We have already talked about the software artist Alex Dragulescu. As a matter of fact Valentina Tanni brilliantly presented the Romanian USA-based artist in the n°17 Digimag issue (September), describing his work with code, his poetic and aesthetic.
You can read the article at www.digicult.it/digimag/article.asp?id=406. So this is a sort of second episode, a sequel, to fulfil the descriptive picture of Alex Dragulescu from his software and projects. Internet in comparison to traditional press allows me to do it and I’m pleased to do it.
I thought it would be interesting to talk with Alex, to understand his way of working and his world, his approach straddling art code and code art, his attitude, which is both analytical and connected to the live event and to an aesthetic research with very strict formal codes. As Valentina Tanni wrote in her article: “The criterions that inspired the project come from information visualization , a well-known discipline that studies the video transposition of data (of any type: scientific, statistic, economic). Dragulescu approach is gone further than a conversion of the material into forms and colours. His attempt is to produce visualizations that are also evocative, with an artistic and aesthetic side and not only an experimental and technical one, particularly successful the spam-based architectures.”
Marco Mancuso: What data visualization mean for you in the current contest of societies connected through data, shared aesthetic visuals and new digital art forms? Why, in your opinion, does everyone seem to be interested in a certain kind of visualization of digital data and everyone thinks it’s a new form of abstract art?
Alex Dragulescu: We are trying to make sense of the multitude of information and data around us. We are trying to understand by finding new ways of looking, exploring various visual vocabularies. Algorithms and databases are actively shaping our consumption, our social processes and finally our realities. Data visualization is the vocabulary, the communication protocol of the database society. We are also bored with linear, mostly narrative experiences… we are looking for interactive, open-ended experiences.
Marco Mancuso: Can you tell me something about your technical and artistic training? When did you start studying generative processes?
Alex Dragulescu: In the university I studied Cinema and Photography, Art and Art History. I actually shot only two films on celluloid. My first was a silent film shot on a 16mm camera used in World War II. The second one was a hand-drawn animated film shot with a 16mm animation stand. After that, I taught myself computer animation. I realized I could work much faster by myself with just the computer. Plus I had this nice feeling as if I was still working in my sleep, since I would leave the computers rendering at night. Maya and Flash were the tools that transitioned me towards the procedural side of animation and design. After graduating I worked for two years as an interactive designer/developer in Internet companies. There, I started using web programming and relational databases. In graduate school, the transition towards the procedural was complete.
Marco Mancuso: Some of your celebrated works (Respam, Spam Plant, Spam Architecture) focalize on the architectonical visualization concept in a potentially infinite 3-D space of spam material. Why are you so involved in spam material? It seems like a superfluous worship in an era where Western Countries are full of spurs and audio and video informative material
Alex Dragulescu: I used to get over 200 spam messages a day at one point and I was really being careful about my email address not being available in text, on the web. Everyone hated it because it is such a veritable assault on our email habitat. No one had the time to read them but some of these messages were masterpieces of Dadaist poetry that even Tristan Tzara would have been jealous he didn’t write.
Tim Jaeger and I decided that it was an interesting phenomenon that needed some artistic commentary so we started collecting it in order to use it for visual performances. Spam is the glorification of a certain aesthetic that I am attracted to: the aesthetic of the noise, the artifact, the discarded data, the automatic, the procedural. It’s a knee-jerk reaction because I live in a society obsessed with perfection and airbrushing, that carefully hand-models and designs to satisfy the focus group. If you think about it, spam is just an alternative advertising channel which works for a small percent of the receivers. There was a study that showed that people actually buy the stuff spammers try to sell. Television broadcasters are spammers too but they have an official license. In terms of visualization, it is convenient when one tries to visualize a finite set of data. Spam is a data source that’s perpetually mutating and is very challenging to work with because you never know what you will get. It usually breaks my original mapping schema which forces me to re-think the way I was previously working.
Marco Mancuso: How do these projects work? And how do you use the code in your projects?
Alex Dragulescu: For the Spam Plants and Spam Architecture series there is a small PHP script that extracts, quantifies and prepares the information for a Maya plug-in I wrote that executes the drawing. The spam message is analyzed in several ways. First the program looks at the header of the message. The header is the hidden part of the message and contains various information the server that sent it, the type of message, a unique message id. There is always a header no matter how short the message is. The script takes some of these fields of information and transforms them into attributes for the plant algorithm.
For example any IP addresses found in the header are used for the final color of the plant. I wanted the shape and the size of the plant to vary based on the message and the color to ‘betray’ the originating address. Some examples of attributes that are determined by the script parsing the body of the message include: The time the message was sent determines the age of the plant (a global attribute that controls how long the petals, the twigs, the leaves grow) the sum of the ASCII values of the “subject:” field determines how curly the petals are the sum of ASCII values of the from field determines the size of the beginning of the petal the sum of ASCII values of the “to:” field determines the size of the end of the petal the total number of tokens (chunks of text separated by the SPACE character) determines the density of the plants.
For the Architecture generator, all structures start with a cube. The message is analyzed character by character and according to my mapping schema each character triggers a different 3D modeling operation such as the tessellation of a face, the erasure of a vertex, the extrusion of an edge. Other attributes mentioned above are used to control the position, direction, color and intensity of the lights, types of shadow.
Marco Mancuso: Are you interested in the formal aesthetic result of your works? Or are you interested the most in the creation process of the machine rendered to precise inputs? In other words, do you realize works of art or artistic code projects?
Alex Dragulescu: I am interested in both of course. Nowadays I find it hard to separate them. When I VJ with Brecht, the code is foregrounded and it becomes part of the aesthetics. I find that developing algorithms and then implementing them by writing code is a very rewarding and very creative endeavor. I am not a code purist but in the same time code is not just a tool. I sometimes write ugly code to finish my idea. I choose the shortest path to the completion of a project. I like high-level languages and stand on other people’s shoulders by using their libraries. I am foremost an artist and I don’t need to write it in Assembly unless the conceptual dictates it.
Marco Mancuso: Is your code determined by strict commands to obtain precise aesthetic outcomes or is there room for random instructions and, consequently, random outcomes?
Alex Dragulescu: My projects are data-driven, so the data influences tremendously the aesthetic results. My process is a constant push and pull of modeling and mapping the data through code gestures. I find it more interesting to manipulate the mapping schemas than using random numbers or solely mathematical systems in order to create visuals. A lot of my projects function also as a simulation, where after initial settings are defined, the data is introduced through the system producing visuals.
Marco Mancuso: In the Extrusion in C major project you use music as an input, to be more specific you use “Trio C-Major for Piano, Violin, and Cello” by Mozart. Different colours represent different instruments while every fragment of the reproduced forms represents a single note with characteristics such as speediness and endure that control the development of these forms. I think this project is a sort of preliminary step to live performances, where audio component control the video component. So what do you think about the use of generative art and code in live audio-video performances as artists such as Lia, Marius Watz, and Drexto do? Are you interested in it?
Alex Dragulescu: There are a lot of artists doing amazing work with video loops, analog mixers, live programming, rule-based systems and/or data-driven systems. For my next VJ project I want to create a crowd-driven performance. I am trying to explore other input and decision mechanisms. Using both computer vision techniques and gyroscopic devices given to the audience I would like to surrender partial control over the authorship of the performance. It is partial because I will still create the platform, the software environment that will process the input/output. I want to challenge a bit the current VJ model of person(s) at laptops/mixers “video preaching” to the masses.
Marco Mancuso: Well, can you tell me something more about your software for vj, Brecht? I’m quoting from your Web site: “real time queries and code, server transition logs and syntax errors transcend their textual form becoming narrative deeds”
Alex Dragulescu: Most VJs use hardware or software tools whose interfaces are invisible to the audience. They are either physically turning knobs or virtually moving sliders to alter the visuals. Brecht exposes the process, the interface, and the code that generates the visuals, the parameters and the spam material which moves from text to image, from stillness to movement, from abstract to real. In part, the practice of live programming tries to address this issue. What is unique about Brecht is that it is using SQL, the database query language to manipulate visuals. The VJ queries a database of spam emails.
The result, the text that comes back is analyzed and is used to create objects, behaviors and graphic gestures. The console where the VJ enters text is superimposed over the visual landscape. The conversation with the database is thus visible. Additionally, I can write Java code to alter these objects and when parameters are changed their values are displayed. Syntax or connection errors are also displayed. The software is named after Bertold Brecht who wanted theatre to provoke thought and have the audience always aware that they are watching a play. He used to hang a banner that said “You are watching a play” during the performances of his plays. The console in Brecht, the software, works similarly.
Marco Mancuso: With “What I did last summer” and “Blogbot” you focalize on texts and words. You do the same with “Algorythms of the absurd”, where you took the material from Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” and from some communism icons. Nowadays there is a lot of interest in phenomena such as blogs, artificial communities, new form of multimedia connection and sharing (Web 2.0) but there is no interest in digital contemporary art and Internet society social and political efforts. Why are you so interested in spreading your vision of the world, your political thoughts, and your ideas on social life?
Alex Dragulescu: In a sense, all art is political. It is hard to create work that’s completely self-referential, self-reflexive and disconnected from the rest of the world. Even somebody making images with fractals for the sake of their beauty and refusing to make political statements still assumes a political stance. Consider then her or his tools, history and background. I do think it’s important for the contemporary artist to actively participate in a dialogue with society. I find it hard not to tackle political or social issues because we live in interesting and complex times. Technology and information makes it easier to witness the formation of new social and political phenomena. There are so many opportunities and entry points to engage such issues. Critical thinking, commentary and debates increase awareness and in the end benefit all of us.