In our last article "Why Love Generative Art?" we had a blast putting the genre into the context of modern art history. In this article we interview contemporary generative art prodigy (my words, not his) Manolo Gamboa Naon from Argentina.
Manolo's work feels like it is the result of the entire contents of twentieth-century art and design being put into a blender. Once chopped down into its most essential geometry, Manolo then lovingly pieces it back together with algorithms and code to produce art that is simultaneously futuristic and nostalgic. His work serves as a welcome (and needed) bridge into digital art and an antidote for those who see the genre as cold, mechanical, and discontinuous with the history of art.
We couldn't be more excited to share our interview with Manolo, his first to be published in English. But before we dive in, let's have some fun and deconstruct a few examples of his work. For me, seeing his work side by side with the masters of twentieth-century art highlights just how well it holds its own.
I see Wassily Kandisnky as an obvious artistic influence on Manolo. The two share a masterful use of color and composition and an interest in exploring spiritual and psychological effects of color and geometry. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Manolo's series of works titled bbccclll, which have all the rhythm and beauty of Kandinsky's early-1920s lyrical abstractions. Kandinsky said of abstract painting that it is "the most difficult" of all the arts, noting:
It demands that you know how to draw well, that you have a heightened sensitivity for composition and for color, and that you be a true poet. This last is essential.
Manolo's visual poetry checks all of these boxes and does it through code and pixels alone. His poetry is most evident in the range of styles and emotions he can elicit from the most basic elements of geometry. For example, let's compare Manolo's Kandinsky-esque bbccclll with a work that feels closer to Sonia and Robert Delaunay, Manolo's CUDA. We can quickly see how Manolo triggers a completely different range of emotions by shifting the color and placement of just two basic elements, the circle and the triangle.
Indeed, Sonia Delaunay sounds as if she is referring to Manolo's sensitivity to color and prolific body of work when she said:
He who knows how to appreciate color relationships, the influence of one color on another, their contrasts and dissonances, is promised an infinitely diverse imagery.
Another one of my favorite works by Manolo, ppllnnn, has a really strong Max Ernst vibe for me. The highly detailed and organic texture of this work reminds me of similar textures that Ernst was able to generate by pioneering techniques like frottage and decalcomania to introduce complexity and randomness into his own works.
Ernst, always open to surprise and chance, once said:
Painting is not for me either decorative amusement, or the plastic invention of felt reality; it must be every time: invention, discovery, revelation.
As you will see in our interview, invention, discovery, and revelation are also at the core of Manolo's art-making process.
Before starting the interview, I'd like to thank Artnome's brilliant digital collections analyst, Kaesha Freyaldenhoven, who acted as our English-to-Spanish interpreter and later transcribed the interview, translating it into English. None of this would be possible without her enthusiastic assistance, and we very are lucky to have it.
An Interview with Manolo Gamboa Naon
Jason Bailey (JB): A lot of generative artists either start as artists first or programmers first and then build the other skillset. Can you tell us a little about your background? How did you first end up making generative art?
Manolo Gamboa Naon (M): I was young. I was thirteen. But, well, I think in that moment, I started making images but I didn’t know what I was doing. I did not realize that there were other artists out there doing the same things I was doing. Only after many years and finding other artists, did I say, 'Wow! There are people doing things with Flash that I now appreciate in this moment.' I later switched to Processing.
JB: How long have you been using Processing?
M: Seven years.
JB: How did you learn it?
M: I had an orange book - Schiffman - during this time. But I also started studying design as a career. They encouraged us to learn Processing for a year. We had to learn how to program in the course. But during this time, I was more interested in creating interactive things rather than design.
JB: I am often surprised how people misunderstand generative art. I had a professor who told me generative art would always be limited, as there is no such thing as an accident with a program. He believed accidents are where discovery happens. I disagreed. When I was making generative art, there were often surprises when I would run the code, and I would build and adjust the work based on those surprises. I am curious about your thoughts on the creative process in coding art. Is it a discovery process with trial and error and accidents and discovery like traditional art making? Or do you have the complete outcome in mind before you start? Or maybe neither?
M: Generally, one has an idea, makes a first draft of this idea, and then begins correcting. All of the time, when I come and create, the most beautiful parts of the work are born from the errors. After a certain point, I believe that the maturity of my style was formed by making small errors because I was discovering as I went along. From these errors, I take an idea and it stays. I learn how to manipulate from these errors. The error is central to the work of generative artists apart from, obviously, the rules, and the rules become text that converts into an image. It is impossible to have what you imagine become what you see. The beginning is errors, errors, errors, errors. They are beautiful errors.
Manolo works in series across themes. Below we look at pppp as a theme with several works that Manolo developed over time:
JB: For me, your sense of color and pattern are what stands out the most. I feel like your choice of color palettes is very smart, and you evoke strong feelings through this alone. For example, you have some recent works that makes me nostalgic for the '80s, with shapes and colors that were very popular in that decade. Where do you get the inspiration for your color palette?
M: Color is a problem in my life. Realistically, when I began making generative artwork, I realized that programmers - I mean, I don’t want to generalize - but they do not give color a lot of importance. They do not have an intention. But in the past five or six years, I have been attempting to feel more comfortable using colors. Because it matters - a lot. And now, sometimes I spend more time forming a color palette than programming. My inspiration comes from looking around all the time. I look at a lot of things from design. Instagram, Twitter, all the time searching for references. A movie, an old newspaper. Inspiration comes from many places. In my work, I intend to evoke something - from a time or of a certain quality.
JB: What are the biggest changes you have seen in the last decade in Processing and generative art?
M: During the Flash epoch, people were generating compelling visual art. Since then there have been changes, but I am not sure if the changes have been progressive. I want to learn English so that I can start getting to know the world. I mean, there are many people who are interested in generative art on Twitter. Sometimes on the forums I do not know what people are saying, but I do understand the code.
JB: What are the new trends? How do you think things like AI, machine learning, and deep learning will impact the future of generative art?
M: I think there are many artists working in deep learning and artificial intelligence right now. There is a lot of great progress. I prefer to work with the geometry, not so much on the side of AI or machine learning. It does not interest me that much. Maybe one day I will start getting into it. But from my perspective, they are two separate paths. Maybe I’m just old. I am very impressed by the work. But I do not know if this is something that I have a desire to pursue.
JB: I know many generative artists, particularly in the Processing community, make the code for their projects open source for others to learn from. Is this something you do as well? Why or why not?
M: A few weeks ago I published all of the code for everything I have created since 2007. Absolutely there are some that don’t work, but everything I have created on Processing is online. For me, the code of others were huge learning tools, and it seems like it is a good thing to share these sorts of things. A few people have asked me for my code and it would always take me a long time to respond individually, but in this form, I can pass along the information. Although I speak Spanish, the good thing about code is that I can read it in any language. Code transcends language, and to me, that is beautiful.
JB: How have you shown your work in the past? Do you only show it online because it is digital? Or have you shown it in galleries as well?
M: Principally, I share all of my work online. I really like the idea of people sharing online. My works have never been for printing. Really, I prefer to post them online and share the digital images in that way. I consume art through the internet, and I prefer that it stays there. That the works are viewed online is very important to me. I like the movement and allowing the work itself to live. Although there have been some artists in Buenos Aires who have printed their works and shared them in that way, this is not the route that I would like to take. I prefer to keep my works digital.
JB: Where do you get your inspiration?
M: Only after learning about the Argentinian scene of generative art did I become familiar with artists from the world. Artists who inspire me include: