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Digital arts produced by onformative reorient human perception of time

Berlin-based onformative, co-founded by Julia Laub and Cedric Kiefer, creates digital and interactive works to forge a relationship between human and technology.

by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : Jun 27, 2023

The human existence determined by the shift in temporal and spatial axis has been a topic of interest to creative minds. At different junctures of art history, the pieces of artwork have sown a seed of contemplation—a moment to ponder upon only to reorient the perspective of the surrounding. With the onset of technology, the experience is laced with a tactile value to invite the viewers to gauge the change embodied in the work displayed in front of them. Having been cognizant of the technological development, it has been a source of inspiration for Berlin-based studio 'onformative' to visually narrate the ongoing shifts and changes that time brings to human life. Established by Julia Laub and Cedric Kiefer in 2010, onformative harnesses on the ever-growing relationship between digital art and humans to springboard new perspectives on the notion of time.

Anima Iki, 2015, Onformative in collaboration with Nick Verstand | Onformative | STIRworld
Anima Iki, 2015, onformative in collaboration with Nick Verstand Image: Courtesy of onformative

Brewing from the intersection of art, design and technology, the works produced by the onformative continuously challenge and expand its boundaries. From the self-initiated as well as the commissioned projects, it has created a spectrum of interactive media installations, generative design and dynamic visuals to data-driven narratives—a result of the interdisciplinary and collaborative practice. Combining different disciplines and experimenting with new technological developments has been what Laub and Kiefer were interested in doing right from the start: exploring new ways of creative expression.

Meandering River, 2018, Onformative | Onformative | STIRworld
Meandering River, 2018, onformative Image: Courtesy of onformative

In an interview with STIR, Kiefer walks us through their interest towards the conceptual theme of temporal existence that has occupied the minds of artists since time immemorial. “We love to find out how approaches can be combined, to build interfaces and new solutions, which in return often reveal new ideas. In this process we are what we call guided by an emotional approach, we seek to create a connection between the human and the machine through design,” he says. If material and materiality have preoccupied the minds of the art masters to visually narrate an aesthetic appeal of their work, then this has been replaced by the algorithm of artificial intelligence technology in the current world of digital arts.

AI sculpting, Yellow Space, 2022, Onformative | Onformative | STIRworld
AI sculpting, Yellow Space, 2022, onformative Image: Courtesy of onformative

In their latest project AI Sculpting, Kiefer explains, “We explored the co-creation process with an A.I. learning how to sculpt. While we were impressed with the visual results we were just as stunned by the strategies the machine created. Both inspired us equally and showed us once again why we love to approach new technologies with curiosity and openness.” Anima is a sculptural installation, which consists of a giant glowing sphere measuring two meters in diameter. This larger-than-life luminescent sculpture is suspended from the ceiling, as if in mid-air, in a darkened room, informs the website. Given the nature of the AI art it is bound to no set of instructions and the viewers are free and open in approaching the artwork. With art projects like Anima, which was a collaborative project, they find it interesting to observe the interaction of the people viewing it. It was exhibited in more than 20 different kinds of exhibitions all over the world like VNA in China, in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, or at SXSW. There is an interesting tension happening between context, interaction, and the interplay of it all, including the viewers.

Meandering River, 2018, Onformative | Onformative | STIRworld
Meandering River, 2018, onformative Image: Courtesy of Luca Girardini

Kiefer confesses, “It is fascinating to see the visitors react differently again and again, highly depending on the context and situation of the exhibition. In the classical museum set-up, for example, the dynamic tends to be distinctively slower, with people slowly, carefully emerging the piece and interacting subtly, to begin with. Slowly warming up you can observe how the interaction becomes more confident. There is also definitely a group dynamic to observe, sometimes you see one person just sitting down in front of the piece and other people following, thereby suddenly creating a kind of campfire-like situation.”

Even if there are advantages of A.I. technology, it is not resistant to challenges. Regarding the most recent developments, the challenges they see of A.I. for artists are the rapid development of the visual quality A.I. can produce. To work and co-create with machine learning has been very inspiring for onformative. To support this Kiefer cites the audiovisual art installation Meandering River, which is composed of real-time visuals generated by an algorithm and music composed by an A.I. Spanning over multiple screens, the digital artwork reinterprets the shifting behaviour of rivers by visualising and sonifying their impact on the surface of the earth, reads the website. It is a piece on which Laub and Kiefer have been working for a few years ago, which is a beautiful example of the art of co-creating with artificial intelligence.

Cedric Kiefer and Julia Laub, who founded the onformative in 2010 | Onformative | STIRworld
Cedric Kiefer and Julia Laub, who founded the onformative in 2010 Image: Courtesy of Kerstin Müller

"Guided by the intention to enhance the emotional, complex and unpredictable nature of the visual aesthetic, together with Kling Klang Klong, a sound studio from Berlin, we developed the soundscape with the help of an A.I.," mentions Kiefer. Through the research of various computational design strategies, the musical composition was created using the Google Magenta Performance RNN learning model and a custom-built procedural system. “To collect training datasets, piano players were invited to improvise musical phrases based on the diverse visual sceneries of the animation. The range of auditive interpretations they produced served as a large-scale polyphonic inventory for the artificial intelligence to learn from,” adds Kiefer.

AI sculpting, cocreation, 2022 Video: Courtesy of onformative

Laub and Kiefer do not necessarily intend to have a certain reaction or impact on their work on the audience. Having said that, since the works carry a high demand for visual quality of the work, Kiefer is quick to mention that they do want to inspire and evoke a lasting impression with the pieces they create. “Our open approach towards creating art and design goes along with an openness to its outcome,” concludes Kiefer.

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