An interview with New Media & Generative Artist Alida Sun | Method Magazine


by Sahil Arora 20th Jun, 2020

It’s no surprise that new media artist Alida Sun refuses to reveal being from anywhere in particular. Her art is much the same – ever changing, undefined, and all-encompassing. Alida gave Method a slight glimpse into her world of creation which involves many moving parts, quite literally. And for all hopeful new media artists, she gives direct and indirect advice, the foremost of which is that you don’t need a lot of expensive tech to make meaningful new media artwork.

Can you share a little background about yourself? Where you grew up? Early inspirations?

I’m from the Internet. Hand on heart that’s the clearest, most accurate answer I’ve got.

Full disclosure: even I have a hard time believing my IRL origins, and for the most part I am me. Probably accounts for why I’ve always been drawn to outlandish worlds like comics and animation, which were formative, life-sustaining influences. I thought about being a cartoonist or animator at one point.

I suppose I am an animator now, albeit abstract and interactive. Getting to participate in an exhibition with Koji Morimoto in Tokyo was a wild dream.

Were you always interested in art or did it develop in later stages?

Always interested, though I low-key tried running away from being an artist once the vocation finally made itself clear.

But art can take any number of arcane interdisciplinary forms these days, so there’s little point in running away

You’re currently based in both Berlin and NYC – why these 2 cities?

Berlin is among the precious few places left where it’s still possible for artists to make rent and have IRL access to the global art scene without incessant social climbing & bootlicking proto-fascist oligarchs. (Of course, fascism’s still a major problem and Berlin is far from exempt even if many refuse to face it.)

New York, despite the absurd stakes and utter lack of safety nets, remains essential in many ways. It’s still the most diverse city on Earth. It’s still home to surviving, even thriving communities & subcultures found nowhere else in this dimension. There’s deep love underneath all the other obligations.

For those who might not be familiar with it, what is generative art?

Generative art is a “new” media form that dates way back to the 1940s – Vera Molár was among the first to work with algorithmic systems & computers.

I cite Molnár since she’s arguably the most visionary and influential of the early generative artists. Nothing short of glorious that she’s finally getting the recognition she deserves. Even better she’s still alive and maintains her studio practice in Paris – hat tip to Joanie Lemercier for the report!

Honestly, it feels I’m finding out anew what generative art is every day. The history is far more illuminating than any buzzwordy definition, and I believe that history encompasses textiles, which are inextricably linked with computation.

If one considers the quipu of indigenous societies in South America predating colonization, these innovative widespread textile systems created from and for data storage and transmission of cultural heritage, then generative art very well dates back centuries. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if there existed similarly epic examples in Africa and Asia that have been largely erased or overlooked.

There are some wonderful artists today who are extremely technologically adept, yet also work with their hands making textiles that are undeniably generative.

In any case, I should say that generative art is not contingent on “what program you use.”

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How did you come about to commit yourself to technology-driven art? Machine learning, AI, regenerative tools are fairly new but you seem to have committed to them wholeheartedly. Was this something you consciously thought about or were you more naturally drawn towards the medium? What excites you about it?

Technology’s always been deeply personal for me. I never approached it as solely a means to an end. I thought it was mysterious, beautiful, open-ended. That wonder is still there.

Now sure, technology can be narrow-minded and destructive. AI, especially in the wrong hands, becomes just another mindless tool that glosses over and weaponizes inequality.

From an artistic and holistic perspective though, the general phobia of technology as inherently unnatural and harmful is actually quite arrogant, since it assumes that tech is only specific to rich, industrialized, linear societies.

Technology brought me paradoxically closer to nature. Working with growth algorithms for my installations and digital art debunked any anthropocentrism about about tech. Trees have Internet — seriously! They build wireless networks of data packet transfer. Countless animals modify and utilize tools. It’s silly to believe that humans are the only creatures capable of applying science and design to better interface with our environment and ourselves.

I’m far from a techno-utopian and I’m deeply ambivalent how many of these new mediums are deployed in dominant contexts. Especially the deluge of style transfer GANs oversaturating AI and predictably regurgitating everything as garish, homogenous dross.

But the arts can subvert the frameworks in which they exist, so in that sense I’m participating out of critical engagement, natural inclination, and intent to formalize my reality. If one has been rootless to a large degree and is a digital native to boot, virtual spaces can feel more intuitive and accessible than “real” ones.

The earliest works of yours that I could find on your Tumblr were August/Sept 2012 where you were experimenting with some 3D projection mapping. That’s almost 8 years ago – how has your art evolved since?

Haha wow, what a throwback – thanks for delving into my work to such an extent!

I must say Tumblr was another formative influence. In its heyday, that platform was so supportive of creators and defined the digital aesthetic and social discourse of an entire generation. Being on there definitely helped launch my media art career. They listed me in their official artist directory, frequently published my work on their radar, and gave me opportunities for which I’ll be forever grateful.

Projection mapping alone has changed so much since then. Now it almost seems outdated what with the rise of augmented reality and VR.

I still integrate projection mapping in my artistic practice, but in different ways than architectural facades. Now it often takes the form of interactive algorithms in my optics assemblages and immersive installations.

I can’t detail every single way my art’s evolved, but some elements I’ve incorporated since my first forays into media art include fluid dynamics, color science, and healing as daily ritual.

Do you find your medium restrictive or liberating? Why?

Liberating. Creativity itself requires restrictions to be rebelled against or expanded.

The material yields infinite resolution. The digital yields infinite iterations.

A lot of your projects seem to add an additional dimension for the viewer by making the experience more immersive. How do you think this more “physical” immersion impacts the way people perceive art? Do you feel it makes “art” more accessible to a younger audience in this day and age?

There’s a fine line between interactive and immersive, and nobody seems to agree where that line falls.

Both my interactive and immersive works are often conceived as shifting, open-ended experiments of space, processes, and people. Anyone who engages with it inevitably transforms it in part and brings something of their own self.

I learned early on that I have no more influence over people’s perception of my art than I have control over the people themselves. Which works out because it’s fascinating and hilarious what people come up with.

One exhibition goer insisted an abstract light installation of mine was pornographic and wouldn’t be convinced otherwise.

Another favorite reaction to date is verbatim, “what the hell is this supposed to be?” Answer being, “Not certain, that depends on you.”

Truth be told, I’m largely indifferent to how my work may resonate or not by age group, but during project development I sometimes find it helpful to imagine a small child standing around the art constantly shouting, “BORING!”

Do you still dabble in more traditional art forms? Sketching, drawing, photography etc…do these factor in and find their way into your more digital work?

Absolutely! I never bought into the binary between traditional versus new media.

Works on paper made by my own hand often comprise the data sets I use for training my AI.

Creating original, personal data sets is the only way to keep AI art from entirely succumbing to uniformly generic stuff more suited to wall hangings from franchise furniture stores.

Of course these original data sets don’t always have to be drawn or painted, but it’s intriguing and vital seeing the transformative influence of the human hand in ostensibly nonhuman forms.

Will machines take over the world some day?

Hahaha, nah – the next overlords should be way more intangible.

Maybe there’ll also be some carbon-based behemoths that survive nuclear holocaust and lack any frontal cortex?

A lot of your more recent works touch upon the idea of refraction of light through prisms and prism-like surfaces. Why?

Love of physics and natural phenomena playing in tandem with computational life forms. I find all worlds collide eventually.

Does sound/music factor into the algorithms you work with or write?

I adore collaborating with choreographers and musicians, so yes! Sound is the sensory data driving the interactivity in roughly a third of my algorithms.

I’m also in a noise band, but in true Berlin noise fashion we remain way too underground to actually perform in public.

Even though you said projection mapping seems almost dated, your works seem really cool. What are some of the most challenging surfaces that you’ve tried to map?

Thanks again. By far the most challenging surface was one I’d made myself, assembled from hand folded paper and installed with upcycled objects. I filled a gallery in Munich like that once. It took days.

Second most challenging would be any of the large open air venues. I had to learn a lot about ambient light, light pollution, photons in general.

How do you develop content for your mapping projects? Is it what works best for the physical surface and its shape? or do you find context and inspiration that is part of a bigger idea of your storytelling?

I usually begin with freeform experimentation unless it’s a commissioned artwork or specific to a heritage site. If the latter, then more narrative structure jumpstarts the process.

All these different considerations – surface, shape, place, story – play into the development but no single one of them is the ultimate deciding factor.

You recently completed 365 days of your generative art series? Tell us a little bit about that? Why did you decide to do something every day and how’s the journey been so far? What’s next?

Visual artists get rightly criticized as awful record keepers — an extra ridiculous foible given how easy it is to document this day & age. My daily generative art journey began as a simple effort to hone my algorithmic skills and get my ducks in a row.

Eventually, it grew into a means and method of healing. Artistic practice can feel indulgent, save for times of crisis when it emerges as essential scaffolding. None of us are short of crises now. My intent became to simultaneously transport and tether to a mindful, sensory experience. For me, it’s now a lifeline.

I’ll continue with my daily practice. I’m also working on an interdisciplinary play about extinction and AI that will be available through my Patreon. I’ve got a lot of secret of bodies of work stashed there — sequential art and sundry. What I reveal on regular social media like Instagram is a fraction of what I actually make.

Tips for artists looking to get into the field?

Join communities, help communities, share what you create, be considerate and kind.

New media art is still a very small world. Most of us working artists know each other and look out for one another. So it’s really in one’s own best interest not to be a douche.

Also! Never say never, but never take on a job just for the “exposure.”

What’s your setup like? Hardware / software?

Seriously, the most useful answer I can give here is that one doesn’t need new, expensive, or even remotely specific equipment to make generative art.

My setup changes too often to yield much valuable insight for anyone. Also I work in assemblage, which is an Art World-approved way of saying I improvise with whatever’s free, at hand, and oft deemed useless.

When I started out I used toolkits that were free and open source – Processing, OpenFrameworks, Pure Data, etc. I borrowed a clunky old 800×600 projector from a friend and ran everything off my secondhand laptop. All of my installations were built around junk — sorry, “found objects.”

My recent work has been with TouchDesigner, chiefly because it’s the friendliest, safest community nowadays. It’s awesome that they offer a free version. Pretty much all the media artists I most admire work with TouchDesigner.

My most favored hardware remains secondhand and old as hell.

If your computer crashed during the current lockdown/quarantine what would you do?

Haha, this actually happened last summer! My laptop went completely kaput, so I resorted to making abstract algorithmic drawings by hand. That’s what I did and what I’d do again.

Artists that inspire you?

Toyin Odutola, Julie Mehretu, Koji Morimoto, Hito Steyerl, Do Ho Suh, Mary Corse, Robert Irwin, Nam June Paik, Rashaad Newsome, Winsor McCay.

For more on Alida Sun, find her on Instagram, Patreon or Tumblr.

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