Pixel Rug: Interview with Travess Smalley

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Travess Smalley in conversation with Mimi Nguyen.

Mimi Nguyen: Your practice counts generative art and design, creative software, digital painting, and printmaking. What fascinates me is the generative painting programming through which you create. It’s layers of various scripting, analog work, loops and iterations with scanning and printing. Can you talk us through this process?

Travess Smalley: I’m thinking about textile patterns, Appalachian quilting, knitting instruction, abstracted music notations, rogue-like dungeon maps, lace samplers, circuits, the grain of printed images, emergent forms of play, the ways we visualize large systems.

My workflow is intuitive, reflexive, gradual, and accumulating. Each work builds upon the last. Code is used, judgment is used, and sometimes I incorporate those judgments into the code.

Travess Smalley, Untitled (Feb_24_2015_Floral_LuluBook_Scan 1) (2015). UV coated digital pigment print mounted on aluminum frame, 81.5 × 59.5 × 1.5 in. Image credits: Foxy Production and Mark Woods.

Mimi Nguyen: Even after this whole process, you keep experimenting and working on the scripts. You’d generate hundreds of outputs, adjust and select the final works. When do you stop?

Travess Smalley: I think of scripted outputs like a photographer or photo editor’s contact sheet. You see all the shots, circle what’s interesting (maybe one is particularly well composed, or one has an interesting texture, or one is reminiscent of another work by another artist, or one contains symmetries of logic that feel harmonious or unified).

The editing process is where the new work begins, it’s where scripts are born and revised, where actions are edited and re-run.

Mimi Nguyen: As a generative artist, what’s your relationship with the algorithmic randomness and with the curation process of machine-made art?

Travess Smalley: I am interested in the ways others have utilized chance and random values in their work and how they’ve gotten those random values.

I’m thinking of George Brecht’s text Chance Imagery which shares so many examples of ways of getting random values (gravity, spinning wheels, dice, etc), or Morellet using the phone book to get random numbers, or LavaRand. I want to build a weather vane to function as my random number generator. Subtle changes in the wind leading to a shift in the program. Random values show the range of possibility in the script. They can encourage emergent play and creativity. Randomizers can keep things fresh (thinking of speed-running communities in gaming over the past few years shifting to running randomizers of classic games because the original version has been so thoroughly dissected.

Attaching a random number can help me pinpoint a new color relationship or see a new variation of a texture.

I look at the work of others and try to understand their script of making. When is this painter following a script? What are the steps? When do they deviate or go off script?

François Morellet, Random Distribution of 40,000 Squares Using the Odd and Even Numbers of a Telephone Directory, 50% Blue, 50% Red, 1960. Image credit: MOMA

Mimi Nguyen: What does this mean to the physicality of your work?

Travess Smalley: Trying to translate images on and off the screen leads to new textures, colors, patterns, and grains. Each of those printed dots, or knots, or scanned refractions can create an entrypoint or lens to interpret the image.

Travess Smalley, 10_16_21_Pixel_Rug_01, 2022. Image courtesy of the artist.

Mimi Nguyen: So now we have the physical rugs. What came first, the pixel or the rug?

Travess Smalley: My great grandmother Zelda’s made quilts. I think that’s where it started.

Mimi Nguyen: These are custom made with traditional Persian technique of weaving, tightly knotted to allow oriental and organic patterns. Quite a juxtaposition to our perception of pixels and pixel art. Can you share a bit more about this transition and what inspired you to bring this work to such a way of embodiment?

Travess Smalley: In both I see the pixel grid. The warp and weft make a grid, of sorts. Making them as physical rugs was just a dream.

I didn’t think it would happen until the designer Samira Gagné Ludwin of Maman Rugs (Los Angeles) approached me about the possibility. She connected me with the artisan weaving studio, Nitya Exports, in Bhadohi Nagar Palika, in Uttar Pradesh, India. Collaborating with Maman Rugs and Nitya Exports was a year-long process where we sampled wools and knot densities to figure out the best way to translate a backlit RGB image to a hand-knotted wool rug.

Weaving artistry and tradition: A behind-the-scenes look at the rug production process. Image courtesy of the artist.
Mapping RGB to wool: A behind-the-scenes look at the rug production process. Image courtesy of the artist.

Mimi Nguyen: You’re an artist, but also an educator - assistant professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Rhode Island. How has digital art changed over the years, and what would you see your students exploring next?

Travess Smalley: Yes, in the role of ‘Print Media’ that focuses on digital printmaking, generative ways of making, and bookmaking among other topics.

I haven’t seen a big shift, more that it feels like a gradient from one social media platform to the next, one format to the next, one piece of software or plugin to the next. I help students flow between digital and physical ways of making so that they are fearless in approaching new technologies.

Mimi Nguyen

Mimi is a Creative Director at verse. She is a assistant professor at Central Saint Martins, University of Arts London where she leads the CSM NFT Lab. Her background is New Media Art, having previously studied at the Berlin University of the Arts (UdK) and Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. She now also teaches at Imperial College London, Faculty of Engineering, where she leads Mana Lab - a “Future...
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Travess Smalley

Travess Smalley is an artist and educator. His practice explores generative art and design, creative software, digital painting, and printmaking. His artwork is represented by Foxy Production in New York, and he received an MFA in Digital + Media at Rhode Island School of Design. He has a BFA from Cooper Union.
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