys both reflecting on the subject and disconnecting from technology. Additionally, he shared insights into the technical challenges he faced while creating the series and his collaboration with a musician for a generative sound system to accompany the exhibition.
Mimi Nguyen: How many hours a day do you spend looking at a screen?
p1xelfool: It depends on which stage of algorithm development I am in. Sometimes I spend less time on the computer and focus more on reading. There have been times where I spent two years just researching without any hands-on job. These days, my routine is more focused on exhibitions and creating artwork, and I try to balance my time accordingly. I can get obsessed with developing things, especially during the initial phases. However, I tend to step back and let the work breathe so that I can come back and understand if I truly like it or not. I recently tweeted about how hard it is for an obsessive person to determine whether they like something because they are obsessed with it or if it's truly something they enjoy. After the initial idea is developed, I like to take my time and slowly develop it, which is what I did with hälo, for example. I spent a lot of time working on it at the beginning, taking breaks, and then coming back week by week to shape and polish it.
Mimi Nguyen: I know, it has been a long process, how did it all begin?
p1xelfool: So, hälo, is all about light. I have been exploring the topic of light for quite some time now, especially in relation to screens, which offer a unique way of approaching light. This series of works is a continuation of my previous pieces, lūmen and gämma, which were also focused on light. My aim is to see the screen as a source of light and to highlight its material aspect, which is why I like to use chunky pixels. It enhances the mass of light that emanates from the screen and creates a volumetric aspect.
This artwork is also quite technical, as there are many features involved, including a particle system that changes in real time in the browser. I don't use shaders because I don't know how to program them, so I take an image in p5.js and use vectors to calculate what happens with the pixels. It's challenging to achieve this level of detail without using shaders and still maintain good performance. It took me a long time to get the desired result, especially since I used more particles than I had in my previous works. But in the end, I achieved the complexity I wanted while still being reliable and having a good frame rate.
Mimi Nguyen: There were a lot of coincidences that led to this series. We never discussed lights before, but then I randomly sent you the Lichtrequisit work from Laszlo and suddenly it made sense. Another story was that we never planned to showcase the work using a cinema screen. It was supposed to be on a regular screen, but when I saw the list of venue options, the Screen SH in Hong Kong popped up and you suggested that the work would be the main source of light in the whole room with that scale. It was a conceptually stronger message to convey. And there's still a lot more to explore in terms of the relationship between light, screens, and our perception of them.
p1xelfool: The more I think about it, the more I try to push the notion of the computer as source of light, the screens as a source of light, and code as a source of light. So the more ideas I have to approach the subject, the more interested I become. What I found particularly interesting about showing it in a cinema was that usually, in a movie theatre, you have a copy of a film that has been distributed. However, with the artwork, we were showing, something is being generated in real-time in the cinema. I wonder how many times that has happened? Not that it's necessarily better, but I find it really interesting to see the environment being used for a different purpose than it was designed for and the way it is usually used.
In the end, my goal is to create a real experiential effect where people stand in front of my artwork and screen, and their senses start to adapt to what's happening. It's natural for me to think about incorporating sound into my work, but it hasn't happened often because I was waiting for the right time to do so. Being a musician myself, it felt like the perfect opportunity to invite my friend Matheus Leston, who is a fantastic musician and artist, to create a two-hour generative sound piece that would play alongside the artwork during the entire session. I love how our work blends together and enhances the environment.
Mimi Nguyen: Your previous works were slightly different from your NFT works. They included videos or even light installations. How did you end up with p1xelfool? Is that your new alter ego?
p1xelfool: My research has been about whether screens can be a source of real experiences, and this idea comes from a lot of study and observation, but mostly from philosophy. So the research has always been a bit dense, and because of that, I thought the work had to reflect that somehow. I was always playing with very dark scenarios with black and white palettes because of the density of the subject. I felt I had to reflect on that as well. I used to believe that to be a good artist, I had to be extremely serious and everything that I proposed visually had to be serious as well. So p1xelfool was born out of attempts to observe the same subject but in a more engaging way. Because there is a part of me that really believes that we have problems with the way we interact with devices and social media. They have taken our attention span. So in order to find a solution to this and bring attention to the subject, I thought, 'Well, maybe I can try to do some really extremely colourful artworks and go in the opposite direction.' The other thing was that the persona that was incorporated and created gained a new way of communicating because, before, I used to be very quiet and try not to speak too much about the work. When I created the p1xelfool persona for Twitter, the idea was to go in the opposite direction: be extremely loud, talk about everything, and become almost like an entertaining figure. To me, that's the point of the whole thing: the idea of playing with extremes and trying to bring attention to the subjects that are important to me.
Mimi Nguyen: Do you hide your past self? Are you comfortable with your old works being public? Or do you want to bury that old artist and embrace this new, loud, colorful, pixelated one? How do you reconcile the two personas?
p1xelfool: I don't hide my past self completely. Some people stumble upon my old account from time to time. However, in the art world, things take time. p1xelfool has been around for almost two years now, and it will take some more time for the two personas to merge or be presented together. There are some coincidences and purposeful choices that overlap between the two styles, such as using passwords with the same name as works that I've released. But I think it's still too soon to put them together. People need time to understand what I've been trying to say. At some point, I will be comfortable sharing my old self with my new persona.
Mimi Nguyen: How did you get into generative art?
p1xelfool: So, I went to art school in 2005 and graduated in 2007. At a very young age, I was 16 when I enrolled, and left at 18. Although it was an art/design school, my main focus was in graphic design, so I've been doing graphic design for a long time. Eventually, I think the first contact that I had with generative art was probably through Joshua Davis, because he has been a huge influence in the design world, but he was using Processing for a long time. I think that's the first clue that I have with generative art. And then I started playing with systems. The other day, I tried to find the oldest records that I have of me playing with Processing, and the oldest one that I found was in 2011. So it's been like 11 years or so. Eventually, it pivoted towards a more artistic, experimental tool than just for graphic design.
I actually have a video. It's quite funny because, it's me using Processing to control an Arduino and change RGB LEDs. So I was using an iPad, a computer, Processing, and an Arduino. That's the oldest thing that I can find.
Mimi Nguyen: At my school, we had an Arduino class. But, in fact, majority of the art school was against code, even if you were studying graphic design. Coding was seen as something different from what artists do. For you, as someone who comes from the art world, was it a challenge to switch to coding?
p1xelfool: I've always been extremely curious about computers. The thing is, my interest in art came through computers because I was trying to understand how it worked. Then I discovered graphics software and that I could publish stuff on the web. So, I started playing with visual things using code like HTML when I was around 12 or 13 years old. After a while, I discovered that I could make a profession out of it, and that creating visual things was something that you could do for a living. That's why at 16, I decided to study art. So, I went to art school where I learned to draw and paint. Eventually, I started doing some code for graphic design, but then it became experimental. I've been switching a lot between the two worlds. A little before I settled with generative art as my main field of work, I wanted to be a painter. For two years, I was studying oil painting really heavily. Then I was trying to do a Masters in painting. Someone advised me to go back to generative art, feeling that it could be something big in the future.
I really like the balance between control and losing control. And the thing that fascinated me the most about generative art was exactly randomness, like the fact that with a few rules, you could generate so much variety for a single algorithm. And even if it's a really simple idea, you can make really beautiful collections when you put the outputs together just because of randomness. So I really liked the idea, and I think it's one of the things that I've played with the most, like particle systems, because I've always wanted to try to replicate what happens in nature, where you have this mix between randomness, but some prediction of behaviour. And then you start to see really beautiful movements. So I think it's what I've always been trying to somehow replicate. I think it's an endless source of inspiration if you look towards what is happening in nature.
Mimi Nguyen: We've been discussing computers and screens quite a bit. I'm curious about your personal relationship with computers. Would you say it's a blessing or a curse? It's interesting to think about how the sources of light have evolved throughout history, from fire to oil lamps, electric lamps, and now screens. So where do computers fit into this narrative of light sources?
p1xelfool: Oh, that would require several PhD theses to discuss, but I think there are both positive and negative aspects to computers and screens, as with most things. Personally, my relationship with them is somewhat complex. Sometimes I love them and find them stimulating, especially when reflecting on the subject matter and seeing the work of other computer artists. However, at other times, I feel the need to completely disconnect and immerse myself in nature and don't think about any screens.