Interview With Generative Artist, Ryan Struhl
@keisans - he / him | generative artist | creative coder | software engineer 🤖 beep
Throughout my life, I’ve always been an art lover and creative person in general. As a kid, I would go to Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Ca. regularly. There, I initially fell in love with more traditional artwork from Van Gogh and Monet. As I got older, I started really appreciating more abstract art and midway through the lost year of 2020, I discovered generative art. ☕️🐇🕳 Down the generative art rabbit hole I went, where I fell absolutely in love with the whole genre between art and computer programming.
Jump to 2021 and a collection that stood out to me early on was, ‘Inertial Moment’ by Ryan Struhl aka @keisans. “Imagine owning a Fidenza before Tyler Hobbs introduced us to Fidenzas” - sources. While both collections include similar flow field aesthetics, they are both so very different and unique in their own right.
Teleport to the present day and Ryan has recently released his first Art Blocks collection called ‘Letters To My Future Self’. I had the pleasure of learning much more about the incredibly talented Mr. Struhl and his latest Art Blocks release ‘Letters to my future self’, a very personal collection that alludes so much emotion and honesty.
I’m curious, how do you make the decision to price your collections? I remember seeing your Inertial Moment collection initially priced under .1 eth for 5+ months before it went parabolic to over 4 eth at one point.
What did you learn from that release and how did you figure out where to set the price for your new Art Blocks release, Letters to My Future Self?
First and foremost in my mind is that I hope that my art is accessible to people who want it. I’d love to get fabulously wealthy off of my art, don’t get me wrong, but I’m really proud when my work is a person’s first art acquisition. It makes me so happy to see the joy in.
A slightly more financially savvy answer is that I found liquidity is incredibly critical in the NFT space. One of the driving forces for bigger investors is that they can buy for low and get a big return. If you can price lower, that can build an engine where people start talking about “I bought this at 0.1 ETH and got a 10x return.” Suddenly buying at 1 ETH seems reasonable and pushes the piece higher. Since I’m getting royalties on those sales, I can worry much less about nailing the mint price so long as the market stays relatively active.
The pricing structure for Letters was built around this. I went with the dutch auction since I think that some price discovery in the mint is good for both artists and collectors. I was ok with a lower floor price since that could achieve both of my targets: it made the art relatively accessible to new buyers and it made the asset extremely liquid in early trading.
What influenced you to create Letters to My Future Self?
In January 2020, I decided I was going to make a personal generative art piece every week. It was just a fun little thing since I just enjoy doing art in this medium and I wanted to give a reason to practice every week. Of course, about 8 weeks into that project the entire world collapsed and the art took on a very different meaning. Art was a coping mechanism for me. As a person with major depression, I was not in a good place mentally and I think it shows in the work.
I was angry, scared, and depressed. I couldn’t see my friends or family, I was just trapped in my apartment completely helpless. Art felt like my only constructive outlet. A way of screaming into the void. In the middle of this I made the piece, Letter to my future self (singular).
I didn’t think about that piece much after I posted it, but at the end of July 2021 I was looking back through my work and I found that piece really striking. I didn’t feel that same darkness anymore. I had made a bunch of friends in the generative art and NFT communities, I was vaccinated against the virus, I was feeling better about the world. Over time, Letter to my future self became the idea of finding a letter or journal that you had written a long time ago where things felt really important to say at that time, but you’ve almost completely forgotten the people involved or why you felt the need to write it down. It feels kind of sad since you feel disconnected from the person you were when you wrote it, but it’s also a reminder of how much you’ve changed. I couldn’t help but pick that piece back up and run with it.
What makes ‘Letter to My Future Self’ feel so authentically written & scribbled by a human instead of a machine? What Elements did you use in writing the script?
Computer drawing is largely built around perfect geometry. When I tell a program to draw a square at a certain position, there will be a square at that position with perfectly straight sides and exactly the dimensions and color I specify. This perfection is never true of artifacts in the real world. If I were to try and make a square with a pencil and a ruler, I could get something square-like, but the paper surface will be uneven, the pressure of the pencil will be inconsistent. Maybe I didn’t line everything up perfectly and there’s a little gap, or some graphite rubbed off.
For my artwork I tend to gravitate towards pieces that try to blur the line between the physical and the digital by trying to make programs that intentionally create lifelike imperfections. With Letters to My Future Self, the script is made up of thousands and thousands of tiny dots instead of a straight line. By using these dots, I can add randomness to the stroke making it wider or thinner in different areas, occasionally having little dots fly off the curve just like tiny ink splatter from a fountain pen. Some areas have more dots per segment, or less, simulating some inconsistency in the flow rate of the pen, giving the piece a stronger sense of motion. There are a ton of these little areas of random imperfections all over the piece. A big part of the art form is the balancing act of making the imperfections random enough that they feel like they have a personality, but constrained enough that it doesn’t just feel like noise.
I recently learned about a French media artist named Vera Molnar who’s work has similar aesthetics. She is considered to be a pioneer of computer art and generative art and I'm obsessed with her work lately, similar to your Letters series.
What is your background in art and programming and how long have you been working on this series, in particular?
Vera Molnar is an absolute legend and her work was, of course, a huge influence on Letters to My Future Self. Lettres à ma mère is a beautiful piece that really struck me with both how it felt both completely human and mechanical at the same time. Writing by hand feels like a very personal action, your hand is shaping the words that get written. The recipient gets something that you have touched. That is a very powerful connection between people. I think Molnar in particular subverts this connection by having the computer be the writer.
Another huge influence on the series is Cy Twombly, whose Letter of Resignation series was a major source of inspiration for the work. The series features asemic text of various sizes with various doodles, strikethroughs and marks around the page. I think this style of work really speaks to me as someone who aimlessly doodles quite a bit in margins as I’m trying to think something through. It just feels like a very human connection even if it’s totally illegible.
Figuring out how long I worked on Letters is a little difficult with the nature of generative art. One of the coolest things about working with algorithmic art generally is that you’re never fully ‘done’ with a project. Utilities or ideas from one piece can get copied and pasted into another! With Letters, there are a ton of tricks and techniques I had picked up over the past couple years of doing this, plus the final form was largely a rebuild and expansion of a piece I had already made. If I had to put some numbers on it, the first Letter took about a week to put together. Between refactoring the original code, building a bunch of new styles, and testing, the final Art Blocks piece took around 2 months of work.
Why did you decide to give 25% of proceeds through art education grants via Donors Choose?
For anyone familiar, Donors Choose is a charity that works directly with teachers and classrooms in the US to help fund desperately needed resources and materials. The contribution that was generated from Letters will be put towards sponsoring art and music education in historically underserved communities. I couldn’t imagine a better investment in our future than supporting education, especially in the arts where school districts across the US have been making cuts. Donors Choose has been really wonderful to work with, helping to target the schools and programs that are most in need of funding.
How has your process evolved from your first NFT project Illumination to Letter to My Future Self, and everything in between?
Every project is a new adventure. I think with each piece that I put out, I’m trying to push the envelope just a little further. With illumination I was just completely clueless. I still love the piece, but I cannot say that I had any idea what I was doing when I started.
Imagined Color I actually tried to make my own NFT contract, totally messed that up, and wound up wasting a bunch of the ether I had gotten. Nothing like a $5000 mistake to teach you what not to do. That’s around the time I applied to be an Art Blocks artist. I wanted to be able to let users mint their own tokens, but I didn’t want to be responsible for writing the contract that handled it. After that mess I decided to just try hosting live versions of the code on IPFS and each token would just reference the live version. That wound up working pretty well, even if I had to do all the OpenSea metadata by hand.
Inertial Moment used a lot of the same techniques as Imagined Color, just with a much stronger eye on printing. I also wanted to push on the artistic side much further than I had before. Where Illumination and Imagined Color were more exploratory, Inertial Moment was meant to be more artistically disciplined. I decided not to do any editing of the output set, so the outputs of Inertial Moment really are the outputs with numbers 1 through 150 as their seeds. That meant having to do a lot more testing to make sure that every output would come out as something worth spending some time with. I consider Inertial Moments to be my first true long-form piece of generative art.
Letters to My Future Self is a whole new realm. I had to learn a whole new way of thinking about the artwork. A larger edition meant having to spend a lot more time thinking about variations to keep the outputs feeling interesting. I built a bunch of tools that would output huge numbers of variations to help eyeball the various rarities of traits, plus several tools to help analyze the probabilities of the outputs. I don’t think I’ll ever forget hitting the button to mint the first piece on the test net, or the moment I got #0 of the series. It is a magical experience, even if you’re just about ready to tear your hair out from nerves.
When did you start making generative art?
I wasn’t thinking about it as generative art at the time, but I have strong memories of getting the book Foundation Actionscript 3.0 Animation: Making Things Move by Keith Peters (@bit101). I spent every day in the library going through the book, example by example. I had really struggled with math before I started doing programming, but seeing the math play out on the screen gave a whole new meaning to all the formulae I couldn’t wrap my head around in class. I started to simulate balls moving around the screen and bumping into each other, or springs that reacted to sound. People would come up to me and ask where I got the screensavers. I mostly assumed I’d wind up using those skills to make games or something, though the writing was already on the wall for Flash. Without having that visual intro to programming, there is a decent chance I wouldn’t have gotten into software at all!
I watched your keynote from React Boston 2019 and you mentioned creating an app that can do polygon optimization based off of color differentials. 2 part question 1. Is the app still available? And 2. Can you dive a little deeper into why you created that app?
Hah! That was a fun project. It’s probably kicking around one of my backup drives somewhere, though I haven’t looked at that in a while. I might need to dig this up now.
The background on that project was that I saw this article about generating polygons to fit the Mona Lisa and decided I really wanted to try out the techniques. I made a really naive implementation in processing that calculated the euclidean distance between each output pixel and the source. That basically worked, but I didn’t feel like it was optimizing for the things I wanted. That led down a whole well in learning about color spaces and computer vision.
Eventually I had a fairly complex application where it was using a more sophisticated color-fit algorithm and saliency maps to be more likely to optimize for visually interesting parts of the image. This was around 2015 or so and I’ve meant to get back to it, but time flies. One fun aspect of the piece was that I forgot to bound the polygons to the canvas area, so I had these shapes that would run right off the page, these insane crystalline structures that just spiraled into infinity. That eventually became the aspect of the piece I most enjoyed!
Are you working on any other apps outside of creating generative art?
Not super actively right now, but maybe again soon. I built
a couple years ago to help people build more usable color palettes for the web. I have a hard time maintaining focus on my side-projects so the vast majority wind up in a big pile of half-baked ideas waiting for me. I’d love to get back to this project to make it more useful and update it with some new things I’ve learned.
Keeping up with NFTs and the crypto space in general can be very exhausting and it can be easy to get burnt out. What are your hobbies outside of art, NFTs, and the metaverse that keep you going?
That’s a tough question to answer because I always thought of art as being my main hobby, but my relationship with that is changing with the crypto art explosion. Is my day-job my hobby now? I really enjoy learning new things, playing video games, movies, and riding my bike. I’m currently replaying Horizon: Zero Dawn, getting pumped up for the sequel whenever I’m able to get my hands on a Playstation 5.
Who are some generative artists you admire?
So many. Too many to name in a reasonable way. Basically all the art blocks artists are incredible, so I’m not going to list them out here, but yeah everyone on that list is amazing and are all people I really deeply admire. I feel like this is a good opportunity to list some folks who haven’t (yet, as of Oct 10th 2021) done an AB drop:
Amy Goodchild (https://www.instagram.com/amy_goodchild/)
Anna Lucia (https://www.instagram.com/anna.lucia.codes/)
Ben Kovach (https://www.instagram.com/bendotk/)
Golan Levin (https://twitter.com/golan)
Helena Sarin (https://twitter.com/neuralbricolage)
Keith Peters (https://twitter.com/bit101)
Neel Shivdasani (https://www.instagram.com/neel.shivdasani/)
Robert Hodgin (https://www.instagram.com/roberthodgin/)
Zach Lieberman (https://www.instagram.com/zach.lieberman/)
A side note, what are some of your favorite music albums?
That’s such a difficult question! My favorites change minute to minute and would probably require some background. Instead I’m listing some recent listens in no particular order:
Three - Phantogram (Phantogram is like a wall of sound slapping you in the face in the best way)
Is Your Love Big Enough - Lianne La Havas (Deep love for La Havas)
Hillary Hahn Plays Bach: Violin Sonatas Nos. 1&2; Partita No. 1 - Hillary Hahn (The Fuga from Sonata No. 1 is an all time favorite piece)
I Put A Spell On You - Nina Simone (It’s Nina Simone, just do yourself a favor and listen)
Baroque - Nadia Sirota (Sirota brings out the humanity in these deeply abstract and varied pieces)
The Low End Theory - A Tribe Called Quest (The perfect synthesis of rap and jazz)
Have you ever created a program or generative piece based around music?
Yes! Most recently I’ve been playing a bit with VCV Rack, a software-based modular synthesizer. I think there are lots of overlaps between the way a generative artist thinks about the visuals and the way a modular synth user thinks about the sound. Each is all about taking some source of data or randomness and transforming that into something new. I’d love to get into building my own hardware synth at some point and actually wiring it up to an installation piece, but for now I’m pretty happy with my software setup.
The racks setup and output is incredible. Would love to see you create an album-based software setup. @soundwavesproton does some really cool things with music and NFTs.
Did you ever imagine you'd be where you're at today in the NFT / Generative Art space?
No. It feels surreal. I’m incredibly grateful for everyone who has been so supportive and kind.
What’s the goal you have for 2022?
Make a webpage for myself. It’s one of the side projects I have put off for the longest. Because I’ve been a web developer for a while, I want things to work in specific ways but that inevitably means that the project becomes more complex and I lose steam on it before it’s done. I’m hoping this time I actually do it, since my second goal is to do more writing and make some educational content for folks who want to learn more about generative art and coding in general.
Such an incredible journey so far with your generative work. I look forward to watching your continued progression upwards. I think I can speak on behalf of the NFT community and say, “Thank you for your service as an artist.”