In celebration of Unit London Web3’s online exhibition, Building Blocks, we spoke to James Merrill about his generative art practice and the influences behind the work he submitted for the show.
The central curving line in James Merrill’s Every Moment serves as the backbone for the entire artwork, guiding the viewer’s eye through a series of interconnected shapes and forms. The compositional fluidity challenges the presumed rigidity of computer-generated art and seeks to capture a nostalgic view of life’s fleeting moments, offering a visual landscape that is both dynamic and deeply human.
UL: Please tell us a bit about your background and journey into creative coding.
JM: I’ve combined code, animation, and visuals for around twenty years. It all began when I picked up a copy of Macromedia Flash and began doing daily artwork using its vector graphics tools. I started learning Actionscript to create websites for my art and soon realised that the code could also help make artwork. Other pioneers in this space, such as Joshua Davis, created art with Flash too. Using code, I could accept new inputs for the art, like spectrum data from my favourite music, GPS spatial data, or pure randomness.
Eventually, I stumbled upon the plotter art movement. I was deeply inspired by the physicality of using drawing machines and dedicated myself to making generative art for physical pen drawings. This fascination with plotters led to working with artists like Casey Reas, Tyler Hobbs, Aleksandra Jovanić, and Licia He on blockchain NFTs paired with physical artworks. Inspired by the fledgling generative art movement in Web3, I turned my attention to on-chain art, where I recently released a Curated project on Artblocks.io.
UL: How do you navigate the relationship between mathematics, generative code and geometric aesthetics?
JM: Maths is my greatest enemy, and it’s also my most used tool. I do not have any formal education in mathematics, so each problem I solve is a significant milestone in my understanding of it. I have engineered a way of implementing maths into code that works for me. It involves creating basic visuals of my problem and slowly using deductive reasoning to solve it. I am good at finding patterns, so I look for ways to understand the relationships in maths and connect them as needed. In Every Moment, I utilised this approach to create a solution for slicing, dicing, and bending polygons by curves. I had a precise idea of what I wanted this project to look like, and it required a few new tricks to execute. I built a visual aid to help me understand the problem and then iterated on the core idea until I was happy with the result. Ultimately, I borrowed some basic concepts from calculus to understand the shape of curves and the position of points upon them.
UL: In your work Every Moment simple forms of contrasting colours are used to create a convincing illusion of depth and texture on screen. What systems/ methods/ machines did you use to achieve this effect?
JM: I used a mathematical procedure called matrix transformations for this project to render a 3D scene in 2D space. Working in 3D allowed me to extract unique vantage points of the geometry every time I generated a new iteration by making the camera position random, almost as if the photographer was taking a candid shot. It also added a subtle amount of perspective to the scene.
In generative art, tying parameters together often leads to more harmonious results. So for this project, I let the coordinate positions of the elements determine their colour based on a curated gradient band. Pieces closer to the “camera” move toward the warm end of my custom spectrum and create contrast against the cooler and further away elements.
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James Merrill is a professional artist residing in Vermont. A digital native, his portfolio includes an eclectic mix of generative, 3D, and plottable art. His artwork combines digital and physical mediums using pen plotters to draw generative creations. Each artwork is the result of an ongoing exploration of mathematics, influenced by his struggle growing up in poverty and lack of formal education. This upbringing ignited a passion for breaking barriers by using visual imagery to educate himself on fundamental mathematical concepts. James’ work has been displayed internationally, with presentations in Times Square, New York. His work has been featured in exhibitions with Art Blocks and Feral File.
UL: How did you formulate your dynamic and nuanced approach to geometry?
JM: While creating this project, I opted to avoid complexity at all costs. Typically with generative art, more possible outcomes are good, but here I practised restraint and distilled my idea down to the essential elements I envisioned. I only used two starting shapes, and there are only two different patterns at work. Spacing is always 50:50. This created a pleasing and refined series of outputs. I aimed to let the sweeping curves and colour create attention and have the geometry follow.
UL: Do any historical art movements resonate with you and your practice; Do you intentionally draw any parallels between your work and that of the past?
JM: Inspiration for this artwork came from several art movements. I channelled elements of film street photography in both the narrative and visual aesthetic. A fleeting composition captured imperfectly on 35mm, film grain, depth of field, and colour blooming. Additionally, I used 2000s vector art and UI skeuomorphism (Windows Vista, iOS 7) to develop geometric shapes and overlays. Elements are curved, simple, and occasionally appear as frosted glass when overlapping.
UL: Are there any specific artists who influence your work /practice?
JM: For this project, I felt inspired by contemporary digital artists, including David Mascha, Ben White, and Rik Oostenbroek. Discussions with Harvey Rayner about the practical applications of colour theory in generative art also influenced my thinking.
UL: Some argue that generative art is hard to access since it requires a certain level of technical skill and expensive equipment. How do you respond to that and how do you ensure that your work is accessible to a wide audience?
JM: Generative art can be viewed on any modern cell phone, so the barriers to viewing it are quite low compared to years past. Small screens aren’t ideal, though, so to further encourage accessibility, I utilise pen plotters to create physical drawings of generative art. These drawings can be framed and hung on a wall, with no electricity required.
Stay tuned for more exclusive artists interviews from all the groundbreaking generative artists featured in our exhibition!