Michael Kozlowski on Exploration as Practice

Intrigued by Michael Kozlowski's recent visual pivot, Peter Bauman (Monk Antony) had an impromptu chat with the artist, also known as mpkoz. They discuss the unique project that sparked this visual shift, its technical specifics and the implications for Kozlowski's continued trajectory.‍
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Michael Kozlowski, Untitled for Bright Moments Finale Collection (Detail), 2024. Courtesy of the artist

Michael Kozlowski on Exploration as Practice

Intrigued by Michael Kozlowski's recent visual pivot, Peter Bauman (Monk Antony) had an impromptu chat with the artist, also known as mpkoz. They discuss the unique project that sparked this visual shift, its technical specifics and the implications for Kozlowski's continued trajectory.

Peter Bauman: Tell us a bit more about your contribution to the Bright Moments Finale Collection. It seemed to come from nowhere as this developed, polished work. How did it begin?

Michael Kozlowski: Oh, thank you. I haven't titled my contribution yet but I don't know if I will. I like that a lot of the Finale Collection projects don't have titles for some reason. It's essentially a verbose exploration of signed distance fields (SDF), which is a technique used in computer graphics to create shapes. It's basically a different way to render a shape than the traditional mesh and material pipeline. Up until this project, I had pretty negligible experience with SDF. I used SDF a little bit back when I worked at Microsoft on some of the mixed reality rendering engines that they were working on at the time and hadn't touched them since.

I wanted this project to be an excuse to go back and have a self-taught educational journey with SDFs again because they're very powerful and you can do some very cool and beautiful things with them.

I know a lot of artists use them—a lot of artists that I look up to. Piter Pasma uses SDF and many others. A lot of my work is prototypical in that I want to look closer at a particular technique or technology and that's the starting point for many of my prior projects; this was no exception.

Peter Bauman: How far along the educational journey are we talking about here? How long have you been working on it? I would guess quite a while because the project feels quite fully composed.

Michael Kozlowski: Actually, not long at all. I'm really proud of it. I'm surprised that it looks better than I intended. I've been working on it for a little bit on and off but only about a month—maybe. Most of that time was, fortunately, due to a lot of airplane travel I was doing. I had a couple of transatlantic flights so I could bang it out pretty quick.

Sometimes every step of a project is pulling teeth. I still have fun when it's like that—maybe not quite as much—but for some reason, some projects or some segments of projects are just very painstaking; you have to earn it.

This one is pretty simple. It's small. It's seven kilobytes. That definitely helps. There's not a lot of code-spaghetti going on.

For whatever reason, on the first or second try with everything, it just went very fluidly. I'm very grateful for that because I didn't have a whole lot of time to finish it and it's also two weeks past the deadline. I'm glad it was fairly seamless but I am really happy with how it turned out.

Michael Kozlowski, Untitled for Bright Moments Finale Collection, 2024. Courtesy of the artist

Peter Bauman: You mention how this all came together in a short, serendipitous timeframe but how does the project reveal what you’re seeing as an artist in this particular phase of your career?

Michael Kozlowski: I had been focused on paint and analog art-making simulations with Metropolis and Chimera to an extent, even though that's not really what I was going for. I wanted them to be similar to painting, but not exactly painting. My last work with Avante Art was really focused on trying to emulate—in a photorealistic way—the texture of paint. I had a lot of fun doing that but I'm bored of it now and I want to move on to something else. I wanted to start exploring other advanced techniques of computer graphics and this project reflects my examination of SDFs.

I have a few other things on my checklist that I experienced at some point in my professional career as a software engineer. I want to go back to those things and approach them from an artistic point of view instead of a corporate efficiency point of view.

I guess I'm looking forward to this next phase, where I'm probably going to be doing things that are completely different from painting simulations. Maybe I'll come back to that someday because I think it's a really beautiful and hard challenge to try to replicate the analog world. And I think that's a really fun problem to solve. But for now, I'm going to be focused on other things.

Peter Bauman: This new focus encompasses static visuals that splash and swirl on the screen like an alien substance. This comes from your elegant work with light and shadow. What was the inspiration for the work’s striking visuals?

Michael Kozlowski: I approach a lot of my work from the perspective of a software developer that's still in training because there's so much you can do. There's been so much innovation in building software, especially since I chose that as a career but very few of those applications are artistic. That's more of a high-level story behind most of my work. 

For this piece, specifically, I wanted it to be a relief of sorts because I love relief sculpture. Somebody on Twitter compared it to Rodin’s The Gates of Hell, which resonated. I didn't want to do a standalone sculpture in the center of a room; simultaneously, I'm working on a physical piece of art that's completely unrelated but is also a relief. I imagine there is some subconscious connection with that and that my brain—in the background—is focused on something that you can hang on a wall but is also three-dimensional. That's how it got started.

I didn't have a concrete vision of what I wanted it to look like when I started. As I was experimenting with SDFs, it just emerged naturally how it ended up looking. Anything that looked good, I would keep pushing that. It took me down a path that I wasn't planning to go down but I ended up in a cool spot with it.

Michael Kozlowski, Untitled for Bright Moments Finale Collection, 2024. Courtesy of the artist

Peter Bauman: What was your mindset when working on a piece for such a peculiar project? It’s a sixty-artist group show on one contract where you don’t know how many pieces will be minted. Was it freeing to anticipate a more limited output space? 

Michael Kozlowski: I was traveling a lot and I was freed by the strict deadline that I had. It was really great that I didn't have time to be neurotic or go back and try a bunch of different things. Before, if I came to a fork in the path, I'd have to go down it pretty quick. I'm very happy with how the project turned out. If I wasn't, then I probably wouldn't have liked that freer approach.

Simultaneously, it was very freeing knowing that there's only ten, fifteen or twenty that will be minted. I think that most generative artists would agree that one of the biggest challenges we overcome in larger-editioned collections is differentiation. That's an art form in itself—making something cohesive but different at the same time. It's a very difficult thing to do well. I think anybody in this collection would agree that it was very nice to have a much smaller window of potential outputs available. Instead of making many things look pretty good, I could make a much smaller number of things look really good. I enjoyed that a lot.

Peter Bauman: Another unique quirk of this collection is that there’s a chance for zero mints. How do you feel about the fact that the work might not get minted at all? 

Michael Kozlowski: In the artist's Discord on the Bright Moments channel, where all this is being planned and taking place between us, the geniuses in the group like Deafbeef, Piter and a few other people were discussing the probability of this happening. The takeaway is that it's extremely negligible. I'm not super worried about it but I think it's cool that it could happen.

It's really great that if zero doesn't happen, which I don't think it will, there probably will be an artist or two with only two or three outputs. That's why we all like generative art. You just don't know what's going to happen. We're used to that occurring with traits, color palettes or compositional complexity. But I'm not used to that happening—or at least I've never seen it happen before—with completely different artists.

It's a fun new innovation that's coming from this project that hasn't existed before. I think it'll be fun to see who the rare artists are. 

Michael Kozlowski, Untitled for Bright Moments Finale Collection, 2024. Courtesy of the artist

Peter Bauman: This Finale Collection also invites artists to reflect—on their time with Bright Moments or their growth from their original project. How is this work a transformation of Metropolis? What’s the dialogue like between them? 

Michael Kozlowski: There's a huge similarity in that 90% of both are written in GLSL, which is a GPU-graphics shading language. It's not everybody's cup of tea. It's a lot different than writing something in JavaScript. From an engineering perspective, writing code for the GPU is very different from writing code for a CPU. I like it because it's a fun way to manipulate images. If you want a square in the middle of the screen, doing it on the CPU is a very different process than doing it on the GPU. I really enjoy being able to switch between both of those worldviews. GLSL is very challenging and it's something that—at least a couple of years ago—I didn't know nearly as much about compared to more high-level languages like JavaScript or C#, which is what I use at work. 

I typically make decisions about how and why I'm doing something based on wanting to learn more and get better at a particular technique, language or technology.

There’s not much similarity between Metropolis and this project, at least from a thematic point of view, but there is from a technical point of view. They both are from the same world. 

Peter Bauman: You talked about how this project is the start of a new visual and technical exploration in your practice. But will you continue investigating this algorithm beyond the Finale Collection

Michael Kozlowski: I'm definitely going to keep exploring. I had a lot of fun with SDFs and I haven't really even scratched the surface with this project. I don't know when or how it will transpire but I'll probably utilize the technique in the near future. I don't know if there'll be something right away but definitely my curiosity is piqued and I want to keep pushing it for sure. 

Peter Bauman: The images are so complex—almost unlike anything I’ve seen before—that they recall an almost supra-human quality. Is any part of the image constructed with AI? This is purely code-based work? 

Michael Kozlowski: It is just code.

It's only about seven kilobytes—maybe two kilobytes of JavaScript and five kilobytes of GLSL—and that's it.

I do like that it looks AI-adjacent, though. Like most of the project, that wasn't specifically intended but I take that as a compliment, I suppose.

Michael Kozlowski, Untitled for Bright Moments Finale Collection, 2024. Courtesy of the artist

Peter Bauman: Finally, how is the project an expression of your experience with Bright Moments? 

Michael Kozlowski: It's sad doing this project because I just love Bright Moments so much. They've completely changed the trajectory of my career. I love all of them. I really think it's a priceless thing that they have put on events through the ups and downs over the last couple of years.

It was really helpful as an artist—and I think also probably as collectors, too—to have a place where we could reconvene every few months with all these incredible events as well.

I'm really happy to be a part of this project. I'm very grateful that I've been able to work with Bright Moments so much over the last two or three years. It's provided—directly and indirectly—a huge host of friends. Not only am I close with the Bright Moments team and everybody that's responsible for putting those shows on, but it's also introduced me to countless artists, collectors and people that I consider friends now. It's a really nice way to say goodbye to them, at least for the time being. I was just grateful that I got to be a part of this project and other things in the past.


Michael Kozlowski is an American media artist and software developer. His primary interests are real-time graphics, mixed reality, and interactivity.

Peter Bauman (Monk Antony) is Le Random's Editor-in-Chief.