Work by Casey Reas, photo by Michael Underwood.



This Scientist Turned Artist Is Revolutionizing Digital Art

With Casey Reas, the work is all about the process behind what is visually seen, and the way something pictorial arises from a computer algorithm. Reas’ software, prints, and installations have been featured in over 100 exhibitions at museums and galleries in the United States, Europe, and Asia, and yet, he doesn’t let it go to his head.

On top of being a software engineer, a scientist, and a mathematician, he’s one of the founders of Processing, an accessible and easy-to-use software that teaches interested parties how to use code within the context of the visual art; one of the greatest inventions for digital art.

Reas is one of the artist’s working on this year’s Day for Night Festival to be held in Houston, Texas Dec 19 and 20, and if you are there, expect an installation that will blow your mind.

You work with digital algorithms to create visual art. Can you tell me a little bit about that process?

It’s similar to the work of a music composer. I start with a seed of an idea, I work it out through sketches, then finally, I encode it into a notation system. For a composer, the notation is often a score. For me, the notation is computer code. Also, like a composer, I fully experience the work only when the score [or] code is performed. I also work a little like a photographer. I use an instrument to realize my ideas, rather than using my hands or body. I make many variations of what I’m doing, like contact sheets, then I make decisions and selections to move forward. Like a writer, I express myself through language and symbols. I start with a blank page and I slowly develop and refine my ideas through writing and editing.

Work by Casey Raes, photo by Michael Underwood.
Work by Casey Reas, photo by Michael Underwood.

You initiated Processing in 2001, which gives artists and engineers the tools to create incredible interactive art. Can you tell me how that came about?

Processing started for two reasons. Ben Fry and I wanted a better way to sketch our ideas and we wanted a better platform for teaching the basics of programming to visual artists. The idea of “sketching” with code is to think through creating, to develop ideas through testing and exploring with quick bits of code. For teaching, we felt the existing platforms were either too simplified or too complicated (like Java and C++). We made Processing to be simple (but not simplified) at the start, and to scale in complexity as an individual’s skills and ideas grow. Processing grew out of ideas from our research group, John Maeda’s Aesthetics and Computation Group, at the MIT Media Lab.

Work by Casey Reas, photo by Michael Underwood.
Work by Casey Reas, photo by Michael Underwood.

How did you get into creating artwork through computers?

I wanted to find a new way to draw–to realize images that I couldn’t imagine in other ways. I became interested in artificial life. I wanted to create drawings that “emerged” from the page and were fluid, and in continuous motion. I learned to code in order to realize these ideas. The first works of this kinds that I exhibited were called Path and Tissue.

You create something, release it onto the world and then let that work evolve, it is different from painting or static art, you are like Dr. Frankenstein, bringing something to life and then letting it become its own piece of art. How does that change your role as an artist?

The subtitle for Frankenstein is “The Modern Prometheus” in reference to the Titan’s role in the creation of humankind and in bringing us fire. There is certainly something in the idea of creation and sharing in my work –particularly with Processing. Both Prometheus and Victor Frankenstein met terrible ends, so I should be careful.

Tell us something about yourself that would come as a surprise.

This is only a surprise for people who haven’t met me–I’m extremely quiet and shy with a dash of social anxiety, melancholy, and a heap of space cadet mixed in.

Work by Casey Reas, photo by Michael Underwood.
Work by Casey Reas, photo by Michael Underwood.

Processing is a technological phenomenon. How does it feel to have initiated a new movement in digital art?

There’s a huge ecology of software tools and programming languages. Many are free, libre, and open source tools (FLOSS) that most people have never heard of. On the other end, there are some deeply troubling and discouraging decisions made by companies like Adobe and Apple. In a complete reversal from it’s founding ethos, Apple has decided that you don’t have the freedom to write and share new programs for the computers and phones that you own. Adobe’s subscription-only move for their visual arts software tools places profits ahead of access and flexibility. Proprietary software systems are extremely dangerous for artists because artists have no control over their means of production.

Projects like Processing are a different approach because they prioritize access and freedom above all else. They also foreground the ability to understand software at a deeper level than point-and-click tools. Processing strives toward coding literacy. If you just need to color balance a photograph, high-level tools are the right choice. But if you want to explore new kinds of media–games, apps, interactive installations, etc.–it’s necessary to have an understanding of code at some level.

In practice, neither corporate, proprietary software or artist-led open-source software systems work well. This is a longer, more complex discussion, but we’re dreamers who work to create a new culture around software for the visual arts.

Check out Casey’s website here, and his Instagram here. The Day for Night festival is taking place in Houston, TX on Dec. 19-20. Besides work from Gabriel and other visual artists, it’ll also feature performances by Kendrick Lamar, Janelle Monae, New Order, and more.

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