Adam Ferriss is one of those technologically-minded creatives who is able to put his ever-growing knowledge of code and processing to use building aesthetically wondrous digital art for the rest of us to enjoy. His images make me feel like I’ve just taken some psychedelics and stepped into one of those crazy houses you get in funfairs, where there are giant optical illusions on every wall and the floor keeps moving under your feet, except these are made using algorithms and coding frameworks and, for the moment at least, they don’t exist beyond the screen.
Intrigued and slightly baffled by the infinitely complicated world of digital art, we had a chat with Adam to find out how he got started in working with code, how much control he has over an outcome which is produced largely by random processes, and how he plans to take his work offline.
What do you do?
For my day job, I run the photo lab at Otis College of Art & Design in Los Angeles. It’s quite an ideal situation. I reap all the benefits of having a photo lab and the related equipment, without having to personally incur the costs of running one. In a few weeks I’ll be starting my MFA at the Design Media Arts program at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles). All the spare time in between is spent working on personal projects, freelancing and picking up new languages. I try to squeeze in some surfing (IRL) when I can too!
Who did you first start experimenting with code?
Around 2010 I took a course during my undergrad studies that introduced us to processing. I’ve been learning on my own ever since. Daniel Shiffman’s books Learning Processing and its follow up The Nature of Code were really helpful for me when I was getting started. Joshua Noble’s Programming Interactivity also has some really valuable code nuggets.
How do you make your pieces?
Of course it is quite different every project, but often I’m spurred into making by looking at other people’s projects and talking with different artists and programmers. Christian Zander of the blog house & bike, as well as Andrew Benson, among others have both been very generous in lending their collective ears and answering my questions. A lot of programming is building on top of what is already there, so I’ll forage for snippets of code on forums or google that I think are interesting and tinker with them until I understand what’s going on.
Once I have an idea of how something is working I also gain a better understanding of how to break it in fruitful ways. That being said, I also find value in being stupid/naïve enough to make mistakes that I might not necessarily have made had I known more. It’s a strange balance between knowing too much and knowing too little.
If they’re made using code, how much control do you have over the outcome?
It varies greatly from piece to piece, but most generally fall into a predominantly automated framework. With the 500 Years Away series, it is largely dependent on the source image you provide, but works like the ones in Crystal Display are driven largely by pseudo-random numbers. Deciding how much control to give your algorithm is where a lot of the finesse comes in. M. Plummer Fernandez recently wrote to me: “The old school logic of ‘abundant output’ = ‘artist must be spending ALL his time on it’ no longer applies. A creative coding approach that could easily generate 65 GIFs in a day, even an hour if not tweaking the algorithm or selecting best results."
Like he says, it’s easy to write scripts that can quickly fill up a hard drive with images, but most of the images will probably not be all that interesting. And then if I do get a few prime cut pixel drawings, I still usually take them into photoshop for some colour correction and curve adjustments.
Do you think the rise of digital culture will lead to more works of this nature?
Most assuredly, but also, digital artwork is not new by a long shot. People like Larry Cuba, John Whitney, and Lillian Schwartz have been making computer based work since the 1960s. The increasingly easy access to web-based work will hopefully only inspire more people to pick up the code editor. I’m really excited about real-time and web based works for this reason. Hopefully the barriers of entry for computer-based and algorithmic works will only decrease over time.
Are there still elements of this process that you’ve yet to explore? What are you excited to push further?
I’d really like to work more with computer vision libraries like OpenCV, especially for face and body tracking. I still haven’t done that much work with 3D, and I would especially like to begin working with real time 3D graphics, but the math can definitely be a stumbling block.
I really struggle with finding ways to bring my works into the world offline. Projections feel like an easy out and very immaterial, I feel like nobody really likes looking at LCD screens in galleries, and prints often feel like a nefarious way to turn a digital native into an sellable real world object. Bringing digital things into the world of materials is exciting, but definitely a huge challenge; I think this is likely a topic I’ll be devoting a lot of thought to in the next few years. My fantasy future art making practice definitely has ubiquitous 3D scanners in all my devices, as well as full colour volumetric/natural user interface hologram projectors.