Tech+Art Podcast: Alexis Andre

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OVERVIEW

Welcome to the new Tech+Art Podcast!

Join us on this adventure as we meet & speak with: artists, makers, researchers, designers and creators from all background and fields.

Our objective is to understand their creative perspective, dive into their workflow & creative process, be inspired by new ideas and their work – and stay one step ahead of cutting-edge industry developments.

"So my main line of work is: ‘How do we create those systems that will allow the user or the customer to just be part of the creative process?’"

IN THIS EPISODE...

In this episode, we’re chatting with Alexis André, a researcher at Sony’s Computer Science Laboratory (CSL) and generative artist. 

Alexis is originally from France, but has lived in Tokyo for the last 15 years, pursuing his PhD. Through CSL, several of Alexis’ projects have been commercialized, including a new toy platform called Toio. 

Alexis has also been involved in many personal projects that leverage creative coding and generative media. From the launch of a music and visualization app called Eon, to his daily art project using a programming language called Nannou and more.

Today, his work focuses around creativity & entertainment – pushing the boundaries of individualized experiences and design forward through technology and procedural generation.

Question 1: At what point did generative art, that aesthetic side of computer science become a realization of something that you could pursue?

[ 5:54 ] – There was this VJ club – it was the beginning of the early 2000s – we had a projector. That was the big piece of equipment that we had. And we were able to use all of the student parties that we had at the school to test whatever crazy pictures we could put on the screen. And at the time, I was more interested in the technical side of things, like how do you hook up a bunch of projections? […] And that’s when I started to learn Blender, my first go at this was trying to follow tutorials that were really sparse online (at the time) about Blender and it was so hard for me to understand what was happening with the software.

[ 7:02 ] – Coming then to Japan, switching to Computer Graphics after a few years, that’s when it started to get interesting. […] It was 2004. When you said in 2004 you were doing computer graphics research, it was only C++ and OpenGL at the time, there was nothing else. Why my lab choose Java I have no idea. But then I think I googled something like ‘graphics java’ or something like this and I think it was after 2006 – I found Processing. […] And then I just found their art, what they were doing with the software they were creating. And I was like ‘that’s really cool! That’s something I can understand!’. It’s not Blender in the sense like you’re not building this 3D shape, you’re not building everything and then animating them… It was really, they were programming with code, and then the code was making pretty pictures.

[ 9:35 ] – […] I think it took me 2 or 3 years, where I was just copying them basically. I was just looking at what they were doing. Sometimes they had the was code, sometimes there was no code available. […] While I was learning Computer Graphics at school, I was reverse engineering what they were doing.

Question 2: So how did you evolve from that point to the generative work you do today with the daily project as an example? What was the evolution from processing to the language you’re using today with a new tool called Nannou?

[ 13:48 ] – So I actually made 2 years worth of dailies using this hacked framework based on Scala, where I forced myself to learn functional programming to learn all these new concepts that were a bit foreign to me, while still trying to challenge myself to do something creative. And then I was kind of fed up with Scala because I was thinking it was not the best language for what I was trying to do.

[ 17:46 ] – […] Most people think that the software will make up half the work and will decide the final aesthetic of what you have been doing. For me, I use mostly the line function. As soon as I can draw a line, I am happy. I can draw a line in any framework, could be Open Frameworks, it could be Processing, it could be Nannou. The result is going to be the same, it’s just one line. So I don’t think the framework will influence the way it looks, the framework will influence the way you think about what you’ve been doing. […] So the final look of the piece will be completely defined by whoever is coding, but what you can code might be influenced by what you’re using.

Question 3: What is your creative process like now? Where do you get ideas and inspiration from? Does it always start with a line?

[ 18:49 ] – The really interesting part I think about doing this Daily Challenge is basically you don’t have any days off. That’s the point of the challenge. So you start to think about what you’re going to do today – all the time. […] After doing this for 3 years, I have a lot of functions that can do most of the geometry that you might ever think about. So it’s mostly about how do I combine those breaks to create something that is slightly different or adding a new break to create a new range of interaction that is possible.

[ 19:59 ] – It’s as simple as this sometimes, if you open up your editor and you find the code that was here from yesterday and you just tweak it and then things start to differ, things start to evolve and then you have your idea for today.

[ 20:57 ] – So my creative process is basically, there is no process. It’s just start, there’s a deadline at the end of the day, you have to do something. It can be very minimal or it could be adding a new function.

[ 21:53 ] – It comes naturally after a while. But it’s a training. After 3 years, I’m really confident now that if you ask me about any creative task – if you give me a week, I can give you 7 ideas. So will be good, some will be bad, some will be useless – but at least we can talk about those 7 ideas. We can iterate from those ideas so we can actually move forward because we have something to talk about, we have something to start from. I guess that’s the real goal of doing this, is to be able to get to the point where I can create ideas at this speed – even if it’s not going to be perfect, it’s going to be enough to start an interesting conversation with people who want to work on something different.

[ 22:32 ] – So that’s my key takeaway from doing this, is you should be prepared if someone asks you to do something really big. And the best way I know how to do this is just to go on, and go on, and go on and just produce, produce, produce. Sometimes it will be good and sometimes it will be bad. But who cares.

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Question 4: At a very high level - how does this creative side, and art, the outcome of the creative coding; how does this intersect or weave into your daily work when thinking about generative systems and entertainment at CSL? How does this creative exposure kind of influence your ideas - and maybe vice versa, how does some of that thinking change the types of ideas that you have in your generative work?

[ 24:10 ] – […] and I think all those generative systems are the same. Because, whenever you run the system again, if you take a different random value, if you take a different noise field, you have something that looks really similar in terms of the aesthetics and flow of the piece but the actual output will be slightly different. So you can identify the systems because they produce diversity of output that looks the same, but it’s not exactly the same. And I think that’s the key point here. If we’re able to create generative systems using whatever code that we have that allows the user or the customer to find themselves into whatever the system is making, you have something that makes a lot of sense to them. It’s really abstract, I understand.

[ 26:42 ] – […] Instantly you build value – because the system, the generative system – is a blackbox that allows you to input something that makes sense to you (the picture for example). And then it reflects, the final product it reflects, what the system has been doing […]

[ 26:58 ] – So that’s my main philosophy, my main line of work is: ‘How do we create those systems that will allow the user or the customer to just be part of the creative process?’, because there is one input that is open for whatever stuff you want to put into the system.

[ 27:32 ] – You do not want to play with a toy, you want to play with your toy. And as soon as you do this, whatever you’ve been dreaming of becomes unique and personalized to you. So that’s the core of the generative system for me. We can now switch from a world where everything has mass produced to appeal to everybody, but no I say we can mass design something that will be meaningful to you, but not yo your neighbour because it’s gonna be taking some information about you – that you will be willingly be giving to the system. So that’s where I think we can use all this generative background that exists here to create these systems and I think we’re going to see more of this, especially in terms of entertainment where we have generative fiction, we have generative sounds, we have a lot of stuff that is starting to be generated on the fly – we just need to tweak the inputs so that it makes more sense to you.

Question 5: So moving towards that goal and coming from the background that you have, can you talk to us about the industry at large like what’s missing? What do you wish existed? What would it take to get to a world where we’re able to build generative systems with inputs that are highly personalized for people so that the experience and the outputs of the experience are completely different from one person to another?

[ 28:51 ] – The real answer to this is going to be…. the whole manufacturing process that we have right now is made to mass produce stuff. So it’s really hard to do on-demand manufacturing that will be able to create whatever makes sense to each customer […] It’s not something that we’ve built our society on. So I think it’s going to be a really huge change in the soft industry where everything doesn’t have to be materially produced. […]

[ 29:40 ] – I’m thinking about the story that will know you’re in a bad mood and want a happy ending. Thinking about something that might say ‘oh, a friend of yours just went abroad a few weeks ago, so you may want to have a strong friendship story here’. So all this information that might influence the outcome of whatever story that is happening so that it might make sense to you.

[ 29:58 ] – So there’s this notion of something that has to be physically made is going to be really hard to do, but if it’s on the soft side we can definitely go for it.

[ 30:06 ] – The second part is going to be the change of the perception of the value of whatever we’re making here. Because you’re not going to be able to talk to your friends about the latest movie because it’s going to be different […] So we need to think about that we might be talking about how the experience was different […] So it shifts the value of the entertainment that we’ve been making so far because suddenly it’s not about shared experiences with your neighbour, it’s about your unique experience that you might want to share with your neighbour because it’s going to be slightly different. There’s value here because you’re teasing them with something that they might not experience because they’re not in the same state of mind as you are.

Question 6: So just to cap this amazing conversation off - what is some key piece of information that you would share with a younger version of yourself or someone else looking to explore this path?

39:00 ] – Ship. Finish as much as possible. Because, especially the younger version of me, would always tweak, would always try to do something better and never release anything. It was trying to make it look the best you could, without actually making a final piece. But you learn by just saying it’s over and knowing when to say it’s over. […] release a piece. Go to the next one, you’re going to learn something different, you’re going to be better.