by Vatsala SethiDec 31, 2022
The artist Ben Heim creates complex generative systems, that are visually beautiful, while still being intimately entwined with music and real-time human interaction capabilities. He was born in Sydney, Australia, but currently lives and works in New York City. While his works are largely audio-visual in nature, the artist has interestingly only held formal musical training, first at the Royal College of Music in London, and then at NYU, where he specialized in screen scoring. He is a self-taught visual artist, having learnt through inspiration above all. The audio-visual artist tells STIR, “Many different artists have inspired my journey. I am constantly inspired by the all-time greats like Picasso and Da Vinci. The way these artists rose to such a level of perfection in their craft is staggering. Stylistically, my work is often inspired by abstract expressionists such as Cy Twombly, or Contemporary Abstract masters like Gerhard Richter. In the realm of New Media Art, my greatest influences are Davide Quayola, and 404.zero.”
The artist begins working one of two ways: he either starts out with a purely abstract idea: a vision of the end product without a set path to lead him there; or a visual system that might look or behave a certain way. Or alternatively, he begins with a concrete form of interaction that he wishes to bring to life through a piece. There may be a musical or drawing device that he uses as an input, or an installation design to be populated with visuals. He will then typically begin prototyping the piece in touchdesigner (a node-based visual programming language for real-time interactive multimedia content), either starting out with his abstract visual idea or by mapping out whatever interaction source he has selected into artistically useful data. In touchdesigner, he mostly works using the built-in operators that form a visual coding environment. Sometimes, he will find himself dipping into what he calls “traditional” coding: Python or GLSL, in order to achieve certain tasks, but he tries to stay in touchdesigner’s visual coding environment as much as possible. Heim explains, saying “This way, I can see the different effects my changes are having on the final output in real-time, rather than having to wait for code to compile. Once the visual component is solid in touchdesigner I tend to move onto either layering further interactive components or to creating the soundtrack. For the generative audio I use my MacBook Pro, connected via Ethernet to my main PC, to run Ableton, which is dynamically linked to touchdesigner so I can send control data back and forth. Each artwork is different in the ways I connect the visual to the auditory component; sometimes I will find some loose parameters in touchdesigner to map to musical parameters in Ableton, and other times I might focus on creating an “audio-visual instrument” where both the visual and the sound are generated from the same input data; it could be a midi controller, drawing tablet, sensor or depth camera.”
The final step in the artist’s process is to decide how the artwork will be experienced, and be made available to be collected. As his works are generative, he has the ability to create many different artefacts from the generative patch. These might be high-resolution stills or videos for NFTs, high-resolution stills that he can sell as prints, audio tracks, a site-specific video renders, or fully generative versions to be experienced in real-time. As he is capable of rendering infinite versions of his generative art, he self-imposes a limit of 100 artefacts per piece, so that potential collectors know the approximate rarity of an artefact that they purchase. Of these 100 artefacts, he will create only 5 fully generative versions: these will be four for sale, and one as artist proof.
Heim considers digital artwork an exciting prospect as it allows him to exhibit his work in a variety of ways. While he has been pursuing more traditional group shows off late, he has not neglected his audio-visual practice at all and mentions that he has an exciting collaborative project in the works, which will see his NFTs paired with a new garment line, to be debuted at a fashion show later this year.
When asked about how he views new media practices, the artist tells STIR “New Media Art, and especially digital art is in a very exciting place right now. NFTs have solved the problem of assigning value to digital artworks, allowing them to be collected, catalogued, and assigned ownership. This was a revolutionary step for society, as the online world is gaining more importance and will eventually merge and blend with the physical world. NFTs solidify the fact that digital assets have value, in and of themselves, outside of being representations of real-world assets, and allow for the creator economy to transition from its current state to a fully digital form. This means artists are now free to create digital artworks without worrying about how they will be sold, or if they have a clear future. Blockchain and smart contacts are incredibly empowering and liberating technologies in art and other spheres.”
Heim is highly optimistic for the future and believes that we are just now on the cusp of a renaissance in digital art. Modern technology now allows us to create real-time interactive artworks, and he is looking forward to harnessing this new genre to its full potential in his practice, as well as seeing what others will do with it. The Australian artist says, “I am so thankful that I am alive at a time when technology has allowed for the creation of real-time generative work, as creating in this manner seems to me to be the closest humanity can get to creating in the way that God or nature does. Clouds, mountains, human faces, and waterfalls are all created through generative processes; through the rules of physics, of climate, erosion, and through genetics. We can now begin to build crude systems that mimic such abstract processes, and technology will only take us further into this new world of art.”