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Vainionpää’s inaugural NFT, Soft Body Dynamics 40, is now live on SuperRare
Text by Kate Mothes
When I was first introduced to Montreal-based interdisciplinary artist Vickie Vainionpää’s work, it was immediately apparent to me that she was fascinated by how traditional painting techniques, technological processes, and design principles combined together. As a curator and the founder of an online platform, I’ve been interested in the ways art and its ideas are communicated online in tandem with their presence in the physical world. When we met in 2016, her paintings were already beginning to incorporate these ideas, but something else was brewing there, too. That same year, she wrote her first lines of code. The key, it turned out, was not to be found in the paintbrush, but in the machine. Five years later, her work challenges traditional definitions of fine art by traversing the terrain where digital and analog meet.
Her work challenges traditional definitions of fine art by traversing the terrain where digital and analog meet.
Oil paint as a medium is considered sovereign in the canon of Western art history. It has the effect of immortalizing its subjects, and this is what I find so alluring about the relationships between Vainionpää’s digitally generated and manipulated forms, their arrangement onto a real-life surface, and now for her first NFT, a return to the genesis of an entire body of work. Soft Body Dynamics 40 is the artist’s first fully realized animated artwork, a unique digital painting comprising 8 soft bodies generated within the last 6 months.
These graphics are produced with the help of a computer plugin that randomly plots points in 3D space, then automatically connects them, producing unique, curvilinear forms every time the script is run. Then, in the transfer of these instantaneously rendered digital forms to the canvas, a fluent sort of transcription process happens in the seamless switch from digital tools to a traditional paintbrush, toggling between 3D modelling effects and mixing pigments.
In a painting, Vainionpää positions the forms into place, and imagines a subtle motion in their fluid bends, allowing parts of them to fall off the edges of the canvas or wrap around other forms. In video format, the animated soft bodies retain the energy of movement as they intertwine with one another, as if they have come to life. The organic nature of this movement and interaction connects both handmade and computer processes to draw out a sort of biological feature that reminds us of our own humanness. We’re compelled to consider our relationship to imagery that feels slightly alien yet familiar, like a parallel interpretation of ourselves.
Vickie Vainionpää in conversation with Kate Mothes
Tell me about the Soft Bodies. What are they exactly?
In computer graphics, soft bodies are basically any deformable object (as opposed to a rigid body which is stiff and inflexible). For example, a desk or a wooden chair would be a rigid body, but a balloon or a pillow would be a soft body. Their motions can be springy, bouncy, gooey, squishy, and so on. The interesting part about soft body simulation, for me, is the ability to replicate the physical properties of organic materials, such as soft tissue, hair, or even microscopic level organisms. I like how the movement and interaction between these shapes relates directly to the dynamics of human internal biology.
How are they generated, and how do you utilize them?
I rely entirely on the computer and its automated process as a starting point. I use a plugin that randomly plots points in 3D space, and connects them together in a B-spline. Basically, that’s a fancy way of saying that the computer scribbles line drawings on its own. The results are curvy, fluid lines that are unique every time the script runs. Through this process, I never have to worry about staring at a blank canvas, stressing about what my first stroke should be; I take my lead from what the computer creates. I have a full archive of generated forms that I can sift through to choose what I think could make for a dynamic composition. Once I pick a few, I’ll light them, often using coloured lights, and add texture in order to create something visually interesting enough to paint.
What’s your take on the relationship between traditional fine art and digital techniques?
I have always been fascinated by technology and how it is integrated into our lives. While I was studying at university between 2011-2015, I was completely drawn in by the conceptual net art of the 90s, along with the colourful vapour-wave utopia of my Tumblr feed. I witnessed a new generation of contemporary Post-Internet artists starting to emerge, and I was fascinated by painters who were able to flawlessly flow between traditional and digital tools. It felt to me that they were pushing the medium forward, and that the only proper way to reflect the world I was living in was to embrace digital technology and use it to augment traditional painting–to use the computer as both a practical tool and a creative collaborator.
And learning code really switched things up for you!
Yes! There is an intensely empowering feeling about knowing the basic building blocks behind a website or a piece of software. I remember the first time I wrote a simple pop-up script, just having this overwhelming feeling of pure joy. It is truly magical to create something out of nothing. In fact, that feeling is the exact same as making a painting! So, I taught myself how to design and develop websites (a side gig that I still really enjoy today) as well as how to use 3D modelling software. Up until that point, I had already been using Photoshop and other photo editing tools in my process, but to take it a step further and tinker in this alternate world of 3D modelling was very exciting. I am still learning; it’s an endless journey.
How do you decide which of these make it into your oil paintings?
A lot of my selection process is intuitive, but there are a few things that I am especially drawn to. For example, I like it when a line folds backwards in on itself, creating a crease or bulge. It gives the worm the feel of a human limb, like where the elbow creases or the skin folds. I also like when the X, Y and Z heights vary dramatically, creating larger, more swooping shapes, which I feel have more movement and are more dynamic than the smaller, tighter strokes. Overall, I usually try to select 2 or 3 of them at a time. A lot of the really interesting parts of a composition often come from the shapes interacting with each other in the same space, like shadows cast from one can fall onto another. A reflective or transparent material can bounce light and color off of one another within the scene and create some interesting forms.
As an artist, do you see yourself as a kind of translator between the different ‘languages’ or worlds of design, technology, and fine art?
That’s a very interesting question. I would not go so far as to call myself a translator, per se, but I am definitely influenced by all three of those worlds. I have been thinking more and more about the interplay between art, tech, and design, and how the NFT space right now is kind of blurring that boundary and throwing us all into one giant melting pot. There’s no longer a dividing line saying, ‘You are an artist’ and ‘You are a designer’, and I think that’s really beautiful. You and I both have this kind of love and fascination with cross-disciplinary practices. I think that artists have always been fluent in many ‘languages’, so to speak. And I think that only recently, the world is starting to accept that you don’t have to choose just one lane or fit into one box. You can be a serious contemporary painter, for instance, who makes gallery-worthy pieces, as well as, say a furniture designer. Or a shoe maker! Creativity knows no bound, and I love that technology is really helping to undo this stale, siloed way of thinking.
What does oil paint accomplish for you that a line of code can’t, and vice versa?
Oil paint never stops surprising me. It has this gorgeous shine and luminescence that is immediately captivating when you see it IRL. It’s buttery and smooth, and the gradations you can achieve are unmatched — which is something that always frustrates me when photographing my work, or viewing it on a screen.
And digital technology never stops surprising me. In 3D, the process of creating something from scratch, in a parallel reality, with the same physical, gravitational, and material properties as the one we inhabit, is almost like playing God. The screen also has its own unique set of qualities that can simply never be replicated in paint. For example, I’m still on the hunt for an oil pigment that is the perfect Cyan.
The two work in harmony. What one lacks, the other makes up for.
So, you and I have talked a lot about digital art, and more recently NFTs. When did you decide that you wanted to mint your first NFT?
I have been learning and listening to the buzz about NFTs for the past couple of months before deciding to mint. There has been so much hype and chatter online that it is sometimes easy to get distracted and forget what really matters, which is the artwork. I have never been shy to embrace new tools and technology. In fact, forever the techno-optimist, I am usually excited to jump into new tech without hesitation. So, it felt pretty natural to start thinking about NFTs. Incidentally, I had been experimenting with video and animation for about a year already. My introduction to crypto art and the blockchain could not have been better timed, it feels really serendipitous to be involved now, to bring some new ideas to light, and to take this as an opportunity to round out my practice by re-centering the digital as the central force of the work.
And why SuperRare?
Many of my peers, other really talented artists whose work I admire, have minted on SuperRare, so it seemed like the right fit for me. Check out some of their works: Emma Stern (@lavababy), Amir H Fallah (@amirhfallah), Matthew Stone (@matthewstone), and Petra Cortright (@petracortright).
Do you see NFT changing how you approach your work, or how you interact with different elements of your process?
To be honest, not really! My workflow and process is already perfectly suited for creating digital work. I think this adjacent part of my practice compliments the physical paintings very nicely. Ultimately, I will never stop painting, because, for me, the magic of art comes from fusing the two worlds of virtual and real together. But I will say, if I was not a painter, I would not approach digital work in this way, and it would probably look completely different. Likewise, if I did not use digital tools as part of my creative process, my paintings would surely fall flat.
I think that the greatest question of our time is how do we harmonize and balance out these two very real parts of ourselves, the digital and physical, online and offline. How do we take the best of both, and move towards the future with integrity? I look forward to seeing how NFTs continue to move this dialogue forward.
5% of the proceeds from this sale will go towards Artnome’s GreenNFTs mission to facilitate and incentivize the development of community-driven open source solutions to reduce the carbon footprint of NFTs.