Capturing nature, a Ballet Mécanique in the wild: Zancan in conversation with Tyler Hobbs
June 20, 2022
Mimi Nguyen: You were previously an oil painter, what made you decide to enter the NFT space?
Michael Zancan: I've always been a programmer; I was even a good creative coder long before I became a good painter, although I chose the traditional medium to express my need for artistic expression, which leaned heavily towards the romantic genre. I believe I was one of those people who used art as a therapist, there was just too much inner turmoil to expel and I expressed that in the painting. I pursued an artistic practice in this schizophrenic way, working in tech by day (it was my job, which I perceived as soulless and artistically impure, although very exciting ) and immersing myself in the intimacy and nobility of oils every night. It was by expressing my sentimental intimacy in a figurative way that I developed this form of personal symbolism, where each detail had a meaning whose reading was my own, but which had to be beautiful to trick the viewer into its free interpretation, or a simple visual appreciation with no interpretation at all.
At some point, the hectic pace of my daily routine, plus the building of a family life or a house made sustaining this schizophrenic schedule impracticable. I had a long break, six years without painting. When I first heard about the NFTs, it had been a few months already since I had been at work every night trying to come back to art making. I painstakingly read my anatomy books over while drawing hundreds of sketches, but I had to come to the conclusion that my gestures were stiff, and more worrying, that my intent was gone. The discovery of a new, exciting creative space to explore was a gift to me, for it provided me with both an intent and a way to solve the dichotomy of my life.
I used to say that I drew a straight line between my former practice and the new one, but it can’t be true. I just gave up on a particular aesthetics. My new practice was possible only thanks to the knowledge of image composition, colors, conceptual thinking, the habit of working daily with long-term aims, and of course years of experience in creative coding in a professional context.
Tyler Hobbs: Why do you find natural forms to be interesting subject matter for computational artwork?
Michael Zancan: I have been using natural elements both in a symbolistic and a decorative way during my painter years, they are part of my ongoing inspirations. I’ve always been a sucker for details, I couldn’t bend myself to this idea of making an « impression », instead I needed to draw each blade of grass, each leaf of a tree, which is a painstaking task to be done with a brush or a pencil. This is where the computer reveals its power, the power of multiplication. Give the computer an algorithm for a blade of grass, it will give you a field _ although the steps in between are the most challenging. The natural world, as it is often stated, is just one big algorithm. However it’s not the DNA that creates the emotion and the harmony in a landscape. At close scale, a blade of grass is a straight execution of an elementary code. When you take a step back, and observe a small piece of lawn, you’ll witness an indecipherable chaos. Then at wider view, the disorder is tamed, the visual effect smoothens, calms ondulations appear, smooth transitions, cohesive waves under the effect of a mild wind…
I like to think of it as visual harmonics, like instruments, notes, scales and chords in music : what matters is the emotion one receives from the symphony. I also like to make a parallel with the computational process : the elementary code, multiplied and randomized to create the seemingly chaotic intricacy, then organized to provide the visual rhythm and harmony of the whole.
I have only coded a handful of elementary plant species that I reuse in all my works : they’ve become my basic set of brushes. An artwork will depend entirely on the sequence of brush strokes, rather than the brushes themselves.
Zancan, Lushtemples, 2021. Plotter drawing video. Courtesy of the artist.
Tyler Hobbs: When I first saw your work, it immediately reminded me of some of the output from AARON by Harold Cohen. Has he inspired you, or do you have any thoughts on his pioneering work?
Michael Zancan: Although the names AARON and Harold Cohen resonated with me, I could not say that I knew this artist or his work. I had to document myself, and I found the story fascinating, and I understand that the reference could have come to your mind, or that parallels could be drawn with my process. Besides, I myself encountered programming thanks to a turtle robot (Turtle Logo at 8 years old). The obsession with wanting to teach drawing, that is to say his previous practice, to a robot testifies to a deep interest in the phenomena at work in the process of learning in children (humans) and of a desire for transmission. It reminds me much more of the work of one of my friends whom I have been seeing every day for 30 years and whom you know quite well: Julien Gachadoat. As much as Julien is passionate about reading, teaching about generative art, venerating its pioneers, I myself am very impulsive, guided by intuitions and the needs to make things. Julien has all the books about generative art in our office, but I know them only by their covers. I was self-taught on just about everything. For a time, I could feel illegitimate, due to my lack of formal artistic education or references in the field (and the contemporary art world never misses the opportunity to make this feeling weigh on self-taught people), however, a certain lack of culture should not be confused with a lack of a certain culture. The world of NFTs is a blank canvas where culture is not dictated, but invented. I feel accepted there, and the fact of having continued to create without diktats, seems to have protected the sincerity of my intuitions and the impression of novelty that some see in my work.
Mimi Nguyen: Can you tell us more about the work Rapture, Captured? What is it about?
Michael Zancan: I can't explain why the sight of a clump of grass growing bravely through the crack of a concrete wall gives me such joy. Or why watching my lawn explode in the spring into a chaotic throng of wild plant species demonstrating their determination to live me fascinates me so much. There is something of the order of the unconscious, or of the collective consciousness, which attaches man to nature to the point of affecting his senses in a primal way, whereas I am like many an urban product of modernity and technology.
In my works, nature is not the main subject, but it is a means of depicting, among other things, the vital force, the resilience of the living. There is in its multiplicity and its autonomous, chaotic and organized aspect something that traditional painting did not allow me to capture, other than thanks to infinite labor and a gesture that was far too controlled.
Algorithmic art opened up this possibility for me to render nature, in its movement, its density, its wild abundance.
The mesh is a familiar and basic object for the programmer, the framework of any 3D model, it represents the digital.
I used the yellow color for two reasons. First, the color chosen is a pure yellow (#ffff00) in the RGB spectrum, which immediately places it in the digital realm. On the other hand the colors used for the representation of nature are muted, in order to attach it to the physical world. The background color also corresponds to that of a paper that I often use for my physical drawings.
Then, the yellow functions here as a representation of the sacred, like the illuminations on ancient religious texts. I am very admiring of certain contemporary painters or illustrators who use gold leaf over their drawings, allowing them to bring a surnatural light into their works, to access a higher stratum of symbolic representation looking towards spirituality. I never took the chance to try out this technique, and working digitally gave me that chance.
The holes in the net that can be observed symbolize the impossibility of capturing the true nature, the real feeling that one experiences in its presence. The flowers, twisted to the extreme under netting, are there to evoke the sense of hypocrisy in using technology to create art that evokes nature, as a reminder of the impossible environmental challenges that we are facing while galloping toward the chimeras of technological progress.
Mimi Nguyen: What do you think about the future of art in an increasingly digital world?
Michael Zancan: Generative art and more particularly that which exploits the blockchain allowed my work to access new layers of artistic expression. By accepting the introduction of chance into the creative process, it renews the very way of creating. The blockchain itself raises many questions: the value attached to the digital object compared to the physical object, the appreciation aesthetics in relation to speculative possibilities, the gamification of the act of distributing and collecting, the environmental footprint of technology, or quite simply: is it art? What seems to be characteristic of contemporary art, questioning art itself, is even more appropriate with NFTs. The possibilities of this playground for new artistic practices and new sources of inspirations were only an intuition at first, and an expectation as well, until I experimented with this space which revealed the larger spectrum of possibilities.
Personal symbolism is something that I’m carrying on today in my generative works, although the topics are less and less personal. My themes drifted toward ethics, humanism, social equity or the necessary reconnection with the natural world. I believe there is an aesthetic consensus with my works, they can appeal to a broad audience, but in the NFT space we are likely to drag interest within the tech or finance world. Touching consciences isn’t achieved by being too obvious or professorial, it needs to operate on an almost metaphysical level. I try to allow my works to embed dimensions of reading that are sometimes coded but displayed in a way that people get the feeling, or the conviction, that there is more to it than meets the eye. Maybe, gradually, this could activate the mindset for a better consciousness eventually.
My first appreciation about the NFT space is that it allowed me ( and many others artists ) to exist within a market, which was not possible in the traditional market, whether you were either a digital artist or simply an autodidact. I don’t think that there is such an opposition between digital and physical, computer made or hand made. What took time to be accepted seems to me completely natural now, no matter the tools or medium that artists use to reach their goals, what matters is the aesthetics, the thought process, the emotions they convey, the statement they make or the questions their art is asking. The real breakthrough is the market itself. Its structure allows a strong relationship between the artists and the collectors that is extremely powerful in my opinion.
Mimi Nguyen: So what’s the role of a curator here?
Tyler Hobbs: Curation is a higher-order art form that helps illustrate the connecting threads in stories that tie artwork together and help relate it to our human experience. This is true regardless of the medium. On this point, Michael, are you ever frustrated by working with the computer?
Michael Zancan: Today, not so much, and then the Axidraw is always connected and when I feel the need to do something "physical" I launch a plotter at random. But that was the case for a very long time, and that's where my abandonment in painting rather than generative art comes from. I lived a life that could seem schizophrenic, going daily from a day job on the computer, to nights immersed in the transcendental, deep and romantic journey into oil painting. On large formats, it is the mind and the whole body that are at work. It had become an almost vital need to find balance between the hurried, cold and technological world and the passionate, sensitive and timeless world of painting. By expressing myself in figurative-generative art, I feel like I have finally resolved this dichotomy. Many meanings can be given or concerns shared through this medium. What perhaps frustrates me is the impossibility of slowing down the frantic pace of web3.
Zancan is a generative artist from Bordeaux, France. He has been both a painter and a programmer for four decades. By synergizing his former practice as a traditional artist working with oil paint with the computer code medium, he enlightened the graphical possibilities of a « figurative-generative » art genre. His digital artworks and resulting pen-plotter drawings, which rely on technology both to exist and to be traded, are his inspiration to remind us of the necessary bond between man and nature, raising attention through visual symbolism about environmental and social matters.
Tyler Hobbs is a visual artist from Austin, Texas. His work focuses on computational aesthetics, how they are shaped by the biases of modern computer hardware and software, and how they relate to and interact with the natural world around us. By taking a generative approach to art making, his work also explores the possibilities of creation at scale and the powers of emergence. Tyler’s most notable project, Fidenza, is a series of 999 algorithmically generated works comprising one of the most sought-after fine art NFT collections of all time.
Mimi Nguyen, Art + NFT at verse.works. She is a doctoral researcher and teaches at Imperial College London, Faculty of Engineering, where she leads Mana Lab, a “Future of work in Blockchain” research group, and at Central Saint Martins, University of Arts London together with CSM NFT Lab. Her previous research on creativity and human-computer interaction has been published by Cambridge University Press, Design Studies, Design Research Society, TIME magazine, and ACM Association for Computing Machinery.
Tyler Hobbs had nominated the generative artist Michael Zancan for Verse's launching online exhibition This Is Tomorrow. Zancan’s intricate computer generated drawings display elaborate and ornate natural worlds. Rather than basing his works on any specific real-life place, the artist employs an artist-built algorithm to create detailed compositions that are inspired by the power and ‘resilience of living’ that nature represents.