Exploring Stress Through Art: A Journey with William Watkins

This collection is a part of the Bright Moments Artist in Residence series for February 2024. We had a chance to catch up with William Watkins to learn more about his project and the details behind it. More details about the event can be found here.

Q: Can you give us an overview and inspiration behind your project?

A: In its original form, the project took inspiration from a poster by Bráulio Amado made for a piano performance depicting very stylized hands stroking the keys of a piano. It’s grainy and has a lot of character. I wanted to capture this kind of intensity.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s work has been in the back of my mind since I saw her collection at the MoMA last year; she also inspired this work.

Q: What are some techniques used to create the project?

A: It started as an experiment with a much more complex algorithm with lines constructed using differential line growth, traced as particles that sampled colors from shaders, computing fractal noise to produce a range of realistic brush, pen, or charcoal strokes.

At one point, I decided to use fractal noise as a background element to direct the eye toward interest points on the canvas. I kept adding components to my system, including ovoid shapes that attracted or repelled lines, making them tie the elements together and introducing tension or airiness.

Some of those early tests were promising, but the composition was challenging to get right consistently, and the parameter space was too large.

I was working on another series at that time, and the deadline was approaching fast, so I put it aside for a while.

Returning to it with fresh eyes, I understood that everything had become too convoluted, and I needed to shave off a lot to make a more straightforward system. That’s also when the subject became apparent to me. I went through a lot of stress to complete the other series on time; returning to those experiments, I realized it represented stress well.

So, I worked towards using visual languages that made sense, having rocky textures to symbolize the very solid and compressed nature of the ball of stress and caustics to illustrate the feeling of being submerged when experiencing stress, sometimes overwhelmingly so.

Q: Are there any Easter eggs in your work that you want to speak to?

A: The animation of the piece is evolving “indefinitely,” except that’s not entirely true. The floating point numbers used to compute the fractal noise keep increasing as a function of time and eventually become too big and numerically unstable, so things start to break apart and yield funky visual glitches.

This happens at different rates depending on the traits and seed, but a conservative estimate is after around ten days of continuous running. I could’ve prevented it by using a triangle wave function to cap the time to make it go in reverse after a week — in the unlikely event that someone would leave it running for that long — but I think it is an interesting feature to keep as is.

Things deteriorate with time.

Q: What is your story in digital art?

A: I did my studies at a software programming school called 42 in Paris, where some of the projects were centered around computer graphics, such as creating a raytracing engine, a voxel engine, using shaders to create 3d fractals, and a bunch more.

That was the part I enjoyed the most during my time there, so I kept doing creative coding as a hobby for several years afterward alongside my day job.

I was jumping from machine learning to C++ software development and then to full-stack web development, searching for my place in programming without quite finding it.

Eventually, I heard about Fxhash from a post by Matt DesLauriers on Twitter in late 2021 and got hooked; I realized I wanted to make generative art my vocation.

Q: Why are you excited for Bright Moments Paris?

A: Generative art has been a lonely experience for me. I work behind my computer all day and rarely engage with the broader community. I’ve always been more of an observer than an active participant online.

Then, last year, I received an invitation to exhibit at the Proof of People event in New York. Meeting everyone in person humanized the experience, revealing the openness and warmth of everyone within this community.

I’m looking forward to reconnecting with everyone and engaging with collectors. I’ve missed the genuine human connections.

Additionally, Paris is a special place to me — it’s where I was born. Exhibiting there feels like a validation of my presence in this space. I’m thrilled to be able to share what I’ve been pursuing with my friends and family.

Q: What is inspiring you right now as a generative artist?

A: I come from a technical background, so generative art is exciting to me as a technical pursuit on top of the art form.

This intersection of the programming and art world has incredible potential for new ways to experience art and for new concepts to emerge.

This potential is what’s most inspiring to me right now — considering the relative immaturity of our space — I enjoy seeing currents gradually taking shape, emerging, and some expanding from the purely digital form. I feel like more experimentation should be incentivized. At this time, many artists are working series to series without getting their head above water to look around and see where they’re heading. That includes me, but I feel like I’m finally at a point where I can take the time to do just that.

There are innovators in this space, albeit too few of them. Still, looking at projects like Klangteppich by Andreas Rau, PAL by Iskra Velitchkova and Marcelo Soria-Rodriguez, all the creations by Luke Shannon, the work done on plotters by Marcel Schwittlick or Licia He, to name a few, are the most exciting to me.

Compression is open for minting from February 8 to February 29. Collection can be found here.

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