Tabor Robak was recently featured in the ARTUNER exhibition Crossing the Borders of Photography at Somerset House in London in May 2019. Concurrently, he was also part of the exhibition New Order: Art and Technology in the Twenty-First Century at MoMA New York. Robak has been described as one of the most exciting artists working with CGI today, I had the pleasure of discussing with him some aspects of his practice that emerged in the context of ARTUNER’s most recent exhibition featuring his works. For the occasion, he created four site-specific LED pieces – Skelo, Cardio, Endo, Nervo – and also exhibited for the first time Natural Disaster, one of his procedurally generated artworks.
Alisei Apollonio: Although your work puts the focus squarely on technology, the relationship between it and the human body is strongly felt throughout. Such relationship at times is represented as conflictual (i.e. Natural Disaster), at others as symbiotic. Could you tell us more about this particular facet of your practice: is it to be read as a strong socio-political critique, or more as an observational statement?
Tabor Robak: My work is really about the relationship between technology and the body, but also between the technology that I use in the medium and the work. I would say that my work is really about people, feelings, and the relationship to the world. And sometimes it’s just about natural experience and the way, you know, the wind moves for instance. And I think that here we really can see where internal and external content connect. The external content, which is the technology and screens, go hand in hand with experimenting on the software. I would say it’s a really symbiotic relationship between the body or society on the one hand, and the technology and the art on the other hand. Sure, there often is socio political critique there, but it’s closer to just working naturally with the materials: both the materials that are the technology and the materials that are life experience. So this critique emerges just inherently when you cross the two.
So you’re not really making the critique in a way, but it’s more of an observation. It reflects the state of society and it’s more or less what people experience, although they may not actively realise it.
Right, it naturally emerges. You know, I’m using the technology to create a depiction of life and so when faced with this juxtaposition the viewer can’t help but create a reading about what it reflects.
The relationship that some of your most recent work in particular has with painting is really interesting: you have explained how you perceive your work as a way of painting through contemporaneous means. On the other hand, CGI is very far from being a painting technique. Could you tell us more about the relationship you are cultivating between these two media?
You have to consider the default way of working on the computer, which, at least for me, is very systematic and it’s what the computer invites you to do in the way of programming and using math, but also with the way that you get infinite undos. This creates a situation in approaching artwork where there is so much possibility that it’s almost limiting in a way. In painting, you’re either responding to a mark or changing it, but you can’t hit undo three times. Of course people have many different ways they approach the practice, but on the computer you might have the urge to work on the exact same thing in five different ways and curate the perfect image. In my practice that’s an urge that I have, but I find that it ends up limiting my expression. I want to be more spontaneous and more– just expressive and commit to a decision and explore the idea. And so, in the work we showed in Somerset House, this is reflected in a couple different ways: the one in the back (Natural Disaster) seems to mimic the feeling of coloured liquid and the way that I programmed went off my instincts, to see how the experiment developed, as opposed to the way I would normally approach programming which is similar to having a thesis or a science experiment and then you try and execute it. This same process is also reflected in a different way in the four pieces that were in the alcoves: those works were baked video loops, an hour and a half long, and to approach those in the sort of traditional way that you’d approach video would have taken over a year to create. Instead, I wanted to apply a method closer to painting, which means I can execute each work within a month, because I am just going to keep adding to it, I’m not going to get insane about the editing. I’m just going to see where it goes and evolves and to me that has a sense of life to it, which is what those pieces ended up being about in a way.
Yes, I understand. So this is more about the technique itself, but do you also think you’re approaching video in aesthetic terms as a painting, or is there no real correlation there?
I would say that, yes, my work is video based but it doesn’t really relate to film. I think the way I experience it and the way I imagine the viewer experiencing it, is more ambient – like experiencing a painting or a photo or a drawing on the wall, wherein you can enter at any point, experience it however you prefer. It’s not so much about a sequence of events where you need to have seen a previous event to know what’s currently going on. In fact, there is really no knowing what is going on within the work because the work is just a visual experience in the moment.
I would like to go back on something you already discussed in a 2015 Artforum interview, that is, how the images you create look so also because the medium you use lends itself to those aesthetics (specifically, I believe you made the example of shiny surfaces). Are you still driven by this “medium-led guiding principle”?
This is still really true, there are two kinds of threads I use for aesthetic: what I am experiencing and the experience of the technology. So this is really about the thread of the technology. And so this is still 100% the way that this portion of the inspiration comes from. For example, with the LED pieces that we showed, the four in the alcoves (Cardio, Nervo, Endo, Skelo), I specifically knew that I wanted to experiment with LED technology, and that doing this I asked myself, ‘okay, what makes these LED screens unique? What is their true nature?’ LED screens are extremely bright, they have these big chunky pixels and can also be constructed into any shape, so they’re not defined by the standard 16:9 TV ratio. Therefore I decided whatever I was going to create needed to fit all these criteria: they needed to be a unique shape, the vertical shape that we got, they needed to address the unique chunky pixels and their characteristic brightness. I knew I had to create something bright and colourful that highlighted the importance of the LED’s unique features.
This is for the LED pieces, but what about the works that are not on LED, for instance Natural Disaster. Is that something that can be influenced by the medium itself or not?
That piece is more related to programming, and as that’s a language I’m very fluent in, I’m able to observe what are the most basic elements we can work with there. One of these, for instance, is an X and Y graph, with the vertical and horizontal axis, and within the programming space I can define a point anywhere on the screen very easily with a value between one and negative one. And it’s just so natural – or primitive – within the programme to choose random values between -1 and 1, then generate a whole realm of movement out of it. So for example, when that piece is moving straight up, it has a Y value of one, or when it is falling to the left it has an X value of negative one. So I asked the programme to perform its most basic actions, making sure the material is speaking in its most primitive way.
It’s really interesting that you describe being influenced by the inherent guidelines of the hardware in the case of the LEDs and the software in the case of Natural Disaster.
You know in art history class, people describe sculptors when they are approaching a block of marble, they’re looking for the sculpture that’s already inside of the marble and that’s how I feel about this sometimes.
One thing that really fascinates me in your work is the simultaneous sense of avantgarde and nostalgia. On the one hand, we have the impression to be looking at some object or image from the future, on the other the whole aesthetic is based on that of the obsolete CRT screensaver. How did you come to work with this particular aesthetic?
The avant garde is the technology, but the nostalgia is the way that the content resides in the artwork; I select the images and the interior content, the meaning of the work is about emotion, lived experience, society and these types of things. Then it makes sense to me that the visual has a relationship to nostalgia because I experienced technology and screens when I was very young. Childhood is when you are building your vocabulary, how you speak and how you express yourself, so that’s the closest to my natural language on the screen.
So, do you think maybe the people who are in their late 20s and 30s, when they think about technology they don’t really think about iPhones but more about old school computers, TVs and video games?
I think I relate to that as well: I think of my old, huge computer screen and its screensavers from when I was ten years old. And it is really interesting that you can spark this feeling of nostalgia without necessarily having a storyline of any kind. It’s just more about aesthetics in a way. For instance, in your LED works created for the Deadhouse there wasn’t storyline per se, but with their tamagotchi interface aesthetic, without a need for a proper narration, you were able to spark that kind of feeling of nostalgia and belonging to a certain generation.
Yeah, any of those old screensavers are very much in line with this approach towards video-based works that’s more akin to painting. It’s just there: ready for you to look at it whenever you wish.
Another consideration still partially linked to the appearance of your work, but that is actually rather about thematics: the aesthetics of your work, to me, is reminiscent of cyberpunk. I recently read an article on this subject in The Guardian which, first points out that cyberpunk aesthetics have not really changed since the 1980s, and then postulates that this is because the world it depicts is the one we still live in, “where corporate power was proliferating and expanding across the globe, inequality was growing, and AI, computers, and other new forms of technology offered both the promise of liberation and the potential for new and dangerous forms of domination.” I was wondering if you feel a connection to this current at all, and what you think about its potential for political reflection?
I understand the relationship to cyberpunk and I would say the aesthetic hasn’t changed at all because the overall shape of the world hasn’t changed since the time it was conceived. I think the main thing is that the cyberpunk appearance is bringing to the surface what is currently hidden. Right now we have a lot of these technologies, but it looks the way it always has and that’s just the way it will be. I don’t think the streets will ever be covered in police holograms or whatever, but it’s easy to see that more as a metaphor for what actually is there, we have all this surveillance technology but it’s just built in subtly so you don’t even know it’s there.
Right, so like you said, it’s externalising something that is already there, but hidden. And this article that I read was, in a way, questioning the potential of this aesthetic, arguing that it has been around for too long and it is not really doing the job very well. I was wondering what you thought about it? If you think it has the potential for making people think or act on anything?
Well, I don’t know what inherently has the ability to make people think or act, but I think that it’s [cyberpunk is] really enjoying a moment in popular culture because we are relating to it in a certain way. And just as a tangent to speak about American culture, before cyberpunk was trendy, it was the same thing with zombies. I think that in American culture, this response to the Middle East where we hear about all the violence, but nothing is depicted on screen. The violence is so removed from our actual experience, but we know what is happening. And so what subconsciously emerged from the woodwork is all this work about, or resembling, dead bodies coming to life in a way. And so now what I think is happening in the culture is we are experiencing this encroaching corporate technology in our everyday life, but like the war, everything is hidden. It’s hidden in these little devices covered in fabric and have these smiley faces on them. And again, cyberpunk is bringing to the surface the horror of what we are not usually experiencing.
Self generating artworks are an important, and extremely interesting, part of your practice. They prod the boundaries between art and technology, between the powers of the creator and the creation itself. An artwork that chooses its own life trajectory is as far as anyone has come to realising the Pygmalion myth (or Frankenstein’s), whereby the artist breathes life into his creations. This is an extremely broad topic, but I’d be curious to hear what do you think are the potentialities of employing this new medium (i.e. what subjects are best explored through its lens?)?
I think that we’re going to see this enter our society in a totally ubiquitous way, from cooking to home interiors to politics, and I think it’s just going to become another tool used as casually as you would use a hammer or glue. Especially once it becomes very easy to access and interface with. I think that it’s really hard to say what it will reveal, because in the way I use programming within my works and create self gerative works, AI is put within a box. In a lot of cases AI will stay in a box unless we’re willing to take it to a place everybody is scared to take it. So eventually when we have all this AI making artwork and so on, it’s ultimately just going to be creating a picture of the system itself to some degree, because of the box that it’s been put in.
I imagine that the way of programming the procedurally generated works is quite different from the way of working on the “finite” ones. Are there some topics that you choose specifically to work with one method or the other?
I think the choice of method emerges hand in hand with the choice of topic, and then, over its development often it swings back and forth between the different options. For instance, this is exactly what happened with the LED pieces we just exhibited in Somerset House. As I came up with the idea, I realised it would work well as a video loop: for the way it interfaces with the LED, how it’s easier to manage hardware-wise, to fitting perfectly with the concept. I had conceived of the LED screens as vessels: coffins or sarcophaguses that are holding these ideas. That’s why they are looped videos, because the screens are where the “bodies” are being preserved. Whereas, with Natural Disaster, which is procedurally generated, the way it’s generated has this element of the unexpected which then thematically resonates with the idea of a tsunami.
The topic of AI (can we call your self-generating works AI?) is so fascinating in large part because there are relatively few people who actually understand it, although it’s ubiquitous in everyday discourse. In fact, often it seems to have the same appeal of dark magic: omnipotent, unknowable and dangerous. Is your work ever a commentary on that and if yes, how so?
I think that you can only describe these pieces having Artificial Intelligence by way of using it as a metaphor. There is nothing out there right now that has real AI, it’s all simulated AI or networks. Real AI would be able to recursively improve itself and pulling new information and that’s something as a society we haven’t decided if we are okay with yet. And my pieces that are procedurally generated, I tend to think of it more as programming a robot within an artist’s studio. So, a robot has these arms and it can grab the paint or pencils, and it can make scratchy lines with the pencils, and it can make sweeping lines with the paint, and it can change colors whenever it wants, and it can get a new sheet of paper whenever it wants, and these are all things that I can program the software to do. For example, changing the paint as a metaphor would be a little bit of code that says every minute flip a coin 10 times and if you get heads five times then change the color to red. Or if you get ‘x’ six times change the color to yellow. And that’s the basis of it: it is giving the software opportunities to make random decisions based on what it’s done before about the next type of thing it will do.
That’s actually a really interesting metaphor, because I didn’t know it worked like that. And I’m probably not the only one: I think most people don’t understand how basic and bridled these technologies we perceive as AI can be. Conversely, they really feel like magic in the same way that probably in the Stone Age fire felt like magic, because even if it’s not, even if it is much simpler than we think it is, it really feels like something we can’t even begin to comprehend. So it is actually pretty funny that it’s not really able to think for itself. And it’s just based on probability and decisions that you, the artist, has made. And also it’s really interesting what you said before about AI being in a box and therefore it’s just going to talk about the system itself.
Yeah, it’s the equivalent of how all paintings end up making pictures of the paintbrushes because it’s just a record of the marks of the bristles.