Nate Mohler is an emerging media artist who works with technology as a paint brush to build conceptual and avant-garde experiences through digital art. A 2019 UCLA graduate with a B.A. in Design | Media Arts, Mohler is intrigued with the fusion of conceptual art and technology to support connectivity and social activism with unconventional space and sound. His work focuses on eliciting action and question through digital mediums such as projection mapping, immersive installations, sculpture and video art. Mohler treats each project as an opportunity to evoke emotion, challenge thought, or support social change.
Most recently Mohler created projection shows for the Jewel Fountain in Singapore during a short stint at WET design. At the end of 2020 he finished two huge gallery installations “Rise and Fall” and “The Eventual Unraveling of Everything“. Nate is a sculptor, programmer, developer, artist and designer; Nate’s works bridge both the information technology world with the fine art/media art community.
Nate, thank you for your time and collaboration with our virtual exhibit of digital and crypto artists. You are a sculptor, technologist and art media developer/director. Your work seems to be geared conceptually towards audience participation and social interactions, while often also expressing ideas around information, quantum and chaos theory. You deploy installations and projection mapping with breathtaking and extraordinary results. No doubt working with Refik Anadol had a strong influence on your captivating early work ‘Red Room’.
However, in 2020 you went down a different avenue, life in the virtual world on a computer screen. I’m referring to your “Painted Cities” series that you released as NFTs on SuperRare. Here you explore the memory and dream state of a city through the fusion of motion and ink, using a unique technique that includes multiple forms of AI, including a neural style transfer that fused videos with ink, texture, and photographs.
The works for this series convey painted memories of Rome, London, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. You created these specifically to disrupt the fine art world and challenge the culture of collecting paintings. Your hope is that these pieces will “further the digital art movement and open the eyes of traditional collectors to digital mediums that are conceptual, thought provoking, and engaging even while living on a screen”.
It appears that, in dealing with life on a computer screen, you were still focused on connectivity and social activism. Also, using the videos, you worked with AI routines in a similar way as a form of projection mapping. Please tell me about your approach to making this series as well as what motivates you and captures your attention or imagination. How do these interact and relate to each other?
The approach is not complex but requires a series of steps and lots of patience. Primarily it includes a base video with a style from multiple or a single image. Machine learning plays an interesting role in the process to expand upon the ability to imagine. Some Ai tools help you recognise faces, some tools help you increase resolution; I’d like to believe style transfer is the machine trying to imagine. Much as a painter is restricted to his brush and his paint, it’s the finesse from the artist’s hand and the artist’s experience that matter most. Much of my motivation stems from the desire to inject more of the artists finesse and human-ness into digital art. More often, than not, as digital artists use the same assets, the same training and same programs, the works start to look the same. Though some tools are better than others, style transfer heavily relies on two very human-impacted mediums: photography and videography. What I mean is that there are many layers and many moments to inject artist-finesse and authentic human error.
First, I source a base video input and look for something slow with two forms of motion; a main camera movement and smaller secondary motion such as cars or people. Next, I source a series of watercolour textures or photographs from the area to use as “style” inputs. I then process the input video and style frames through a machine learning process called neural style transfer. Which attempts to identify intricacies in the input video and match textural moments in the style image. Often this experimentation takes multiple attempts to find the perfect harmony between color, motion, and texture. The result is something short of code assisted hallucinations.
In working as a conceptual artist, you obviously have a planned approach. Does your initial approach end up evolving or going a different direction? If so, was this direction influenced or channeled by the feedback of the AIs that you used?
Yes, life without experimentation is dull. Having a set approach and system is safe and secure but I always continue to experiment. Often the approach is directly influenced by the results from the AI, but also develops from outside influences such as mood, environment, and concept.
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?
There is a love hate relationship between machine and creator. More often than not the AI behaves in unwanted ways. For example, when you use AI tools such as the content aware fill tool, sometimes it doesn’t work and looks glitchy and abstract. The same mistakes happen but with artistic intention and vary with different personal goals and expectations. When I do style transfer research for a piece I embrace the mistakes and unexpected outcomes. The beauty lies in the unexpected tests. I often test 25 different methods and styles attempting to break the program to get an interesting and original result. For artists we strive for the unexpected results that turn out beautiful, those are the gems in the creative process.
Yes, they are. Do you think or feel there is a synchronicity from the information side of the technology that leads or surprises you? Does it sometimes seem as if the AI is its own entity? If so, please explain or talk a little further on these points.
Hhmmmm, I think AI is most commonly used as a tool rather than its own entity but using AI as part of the narrative and concept of digital art is relatively new and growing. I credit the rise in synchronicity from information, data visualization, and conceptual use of AI to artists such as Refik Anadol, Jonas Lund, Casey Reas, Lauren McCarthy and some of the other top digital artists practicing today. Refik’s use of machine learning to explore the concept of information/architectural dreams is probably the most influential and best applied use of AI artistically. Stylegan often seems like an AI with its own entity. Now we see techniques such as style-gan everywhere, even though Refik was the first to use it. Good examples of stylegan are through projects such as the Walt Disney Concert Hall Dreams piece, visualizing the past 100 years (12,000gb) of the LA Phil Archives. Refik has also applied stylegan to photos of architecture and NASA; re-imagining form and structure from a collection of photos to create a unique conceptual base. My first interaction with AI technology was probably with the Content Aware fill tool, arguable the widest used AI tool in existence. In both photoshop and aftereffects, it’s ability to remove an image and replicate the background is extremely useful. AI technology is everywhere in our everyday lives. It seems today that you can’t have digital and media art without AI involved in the process in one way or another.
It does seem that way and of course it depends on how we define AI tools, content awareness and what types of machine learning techniques are involved. 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?
Validation of art is an interesting question. I suppose we all have an individualized experience, and perceived popular opinion dictates the price. My favorite answer to what is art comes from the Russian director Andre Trovosky who simply answered; “before defining art — or any concept — we must answer a far broader question: what is the meaning of Man’s life on Earth?” I tend to agree with Trovosky, he further questions if there is a definite meaning for man’s existence, art would be a vehicle to accomplish whatever that happens to be.
Well yes, that is an interesting question and perhaps something each of us must answers for ourselves. There are some critics in the art world who have labeled NFTs as problematic, that it is a hyped and passing fad, a bubble haven of stock speculators. In March of this year, Mike Winkelmann’s, known as Beeple, NFT consisting of 5,000 of his illustrations sold for over $69 million at auction at Christie’s. It was dismissed as a marketing stunt. What is your response to an established art world which appears biased towards art done by the artist hand?
NFT’s have their own set of problems but they are helping solve a problem media theorists have been debating for hundreds of years. When will the art world catch up to the digital medium and collect digital artworks in the same way as paintings? I believe prices for Digital Art has risen to crazy high levels, often unwarranted for their quality. Yet, there’s still many amazing artists who deserve attention and recognition and the price they are getting for their work. Beeple has worked his entire life perfecting his approach and building a community, it doesn’t surprise me at all that he sells a piece for 69 Million. If you look at the traditional art market and Koons or Damien Hirst can sell entire collections for way more, then why couldn’t an artist such as Beeple also do the same? It boils down to cultural understanding and recognizing art innovation and creativity against money grabs. There’s lots of celebrities entering the space with over-hyped NFT’s that are worthless in terms of creativity and quality, simply bought because they have social status. I implore curators and collectors to stay open minded, and read about the work of Refik Anadol, Casey Reas, Jonas Lund, David O’reilly, Ashthorp, Bradley Munkowitz, and others. We are not going anywhere.