The Zach Lieberman Commission

Le Random commissioned six unique works from Zach Lieberman in 2023 that highlight what we love about the artist: his use of light, geometry and rhythm. We asked Lieberman to give us his thoughts on each of the six pieces, which we are sharing here. 
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Zach Lieberman, chrome waves (still), 2023. Courtesy of the artist and owned by Le Random
Zach Lieberman, chrome waves (still), 2023. Courtesy of the artist and owned by Le Random

The Zach Lieberman Commission

Le Random commissioned six unique works from Zach Lieberman in 2023 that highlight what we love about the artist: his use of light, geometry and rhythm. We asked Lieberman to give us his thoughts on each of the six pieces, which we are sharing here. 

I had a really great time working on this. I keep coming back to, “What are we doing?” For me, it's like I’m photographing math, trying to find and show this beauty in numbers. I'm like a wildlife photographer of math. What was so great about this commission is that you picked out really nice moments. So I got to go back to the Sahara. I got to go back to these really interesting landscapes.

-Zach Lieberman 

Lieberman told the following to the Le Random team.

rotating cube study

With this piece I thought about, "How can I take some piece of geometry and manipulate it and change it?" I often think of these mathematical transformations as the glitch. I really like working with geometry. But then saying, “Okay, how can I glitch it? How can I manipulate it?” When you do a rotate, an extrude, a revolve, it allows you to see the thing in a new way. It's always starting with some geometry and saying, “Let me rotate it; let me twist it; let me expand it.”

This piece is based on some sketches that were taking a cube and starting with it almost flat like a square. Then I’d have a hundred or so squares rotate and offset each other. It starts sort of normal and then you ask, “How strange can it get?” I love these kinds of animations that are just really simple, then complex and then simple. It feels like a Japanese folding fan that opens up to reveal a distorted image before folding closed again.

I love working around constraints too. For me, it's great if you have a limit. In the early days of posting videos on Instagram, you were limited to just 15 seconds. It forces you to think of the most economical way to express an idea. “What can I do in that short amount of time?” There's also this really interesting challenge of dealing with compression when you make work for social media. It encourages you to make gradients; it encourages you to make soft forms. I really like lines, geometry and the patterns that emerge with a lot of lines. But the more lines, the more geometry, the more compression you get. So it's this weird, delicate dance where you have to decide what to fight for. 

As an artist, it’s a forcing function where you have to decide, “Are my ideas so important that I'm going to deal with the compression? Can I fight it? Can I use it?” It's a really interesting challenge:

What do we want to say that the tools don't necessarily invite us to say?

point study 

There's a whole series of work that I've created that are about points of color in space. Every pixel, every color in the image is based on its distance away from those points. You could say, “Take three random points and three random colors. Then every pixel gets its color based on the distance away from those points.” It's a very simple formulation but it leads to really interesting results. You can also play with the intensities and how strong one point is versus another. It's like a light. If you were creating a composition with light, you'd take one light source, and another and see how those light sources mix. 

This is a format that I really love to play with. In this particular piece, I'm working with those points of color and they're moving but their apertures or angles are changing over time. You can think about it as light sources that are expanding and contracting, which to me is a very primitive graphical form. John Maeda and Gottfried Jäger have done these really beautiful gradients. It’s mostly playing with angle and gradient. So in this case it's moving points and they are opening and closing. For me, this work is about finding beauty in math. When I'm playing with these formulations I really try to push them to the limit and think, “Can you take the volume knob to eleven?”

I always try to say, “Can you take the mathematical formula and just crank it to the point where it's almost broken?” I love that. 

The root of the word animation is “bestowing of life” and there's something to me about when you're making something move. You are essentially making something living. I always try to think, “What is the feeling you get from movement?” When I look at this piece, it just feels very smooth, like ice skaters. It feels like choreography.

chrome waves

I love playing with algorithms that divide space. It's almost like a data visualization. Imagine you're plotting the history of some statistics over time. Some numbers would get bigger and some smaller. With this piece, you have a set of waves that are expanding and contracting. They also move from right to left. Data is really math, right? The data is signals that are playing with time and moving it in different ways. This is a really chill movement and the reason I like it is you get multiple rhythms like when you're watching water. To me those intersecting rhythms are quite interesting. 

What I love about this piece also, beyond the movement of the waves, is the shading.

I’ll often start with geometry, the skeleton for the work, and then the shading is where I do a lot of experimentation. The coloring, to me, is a real joy.

I have so much fun taking the same movement and seeing what it would look like in black and white or with a pattern. That’s my chance to go to eleven as well beyond just motion. I can try a very chill motion but a not very chill exterior. There’s a lot of texture that can be created there. With this piece, I went for a very smooth, almost 3D quality. These waves are all 2D graphics but they have a bit of 3D quality because the colors are moving across. They feel like, If you saw them from the side, you'd see three-dimensional ripples as they're inflated. All of that comes from the color. It comes from experimentation; often, what I do is just try something, try something, try something. I feel a little bit like a wildlife photographer, trying to find this really great moment. And this piece was a really great moment.

circular blob extruded

I love blobs; they’re one of those archetypal forms that I go back to again and again because they just feel so pure. To me, a blob is something that's living, organic and absurd. It’s kind of my safe space as a creator, one of these places I can go back to because I feel very comfortable there. It's mostly about playing with graphical form. Some variations on the blobs have involved working with circles. I take a blob shape but make the exterior out of circles, giving it a very geometric look. Typical blobs are very amorphous but the circular blob has, I think, a very elegant quality. It's almost like tracing circles.

I was experimenting with the circular blob, trying to extrude it, revolve it, doing all these different variations on it. I particularly like extruding and using lots of lines because you wind up with really interesting shading and patterns that emerge. When I extruded the blob, it felt almost like an Ernst Haeckel drawing. He was a naturalist who had these really beautiful drawings of organic forms.

Additionally, the extrusion is a little off and moving slightly over time. It's not even just an outward extrusion, it's actually an extrusion to a larger form that is moving and manipulated in some way. The extrusion is also changing and animating with the blob itself.

I got my love of blobs from Golan Levin. He was my teacher in grad school and after I graduated we started working together. In 2003, we made this piece, Hidden Worlds of Noise and Voice. It is one of the first things that I did as a media artist. It’s a project where you wear these 3D glasses that we'd cut the eyes so you can see through the 3D. It's a bit like what Apple is doing today. It's like 3D goggles but we also had microphones. So when you made a sound you would see your sound as a kind of noodle in front of you like a blob.

From working on projects like this, I fell in love with physics, blobs and so on. Golan really had a big impact on me.

circle stripe study 

I love working with primitive graphical forms, with circles and points moving in space. I love making movements where you have these points of color that are expanding and contracting. Sometimes the colors are outward; sometimes the colors are inward. I love to shift and play with colors and stripes, inspired in huge part by Carlos Cruz-Diez[, the Venezuelan opto-kinetic artist], who I included in the credit. 

I am interested in this optical effect that happens if you let only red colors appear at this coordinate, only green colors appear here, and only blue colors appear there. It's almost a diffraction grating, some sort of grating or pattern that asks your eye to do a bit more work to separate the colors out.

I love playing with the basics of optics and images and trying to break them into these kinds of pieces.

For this piece, I was playing with circles. I really like the way when you have this curved form meeting these vertical forms, you wind up with an energy on the edges. So to me that was really exciting. Generally, what’s really exciting about an animation or an image is to see where the energy comes from.

I used to be a bit weirded out because people kept telling me my work reminded them of what they see when they have ocular migraines. Then I started to think that it's actually a little bit true. It’s like the images that you see when you press your eyes really hard when you're a kid and see wild patterns. That's about that space of, “How does the eye work?”, “How do images work?” To me, that's a really interesting space to explore.

cells converge

This is probably my favorite. Going back full circle to rotating cube study, I am again doing what I love and playing with chaos to order and back. That to me is the sweet spot: How can we tell the story of elements moving and doing something harmonious and then inharmonious and harmonious and inharmonious?

There's something almost universal to it: Can we be separate or can we be one? I love in this piece when the points come together. They make this epic, simple pattern. Their job in life is to paint a pattern of rings of color and, when they're separated, they're interfering with each other. It's like somebody's loud which means somebody else's quiet. It's a little bit like eating in a noisy cafeteria. You hear all the voices and it's like they come together and everybody is singing a song. I didn’t have this in mind when making the piece but it's also like this Janet Cardiff piece. She recorded a choir with all the individual members on their own speaker. If you stand in the center of the room, you hear the collective choir. You hear this beautiful sound but, if you go to an individual speaker, you'll hear coughing or you'll hear all these sounds of an individual. I think this piece is similar in that way.

The colors are just really great at that moment when they all come together. I love pieces that play with that dynamic.

This piece is about being together and being separate. What are those feelings?

I also always try to make work that calms me. Some work is not calming but I try to make work that feels tapped into breathing, work that is based on the body’s rhythm. Sometimes I'll make work where I really feel like my heart beat slows down a little bit or I'm breathing slower. And I feel that with this work. 


Interview conducted between Zach Lieberman and Le Random on 06 July 2023.


Zach Lieberman is an artist-educator based in New York, working with generative and interactive systems. Lieberman is best known for developing OpenFrameworks, an open-source C++ toolkit for creative coding. He also co-founded the School of Poetic Computation. Lieberman began creating art in 2004 and over the last five years his daily sketches have showcased the breadth of his generative techniques. Most notably, Lieberman was the winner of the Golden Nica award by Ars Electronica and has had his project EyeWriter exhibited multiple times at MoMA. Lieberman describes himself as a creator of playful systems as seen in his vibrant color palettes and “funky” dynamic motions. Lieberman has paved the way for contemporary creative coders through his years dedicated to the craft and its tools. He’s also a professor at MIT’s Media Lab, where he runs the Future Sketches group.

Original oral interview edited by Peter Bauman (Monk Antony) and thefunnyguys. Thank you to Conrad House (nemocake) for also participating in the interview.