Exploring the digital arts practice of retro-inspired artist and musician, Noel Apitta

Ugandan visual artist and composer, Noel Apitta, talks ‘practice and inspiration’ as we examine his art that bridges the gap between the old and the new.

by Manu SharmaPublished on : Sep 27, 2021

An interesting paradigm that has occurred as a result of the internet age is the massive proliferation of freely available information online. While this effect of decentralisation serves to levy a much-needed threat at knowledge-monopolies, a more pertinent by-product of this is the equally great proliferation of independent artists, musicians and practitioners of all stripe, who, building upon information gleaned at sites such as YouTube, further push the craft of their calling to heights greater still. Noel Apitta, who is a generative artist, composer and creative technologist hailing from Kampala, Uganda, is a perfect example of this, and humorously tells STIR, “Where art, design and music are concerned, I am mostly self-taught, or at the very least a graduate of the great and incomparable University of YouTube.” He continues, describing the early stages of his journey, saying “much of my journey actively interacting with art and design began with music. It wasn't till I tried my hand at playing guitars in my high school's band that I saw myself as someone who could intentionally choose to dream up an idea and bring it into reality. In that world, I found a voice to communicate my internal landscape that I didn't know I had before.”

ACHROMALISA | Noel Apitta | STIRworld
Achromalisa by Noel Apitta Image: Noel Apitta

The artist explains that his practice as a visual artist and a creative technologist grew out of and around that initial engagement with music. He began his professional life as a stage and lighting designer for small band events, and eventually moved into graphic design as a means to create print and digital collaterals for those very same gigs. This was a slippery slope that led Apitta into the world of motion graphics, and as of 2020, generative art, which is where the bulk of his practice sits now. He describes his practice as ‘Analog-Digital Translation’; that being a process by which he takes real-world quantities such as music, time and sensory data, and weaves them into abstract, audio-visual vignettes. Largely using the real-time programming visual language TouchDesigner, he mentions he found he held a surprising affinity and appreciation for it as well as for generative or code-based art once the pandemic gave him the time necessary to delve deep into this world. Apitta combines TouchDesigner with Ableton Live and also often involves other programming languages such as GLSL and Python in his repertoire. He has dubbed his daily project ‘GENERATIVE DREAMS’, and has thus far created over 370 animated abstract vignettes for it, set to nearly 200 accompanying pieces of music.

Tesselate | Noel Apitta | STIRworld
Tesselate by Noel Apitta Image: Noel Apitta

The artist tells STIR, “I am heavily inspired by what I would call the “manufactured nostalgia” of 80s American movies and the Synthwave aesthetic that they have inspired. I am also a big fan of Japanese Anime like AKIRA and Ghost In the Shell; anything cyberpunk really.” Apitta’s tastes are rather fascinating, but do not always come through, in their entirety, in his work. In fact, one may not think ‘cyberpunk’ at all when exploring his oeuvre. This is by no means an indictment of any sort. Rather, an observation that the artist has likely absorbed these into his thought process, and is working towards developing an entirely original aesthetic, independent of the more recognisable motifs of the artistic movements mentioned above. However, one element Apitta’s work may have in common with Synthwave, which is deeply entrenched in 80s pop culture, is the “nostalgia loop” quality his pieces possess, as he describes it himself. Apitta explains, “The visuals that usually appeal to me incorporate desaturated colours, glows and some element of analogue/digital degradation and distortion, like the VHS tapes, CRT Televisions, glitch aesthetics, film grain.” Interestingly, while the sense of manufactured nostalgia referenced above is certainly palpable in the artist’s work, it is, in fact the Synthwave movement that has mutated to a point that it no longer carries quite the same visual qualities that the contemporary styles and artistic tendencies of the 80s did. Perhaps one may see some of Apitta’s work as bridging this gap, and yet, also moving in its own direction.

CONTRAILS | Noel Apitta | STIRworld
Contrails Image: Noel Apitta

An interesting comparison that some might make when engaging with Apitta’s work is the relationship some of his constructs may have with architectural photographs or 3D models. He agrees but contextualises this observation, saying “I would be inclined to agree that, on some level, architecture does influence some of my visual choices. In all honesty though, it's more likely that I am inspired by the architecture present in fictional works like Ghost In The Shell and Blade-Runner”. These are works of science fiction, couched deeply within the wider visual idiom of cyberpunk; all sprawling cities and impossible angles, and some even see them as depictions of ‘megacities’ or cities of gargantuan sizes that do not exist as of yet in our world. With this point of reference in mind, it becomes clear that the artist has, in fact taken a great deal of inspiration from these works, yet interestingly, wherever they may appear, his pieces always feel as if they depict a small portion of that much larger whole; in a sense, a microcosm of a macrocosm.

A still from ‘SHOJI’, a piece that perfectly illustrates the aforementioned aspect of Apitta’s work | Noel Apitta| STIRworld
A still from SHOJI, a piece that perfectly illustrates the aforementioned aspect of Apitta’s work Image: Noel Apitta

Thus far, Apitta has exhibited his work twice. These have been at a local exhibition in the city of Jinja in Uganda as well as a responder to the open call for the Creative Code Festival presented by Lightbox NYC. Reflecting back on these, he says “While it felt pretty great to have my work exhibited in New York, I must admit that I found the Jinja exhibition to be somewhat more fulfilling.” Thinking towards the future, Apitta mentions that he is very interested in incorporating more interactivity into his work. He also wishes to branch out into interactive and immersive storytelling; primarily wishing to communicate in a way that demands active involvement from his audience. More than anything, the artist is eager to begin collaborating with other practitioners, and one wonders what new and exciting creative visions this will birth. Apitta ends the interview with a humble and profound admission; one any creative can take a lot away from: he simply says that he has a lot yet to learn, and an equal amount to teach.

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