Unit London Web3 is delighted to present Liminal Space, our first in a series of online exhibitions spotlighting the diverse, cutting-edge practices of international digital artists working today.
Liminal Space presents works by contemporary female digital artists Linda Dounia and Melissa Wiederrecht, who through generative practices explore spaces of ambiguity through blurred, amorphous shapes layered with personal experience.
Liminal Space addresses the condition of being in-between, untethered to a necessary definition, and consequent assumed experiences of identity. This space straddles binaries of gendered experience, presenting rare feminine perspectives on the experience of creating generative art. With utopian vision, both artists examine the ways in which in-between states can be inhabited, and the concept of liminality can be reclaimed between the binary.
Generative art is, by definition, allied to the condition of uncertainty, as the artist writes the code, formulating its rules, for the ultimate result to be as unexpected to the artist as to the viewer. The randomness of each output positions the artist in a state of both vulnerability and rebellion. Marrying the nature of the medium with the aesthetic qualities of their work, both Dounia and Wiederrecht explore randomness by employing indefinite shapes which oscillate between formation and disintegration.
Both Dounia and Wiederrecht’s works are coded with their own histories and lived experiences. Wiederrecht, originally born in the United States, moved to Saudi Arabia in 2015, and draws upon her own cross-cultural history with Islamic and Sudanese influences in her work. Inspired by Islamic calligraphy and architecture, yet formed from code, Wiederrecht’s works combine emerging digital technology with ancient histories, creating “highly dichotomous” works which explore the assumed, collective identities which Wiederrecht loves.
Linda Dounia describes her practice as an “archive of memories” which reflect her experiences. Creating her work from AI technology known as GANs, Dounia creates a data set for the generated outputs from her own original works – acrylic paintings, ink marker drawings and charcoal calligraphy. These works form the basis for the GAN to create outputs recalling the aesthetic qualities and personal memories of Dounia’s works in new and unexpected formations. Much like the feedback loop between neural networks so inherent to GAN technology, Dounia feeds back to past and imagined versions of herself as reflected in each output.
As a self-taught artist born and raised in Senegal, a central theme to Dounia’s practice is the social construction of power and the cultural implications of how it is distributed. Aesthetically fresh and politically motivated, her work is both thought-provoking and beautiful.
Determined to reframe how digital art from Africa is perceived and valued, she founded CyberBaat, a DAO bringing together and empowering artists of African descent. Notably she released ‘Spannungsbogen’ (2022) on Quantum Art, the first large scale AI collection by an African woman, reflecting on issues of discrimination in facial recognition technology and the lack of representation of non-western perspectives in GAN generated art. Linda was an inaugural resident of the VerticalCrypto Art Residency Program and her work has been exhibited at Art Basel Miami, The Dakar Biennale, Artsy NFT and Art X Lagos, among many other public art spaces, galleries and festivals.
In Dounia’s work, Behind Glass, featured in Liminal Space as both a 1/1 video work, and a still image edition of 15, she employs monochromatic shapes which glide in and out of focus. Each shifting unknown form is born behind an invisible place, their very existence marked by a structure we cannot see.
This work directly relates to Dounia’s own experience of creating work as a Senegalese woman. As the structures of the traditional art world inherently undermine and minimise the artistic contributions of black women, Dounia has chosen to develop her voice from within the art ecosystem of Web3. As her works are so evocative of her personal experience, and the spaces she inhabits as a black woman, AI allows for these institutional structures to be present in her work, presenting allegorical expositions of what it means to exist as a digital artist beyond the boundaries of the traditional art world.
Melissa Wiederrecht is an American generative artist, currently living and working in Saudi Arabia. After earning an MS in Computer Science in 2014 she worked for several years on generative Surface Pattern Design, developing her fascination with the aesthetic beauty of creative coding and the emergent phenomenon of generative art. Since entering the NFT ecosystem the influences on her practice have been varied and ever-expanding, including her design background, Islamic culture, traditional abstraction and cutting edge creatives like Tyler Hobbs and Jared Tarbell.
‘Sudfah’ (2022) is Wiederrecht’s generative collection on Art Blocks Curated, a beautiful testament to her ability to conjure a vast array of texture, colour and form from a singular algorithm. Following this she released ‘Sandaliya’(2022), an Art Blocks playground drop, furthering her interest in how computational precision can result in metamorphic natural beauty. She has also released several collections on FxHash including ‘Take Wing’, ‘Zbageti’, ‘Solitude’ and ‘Orbs’.
In The Corridor, an NFT edition of 10, strong graphic white lines intersect layers of blurred shapes and varied colours, forming the outline of a grand, enveloping hall. Inspired by the corridors she walks through in Madinah, this piece evokes feelings of personal growth and transformation, as physical history and created digital aesthetics collapse into an anachronistic new reality, in which all timelines and cultures are equitable.
Wiederrecht’s generative 1/1 video work, Cosmic Vortex, operates similarly in a state of flux, as objects, shapes and colours form and dissipate, transforming computational precision into organic metamorphosis. As histories and cultures merge in both Wiederrecht’s life and art, her work presents a radical visibility of the in-between.
On the eve of their release, we had the opportunity to speak with Melissa and Linda about their work, influences and what it means to be an artist in the emerging Web3 space today.
Can you talk about your background and journey into the generative art space; when did your passions for coding/AI and art coalesce into your distinct artistic language?
Linda Dounia: I first heard about AI while researching data justice in 2020. I was then working as an interaction designer. I remember finding out about the Algorithmic Justice League and their work advocating for a more inclusive AI field. That led me into a rabbit hole and I was immediately curious about the intersection of AI and art/design, more specifically what was possible with GANs, which became my starting point for experimentation. I looked into how to train them and the tools were accessible to me relatively inexpensively (building a computer powerful enough to train a GAN from scratch, for example, was not a possibility for me, financially.) I also explored different applications that researchers/artists shared on GitHub. Most of the examples I came across were related to figurative art. As an artist who favours a more abstract, conceptual style, I became curious about the extent to which GANs could learn my style. I compiled different databases of works of various mediums from my practice – acrylic paintings, ink and marker drawings, charcoal calligraphy, vector illustrations, etc. I think it took about a year and a half of experimentation to reach a point where I felt satisfied with what I produced with AI. I sometimes use outputs from GANs as they are, but more often than not, I find myself incorporating them into my larger practice. AI has become kind of a studio assistant for me, and my collaborations with it, both joyful and experimental, scratch my itch for complexity and scale.
Melissa Wiederrecht: I taught myself to code at age 12, starting with HTML and then Visual Basic. I also spent countless hours making art, both in classes (in which I learned drawing and painting), but also at home where I spent hours and hours every day playing with Photoshop. I remember being inspired by Photoshop filters and determining that one day I would learn how to make my own – with code. I got a job as a web designer when I was 14 and while I was there I learned Flash. Around that time I came across a book called “Flash Math Creativity” and that book really inspired me to get into Generative Art. I spent a few years before college playing around with the ideas in that book and making animations in Flash.
I went on to get a BS in Computer Science and Math, followed by an MS in Computer Science. In 2015, I moved with my husband and kids to Saudi Arabia, and within a year or so I picked up generative art again – this time determined to find a way to make a career of it – from home – while taking care of my kids (and at the time, homeschooling). I started by making Skillshare classes and then I also got into selling surface pattern designs on microstock sites and spent 3 years putting together a portfolio of 33k+ designs on those sites. I consider this period of making thousands and thousands of designs in hundreds of different styles (for surface patterns) to be the period in which I blossomed creatively and developed a unique style. By making so much work, I eventually gravitated towards what colors, textures, shapes, and themes really spoke to me and I noticed what particular aspects of all those things I constantly reused.
There was also a strange aspect to this period of working on designs for microstock – the complete and utter lack of feedback from the world about my art. This lack of feedback allowed complete creative freedom in which anything goes, each successive work does not necessarily need to be any better than the last, and the primary goal is just to make a ton of work in as many different themes as possible. It really allowed for 100% artistic freedom and blossoming.
But then there came this moment – when I made the first version of Orbs – when I felt both a profound excitement about what I had made and a simultaneous deep sadness that no one could appreciate what I had made with me. I desperately wanted an outlet by which I could share my work with the world and they would appreciate it for what it is – beautiful generative art. As luck would have it, within a few months, I discovered the world of NFTs and found that generative art had suddenly started having recognition in the world and I changed direction and began working on projects for Artblocks and fxhash.
As an internationally acclaimed female artist, to what extent has gender impacted your work and practice? Is your work intended to be a reflection on what it means to be a woman in our contemporary, technology-oriented society?
LD: My work is an archive of memories – what I keep of the moments, experiences and people along my journey. It’s imbued with how I perceive the world and how I navigate it. Therefore, it would be impossible for it not to reflect my lived experience as a Senegalese woman. I can’t escape this body and the societal rules it negotiates. Growing up for example, I never imagined myself building a career as an artist. I wasn’t aware of artists like Julie Mehretu or Alma Thomas. In the absence of examples to look up to and draw courage from, it took me a long time to accept that all I wanted was to make art and live off it. When I finally decided to take the leap, I was intimidated by the traditional art world. I hadn’t attended art school and didn’t have any connections to art institutions. The data also scared me – a study of auction sales since 2008 showed that black women artists represented just 0.1% of the total sales. It wasn’t lost on me that becoming a career artist meant facing impossible odds. The odds weren’t much better in web3, but I eventually decided to give it a try because I could be in control of how I represented myself. The freedom to tell my story in my own words, to choose my partners, to present and price my work myself was a comfortable starting point as I began to professionalize as an artist. Discrepancies in the visibility and appraisal of works by black women are evident in the traditional art world and in web3, but I can feel the tide slowly turning. I can also see that as a society, we are developing empathy for the experiences of people who have traditionally been on the margins. We are starting to care about their stories and place value on them. That gives me hope to keep going. Watching collectors, curators, and artist friends passionately advocate for me and my work to be recognized is an intensely rewarding experience, and I am grateful that I don’t have to face impossible odds on my own.
MW: My gut instinct response to this question is that gender has absolutely no effect on my work. I certainly have never intended it to. I don’t make my art intending to make a statement about being a woman or my place in society.
However, as a woman, a wife, a mother of 5, I also think it is important to recognize that I have a lot of responsibilities aside from my art, and that these responsibilities affect my art in unseen ways. The time I can spend making art is limited to what these responsibilities allow. On the other hand, I think it is also relevant that for many years, I also have had complete 100% creative freedom to make art for art’s sake – from home in my free time – rather than needing to turn that art into a meaningful income for my family. The art has been my own escape, my “me time”, the thing that keeps my brain fresh and happy, and that rejuvenates me when I get overwhelmed and exhausted.
What I find absolutely amazing is the effect that the NFT space has had on my ability to transform my skills into an income that really does (massively) change things for myself and my entire family – while still being at home with my kids and my responsibilities as a woman. I really do feel incredibly empowered by the fact that I can now reach an entire world with my art and get paid for my work – all with kids crawling all over my back and while cooking dinner.
How, in any way, does the conceptual term liminality manifest in your work, whether through subject matter, appearance or feelings evoked?
LD: I think there is magic and poetry in the liminal events, between the actual tinkering/art making, that collaborating with AI creates – archiving, sketching, appraising, refining, curating. Some of my best choices are made in these in-between spaces, between when my ideas are translated from the material to the immaterial and immaterial outputs are made material again through further manipulation. The length of this journey and the complexity of working with the volumes AI can achieve create an environment that leaves me utterly vulnerable, exhausted, and daunted by the sheer scale of the tasks ahead. Yet the liminal moments it offers are windows to breathe. Negotiating magnitude is an integral part of my practice now, whether I am physically producing thousands of drawings to feed to a GAN, or sorting through thousands of evidences of the GAN’s learning. It’s a humbling experience that forces me to remain honest and find comfort in subjectivity.
MW: I am drawn to dichotomy. Any situation in which I can throw together concepts that are opposing, in order to draw out a space for myself between expectations, I will do so. I hate to be put in a box and will rebel against any box someone tries to put me or my art in, whatsoever. In my art, this means that I am repelled by existing genres and constantly try to find a space between them. I don’t, for example, aim to try to emulate analog materials in the most realistic way possible, nor do I aim to try to get as far away from that look as possible – I aim for both and also in-between. I draw in opposing concepts such as order and chaos, intention and randomness, digital and organic.
I also enjoy taking on the subject of personal growth as a theme for my art. Take Root is about that beautiful, ephemeral moment of growth in which something has just begun and is full of potential, but has not yet reached that full potential. Take Wing expands on that and captures another ephemeral moment of growth – namely that exciting time in which one’s potential has just started to come to fruition and reality. These fleeting moments of in-between are beautifully uncomfortable and exciting at the same time, and I do love to capture them in my art.
Finally, in appearance, I love to utilize blurs – which is quite literally a way to blur the lines between harsh lines and distinct colors, giving an effect of transition or ambiguity and can evoke the feeling of being in a liminal state. I think Solitude best shows this effect, as the blurs give an effect that makes the piece feel dreamlike.
How do you utilise algorithmically-generated/AI-generated art to explore notions of identity, time and modern experience? How do you navigate this discrepancy between precise code and subjective experience?
LD: The generative models I work with have become snapshots of me – a combination of evidence in my pursuit of depth of craft as well as actual memories from my childhood and adolescence. In my work, there is joy, trauma, grief, ecstasy, tumult, and more tangibly, a sense of place. Everything I make is contextual and draws from my subjective experience. When I imagine a future where endangered flora from the Sahel region only exists in artificial memories, I am also remembering my grandmother’s garden, the flowers she grew and the ones she longingly remembers from her childhood. When I transpose asemic calligraphy from my diaries over the years, I am also opening windows to sitting at cafés or in my bedroom writing to process my day, expressing gratitude for it, or healing from it. Every input of a model is charged with emotion and rooted in reality (imagined or experienced).
MW: To me, the algorithm and the computer are just tools that I can use to convey any sort of experience I wish to convey. While the code may be precise, the resulting image doesn’t have to be remotely precise. Like all generative artists, I utilize a lot of randomness which ensures that every image is unique and has some form of surprise that was not intended by me and can therefore be interpreted by the viewer in a subjective fashion. But also, as discussed above, my use of blurs, blending, and dozens of layers often can take an image from being simple, basic shapes into an experience that goes way beyond what the image was made of deep down.
When it comes to identity, I have used my art to convey aspects of my life that I have claimed as my own identity over time. I have adopted Muslim culture and also Sudanese culture as parts of myself, despite being born into neither, and this has come out in my art at various times. Sudfah reflects my love of Islamic calligraphy and the perfect and noble ideal, while also playing with the messiness of motherhood and the beauty also contained therein. Sandaliya was made while I was in Sudan with my family and, due to my typical inability to think beyond the present moment and what is right in front of me, deeply inspired the piece. The flowy shapes reminded me of both of the garments of the ladies in Sudan and also of the smoke of Sudanese bakhoor.
My own modern experience is highly dichotomous – it is an absolute mixture of high-tech emerging technology and ancient traditional culture. Being quite opposite – of course, I am very happy to draw the two together in whatever way I can. I use computer code – on the blockchain – to celebrate the ancient things that I love.
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