Zach Lieberman on the Resonance of Generative Art

Resonance can refer to qualities of sound and acoustics as well as the power to evoke deep emotions. Peter Bauman (Monk Antony) speaks with Zach Lieberman, artist, MIT professor and co-founder of openFrameworks, about generative art's relationship to music as well as its ability to make us feel something.
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Zach Lieberman, block gradient field, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and owned by Le Random
Zach Lieberman, block gradient field, 2022. Courtesy of the artist and owned by Le Random

Zach Lieberman on the Resonance of Generative Art

Resonance can refer to qualities of sound and acoustics as well as the power to evoke deep emotions. Peter Bauman (Monk Antony) speaks with Zach Lieberman, artist, MIT professor and co-founder of openFrameworks, about generative art's relationship to music as well as its ability to make us feel something.

Personally Relevant Generative Art History

Peter Bauman: At Le Random, the Generative Art Timeline I'm working on is broken into ten chapters and hundreds of moments. What moments in this history are important to you personally?

Zach Lieberman: For me, personally, the BitStreams exhibition at the Whitney in 2001 was especially meaningful. I was a student when I went to the Whitney Museum and I saw Jason Salavon’s artwork; I heard Yasunao Tone’s “Solo for Wounded CD.” I was a student and I put on these headphones. Here’s this artist making glitch music, basically breaking CDs and I was thinking, “Woah, what is this? It's wild.”

So that exhibition means a lot to me. Personally, Flash was such an important gateway for learning creative coding. There was this web zine called K10k and every week they would have a different artist take over. I remember Joshua Davis did one for around the year 2000 and it was really incredible. Another one would be the Yugo Nakamura website. That kind of early generative Flash work is a really interesting milestone for me.

Evaluating Generative Art

Peter Bauman: You've tweeted before that you place more importance on visual outputs than process. Given that this can be a somewhat controversial opinion in generative art, can you tell us more about why you feel so strongly?

Zach Lieberman: I feel strongly that we should be making work that speaks for itself. So it's important to not be in service of technology. The other thing is that coding, in particular, can be quite a difficult medium. I'm excited about the medium; I love code. I mean, I teach it. 

But I don't want you to look at any of my pieces and say, “Okay, that's a great application of Delaunay triangulation.” Or “That's an amazing shader code.”

My least favorite thing is somebody asking me: “How was it made?”

Imagine going to an exhibition and asking a painter something like, “How did you hang this? How did you stretch the canvas?” To me, that’s f––g boring.

Peter Bauman: Right, in more traditional mediums like painting, process is intentionally obfuscated. Artists typically want it to be mysterious. With generative art’s emphasis on systems, how would you then recommend non-technical viewers look into any of the process at all? How can they attempt to peek behind the curtains? 

Zach Lieberman: Certainly if they're interested there's a lot to explore there. It's a medium I care about. I've dedicated my life to exploring this medium but I don't think you need to delve deep into the process in order to enjoy and appreciate the work. I give a talk where I do a little demo and I share some live coding. Then I'll change it and I'll make something very small into something beautiful.

People who don't know the medium appreciate stuff like that. They appreciate seeing some of the underlying pieces. But to me, it's not so important. The code itself that made the work is usually really messy and very idiosyncratic. It's like my sketchbook. I don't know what you can get out of it. It means a lot to me but I don't think you need to know all those things to appreciate something that’s visually interesting or moves in a compelling way. 

In some ways, it can really be a distraction when you approach it from the technical side. You're going to see it as a technical demo, not like it's real expression.

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

Peter Bauman: We've talked about approaching it from the process side and then from the visual output side. Do you see any benefits of looking at your work from a contextual or conceptual level as well?

Zach Lieberman: I think there are conceptual elements. 

But the things I care about are so immediate. I care about images. I care about ambiguity. I care about 3D that looks like 2D or 2D that looks like 3D. I care about your brain having to work a little bit harder. I care about texture and color. 

To me, those are about the grammar of vision and I'm not trying to make really conceptual work per se. I know there are artists that have a Pandora's box of conceptual ideas. I think with the AR stuff, there are some really interesting concepts that can lead to conversations about how we might see the world in a different way. But for the most part, a lot of the work that I do when I create motion or when I create images is trying to speak at a very visceral level. They're not imbued with this kind of deep concept.

Peter Bauman: My takeaway is that it's up to the artist. But when you look at your peers’ work, what kind of criteria do you use to evaluate its success?

Zach Lieberman: What resonates with me is work that makes me feel something, when I look at a piece and I feel charged or there's energy. At this moment there's so much more work than before. Generative art is really flourishing. That's really exciting. But I always go back to certain artists that totally resonate with me, where I just feel something. I feel something when I look at Vera Molnár’s work. It's the play with simplicity and honesty. I can really feel moved every time I lecture about her work. I really feel moved and I feel the same thing with Iskra [Velitchkova]’s work, a contemporary artist that I really admire. She does these things that are so different, they feel so different. They feel outside of the mainstream of generative art and her work makes me feel something.

There are artists like that for me that are really important because there's something about the wavelength and a lot of it is wavelength. Artists have certain frequencies that they're hitting and sometimes they really resonate with you. A frequency plus a frequency can allow you to make magic. Sometimes you don't feel that at all but other people do and that's cool. There are other exhibits I go to and I feel something else but with Gego or Ruth Asawa or others, I see it and I know I will feel different when I go to this exhibit because it is that wavelength. To me, it's the same thing as how certain music that I listen to, certain tracks that you put on can be really transformative. It really can mean something to you. 

Iskra Velitchkova, Generative Zlatna i, 2021. Courtesy of artist and owned by Le Random
Iskra Velitchkova, Generative Zlatna i, 2021. Courtesy of artist and owned by Le Random

Art and music

Peter Bauman: I love how you use the language of music like “wavelengths” and “frequencies” to speak about visual art. Has this impacted your own practice at all?

Zach Lieberman: Sometimes I want that in my own work. 

I’m a big fan of the Cocteau Twins and I'll be listening to them and think, “How can I make a f––g image that feels like this?”

I want to make something that makes me feel that and then I want to share it and see if other people feel that.

Peter Bauman: You talk about music with a lot of reverberation like shoegaze and Cocteau Twins. That's the music that I've associated with Iskra, whom you just mentioned, and her use of soft lines that appear hazy.

Zach Lieberman: For sure. It's also for me electronic music, like Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin, Rival Consoles, Stereolab. A lot of that music, like Cocteau Twins, is the music of my childhood so it means a lot to me. I love it now but it also reminds me of when I was a kid and I could make my own decisions. My parents were wanting me to listen to Simon and Garfunkel or something which is pretty dope or whatever but I thought, “Oh, I can spend my own money on what I want to hear now.”

How We Consume Generative Art

Peter Bauman: One of the criticisms of this space [and of digital art for decades] is that a lot of the taste and analysis can be superficial, which was a motivation to develop this framework. How can we think more analytically about what resonates with us?

Zach Lieberman: I think one thing is there's not a lot of opportunities for artists to be shown in typical gallery settings where you would have a chance to write an artist statement or frame the work in some more thoughtful way. This kind of work is consumed on social media, mostly. When you do a drop, you can write something about it but it’s not the same as a proper exhibition statement. In my class, when we study these artists, we spend a lot of time reading artist statements and trying to figure out how the artists talk about their work in their own words.

John Whitney would say things like, “This is a new art form.” Charles and Colette Bangert would say, “We're working with drawing machines in order to better understand drawing and understand the world.” And there's something very beautiful about those insights. It gives you a deeper appreciation for the work to hear how the artists in their own words try to use very precise language to describe their work.

I think the way a lot of the work is presented is a challenge with this medium. There's not a lot of opportunity to learn from the artists themselves, how they work and what they see. 

Artists and Creative Coders

Peter Bauman: Do you see any difference between artists and creative coders? Do they have different interests?  

Zach Lieberman: I think it may depend more on the context or presentation as well as how the work is framed. That may change with the way you talk about the work. I'll give you an example. I do design work and I do artwork. When I do design work, I'm working for companies, I'm working for brands. It's not dissimilar to the artwork that I make. But I don't spend a lot of time thinking about how I want to talk about it and write about it. It's just in service of a purpose.

Zach Lieberman, color ribbon study #1 (still), 2021. Courtesy of the artist and owned by Le Random
Zach Lieberman, color ribbon study #1 (still), 2021. Courtesy of the artist and owned by Le Random

I think sometimes creative coders may come from that design world where they don't have to think about the meaning of the things that they do. It's like they're doing it in service of a purpose. When you're making art, it’s just a different mode. Maybe creative coders or folks coming from a design orientation may not be used to that mode. So they may not know how to frame their work or talk about their work in a way that makes sense.

Design is like navigating a foreign city in the daytime and you sort of know where you want to go. And then art work is getting lost in a foreign city and trying to discover some new territory during the nighttime when it’s a little bit more dangerous.

Standout Work

Peter Bauman: Do you have any work or projects that you're particularly proud of or that stand out to you?

Zach Lieberman: A seminal piece in my career is the EyeWriter project which was a collaboration with myself and four other artists. We worked with this paralyzed graffiti writer and built an eye-tracking tool for him to draw graffiti with his eye movement. This was in the early days of openFrameworks and this type of creative coding. It just was a very special project that had all the right people at the right time in the right place. Another one that means a lot to me personally is this interactive work that started as a performance called Drawn where I'm on stage painting and I can touch the painting and the painting comes to life.

I always say to students, “The best work is connecting what you care about now with what makes you who you are.” That always leads to the most exciting outcomes. 

Future Challenges

Laptops and Phones

Peter Bauman: What are some future challenges you see emerging in digital generative art?

Zach Lieberman:  I think there are a lot of challenges, especially in terms of the tools we use specifically. I always do this with my students. I hold up my laptop and I hold up my phone and I say, “On my laptop, I can open a JPEG in a text editor and I can change bytes, but I can't do that on my phone. I can't do the same things.”

There's a power in opening a JPEG in a text editor and changing bytes and seeing the effects. My students can't believe it. I can make an image and then open it in a sound editor and they can hear it. There's so much freedom. And we're moving towards devices that are getting smaller and becoming parts of bodies. Will we lose that freedom? Maybe we’ll gain other freedoms. I don't know. But it's a central question for me.

New Ways of Working

Zach Lieberman: The way we make images and the way we write code may also be changing really dramatically, really quickly. I find myself almost daily experimenting with ChatGPT in my normal life. Last week I wrote a few sentences and then I thought, “Let me see what ChatGPT will do here.” So I put in my sentences and it spit out a bullet point list that was really organized. Of course I had to edit it a little bit but it was amazing. It took something and inflated it. I find with coding problems, I can say, “Hey, I'm in JavaScript. How would you take circles and look at their intersection and then draw that as a series of arcs.” And it's doing things that I could do myself, but in a way faster way. We've had tools before like Stack Overflow or GitHub. We've had ways of engaging with code.

But the way we code will be different, invariably. The way we write code, the way we create and the way we make images. 

What does it mean to make images in a world where you can make them just by typing what you want to see? It may be impossible for those systems to create the kind of images that I make, but maybe not. I may need to think about, “How do I work with these tools?” I think it's easy to be really conservative and bemoan these prompt engineers and these prompt artists but actually it could be genuinely like what happened with desktop publishing. Nobody does photo typesetting anymore; we use Illustrator. It could be that these tools are going to be a really important part of our practice. I see these as two key moments today that could impact the future: The differences between laptops and phones and how we will respond to new ways of working.

Changes in Younger Generations of Artists

Peter Bauman: You’re an MIT professor that teaches artists. You have this glimpse into the next generation. How have your students changed over the last few years? Has this NFT resurgence translated to anything in the classroom? Has it changed how you teach?

Zach Lieberman: I have not found a super great way to bring NFTs into the classroom. But it does come up often. The whole semester I talk about artists. Every week we go over artists like Vera Molnár, John Whitney, Muriel Cooper, Rosa Menkman and Roman Verostko. We're engaging with the history of generative art. Then, the last lecture I give is very practical. I walk through a project step by step. I go over some of the things that we learned. They get to see a lot of the things that you wouldn't normally see when you talk about work. Invariably that leads to really interesting conversations about careers. Who would you work for, what companies, etc. NFTs and the blockchain come up from time to time. Students are curious and I am happy to share my perspective. 

Peter Bauman: Do your students have plans to use NFTs to help them become full-time artists? Or do they typically look for more enterprise work?

Zach Lieberman: I think some of them do. In general, they’re trying to find a holistic practice. That may involve some teaching, some design work, some artwork. So they are very curious but I try to give them a lot of coaching in how to develop a balance and how all these things can interact with each other.


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.

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