9 Pixels per Second. Interview with Marcel Schwittlick.
Marcel Schwittlick in conversation with Mimi Nguyen on his new series Composition #83.
Marcel Schwittlick is a multidisciplinary artist who is known for his unique approach to generative art. In this interview, he shared his creative philosophy and approach to art-making, including his preference for the physicality of paper and his use of plotters in his practice. Marcel believes in having control over the creative process while also embracing the element of chance that comes with using plotters. For him, a piece is only considered finished when it is printed on paper.
His next series Composition #83 is a departure from the artist's previous works with plotters. Plotters, which are vector output devices, offer more powerful capabilities than printers, which use pixel data with raster. This project feels almost like printing, as the artist has created images by plotting 512 by 512 dots, 262,144 pen plotter hits, giving the images texture and an unpredictable effect from the plotter's subtle irregularities. The unpredictability of the plotting process adds a unique aspect to the works, even when the artist strives for accuracy.
Mimi Nguyen: We both attended the Media Art department at UdK in Berlin and I don't recall any plotters being present in the building. How did you become interested in plotter art?
Marcel Schwittlick: I joined the media art class in Berlin quite late, as I was focused on my own work for a while. But I eventually decided to give it a try, as it was one of the few classes of its kind in the world. Although the class focused on sound-based art, the philosophy was applicable to both visual and sound art. At the time, I was primarily creating installations with steel, but joining the programme helped me solidify my vision for my art. By then, I already had a studio and was well into my creative process. The people at the university were aware of my practice, and that I was already working with plotters before joining the university. My interest in computer art started during my teen years when I learned about Frieder Nake and Manfred Mohr, and started learning Processing, mainly working with lines. I faced the dilemma of whether to go to art school or computer science school, but ultimately decided to study computer science as I wanted to learn how to program. Over the years, I've built a DIY plotter and continued to focus on it, experimenting with different mediums like painting, but still focusing mainly on the plotter medium.
Mimi Nguyen: And how many plotters do you have now?
Marcel Schwittlick: There are over 40 plotters of various sizes in my workshop. Approximately 8 are large (size a0 to size a2) and the rest are smaller (size 3 to size 4). I'm planning to bring one of the smallest HP vintage plotters (size a4) to London. These machines are fantastic.
Mimi Nguyen: So after years of developing your plotting and computer science-based art practice, blockchain technology and the rise of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin came along. How did that impact your practice and how did you discover it?
Marcel Schwittlick: Crypto has always been of interest to me. I used to work as a system administrator at a hospital and minted Bitcoin in the browser. I mined BTC with the hospital's idle computers because I was fascinated by decentralized systems. The idea of NFTs came later and I first became aware of it through mining Bitcoins. I remember a workshop in Berlin with a platform called ascribe, which was a precursor to NFTs. I was interested in Ethereum for its smart contract capabilities, but it wasn't until the NFT hype hit that I really paid attention. It was a great moment in the art world as everyone was suddenly interested in NFTs, including artists like Matthew Plummer-Fernandez who I've been a fan of for a long time. The beginning was rough with clunky interfaces, but the idea of using the blockchain for archival purposes and to securely store important information about works of art was appealing. This way, if a corporate business were to shut down, the information about the works would still be safely recorded on the blockchain.
Mimi Nguyen: Arthur Breitman said once that ultimately, blockchain is simply an exceptional book of records.
Marcel Schwittlick: I see blockchain as a tool. It allows for direct, peer-to-peer connections and provides transparency. If my computer crashes or my Dropbox fails, I still have a secure record of my data that can't be altered. This transparency is what I believe many people find valuable about blockchain.
Mimi Nguyen: What is your relationship between the unique plotted works and the digital twin that exists on the blockchain? Do you see the token always accompanying the physical piece, or do you think it could be reproducible so that with each new buyer, the piece would be re-plotted?
Marcel Schwittlick: The piece is unique and can't be replicated exactly. The blockchain serves as an immutable record of the original piece, and the token represents ownership. The token by itself is not valuable, but rather serves as a receipt. The idea is that the original piece and the token stay together when ownership changes.
Mimi Nguyen: Is the role of an artist, especially in generative art, to curate the final output or let the code determine it?
Marcel Schwittlick: It depends on the artist's intention and personal preference. Some artists might prefer to have complete control over the final outcome, while others might value the unpredictability and uniqueness of the generative process. The decision also reflects the artist's philosophy and perspective. In the case of my work, the final pieces are a result of a combination of deliberate curation and chance. The use of old pens with limited colors adds to the rarity and unpredictability of the final outcome. It also highlights the scarcity of natural resources and the difficulty in reproducing the same work.
Mimi Nguyen: Can you give an overview of the process behind the Composition #83 series, including the work that goes into creating the pieces that will be displayed on verse?
Marcel Schwittlick: Back then with ascribe, I worked with mouse lines and recorded their behaviour continuously on the computer. I kept a logbook by taking snapshots every 24 hours, which were black and white abstract images. It was more of an automated record keeping rather than a work of art.
My approach to using randomness in my work has roots in generative art. However, I have always had a pessimistic view of using randomness, as it feels like avoiding making decisions. My solution was to sample from something that is human-made rather than purely random. This way, I can still incorporate the chaos and entropy of lines, but it also has a unique and organic shape to it, coming from somewhere else. I'm inspired by the research of Daniel Berio on generative graffiti, who explores the perception and psychology of hand-drawn lines versus generated lines. In my work, I use different aspects of lines I've recorded over the years and filter them based on parameters like entropy or travel distance. I wrote the code in Python and it's capable of rendering on various machines and papers. The lines are different depending on the mouse used, and I'm still working on incorporating context, such as the website being viewed, into each line. The lines are hand-drawn but digitally sampled, recorded with enough detail on a 4k screen, and then transformed back onto paper.
Mimi Nguyen: And then what happens when it hits the plotter?
Marcel Schwittlick: That's when the real work starts, around 80%. It's like combining digital work and being mindful of how you'll work with it.
I’m misusing the plotters a little bit. The most fitting way to put pixels on paper is printing. It's a bit of a joke, but it only works well if you're very detailed and have a lot of data. Using a plotter machine is the most timely, as it's just an up-and-down repeat of 262,144 pixels. Vintage plotters from the 80s are engineering wonders and are fast and accurate. Calculating the time, it could take weeks or days to complete one drawing. Videos show that using a more professional machine can result in better control over pen pressure and line speed. The little details, like controlling the pen pressure and preventing the pen from scratching the paper, can make a big difference in the final outcome.
Composition #83 is 8-12h, depending on which machine, and the longest plots I did are around 48h (like the one you've reserved for example). I've used two different machines, one more professional for faster and better results. When controlling the pen pressure and speed of each line, the pen moves quickly and precisely. However, simply putting the pen down is not enough, as it has to be done carefully to avoid damaging the pen or paper. These small details greatly impact the practicality of creating long, detailed drawings, and the outcome can vary depending on the material used. The little surprises that result from the random functions of the material make the process even more interesting, and I find it fascinating.
The machine makes a difference; I built a large machine for the "Upward Spiral" series that can handle a lot of weight and a big pen, but it's slow. Other machines are smaller and faster, but some have bugs that can affect the output. The pieces produced are unique and can't be repeated due to technical issues like buffer overflow. I like the idea of the final product being a manifestation that only exists when brought out of the computer.
Mimi Nguyen: It's intriguing how the initial stage of the creative process involves control, where you direct mouse traces in the recording, instead of relying on random seeds to generate code. Yet, the plotter allows for serendipity by adding an element of randomness.
Marcel Schwittlick: It's unclear if serendipity is absent in the initial stage of the creative process, as the code has not yet been put on chain. However, my code operates in a way that appears to be random, even though it is not entirely. The code is generated by curating and sampling from millions of lines, making each rendering unique, although the same lines may occur but it's a small chance. The random generator I use feels random, but it's pseudo-random like in Processing. The question is, how random do you want it to be?