Matt Kane’s career as an artist started in Chicago around 2004 when a Chi-town gallery started selling his oil paintings. Being channeled by the art market in a direction his gallery desired cramped his creative desire and style. He eventually left the art world for a decade to work as a web developer in the Pacific Northwest. There, Kane learned how to program and develop his own software to create the works he had in mind.
Kane says that he has always had a keen sense of colour that he developed from an early age. And this style with colour has been consistent and evident throughout his entire career. His software was designed to leverage algorithms of his own making and input. Kane builds his paintings layer by layer, making design choices on how the algorithms should interact. He communicates in colour and pattern, in ways he has long understood but which were too complex or time consuming to perform by hand using traditional methods. Kane likes to explore historical aesthetics with code; to do with geometry what great painters had done previously with oils. To quote Matt:
A great deal of digital art these days is created with the push of a single button. But I came into the digital space with the work ethic I cultivated in the years I built my own frames, stretched my own canvas, mixed my own paint, and could spend tens or hundreds of hours on a single painting. I wanted to discover what I could create by combining this tireless attitude with the exhaustive generative capabilities of code. An average painting of mine these days consists of over a million unique shapes, 100+ layers, and spend 12+ hours of my time while I make literally thousands of changes to hundreds of design variables across the user interface of my software.
This past September, in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, his digital art piece “Right Place, Right Time” sold on the blockchain for 262 ethereum, at the time equivalent to more than $100,000 USD. This sale was significant in many ways for both Kane and other digital artists. Blockchain technology helps distinguish an original from a copy and in return opens the doors of what had been a closed art gallery market for digital artist. As a result, digital art has begun to fetch increasingly handsome sales prices and the attention of more and more art collectors.
Thank you for being a part of this exhibition. I am amazed by the incredible breath of your work, both before going digital and afterwards. There is a consistency of style that is evident in your early painted photographs and layered resin works. That style has grown tremendously with the development of your software. The only difference one can see between your non digital work and what you are doing now is the accelerated and prolific growth. Would you say that is an accurate assessment?
This is an accurate assessment and it’s beautiful to me that you identify that. When I first set out on designing my software, one of the major goals was to translate my already established style into code and develop systems around giving myself the ability to rapidly manifest my artistic visions. It would have been very easy to just write some flashy geometric algorithms, announce that I’d changed my style and call it my art. But for me, the great challenge was to merge two disparate chapters of my life and fully update who I had become as a person and artist. 2012 – 2014, I was in a very dark place in my life. The earlier chapter when I was a gallery represented artist was long over. The chapter I’d just had as a web developer came to an unceremonious conclusion with some unrelated (to web development) events that occurred in my personal life, which led me to relocate. Both of those chapters essentially felt dead to me at that time. So I was sort of like Dr Frankenstein, collecting the most beautiful parts of my life and finding a way to sew them together and bring life and unity to what no longer functioned on their own. Sometimes it does feel like what I’ve built and become is some sort of beautiful monster. haha. But what’s important is that I was able to make use of pieces from all the chapters of my life and bring meaning to portions of my life which otherwise felt meaningless. These days, I reflect with great gratitude toward my past. My recent experiences in the NFT and crypto art community has changed how I relate to my own past. That’s been the greatest gift I’ve been given. Sorry for getting off topic!
I should also tell you, while I worked as a web developer for all those years I continued to work as an artist with physical materials, except in a diminished capacity. Mostly weekends and evenings.
There are many layers or chapters in our lives and it sounds like you have successfully brought some of the important elements of your life into an integrated whole, much like your art. I would be amiss not to mention that what you just shared has provided some new personal insights into your work, “One of Us”- Variation 1. If you don’t mind, please tell me some things about your approach to making digital art as well as what motivates you and captures your attention or imagination. How do these interact and relate to each other?
Because I created my own software, it only made sense to make my own file format too. Why settle for JPEGs and all the limitations that come with the previously prescribed paradigm? I wanted to create a way to record visual art in a similar way that music is written. My paintings are not pixels, but custom databases of math and code – just like music notation. They are records of every interaction and intent I have with my software, in addition to every output of my software. Math is future proof and allows me to re-interpret my paintings the same way a song can be played by any number of instruments or voices. When I created the first proof of concept for my software, I literally named the file, “Player_Piano.pde” because that was the intent– to record a drawing while I create it and then play it back. But what happens if you pour a quart of motor oil over the keys of a player piano while it plays? What does that sound like? That’s where the idea of introducing data to skew the reading of the painting database comes from.
Because I came from working with physical materials, where I might invest hundreds of dollars into materials that make up a single oil or resin painting, I wasn’t afraid to say that a painting database could take up a whole 500GB hard drive and that would be appropriate for the significance of a single digital painting. File size be damned, I felt the act of painting was as important to record as the final result.
NFTs really captured my imagination in 2017 due to their ability to provide unforgeable provenance that can also code in things like royalties. Since then I began thinking about how NFTs could change the relationship of an artist and collector– and so as I developed features in my software, such as the deconstructions, I thought about how that might translate to NFTs. You can see that emerge in the Volatility project that came out of Right Place & Right Time where a master artwork creates generative editions. And then you can also see how I provide my collectors extra experiences around the artwork they collect through my NFT portal website. They sign in with their digital wallet and then get exclusive experiences related to the artwork they collected. All of these ideas began germinating before I ever minted an NFT– but hooked in so well to what was naturally happening in the evolution of my digital studio software. And I have to credit the Rare Pepe project with where I probably got the idea of NFTs as access from because they really innovated that for all of us.
That is fascinating, Matt, the way your creative mind works and hooks conceptually into new avenues of exploration. Your musical references remind me of another artist, Ansel Adams, who saw the photographic negative as the composition, and the print as its performance. He desired others to have access to his negatives so that they could perform the print. To my knowledge though, it did not go much further than his negatives being donated to the Centre for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ.
You usually begin with what seems a conceptual approach to your art. Does your initial approach end up evolving or going a different direction? If so, is this direction influenced or channeled by the use of your software and other digital technology?
I always remind myself to trust the process. What that means to me is to remain flexible and keep my mind malleable and open to be influenced by chance. There’s a lot of serendipity that enters our lives, which I’m able to spot if I’m not distracted by staying on a singular path or preoccupied with trying to control outcomes. One must become open to the fact that our destination is rarely the target we initially aim for. I’m someone who generally will patiently wait for a vision or go fishing for one, usually during meditation or on a walk. I see everything all at once. It comes and sometimes I’m able to really explore the ideas within my mind and rearrange things until I’ve got them set. And then I get up and have to make a rough sketch of what was in my mind. From there, it’s a matter of manifestation.
But in something like my deconstructions, it’s completely by chance how a dataset will form a new work from a painting’s elements. That’s something I find very exciting because it’s contrary to starting with a specific concept– and yet yields what i think are some of my most visually spectacular works. And that was one of the original intents– can we visually rearrange “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” into something that’s both recognisable and also deliciously abstract? And what additional meaning can we bring by curating the dataset that influences these alterations of targets to skewed destinations?
Yes, what discoveries and meanings can we bring and also encounter as both creator and viewer with art? There is this field of unknown possibilities. When you are working with digital processes such as algorithms, filters, visual modulators and/or AI, is there a discovery process that is somewhat consistent for you in that process? If so can you please explain that a little further?
What’s generally consistent is that I write my own algorithms or in the case of AI, my own process oriented procedural AI. I generally will just work in a vanilla Processing.org window to initially write something. That allows me to be most playful and discover what mistakes might actually be right. And then later, I’ll work on hooking the algorithms into my software– or put it on the back burner. I have lots of wonderful algorithms I’ve written which are still waiting for deeper attention or just to be integrated. I’ve developed my own API language for achieving pretty straight forward integration into my digital studio software. Probably most things I do would be frowned upon by academia in both art and programming if they ever got to look under the hood of how I do what I do. That’s right where I like to be. Everything is a hack. Everything is a proof of concept that’s grown to become a mutant. But it’s fresh and it’s happening.
Are there at times some type of ‘synchronicity’ from the information technology side that leads or informs your creative decisions?
When I created Right Place & Right Time, it was complete happenstance that the painting’s layers numbered to 24, which led to synchronising to the 24 hours of Bitcoin’s volatility. Right Place & Right Time was such a strange creation because it kept telling me what it wanted to be, even as I was trying to make it into something different. It’s still doing that, by the way. It’s still informing me what it’s supposed to become. It’s a beautiful creative process to not fall into the trap of rigid target-based destination, but instead keep the creative process volatile. It’s just a matter of listening to what the work is wanting to tell you. Sometimes the artist is a servant to the vision.
Yes, sometimes an artist is the channel or conduit from a variety of stimulus or inputs that feel like something other. Why should we not expect that other to be some sort of AI or artificial mind? Does the technology surprise you, perhaps to the extent that it almost seems like a collaborator or its own entity?
I get surprising results sometimes. When I first began writing my software, one of the things I was obsessed with was recursive functions. This led me to design my software in such a way that most of the algorithms I write and hook into my software become interoperable with one another. This has led to some surprising results when it doesn’t lead to a system crash! But mostly, I feel like I’ll see a surprising result and then create a hook or elaborate on the surprise so that it can become part of my normal visual language. As I write this, I realise I really haven’t used my software anywhere near it’s true potential. I haven’t shown what it can really do. That often makes me laugh. I still have lots of ground to cover into the future.
Well, i can’t wait to see some of those results. I know the business side of things has kept you fairly busy. What has been the audience response Vs the the traditional art world critical response to your art?
I don’t think this is for me to say one way or the other. I welcome all responses in all flavours. I’ve been very fortunate in that people from all sides have been very generous toward myself and my work throughout my career. I’d love more response from all sides. I think most artists probably feel this way.
Are you often surprised and/or enlightened by what the viewer brings to the table when encountering your art?
Yes, recently a new NFT collector explained to me how they saw the more abstract days from my Volatility project as being when people are gambling on Bitcoin and diluting the true value of the currency. This agreed with a perspective I already had about the work, but put it in such a succinct way. And of course, to hear your own feelings about an artwork of yours mirrored back to you is a really special thing for an artist. It confirms that you communicated something to at least that person. I love that art is open to everyone’s individual interpretation, but it never gets old to meet someone who gets the angle you were coming from with something.
What, for you validates your art? Is it the price somebody is willing to pay? Is it a favourable critical response or is it something other?
What validates my art is my own willingness to put the work before the public or share it even with a friend. I’ve always been someone who makes my work for myself and is content if I’m the only person who ever sees it. This is probably why it was easier for me to walk away from the gallery success in my mid twenties. I care deeply for honouring my art, my themes, my subject with the utmost integrity. I’ve never cared for satisfying social media or create things based on the number of “likes” things get or number of “dollars.” I had the occasion of having it be suggested to me by my gallerists to create an additional number of oil paintings when I was 24 or 25. At the time, I was moving into more experimental resin works. I never felt good about how I allowed the market to dictate my creative direction in that moment, so lesson learned. That’s the sort of thing that I’ve been careful not to repeat in my crypto art career, minting NFTs.
If a work resonates deeply with myself, I trust that this energy will transmit and similarly vibrate with another person. If I show a work, it’s because it’s the right time to show the work. There’s usually some context to what I’m saying when I’m saying it. Maybe sometimes there’s not, but generally I do like to use the medium of time to further energise and bring meaning to a work. Blockchain has been great for this because it allows for timestamps.
What is your response to an established art world which appears biased towards art done by the artist hand? Here i am speaking about the institutional gallery/museum/education establishment that seems reluctant to embrace or understand the NFT world while furthering “business as usual” from their own end.
First, I have to say that I’ve had the great fortune of speaking with some individuals and foundations from the established art world, and I must say that they are kind, courteous, and curious. I haven’t had the personal experience of feeling snubbed by anyone except one occasion when I made the mistake of trying to explain NFTs on a gallerists’s Facebook thread. I got accused of belonging to a cult simply for using the term ‘paradigm shift.’ 🙂
Are they biased toward art done by the artist’s hand? Well they should look into my work. It’s all created by hand! Custom software that was hand coded from scratch over 15,000+ hours and 7 years in order to approach my more traditional practice. And then I make paintings by hand with this tool I made by hand. How is a painter’s set of brushes more significant than a generative artist’s keyboard as a tool to translate what each of us sees in our mind’s eye?
Things are changing and it’s very hard for some people and institutions to welcome change, especially when it might mean a shifting in the balance of power. I get that. NFTs are great at provenance. They’re great with distributing artist royalties and creating economies around artworks. They’re terrific at being unforgeable. NFTs are a technology that solves lots of problems that have existed in the established art world. The technology can be adapted to suit the needs of the many – not just digital artists. All it takes is imagination and we happen to be in the imagination business. So let’s build the future together. I don’t view this as an us versus them scenario. I see the question as being– how do we show some great use cases and really demonstrate the benefit that NFTs can offer? This is where I try to put my energy. And I think this show you are curating is a great step forward toward reaching these means. Thanks John!