William Mapan on Breaking the Medium

William Mapan converses with Peter Bauman (Monk Antony) about the deep connections he maintains with his algorithms.‍
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William Mapan, Untitled, January 2022. Courtesy of the artist

William Mapan on Breaking the Medium

William Mapan converses with Peter Bauman (Monk Antony) about the deep connections he maintains with his algorithms.

Peter Bauman: Your new work is called Intimacy, a feeling we don't normally associate with computers and digital art. How do you challenge this notion with Intimacy's two parts, Sketchbook A and Through Your Eyes

William Mapan: For Sketchbook A, I wanted to associate the word intimacy with the sketchbook, which to me is very private. I like to think of my algorithms sometimes as personal sketchbooks. I was frustrated last year because I had around 3,000 of these sketches hidden from the public in my folders that had never been shown to anyone. I wanted to start opening up about this work and my overall process. I usually sketch in a physical sketchbook but also sometimes in a digital one. We tend to think that as soon as something is digital, it's not a sketch anymore; it's digital artwork. But I like to think of the sketchbook as an extension of my physical practice. I can sketch quickly in my sketchbook but I can also do it with an algorithm. 

The other work, Through Your Eyes, the complete title should actually be Through Your Eyes/of the Algorithm. It's basically how I interpret my algorithm and how I imagine it thinks and feels even though I made it. It's like being in the “Eyes” of the algorithm, a very private thing. I always have this close relationship with my algorithms.

Ultimately, I think my algorithms are another version of my thinking in a subconscious way, something I don't have access to but through the algorithm, I can look for it.

I can look through the parameter space I'm creating, which is just a bigger version of me. I’m just expanding my brain and searching for things in there. So Intimacy is this idea of being close to me. Whether it's physical or digital, I think it doesn't make any difference. It's always this pursuit of breaking the mediums. The medium is not important; it's what you do with it.

Peter Bauman: You said your algorithms can be other versions of your subconscious. Harold Cohen and even more contemporary artists like Sougwen Chung have talked about their systems “as other selves.” Do you see your systems as an extension of yourself to this extent?

William Mapan: Oh, yeah, definitely. The first thing I usually do when working on an algorithm is I put points on the page. Then I try to connect dots to make fine shapes and color the shapes. The coloring is very inspired by my physical practice for Sketchbook A. How I color each different shape, where I start to fill it, which way, which direction the marks are going? What is the pressure of the pencil or the crayon? All these variables, I try to translate them in code. That's for the literal, physical to digital part.

Then on more meta thinking: The algorithm for the generative artist is part of the artist. We don't know what's there but we build a universe around us, which is us, but different versions.

Creating algorithms is a way for us to look for things that we could not find normally. It's the same as any artist sketching on paper. Generative artists have the ability to quickly build this whole universe in search for answers about ourselves: What do we like, what do we gravitate towards, what do we connect with? Our algorithms are just expansions of us.

For every algorithm I've made, I start working on them so much that I dream about them every night. They become very much a part of me. I start to make connections to my algorithm and what I see in real life. It all becomes connected in some way and you just have this back and forth relationship with everything. It swarms you. So it becomes very personal for me to make an algorithm because eventually it gets under my skin and it’s all I can think about. It can be quite haunting so sometimes pauses are good for sanity.

William Mapan, Sketchbook A (test output), 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Verse

Peter Bauman: You have such a close relationship with the algorithm yet at the same time you’re comfortable sharing creative control. This goes back to when we first spoke for a Right Click Save piece I wrote about your fxhash release, Dragons, and your willingness to share ownership of the creative process. Can you talk about how Sketchbook A expands on this concept of collaborative ownership?

William Mapan: At first, I wanted to curate the 64 pieces of Sketchbook A myself. With 64 it's manageable, still very hard, but manageable. Then Verse suggested I open it to the public. My worry was that with collector curating, they would mint similar outputs. Then I thought about how opening it up to collectors to curate would bring people even closer to me. By curating themselves, collectors have the opportunity to explore the density, variety and parameter space of the algorithm before minting. Doing that, I think they will understand both me and the algorithm a little bit more. It will also bring collectors closer to everyone else since we're all exploring and sharing the algorithm together. So it can become this whole social experiment.

Then, I wanted to have 64 editions because I have a routine of filling sketchbooks of 64 pages. Another reason I chose the small edition size is I want to be able to iterate on the algorithm. I was very frustrated, for example, with Anticyclone. Some people expected me to not touch the algorithm anymore. In theory, you could but I don't feel like it's something normal.

So with only 64, I felt it was a better representation of my iterative process. Thousands of outputs don’t just appear out of nowhere. I want to take you step by step and see where this process takes us. This 64 is the first step.

I worked eighteen months to build these very strong foundations, all these shapes, all these colors. I want to build something that is flexible in the future where I could just expand, iterate and play.

People always expect more and new stuff from artists. But It's very important for me to communicate to everyone that I work in an iterative process and I don't work on new stuff all the time. There will definitely also be a Sketchbook B. It could be the same rendering but with different shapes. I don't know. There will be maybe at least one more piece on top of it. Maybe two, maybe three, maybe four. It will be iterative. This is the very first one and I want to expand on top of it or maybe change direction. I don't know. It's one for now. Then we can have others in six months or a year.

Peter Bauman: That timeframe highlights your willingness to work on projects over a long period. Another long-term exploration of yours is a self-described “love affair with pigments.” How did this love affair begin?

William Mapan: I'm interested in how color can affect someone, how it can serve as a vessel of emotion. For so many years, so many centuries, pure colors had meanings. Amazingly to me, they can even alter your mind. I started to dig into this very seriously, how colors can be language. Colors have meaning and a very strong, innate relationship with our brains on an ancient human level. I started digging into why, on the scientific level: the eye frequency, how we see things. Then over the last few years, I've been taking a more sensitive, emotional approach, examining why I feel certain things with color.

Hand-mixing pigments is a way for me to connect with colors. I always start with three: red, blue and yellow. Each also has a warm and cold so it's six colors plus white. But out of this, you can make a staggering number of colors. Mixing colors sends my brain in many different directions. It can evoke memories or even inspire my future, depending on my mood. Sometimes, I spend an entire week on the same color every time, every day.

Since I feel colors, working with them is a very direct translation of my own emotions. It's really like a communication vector.

I love pigments because I don't like experimenting with colors digitally. I do it sometimes but I mostly explore with real-life pigments because I can develop this relationship much more easily with them.

Photo of "color mixing" taken by William Mapan. Courtesy of William Mapan

Peter Bauman: Related to your love of color is your digital-material, painterly work, which you've oxymoronically described as “(digitally) hand painted generative art.” This investigation goes back to at least Algorithmic painting: genesis (2022). Can you talk about this years-long painterly focus in your practice?

William Mapan: It started simply because I began to paint more. That is the only reason. Before, I had this strong relationship with sketchbooks and crayons, because that was the easiest medium you could grab and start sketching. You can just grab a crayon and make something. But after a year of that, I started to paint more so I started to develop this whole relationship with all colors affected by light. I love the flowing, the liquidity of paint. All these physical properties are amazing and they all blend together. So I started to wonder, "What if I take one or two properties, observe them and try to make an algorithm from that?" What will happen? The result was Algorithmic painting: genesis (2022). It was a way for me to extract observations from my physical work and make them into an algorithm. My painterly algorithms are very linked to my physical practice but it's the same with everything. When you see something digitally, it's usually because I have a strong connection with it physically.

There is no other way. This is just how it works. I'm driven by my physical practice. But sometimes my algorithmic practice creeps into my physical work and that is okay. I think, "Maybe I should do it that like that when I paint." It's an interconnected thing.

Peter Bauman: Some, even artists, believe that digital approaches should not seek to mimic the physical world. How do you respond to that?

William Mapan: No, that's b— —t. Digital art just means something made with digital devices. What it should look like is up to the artist. It doesn't make sense that a straight line should be perfectly straight because it's on a computer. I like to break the medium I'm in. If I have a computer doing very straight things and I want something sort of organic, I'm going to make it organic because it is me. At the Verse exhibition for Intimacy in London, people didn't always know about the code-based technique I used. They'd say, "Oh, this is crayon. It's really nice. I love the sketches. It's cool." Then they start asking questions about how it was made. But I liked the fact that the medium wasn't important. It was: What is your first impression of my work?

I hear people saying, "Why do this? Why don't you just use paint?" Yeah, I do use paint too. I can sketch, I can draw, I can make stuff. But the advantage of using a computer is you can explore more, you can integrate more, you can go much faster.

Computers expand your brain as well as your physical body. It's like transhumanism and you're super human with these enhanced abilities. When I explain it that way, people understand. As a traditional artist, I can't make thousands of paintings a year. It's impossible. It takes me years to find what I actually like. I want to demonstrate how digital can be both organic and super-straight geometric. You can have both. So why not?

Peter Bauman: Is that why you chose to have two different algorithms with the Intimacy series, to demonstrate both a painterly and digital aesthetic?

William Mapan: Yeah, Through Your Eyes is like I took an organic sketch from the sketchbook and I made a painting, but with a digital brush. I really like when I go to museums and experience the shock of the double perspective from viewing a work, for example, works by Anni Albers. Some years ago I went to an exhibition in France and saw a huge tapestry of hers. When you look from far away, you see the large, overall pattern. You can see the big picture and appreciate it. Then you come up close and you think, "It's amazing how much craft and details is in here." Since I saw that exhibition, I've been trying to recreate that feeling and have this double reading in my own work as well now with Through Your Eyes.

William Mapan, Through Your Eyes #2, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Verse

Peter Bauman: I've written previously about appreciating generative art with a framework that considers artistic intent. Where does the art lie with you, the system, results or process? Is it something else? Is it a combination?

William Mapan: I think there is different things. I think for the artist, the process is very important. At least how I see it, being an artist, process is above everything. But I also want to communicate with people. So the output is also important. I'm not sure I can dissociate the two. For me, generative art is about both.

The output is important because this is the front door of the message. Then there's another depth of understanding, which is the algorithm and what you want to say with your algorithm.

For me, the most difficult thing to do—what I take so much time doing—is making them both say what I want to say. It's easy to make a beautiful output, following some composition rules. You can also find super technical people doing amazing work with code. But for me, generative art is about the two combined and what they mean. At the end of the day, the code is my brushstrokes. Like cooking, it's important to have the right tools for the right job. It can still be enjoyable to make but what is the point if it doesn't taste good? In the end, you want a beautiful, tasty meal.

Peter Bauman: Yeah, it is a bit of a trick question. But some artists particularly focus on the process. Some artists, for example, Tyler Hobbs and Zach Lieberman, concentrate on the output and don't want collectors or viewers to really worry about their code.

William Mapan: I'm not some coding wizard like Piter Pasma. I have my own wizard stuff that only I can do. But I don't want people to say, "Oh, this code is beautiful." I don't care about that. What I want for people is to connect with my message and the things I have to say. This goes through the output. The process is for me; I enjoy coding.

Peter Bauman: That love of coding comes through in your work, which is infused with a playfulness reminiscent of Bruno Munari. Where does this spirit come from?

William Mapan: I have this strong desire to connect with my inner child. I'm convinced that the more we grow as adults, the less we become creative because society shapes us. For me to break from society's model, I have to return to that child-like lack of inhibition and rediscover this freedom. Now that I have a son, who is a tornado and very hard to manage, I notice how he's super free. I admire and encourage this spirit in him as well as drawing inspiration from it.

Playfulness is also a way for me to break free from my coding and software engineering experience. Back then, I had to be very pragmatic and efficient with my code: no bugs, no nothing. It had to be super clean, super in the box. When I started working in software, as a creative developer in 2012 in London, it was very frustrating to follow all these rules. That's when I started to go home and make my own stuff. It was very different from what I was making by day at work. It was very chaotic and super vibrant with pronounced contrast. That's when I began making connections with my work to Abstract Expressionism. The movement is all about breaking free from convention and expressing yourself with raw power, be it from your body, your gestures, your hands, code or whatever else you want to use. Be intentional with what you do. Be confident; don't hesitate when you put your "brush" to the "canvas."

I try to bring back this playfulness in my practice because it gives me the freedom to break from code that has to look super clean, sharp and lean. I'm going to just use a huge brushstroke to destroy and break everything.


William Mapan is a multimedia artist exploring the reciprocal nature of art and code.

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